The Third Day at Gettysburg: Culp’s Hill

This entry is part 16 of 27 in the series The Gettysburg Campaign

The Third Day at Gettysburg was the climatic day of the War in the Eastern Theater. General Robert E. Lee planned to conduct another demonstration attack in the Culp’s Hill area on the Union Right. After two days of hard fighting Lee knew that he couldn’t stay in the area much longer so July 3rd must be decisive for his Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee’s plan called for massive infantry charge preceded a punishing artillery bombardment by against the Union center in coordination with Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s demonstration against Culp’s Hill.

Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was opposed to an all-or-nothing attack against the Union center. He preferred for the Confederate army to move around the Army of the Potomac and interpose itself between the enemy and Washington. He felt that by doing so they would be able to fight the Union army on ground of their own choosing rather than the enemy’s.

General Lee adamantly refused to heed Longstreet’s advice and insisted that after the attacks on the Union flanks on the Second Day, the enemy’s center had been thinned and could be broken with a concerted effort. And how could Longstreet say no to Robert E. Lee?

Gettysburg, Third Day, Culp's HillLongstreet’s Corps had been heavily engaged on the previous day with both Hood’s and McLaws’ Division suffering grievous losses. John Bell Hood had been severely wounded and had been replaced by Brig. Gen Evander M. Law. Two of Hood’s brigade commanders had been wounded and 14 field grade officers had been either killed or wounded.

McLaws’ Division had a similar story. Two brigade commanders had been mortally wounded and 14 field grade officers had been either killed wounded or captured. Both divisions were unfit for further immediate combat.

Lee replaced them with Dorsey Pender’s Division, now led by Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble who had stepped in after Pender had been mortally wounded the previous day. The other formation was led by Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew of Henry Heth’s Division. Pettigrew commanded three brigades.

Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s had arrived on the field the previous night and was fresh. They had been the last unit in the Confederate army to arrive. Pickett’s Division had three brigades for the coming engagement.

Due to the lengthy march for Longstreet’s units, particularly Trimble and Pettigrew, Lee scheduled the attack for the mid afternoon, preceeded by a long artillery bombardment.

However, the Union army did not cooperate with Lee’s plan. At about dawn, the five Union artillery batteries on Culp’s Hill began a bombardment against Brig. Gen. George H. Steuart‘s Brigade of Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson‘s Division. The Confederates were pinned down for 30 minutes in the rifle pits that they had captured the previous day.

An attempt by Lee to hold off the start of the fighting was fruitless. Ewell sent back a terse reply by messenger: “Too late to recall.” Fighting continued until late in the morning and consisted of three attacks by Johnson’s men, each a failure. The attacks were essentially a replay of those the previous evening, although in daylight.

The Union defensive force had been reinforced by units from the I and VI Corps during the night. The Union commander on the scene, Brig. Gen. George S. Greene, rotated regiments in and out of the defensive works while they reloaded. This enabled the Union defenders to maintain a high rate of fire.

The Johnson’s attacking force had been reinforced with additional brigades from the division of Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes, under Brig. Gens. Junius Daniel andWilliam “Extra Billy” Smith and Col. Edward A. O’Neal. Despite this infusion of needed manpower, the Confederates were unable toCulp's Hill, July 3 make much progress against the stubborn Union defense.

In the final of the three Confederate attacks, around 10 a.m., Brig. Gen. James A. Walker‘s Stonewall Brigade and Brig. Gen. Junius Daniel‘s North Carolina brigade assaulted Greene from the east, while Brig. Gen. George H. Steuart‘s brigade advanced over the open field toward the main hill against two Union brigades, which did not have the advantage of strong breastworks to fight behind. Both attacks were beaten back with heavy losses. The attacks against the heights were again fruitless, and superior use of artillery on the open fields to the south made the difference there.

The fighting at Culp’s Hill ended at about noon with a futile counterattack by two Union regiments, the 2nd Massachusetts and the 27th Indiana, against the strong Confederate near Spangler’s Spring. An order to retake a position that had been captured by the enemy. The order was misinterpreted to mean that the units were to make a direct frontal assault. Both regiments were repelled with terrific losses: 43% of the Massachusetts soldiers, 32% of the Indianans.

The losses at Culp’s Hill included approximately 2,000 men in Johnson’s division, nearly a third. An additional 800 fell from the reinforcing brigades on July 3. The XII corps lost about 1,000 men over both days, including 300 men in Greene’s brigade, or one fifth.

One of the sad stories of the war involved the Culp family. Two of Henry Culp’s nephews were brothers: John Wesley Culp and William Culp. Wesley joined the Confederate Army and William the Union Army. Wesley’s regiment, the 2nd Virginia Infantry, fought at Culp’s Hill, and he was killed in the fighting on his family property on July 3. Ironically, he allegedly was carrying a message from another soldier, just deceased, to “Ginnie” Wade, the only civilian killed during the battle.

Series Navigation<< The Second Day at Gettysburg: Culp’s Hill and Cemetary HillThe Third Day at Gettysburg: Pickett’s Charge >>

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