Benner’s Hill is one of the little known, rarely visited locations on the Gettysburg Battlefield. However, on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, it was like a scene out of Dante’s Inferno, as Confederates began an artillery cannonade against the Union right.
To get an idea of its location, Benner’s Hill is 1 mile east of Lincoln Square, out the Hanover Road. The hill rises 454 feet and is approximately 1/4 mile east of Rock Creek. Broad and flat, the crest of the hill extends 500 yards north of the Hanover Road and 300 yards south of the road. At the time of the battle, the crest and slopes were mostly free of rocks and trees, though ripe wheat fields covered the crest and west-facing slope south of the road. Knee-high corn was planted north of the road. The south end of the hill is 1,000 yards northeast of Culp’s Hill and 1,500 yards east of East Cemetery Hill.
Gen. Richard S. Ewell, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Army Corps, wrote in his after action report, “Early in the morning [July 2, 1863] I received a communication from the commanding general, the tenor of which was that he intended the main attack to be made by the First Corps, on our right, and wished me, as soon as the guns opened, to make a diversion in their favor, to be converted into a real attack if an opportunity offered.” Maj. Joseph W. Latimer, commanding an artillery battalion in Ewell’s Corps, was ordered to make preparations to commence a heavy cannonade when Gen. James Longstreet’s guns opened on the Confederate right.
Latimer was born on August 27, 1843, at Oak Grove in Prince William County, Virginia. He attended the Virginia Military Institute, where he studied artillery doctrine under Thomas Jonathan Jackson (Stonewall Jackson). He received a commission as a first lieutenant in September 1861. Considered a military prodigy, he so impressed his superiors that he was promoted to the rank of Major in March 1863, at 19 years of age.
The morning of July 2 would find Latimer searching for a position for his guns. The only eligible hill within range of his intended target was Benner’s Hill. The hill offered some advantages as an artillery platform. Latimer’s battalion of four batteries, consisting of 16 guns, could deploy on the hill. All guns could fire on Cemetery Hill, but only the left battery in the line could take Culp’s Hill under fire. The position also made Latimer’s guns vulnerable to Federal artillery on Culp’s Hill, Steven’s Knoll and East Cemetery Hill. The Federals had more than 40 guns that could direct their fire at Benner’s Hill.
Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson, commanding a division in Ewell’s Corps, wrote in his after action report, “At 4 p.m., I ordered Major Latimer to open fire with all of his pieces, Jones’ brigade [Brig. Gen. John M. Jones] being properly disposed as a support. The hill was directly in front of the wooded mountain [Culp’s Hill] and a little to the left of the Cemetery Hill; consequently exposed to the concentrated fire of both, and also to an enfilade fire from a battery near the Baltimore road [Steven’s Knoll]. The unequal contest was maintained for two hours with considerable damage to the enemy. Major Latimer having reported to me that the exhausted condition of his horses and men, together with the terrible fire of the enemy’s artillery, rendered his position untenable, he was ordered to cease firing and withdraw all of his pieces excepting four, which were left in position to cover the advance of my infantry.”
Adjutant Robert Stiles, from the Richmond Howitzers, passed by Benner’s Hill near the end of the artillery duel.
He later reported having never seen 15 or 20 guns in such ruinous condition: “[The battalion] had been hurled backward, as it were by the very weight and impact of the metal from the position it had occupied on the crest of the little ridge into the saucer-shaped depression behind it; and such a scene as it presented—guns dismounted and disabled, carriages splintered and crushed, ammunition chests exploded, limbers upset, wounded horses plunging and kicking, dashing out the brains of men tangled in the harness; while cannoneers with pistols were crawling around through the wreck shooting the struggling horses to save the lives of the wounded men.”
A lull in the fighting occurred in this area as Johnson ordered his division into an attack against Culp’s Hill. Latimer readied his four remaining guns and ordered them to re-engage in support of the attack. Latimer rode behind his gunners, offering words of encouragement and support, when he was hit by an artillery shell fragment. His arm was shattered as he and his horse crashed to the ground. His horse died instantly, and the “Boy Major” lay pinned beneath him. Some of his men freed him from under his horse and he was taken to a field hospital, where his arm was amputated. The battalion had suffered heavy casualties during this action. Of the 356 men engaged, 22 were killed and 29 were wounded.
In addition to the killed and wounded soldiers, 30 horses were killed. Following the battle, Latimer developed gangrene. He was moved first to Winchester, Virginia, and then to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where his condition deteriorated. The “Boy Major” died on August 1, 1863 a few weeks shy of his 20th birthday. He was buried in Woodbine Cemetery in Harrisonburg.
By Tony DeLacy
Tony DeLacy serves as a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg. These guides are independent contractors licensed and supervised by the National Park Service as historical interpreters of the Battle of Gettysburg. To book a battlefield tour, call the Gettysburg Foundation at 877-874-2478 or 717-334-2436.