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Battle of Gettysburg: Day One - The Armies Collide


On the morning of Wednesday, July 1, 1863, the lead elements of Confederate Major General Henry Heth’s division of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps took the fate-changing steps toward the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Hoping to grab a reported supply of shoes in Gettysburg, Heth’s advance brigade went forward with confidence, expecting to brush aside nothing more than local militia. The Southerners, however, quickly discovered that they faced a far greater foe. At approximately 7:30 a.m., Lieutenant Marcellus Jones of the Eighth Illinois Cavalry took sharp aim at the trespassers and pulled the trigger, firing the first shot in what would spiral into the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere. Instead of militia, Heth’s soldiers ran into Union Brigadier General John Buford’s cavalrymen posted on high ground northwest of Gettysburg. The collision between these men in blue and gray was just the beginning, setting in motion a colossal clash that would change the course of the American Civil War.

Buford had led his two brigades of about 2,700 cavalrymen into Gettysburg the day before, scouting ahead of the Army of the Potomac. With General Robert E. Lee’s seemingly invincible Army of Northern Virginia on Northern soil again, these were dangerous times for the Union. Buford’s investigation revealed that Confederate infantry was only a few miles to the northwest. The observant cavalry commander correctly anticipated that the enemy was moving toward Gettysburg and recognized the strong terrain of ridges and hills around the town. Also reasoning that the reliable network of roads around Gettysburg would enable the Army of the Potomac to concentrate there, Buford decided to make a stand, sending word to Major General John Reynolds, the commander of the army’s First Corps near Emmitsburg, Maryland. Buford vowed to Reynolds that he would hold his position as long as possible and asked the native Pennsylvanian to swiftly advance with his infantry to Gettysburg in the morning.

Monument to Brigadier General John Buford at Gettysburg National Military Park. (Photo Credit: Joe Archino)

Although outnumbered by three times their number, Buford’s dismounted horse troopers held on against Heth’s infantry for two hours. Historian James M. McPherson writes that just when “Buford’s tired troopers were about to give way, Reynolds came galloping across the fields, followed at double time by two brigades of his leading division.” As Buford was climbing down the ladder from a cupola atop a Lutheran seminary where he had been watching the battle and constantly looking to the south for a sign of Reynolds's arrival, he heard a voice below him: “What’s the matter, John?” That voice belonged to the man whom many regarded as the best general in the Army of the Potomac. It was John Reynolds.

“The devil’s to pay,” said Buford to the First Corps commander. Despite the grave pressure his troopers were under, the cavalryman said his men would continue to fight as Reynolds’s lead units moved into position and the rest of his corps rushed to the field. Reynolds sprang to action, dispatching riders to alert the army’s Eleventh and Third Corps commanders to quickly join him in Gettysburg. He sent another messenger to the Army of the Potomac’s brand new commander, Major General George Gordon Meade: “Tell him the enemy are advancing in strong force and that I fear they will get to the heights beyond town before I can. I will fight them inch by inch and barricade the streets and hold them back as long as possible.”

Monument to Major General John Reynolds at Gettysburg National Military Park. (Photo Credit: Joe Archino)

“Forward men!” General Reynolds shouted as he personally led the Iron Brigade of the West into line. “Forward for God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of those woods!” At about 10:30 a.m., as his soldiers went forward, a bullet ripped through the base of his skull and toppled him from his horse. At forty-two years old, Reynolds was dead, becoming “the first and highest-ranking general killed at Gettysburg,” as noted by McPherson.

Distinguished by their tall black felts hats and composed of the Second, Sixth, Seventh Wisconsin, Nineteenth Indiana, and the Twenty-fourth Michigan, the soldiers of the Iron Brigade had earned a reputation as the stoutest fighters in the Army of the Potomac. They did not let Reynolds’s final orders go unanswered, showing the men in gray what Midwesterners were made of. “There are them damned black hatted fellows again,” cried one Confederate. Another Rebel shouted, “Hell! Those are the big hat devils of the Army of the Potomac.” The Black Hats fought with a legendary fierceness at Gettysburg, and when the Union resistance crumbled later in the day, the tenacious stands made by the battle-hardened Westerners and other Federal units made it possible for the rest of the army to retire to the high ground south of town, where it would live to fight again. As historian Lance J. Herdegen records, “The Iron Brigade of the West carried 1,883 men into the battle and by the end of July 1, 1863, only 671 were reported in the ranks - a percentage loss of more than 64.3.”

Iron Brigade by Don Troiani, depicting the 496 men of the 24th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment taking on the 800-man-strong 26th North Carolina Infantry Regiment on July 1. By the end of the day, the 24th Michigan was left with only 133 men, suffering a 73 percent casualty rate. The 26th North Carolina also suffered enormously, losing an estimated 588 dead and wounded, which left only 212 soldiers fit for duty after the bloodbath on July 1. (Photo Credit: The Horse Soldier)

The timely arrival of the First Corps blunted Heth’s attack. John Burns, a seventy-two-year-old resident of Gettysburg and a veteran of the War of 1812, even joined the fighting that morning. Determined to punish the Rebels for invading his home, Burns took up a musket from a wounded soldier and fought beside the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment and later with the Iron Brigade. According to McPherson, “Burns sustained three wounds and became a local legend in Gettysburg for the remaining nine years of his life.” Burns did his part, but the fight on July 1 was far from over.

After learning that the Army of the Potomac was hot on his trail on June 28, General Robert E. Lee urgently moved to reunite his scattered army at Gettysburg. He had warned his commanders not to initiate a general engagement until the Army of Northern Virginia was concentrated, but as Lee arrived on the field at around 2:00 p.m. on July 1, a full-scale battle had erupted. As McPherson writes, “By early afternoon some 24,000 Confederates confronted 19,000 bluecoats along a three-mile semicircle west and north of Gettysburg.” With Heth preparing a new attack and another division of A.P. Hill’s corps behind him, Lee initially hesitated to send them into action, but he quickly realized that this fight could not be stopped. As Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell’s corps pressed the Union Eleventh Corps north of town, Lee gave his subordinates permission to unleash all of their might against the enemy.

General Robert E. Lee on his horse Traveller atop the State of Virginia monument at Gettysburg National Military Park. (Photo Credit: Joe Archino)

At about 4:00 p.m., Union Major General Oliver O. Howard’s Eleventh Corps collapsed and was forced into a chaotic retreat, desperately fighting and falling back through the town to reach Cemetery Hill, approximately a half-mile to the south. As McPherson explains, the disintegration of the Eleventh Corps to the north left the right flank of the First Corps vulnerable, forcing the troops west of town “back yard by yard to the hill, where Union artillery and a reserve division that Howard had posted there caused the Rebel onslaught to hesitate in late afternoon.” Cemetery Hill was the crucial rallying point that helped save the Union from destruction on July 1.

The Eleventh Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment was one of the many outfits driven back on July 1, but the unit’s canine mascot, Sallie, stayed behind. She refused to abandon the dead and wounded of her regiment. McPherson reports that Sallie faithfully guarded her comrades “through the next four days until the survivors returned to bury them on July 5.” For the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac to survive the trials ahead at Gettysburg, they would all need to show the same level of courage and commitment as Sallie.

Loyal Heart by Greg Stump, depicting Sallie and the Eleventh Pennsylvania entering battle on July 1, 1863. (Photo: Emerging Civil War)

Robert E. Lee had not intended to fight at Gettysburg, but fate had other plans. Although the Federals had been hit hard and forced to retreat, Lee knew that his army’s victory “was incomplete so long as Union forces held Cemetery and Culp’s Hill,” as noted by McPherson. Aiming to finish off the enemy on the commanding high ground before the rest of the Army of the Potomac could arrive, Lee gave discretionary orders to General Ewell to assault and seize Cemetery Hill “if practicable.” New to corps command, Ewell had been entrusted with his position in the wake of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s death earlier that May. Lamenting the loss of his most trusted general, Lee had referred to Jackson as his “right arm” and professed, “I do not know how to replace him.” Ewell certainly had big shoes to fill, but with his troops exhausted, and recognizing the strength of the massed Federals dug in on the hill, he did not find it practicable to attack.

The Union lost some 5,500 killed or wounded on July 1 and another 3,500 captured. For an army that had suffered defeat after defeat to Robert E. Lee, this was another difficult day. The fight, however, would go on. As McPherson reports, “Because the Confederates failed to take Cemetery and Culp’s Hills on July 1, Union troops were able to consolidate their position there and on the ridge extending south from Cemetery Hill during the night.” With Major General Winfield Scott Hancock of the Army of the Potomac's Second corps on the field by dusk and three more of the army’s corps arriving later, the Federal defense would prove formidable when the sun rose on July 2.

Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg National Military Park. In the distance is a monument to Major General Winfield S. Hancock. (Photo Credit: Joe Archino)

When the battle began, General George G. Meade was only in his fourth day as the commander of the Army of the Potomac. Although known to have a testy temper, Meade was a complete professional with a sharp engineer’s mind. Arriving on the field after midnight, he consulted with his generals and decided that the Army of the Potomac would stay here and fight. Before Meade, the army’s three previous commanders had all shown their inferiority to Robert E. Lee. Union soldiers paid dearly for it. Now, with the fate of the war and the nation at stake, it was up to General Meade to stand tall and lead the Army of the Potomac with precision and valor when it truly mattered most.

Header Photo Credit: The Fight for the Colors by Don Troiani. (Photo scanned from personal copy of Don Troiani's Civil War)


American Battlefield Trust: Defense of Little Round Top.

Gettysburg: The Final Fury by Bruce Catton.

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