On the northern end of Meade's fish-hook position, Cemetery Hill was a vital part of the Union defense, arguably the most important section of the Union line. The Confederates had blundered and not attempted to take the hill on July1st. Now both the Union defenders and the Confederate corps commander opposite the hill believed that the position was too strong to be taken. Although it did superficially appear strong, there were a number of flaws in the Union position, and terrain would play a vital role in the battle. Further, the defenders were of the weakened and demoralized XI Corps, a unit which had been routed the day before in the fields north of Gettysburg and routed at Chancellorsville two month earlier.
In accord with Lee's plan, when he heard the battle open in the south at 4 PM, Gen. Ewell, commander of the Confederate Second Corps, ordered his artillery on Benner's Hill to pound Union positions on Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill. (See the Culp's Hill section for views from Benner's Hill.) The Confederate artillery was soundly defeated by the Union batteries. At 6:30 P.M., Johnson's division attacked Culp's Hill, but most of the hill remained in Union hands. Ewell had also ordered Early and Rodes' divisions to attack Cemetery Hill. Rodes was to attack the western side of Cemetery Hill, but due to the difficulty of attacking through town, he was ready only when the fighting was over. Attacking the northeastern side of the hill, rough terrain slowed and disorganized Early's division, and Gordon's brigade never got into the fight. So by 7:30, just 2,100 men of Hays and Avery's brigades were in position to attack. Around 1,150 Federal infantrymen were awaiting them along a lane at the foot of Cemetery Hill.
57th NC Attacks
The two Confederate brigades, Hays on the right and Avery on the left, advanced from under the cover of a ravine and tried to swing like a door into the Union position. In practice, Hays had less distance to march and got ahead of Avery, and since the North Carolinians saw their objective to their right, Avery's regiments tended to wheel right and move in behind them. So the Yankees saw several lines approaching in the dim evening light.
Here, from the vicinity of the 57th NC on left of the Confederate line, which had the furtherest distance to march, you can see some of the terrain, specifically a prominent hill in the left-center of the picture, that shielded parts of the Confederate attack from frontal Union fire at least for a while. Despite this, Union troops and artillery on Steven's Knoll on the left of the picture enfiladed the attackers, who got to within 50 yards of the Union line. The 57th tried to wheel right away from the fire and toward their comrades, and although some members of the regiment did penetrate the line near Menchey Springs, the attack here was repulsed.
The area to the right of famous brick cemetery gatehouse is the Union gun position on Cemetery Hill. The higher ground on the right half of the picture is a spur off of Cemetery Hill. Let's walk over there and see what it looks like!
Spur of Cemetery Hill
This picture was taken from the spur off of Cemetery Hill. It roughly divided Avery's NC brigade on the left and Hays' Louisiana Tigers brigade on the right. This spur was in front of the 153rd Pa, and it shielded the rebels from their fire. (We'll see their viewpoint later.) Union artillery on Stevens Knoll on left raked the attacking Confederates, and Union artillery on Cemetery Hill was directed at them, but the Confederates nevertheless broke through much of the Union line at the foot of the hill then advanced on the guns atop the hill.
From Stevens Knoll
Let's start looking along the Union Line. Union infantry extended along the road at the foot of Cemetery Hill protecting a number of guns atop the hill which had successfully dueled their Confederate counterparts on Benners Hill that afternoon. Here at Stevens Knoll, Union artillery and infantry of the 33rd Massachusetts raked the attacking Confederates. Although the part of 57th NC immediately below the knoll was unable to penetrate Union lines, their comrades to their right were successful along much of the stretch of road despite artillery fire from front and flank. Once again, the prominent spur off of Cemetery Hill in the center of the picture protected the Confederate attackers from rifle fire until it was too late.
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