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King of the Hill

By David W. Palmer
11/20/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

‘Pap’ Greene dug in his men, fought like hell and saved the Union right at Gettysburg.

The Army of the Potomac’s elder stateman listened to his soldiers fortifying their positions atop the rocky, tree-covered Culp’s Hills on July 2, 1863. The sound pleased Brigadier General George Sears Greene, for he knew earthworks could help his men hold their critical position on the far right of the Union “fishhook” line at Gettysburg. After all, the soft underbelly of the Union Army—the cannons of the artillery reserve and the supply train—were just a short distance to the rear on the Baltimore Pike. No sense taking chances. His sweating troops of the 3rd Brigade,2nd Division of the XII Corps,had learned to trust the gray-haired commander elder statesman listened they affectionately called “Pap”or “Pop”:they built solid breastworks 5 feet high.

Fortunately for Maj.Gen.George G.Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, the concept of mandatory retirement was unknown in the 19th century. Had such a policy been in place, the 62-year-old Greene might have been relaxing in a condo in Florida reading AARP magazine instead of defending Culp’s Hill.

While plenty of attention has been paid to the July 2 fighting on the Federal left at Little Round Top, Greene’s courageous fight on Culp’s Hill gets far less press, even though it is significant in its own right. Greene’s actions on Culp’s Hill are even more memorable because of his insistence that his men entrench and fortify their positions.The elderly general was far ahead of younger contemporaries in that regard, for commanders half his age gave little thought to digging in unless they were entering into a siege.

By the time the Civil War began, Greene already had given decades of service to the Republic. Who could have blamed him if he’d decided to stay home? Born in 1801 in Rhode Island, Greene’s family had roots in the state’s founding and could count among its distinguished relatives George Washington’s right-hand man in the Revolutionary War,General Nathanael Greene. “Pap” Greene was a West Pointer, second in his 1823 class of 35 cadets, and, despite the opportunity to go into the prestigious Engineers branch, he decided on the artillery. Ultimately, however, he stayed on at the academy for four more years,teaching mathematics and engineering.One of his students was Cadet Robert E. Lee.

A year later, he married his best friend’s sister, and over the next four years they brought three children into the world. But the happiness he enjoyed in his home life was short-lived: In 1833, after moving to a new assignment at Fort Sullivan in Maine,his wife and three children all died within a span of seven months. To survive, he buried himself in work, and in 1836 he resigned his commission to become a civil engineer, specializing in railroad building. It was on a surveying journey to Maine that he met Martha Barrett Dana. They married in 1837, and their union produced six children, including one son, Samuel, who would become the executive officer on USS Monitor during the Battle of Hampton Roads.Another son,Charles,a lieutenant on his father’s staff,would serve with him at Culp’s Hill.

It was the state of another union that prompted Greene to reenter the U.S.Army in 1861. Initially, the governor of New York, judging Greene’s age a handicap, balked at giving him a regimental command. But the governor eventually relented, making him the colonel of the 60th New York in January 1862, and Greene quickly proved his years had not dulled his military abilities. Later that year, he was promoted to brigadier general and given command of a brigade consisting of the 60th,78th,102nd,137th and 149th New York Infantry regiments.

The general’s Culp’s Hill saga began around 6 a.m. on July 2 when Maj. Gen. John Slocum’s XII Corps took up position on the hill, which actually was composed of two peaks,one slightly higher than the other. A swale divided them. Slocum’s men were stationed from the upper peak down to the low ground to the southeast, with infantry from the I Corps, battered on July 1, holding the line to the left.

Culp’s Hill formed the right flank of the Union defensive line at Little Round Top, extended north to Cemetery Hill and then turned east to Culp’s Hill.Greene’s infantry held the left of the XII Corps line, and, with the eye of an engineer, he described the terrain in his front:“Rock Creek running past our front at the distance of 200 to 400 yards.Our position and the front were covered with a heavy growth of timber, free from undergrowth, with large ledges of rock projecting above the surface.These rocks offered good cover for marksmen.The surface was very steep on our left,diminishing to a gentle slope on our right.”  

To further strengthen his position, Greene ordered his men to construct breastworks of logs, stones and earth, creating an impressive defensive position.

Slocum and Greene’s division commander Brig.Gen. John W.Geary thought the hill alone provided a strong enough position and building earthworks might sap the men’s fighting élan.Strange as it may seem,Geary’s and Slocum’s opinions represented the Army’s majority opinion. Fortunately for the Union, Greene followed his own counsel: Dig and chop away, he told his men.

Some four hours of labor later, Greene’s regiments had transformed their section of Culp’s Hill into a fortress of log breastworks reinforced by earth and rifle pits.Where the line dropped off into the swale that Greene described as a “gentle slope,”a traverse was built at a right angle to the main line, protecting the right flank of the brigade.

Common sense was catching that day, and Brig. Gen.Thomas L.Kane’s 2nd Brigade followed Greene’s example by building breastworks on Greene’s right, while on Greene’s left, Brig. Gen. James Wadsworth’s men of the I Corps did the same.

Around 4 p.m.that afternoon,Lt.Gen.James Longstreet’s Confederate First Corps assaulted the Union left near Little Round Top, starting a massive attack that would involve thousands of troops.At the same time, to try and tie down the troops of Culp’s Hill, Major Joseph Latimer’s Southern artillery battalion,parked on Benner’s Hill, opened up on Geary’s 2nd Division.

Union artillery on Cemetery Hill silenced Latimer’s guns, but other Yankees were not faring so well.The fighting on the Union left wrecked the Federal III Corps and imperiled portions of the V Corps and II Corps lines.The Federal hold on Cemetery Ridge was in doubt.

General Meade knew the situation was dire and searched for troops to rush to his left.After Union gunners pounded Latimer’s Battalion into submission, Culp’s Hill remained relatively quiet, and around 6:30 p.m.,Slocum received Meade’s orders to march his two divisions to the Union left.Greene watched the 1st Division leave its entrenchments and Geary’s 2nd Division get ready to follow.Gunfire broke out along Rock Creek as Geary brought in his skirmishers.

Greene took matters into his own hands and told Geary that he was reinforcing the skirmishers. Lieutenant Colonel Hiram Rodgers from Slocum’s command arrived with an order from Slocum as Geary was about to have Greene arrested for disobeying orders. Meade had decided to keep one brigade on Culp’s Hill, and Slocum had chosen Greene’s 1,424 New Yorkers.

As the bulk of the XII Corps filed away, Maj. Gen. Edward “Old Allegheny”Johnson’s Division of Lt.Gen. Richard S.Ewell’s Confederate 2nd Corps made preparations to advance with 4,745 men, three brigades, against Greene’s breastworks. It didn’t look good for Greene’s Empire Staters.

It was about 7 p.m. and dusk was falling as Greene issued orders extending his men to the right to fill in the empty earthworks.The 60th held the left flank of Greene’s line,following by the 102nd,78th (which had been called in from skirmish duty in front of the brigade) and 149th New York.The 137th held the far right,climbing over the traverse to take up some of the area formerly held by Kane’s men.

The line was thin; about a foot separated each soldier of Greene’s brigade.Bleak odds faced the Yankees, and one of Greene’s infantrymen overheard the general say,“We must hold the position for everything depended on our keeping the enemy back.”

The 60th New York commenced the fight for Culp’s Hill after darkness,when it opened fire on Brig. Gen.John M.Jones and his 21st,25th,42nd,44th,48th and 50th Virginia regiments.“I glanced up,” remembered one 60th New Yorker,“and to the left of the curtain of trees in front of our position the Confederates were coming out from the cover of woods.”

Steuben Coon remembered that the Rebels “yelled like wild Indians.”A private from the 44th Virginia recalled it was difficult to climb up the slope of Culp’s Hill only to see long sheets of flame come from “a ditch filled with men firing down on our heads.” With no support on his right and unable to lap the Union position,Jones’attack faltered in the woods at the base of the slope.

At the center of Greene’s line, the 102nd and the 149th New York fought Colonel Jesse M.Williams’ Louisiana Brigade. Rapid fire from Greene’s men prevented the Louisianans from advancing any farther than Jones’ Brigade.Although some men in the 1st and 14th Louisiana made it past the breastworks, they were overwhelmed and captured or forced to retreat.Lewis Stegman of the 102nd claimed the beleaguered Louisianans “built breastworks out of their own dead”so intense was the Yankee gunfire. The night had taken on a “hellish look,”said another Yank.

On Greene’s right the swale presented the Confederates with a much shallower approach to the Union works. Greene realized that portion of his line, held by Colonel David Ireland’s 137th New York, was very vulnerable, so he called for reinforcements.Approximately 750 soldiers from Wadsworth’s I Corps division and Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps, guided by the bright moon and several of Greene’s staff officers,headed toward the embattled Federal line.The 6th Wisconsin and the 14th Brooklyn (also known as the 84th New York) of the I Corps made for Greene’s right. The remaining Union regiments—the 147th New York of the I Corps and the 82nd Illinois, 45th New York, 61st Ohio and the 157th New York of the XI Corps—took position behind the left and center of the brigade line.

General George H. Steuart’s Brigade of the 1st Maryland Battalion,the 1st and 3rd North Carolina and the 10th, 23rd and 37th Virginia regiments pushed on through the woods, driving up the swale against the 149th and 137th New York.Union gunfire began to hit Steuart’s men as they crossed Rock Creek, but the Rebels drove on.“Through some mistake,” Hudson Jennings of the 137th wrote,“the line at the right of our Regiment…was left unprotected, and the enemy came unrestricted into our works,and poured a heavy fire into the right flank and rear of our Regiment,and we were obliged to move to the left.”

Colonel Ireland ordered the 137th New York’s Company A, his right flank company,“to form at right angles with the breastworks,and check the advance of the enemy.”

The 71st Pennsylvania,a II Corps unit sent to reinforce the 137th New York, briefly entered the Union  trenches.But as Steuart’s 19th and 23rd Virginia moved up the Union right flank from the south, Ireland was forced to fall back into the traverse and the 71st skedaddled.Once the 137th gained the protection of the traverse,the New Yorkers opened a steady fire that forced the Rebels back.

By that time,Greene had ordered Lt.Col.Rufus R. Dawes to take his 6th Wisconsin into the supposedly empty breastworks on the 137th New York’s right flank. Steuart’s Virginians still commanded that area,however, and Dawes had his men, still smarting from the heavy losses they had sustained in fighting the day before,“run with all their might” from the Rebel musketry.

The 14th Brooklyn then arrived and forced back the Virginians. By 10 p.m., General Johnson’s Division had ceased its attacks along Greene’s front. Greene’s New Yorkers had defied the odds.

Had the Confederates been successful in becoming the kings of Culp’s Hill,they easily could have reached the Baltimore Pike, taken Meade’s artillery reserve and supply wagons and caused untold chaos. But Greene had denied them that opportunity,and since the Union left had turned back Longstreet’s attack, Meade had started to send the XII Corps divisions back to Culp’s Hill.In the early morning hours of July 3,Greene sent some of his regiments to the rear to replenish ammunition, clean their guns and rest.

The general also lay down for a much-needed nap. Commissary Sergeant Edwin R. Follett of the 60th New York stumbled upon his snoozing commander in the dark,awakening him.Follett told Greene that he was trying to find his regiment so he could issue rations. The general pointed to where the men were sleeping on their muskets.“There they are,” Greene told Follett with pride in his voice,“give them the best you have, every man deserves a warm biscuit and a plate of ice-cream.”

More fighting would occur on Culp’s Hill on July 3, but the well-stocked Union lines would keep the Federals in possession of the hill.For the right flank of Meade’s fishhook defensive line, the most dangerous time had passed the previous evening.An old man had seen to that. For George Sears Greene, this was his finest hour.

 

David W. Palmer is the author of The Forgotten Hero of Gettysburg: A Biography of General George Sears Greene.This is his first contribution to ACW.

Originally published in the July 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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