By this time, part of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had gathered north of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 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 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 Major-General John F. Reynolds, commanding operations for the First, Third, and Eleventh 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 to withdraw, 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 requesting reinforcements. A.P. Hill had ordered Heth not to provoke a fight. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, had also issued orders not to provoke a fight, 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 but still in Maryland, that the Confederates were advancing in force, but “I will fight him inch by inch, and if driven into the town I will barricade the streets and hold him back as long as possible,” or at least keep them off the high ground south of town.
Elements of the First Corps soon came up, with Reynolds sending them northwest through Gettysburg. They began relieving Buford’s defenders on McPherson’s Ridge around 10:30 a.m. The Confederates recognized the black hats of the Iron Brigade and realized that they were not facing just cavalry; the rest of the Federal army was arriving. One of Reynolds’s divisions, led by Major-General Abner Doubleday, took one of the most crucial positions on the field. Doubleday ordered his men to hold “to the last extremity,” prompting them to shout back, “If we can’t hold it, where will you find men who can?”
Hill countered by sending Major-General William D. Pender’s division to join Heth in the Confederate attack. Brigadier-General James J. Archer, commanding a Confederate brigade, was captured and taken to Doubleday, his old friend from before the war. Doubleday greeted him: “Archer! I’m glad to see you!” Archer angrily replied, “Well, I’m not glad to see you by a damn sight!”
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!” before he was killed by a sharpshooter’s bullet. Orderly Charles H. Veil wrote that “a Minnie Ball struck him in the back of the neck, and he fell from his horse dead. He never spoke a word, or moved a muscle after he was struck. I have seen many men killed in action, but never saw a ball do its work so instantly as did the ball that struck General Reynolds.” Reynolds, who had been one of the army’s most beloved and respected commanders, was temporarily replaced by Doubleday.
As the vicious fighting continued, Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Eleventh Corps arrived around 12 p.m. With Reynolds’s death, Howard was now the ranking Federal commander on the field. Noting the importance of the high ground south of town as he passed, Howard determined “to hold this strategic position till the army came up.” He left a division there and then moved the rest of his corps 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.
Howard’s corps had a dubious reputation in the army, both because it consisted mostly of German-speaking (“Dutch”) immigrants and because it had crumbled and fled the field at the Battle of Chancellorsville two months prior. As such, Buford sent a desperate message to Meade: “For God’s sake, send up (Winfield Scott) Hancock (commanding the Second Corps). Everything at odds. Reynolds is killed, and we need a controlling spirit.” Meade, who had been authorized to assign ranking command to whomever he chose regardless of seniority, ordered Major-General Winfield Scott Hancock to hurry his corps into the fray and take overall command from Howard.
The Federal Third Corps, commanded by Major-General Daniel Sickles, was under orders from Meade to guard the army’s west flank at Emmitsburg. But then Sickles received posthumous orders from Reynolds to reinforce him. Sickles left two brigades at Emmitsburg and sent the rest of his corps to Gettysburg, but it did not arrive in time to affect the day’s fighting. Major-General Henry Slocum, commanding the Twelfth Corps at Two Taverns, received desperate orders from Howard to come to Gettysburg, but Slocum ignored them because he felt that Howard had no authority to give them. He only started moving when he realized that a major battle was taking place.
Meade telegraphed Washington from his Taneytown headquarters around noon: “The news proves my advance has answered its purpose. I shall not advance any, but prepare to receive an attack in case Lee makes one. A battlefield is being selected in the rear.” Meade planned to fall back to Pipe Creek, but the battle developing at Gettysburg would soon prevent that. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wrote at 12:15 p.m., “Are you not too far east, and may not Lee attempt to turn your left and cut you off from Frederick?”
Meanwhile, Lee still did not know what became of his cavalry and its commander, Major-General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart. Near midday, Lee met with Major-General Richard H. Anderson, a division commander in A.P. Hill’s corps. According to Anderson:
“I found General Lee intently listening to the fire of the guns, and very much disturbed and depressed. At length he said, more to himself than to me, ‘I cannot think what has become of Stuart. I ought to have heard from him long before now… In the absence of reports from him, I am in ignorance as to what we have in front of us here. It may be the whole Federal army, or it may be only a detachment. If it is the whole Federal force, we must fight a battle here…”
Lee sent orders to Ewell at 1:30 p.m. that a battle “was to be avoided until the arrival of the rest of the army.” But Ewell had already sent two of his divisions against the Federal line north of Gettysburg, which was clearly being reinforced. Ewell wrote, “It was too late to avoid an engagement without abandoning the position already taken up, and I determined to push the attack vigorously.”
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 the Eleventh Corps from the north, while Pender and Heth attacked the First Corps from the west.
Howard’s corps fell back in confusion, just as they had at Chancellorsville. They fled through Gettysburg to the high ground southeast of town, which consisted of Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. Culp’s Hill marked the northeastern end of the Federal line, which was the extreme Federal right. Hancock arrived on the scene, 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.
Howard’s 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. Brigadier-General Lysander Cutler, commanding a brigade in the First Corps, said, “I can only hope that the country may not again require that these brave men shall go through so severe an ordeal.” The Federals also occupied the formidable Cemetery Ridge, an elevation a mile and a half east of and running parallel to Seminary Ridge.
Howard reported that the First Corps “fell back, when outflanked on its left, to a stronger position, when the Eleventh Corps was ordered back, also to a stronger position.” In reality, Howard’s corps crumbled first and it forced the First Corps to fall back. When Meade received this report, he replaced Doubleday as First Corps commander with Major-General John Newton. Doubleday was deeply resentful of this “unfounded accusation” from Howard and Meade.
Hancock directed Doubleday to send a division to hold Culp’s Hill. Doubleday was reluctant to comply, explaining that his men were exhausted. Hancock shouted, “Sir! I am in command on this field. Send every man you have got!” Doubleday obeyed, and the fighting began dying down for the day. Buford’s cavalry and the First 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 were “to carry the hill occupied by the enemy, if he found it practicable, but to avoid a general engagement until the arrival of the other divisions of the army…”
Ewell, having been accustomed to rigid orders when serving under Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, was confused by these vague instructions and ultimately decided not to launch a final assault before nightfall. It would have been unlikely for his men to have taken such formidable positions, but if they had, 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 told Lee, “We could not call the enemy to position better suited to our plans. All that we have to do is to file around his left and secure good ground between him and his capital (of Washington).” However, Lee still had received no intelligence from Stuart and his cavalry, therefore he could not be sure that the Federals had not reinforced that area.
Lee pounded his fist to his palm and said, “If he is there tomorrow I will attack him.” Longstreet countered, “If he is there tomorrow it will be because he wants you to attack. If that height has become the objective, why not take it at once?” Lee explained that he had no cavalry to tell him whether he was fighting a detachment or the entire Federal army. Lee said, “No, the enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.”
Ewell failed Lee on this day by failing to take the initiative and attack the heights. Ewell also protested an order to bring his corps around to the extreme Confederate right, arguing that the troops were too exhausted to conduct such a march. Hill failed Lee by ignoring orders not to bring on a battle until the entire army had arrived. Stuart failed Lee by his extended absence and lack of information. And Longstreet was openly opposed to fighting this battle at all. These factors all contributed to Lee’s failure to seize the high ground south of Gettysburg, but he determined to try again the next day.
Combat 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 the First Corps alone sustained nearly 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 399 of its 496 officers and men, including seven color bearers. The 2nd Wisconsin suffered a casualty rate of 77 percent; the 19th Indiana suffered a 72 percent loss. Of the First and Eleventh corps, only 5,000 men remained.
Meade reported to Halleck at 6 p.m., “A.P. Hill and Ewell are certainly concentrating. Longstreet’s whereabouts I do not know. If he is not up to-morrow, I hope with the force I have concentrated to defeat Hill and Ewell; at any rate, I see no other course than to hazard a general battle.”
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, giving Meade the ability to quickly shift reinforcements to the most threatened points as needed.
In contrast, Lee’s lines were concave, making an attack and reinforcement 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 and informed them of the engagement at Gettysburg. Stuart was ordered to rejoin Lee’s army as soon as possible.
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