First day: 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, Cemetery Hill was the rallying point for retreating Union troops of the I Corps and XI Corps who were overwhelmed by Confederate assaults from the west and north. One of the great controversies of the battle was the failure of Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell to attack and capture Cemetery Hill.
Early's attack on East 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:
75 North Carolinians of the Sixth Regiment and 12 Louisianians of Hays' brigade scaled the walls and planted the colors of the Sixth North Carolina and Ninth Louisiana on the guns. It was now fully dark. The enemy stood with tenacity never before displayed by them, but with bayonet, clubbed musket, sword, pistol, and rocks from the wall, we cleared the heights and silenced the guns.
– Major Samuel Tate, Official report
Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock of the II Corps ordered his brigade under Col. Samuel S. Carroll to rush from Cemetery Ridge and assist the defenders. They arrived, charging through the dark from the cemetery, just as the Confederate attack was starting to ebb. XI Corps troops from elsewhere on the hill also joined in the fight, and Early's attackers were repulsed by 10:30 p.m.
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.
On July 3, there was no explicit attack on Cemetery Hill; the primary Confederate attacks were on Culp's Hill and on the lower portion of Cemetery Ridge. Union artillery maintained defensive fire against Pickett's Charge from the hill, and trading primarily on antipersonnel fire. However, some historians maintain that Robert E. Lee's ultimate objective for the assaults by Longstreet on July 2 and July 3 (Pickett's Charge) was to take Cemetery Hill by rolling the Union left flank up Cemetery Ridge.
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.