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25j. Trimble takes Culp’s Hill

In my latest series of late-nite musings I have been exploring scenarios whereby MG Early’s division could have occupied Culp’s Hill.

ACTUALITY: We know that Early reported to Lee that he had received the order – conveyed from Lee via LTG Ewell – too late in the evening to initiate any large troop movement on 1 July. Early had reversed his march to York and arrived back at Gettysburg at about 4PM. He had engaged in a brief but intense clash with the right flank of the Union line. Fortunately for him and the CSA, those elements of the Eleventh Union Corps had also just arrived and had not yet had time to truly establish a defensive position. Early’s attack routed them and resulted in the general unraveling of the entire Union line. Early then moved his troops south and established a bivouac on the east side of the city. He felt that after their long march, his men needed a rest and a meal. It was early evening when he received Lee’s order to try to occupy Culp’s Hill. He sent scouts but undertook no large-scale movement of troops.

ALT HX scenario:  The most successful scenario I can concoct is that MG Early’s division arrives at Gettysburg slightly earlier in the afternoon that he actually did. He would have found his path unobstructed by Union forces. LTG Howard’s Eleventh Corps made their way through the city to their assigned positions on the north side. Early would most likely never have encountered them and the two units would have passed each other going in opposite directions.

It is debatable as to whether or not the cautious Early would have seized the initiative to move on Culp’s Hill on his own. Enter MG Trimble. He had only recently returned to active duty after recovering from wounds. He had been traveling with Early’s division but without responsibilities nor command of troops. He is reported to have had a rather heated exchange with Early urging him to move troops to that ridge. He was so outraged by Early’s inaction that he reported the exchange to Lee and refused to return to be under Early’s direction. Lee appointed him to take command of troops from the wounded MG Heth’s Division.

WHATIF Trimble had been successful in securing the command of a small force to move onto Culp’s Hill at dusk on July 1? It would only have taken a few cannons poised on the top of the ridge to disrupt the Union activity in and around the cemetery strongpoint.

We know that the first Union troops to arrive at Culp’s Hill were elements of the Iron Brigade. They were among the last to depart from the south end (left flank) of the Union battle line that day. When they marched into the cemetery area, GEN Hancock immediately sent them over to Culp’s Hill. But it would have taken them some time to get there.

With Trimble approaching from the north and the Iron Brigade moving in from the west, it is entirely possible that the two formations also may have passed without encountering one another. Trimble would probably have occupied the summit without knowing that there were Union forces to his rear. The best Trimble could have done was to hold the summit and direct artillery onto the cemetery. Any truly successful occupation of the entirety of that hill would likely have depended on the timely arrival of Johnson’s division.

Here too, the timing of the arrival of the various opposing forces is vital. It was the Twelfth Union Corps that finally occupied the hill late in the evening. Could Trimble have held them off until Johnson arrived? It truly does harken back to my Section 2 essay on how time and again throughout this battle, TIMING played such a vital role in determining the outcome.

Part 2: Surprise Attack

The infantry had a hard enough time ascending the north slope of the hill; artillery was proving even more difficult. In the deepening darkness the heavily wooded slope was extremely difficult for the horses to traverse. This was solved by adding a second brace of horses to each cannon. While reduced their maneuverability, they could negotiate the grade more successfully. The ammunition carriers were left behind to be retrieved later.

Trimble could not wait to announce his presence on the summit. He positioned the first 3-gun battery and had them aim at the growing number of campfires that now marked the cemetery. As those first shells were lobed from their right rear, panic ensured among the Union troops who had assumed that they were out of range of any CSA artillery!

Hancock and his officers had to act fast to control this chaos. He had some men move west into Ziegler’s Grove for the protection the trees offered. Most had no choice but to stand their ground. Putting out the fires helped somewhat but the CSA artillerymen already had the range. Next Hancock moved the Union HQ from Leister’s farm to near Big Round Top for his own protection.

BG Hunt found that he had a new problem. Culp’s Hill is the dominant peak in that series of hills that the Union officers so admired. It stands about 30 feet higher than the cemetery, but they are barely 1000 yards apart. Artillery of that era had a very limited ability to elevate the gun tube. Being in such close proximity, he could not aim return fire as high as the summit of Culp’s Hill. There was little he could do to even suppress their fire.

Hancock looked to try to remedy this most disturbing development, but there was little he could do at this late hour. He send orders to XIIth Corps to halt its advance up the BALTO PIKE in the area of Rock Creek. The XIIth was another two-division Corps. MG Williams was instructed to take his 5200-man division around to the NE and link up with the elements of the Iron Brigade on the east slope.

MG Geary was to advance a portion of his division up the Pike with caution and keep the rest in reserve to the south. In the morning they were to assault to drive the Confederates off that hill!

As he ran low on ammunition, Trimble ordered his 800 men of BG “Extra Billy” Smith’s Brigade to deploy skirmishers down the slope to warn of any probing Union movements and had them rest settle in for the night.

Part 3: Reinforcements

Having been apprised that Trimble had, in fact, seized the hill top, Early and Ewell sat up late into the night planning for the morning. When Lee arrived at their HQ late that night, they laid out a plan of attack designed to completely seize that valuable piece of real estate thereby thwarting Meade’s plan for an interlocking series of hills to defend. They would be solidly in his rear. At about the same time Lee was hearing this plan, Meade was getting much worse news as Hancock defined for him what had transpired that evening.  

Early in the morning of 2 July, Ewell and Slocum were planning independently, unaware of the other’s strength and presence. Early’s plan was rather simple. Gordon’s 1800-man brigade would attack on the eastern side of the hill. Hays’ 1200-man unit would proceed along the BALTO PIKE on the western side. Avery’s brigade would move between them to ascend the hill and reinforce Smith-Trimble. Simultaneously, the Union forces on either side were aligning themselves from north to south to begin their assault up the slopes. This alignment was disrupted as artillery shells began to fall amongst them. This time not from the summit but from the north. Those shells were aided in their effectiveness by the fact that they were coming in enfilade down the Union lines. After a short barrage, Early launched his two brigades on their respective attacks. On the east side, Gordon’s men moved swiftly and two Regiments of Georgians went south and east almost completely enveloping William’s formation which was facing in the wrong direction up the slope. They were taking fire from their flank and their rear. Gordon quickly ordered in all the artillery he could muster to fire from the east into the Union lines.

On the west slope, the attack did not develop as quickly. Hays was hampered by the narrowness of the saddle where the Pike traversed between East Cemetery and Culp’s Hill. He had much less maneuver room so the attack developed much slower. BG Geary’s men had time to rotate to face to the north to meet that attack. Any artillery support was also hampered by the narrowness of the opening between those hills. Things soon evolved into a classic era infantry stand-off gun battle rather than one of maneuver. Geary’s men had much more space in which to form a line facing north as Hays men funneled through the bottleneck of the Pike. Geary’s reserves soon arrived and began to push back at Hays.

But then word came from Williams in the east that he was in danger of being enveloped. He had not been able to maneuver all three of his Brigades onto the base of the hill before Early attacked, but even his reserves, Lockwood’s 1800-man brigade, was having trouble maneuvering into place to help repel Gordon. Could Geary spare any troops to come to Williams’ aid? Geary ordered two of his artillery batteries to shift east to try to support Williams, but he was loathe to commit any of his infantry.

Meanwhile, MG Johnson’s 6400-man division were preparing to join the fray. They had arrived in the wee hours of the morning after nearly a twelve hours march from Carlisle. After a rest and a full breakfast, his four brigades were assembling just to the north of where Early had bivouacked. He was awaiting orders from Ewell as to how best to support the attack. Johnson was too far to the north to support Early with artillery, but Ewell ordered Rodes to bombard the cemetery from the west in hopes of preventing those forces from aiding Slocum.

Farther to the west, at his HQ near the Seminary, Lee and Longstreet were in a heated debate as to the best course of action. Early’s success would disrupt their disagreement over the plan for the day.

Following on the reports of Gordon’s successes, Ewell committed one brigade of Johnson’s division to try to maneuver east and south moving behind Gordon and try to come back from the SE. This would have the added advantage of cutting off the approach of Union reserves. But such a march would take time. Along with Steuart’s infantry he sent his two Maryland artillery batteries for support. Ewell hoped to be able to crush Williams’ division.

In the midst of all the fighting on his flanks, Avery was quickly able to push his 1200 men to the summit to join Smith-Trimble. But because of the height and steepness of the hill, those 2000 troops could do little to influence the battle. Even their cannons had the opposite problem from the Union, they could not be depressed enough to fire directly onto the Pike. They were, however, able to shift troops down the slope to begin to form a stronger defensive line should the Union troops try to assault up the slope. But Geary’s troops were fully occupied on the ground level to even think about the slope.  

On the east side, Williams ordered his men to start to fall back and ascend the slope but this was a defensive maneuver not an attack aimed at the summit. On the wooded slope, they gained elevation and cover as well as some protection from the artillery. They were better off but still in danger.

Meade and Hancock could only stand-by idlely and read the battle reports as they arrived. They had Sickles’ IIIrd Corps and even Hancock’s own IInd Corps aligned facing west. But there was little they could do to get additional help to Williams. Finally, Meade decided to shift Birney’s Division from Sickles Corps to the east in the event that an opportunity presented itself for them to be utilized. Both Vth and VIth Corps were steadily closing on Gettysburg. To the south, near the town of Barlow, Meade ordered Sykes to turn right and shift his line of approach from the Taneytown Road over to the BALTO PIKE. He was thinking long-term and positioning Sykes to perhaps move even farther to the east and attack into what was now the rear area of that part of the Army of Northern Virginia squeezing Williams. Of course, he had no idea that Johnson was maneuvering into much that same area.

Part 4: Withdrawal

By mid-afternoon, the situation was deteriorating rapidly on the slopes of Culp’s Hill. On the east face, Williams’ division was in a shrinking pocket hunkering down on the woods. Trimble-Smith learned of their predicament and sent sharp shooters and skirmishers to harass them from behind. Williams needed to ‘circle the wagons’ and defend in all directions. It would have been foolish for Trimble to launch an all-out assault down the slope when sniping would get the job done.

On the west face, Hays was trying a similar tactic. As he was being pressed back by Geary, he ordered his men to move up the slope. That way they gained elevation as well as cover. The first regiments formed a skirmish line on the lower third of the slope while the rest climbed higher until they joined up with Trimble’s skirmishers.

At this point, the battle became more of a stalemate. None of the clashing forces was making any more gains.

Meade considered re-directing some of his cavalry from their right flank screening position, but they would have been hard to support. It was clear that Trimble-Smith had firm control of the summit and could bombard his entire force almost at will. With Johnson guarding him from the north, there seemed no hope of dislodging him.

In the late afternoon, Meade sent a messenger to Lee to sue for a cease fire with the promise that he’d withdrawal towards Westminster. Although it was hard for Lee to convince Longstreet not to move south and shut the door to prevent any escape, Lee agreed to Meade’s request and gave him 36 hours to retreat.

Both Armies would survive intact for the moment, but would clash again a bit closer to WASHDC.

As usual with ALT Hx scenarios, it is difficult to continue to speculate on how such a scenario would play out to a conclusion. At this point in this scenario there are so many moving parts that a myriad of possibilities emerge.

I shall stop the speculation here. Knowing that The Army of Northern Virginia had foiled the Union plan to defend series of contiguous hills and hold off anything Lee could throw at them.

By actually managing to insert a small force of about 800 men onto Culp’s Hill, ANV may have forced Meade to abandon Gettysburg altogether and return to Pipe Creek for a redux!

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