CULP’S HILL, a heavily wooded mass of tall trees and smooth boulders, rose up more than 630 feet above sea level and silently watched over the unassuming crossroads village of Gettysburg. Since the late 18th century, its two round peaks served as farm land, but for three days in July, 1863, it witnessed some of the most fiercest fighting of the entire American Civil War.
The hill—and its decisive place just east of Gettysburg—quickly served as a rallying point for both Union and Confederate forces when they smashed into one another on July 1. Whichever army could place their guns on the heights first would own the battlefield.
Recently promoted Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell, who less than two month earlier had taken control of the Army of Northern Virginia’s famed Second Corps following the death of its former commander, Stonewall Jackson, at Chancellorsville that May, approached Gettysburg from the north. In the late afternoon on Day 1, the bald-headed general clashed with the Union XI Corps and portions of the I Corps and drove them back through town to both Cemetery Hill and the much larger Culp’s Hill beyond.
Against Commanding General Robert E Lee’s better wishes, Ewell opted not to challenge for the heights and Union forces took command of Culp’s and turned the unassuming hill into a virtual fortress.
Ewell’s inability to push through and capture Culp’s Hill by the conclusion of July 1 laid the groundworks for the Army of Northern Virginia’s crushing defeat at Gettysburg and the subsequent surrender at Appomattox two years later. It would also bring heavy casualties upon the First Maryland Infantry (later named the Second Maryland), a large confederate battalion — nearly the size of a regiment– located in Ewell’s third division, under Maj. Gen. Edward “Allegeny” Johnson, that spent the evening of July 1 sleeping on their rifles, nearly a mile away from Culp’s Hill.
BY MID-MORNING on the second day, Lee had a plan.
It involved a simultaneous two-prong attack, with Lt. Gen. James Longstreet attacking a pair of Union-fortified hills on the opposite side of the battlefield known as The Round Tops, while Ewell would mount an assault on Culp’s Hill, which had now been reinforced by the Union’s XII Corps. Both sets of hills formed the ends of the fabled Union fishhook.
Upon hearing Longstreet’s guns open up at 4 p.m., Ewell called for the attack. For three hours, the Second Corps commander levied heavy cannon fire on Culp’s Hill to little success. When dusk came, he ordered three brigades, numbering nearly 4,700 men, to cross Rock Creek at the base of Culp’s hill and climb the eastern side of the heights.
Confederate casualties were high. Scrambling and stumbling up the steep slope through the overgrown brush, black trees and smooth rocks, the right flank and center of the Confederate attack was repulsed by a heavy wave of bullets from above. But on the left side, the six divisions under Brig. Gen. George “Maryland” Steuart, including the Second Maryland, splashed across the creek, raced up the hill and charged through the semi-darkness in the direction of the breastworks.
“[A sudden change in direction] brought the Third North Carolina and Second Maryland face to face with the enemy behind a line of log breastworks, and these two regiments received their full fire at a very short range, for owing to the darkness, the breastworks could be seen,” said William W. Goldsborough, a major in the Second Maryland. “The Second Maryland and Third North Carolina were staggered for a moment by the enemy’s fire, but, quickly recovering, pressed forward and drove the enemy out of the works.”
When night again settled over Gettysburg, the opposing men of the XII Corps had retreated into an open field and lay waiting on the hill beyond while Steuart’s Brigade settled into the breastworks.
THE NEXT MORNING, July 3, dawned muggy and hot, with the sickly stench of death and gunpowder mixing with the damp earth and bitter scent of the trees. At sunrise, Steuart’s Bridgade, bunkered down, came under heavy attack from Union batteries, whose cannons rained down fire for half and hour.
“To add to the horrors of the situation, a battery or two opened up upon the division at short range,” Goldsbourgh said. “Most of their shells fell among the men of Steuart’s Brigade, who were compelled to closely hug the ground behind the breastworks for protection.”
What came next was nothing short of murder.
Commanded by Lee to take the hill, Ewell ordered three attacks on the Union fortifications, the third of which featured the Second Maryland. It would prove disastrous. The Second Maryland and 10th, 23rd and 37th Virginia regiments emerged from the wood line and charged across the open field (later named Pardee Field) with multiple battalions on either side of a long, stone wall. The result was nicknamed “slaughter-pen,” as more than 300 Marylanders charged the strong position and nearly half were killed or wounded as they rallied to within a few feet of the Union forces only to be cut down.
Afterwards, Steuart is said to have broken down, wringing his hands, while great tears streaked down his cheeks, and crying, “My poor boys!”
“What a field was this,” Civil War historian Samuel P. Bates said. “For three hours of the previous evening, and seven [hours the next] morning … the most terrible elements of destruction known to modern warfare [had] been wielded with a might and dexterity rarely ever paralleled. The woods in which the battle had been fought was torn and rent with shells and solid shot and pierced with innumerable minnie balls. Trees were broken off and splintered, and that entire forest, where the battle raged most furiously, was, on the following year, leafless, the stately but mute occupants having yielded up their lives with those whom they overshadowed.”
The Marylanders fell back to the log breastworks captured the night before and repulsed repeated attacks by the enemy, until ordered to retreat.
“[The Second Maryland] met the determined men of [the enemy], which poured into them so continues a fire that when within seventy paces, their columns wavered and soon broke to the rear,” Union Gen. John W. Geary said. “The First Maryland Battalion was in the advance, and their dead lay mingled with our own.”
(From the July 2016 Newsletter)