July 1, 1863 – Advance elements of the Federal and Confederate armies clashed in southern Pennsylvania, beginning what would grow into the most terrible battle in American history.
By this time, part of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had gathered north of Gettysburg, while Federal cavalry from the Army of the Potomac had arrived south of the town. Lieutenant General A.P. Hill, commanding the Confederate Third Corps, directed one of his division commanders, Major General Henry Heth, “to ascertain what force was at Gettysburg, and, if he found infantry opposed to him, to report the fact immediately, without forcing an engagement.”
Brigadier General James J. Pettigrew, one of Heth’s brigade commanders, had reported seeing enemy cavalry outside the town the previous day, but both Heth and Hill believed that Federal infantry was still far behind. Part of Heth’s division moved out to reconnoiter at 5 a.m., with no cavalry or pickets leading the way.
Brigadier General John Buford’s two brigades of 3,000 Federal horsemen had arrived the day before and were conducting a reconnaissance of their own. Buford was convinced that the Confederate army would converge on this strategically important town. He intended to hold the vital roads northwest of Gettysburg until the closest Federal infantry under Major General John F. Reynolds (commanding operations for I, III, and XI corps) could come up in support.
Buford’s pickets sighted the Confederates approaching on the Chambersburg Pike about four miles west of Gettysburg and opened fire. Heth’s men fanned out in line of battle and advanced, and skirmishing began around 8 a.m. Buford ordered his troopers to dismount and engage the oncoming enemy with their rapid-fire Spencer breech-loading carbines.
The Confederates pushed the Federals back to Herr Ridge, and then back again into the low ground in front of McPherson’s Ridge. Buford watched the action from atop a Lutheran seminary, where he could see both the fight to the west and the expected approach of more Confederates from the north. As his men continued withdrawing, Buford directed them to make a stand on McPherson’s Ridge.
The Federal troopers held off an enemy three times their size for two hours. This proved that cavalry could indeed stand up to infantry if tested. Commanders on both sides sent messages summoning reinforcements. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, had issued orders not to provoke a general engagement, but that was exactly what had begun.
Reynolds arrived ahead of his men around 10 a.m., where Buford told him, “The devil’s to pay!” When Reynolds asked if he could hold until the infantry arrived, Buford said, “I reckon I can.” Reynolds then sent a message to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal army and still in Maryland, that the troops would make a stand to keep the Confederates out of Gettysburg, or at least keep them off the high ground south of town.
Elements of I Corps arrived first, with Reynolds sending them northwest through Gettysburg. They began relieving Buford’s defenders on McPherson’s Ridge around 10:30 a.m. Hill countered by sending Major General William D. Pender’s division to join Heth in the Confederate attack. Neither side had wanted to fight here, but the clash soon developed into a major battle nonetheless.
Reynolds began deploying men into McPherson’s Woods as the Confederates advanced to within 60 paces. He shouted, “Forward! For God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of the woods!” A sharpshooter’s bullet struck him in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Reynolds had been one of the army’s most beloved and respected commanders. He was temporarily replaced by Major General Abner Doubleday.
As the vicious fighting continued, Major General Oliver O. Howard’s “Dutch” (i.e., predominantly German-speaking) XI Corps arrived around 12 p.m. Howard, noting the importance of the high ground south of town as he passed, left a division there and then moved north through Gettysburg to take positions on Doubleday’s right. Two Confederate divisions from Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, led by Major Generals Jubal Early and Robert Rodes, soon approached from the north to oppose Howard.
About 24,000 Confederates now faced some 19,000 Federals along a disjointed three-mile-line north and west of Gettysburg. Lee arrived, still without Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps and angry that Hill and Ewell had brought on such a large fight against orders. Nevertheless, he ordered them to attack in full force. At 3 p.m., the strongest assault of the day began when Early and Rodes attacked XI Corps from the north, while Pender and Heth attacked I Corps from the west.
Howard’s XI Corps fell back through town in confusion, just as they had when the Confederate Second Corps (then led by “Stonewall” Jackson) surprised them at Chancellorsville two months ago. They fled to the high ground southeast of town, consisting of Culp’s and Cemetery hills. Culp’s Hill anchored the northeastern end of the Federal line, which was the extreme Federal right. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, commanding the Federal II Corps, recognized this position’s strength and sent a division to hold it. Howard’s fleeing men stopped when they were reinforced by Hancock’s troops on the hills.
The XI Corps retreat crumbled Doubleday’s right flank, so he too fell back, first to Seminary Ridge and then through Gettysburg to join his comrades on Cemetery Hill. The Federals also occupied the formidable Cemetery Ridge, an elevation a mile and a half east of the parallel Seminary Ridge. Buford’s cavalry and I Corps had fought stubbornly and held the Confederates off long enough for reinforcements to arrive.
Lee rode onto Seminary Ridge and saw the Federals falling back onto the heights to the east. He immediately directed Hill to seize that important position, but Hill argued that his losses were too high and his men too exhausted to take it. Lee then dispatched Major Walter Taylor to instruct Ewell that it “was only necessary to press those people in order to secure possession of the heights,” and Ewell’s men should seize them “if practicable.”
Ewell, having been accustomed to rigid orders when serving under “Stonewall” Jackson, was confused by these vague instructions and ultimately decided not to launch a final assault before nightfall. Had his men taken those heights, they might have routed the exhausted and demoralized Federals instead of giving them time to regroup and strengthen their defenses.
During this time, Longstreet arrived ahead of his men and urged Lee to move around the Federal left, seize the high ground between the Federals and Washington, and defend against an attack. However, Lee still had received no intelligence from his cavalry commander, Major General Jeb Stuart, therefore he could not be sure that the Federals had not reinforced that area. Lee said, “No, the enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” Both Ewell and Stuart failed Lee on this day.
Fighting died down after nightfall, as three more Federal corps began arriving and reinforcing the high ground southeast of Gettysburg. The battle had been horrible, as I Corps alone sustained 10,000 casualties. The famed Iron Brigade was virtually destroyed, losing 1,212 of its 1,883 men. The 24th Michigan, part of the Iron Brigade, lost 316 of its 496 officers and men, including seven color bearers. The 2nd Wisconsin suffered a casualty rate of 77 percent; the 19th Indiana suffered 72 percent.
Meade began arranging to execute his original plan of falling back to Pipe Creek, occupying the high ground there, and awaiting a Confederate attack. However, Hancock assured him that the high ground outside Gettysburg was where he should make his stand. The line featured convex interior lines, enabling Meade to shift reinforcements to the most threatened points quickly.
In contrast, Lee’s lines were concave, making an attack more difficult. Lee ordered his army to concentrate southwest of Gettysburg that night, where he hoped to complete his victory by taking Culp’s and Cemetery hills the next day.
During this time, Stuart’s Confederate cavalry rode to Carlisle, where they shelled the town and burned the army barracks after the Federal garrison refused to surrender. They then rode to Dover, where one of the eight messengers that Lee had dispatched finally caught up to Stuart and informed him of the engagement at Gettysburg. Stuart was ordered to rejoin Lee’s army as soon as possible.
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