Looking east toward Rock Creek, a tributary of the Monocacy River, Frankenstein provides modern observers with a perspective of the famed “fish hook” that is largely unaltered from what Union and Confederate generals saw when they peered through their looking glasses. Union Major General O. O. Howard, commander of the Eleventh Corps, identified Cemetery Hill as the key to the entire battlefield. As Howard rode northward on the Emmitsburg Road, toward the fighting, he noticed Cemetery Hill and remarked to an aide that it “seemed to be a good position.” The aide responded, “It is the only position, general.” Howard would post his reserve there, and identified the spot as a rallying point for Union soldiers.
Howard and his staff were not the only ones to identify the hill’s tactical importance. As Confederates swept Union forces from their battle lines north and west of town on the afternoon of July 1st, Confederate General Robert E. Lee observed the Federals rallying on Cemetery Hill. He ordered his subordinate, Lt. General Richard S. Ewell, to “take the hill if practicable.” While General Ewell’s attack never materialized, Major General Winfield S. Hancock, who took command of Federal forces on Cemetery Hill on the late afternoon of July 1st, reported after the battle that on that evening the Confederates “pushed forward a line of battle for a short distance east of the Baltimore turnpike, but it was easily checked by the fire of our artillery.” Ewell’s decision not to attack Cemetery Hill has been scrutinized by historians for almost 150 years, yet few have looked at Hancock’s evocative report and asked, “What is the rebel attack to which he refers?”
On July 2, 1863, East Cemetery Hill was home to the remnants of Howard’s 11th Corps, with elements of other corps entrenched on either side. In addition, the hill was bristling with at least twenty cannon, with six additional guns posted in support on Stevens Knoll (in the right distance in Frankenstein’s painting) and ten more cannon – including Taft’s battery of twenty pounders – in support on the western side of Cemetery Hill. These cannon were well protected, as the furrows present in Frankenstein’s image are earthen mounds called “lunettes.” These mounds are semicircle embankments meant to protect artillery crews and their cannon from enemy fire. While the hill may have appeared impregnable, it was nonetheless an important point in Lee’s plan of attack for July 2nd.
Gettysburg importance as the hub of a road network was easily recognizable on a map. However, by the afternoon of July 2nd, only two roads – the Baltimore Pike and the unimproved Taneytown Road – were available to Federal forces. The Baltimore Pike was the lifeline of the Union army, its connection to its base of supply and communication in Westminster, Maryland. If Lee could sever the Union hold on this road, the results would be disastrous for the Northerners. To do this required the possession of Cemetery Hill. Thus Lee ordered his men to attack en echelon from south to north, hoping to force Union commander George Meade to strip defenders from his right to meet attacks on his left. This would uncover Cemetery Hill, which by virtue of its geographic location was vulnerable to Confederate attacks from two sides. Lee ordered his main strike to be launched by General James Longstreet from the Confederate right, while General Ewell was ordered to make a demonstration against the Union right, which he was to turn into a full-blown assault if the opportunity arose.
Ewell chose to demonstrate with his artillery. However, Joseph Latimer’s artillery battalion on Benner’s Hill was quickly overpowered by the better-sited and heavier Union guns on Cemetery and Culp’s Hills. Still, when Longstreet’s assaults on the Union left were reaching their zenith, General Ewell began his offensive. At dusk, Ewell ordered two of his brigades into action to seize Cemetery Hill. Colonel Isaac Avery’s North Carolina brigade and Brig. General Harry T. Hays’ famed “Louisiana Tigers” regiments stormed up the slope shrieking the infamous “Rebel Yell.” Opposing the onslaught were Howard’s men supported by several batteries of artillery. The Confederate tide fell upon a gap in the Union line, which they quickly exploited. Overwhelmed by the ferocity of the Confederate assault and facing flanking fire, many of the Federals were forced back to the line of artillery. In and amongst the lunettes, spirited hand-to-hand combat ensued between Confederate infantry and Union artillerymen who had not been issued rifles and thus and fought back with whatever item they could conceivably use as a weapon against their assailants.
The artillery at the focal point of the attack was Captain R. Bruce Ricketts’ Pennsylvania artillery. Captain Ricketts described the engagement in his field report:
At about 8 p.m. a heavy column of the enemy charged on my battery, and succeeded in capturing and spiking my left piece. The cannoneers fought them hand to hand with handspikes, rammers, and pistols, and succeeded in checking them for a moment, when a part of the Second Army Corps charged in and drove them back. During the charge I expended every round of canister in the battery, and then fired case shot without the fuses. The enemy suffered severely.
Hearing the din of battle from nearby Cemetery Ridge, a concerned General Winfield Scott Hancock rushed Colonel Samuel Carroll’s brigade to the scene. The reinforcements tipped the scale in favor of the Union defenders. The Confederates, low on ammunition, dwindling in number, and without reinforcements of their own, were compelled to
retreat to their lines in darkness. Colonel Avery was shot in the neck and, unable to speak, scribbled a note to his aide which read, “Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy.” Avery was picked up by his retreating men, but died the next day.
The attack, though valiant, failed to break the Union line at its most vital sector. General Hays and Colonel Avery went forward in virtual darkness and pressed an attack against superior firepower without artillery support. The Union defenders, especially the gunners of Ricketts and Wiedrich’s batteries, displayed the highest valor and determination by sticking to their cannon under extreme circumstances.
Not long after the battle, a group of prominent citizens in Gettysburg founded the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA) to purchase and preserve key positions of the Union battlefront. The GBMA quickly identified East Cemetery Hill with its lunettes, and stone walls as a place worthy of preservation. The GBMA sponsored several reunions for battle veterans and worked tirelessly to maintain the defensive positions of the Union Army as they were in July 1863. In addition to protecting East Cemetery Hill from the ravages of human development, the Association also funded the construction there of several monuments and a wooden observation tower that no longer exists. The work of the GBMA persuaded Congress to accept the GBMA land and establish the Gettysburg National Military Park in 1895. In 1933, the GNMP was incorporated into the National Park Service.
Today, East Cemetery Hill is dotted with monuments to various units that held the crucial position through three days of intense combat. Since Frankenstein visited Gettysburg in 1866, the town has grown and several buildings now stand there that were not factors in the Battle. The presence of earthworks in 1866 suggests that the residents of Gettysburg also recognized the significance of the ground, as they did relatively little to disturb the site. This portrait offers a fairly unblemished replication of what Generals Lee, Ewell, Hancock and Howard considered to be the key to the entire battlefield.
To see other Frankenstein paintings of the battlefield at the Musselman Library, visit Special Collections’ Civil War Era collection at http://www.gettysburg.edu/library/gettdigital/civil_war/index.html .
For further reading on the Confederate assault on East Cemetery Hill, see Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg: Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).