Some random thoughts on Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg

Following the successful and entertaining Fall In wargaming convention, I took a dozen or so gamers on a 90-minute walking tour of East Cemetery Hill. The dialogue was brisk and the questions excellent, as these were some very knowledgable ACW buffs. With nice weather (cool and sunny), it was a perfect day to chat about the action on this critical spot in the Union defenses of Gettysburg. East Cemetery Hill (or Raffensperger’s Hill) before the Civil War was a popular picnic spot, with its commanding view of the hills and valleys off to the east and southeast.

Some of you Charge! readers may not be aware that elements of the Army of Northern Virginia physically occupied East Cemetery Hill in the week before the Battle of Gettysburg. On June 26, 1863, John Gordon’s Georgia brigade of Jubal Early’s division, accompanied by the 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry (later to be known as “White’s Comanches”), took possession of Gettysburg after chasing off state militia and local home guard cavalry.

White’s cavalrymen are known to have been active on East Cemetery Hill, stealing a group of horses that townspeople had hidden on the eastern slope, briefly detaining some local boys who were guarding the horses, and sending patrols down the Baltimore Pike, where Rebels killed Pvt. George Washington Sandoe of the Adams County Cavalry when he refused to surrender. Hungry troopers stopped at the Evergreen Cemetery’s brick gatehouse, where Elizabeth Thorn and her children and her aged parents were compelled to feed the Southerners.

General Early was not far away on Baltimore Street in downtown, ransoming Gettysburg’s startled officials for food, money, shoes, and supplies. There is no written evidence that Early was ever physically on Cemetery Hill, although pickets of Gordon’s infantry brigade were in the vicinity before marching through town to a campsite east of Gettysburg. Gordon and Early surely got an appreciation of the commanding position of Cemetery Hill, which dominated the view from downtown.

Little did the two generals know that they would be back to Gettysburg in a few days, with a much different group of uniformed men ensconced on the rolling pastoral hilltop. Its orchards, cornfields, and pastures would then hold the Union XI Corps and its guns, as well as some from the Artillery Reserve and the I Corps. For now, the afternoon of June 26, 1863, all was quiet on East Cemetery Hill except the occasional roars of inebriated Virginia cavaliers and the thunder of hoofbeats of patrols returning from occasional forays down Baltimore Pike.

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