Late in the afternoon of July 2, 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee planned to renew his assault on the Union Army of the Potomac stationed on the high ground outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He tapped his First Corps, under the command of Lieutenant General James Longstreet, to move against the federal left flank in an attempt to turn the Union line, that stretched like a fish hook toward the recently captured town of Gettysburg. General Lee also ordered Lt. General Richard Ewell to move his Second Corps toward Cemetery and Culp’s Hills to create a diversion away from General Longstreet’s regiments. In obedience to General Lee’s orders, General Ewell ordered his three divisions to move against the two hills. Major General Jubal Early’s division was assigned the task to take Cemetery Hill.
To accomplish that task, General Early had only two brigades available for the advance on the Union defenses. One brigade consisted of Louisiana regiments, and could only field 1200 men for the assault. The second brigade was Hoke’s brigade, which consisted of the Sixth North Carolina State Troops, Twenty-first North Carolina Troops, and the Fifty-Seventh North Carolina Troops. For their attack, the Tar Heels could only muster 900 men from all three regiments. General Early ordered Brigadier General Harry T. Hays of the Louisiana Brigade to lead the attack. The North Carolina brigade was to be led by Colonel Isaac E. Avery of the Sixth NCST, who was leading the brigade after its commander, Robert F. Hoke, was wounded at Chancellorsville, Virginia.
The two brigades were to advance from the outskirts of the town of Gettysburg toward the valley between both Cemetery and Culp’s Hills, and then make a right wheel toward the summit of Cemetery Hill. Maneuvers like wheels (or turns) can be difficult in the best of conditions, but the two brigades will have to perform this maneuver under fire and the setting sun on July 2, 1863. In addition, the Confederates will have to move through a vortex of fire from the Union positions on both hills.
The two brigades began their advance in the field to the left of Brickyard Road, which ran along the base of Cemetery Hill. Initially, the advance looked promising as Union skirmishers fell back in front the Confederate advance. As the two brigades got close to the point for the right wheel, the Union fire increased and disorder began to affect the Confederate assault. The Louisianans began their right wheel, and their connections with the Tar Heels were soon broken. It was dusk, and the visibility was poor with the setting sun and the clouds of smoke rolling from the muzzle flashes of Union muskets and cannon. Colonel Avery ordered his brigade to begin their right wheel toward Cemetery Hill, and suddenly, he was struck by ball at the base of his neck, which knocked him off of his horse. He fell to the ground in the dark alone, as his men struggled to advance in the horrific crossfire from the Union positions. While dying, Colonel Avery wrote a message to his friend, Major Samuel Tate. “Major [ ] Tell my father I died with my face to the enemy. I E Avery” His note would eventually be passed down through his family and later donated to the holdings of the State Archives of North Carolina to become an important memento of that terrible afternoon on July 2, 1863.