Tuesday, July 04, 2006

“He Seemed Full of Hope”

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. July 2, 1863. Morning and Afternoon.

Major General John Bell Hood, West Point class of 1853, 44th in his class of 52, was one of the true hard fighters of the war. Admired by all, he was an excellent leader, and one of the best division commanders in the Army of Northern Virginia.

About 5 AM on the morning of July 2 he stood near the Seminary observing General Robert E. Lee, who was anxiously awaiting the return of his Chief Topographical Engineer from the morning scouting mission Lee had ordered earlier. Hood remembered later, “He seemed full of hope, yet at times, buried in deep thought.”

During the 9 o’clock morning officer’s call, General Robert E. Lee’s Chief Topographical Engineer, Captain Samuel R. Johnston, had reported being on the hill just south of Cemetery Ridge, called Little Round Top, and had seen no sign of the enemy as of approximately 5:30 AM. He also reported being held up coming back by Union cavalry patrols on the Emmitsburg Road.

Lee quickly decided to go with the plan he had conceived the night before, an attack upon the right flank of the Army of the Potomac. He called Lieutenant Generals Longstreet and Hill to him, and ordered them to prepare for such an assault, with Longstreet sending two of his divisions as the main attack force. Lee’s plan was to have Longstreet move south to a position opposite the two elevations to the south of Cemetery Ridge, now known as Big and Little Round Top.

[The terrain at Gettysburg is such that two ridges proceed south from the south edge of town, one on the west side, Seminary Ridge, now in the hands of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and one on the east side, Cemetery Ridge, now manned by the Union Army of the Potomac. Seminary Ridge actually stretched to the north just west of town, as far as the Lutheran Theological Seminary, scene of most of the previous day’s fighting. There it joined Oak Ridge, continuing north to Oak Hill, on which the decisive Confederate forces had emerged from the woods the previous day. Southward, Seminary Ridge ended and Warfield Ridge, named for the local Black family that had a blacksmith shop and home on the ridge, angled eastward as it stretched to the south. Seminary Ridge was about a mile from Cemetery Ridge at its farthest point. Cemetery Ridge was a higher elevation, meaning a walk from Seminary Ridge to Cemetery Ridge would generally be uphill all the way. At the southern end of Cemetery Ridge, was a hill with a boulder strewn crest, called little Round Top. On its south side was a connection with an even higher hill, Big Round Top, the connection being a saddle of ground perhaps fifty yards across at the crest. At the north end of Cemetery Ridge the ridge climbed directly to Cemetery Hill, located at the southeast corner of the town, so named because of the Evergreen Cemetery on its eastern flank. On the southern end of East Cemetery Hill was a knoll (Stevens’ Knoll as it is now known), connecting it to Culp’s Hill. The Union line extended from its right, on the south slope of Culp’s Hill, around the knoll and north along the east side of Cemetery Hill, which was heavy with artillery, and around to the western slope of Cemetery Hill where it joined with Cemetery Ridge. At that location was a large grove of trees known as Ziegler’s Grove. Finally, between the two ridges south of town running roughly halfway in between was the Emmitsburg Road, which angled closer to Cemetery Ridge as it entered the town. Between the road and Cemetery Ridge was a small stream that ran down from a gulch below the surrounding ground, where it bubbled up from the ground. It was called Plum Run, and it flowed south in the flat ground all the way past the Round Tops. As it flowed past the Round Tops, it entered a large field of boulders before making its way farther south, past a farm owned by the Slyder Family. As it entered this boulder filed, it ran in a narrow defile between the foot of Big Round Top (the southernmost of the elevations, and the southern end of a 400 yard long low ridge called Houck’s Ridge. The jumble of boulders at that southern end of Houck’s Ridge would become known as Devil’s Den.]

Lee believed the Union left flank was located about 600 yards south of Ziegler’s Grove along Cemetery Ridge, making it about 1,000 yards north of Little Round Top. He ordered Longstreet to move his two divisions south behind Seminary Ridge and bringing them up to the crest of Warfield Ridge, then forward to form an oblique across the Emmitsburg Road. He wished to have the division of Major General Lafayette McLaws form with his right angled across the road about a third of the way, and the Division of Major General John Bell Hood to follow by about 500 yards, with his force angled across the road about two thirds of the way. They would march straight ahead on the oblique angle using the road as their guide, the right flanks of their divisions moving ever closer to Cemetery Ridge. They would strike the Union left flank where Lee Believed it to be, in a staggered formation, with the left of McLaws’ lead division engaging at Ziegler’s Grove, and with Hood poised to have his right come in below the end of the Union line to envelope that flank and “roll it up” from south to north. Lee then ordered Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell Hill to have his division commanded by Major General Richard H. Anderson, advance by brigades under Brigadier Generals Cadmus Wilcox (Alabama), Ambrose R. Wright (Georgia), Carnot Posey (Mississippi), William “Fighting Billy” Mahone (Virginia), and Col. David Lang, commanding Perry’s Florida Brigade. They were to march forward and align on the same oblique angle as McLaws and Hood were on, and fill in “en echelon” just after Hood passed them. They would envelope the north end of the Cemetery Hill. The objective was to seize Cemetery Hill.

With that order given, Lee rode off to meet with Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, Commander of the Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, whose headquarters were located on the other side of town.

Lieutenant General James Longstreet, 54th out of 56 in his West Point class of 1842, was very upset. He was upset with his superior, General Robert E. Lee. Longstreet was considered to be Lee’s most capable commander, and part of the early-war team of two with Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. Jackson, the hammer to Longstreet’s anvil on the battlefield, had been killed by friendly fire in May at the Battle of Chancellorsville, necessitating a reorganization of the Army. Lee re-arranged the brigades and divisions from two corps into three, giving command of the Second Corps to Richard Ewell, and the Third Corps to Ambrose Powell Hill. At Gettysburg, both men were untested in their roles as corps commanders. Lee was forced to rely upon them and based on what he had seen so far, Longstreet was not happy. Yesterday’s debacle west of the Seminary was a costly one, and one that was full of blunders. Heth should not have brought on the general engagement, that cost him the capture of General Archer and most of his brigade, and the near capture of General Davis and part of his brigade, both in morning engagements in which they were handily repulsed by the Union Infantry of the 1st Corps under Reynolds. A. P. Hill had done little more than point the way to Gettysburg for the advancing men of his Third Corps. He had done no ‘generalling” yesterday. Further, Major General Richard Ewell had exercised little control over his divisional commanders, allowing Major General Robert Rodes, usually a steady officer, to launch attacks piecemeal against the right flank of the Union First Corps, attacks that cost him part of Iverson’s Brigade, and part of O’Neal’s Brigade, when both those officers failed to lead their men. Further, Rodes had done no scouting. Later, Ewell had passed up an opportunity to take Culp’s Hill, which would have forced a Union withdrawal from Gettysburg.

The previous evening Longstreet and Lee had argued loudly about the conduct of operations. Longstreet’s scouts had reported that there was little Union presence behind the two Round Tops, and he argued that Lee should simply go around Meade’s army and proceed toward Baltimore and Washington, and pick a spot to invite an attack. Or, he argued, pull back to South Mountain and dig in, inviting Meade to attack him…in other words, fight a defensive battle, which is more advantageous that offering your troops up in costly attacks on an entrenched enemy. Maybe Lee was fooled into thinking he had won a great victory the previous day, but Longstreet was not. Maybe Lee thought all he had to do was administer the coup de grace to what was left of the Army of the Potomac after yesterday’s battles, but whatever the explanation, nothing Longstreet said was enough to convince Lee that his plan to attack Meade’s army on the heights across the way was a bad move.

Now, Longstreet was getting pressure from his two division commanders that were up with the Army, Hood and McLaws, that the way around the Union left was still open and relatively unopposed. (Major General George Pickett’s Division was still on the other side of South Mountain, 20 miles away. Longstreet had sent for him, but they were a day away.)

It was to no avail. He had to make the attack, even while knowing how much it would cost him, the army, and the Confederacy. Longstreet was a good soldier, and he reluctantly did his duty as ordered.

The march south was a minor catastrophe. The two divisions marched two miles west along the Hagerstown (Fairfield) Pike to Blackhorse Tavern, and then south along Blackhorse Tavern Road. At one point it was realized they could be seen from the Union Signal Station on Little Round Top. So the column was counter marched by turning the head and marching it back past the rest of the column, and on returning to Black Horse Tavern, turning east toward town. [Indeed, the Union observers there saw the movement and reported that the retreat of Lee’s army had begun.]

A mile back the Hagerstown Pike was Willoughby Run Road, and Hood’s Division turned onto it and headed south. Just east of that by 200 yards was the run itself, and McLaws men turned south along the stream. By 4:30 both Divisions were in position. But there was a problem.

Major General Daniel Sickles, one of President Abraham Lincoln’s political appointments (Sickles was a Democratic Congressman from New York) who had fared well as a leader of men. This day, however, his leadership would not fall into question, but his judgement would. Sickles was supposed to form his corps anchored on a large knoll just north of Little Round Top, and join his right with the left of the Union 2nd Corps (under Major General Winfield Scott Hancock) north along Cemetery Ridge.

Instead, he moved his two divisions almost a mile forward to the Emmitsburg Road. First Division, under command of Major General David Birney left a brigade under Brigadier General J. H. Hobart Ward on top of the rocks of Devil’s Den and then posting Brigadier General Charles K. Graham’s Brigade with its left in the Peach Orchard at the intersection of Emmitsburg Road and the Wheatfield Lane, and stretching up the Emmitsburg Road north toward town. In between those two brigades was a half-mile stretch of open ground. Sickles tried to cover the gap with the few artillery pieces he had left. He kept his Third Brigade in reserve north of Wheatfield Road across from the Wheatfield which gave the road its name. It was not nearly enough.

He then placed his other division, under command of Brigadier General Andrew A. Humphreys on the right of Graham’s Brigade, and further north towards town. They reached up as far as the farm of Nicholas Codori.

Leading his Division up the west slope of Warfield Ridge along Millerstown Road (which became the Wheatfield Lane on the east side of Emmitsburg Road), Major General Lafayette McLaws was concerned. Rumors of Union troops in advanced positions had him worried he would not be able to form his line as General Lee had insisted. As he rode forward he became alarmed, uttering an oath in dismay over the sight that greeted him: the Peach Orchard at the intersection was bristling with cannons and infantry. The line of blue stretched up along the Emmitsburg Road for nearly a quarter mile. He would be unable to form his men across the road at an oblique angle as General Lee had ordered. So, he began issuing orders to form a line across the Millerstown Road, with Brigadier General William Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade on the left, and then Brigadier General William Wofford’s Georgia Brigade. On the south side of the Millerstown Road he positions Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolina Brigade, and on the right, the Georgia Brigade of Brigadier General Paul Semmes, brother of Confederate Naval Captain Raphael Semmes, Captain of the CSS Alabama. McLaws also ordered the artillery battalion under Colonel H. C. Cabell forward into the fields in front of the Brigade line, and ordered them to open fire on the enemy as soon as possible.

Major General Hood led his division cross country until he arrived at the top of Warfield Ridge approximately a quarter mile south of McLaws. He formed his brigades two in front, and two behind, staggered en echelon. And he proceeded to wait. While he was waiting he watched as McLaws spread his men in line of battle parallel to the Emmitsburg Road. He looked north along the road and saw the Peach Orchard with the guns arrayed there. He now understood that his men would not be proceeding up the Emmitsburg Road, but instead would turn in from it, and begin an assault that would take his right flank just west of the two Round Tops. He waited.

Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, West Point class of 1838, where he was graduated 32nd in his class of 45, was an old campaigner. He was a veteran of the Seminole Wars, and the Mexican War. It is understandable that this very capable officer would advance rather quickly in rank and command a Division.

Earlier in the day, Robert E. Lee and Richard S. Ewell had ridden to Johnson’s headquarters at the Daniel Lady Farm on the east slope of Benner’s Hill, along the Hanover Road. There, Johnson had received orders to advance about a mile at 4:30 PM, and on hearing the firing of Longstreet’s men as they made their assault, Johnson would order his brigades forward across Rock Creek and assault the Union positions on Culp’s Hill, eastern flank. In essence, he was to “demonstrate” an assault, and if there were any initial success, press the assault. At 4:30 he moved forward. But he was worried. His largest brigade, the fabled Stonewall Brigade once commanded by Stonewall Jackson, and later by A. P. Hill, and now commanded by Brigadier General James A. Walker, had been kept busy all day long by a pesky but serious fight with dismounted Union cavalry. Men of the 2nd Virginia Infantry, under the command of Colonel John Quincy Adams Nadenbousch, skirmished all day with elements of the 10th New York Cavalry and the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry on the slope of Brinkerhoff’s Ridge. The ridge was the next elevation east of Benner’s Hill over which the Hanover Pike ran. Walker’s Brigade was the left flank of the Army of Northern Virginia. The flank had to be protected at all costs, so nuisance that it was, Walker’s Brigade had to remain behind to protect it.

Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer could sense the enemy when they drew near. It was an innate ability to know in advance not only where the enemy was, but their avenue of approach. It was uncanny. Riding through Hunterstown, a small village about five miles northwest of Gettysburg, Custer and Farnsworth were searching for Confederate Cavalry. Custer turned his men south on the Hunterstown Road leading back to Gettysburg. He found his way blocked by skirmishers from Major General Wade Hampton’s Cavalry Brigade, specifically, Cobb’s Legion from Georgia. At the Felty Farm, perhaps a half-mile south of Hunterstown, Custer set his trap. He placed marksmen in the barn, and others across the road. His artillery was perhaps 300 yards to the rear in the edge of some woods on a ridge overlooking the farm. Custer then took his men down the road about a half mile until they spotted Cobb’s main body. The daring Custer led a charge right at them, losing his horse shot out from under him, and getting another, and at the last minute, wheeling around to dash back the way he came. His men were right behind him. So was Cobb’s Legion. Back towards Hunterstown Custer and his men raced, followed closely by the Georgia Troopers. As the last of Custer’s men cleared the Felty Farm, the troopers in the barn and across the road opened up a murderous fire on Cobb’s men. So did the artillery. Realizing the trap he had ridden into, Cobb wheeled his column around and fled south, leaving more than a few bodies behind.

It was a portent of what was yet to come on this day.

Novus Livy

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