Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. July 2, 1863. Evening and night.
General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s Division of Ewell’s Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia was ready. They were on the east side of Rock Creek waiting to hear Longstreet’s assault commence. Johnson was uncomfortable, however, in that he was lacking his largest brigade, the fabled Stonewall Brigade, under Brigadier General James A. Walker. Walker’s Brigade had been occupied since that morning by the pesky dismounted cavalry troopers of the 10th New York and 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiments. Because their presence on the left flank of the Army of Virginia likely signaled the presence of an even larger force behind it, Johnson took no chances and left the Stonewall Brigade behind when he advanced, with orders to the effect that when he felt the situation had eased, and he could safely move up to the rest of the Division without endangering the army, Walker was to do so.
Suddenly there was a roar from a distance slightly left of directly ahead. That was Longstreet’s men going into action on the other end of the line, and the signal for Johnson to order his men forward.
But Johnson waited while details of his men cleared the fences along Rock Creek out of the way for his Division to cross and begin their assault. He was also waiting for Walker to come up with the Stonewall Brigade.
[Culp’s Hill is actually two hills, a high crest on the north and a much lower one, more of a short ridge, to the south, with a saddle in between of even lower ground.]
Brigadier General George Sears Greene, 2nd of 35 in his West Point class of 1823 – forty years earlier, commanded a Brigade of New York troops on the upper crest of Culp’s Hill. At 62 years of age, he was arguably the oldest officer in the Army of the Potomac. Perhaps Brigadier General Isaac Trimble, West Point class of 1822 was the oldest on the Confederate side.
Greene commanded five New York regiments. Earlier in the day, Greene had prevailed upon his Division Commander, Brigadier General John Geary to allow defensive works, something Geary was unwilling to do initially, but Geary had been ordered to remove two brigades earlier in the day to help stem the tide on Cemetery Ridge, so Greene got his works.
Greene’s men built trenches three feet deep, with header logs over the rims, providing maximum protection for his men. They were ready.
It was growing dark when Johnson began to move. To his surprise, Johnson’s men began the climb up the lower slope of Culp’s Hill virtually unopposed. Finding the Union works empty, they slipped in and waited. After midnight, Geary’s brigades began to filter back into their lines, only to be fired upon. It took a while to get their tired minds straight on who was shooting at them as they initially thought they were being fired upon by friendly forces in the darkness. Once the realization set in that the Confederate were in their works, a concerted effort was made to move them out.
Meanwhile, Jones’ Brigade of Virginians, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Dungan, and Williams’ Brigade of Louisiana Troops, and Steuart’s Brigade (Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland) began the climb up the face of Culp’s Hill, in an effort to take it by frontal assault.
It began in the wee hours of the morning of July 3.
Greene’s regiments took turns in the trenches with the header logs, firing for almost an hour, then being replaced by a rested regiment. As the rested men went forward to enter the works, they would cheer. The regiments being replaced would hurry down to a hollow in the ground and rest, get water, clean their weapons, and draw fresh ammunition. After a short rest, they would cycle back into the works, cheering.
This tactic enabled Greene to keep a steady fire up around the clock, and to keep his men fresh, and their weapons working. The result was several regimens of Louisiana troops, and some Virginia regiments from Johnson’s Division pinned down on the hill unable to move forward, or back, doing their best to make themselves small, or to find a rock or tree to hide behind.
Toward sunrise Geary sent four fresh regiments to Greene, who simply added them to the rotation. It was a tactic that was perfect for the defenders, and it worked exceptionally well under Greene’s direction. The old campaigner was a touch commander, but his men respected him. They respected him even more for giving them cover from which to fight.
There were losses, however. As the regiments swapped in and out, they were briefly targets for the Confederates laying below the works. And more than one Confederate minié ball found its way into the gap between the header logs inflicting a head or shoulder wound.
Brigadier General George H. Steuart, West Point class of 1848, where he graduated 37th out of 38, commanded the last of the attacks on Culp’s Hill in mid-morning of July 3. It was an absolute blood bath, and Steuart was in tears when the survivors returned from the effort. As he watched them, Steuart tearfully repeated “My poor boys. My poor boys.”
[Reposted with permission from GettysBLOG]