The Beauty of the High Ground at Gettysburg

Let us address the July 3rd assault first.  Pickett’s Charge wasn’t that close to success.  Quite simply, by the time Armistead made it across the wall on Cemetery Ridge there was not enough firepower left to support him and the entire assault simply petered out.  Kemper’s right flank had been decimated twice by the Vermont Brigade, and the farthest they got was about twenty yards from the stone wall in front of the Copse of Trees.  Few North Carolina troops ever made it to the inner wall.  They came close, but only a handful of them did.

July 2 was also not as close as some would suggest.  There is often talk about “had not this brigade showed up when it did,” and “that brigadier took the initiative and filled a gap on his own hook,” as making a difference in who won the day.  Indeed, the first two days of the battle are filled with stories of Union Colonels and Brigadiers, and artillery captains who in one spot in the line after another showed extreme valor and initiative, which certainly played a large part in deciding the outcome of the day’s fight.

But let us look at the continuation of the “if/suppose” arguments.  Suppose Hood’s and McLaws men took Little Round Top from Vincent and Warren, what then.  Can they hold it?  6th Corps is nearby and Paddy O’Rourke is on the way with the 140th New York with the rest of Weed’s Brigade following.  Fresh troops that had just finished a long march but had not been fighting for the past two hours.  And this is an important point, if the Rebs take Little Round Top, those units that do so will find themselves on the wrong side of the good ground the Union men had occupied.  And who was behind them to reinforce and/or support their advanced positions?

All of those locations offered easier access, easier slopes, and lighter grades, from the opposite direction of the Confederate attack.  And on top of that, should the need for withdrawal arise, the route back was as difficult for the Rebs as it was during the assault.  Rough ground.

This is the part of the terrain story that never gets talked about very much.  That easier approach from behind the Union line not only provided easier access, it also provided access to parallel roads [Taneytown, Baltimore] and roads that crossed between them, over which troops could move quickly, including artillery and ammo wagons.  Coupled with the interior line of communication advantage, it was these additional terrain advantages that did the following [among other things]:

  • Made it easy for those heroes to arrive in the nick of time,
  • Kept a steady flow of troops and artillery ammunition heading to the battle line, and wounded to the rear,
  • Facilitated Hancock’s ability to move men from his Corps and the 5th Corps to support Sickles on the 2nd,
  • Enabled the 1st Minnesota and McGilvery’s artillery line to stop Wilcox and Lang from getting out of the ravine through which Plum Run flows, and one regiment from Vermont along with those same cannons to do the same thing 24 hours later.
  • Had Vincent and then Weed in position to go to the defense of Little Round Top
  • Facilitated Meade’s ability to move troops from one point to another with relative ease throughout the battle.
  • Hid most of those movements from the view of the Confederates.
  • Provided a view of much of the Confederate rear area.
  • Masked Alexander Webb’s Philadelphia Brigade from the approaching Brigade of Ambrose Wright until it crested Cemetery Ridge after a long march across from Seminary Ridge, only to be driven hard back over the ridge and down the slope, recapturing a New York Battery, and sending Wright back across to Seminary Ridge.

The beauty of Cemetery Hill was Baltimore Street.  Any defenses that weakened could easily be reinforced via Baltimore Street.

East Cemetery Hill and its approaches, and a goodly portion of the back door at Culp’s Hill were covered by artillery on Powers Hill, tucked away well inside the Union Lines.

It wasn’t just a matter of the excellence of “those heights’, and it wasn’t just a matter of how well “those people” defended those heights, or even how well they fought using the ground they defended to their advantage, it was also a matter of what was behind “those heights.”

In all likelihood, even had those close run moments gone against the AoP, those positions were much more easily retaken by the AoP than the taking of those positions by the ANV in the first place.  [And don’t forget the Rebs would have very little Artillery to support their newly won positions, just a few captured pieces — if not spiked, and what little powder and shot was left when the guns were captured.]

So, yes there were a number of oh-so-close/nick of time situations that went in favor of the Union, and what was behind those heights had an awful lot to do with Union success in those situations, but even had they not gone that way, the situations would have been reversible.

The high ground of the Union’s ‘fish hook’ position at Gettysburg, the ground for which Buford’s cavalry, and the infantry of Reynolds and Howard had sacrificed themselves so the army could occupy it, was so very good, and was used so very well by the Army of the Potomac, and offered so little exploitative opportunity to the Confederates as to result in attacks on July 2nd and 3rd that were pretty much doomed from the start.


About wgdavis

Mr. Davis is an historical researcher and NPS Volunteer living in the Gettysburg area.
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