July 1st, 1863

The Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac had spent most of June 1863 maneuvering and searching for a choice of battlefield on which to fight what both hoped would be the decisive and final blow in a long war “awash in a sea of blood”, as General Robert E. Lee had described it. But at 0530 on the morning of Wednesday, July 1 that choice was taken from them; the decision of when and where to fight was decided by events on the ridges to the west of Gettysburg.

The previous night General John Buford of the Federal cavalry and his division had taken up positions to the west of Gettysburg. He knew that the Rebel army was out there and would advance on the small town and it’s conflux of roads. He also knew that the Federal army lay to the south and east and would not be able to make it there in time to prevent the Confederates from seizing the town and the high ground to the south, establishing a strong defensive position which would require even more blood to take, if it could be taken at all. He reconciled himself to the fact that he and his outgunned and outnumbered cavalry troopers would need to hold until the infantry of General Reynolds’ I Corps could make the forced march from Emmitsburg, 18 miles to the south.

General Lee though had no desire to force a fight at Gettysburg, or anywhere else, until he could concentrate his scattered corps’. The orders to his division and brigade commanders had been to avoid a fight, but Gen. Harry Heth’s division had intended to occupy Gettysburg in pursuit of shoes and other material.

At 0530 on Jul 1 Lieutenant Marcellus Jones of the 8th Illinois Cavalry watched as a column of Confederate infantry marched down the Chambersburg Pike from Cashtown towards Gettysburg. Jones borrowed a carbine from one of his troopers and squeezed off a shot at a mounted Rebel officer at the head of the column 700 yards away. The shot missed, but the Confederates immediately deployed into a skirmishers line across the Pike. The first shot of the bloodiest battle in American history had been fired.

Facing the advancing Confederate brigades were a series of generally North-south ridges to the west of Gettysburg. The first was Herr Ridge, and 900 yards to the east McPherson’s Ridge. Between them ran a small stream named Willoughby’s Run. Five hundred yards beyond McPerson’s Ridge lay Seminary Ridge, dominated by the three-story Lutheran Seminary from which Gen. Buford watched the deploying brigades of Heth’s Division, the as yet untried Gen. Davis (nephew of President Jefferson Davis) to the north of the Pike and the veteran Alabamians and Tennesseans of General Archer to the south.

The Confederate brigades advanced from Herr Ridge towards Willoughby Run where Gen. Buford had deployed the men of Colonel Gamble’s 1st Brigade on its east bank. Gamble’s line ran from an unfinished railroad bed to the north of the Chambersburg Pike 1,000 yards south. To the north of the railroad bed Colonel Devin’s 2nd Brigade extended the line to the base of Oak Hill, an 80 foot knoll that dominated the ridges to the northwest of Gettysburg where Seminary Ridge and McPherson’s Ridge merged. Buford had 2,800 men deployed, every fourth holding the reins of three others mounts. He faced 7,500 men of Gen. Heth’s Division. An urgent request for reinforcements was sent to Gen. Reynolds in Emmitsburg.

As the sun broke through an overcast morning Heth’s men marched down Herr’s Ridge at 0800. They were met by a devastating volley from the carbines of Buford’s troopers. The staggered Rebels fell back and regrouped for another assault, and were again repulsed by the furious fire of the outnumbered Yankee cavalry. Gen. Buford watched for an hour as his men desperately held the line until he saw that Gamble’s troopers were being pushed back from Willoughby Run. The lightly armed cavalry, despite their bravery and tenacity, simply could not withstand a determined assault from the veteran Confederate infantry.

It was at this moment that General Reynolds rode up to the seminary and hailed Gen. Buford.

“What goes John?” he yelled up to the tower.

“The Devil’s to pay!” Buford yelled back. “Can you hold John?” Reynolds asked.

“I reckon I can.” he replied. It was enough for Reynolds. He ordered that all of his divisions route step to the field with all possible haste, tearing down fences and marching across fields to shave as many minutes off the march as possible.

At 1000 the brigades of Gen. James Wadsworth’s 1st Division crested McPherson’s Ridge and rushed into battle. The embattled men of Gamble’s brigade cheered them forward, yelling “Go in and give ‘em hell!”

The “Iron Brigade”, General Meredith’s 1st Brigade deployed on the left and into McPherson’s Woods at the south end of McPherson’s Ridge, while the 2nd Brigade under General Lysander Cutler deployed on the right across the Chambersburg Pike.  The 2nd Maine Battery was deployed astride the Chambersburg Pike.

Gen. Reynolds then raced south to join the Iron Brigade in McPherson’s Woods. As he tuned in his saddle to urge the Black Hats of the 2nd Wisconsin forward, a minie ball struck him behind the right ear. The beloved and respected commander of I Corps fell dead on the field.

The brigade of General Archer surged across Willoughby Run and into McPherson’s Woods, anticipating only dismounted cavalry and some local militia. Instead they were met by the devastating fire of the advancing Iron Brigade. On Archer’s right flank the 19th Indiana and 24th Michigan extended further south than Archer’s lines. As they surged forward they turned Archer’s right flank and poured a murderous enfilade fire into his ranks. Unable to withstand the fire from the front and right flank the Rebels retreated towards Herr’s Ridge, the Iron Brigade in fast pursuit, scooping up prisoners on the way, including General Archer himself. When Archer was taken to General Doubleday, newly arrived on the field and now commanding the Union forces, the old friend from the pre-war regular United States Army, Doubleday greeted him “Good morning Archer, I am glad to see you.”

“Well I am not glad to see you by a damned sight.” Archer replied.

General Cutler’s 2nd Brigade to the north of the turnpike meanwhile had been fighting furiously against Davis’s brigade. Here though it was they whose line was too short and they were soon flanked on their right by 55th North Carolina. General Wadsworth was forced to order a withdrawal. Seeing the threat the 14th Brooklyn Zouaves and the 95th New York positioned south of the pike, wheeled to the north and marched to the road where they poured rile fire into the right flank of Davis’ men. The 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade, the only Federal reserve unit on the field quickly joined them. The Confederates were forced to the only cover available; a 20 foot deep railroad cut that ran parallel to the Chambersburg Pike. From there they were able to deliver a lethal fire into the New Yorkers and Wisconsinites. As the casualties mounted in the Union lines Col. Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin and Maj. Pye of the 95th New York ordered a charge. Both regiments surged forward, followed by the Zouaves of the 14th Brooklyn. Despite a heavy and effective fire from the Rebels in the cut the Yankees reached its crest and pushed the Confederates back in a furious hand to hand fight. Amid the swinging butt stocks and bayonets they captured the flag of the 2nd Mississippi and surrounded the railroad bed. From the rim of the cut the Federals could have unleashed a horrendous slaughter, but instead they mercifully yelled for the Rebels to throw down their arms. More than a thousand men did so, and Gen. Davis lost half of his 2,300 men command. What remained retired to Herr Ridge where they joined Archer’s shattered brigade. It was 1100, and a tenuous quiet settled on the field for nearly two hours as both sides reorganized their lines and watched for the reinforcements that they knew were racing to the field.

McPherson Ridge

General Oliver Howard arrived in Gettysburg at 1030 and assumed command of the Union forces from Gen. Doubleday. At 1230 he was told that a large Confederate force was approaching Gettysburg from the north, almost behind the Yankee lines. Rebel guns were run out on Oak Hill and began firing into Cutlers exposed right flank. As 1,400 men of General Baxter’s brigade deployed in a thin line to serve as little more than a speed bump against a determined Confederate assault, the lead elements of the XI Corps ran sweating into Gettysburg. Howard deployed one brigade and some artillery on Cemetery Hill to the north of town and rushed the remaining divisions north to meet the approaching threat. They deployed in a thin, mile long east-west line; stretched as far as possible to cover an unknown direction of enemy advance, and were more than a quarter mile short of tying into I Corps’ right flank. As the XI Corps finished their deployments, a battle line of Confederate infantry emerged from some woods to their left and attacked directly towards I Corps’ exposed right flank.

These were the brigades of the 8,000 man strong division of General Robert Rodes of Ewell’s Corps. But the inviting open gap between I Corps and XI Corps was rapidly evaporating as Baxter’s brigade deployed literally minutes before Rodes launched his attack and the men of XI Corps streamed onto the field to the east of Oak Hill out of Gettysburg. Rodes assault was disjointed and confused from the start and soon was met with a furious and lethal fire from Baxter’s men who were ensconced behind a brick wall along the Mummasberg Road. Over 500 men of the 23rd North Carolina were cut down at a range of 80 yards, falling in a line that a Confederate officer described as “straight as a dress parade.” The Confederates staggered and were swept back by an irresistible torrent of fire. At this moment Baxter’s brigade counterattacked. After a 15 minute fight only 400 men of General Iverson’s 1,400 man strong brigade returned.

Oak Hill Rodes' attack

As Iverson’s survivors retreated, the brigades of Generals Daniel and Ramseur of Rodes’ division attacked southward from Oak Hill towards McPherson’s Ridge. Daniel intended to push down McPherson Ridge and strike Cutler in his right flank. He was unaware of the railroad cut however, where the 149th Pennsylvania, supported by the other regiments of Col. Stones’ Bucktail Brigade (So named because of the deer tails they wore in their caps) waited for them. The 149th unleashed a savage volley into the North Carolinians and charged forward, only to be enfiladed by artillery fire from the west and forced back to the railroad cut. The Confederates advanced again, and at a distance of 60 feet were swept back by a deadly volley from the Bucktails. The fight teetered back and forth, charge after charge repulsed by the murderous fore of the Bucktails, but their resistance came at a stiff price, losing two thirds of their men.

To the north Ramseur’s men faced similar resistance against a reinforced Federal line on the Mummasburg Road. Baxter’s brigade had been joined by a brigade under General Gabriel Paul. During the savage Confederate assault Gen. Paul was felled by a head wound which left him blind. Five successive commanders of his brigade were also shot down in rapid succession. As Baxter’s brigade depleted its ammo and Paul’s brigade ran low itself, they were forced to give ground foot by bloody foot under relentless pressure. The 16th Maine was sacrificed as a rear guard to cover the Union withdrawal, losing 230 of its 290 men. As the Rebels surrounded the survivors they ripped their regimental colors to shreds to prevent its capture. The Confederates had taken Oak Hill, but the opportunity to split the I and XI Corps had passed. At this moment Gen. Lee arrived at Herr Ridge.

Union forces driven off Oak Hill

Lee was displeased that a fight had begun after his orders to avoid engagement until the army was concentrated, and rebuffed General Heth’s request to renew his attack against McPherson’s Ridge and redeem himself. But soon he saw dust to the east of the XI Corps and realized that General Jubal Early’s division was taking the field behind the Federal line. The Union army bent at an angle, and with Early assaulting on their right, Rhodes at the angle, and Hill on the left, Lee had a chance to crush them in a nutcracker. His orders to all commanders were to attack.

On the Confederate left General Doles extended his line to a small hillock near the County Alms House, north of Gettysburg. General Barlow saw that the hillock, which would forever after bear his name, would be valuable and promptly attacked, pushing the Rebel skirmishers off with his 2,500 man division. His position was far forward of the main Federal line however and untenable, as soon evidenced when Jubal Early announced his presence with an artillery barrage and infantry assault. Barlow’s line was hit hard by the brigade of John Gordon, astride a fearsome black warhorse, standing in his stirrups and waving his hat to urge his men forward. Meanwhile Barlow’s flanks were turned by the brigades of Avery and Hays. His men broke and ran south towards Gettysburg.

gettysburg-barlows-knoll

As Gordon rode after the retreating Yankees he found a mortally wounded Union officer lying with a musket ball in his chest. Kneeling to give him water he asked his name; “Francis C. Barlow”. At Barlow’s request Gordon sent word into Gettysburg under a flag of truce that General Barlow was dead and his last thoughts had been of his wife. Barlow would survive however, but the collapse of his division opened the way for Early to advance into Gettysburg and started a domino effect through XI Corps. On on the left though Doubleday’s I Corps still held McPherson’s Ridge against all expectation.

Shortly after the collapse of XI Corps Lee ordered Heth to attack McPherson’s Ridge. Once again lines of butternut and grey surged through Willoughby Run, into McPherson’s Woods and onto McPherson’s Ridge. General Heth was known throughout both armies for having bad luck. As he advanced with his men a minie ball struck him in the head. If not for several rolls of paper that his aid had fortuitously rolled into the sweatband of the civilian hat to ensure a proper fit, he would have been killed. Instead, good luck was his that day and he survived with a fractured skull. Command of his division was passed to General Pettigrew.

Brockenbrough’s North Carolina brigade was tasked with the unenviable job of clearing the Black Hats from McPerson’s Woods. Pouring volleys into each other at a distance of less than 20 paces the fighting was horrendous and fourteen North Carolinian color bearers were shot down. First the brigade’s assistant inspector general was shot through the heart and killed instantly after taking the flag from a dying private. A lieutenant took it and was killed seconds later. Twenty one year old Col. Henry Burgwyn, the youngest colonel in the Confederate Army, took the colors only to have a private break ranks and try to take it from him in order to save the colonel’s life. Both fell to a fatal volley. Lt. Colonel John Lane took up the bullet shredded ensign and screamed over the din “Twenty-sixth, Follow Me!” The Carolinians yelled like furies and surged into the ranks of the Black Hats. The Iron Brigade fell back before the unstoppable grey line and at the moment of triumph Col. Lane fell dead, shot through the skull. He was the 14th regimental standard bearer to fall that day.

On McPherson’s Ridge the casualty rate was staggering. Of the 1,800 Black Hats, 1,100 were dead, wounded or missing. The 24th Michigan lost 397 of its 496 men, an 80% casualty rate. The 26th North Carolina suffered nearly 75% casualties.

The shattered I Corps retreated to Seminary Ridge and attempted to reform behind some hastily thrown up breastworks, but the exhausted men were savagely attacked by the elite division of General William Pender. Double canister from Battery B of the 4th US Artillery slowed the onslaught, but onward the Confederates charged, swarming over the bloodied bodies of their brothers in an unstoppable wave of fury. I Corps broke and streamed from Seminary Ridge in a flood towards Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge to the south of Gettysburg.

There General Adolph van Stenwehr had been erecting defenses since he had arrived earlier that afternoon, and it was there that the legendary General Winfield Scott Hancock took command of the Union forces. The position was a jumble of hills and ridges which formed an inverted fishhook, three miles long. On the far right, to the east of the Evergreen Cemetery and 80 foot Cemetery Hill itself, was the 100 foot tall Culp’s Hill, covered with boulders and thick woods. Running south from Cemetery Hill stretched the low Cemetery Ridge for two miles until it met the Round Tops, two rock and wood covered hills; Little Round Top first and farther south the taller Big Round Top.

Hancock deployed the shattered remnant s of I and XI Corps and settled in to wait for reinforcements. Viewing the battlefield from Seminary Ridge General Lee saw that the Union lines were stretched thin and vulnerable and realized that if they could seize Cemetery Hill they could break the Union line and carry the day to total victory. He sent verbal orders to General Ewell to take Gettysburg “… and the hill beyond if practicable”. Ewell had never served directly under Lee before, instead having his orders filtered through Gen. Jackson who left no room for doubt as to the exact nature of what he expected, and was unused to the discretionary nature of Gen. Lee’s orders. Ewell rejected his subordinates’ suggestions that they push after the confused and disorderly Federals and seize Culp’s and Cemetery Hills. Lee’s opportunity to gain a decisive victory slipped away as Ewell spent the last three hours of fighting light watching the Yankees dig into the heights, reinforced by two corps.

Earlier that day, as Lee had waited for Ewell to launch the attack that never came, he had been joined by his “Old Warhorse” General Longstreet who had ridden ahead of his Corps which was still on the road from Chambersburg.  As Lee surveyed the battlefield from Seminary Ridge Longstreet saw the opportunity to slip around the Yankee left and place themselves between Meade and Washington, forcing him to attack the Army of Northern Virginia on ground of their choosing. Lee was shocked that Longstreet would suggest a retreat on the verge of the victory which his beloved men had once again delivered to him. He had not yet left the enemy in command of the field, a sign of defeat in Napoleonic warfare, and he did not intend to now. Longstreet argued that it was not a retreat, but a strategic move to draw the enemy out into a more favorable fight, but Lee would not ask his army to retreat after their hard fought day. “No” he said, “the enemy is there, and it is there I shall attack him.”

But Longstreet pressed, “If he is there, it is because he is anxious that we should attack him there, a good reason for us not to do so.”

Lee replied “I am going to whip them or they are going to whip me.”

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LC Gladiator
LC Gladiator

Sorry about the length of this post. I do not have a link ,it came in an email. off topic but ENJOY!! Years from now, historians may regard the 2008 election of Barack Obama as an inscrutable and disturbing phenomenon, the result of a baffling breed of mass hysteria akin perhaps to the witch craze of the Middle Ages. How,… Read more »

LC SecondMouse
LC SecondMouse

Thank you, Crunchie. Brilliant, and timely. Lest we forget…

Azygos
Azygos

Looking forward to the next installment.

Tallulah
Tallulah

Very moving. What dreadful days they were.

I wanted to post this for all of you: the great Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946, in full.

Well worth the listen: http://preview.tinyurl.com/laypbko

He could be speaking to us, here, now.

(I love how the audience obviously revered and adored him and hung on his every word.)

Jaybear, Colonel of Imperial Ancient Artillery
Jaybear, Colonel of Imperial Ancient Artillery

good stuff Crunch, you need to walk that field to see how that battle shaped up. The terrain west of town was not ideal ground for either side. But the overall plan was to keep the Rebs from the high ground east and south of town…..and delay them until the Army of the Potomac could get up in force and… Read more »