The Hole


There are not always stone walls on the edge of the strip of grass. The New Jersey Brigade took advantage of what walls there were. This was taken near the NJ Brigade memorial, looking somewhat to the right. Here, Cemetery Ridge is tree covered. In order to fortify the tree line, one has to be well down the ridge. Sickles was holding lower ground than a hypothetical opposition force on the opposite tree line, but not significantly lower. The two positions are roughly equal. Whichever side tried to cross the strip of grass would have had difficulties.

On the last page, I gave the recipe for "lovely ground:' a stone wall and tree line high on a rise, with a clear field of fire over lower ground. Gettysburg has lots of lovely ground, but not so much of it strung together that seven Corps of infantry could all have lovely ground. Sickles found himself assigned to defend what I will call "holy ground." An exaggerated illustration is above.

There are two problems with defending Cemetery Ridge close to Little Round Top. First, the stone wall and the tree line are at the bottom of the hill, not well up. If you defend the high ground, you have to fight a woods fight, with no field of fire and poor artillery placement. Neither the III Corps nor the VI Corps chose this option. If you defend the stone wall at the tree line, you are on low ground. In addition, there is additional high ground in front of the hole, with more trees. Thus, if you defend the stone wall at the tree line, you are not only on low ground, you also have a short field of fire. The enemy can get very close before they can be fired on. The VI Corps on July 2nd chose this option. Sickles, by moving forward, claimed high ground with a clear line of fire. Behind Devil's Den he had a stone wall as well. In a few places around the Wheatfield he had a useful tree line. However, the major advantages of Sickles' forward line are high ground and field of fire. This is a justifiable decision when looking at the terrain in profile, but don't forget the "Interior Lines" perspective. What looks good in profile looks different from above.

There is one other note about "holy ground." During the Napoleonics Wars, the Duke of Wellington habitually positioned his troops on the reverse slopes of hills. The enemy could not see him or hit him with artillery. When the enemy approached the front of the hill or ridge, Wellington would pop his infantry over the top of the ridge, gaining surprise and putting his troops on the high ground without their having to have endured artillery fire. To some extent, Lee and Longstreet used similar tricks at Gettysburg. The July 2nd flanking movements were hidden by a ridge and trees. Pickett's Charge was assembled on low ground, with the troops protected from artillery by a small ridge in their front. For the most part, the Union deployed full time on the front slope of their high ground.

The Hole position is behind a reverse slope. If Sickles had stayed at the VI Corps position, Longstreet's July 2 attack would not have hit him. The July 2 assault was originally structured to hit Cemetery Hill, focused down the line of the Emittsburg Road.

On July 3rd, the VI Corps 1st Division defended the Hole. Pickett's charge was again focused on Cemetery Hill, on the "lovely ground" at The Angle. Why is it that if The Angle is such "lovely ground" to defend, and the Hole is such poor ground to defend, Lee and Longstreet twice targeted The Angle, and never targeted the Hole?

Lee wanted to use his artillery to weaken his chosen point of attack. As the Hole is behind a reverse slope, it was a poor target for Civil War era direct fire artillery. On July 3rd, given complete scouting information and the choice between attacking "lovely ground" or "holy ground," Lee preferred to attack the "lovely ground." While Sickles had valid seeming reasons for not wanting to defend the Hole, Lee and Longstreet had equally valid reasons for not wanting to attack the Hole. There were both advantages and disadvantages to having an obscured field of fire in an era when artillery could only fire at targets they could see. While the II Corps at The Angle had wonderful fields of fire to hit Pickett's charge as it came in, that same field of fire made them obvious targets.

Next: The Hole Left