Edited by Gerald Boerner
Commentary will be added shortly… GLB
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Copyright©2011 — Gerald Boerner — All Rights Reserved
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Quotations Related to GETTYSBURG:
“My dead and wounded were nearly as great in number as those still on duty.”
— William C. Oates
“Up, men, and to your posts! Don’t forget today that you are from Old Virginia!”
— George E. Pickett
“It ain’t so hard to get to that ridge – The hell of it is to stay there.”
— Confederate soldier
“The truth will be known in time, and I leave that to show how much of the responsibility of Gettysburg rests on my shoulders.”
— James Longstreet
“We entered Gettysburg in the afternoon, just in time to meet the enemy entering the town, and in good season to drive him back before his getting a foothold.”
— John Buford
“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.”
— Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
“After this urgent protest against entering into battle at Gettysburg according to instructions – which protest is the first and only one I ever made during my entire military career – I ordered my line to advance and make the assault.”
— John B. Hood
“Rations were scarcely issued, and the men about preparing supper, when rumors that the enemy had been encountered that day near Gettysburg absorbed every other interest, and very soon orders came to march forthwith to Gettysburg.”
— Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Gettysburg — Day 1: Union Troops Retreat to High Ground…
The First Day of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War took place on July 1, 1863, and began as an engagement between isolated units of the Army of Northern Virginia under Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of the Potomac under Union Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. It soon escalated into a major battle which culminated in the outnumbered and defeated Union forces retreating to the high ground south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The first-day battle proceeded in three phases as combatants continued to arrive at the battlefield. In the morning, two brigades of Confederate Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division (of Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Third Corps) were delayed by dismounted Union cavalrymen under Brig. Gen. John Buford. As infantry reinforcements arrived under Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds of the Union I Corps, the Confederate assaults down the Chambersburg Pike were repulsed, although Gen. Reynolds was killed. By early afternoon, the Union XI Corps had arrived, and the Union position was in a semicircle from west to north of the town. The Confederate Second Corps under Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell began a massive assault from the north, with Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes’s division attacking from Oak Hill and Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s division attacking across the open fields north of town. The Union lines generally held under extremely heavy pressure, although the salient at Barlow’s Knoll was overrun.
The third phase of the battle came as Rodes renewed his assault from the north and Heth returned with his entire division from the west, accompanied by the division of Maj. Gen. W. Dorsey Pender. Heavy fighting in Herbst’s Woods (near the Lutheran Theological Seminary) and on Oak Ridge finally caused the Union line to collapse. Some of the Federals conducted a fighting withdrawal through the town, suffering heavy casualties and losing many prisoners; others simply retreated. They took up good defensive positions on Cemetery Hill and waited for additional attacks. Despite discretionary orders from Robert E. Lee to take the heights "if practicable," Richard Ewell chose not to attack. Historians have debated ever since how the battle might have ended differently if he had found it practicable to do so.
[ Part 1 of 2 — Battle of Gettysburg, Day 1 ]
Defense by Buford’s Cavalry
the division of Brig. Gen. John Buford were awaiting the approach of Confederate infantry forces from the direction of Cashtown, to the northwest. Confederate forces from the brigade of Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew had briefly clashed with Union forces the day before but believed they were Pennsylvania militia of little consequence, not the regular army cavalry that was screening the approach of the Army of the Potomac.
General Buford realized the importance of the high ground directly to the south of Gettysburg. He knew that if the Confederates could gain control of the heights, Meade’s army would have a hard time dislodging them. He decided to utilize three ridges west of Gettysburg: Herr Ridge, McPherson Ridge, and Seminary Ridge (proceeding west to east toward the town). These were appropriate terrain for a delaying action by his small division against superior Confederate infantry forces, meant to buy time awaiting the arrival of Union infantrymen who could occupy the strong defensive positions south of town, Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and Culp’s Hill.
Early that morning, Reynolds, who was commanding the Left Wing of the Army of the Potomac, ordered his corps to march to Buford’s location, with the XI Corps (Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard) to follow closely behind.
Confederate Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division, from Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, advanced towards Gettysburg. Heth deployed no cavalry and led, unconventionally, with the artillery battalion of Major William J. Pegram. Two infantry brigades followed, commanded by Brig. Gens. James J. Archer and Joseph R. Davis, proceeding easterly in columns along the Chambersburg Pike. Three miles (5 km) west of town, about 7:30 a.m., Heth’s two brigades met light resistance from cavalry vedettes and deployed into line. Eventually, they reached dismounted troopers from Col. William Gamble’s cavalry brigade. The first shot of the battle was claimed to be fired by Lieutenant Marcellus E. Jones of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, fired at an unidentified man on a gray horse over a half-mile away; the act was merely symbolic. Buford’s 2,748 troopers would soon be faced with 7,600 Confederate infantrymen, deploying from columns into line of battle.
Gamble’s men mounted determined resistance and delaying tactics from behind fence posts with rapid fire from their breech-loading carbines. It is a modern myth that they were armed with multi-shot repeating carbines. Nevertheless, they were able to fire two or three times faster than a muzzle-loaded carbine or rifle. Also, the breech-loading design meant that Union troops did not have to stand to reload and could do so safely behind cover. This was a great advantage over the Confederates, who still had to stand to reload, thus providing an easier target. But this was so far a relatively bloodless affair. By 10:20 a.m., the Confederates had reached Herr Ridge and had pushed the Federal cavalrymen east to McPherson Ridge, when the vanguard of the I Corps finally arrived, the division of Maj. Gen. James S. Wadsworth. The troops were led personally by Gen. Reynolds, who conferred briefly with Buford and hurried back to bring more men forward.
Davis versus Cutler
The morning infantry fighting occurred on either side of the Chambersburg Pike, mostly on McPherson Ridge. To the north, an unfinished railroad bed opened three shallow cuts in the ridges. To the south, the dominant features were Willoughby Run and Herbst Woods (sometimes called McPherson Woods, but they were the property of John Herbst). Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler’s Union brigade opposed Davis’s brigade; two of Cutler’s regiments were north of the Pike, two to the south. To the left of Cutler, Brig. Gen. Solomon Meredith’s Iron Brigade opposed Archer.
General Reynolds directed both brigades into position and placed guns from the Maine battery of Capt. James A. Hall where Calef’s had stood earlier. While the general rode his horse along the east end of Herbst Woods, shouting "Forward men! Forward for God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of the woods," he fell from his horse, killed instantly by a bullet striking him behind the ear. (Some historians believe Reynolds was felled by a sharpshooter, but it is more likely that he was killed by random shot in a volley of rifle fire directed at the 2nd Wisconsin.) Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday assumed command of the I Corps.
On the right of the Union line, three regiments of Cutler’s brigade were fired on by Davis’s brigade before they could get into position on the ridge. Davis’s line overlapped the right of Cutler’s, making the Union position untenable, and Wadsworth ordered Cutler’s regiments back to Seminary Ridge. The commander of the 147th New York, Lt. Col. Francis C. Miller, was shot before he could inform his troops of the withdrawal, and they remained to fight under heavy pressure until a second order came. In under 30 minutes, 45% of Gen. Cutler’s 1,007 men became casualties, with the 147th losing 207 of its 380 officers and men. Some of Davis’s victorious men turned toward the Union positions south of the railroad bed while others drove east toward Seminary Ridge. This defocused the Confederate effort north of the pike.
Archer versus Meredith
South of the pike, Archer’s men were expecting an easy fight against dismounted cavalrymen and were astonished to recognize the black Hardee hats worn by the men facing them through the woods: the famous Iron Brigade, formed from regiments in the Western states of Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, had a reputation as fierce, tenacious fighters. As the Confederates crossed Willoughby Run and climbed the slope into Herbst Woods, they were enveloped on their right by the longer Union line, the reverse of the situation north of the pike.
Brig. Gen. Archer was captured in the fighting, the first general officer in Robert E. Lee’s army to suffer that fate. Archer was most likely positioned around the 14th Tennessee when he was captured by Private Patrick Moloney of Company G., 2nd Wisconsin, "a brave patriotic and fervent young Irishman." Archer resisted capture, but Moloney overpowered him. Moloney was killed later that day, but he received the Medal of Honor for his exploit. When Archer was taken to the rear, he encountered his former Army colleague Gen. Doubleday, who greeted him good-naturedly, "Good morning, Archer! How are you? I am glad to see you!" Archer replied, "Well, I am not glad to see you by a damn sight!"
At around 11 a.m., Doubleday sent his reserve regiment, the 6th Wisconsin, commanded by Lt. Col. Rufus R. Dawes, north in the direction of Davis’s disorganized brigade. The Wisconsin men paused at the fence along the pike and fired, which halted Davis’s attack on Cutler’s men and caused many of them to seek cover in the unfinished railroad cut. The 6th joined the 95th New York and the 84th New York (also known as the 14th Brooklyn), a "demi-brigade" commanded by Col. E.B. Fowler, along the pike. The three regiments charged to the railroad cut, where Davis’s men were seeking cover. The majority of the 600-foot (180 m) cut (shown on the map as the center cut of three) was too deep to be an effective firing position—as deep as 15 feet (4.5 m). Making the situation more difficult was the absence of their overall commander, General Davis, whose location was unknown.
The men of the three regiments nevertheless faced daunting fire as they charged toward the cut. The 6th Wisconsin’s American flag went down at least three times during the charge. At one point Dawes took up the fallen flag before it was seized from him by a corporal of the color guard. As the Union line neared the Confederates, its flanks became folded back and it took on the appearance of an inverted V. When the Union men reached the railroad cut, vicious hand-to-hand and bayonet fighting broke out. They were able to pour enfilading fire from both ends of the cut, and many Confederates considered surrender. Colonel Dawes took the initiative by shouting "Where is the colonel of this regiment?" Major John Blair of the 2nd Mississippi stood up and responded, "Who are you?" Dawes replied, "I command this regiment. Surrender or I will fire." Dawes later described what happened next:
The officer replied not a word, but promptly handed me his sword, and his men, who still held them, threw down their muskets. The coolness, self possession, and discipline which held back our men from pouring a general volley saved a hundred lives of the enemy, and as my mind goes back to the fearful excitement of the moment, I marvel at it.
— Col. Rufus R. Dawes, Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers (1890, p. 169)
Despite this surrender, leaving Dawes standing awkwardly holding seven swords, the fighting continued for minutes more and numerous Confederates were able to escape back to Herr Ridge. The three Union regiments lost 390-440 of 1,184 engaged, but they had blunted Davis’s attack, prevented them from striking the rear of the Iron Brigade, and so overwhelmed the Confederate brigade that it was unable to participate significantly in combat for the rest of the day. The Confederate losses were about 500 killed and wounded and over 200 prisoners out of 1,707 engaged.
By 11:30 a.m., the battlefield was temporarily quiet. On the Confederate side, Henry Heth faced an embarrassing situation. He had been under orders from General Lee to avoid a general engagement until the full Army of Northern Virginia had concentrated in the area. But his excursion to Gettysburg, ostensibly to find shoes, was essentially a reconnaissance in force conducted by a full infantry division. This indeed had started a general engagement and Heth was on the losing side so far. By 12:30 p.m., his remaining two brigades, under Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew and Col. John M. Brockenbrough, had arrived on the scene, as had the division (four brigades) of Maj. Gen. Dorsey Pender, also from Hill’s Corps. Hill’s remaining division (Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson) did not arrive until late in the day.
Considerably more Confederate forces were on the way, however. Two divisions of the Second Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, were approaching Gettysburg from the north, from the towns of Carlisle and York. The five brigades of Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes marched down the Carlisle Road but left it before reaching town to advance down the wooded crest of Oak Ridge, where they could link up with the left flank of Hill’s Corps. The four brigades under Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early approached on the Harrisburg Road. Union cavalry outposts north of the town detected both movements. Ewell’s remaining division (Maj. Gen. Edward "Allegheny" Johnson) did not arrive until late in the day.
On the Union side, Doubleday reorganized his lines as more units of the I Corps arrived. First on hand was the Corps Artillery under Col. Charles S. Wainwright, followed by two brigades from Doubleday’s division, now commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Rowley, which Doubleday placed on either end of his line. The XI Corps arrived from the south before noon, moving up the Taneytown and Emmitsburg Roads. Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard was surveying the area from the roof of the Fahnestock Brothers’ dry-goods store downtown at about 11:30 when he heard that Reynolds had been killed and that he was now in command of all Union forces on the field. He recalled: "My heart was heavy and the situation was grave indeed, but surely I did not hesitate a moment. God helping us, we will stay here till the Army comes. I assumed the command of the field."
Howard immediately sent messengers to summon reinforcements from the III Corps (Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles) and the XII Corps (Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum). Howard’s first XI Corps division to arrive, under Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz, was sent north to take a position on Oak Ridge and link up with the right of the I Corps. (The division was commanded temporarily by Brig. Gen. Alexander Schimmelfennig while Schurz filled in for Howard as XI Corps commander.) The division of Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow was placed on Schurz’s right to support him. The third division to arrive, under Brig. Gen. Adolph von Steinwehr, was placed on Cemetery Hill along with two batteries of artillery to hold the hill as a rallying point if the Union troops could not hold their positions; this placement on the hill corresponded with orders sent earlier in the day to Howard by Reynolds just before he was killed.
However, Rodes beat Schurz to Oak Hill, so the XI Corps division was forced to take up positions in the broad plain north of the town, below and to the east of Oak Hill. They linked up with the I Corps reserve division of Brig. Gen. John C. Robinson, whose two brigades had been sent forward by Doubleday when he heard about Ewell’s arrival. Howard’s defensive line was not a particularly strong one in the north. He was soon outnumbered (his XI Corps, still suffering the effects of their defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville, had only 8,700 effectives), and the terrain his men occupied in the north was poorly selected for defense. He held out some hope that reinforcements from Slocum’s XII Corps would arrive up the Baltimore Pike in time to make a difference.
In the afternoon, there was fighting both west (Hill’s Corps renewing their attacks on the I Corps) and north (Ewell’s Corps attacking the I and XI Corps) of Gettysburg. Ewell, on Oak Hill with Rodes, saw Howard’s troops deploying before him, and he interpreted this as the start of an attack and implicit permission to set aside Gen. Lee’s order not to bring about a general engagement.
Rodes Attacks from Oak Hill
Rodes initially sent three brigades south against Union troops that represented the right flank of the I Corps and the left flank of the XI Corps: from east to west, Brig. Gen. George P. Doles, Col. Edward A. O’Neal, and Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson. Doles’s Georgia brigade stood guarding the flank, awaiting the arrival of Early’s division. Both O’Neal’s and Iverson’s attacks fared poorly against the six veteran regiments in the brigade of Brig. Gen. Henry Baxter, manning a line in a shallow inverted V, facing north on the ridge behind the Mummasburg Road. O’Neal’s men were sent forward without coordinating with Iverson on their flank and fell back under heavy fire from the I Corps troops.
Iverson failed to perform even a rudimentary reconnaissance and sent his men forward blindly while he stayed in the rear (as had O’Neal, minutes earlier). More of Baxter’s men were concealed in woods behind a stone wall and rose to fire withering volleys from less than 100 yards (91 m) away, creating over 800 casualties among the 1,350 North Carolinians. Stories are told about groups of dead bodies lying in almost parade-ground formations, heels of their boots perfectly aligned. (The bodies were later buried on the scene, and this area is today known as "Iverson’s Pits", source of many local tales of supernatural phenomena.)
Baxter’s brigade was worn down and out of ammunition. At 3:00 p.m. he withdrew his brigade, and Gen. Robinson replaced it with the brigade of Brig. Gen. Gabriel R. Paul. Rodes then committed his two reserve brigades: Brig. Gens. Junius Daniel and Dodson Ramseur. Ramseur attacked first, but Paul’s brigade held its crucial position. Paul had a bullet go in one temple and out the other, blinding him permanently (he survived the wound and lived 20 more years after the battle). Before the end of the day, three other commanders of that brigade were wounded.
Daniel’s North Carolina brigade then attempted to break the I Corps line to the southwest along the Chambersburg Pike. They ran into stiff resistance from Col. Roy Stone’s Pennsylvania "Bucktail Brigade" in the same area around the railroad cut as the morning’s battle. Fierce fighting eventually ground to a standstill.
Heth Renews his Attack
Gen. Lee arrived on the battlefield at about 2:30 p.m., as Rodes’s men were in mid-attack. Seeing that a major assault was underway, he lifted his restriction on a general engagement and gave permission to Hill to resume his attacks from the morning. First in line was Heth’s division again, with two fresh brigades: Pettigrew’s North Carolinians and Col. John M. Brockenbrough’s Virginians.
Pettigrew’s Brigade was deployed in a line that extended south beyond the ground defended by the Iron Brigade. Enveloping the left flank of the 19th Indiana, Pettigrew’s North Carolinians, the largest brigade in the army, drove back the Iron Brigade in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. The Iron Brigade was pushed out of the woods, made three temporary stands in the open ground to the east, but then had to fall back toward the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Gen. Meredith was downed with a head wound, made all the worse when his horse fell on him. To the left of the Iron Brigade was the brigade of Col. Chapman Biddle, defending open ground on McPherson Ridge, but they were outflanked and decimated. To the right, Stone’s Bucktails, facing both west and north along the Chambersburg Pike, were attacked by both Brockenbrough and Daniel.
Casualties were severe that afternoon. The 26th North Carolina (the largest regiment of the army with 839 men) lost heavily, leaving the first day’s fight with around 212 men. Their commander, Colonel Henry K. Burgwyn, was fatally wounded by a bullet through his chest. By the end of the three-day battle, they had about 152 men standing, the highest casualty percentage for one battle of any other regiment, North or South. One of the Union regiments, the 24th Michigan, lost 399 of 496. It had nine color bearers shot down, and its commander, Col. Henry A. Morrow, was wounded in the head and captured. The 151st Pennsylvania of Biddle’s brigade lost 337 of 467.
The highest ranking casualty of this engagement was Gen. Heth, who was struck by a bullet in the head. He was apparently saved because he had stuffed wads of paper into a new hat, which was otherwise too large for his head. But there were two consequences to this glancing blow. Heth was unconscious for over 24 hours and had no further command involvement in the three-day battle. He was also unable to urge Pender’s division to move forward and supplement his struggling assault. Pender was oddly passive during this phase of the battle; the typically more aggressive tendencies of a young general in Lee’s army would have seen him move forward on his own accord. Hill shared the blame for failing to order him forward as well, but he claimed illness. History cannot know Pender’s motivations; he was mortally wounded the next day and left no report.
[ Continued on in Part 2 of 2 — Battle of Gettysburg, Day 1 ]
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