BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG (DAY 1)
as told by GFS JIM/James L. Walker in
the American Civil War History chat (on AOL)
Our tale tonight begins just after the Battle of Chancellorsville, where
"Marse Robert" defeated "Fighting Joe" Hooker against some pretty incredible
odds. The Chicago Tribune published the following quote about Hooker after that
battle; "Under the leadership of 'fighting Joe Hooker' the glorious Army of the
Potomac is becoming more slow in its movements, more unwieldy, more of a
football to the enemy, and less an honor to the country than any army we have
yet raised." So much for media coverage. Immediately following his victory
there, "Marse Robert" went to Richmond and received the "blessing" of his
government to invade the North. Lee, fueled by his continuous string of
successes, hoped an invasion north would "provide steam" to the northern peace
movement and at least disrupt the Union war effort. After the loss of Lee's
"right arm", Stonewall Jackson, the Army of Northern Virginia, 75,000 strong,
were reorganized into three army corps under Longstreet, Ewell, and A.P. Hill,
with a cavalry division belonging to J.E.B. Stuart. Less than one month after
Chancellorsville, on 3 June 1863, advance troops of this Confederate "host"
left their camps near Fredericksburg and marched west toward that old, familiar
pipeline to the North, the Shenandoah Valley.
The 95,000-strong Federal Army of the Potomac, under "Fighting Joe", didn't have "a clue" in the beginning what "Bobby Lee" was up to. So, on the 9th of June, Hooker ordered his cavalry general Alfred Pleasonton to "run a reconnaissance" with 11,000 men across the Rappahannock River toward Brandy Station. Pleasonton ran "smack dab" into Stuart's cavalry, and the largest cavalry battle of the war "exploded" into being, right then. The overall result was a standoff, but the Federals now had "their clue" to the Confederate army's movements, and whereabouts. In reality, the main Confederate body had been 5 to 10 miles further west of Stuart at Brandy Station. Ewell and Longstreet again split into two columns, with Ewell going further west and up toward Winchester and Longstreet going up the Shenandoah River on the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
By June 13, leading elements of Ewell's corps appeared before Winchester. On that same day, "Fighting Joe" decided it was time to leave Fredericksburg and moved the Army of Potomac north. On June 14 and 15, Ewell attacked the 9,000-strong Federal Garrison at Winchester under General Robert Milroy, and routed them, inflicting heavy losses and capturing much valuable and needed war material.
Following Winchester, "Marse Robert" and his army moved unchecked up into the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania. On the 25th of June, Lee agrees to let Stuart take three brigades of cavalry across the Potomac east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and cut across the rear of the Federal army. Stuart's drive runs across frequent delays and is forced to detour many times because of an increasingly aggressive Federal cavalry, which prohibits Stuart from rejoining Lee until July 2nd; the second day of Gettysburg.
By June 28, Longstreet and Hill's corps were at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Divisions of Ewell's corps had moved on and crossed the mountains to York and Carlisle, and were preparing to move against the capital, Harrisburg. The day before (27 June), having just left Hagerstown, Maryland and crossing the "Mason and Dixon's Line," Lee and Maj. General Isaac Trimble were conversing. On the approach to Gettysburg, Lee said; "Hereabouts we shall probably meet the enemy and fight a great battle, and if God gives us the victory, the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence." The next day, following that statement, "Marse Robert" finds out that the Federal army is at Frederick, Maryland, and that "Fighting Joe" had been replaced by General Meade. Learning that, Lee decides to swing his army east of the mountains and offer battle. At the same time, only 30 miles behind and to the west of "Marse Robert," Meade moves north along the eastern flank of the Catoctin Mountains. In two days, these two armies will converge on Gettysburg and the battle, which would be the turning point of the war. The First Day at Gettysburg begins.
On June 30, the Confederates learn that Brigadier General John Buford's division of Federal cavalry, are at Gettysburg. They immediately send the divisions of Maj. General Henry Heth and Maj. General William Pender of A.P. Hill's corps, southeast down the Chambersburg Road to drive Buford off and settle in Gettysburg themselves. As "Marse Robert" approaches Gettysburg, he says to General R.H. Anderson; "In the absence of reports from him [Stuart] I am in ignorance of 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."
Now, I want to draw a mental picture for you before we get into the fighting of the first day. Think of a rectangle with the two short sides being two miles long and the two longer sides being four miles long. Now turn the rectangle so that the two short sides are on the top and bottom and the long sides are on the left and right. On the top of the rectangle in the very center is the town of Gettysburg, and that entire side will be the Hagerstown Road. Now, in the semi-circle above our rectangle are a number of roads coming into Gettysburg. From the upper left (northwest) is the Chambersburg Road; to the right of that is the Mummasburg Road; down the center is the Carlisle Road; and to the right again, half way between the Carlisle Road and the Hagerstown Road (on the top of our rectangle), is the Harrisburg Road. About halfway between the top left corner and the center of the rectangle (Gettysburg) is the northern most spur of Seminary Ridge, which runs to the south and slightly west for little over a mile.
If you then draw a line from the top center at Gettysburg to the very bottom left corner of the rectangle, that will be the Emmitsburg Road. Now go back to the top center (Gettysburg) and draw a line straight south until it intersects the bottom of the rectangle and that will be the Taneytown Road. Over on the top right of the rectangle is Benner's Hill and about one mile south down the right side of the rectangle is Culp's Hill.
Now picture a big "fishhook" with the tip of the barb at Culp's Hill and the curve of the hook going back toward Gettysburg and then curving around until it hits the Taneytown Road and the shank of the hook lying on the Taneytown Road going south. With Culp's Hill on the tip of the barb, then up along the curved portion is Cemetery Hill, and then once we hit Taneytown Road we are on Cemetery Ridge with the crest running about ten yards west of and parallel to the Taneytown Road.
Down at the bottom of Taneytown Road where it crosses our rectangle, Big Round Top is 1/4 mile to the west. Coming up Taneytown Road toward Gettysburg we see Little Round top just to the left of the road about 1/4 mile north of Big Round Top and the Devil's Den sits right in the western run-off of those two hills. All of that area is densely wooded. Now stand on Little Round Top and look straight west toward the Emmitsburg Road. About a mile back this way from Emmitsburg Road is the Wheat Field with Plum Run creek running right in the middle. A little further to the right, next to the Emmitsburg Road lies the Peach Orchard. So, that is what lies inside our little two mile by four mile rectangle. 95% of the Battle of Gettysburg was fought in the right half of that rectangle; just four square miles. Think about that awhile; in those four square miles 170,000 men fought for 3 solid days and between 45,000 to 50,000 died there.
Now, let's go back and find Heth and Pender as they move down the Chambersburg Road from the northwest to Gettysburg. At 5:30am on the 1st of July, the first shots were exchanged across Marsh Creek on the Chambersburg Road. In the face of Buford's pressure, Heth pushes on cautiously until he reaches a point about two miles west of Gettysburg. At this point Heth spreads out two brigades in line (Archer and Davis) and keeps pressing toward Gettysburg down the Chambersburg Road. It is now 10am. On the Federal side, General John F. Reynolds, commanding the I Corps arrives on the field and immediately has a "go" at Heth. He orders his I Corps and Maj. General Oliver O. Howard's XI Corps to march into Gettysburg. Just after 10:30am, the Federal I Corps arrives and slams into Heth's two divisions at McPherson's Farm about a mile from Gettysburg, west up the Chambersburg Road. At 11:30am, Meredith's Iron Brigade turns back Archer's troops and Archer is captured. Heth's two divisions are badly "mauled" and forced to retreat back up the Chambersburg Road to Herr Ridge, however Reynolds has been killed in the action and the field command has passed to Howard. It grew quite now for a while as both sides regrouped and brought up reinforcements.
Gen. Howard deployed the Federal I Corps to defend the western approaches to Gettysburg along the Chambersburg Road, while the XI Corps formed up north of Gettysburg to cover the Mummasburg and Carlisle Roads, and left one division in reserve on Cemetery Hill. Buford's cavalry, who had arrived first covered their flanks. Howard's strategy was simple; hold the Confederates off until the rest of the Federal army could catch up.
General Lee arrived on the field about noon. He had fervently hoped to avoid a general confrontation, since Stuart was still absent and he didn't have a clue of the enemy strength, in addition to being unfamiliar with the terrain around Gettysburg. However, the battle progressed on its own, as Rhodes' Division of Ewell's Corps arrived just after noon down the Mumasberg Road and immediately veered to the right and attacked the right of the Federal I Corps. At 2:00pm, Heth's Division returned and hit the Federal I Corps down the Chambersburg Road again. Upon hearing of Reynolds death that morning, General Meade sends Hancock up from Taneytown to replace Reynolds. At 3:00pm Jubal Early's Division of Ewell's Corps comes down the Harrisburg Road, and slams into the Federal XI Corps' right flank, crushing it. At the same time Early was engaged with the XI Corps,
Pender attacks through Heth, who has been wounded, into the Federal I Corps, now along Seminary Ridge. By 4:00pm both Federal Corps' were in retreat back through Gettysburg to Cemetery Hill.
The Federals lost slightly over 9,000, including some 3,000 captured, while the Confederates lost about 6,500. A Union gunner in Meredith's Iron Brigade said; "For seven or eight minutes ensued probably the most desperate fight ever waged between artillery and infantry at close range with a particle of cover on either side, bullets hissing, humming and whistling everywhere; cannon roaring; all crash on crash and peal on peal, smoke, dust, splinters, blood, wreck and carnage indescribable." The Union casualties on the first day were terrible; the 24th Michigan infantry lost 399 of it's 496 men. In total, the I Corps had lost nearly 5,700 men. The Confederate losses were nearly as numerous.
This ends The First Day at Gettysburg.
continue to Day 2