We will explore what went into the decision of General Richard S. Ewell on the late afternoon and evening of July 1, 1863, after General Robert E. Lee sent orders to “take those heights if practicable.” To start, we will describe the terrain at Gettysburg, and what Union Cavalry Division Commander saw and the decision he made that would shape the three-day battle to come.
As usual, we include sources for quotes, that point to our ever-expanding “Sources” page, link can be found under the “Pages” list in the right column.
West of town lies Seminary Ridge. Its northern end, known as Oak Ridge culminates in a gradual slope to the crest of Oak Hill. The southern end of Seminary Ridge joins Warfield Ridge. This was the extent of the Confederate line on July 2nd, in addition to forces of Early’s Division east of town and north of Culp’s and Cemetery Hills.
Oak Hill and Oak Ridge overlook a broad valley comprised of a flat plain of farm fields directly north of town, with the elevation of Barlow’s Knoll on the east side of the plain, just as it begins to gradually slope downward to the banks of Rock Creek. The 11th Corps fought here on July 1st.
The ground west of town is rippled with north-south running ridges. West from Seminary Ridge is Middle Ridge, then McPherson’s Ridge, followed by a long slope down to the tiny stream called Willoughby Run, then up to Herr’s Ridge. Beyond that perhaps a mile or so flows Marsh Creek.
Culp’s Hill is a large hill on the south-east side of Gettysburg. Its northeastern and eastern side is bounded by a meandering Rock Creek, on the other side of which is Benner’s Hill. Culp’s Hill has its main peak on the northeast section of the steep, tree and boulder covered hill. There is a secondary peak, more of a ridge, to the south. The approach to the assault on Culp’s Hill would necessarily begin from near the Culp farmhouse, located just south of Middle Street.
Closer to town, and a bit farther north is Cemetery Hill, named for Evergreen Cemetery which lies on its southeast and south slope. Baltimore Pike crosses the crest of Cemetery Hill traveling generally north and into the center of Gettysburg. Cemetery Hill will become the key to the Union position at Gettysburg. Take it and the Army of the Potomac must withdraw, and do so rapidly!
On a ridge that connects these two elevations about halfway down, sits a small rise called Steven’s Knoll, which was used as an artillery platform during the battle. From Steven’s knoll, any attack on East Cemetery Hill was covered from the enemy’s left, and on the north side of Culp’s Hill, from the enemy’s right. Remnants of the 1st Corps were assigned to positions on Steven Knoll and up toward the crest of Culp’s Hill.
Running generally south from Cemetery Hill is Cemetery Ridge, about a mile east of Seminary Ridge. Approximately a mile south of Cemetery Hill lies Munshower’s Knoll, a small rise on the ridge which overlooks the valley where Plum Run flows just west of the Knoll. It also offered an artillery platform that covered the north end of the Wheatfield, and up the Wheatfield Lane.
To the immediate south of Munshower’s Knoll is Little Round Top, with Big Round Top immediately south of that. It was around these elevations that the Union troops were finally arrayed in the ‘fishhook’ shaped defensive line begun on the 1st, and extended down Cemetery Ridge on the 2nd.
June 30, 1863
Cavalry man through and through, Brigadier General John Buford sat near the Lutheran Seminary just on the west edge of Gettysburg composing a message to Union General John F. Reynolds, commander of the left wing of the Army of the Potomac at his bivouac in Maryland. In his message he wrote,
“I am satisfied that A.P. Hill’s corps is massed just back of Cashtown, about nine miles from this place. Pender’s division of this corps came up today…the enemy’s pickets [infantry and artillery] are within four miles of this place, on the Cashtown Road…Near Heidlersburg today, one of my parties captured a courier of Lee’s. Nothing was found on him. He says Ewell’s Corps is crossing the mountains from Carlisle, Rodes’ division being at Petersburg [York Springs] in advance. Longstreet, from all I can learn is still behind Hill. I have many rumors and reports of the enemy advancing on me from York. I have to pay attention to some of them, which causes me to overwork my horses and men. I can get no forage nor rations; am out of both. The people give and sell the men something to eat, but I can’t stand that way of subsisting; it causes dreadful struggling. Should I have to fall back advise me of what route.” [Shue, p. 43]
Buford had a keen eye for terrain, and saw what the elevations southeast of town would mean to the Union troops, and what the rolling ridges west of Seminary Ridge could provide for his men to hold off the advancing Confederates the next day, hopefully long enough for Reynolds to arrive with his 1st Corps troops, and hopefully they could hold out long enough to allow the rest of the Army of the Potomac to come up from Maryland and occupy those heights, and eventually the ridge that trailed south from Cemetery Hill. But Buford was concerned about the intelligence that Ewell’s Corps was bearing down on the area from the North. The east slope of Seminary and Oak Ridges were quite steep and led to the floor of the plain north of town. There was nothing, no barriers, no obstacles, nothing that would stop the Confederates should they arrive over the roads from Carlisle.
At Emmitsburg late that night, Major General Howard met with Reynolds at the latter’s headquarters and discussed the situation. Shortly after leaving the meeting at about 11 PM, Reynolds received the dispatch [above] from Buford. By 8 AM, Howard’s 11th Corps was marching over two roads to Gettysburg. They arrived at that location shortly after noon, and just as Ewell’s men, first Rodes on Oak Hill, then Early took position in the woods north of Barlow’s position on Blocher’s Knoll, now known as Barlow’s Knoll.