Cemetery Hill is a key terrain feature in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the northernmost extent of Cemetery Ridge. It played prominent roles in all three days of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1 to July 3, 1863.
During the battle, Cemetery Hill was a critical part of the Union army defensive line, the curved portion of what is described as the "fish-hook" line. There were three important characteristics to the hill. First, its gentle slope made it excellent defensive ground against the infantry tactics of the era. Second, it was an outstanding artillery platform with good fields of fire (unlike the neighboring Culp's Hill, which was heavily wooded), dominating wide swaths of the town and other parts of the battlefield. Third, and most importantly, it was a concentration point for three major roads that led south: Emmitsburg Road, Taneytown Road, and the Baltimore Pike. These roads were critical for keeping the Union army supplied and for blocking any Confederate advance on Baltimore or Washington, D.C.
Before the battle, Cemetery Hill (originally named Raffensperger's Hill, after farmer Peter Raffensperger, who owned over on the eastern slope) was the site of Evergreen Cemetery, a civilian burial ground established in 1854. It was joined afterwards by the adjacent Gettysburg National Cemetery, which was dedicated by Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The hill is also the current location of the U.S. National Park Service Visitors' Center for the Gettysburg National Military Park.
Cemetery Hill overlooks the main downtown area of Gettysburg from the south, at 503 feet (153 m) above sea level, 80 feet (24 m) above the town center, about 100 feet (30 m) above Winebrenner's Run at its base. Its crest extends in a southwest-northeast direction for about . A shallow saddle on the crest about from its northeast slope is the point where the Baltimore Pike crosses the hill and separates East Cemetery Hill from the remainder. The slopes to the north and west rise gradually; on East Cemetery Hill, the rise is steeper.
In the week before the Battle of Gettysburg, Cemetery Hill had been occupied by Confederate cavalry under Lt. Col. Elijah V. White on June 26 and June 27, who captured several horses hidden by local citizens. Upon their departure to York County, Pennsylvania, the hill remained essentially free of military forces until the arrival of the Army of the Potomac.
On July 1, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard left infantry and artillery to hold the hill in case the army needed to fall back from its positions north and west of Gettysburg. Cemetery Hill became the rallying point for retreating Union troops of the I Corps and XI Corps who were overwhelmed by Confederate assaults. One of the great controversies of the battle was the failure of Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell to attack and capture Cemetery Hill.
On July 2, Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered attacks on both ends of the Union line. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet attacked with his First Corps on the Union left (Little Round Top, Devil's Den, Wheatfield). Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell and the Second Corps were assigned the mission of launching a simultaneous demonstration against the Union right, a minor attack that was intended to distract and pin down the Union defenders against Longstreet. Ewell was to exploit any success his demonstration might achieve by following up with a full-scale attack at his discretion.
Ewell began his demonstration at 4 p.m. upon hearing the sound of Longstreet's guns to the south. For three hours, he chose to limit his demonstration to an artillery barrage from Benner's Hill, about a mile (1,600 m) to the northeast. Although the Union defenders on Cemetery Hill received some damage from this fire, they returned counterbattery fire with a vengeance. Cemetery Hill is over 50 feet (15 m) taller than Benner's Hill, and the geometry of artillery science meant that the Union gunners had a decided advantage. Ewell's four batteries were annihilated, and his best artillerist, 19-year-old Joseph W. Latimer, the "Boy Major", was killed.
Around 7 p.m., as the Confederate assaults on the Union left and center were petering out, Ewell chose to begin his main infantry assault. He sent three brigades from the division of Maj. Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson across Rock Creek and up the eastern slope of Culp's Hill against a line of breastworks manned by the XII Corps brigade of Brig. Gen. George S. Greene. Greene's men held off the Confederate attack for hours, at bloody cost to both sides.
Not long after the assault on Culp's Hill began, as dusk fell around 7:30 p.m., Ewell sent two brigades from the division of Jubal A. Early against East Cemetery Hill from the east, and he alerted the division of Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes to prepare a follow-up assault against Cemetery Hill proper from the northwest. The two brigades from Early's division were commanded by Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays: his own Louisiana Tigers Brigade and Hoke's Brigade, the latter commanded by Colonel Isaac E. Avery. They stepped off from a line parallel to Winebrenner's Run, a narrow tributary of Rock Creek to the southeast of town. Hays commanded five Louisiana regiments, which together numbered only about 1,200 officers and men. Avery had three North Carolina regiments totaling 900. The brigade of Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon was in support behind Hays and Avery but did not participate in the fighting.
Defending East Cemetery Hill were the two brigades (Cols. Andrew L. Harris and Leopold von Gilsa) of Barlow's division (now commanded by Brig. Gen. Adelbert Ames) of the XI Corps. Both had seen heavy action on July 1 and they consisted of, respectively, 650 and 500 officers and men. Harris's men were stationed at a low stone wall on the northern end of the hill and wrapped around onto Brickyard Lane at the base of the hill. (Brickyard Lane was also known at the time as Winebrenner's Lane and today is named Wainwright Avenue.) Von Gilsa's brigade was scattered along the lane as well as on the hill. Two regiments, the 41st New York and the 33rd Massachusetts, were stationed in Culp's Meadow beyond Brickyard Lane. More westerly on the hill were the divisions of Maj. Gens. Adolph von Steinwehr and Carl Schurz. Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, nominally of the I Corps, commanded the artillery batteries on the hill and on Steven's Knoll. The relatively steep slope of East Cemetery Hill made artillery fire difficult to direct against infantry because the gun barrels could not be depressed sufficiently, but they did their best with canister and double canister fire.
The Confederate attack began with a Rebel yell against the Ohio regiments at the stone wall. Just beforehand, Ames sent the 17th Connecticut from its place on the left of the line to a position in the center. This left a gap, which Hays's Louisianans exploited and they bounded over the stone wall. Other troops exploited other weak spots in the line, and soon some of the Confederates had reached the batteries at the top of the hill, while others fought in the darkness with the four remaining Union regiments on the line behind the stone wall. On the crest of the hill, the gunners of Captain Michael Wiedrich's New York battery and Captain Bruce Ricketts's Pennsylvania battery engaged in hand-to-hand combat against the invaders. Major Samuel Tate of the 6th North Carolina wrote afterward:
Generals Howard and Schurz heard the commotion and rushed the 58th and 119th New York of Col. Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski's brigade from West Cemetery Hill to the aid of Wiedrich's battery. Howard's lines were getting thin, so he sent for help to Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock of the II Corps. Hancock ordered his brigade under Col. Samuel S. Carroll to rush from Cemetery Ridge and assist the defenders. They arrived at the double-quick, charging through the dark from the cemetery, just as the Confederate attack was starting to ebb. Carroll's men secured Ricketts's battery and swept the North Carolinians down the hill. Over at Wiedrich's battery, Krzyżanowski led his men to sweep the Louisiana attackers down the hill until they reached the base and "flopped down" for Wiedrich's guns to fire canister at the retreating Confederates.
Defending East Cemetery Hill would have been much more difficult had the overall attack been better coordinated. To the northwest, Rodes's division was not ready to attack until Early's fight was almost over. It had filed west from the town and into the fields along Long Lane, where it stopped after advancing a short distance in the darkness. Brig. Gen. Dodson Ramseur, the leading brigade commander, saw the futility of a night assault against two lines of Union troops behind stone walls, backed up by significant artillery.
Losses on both sides were severe; among the casualties was Col. Avery, who was struck in the neck by a musket ball, felling him from his horse, where he was discovered after the charge by several of his soldiers and Major Tate of the 6th North Carolina. Unable to speak from his mortal wound, Avery scribbled a simple note for Tate: "Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy. I. E. Avery." He died the following day.
Following the Confederate withdrawal to Virginia, Cemetery Hill was occupied for several weeks by state militiamen, who established a tented camp site on the eastern crest. Their role was to maintain a military presence, secure the battlefield as best as possible from looters and curiosity seekers, collect remaining military accoutrements such as weapons left lying on the field, and provide manpower and services for the overworked hospitals.
Elizabeth Thorn, the wife of the keeper of Evergreen Cemetery, had the responsibility to bury over 100 soldiers collected in the Cemetery Hill region (her husband was away in military service). Despite being six months pregnant, she and her aged parents, assisted at times by a couple hired hands, dug 105 graves in the July heat.
In the months immediately following the battle, Gettysburg attorney (and part-time Union intelligence agent) David McConaughy led efforts to purchase portions of Cemetery Hill for a Federal cemetery, where most of the dead Union soldiers (excepting those buried by Mrs. Thorn in the civilian graveyard) could be reinterred. In November 1863, President Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication ceremony for the new National Cemetery, delivering "a few brief remarks" that became known as the Gettysburg Address.
Imposing equestrian statues of Major Generals Oliver O. Howard and Winfield S. Hancock dominate the crest of East Cemetery Hill.
GETTYSBURG NATIONAL MILITARY PARK RANGERS INVITES PUBLIC TO WALK FIELDS OF BATTLE DURING 143RD GETTYSBURG BATTLE ANNIVERSARY
May 15, 2006; The National Park Service's Gettysburg National Military Park issued the following press release: To commemorate the anniversary...