How Not to Conduct a Reconnaissance: Capt. Samuel R. Johnston, July 2, 1863 – Part 2

This is the second installment of a two part series which examines the mystery and controversy surrounding the early morning reconnaissance of the Union position at Gettysburg conducted by Captain Samuel Johnston on July 2nd, 1863. Read the first part of this series here.


Several questions have arisen over the years concerning Johnston’s reconnaissance, not the least of which are where exactly he went and what he saw or did not see. It is this writer’s belief that Johnston did not get to Little Round Top as he claimed but instead was on the slopes of Big Round Top. There were also plenty of Federal troops in the area between the Round Tops and the Emmitsburg road for Johnston to have seen.

The U. S. Signal Corps had made several attempts on July 1 to establish communications between the Round Tops and Emmitsburg, Maryland. Due to atmospherics, this was not accomplished until 11:00 p.m., July 1. This line was “maintained during the subsequent battle.” There was thus a signal station on Little Round Top at the time of Johnston’s reconnaissance.

Brig. Gen. John Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division bivouacked on the Federal left on the evening of July 1. His main line was at or near the Peach Orchard. The 6th New York Cavalry bivouacked in the Peach Orchard, and the 3rd Indiana Cavalry bivouacked in “the woods (possibly Rose’s woods) near Round Top.” Battery A, 2nd U. S. Artillery under Lt. John H. Calef was also stationed near the Peach Orchard. Buford received orders at about 10:30 a.m. July 2, to withdraw to Taneytown, Maryland, and began to leave the area about an hour later.

Most of the 3rd Corps (about 7,000) had bivouacked in the area of the George Weikert farm along the southern extension of Cemetery Ridge. Brig. Gen. J. H. Hobart Ward’s brigade was southwest of the farm while Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Carr’s and Col. William R. Brewster’s brigades were located north and west of the farmhouse. This area was, and is, clearly visible from both Round Tops.

Captain Johnston claimed to have reached the summit of Little Round Top during his morning exploration. A Union signal station occupied the hill at that time. How did Johnston not notice their presence?

The 4th Maine Infantry was on picket duty during the night of July 1 in the fields west of the Emmitsburg road and was supported by the 63rd Pennsylvania lying in the Emmitsburg road. The 2nd Corps (about 11,000) had halted for the night about three miles from Gettysburg along the Taneytown road, or about one mile south of the Round Tops. They were ready to march by daylight of July 2 and first took position near the intersection of Granite Schoolhouse lane and the Taneytown road, about three-quarters of a mile south of Little Round Top. The head of the column should have been in this area by about 5:30 a.m. with the rest of the column on or near the road to the south.

Brig. Gen. John W. Geary, with two brigades (about 3,000) from his 2nd Division of the 12th Corps, had been sent to the area of the Round Tops late on the afternoon of July 1. Two regiments (5th Ohio and 147th Pennsylvania) were located on the north slope of Little Round Top. The 5th Ohio deployed “as skirmishers in our front across an open valley to a light strip of woods, and in front of that timber facing an open field” to help guard against a possible flank move by the Confederates. Geary was relieved by the 3rd Corps sometime between 5 am and 7 am of July 2.

Did fog in the valley below Little Round Top obscure Captain Johnston’s view of the true position of the Army of the Potomac?

While there was probably little or no dust because of the damp conditions of the previous days, fog was reported by at least one officer of the 3rd Corps. There was, however, no reason for the Federal troops to have remained quiet. A staff officer in the 3rd Corps wrote that at daylight the “clear notes of a single bugle broke upon the ear, and before its echoes had lost itself among the hills a dozen had taken up the call, and the drums added their sullen roll.” It is usually assumed that Johnston somehow missed seeing all these troops. But did he? Johnston never wrote that he had not seen any Federal troops. He wrote that when he arrived on Warfield Ridge with McLaws, there was a “force ready to oppose us.” Johnston may have seen Federal troops in the Peach Orchard area but not in any force, in his opinion, to stop a strong Confederate advance.


Did Captain Johnston actually reach the summit of Big Round Top, seen in the far distance in this Timothy O’Sullivan view?

From Johnston’s description, it seems that he started his reconnaissance from Lee’s Headquarters position along the Chambersburg Pike. Johnston may have accompanied Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton, Chief of Artillery, who was making his own reconnaissance. They may have ridden together along Seminary Ridge until just past Spangler’s Woods. Johnston, trying to stay out of sight of Federal patrols, may have ridden on the reverse slope of Seminary Ridge and not been in position to directly observe the Peach Orchard area. He probably crossed the Emmitsburg Road further south than he thought, perhaps somewhere in the area of the Michael Bushman and John Slyder farms. He then went up the west slope of Big Round Top. An officer in the 118th Pennsylvania, who was on Big Round Top on July 3, reported, that like Johnston, he had “a commanding view” of the area. Johnston could then have travelled through part of the John Slyder farm and skirted Bushman Hill before re-crossing the Emmitsburg road in the area of Biesecker Woods. The Slyder Farm was the scene of Brig. Gen. Elon Farnsworth’s ill-fated charge on the afternoon of July 3. By this time Lee was no longer at the headquarters along the Chambersburg Pike but had moved to the area of Herr’s Ridge.

Lee was receiving reports from other sources besides Johnston’s. As stated, Gen. Pendleton reported that he “surveyed the enemy’s position toward some estimate of the ground and the best mode of attack.” Confederate officers, from the Point of Woods at Spangler’s Woods, could have seen the Federal 3rd Corps skirmish line on the west side of the Emmitsburg road and the Peach Orchard area before the road crossed the high ground at the Peach Orchard. They also saw the Federal signal station on Little Round Top. They could have seen the 2nd Corps moving into position along Cemetery Ridge and 3rd Corps troops moving up the Emmitsburg road. Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw, commanding a brigade in Longstreet’s corps and stationed along Herr’s Ridge, wrote that he had a commanding view of the Alexander Currens farm along the Emmitsburg Road. Kershaw also observed a “large body of troops, with flankers out in our direction, passed over that point and joined the Federal army.” The Currens farm is approximately ½ mile south of the intersection of South Confederate Avenue and the Emmitsburg road. The report with the most impact, however, was that of Capt. Johnston.

Historian Douglas Southall Freeman felt that the Confederate reconnaissance was “inadequate” and that Johnston’s reconnaissance “was accurate, so far as he went.” Either Johnston got as far as Little Round Top or he did not. If he had been on Little Round Top it is hard to believe that he could have missed the Signal Corps station, part of Geary’s division, the 3rd Corps troops north of Little Round Top, troops along the Emmitsburg road, or heard the movement of the 2nd Corps along the Taneytown road. He appears to have failed to give Lee any detailed information about the terrain or the roads in the area of the attack. While Johnston stated that it was part of his duty to find a route over which troops could be moved unseen by the enemy, when he conducted Longstreet’s march he seems to have failed to have noticed that when the column crossed Bream’s hill they would be spotted by the signal station on Little Round Top. He then knew of no alternate route on which the troops could move. Johnston’s report was not accurate enough and should not have been the basis for a major attack.

Despite a less than stellar performance at Gettysburg, this does not seem to have affected Johnston’s post-Gettysburg career. An artillery officer remembered seeing Johnston on July 5 “looking for favorable ground in our rear to lay out a line of battle.” After the pontoon bridge had broken at Falling Waters during the retreat, Longstreet praised the work of Johnston and other who had “applied themselves diligently to the work of repairing the bridge.” Johnston was promoted to major on March 17, 1864 and to lieutenant colonel on September 15, 1864.

Karlton Smith, Park Ranger


Krick, Robert E. L. Staff Officers in Gray: A Biographical Register of the Staff Officers in
the Army of Northern Virginia. (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2003), 174.

Service Record for Samuel R. Johnston (Copy in GNMP Files V5-Johnston, Samuel R.

Mahan, Dennis Hart. An Elementary Treatise on Advanced-Guard, Out-Post…
(New York: John Wiley, 1861), 105

Halleck, Henry W. The Elements of Military Art and Science.
(New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1862), 342.

S. R. Johnston to Fitz Lee, February 11, 1878. S. R. Johnston MSS,
Douglas S. Freeman Collection, Library of Congress

S. R. Johnston to Lafayette McLaws, June 27, 1892

S. R. Johnston to Rt. Rev. George Peterkin, December…18__

Donaldson, Francis Adams. Inside the Army of the Potomac:
The Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson,
Gregory Aiken, ed. (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998), 307.

Ladd, David L. & Audrey J. Ladd, eds. The Bachelder Papers:
Gettysburg in Their Own Words. 3 vols. (Dayton, OH: Morningside, 1994), Vol. 1, 453.

Buell, Clarence C. & Robert Underwood Johnson, eds.
Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. 4 vols. (1888), 3: 331.


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2 Responses to How Not to Conduct a Reconnaissance: Capt. Samuel R. Johnston, July 2, 1863 – Part 2

  1. Anarchus says:

    As I understand the nomenclature, the Southern army referred to “Little Round Top” as the rocky hill, and may have called the other, higher, wooded hill “Round Top”.

    Doesn’t that suggest that in his note, Captain Samuel Johnston is talking about being on the base of Big Round Top, so there’s no confusion.

  2. Jim in Michigan says:

    What is unclear to me –

    (1) “any contingency” would seem to include a) finding the Union flank; b) finding a route to there of some sort; c) the possibility of being asked to lead troops there; d) some appreciation of what Union troops are near and where they are;

    (2) Any reference to the round top would seem (to me) to reflect the entire “round top” region – I would think that the various hills (little, big, bushmans) would appear almost as one from the Fairfield Road / Seminary Ridge area.

    (3) Was there any “topographic” map available to General Lee on the morning of the second day? The maps I see (Adams County) seem to show little reference information except labeled roads, family names and “the peach orchard”;

    Thanks for the article – always hoping there is a “clear answer” where I suspect there never will be.

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