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Battle at Pipe Creek

This is essentially a continuation of Scenario 27c

The attack at Pipe Creek

On the evening of 3 July, Lee’s commander’s conference was a war council. Hill and Ewell would attack abreast aligned on the Taneytown Road. Stuart would lead a diversionary attack at the Union Mills bridge. Longstreet would probe for any weakness on the left flank now known to be held by Sickles. The attack would be in echelon, with Stuart moving first in the east to pin down the Union troops there and possibly even draw some reinforcements that way. Hill then Ewell would mount the primary attack. By noon, Longstreet would hit the flank of Sickles’ lines.

The Fourth of July 1863, would see one of the largest displays of cannon fire ever assembled in North America. Lee had ordered a preliminary artillery bombardment to precede the main attack in the center of the line. It was the sound of this that would signal Stuart’s Cavalry advance.

It what would be an attack that resembled the actual Day 3 of Gettysburg attack by Pickett, Hill and Ewell would appear from the wood line of the hills they occupied and advance across roughly a mile of open low ground before they crossed the creek and began to climb the steep ridges on its south side. Neither side was able to concentrate artillery fire to anywhere near the extent that was seen at Gettysburg, but none the less the effect was horrendous. Lee still had the undetected problem of the faulty artillery fuses, but his preliminary barrage was slightly more effective than the actual Gettysburg Day 3 barrage. This was likely due to a less accurate estimation of the distant to the Union line targets, so the fuses were set somewhat more randomly and many more found their mark. For their part, the Union artillerymen had had ample time to sight and range their distances to drop shells precisely on the hordes of Rebels arrayed in front of them. It was only due to the less concentrated density of the cannons that Hill and Ewell did not suffer the same fate as Pickett’s actual charge.

Despite the casualties caused by the Union artillery, Ewell’s and Hill’s 20,000 men arrived at Pipe’s Creek in reasonably good shape and in good attack formation. This was partly due to the smoothness of the terrain between the two ridge lines. But things began to deteriorate once they approached the creek bed. Union skirmishers had hidden themselves behind every available rock, tree and fence post and in the creek bed itself. These skirmishers were trained to target the officers leading their troops. Midway up the slopes lines of green-suited Union Sharpshooters were also targeting the Rebel leaders. Though sparse, their fire was deadly accurate. Dug into the slopes, there were even a few of the smaller cannons that the Union was willing to abandon assuming that they could not be reversed and elevated enough to bring fire on the Union line at the top of the ridge. These combined forces placed devastatingly effective fire into the advancing Rebel lines just as they came to the edge of the creek bed which naturally disrupted their lines.

This first line of defense disrupted the timing of the various regiments aligned over about a mile-long line. They became even more disrupted as they began to climb the reasonably steep slopes that rose above the creek. From their earthen and tree-lined breastworks, the Union regiments were able to bring to bear devastating volleys of rifle fire. The attack faltered as the Rebel soldiers stopped to fire back but as things always tend happen in this situation, their aim was usually too high as they fired up the slopes from precarious positions and few bullets found their mark on the Union defenders. Both of the opposing artilleries had kept up their exchange of shells until the Rebels had reached the creek bed. Their supporting artillery was afraid that their shells might fall amongst their comrades and the Union guns couldn’t be depressed enough to fire down the slopes. They could, however, pivot their cannons and fire along the slopes at troops attacking other regiments up and down the Union line. These shells, although less accurately aimed, added to the overall disruption of the Rebel attack.

Some Rebels units managed to ascend the slopes and gain a toehold at the Union trench lines. Hand-to-hand fighting erupted at various points of penetration. But as it also happens too often in such attacks, those units who advanced the farthest found themselves without support on their immediate flanks. Union troops in nearby trenches were able to bring fire to support their adjacent units. Because the trench lines were not always continuous and the Union regiments were not shoulder-to-shoulder as they were at the actual battle at Gettysburg, there were instances where Rebel units found themselves between Union units with more or less an unopposed opening to their front. Unfortunately for these soldiers, BG Henry Hunt the Union Chief of Artillery had anticipated this eventuality and had placed his artillery batteries to cover these gaps. So as they eased off on their long-range attacks, they reloaded with canister and awaited the appearance of Rebel troops in those gaps in the trench lines.  

Stuart’s diversionary attack at Union Mills was initially somewhat more effective. The ability of the cavalry to rapidly close the distance between the two ridge lines prevented the Union artillerymen from effectively targeting them. But that all changed as they reached the mill and the creek bed. First, the buildings channels the horses into lanes that BG Hunt had had his gunners sight in. The bridge had been destroyed as well to disrupt the Rebel attempt to cross the creek.

Secondly, the mill had been placed in this exactly spot because the creek had cut a deep channel allowing for the placement of a top-fed water wheel to drive the mill. Only a small portion of the thousands of horsemen were in among the mill buildings but almost all were faced by the deep creek channel. The horses initially baulked when they approached the blind drop. The charge came to a standstill. Some of the better riders were able to get a running start and have their horses leap the gap, but not all were capable of this. Those who did cross faced a dilemma. Almost immediately on the south side of the creek, the slope rose precipitously. Because of the terrain, the Union soldiers above were unable to sight them in so they were relatively safe, but the slope was much too steep for the horse to negotiate. The cavalrymen were now infantry.

Those who had yet to cross the creek were not so lucky. They were within full sight and range of the infantry above who rained down devastating volleys of fire. Cannons on the adjacent peaks were also pivoted and began firing every type of shell in their inventory. They were at the extreme range for canister, but those shells were still able to panic the horses as the hundreds of iron balls fell upon them. Solid shot maimed and killed horses and riders alike. Fused shells exploded overhead adding to the carnage. Soon the cavalrymen had little choice but to retreat or dismount and try to cross the creek on foot. For some, their horse gave them little choice as they panicked and ran from the iron rain. Those who dismounted struggled to climb down then out of the 2-3 yard deep creek bed. All in, the cavalry charge dissipated at the creek and mill site.

The battle for the ridge line was fully engaged when Longstreet reached the outskirts of Middleburg and began to deploy from marching to attack formation. Just as he ultimately did on Day 2 at Gettysburg, he had Hood’s division move around behind McLaws’. McLaws would attack from the west with Hood coming up from the south. His two divisions outnumbered Sickles’ two by about 30-40%.

The defensive line that Sickles was occupying was nowhere near as formidable as the slopes at the other two road crossings to the east. Sickles extreme left flank was on the road leading into Middleburg which was behind his lines. The terrain to the north of the town rose up to some small hills where Sickles had positioned much of his assigned artillery. Because of the flat terrain immediately west and south of the town, Sickles had brought up many of his supply wagons to act as breastworks to protect his formations. These made it harder for his regiments to concentrate their fire in volleys, but did act as an effective layer of protection for his men. Immediately to Sickles’ right, both the First and Eleventh Corps were heavily engaged with Lee’s main attack. Fortunately, Hancock’s Second corps had moved closer to their rear in anticipation of thwarting any breakthrough. As Sickles’ men came under heavy crossfire Hancock was able to send one brigade to Middleburg to support him. As the afternoon shifted to evening, Longstreet’s attack had dwindled to a stalemate with both divisions on either side hunkering down behind any and all available cover and firing as individuals rather than units.

To be continued in Scenario 27e

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