2 Southern brigades overrun Union guns

The attack by the Louisiana Tigers brigade on Cemetery Hill, which briefly overran several Union artillery positions on the second day of the fighting at Gettysburg, Pa., in July 1863, will be portrayed in this year's remembrance of that great Civil War battle.

The re-enactment of this fighting will be held on Sunday, July 2. The first day of the Battle of Gettysburg was over, a smashing victory for the Confederates under the leadership of Gen. Robert E. Lee, and an unflattering Union defeat. It was a defeat that not only inflicted heavy casualties on the Union army but also resulted in a haphazard retreat.


The disorganized Northern forces were able to take refuge atop Cemetery Hill. The Union fortifications there, which were strengthened during the night of the first day of fighting, were vital in the Union victory at Gettysburg. After the war many Southern veterans criticized the decisions made at the end of the first day of fighting at Gettysburg.

Much of the criticism falls on Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, who was in command of the Confederate troops pursuing the Union regiments that had been dislodged from their original positions. It is argued that if he had called for a further pursuit of the disorganized Union troops they would not have been able to fortify Cemetery Hill and possibly may never have regained their composure for the next two days of battle.


In his report on the battle, Ewell records the fact that Lee sent word to him to "attack Cemetery Hill if he could do so with advantage." Ewell saw the high ground before him defended by entrenched infantry and artillery positions, and he concluded that he could not use his guns effectively against them. The two divisions that Ewell had on the field had been worn down by 12 hours of hard marching and fighting, and his third division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson, did not arrive until after nightfall. Therefore the assault on Cemetery Hill was delayed until the next day.

Lee's plan for the second day's fighting called on Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's 1st Corps to attack the southern flank of the Union position while Ewell made a diversionary attack on the northern flank at Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill.

By about 8 p.m. Ewell got the attack underway, striking two blows, one on the eastern side of Culp's Hill and the other on the western side, where the terrain formed a saddle with Cemetery Hill.

According to Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz, a Union commander in that segment of the line, "It was already dark when we on Cemetery Hill were suddenly startled by a tremendous turmoil at the batteries of [Capt. Michael] Wiedrich and [Capt. R. Bruce] Ricketts, placed on a commanding point on the right of Cemetery Hill. General [Oliver 0.] Howard and I were standing together in conversation when the uproar surprised us. There could be no doubt of its meaning. The enemy was attacking the batteries on our right, and if he gained possession of them he would enfilade a large part of our line toward the south as well as the east, and command the valley between Cemetery Ridge and Culp's Hill, where the ammunition trains were parked.

"The fate of the battle might hang on the repulse of this attack. There was no time to wait for superior orders. With the consent of General Howard, I took the two regiments nearest to me, ordered them to fix bayonets; and, headed by Col. [Wladimir] Krzyzanowski, they hurried off to the threatened point at a double-quick. I accompanied them with my whole staff."

The Confederate attacking force was Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays' Louisiana Tigers brigade, supported by Col. Isaac T. Avery's North Carolina brigade.

Maj. Harry Gilmor, a Maryland Confederate cavalry officer who volunteered to accompany the assault because he liked to fight, described it in his memoir, "Four Years in the Saddle," published in 1866:

"On the evening of the 3d, General Harry Hays, of the Louisiana brigade, told me that he should assault the works in front, and I promised to join him. At dusk, the brigade, which was famous for its dash and gallantry, moved on in line of battle to the attack. There was a perfect network of rifle-pits to be taken before reaching the entrenchments; And, although the brave boys fell in piles, they charged and took them one after another.


"On reaching the main works the brigade was a good deal scattered, but still went bravely forward, I was the only mounted man in the whole command, not caring to attempt the ascent on foot, and I had no difficulty in leaping the trenches and keeping well up to the front.

"There were 15 guns mounted in those works, all pouring a deadly avalanche of shell and canister down among the Louisianians, who never quailed, but pressed on until they scaled the works and drove off the gunners. There was a heavy infantry force supporting those guns, and [Maj. Gen. David B.] Birney's division was coming in at a double-quick to reinforce them.

"Hays kept his men in the works some 15 or 20 minutes, but the North Carolina brigade that was to have supported him, having failed for some cause to come up, he was obliged to relinquish them, and make the best retreat he could, but in great confusion.

"An incident that came under my observation is worth relating- one of many witnessed by those who participated in that terrible fight. While advancing on the main line of works, I saw one of our color-bearers jump on a gun and display his flag. He was instantly killed. But the flag was seized by an Irishman, who, with a wild shout, sprang upon the gun, and he too was shot down. Then a little bit of a fellow, a captain, seized the staff and mounted the same gun; but, as he raised the flag, a ball broke the arm which held it. He dropped his sword and caught the staff with his right before it fell, waved it over his head with a cheer, indifferent to the pain of his shattered limb and the whizzing balls around him. His third cheer was just heard, when he tottered and fell, pierced through the lungs. The retreat had now begun. Some men picked him up with the flag, and carried them across to the parapet near where I sat on my horse. I had him placed before me, and holding on, guided my horse carefully along, and succeeded in safely reaching the town, though my horse was terribly wounded by a shell that exploded under him, cutting him in 20 places from shoulder to stifle. I met with this hero some months afterward, nearly well; he had escaped from the hospital in Winchester. I regret that I have not preserved his name."

Schurz described the battle from the Union perspective as he approached with his two regiments: "Soon we found ourselves surrounded by a rushing crowd of stragglers from the already broken lines. We did our best, sword in hand, to drive them back as we went.

"Arrived at the batteries, we found an indescribable scene of melee. Some rebel infantry had scaled the breastworks and were taking possession of the guns. But the cannoneers defended themselves desperately. With rammers and fence rails, handspikes and stones, they knocked down the intruders. In Wiedrich's battery, manned by Germans from Buffalo, a rebel officer, brandishing his sword, cried out, 'This battery is ours.' Whereupon a sturdy artilleryman responded, 'No, dis battery is unser' and felled him to the ground with a sponge-staff.


"Our infantry made a vigorous rush upon the invaders, and, after a short but very spirited scuffle, tumbled them down the embankment."

The North Carolina brigade on the left of the attack had come under enfilading fire on its flank as well as artillery fire from the front, although the Union gunners could not depress the muzzles of their guns enough to make them very effective against the attackers because of the steepness of the hill. Colonel Avery was mortally wounded at the head of his brigade.

Hays' brigade lost 36 killed, 201 wounded and 76 missing at Gettysburg Avery's brigade lost lost 35 killed, 216 wounded and 94 missing.