Last Confederate Advance at Gettysburg?

Tom Elmore

2nd Lieutenant
Member of the Year
Joined
Jan 16, 2015
I would venture to say that very few have ever heard of a Confederate advance made on Culp’s Hill on the night of July 3. Even prominent historians of the battle have overlooked it, but from a few extant sources we can piece together what happened. My own assessment is that it was probably a diversionary tactic to cover the withdrawal of the Confederate forces opposite the right wing of the Federal army.

Background: Around noon on July 3, the remnants of seven Confederate brigades pulled back from their advanced positions on Culp’s Hill and regrouped at the base of the hill just west of Rock Creek. However, they sent out a strong line of skirmishers and marksmen to keep the Federals at bay for the remainder of the day and into the early evening. Sometime between 9:30 p.m. and midnight, Confederate skirmishers were evidently ordered forward to test the Union position.

Two sources described the event in some detail:

-After dark [July 3], sent out videttes. In the night we were attacked and the boys jumped up out of their sleep and blazed away at them, and in their excitement the man from our company that we sent out came rushing over the works and was shot through the right arm below the elbow. I supposed he was mortally wounded, for he fell over the works right where I was, and I saw it was Walyce [Wallace] Orton. I asked him he was hurt and he said he was not he thought, for he was shot in the arm. It is the greatest wonder to me that he was not killed, for there was a perfect blaze of fire at the time. (July 5 letter of Private George Robinson, Company A, 123rd New York, to his wife, Robinson Papers, New York State Library, Albany)

-After dark there was but little firing until about midnight. It was so quiet I told Lieutenant Culver (he being in command of the company, Captain Crary having been taken sick the first day of the fight and we have not seen him since) that I would take off my shoes and sword belt and lie down on my rubber blanket and get some rest. I had not had my shoes or belt off for three days and nights. I had lain but a short time when Culver came and lay on the blanket beside me and soon was sound asleep. The men had also fallen asleep. I was just dropping into a slumber when I heard a single shot away to the right, then all at once it came rolling down the line. The videttes in front of the regiment began to fire. I sprang to my feet, calling our men to fall in. I did not take time to put on my shoes, coat or belt, but caught my sword and in a minute had the men in line behind our works and they began to fire before our videttes came in, closely followed by a number of the enemy. I asked them [the prisoners, afterwards] what they were trying to do. They said they thought we were so worn by fatigue that we had fallen asleep and they had an order to steal upon us and surprise us; that they had crawled so close to us that when the firing began they could not get back and thought they had best come in – that they could never catch a Yankee napping. There was a large force back of them ready to charge and turn our right wing if they had succeeded in capturing us or driving us back. This was their last hope. Lieutenant Culver slept through it all. I did not lie down again but kept a good lookout for fear the enemy might come on to us again before the daylight came. (The Civil War Letters of Robert Cruikshank, Company H, 123rd N. Y. S. V.)

Assessment: I find it difficult to believe the Confederates were contemplating a major night attack on the evening of July 3 on Culp’s Hill, to retake ground they had already relinquished earlier in the day. Rather, orders withdrawing Ewell’s corps to the west and north of town had likely been issued. Prisoners, on occasion, intentionally deceived their opponents as to intentions and strength of their army, and my supposition is that their information in this instance was designed to mask the withdrawal of their forces. If so, it worked to perfection, for the Federals arising on Culp’s Hill early on July 4 were surprised to learn their opponent had vanished during the night.

Other source mentions:

-About 9:30 p.m., when about to be relieved by the Third Brigade, enemy opened a heavy fire, which was silenced in a few moments. (Official Report of Col. Charles Candy)

-About 9:30 p.m. the enemy advanced on our lines in force, but they were received with such a heavy fire from our lines that they soon retired. (Official Report of Colonel William Rickards, Jr., 29th Pennsylvania)

-About 9 p.m. … the enemy made their final assault. They were soon repulsed and the firing almost ceased for the night. (Address of Capt. John O. Foehring, September 11, 1889, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, 1:205)

-July 3 … at night repelled attack with heavy loss to enemy. (Monument to the 123rd New York)

-About midnight [July 3] the pickets discovered the enemy advancing and fired on them, and then came into the breastworks. The line then opened a terrific fire on the advancing rebels, driving them back with great slaughter. (Reminiscences of the 123d Regiment, N. Y. S. V., History of Its Three Years Service in the War, by Sergeant Henry C. Morhous, Greenwich, NY: People’s Journal Book and Job Printer, 1879)

Epilogue: Multiple Confederate sources time their departure from Culp’s Hill between 8 a.m. July 3 to 2 a.m. July 4; the consensus is no later than midnight. It may even have taken place during the ruckus raised by the advance of their skirmish line, which would have completely masked any noise generated by the retrograde movement of seven depleted brigades (Steuart, Walker, Williams, Dungan, Daniel, O’Neal and Smith). The Confederate loss in this encounter was likely minimal, consisting of a few men captured, and maybe a few wounded or killed, but certainly nothing resembling a “great slaughter.” Federal loss was also slight - it appears chiefly if not solely from “friendly fire.”
 

Rick Richter

Corporal
Joined
Dec 6, 2012
I would venture to say that very few have ever heard of a Confederate advance made on Culp’s Hill on the night of July 3. Even prominent historians of the battle have overlooked it, but from a few extant sources we can piece together what happened. My own assessment is that it was probably a diversionary tactic to cover the withdrawal of the Confederate forces opposite the right wing of the Federal army.

Background: Around noon on July 3, the remnants of seven Confederate brigades pulled back from their advanced positions on Culp’s Hill and regrouped at the base of the hill just west of Rock Creek. However, they sent out a strong line of skirmishers and marksmen to keep the Federals at bay for the remainder of the day and into the early evening. Sometime between 9:30 p.m. and midnight, Confederate skirmishers were evidently ordered forward to test the Union position.

Two sources described the event in some detail:

-After dark [July 3], sent out videttes. In the night we were attacked and the boys jumped up out of their sleep and blazed away at them, and in their excitement the man from our company that we sent out came rushing over the works and was shot through the right arm below the elbow. I supposed he was mortally wounded, for he fell over the works right where I was, and I saw it was Walyce [Wallace] Orton. I asked him he was hurt and he said he was not he thought, for he was shot in the arm. It is the greatest wonder to me that he was not killed, for there was a perfect blaze of fire at the time. (July 5 letter of Private George Robinson, Company A, 123rd New York, to his wife, Robinson Papers, New York State Library, Albany)

-After dark there was but little firing until about midnight. It was so quiet I told Lieutenant Culver (he being in command of the company, Captain Crary having been taken sick the first day of the fight and we have not seen him since) that I would take off my shoes and sword belt and lie down on my rubber blanket and get some rest. I had not had my shoes or belt off for three days and nights. I had lain but a short time when Culver came and lay on the blanket beside me and soon was sound asleep. The men had also fallen asleep. I was just dropping into a slumber when I heard a single shot away to the right, then all at once it came rolling down the line. The videttes in front of the regiment began to fire. I sprang to my feet, calling our men to fall in. I did not take time to put on my shoes, coat or belt, but caught my sword and in a minute had the men in line behind our works and they began to fire before our videttes came in, closely followed by a number of the enemy. I asked them [the prisoners, afterwards] what they were trying to do. They said they thought we were so worn by fatigue that we had fallen asleep and they had an order to steal upon us and surprise us; that they had crawled so close to us that when the firing began they could not get back and thought they had best come in – that they could never catch a Yankee napping. There was a large force back of them ready to charge and turn our right wing if they had succeeded in capturing us or driving us back. This was their last hope. Lieutenant Culver slept through it all. I did not lie down again but kept a good lookout for fear the enemy might come on to us again before the daylight came. (The Civil War Letters of Robert Cruikshank, Company H, 123rd N. Y. S. V.)

Assessment: I find it difficult to believe the Confederates were contemplating a major night attack on the evening of July 3 on Culp’s Hill, to retake ground they had already relinquished earlier in the day. Rather, orders withdrawing Ewell’s corps to the west and north of town had likely been issued. Prisoners, on occasion, intentionally deceived their opponents as to intentions and strength of their army, and my supposition is that their information in this instance was designed to mask the withdrawal of their forces. If so, it worked to perfection, for the Federals arising on Culp’s Hill early on July 4 were surprised to learn their opponent had vanished during the night.

Other source mentions:

-About 9:30 p.m., when about to be relieved by the Third Brigade, enemy opened a heavy fire, which was silenced in a few moments. (Official Report of Col. Charles Candy)

-About 9:30 p.m. the enemy advanced on our lines in force, but they were received with such a heavy fire from our lines that they soon retired. (Official Report of Colonel William Rickards, Jr., 29th Pennsylvania)

-About 9 p.m. … the enemy made their final assault. They were soon repulsed and the firing almost ceased for the night. (Address of Capt. John O. Foehring, September 11, 1889, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, 1:205)

-July 3 … at night repelled attack with heavy loss to enemy. (Monument to the 123rd New York)

-About midnight [July 3] the pickets discovered the enemy advancing and fired on them, and then came into the breastworks. The line then opened a terrific fire on the advancing rebels, driving them back with great slaughter. (Reminiscences of the 123d Regiment, N. Y. S. V., History of Its Three Years Service in the War, by Sergeant Henry C. Morhous, Greenwich, NY: People’s Journal Book and Job Printer, 1879)

Epilogue: Multiple Confederate sources time their departure from Culp’s Hill between 8 a.m. July 3 to 2 a.m. July 4; the consensus is no later than midnight. It may even have taken place during the ruckus raised by the advance of their skirmish line, which would have completely masked any noise generated by the retrograde movement of seven depleted brigades (Steuart, Walker, Williams, Dungan, Daniel, O’Neal and Smith). The Confederate loss in this encounter was likely minimal, consisting of a few men captured, and maybe a few wounded or killed, but certainly nothing resembling a “great slaughter.” Federal loss was also slight - it appears chiefly if not solely from “friendly fire.”

Great post. It makes sense from a military standpoint, and the timing seems right, as Federals moved into the area later in the morning of July 4th.
 
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