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Cemetery Hill’s Forgotten Savior

By J. David Petruzzi
12/1/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

Union General John Buford and his troopers faced down Richard Ewell’s infantry on the afternoon of July 1 at Gettysburg.

An article by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White in our August 2010 issue examined why Confederate commander Richard Ewell failed to take Cemetery Hill on Day 1 at Gettysburg. According to historian J.D. Petruzzi, there were some other good reasons Ewell could not seize that important high ground.

The article “Second-Guessing Dick Ewell” proffers well-documented reasoning regarding General Ewell’s decision to not attack Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg late on July 1, 1863. But it contains a couple of omissions—oversights that are unfortunately quite common in discussions of this battle.

In describing the movements and defense by infantry remnants of the Union I and XI corps, the authors neglect to mention the presence of Brig. Gen. John Buford’s approximately 2,600 troopers, the cavalrymen who had opened the battle that morning. After the morning arrival of the I Corps, these cavalrymen conducted delaying actions against superior numbers of Confederate infantry on both the left and right Federal flanks. That afternoon Buford’s two cavalry brigades fell back to Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge along with the Federal infantry.

Colonel Thomas Devin’s brigade of approximately 1,100 troopers re-formed south of the hill west of the Baltimore Pike, then took up a battle line along the Emmitsburg Road, with their right near the Baltimore Pike. Colonel William Gamble’s brigade of approximately 1,500 troopers re-formed west of the hill along Cemetery Ridge, then joined Devin’s brigade east of the Emmitsburg Road.

When Confederate sharpshooters, probably part of Ewell’s Corps, began firing on the troopers on Devin’s right, Devin ordered a squadron of the 9th New York Cavalry to dismount and attack them. According to Devin’s report, the New Yorkers drove the Confederate sharpshooters a considerable distance back into the town.

Not long after, one of Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s orderlies asked Buford to “do something” about massed Confederate infantry northwest of Cemetery Hill that appeared to be preparing to attack. “What in hell and damnation does General Howard expect me to do against those long lines of infantry out there?” Buford exclaimed.

He then ordered Gamble’s entire brigade to draw carbines and walk their horses, two lines deep, directly at the Confederate infantry, as if they were going to make a mounted attack. Having effectively preempted the Confederate attack—and also having bought precious time for Federal infantry to further develop a defense on the hill—Gamble ordered his troopers to turn around and return to the ridge. In a postwar letter, Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock, commander of the II Corps, called Buford’s feint that day one of the most “impressive military maneuvers” he had seen in his career. No doubt if word of Buford’s actions reached Ewell’s ears early that evening (or if he had witnessed something of them himself), it may have influenced his decision as well.

Turning to Confederate cavalry positions on the field on July 1, the authors likewise make a common omission. On P. 41 they state, “although with no Confederate cavalry to reconnoiter for them, no one knew for sure [what Federal troops might be near the York Pike].” Confederate cavalry was indeed present on the Gettysburg battlefield on July 1, and was quite capable of scouting.

The 250-some troopers of Lt. Col. Elijah White’s 35th Battalion Virginia Cavalry and a comparable number of men in Colonel William French’s 17th Virginia Cavalry accompanied Early’s Division for most of its time in Pennsylvania, and arrived on the field with Ewell’s Corps on July 1. None of these troopers, however, was used to make a detailed scout of the Federal dispositions. The historian of White’s Battalion lamented that, after briefly assessing the developing Union position atop Culp’s Hill on July 1, the Confederate cavalry were given little to do other than corralling and guarding prisoners.

The use of the Federal troopers and the failure to effectively employ the Confederate cavalry during the afternoon and late evening of July 1 played vital roles in Ewell’s ultimate decision not to attack Cemetery Hill. Those pivotal factors certainly contributed to the final outcome of the battle, and should not be ignored.

 

J. David Petruzzi, co-author of The Complete Gettysburg Guide: Walking and Driving Tours of the Battlefield… is known for his expertise on Federal and Confederate mounted forces.

Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.  

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