“…a timely diversion…”
Everything was seemingly going well for the Confederates on July 1st. Although the Army of Northern Virginia had blundered into the enemy, they had engaged two Federal corps and driven them from the field. All that remained was to land the killing blow, a feat that eluded Robert E. Lee at Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. As Lee was acutely aware, landing a killing blow on an active enemy was much easier said than done.
Richard Ewell had made his way into the town of Gettysburg in the late afternoon hours of July 1st. Many of the Federal soldiers were scurrying through the streets of the town to Cemetery Hill, others attempted to hide in the homes and businesses of the town. Butternut soldiers worked street by street running off or capturing bands of Union soldiers.
At the end of Baltimore Street sat Cemetery Hill, the rallying point for the broken Federal army. The Federals were seemingly disorganized, demoralized, and in dire straits. Lee wanted to press “those people.” Which was easier said than done.
The Federals were not as disorganized as many critics would have people believe. Five brigades from the 11th Corps had engaged in the fighting thus far; some 1,600 infantry had remained behind on Cemetery Hill to fortify the position as a fallback line for the army while the remainder of the 1st and 11th Corps fought to the north and west of town. The infantry was backed by 43 cannon and a new commander on the field Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. “Directing the placing of troops where we turned up was Hancock, whose imperious and defiant bearing heartened us all,” said an officer from the 16th Maine.
The approach to Cemetery Hill was not an easy one. Ewell’s Second Corps would have to either loop to the east or west of the town to get at the enemy, an approach down Baltimore Street was out of the question, as Federal sharpshooters took up residence in the homes of the area, coupled with the artillery packed hill, which could blast canister down the street at will. It was, “a position more favorable to [General Meade] and more unfavorable to Gen. Lee [that] could hardly have been selected,” wrote Peter Wellington Alexander in a dispatch to the Charleston Mercury on July 4. “The strength of this position cannot hardly be exaggerated,” he added in a July 7 dispatch.
The remnants of the 1st and 11th Corps also had plenty of fresh reinforcements: the 1,600 fresh troops of Colonel Orland Smith’s brigade, plus elements of the 12th Corps—some 9,000 men and four batteries strong had arrived in the area. Just to the southwest, Major General Daniel Sickles was bringing the lead elements of his 3rd Corps onto the battlefield, too. Though the two new Federal corps were undersized, they were packed full of veteran soldiers.
Robert E. Lee approached the battlefield via the Chambersburg Pike and witnessed the fighting between A.P. Hill’s Third Corps and the Federal 1st Corps. From a vantage point on Herr Ridge, both Hill and Lee could have witnessed the fighting of Rodes men at Oak Hill, but NOT the fighting on the plain below Oak Hill of Oak Ridge. The cost of driving the Federals from McPherson and Seminary Ridges was high for the Confederates. Three of Heth’s four brigades had been roughly handled in Herbst Woods and the in the Railroad Cut.
Taking over the fight from Heth was William Dorsey Pender’s division. The brash young Tar Heel brought his division across the no man’s land between McPherson and Seminary Ridge. Like Heth, three of Pender’s four brigades were roughly handled by the remnants of the 1st Corps and Colonel William Gamble’s brigade of cavalry.
As Hill’s men cleared the western end of the town, Lee and his staff made their way to a vantage point on Seminary Ridge to oversee the next phase of action.
Around 5 p.m., Ewell had reached the center of Gettysburg, accompanied by his staff. On the way in, he had run into John B. Gordon, who urged Ewell to press the attack forward to Cemetery Hill. In town he received similar advice from Harry Hays. He also received orders from Lee, courtesy of Lieutenant James Power Smith and then, moments later, from Major Walter Taylor.
After the war, in a letter to Campbell Brown, Smith said Lee’s orders had been for Ewell to attack if he “could do so to advantage.” Taylor’s postwar writings say that “from the position which he occupied, [Lee] could see the enemy retreating over those hills, without organization and in great confusion, that it was only necessary to press ‘those people’ in order to secure possession of the heights, and that, if possible, [Lee] wished [Ewell] to do this.” Ewell left Taylor with “the impression upon my mind that it would be executed,” and did not express any objections. Ewell sent for Early and Rodes and began to size up the situation.
“It was a moment of most critical importance, more critical to us now, than it would seem to any one then,” Smith later wrote. “Our corps commander, General Ewell, as true a Confederate soldier as ever went into battle, was simply waiting for orders, when every moment of the time could not be balanced with gold.”
Then came another wrinkle for Ewell to consider. As he, Rodes, and Early met, “[U]p came ‘Freddy’ Smith, son of ‘Extra Billy,’ to say that a heavy [enemy] force was reported moving up in their rear,” staff officer Campbell Brown recalled. “Extra Billy” commanded Early’s old brigade and was currently the governor-elect of Virginia, and even the irascible Early showed him deference.
According to Brown, “Early said to Gen’l Ewell: ‘Gen’l, I don’t much believe in this, but prefer to suspend my movements until I can send & inquire into it.’ ‘Well,’ said Genl Ewell, ‘Do so. Meantime I shall get Rodes into position & communicate with Hill.’” In hopes of clarifying the situation, Early responded by sending Gordon’s Brigade to join Smith’s along the York Road.
Ewell and his officers rode to the top of Benner’s Hill, which sat southeast of the town, to look for themselves. They saw a line of skirmishers they first mistook for Federals who, as it turned out, were men sent out earlier by Smith. The coast was clear, it seemed. Early said Smith had filed “an unfounded report.” The report though was not “unfounded.”
Unknown to them, though, Brigadier General Alpheus Williams of the Federal 12th Corps saw the mounted Confederate officers on the hilltop, “evidently reconnoitering.” The newly arrived Federal corps had cut off from the Baltimore Pike and began a move toward what would become the Confederate left.
Seeing no signs of artillery or a large force, Williams reported, “I accordingly directed General [Thomas] Ruger to deploy his brigade, under cover of the woods, and charge the hill, supported by the 1st Brigade under Col. [Archibald] McDougall. I had with me two batteries of artillery, which were put in the road, and directed to follow the assault, come into battery on the rest of the hill, and open on the enemy’s masses.”
The Federals followed a Revolutionary War–era trail through the woods to the Hanover Road. “[T]he corps was moved to the right across country east of Rock Creek, until it faced a slope toward Benner’s Hill, where the line was halted and deployed with skirmishers in front,” wrote the commander of 2nd Massachusetts Infantry’s. “The country here was open, and mounted officers of the enemy could be seen on the high ground apparently examining the position.”
Ruger’s brigade was actually ascending the slope of the hill, Williams said, when he received orders to withdraw the division toward the Baltimore Pike and take position for the night. This, he said, was between 5:30 and 6 p.m.
Early always insisted that Smith had been seeing things along the York Pike—even though Early had the 35th Virginia Battalion of Cavalry with him, he did not have them scout the supposed enemy presence. To be safe, Early kept Gordon and Smith along the York Pike all night, tying up valuable men from making any assault on Cemetery Hill. But it seems likely that Smith did see something—elements of the 12th Corps coming onto the field at precisely the right moment to serve as a much-needed distraction. “The appearance of the division in this position at the time it occurred,” Ruger said in his official report, “was apparently a timely diversion in favor of our forces, as the farther advance of the enemy ceased.”