A Short History of Cemetery Hill in the Battle of Gettysburg
by Stuart R. Dempsey, Licensed Battlefield Guide
Historians of the Battle of Gettysburg have long recognized the key nature of the high ground known as Cemetery Hill. Of the numerous hills and ridges that constitute the battlefield, none was more vital to the fighting or its outcome. The soldiers knew this as well, one Northern officer remarking, “It is the only position.” The ability of the Union Army to prevail at Gettysburg depended upon holding Cemetery Hill. The Confederacy’s efforts to take it from them made it the center of the three-day storm that engulfed the little Pennsylvania community in July 1863.
Battered Union troops rallied on Cemetery Hill after their defeat west and north of town on July 1: the failure of Robert E. Lee’s army to follow up their success and seize it from them remains one of the most controversial aspects of the battle story, over a century and a half later. What the Confederates did occupy was the town, and their front line ran less than two hundred yards from where our inn stands. The Rebel troops converted the homes in the vicinity into strongpoints for their sharpshooters. Throughout July 2 and 3, they engaged in a deadly duel with their Yankee counterparts, whose own front line stood on our doorstep. During every daylight hour, the crack of rifle fire pierced the air, inflicting a slow, steady attrition on the participants. Among the many victims of the sharpshooting was 20-year-old Mary Virginia Wade – also known as “Jennie” – who, along with other members of her family, was sheltering in a brick house on Baltimore Street when a bullet entered the door and took her life, making her the only civilian fatality of the battle. The house where young Jennie met her fate still stands, a two- minute walk from our lobby.
On the evening of July 2, the Confederates launched a full-scale assault on Cemetery Hill. Louisiana and North Carolina men surged forward in the gloaming in a desperate bid to wrest the vital high ground from Union forces. Soldiers from Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, and New England met them in a chaotic and at times hand-to-hand struggle. The Confederates briefly broke the Union line in places, but their attack was soon repulsed, ending the direct threat to Cemetery Hill. Much of this bloody fighting occurred across the street from our inn.
Throughout the battle, the hill was a crucial position for Northern artillery, with over fifty cannons occupying the heights at times. The thunder of their fire shook the ground and echoed through the streets as the iron missiles searched out their distant targets. Original cannons now mark the positions where the Union guns once stood.
The Inn at Cemetery Hill is located just yards from where these momentous events occurred. Here brave men fought and died, and the fate of the United States was decided, ensuring that our nation would not perish from the earth.
After the battle, a national cemetery – the first of its kind – was established on the hill. Over 3,500 dead were interred between the autumn of 1863 and the spring of 1864. A dedication event was held there on November 19, 1863; this was the occasion of President Lincoln’s visit during which he delivered his immortal Gettysburg Address. Today, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery also holds the remains of several thousand more American heroes, veterans of our 20th-century conflicts.