Even before the battle spread to North Cemetery Ridge on July 2 its importance was recognized by the high command of the Union army. On July 1, the adjoining Cemetery Hill had been occupied by a reserve force as key terrain on which the army could concentrate while the battle erupted and spread north and west of the town. When the Southern army outflanked and dislodged that July 1 battle line, Cemetery Hill and North Cemetery Ridge provided the military terrain that anchored the Union defensive line throughout the remainder of the battle. The Union First and Eleventh Corps fell back to these elevated positions, the First Corps occupying the North Cemetery Ridge portion of the new battle line.
By the morning of July 2, the Second Corps arrived and strengthened the line along the ridge. In addition, reserve brigades from both the First and Second Corps massed just in rear of North Cemetery Ridge, ready to move in any direction to defend either the ridge or Cemetery Hill. One six-gun battery from the Second Corps artillery brigade deployed in the shelter of the woods of Ziegler’s Grove at the northern end of North Cemetery Ridge. Here it—and its infantry support—would protect and cover the low gap between the ridge and Cemetery Hill from any enemy movement in that direction.
The threat of just such a movement occurred at the close of the fighting on the evening of July 2. Several brigades from Hill’s Confederate corps advanced from their positions in this direction in an attempt to take Cemetery Hill from the west side at the same time other Confederate brigades were attacking the hill from the opposite side. The strength of the entrenched and elevated positions on the Hill and at the northern extremity of North Cemetery Ridge deterred any attack, even in the dark. This contributed greatly to the disastrous loss among Southern infantry attacking East Cemetery Hill and allowed the Union reserves to the rear of North Cemetery Ridge to move over to the Hill to save the breaking battle line there.
On the morning of July 3, the Union battery in Ziegler’s Grove attracted the fire of Southern batteries to the west and northwest, firing in support of Confederate skirmishers in front of Rodes’ Division facing von Steinwehr’s Union troops along the base of west Cemetery Hill and in front of North Cemetery Ridge. The Union guns responded as the skirmishing grew in intensity only to finally die away as southern preparations changed for the Confederate attack on the Union center that afternoon.
This Confederate attack, popularly known as “Pickett’s Charge,” was repulsed all along the Union battle line, but at no point more soundly than in front of the northern extremity of North Cemetery Ridge. At no other point of attack by the Confederate column was it repulsed before even reaching the Emmitsburg Road. The infantry and artillery defense of this part of the ridge and of Cemetery Hill prevented any possibility of the enemy penetrating the gap in the military terrain either by the attacking column or by its planned supports. Although there was more dramatic hand-to-hand fighting farther south on Cemetery Ridge where the line was pierced by a small number of Confederates, the significance of the defense of North Cemetery Ridge, the gap, and Cemetery Hill on the afternoon of July 3 was more dramatic in its tactical and strategic consequences. The inability of the Southern army to secure the key terrain of Cemetery Hill after three days of battle curtailed the invasion of the North and led to the final retreat of that army into Virginia, where it would spend the remainder of the war defending the Confederate capital from capture.
This summary was put together by former park historian Kathy Georg Harrison. Thanks to John Heiser, historian and librarian, as well for his contributions.
Katie Lawhon, Management Assistant, January 10, 2013