July 1, 1863 (Wednesday)
The reports came through the dawn air, damp with a light rain recently fallen. Small arms fire sounded, but only single shots, as the Federal and Confederate videttes came into unsuspected contact. Gray forms through the dim were sighted, eyes training muskets from the Hunterstown Road, the bridge over Willoughby Run, and north on the Carlisle Pike. It was not even 6am.
An hour prior, Confederates in Henry Heth’s Division were roused from their sleep. There was no hurry, no panic, and no suspicion of what lay before them. Heth was ordered by his corps commander, A.P. Hill, to begin his march at 5am. They were to move east down the Chambersburg Pike “to ascertain what force was at Gettysburg, and, if he [Heth] found infantry opposed to him, to report the fact immediately, without forcing an engagement.”
Brigade commander James Pettigrew had seen what was in Gettysburg the previous day. It was, he claimed, Union cavalry. It was not militia or home guards. But Henry Heth and A.P. Hill knew better. Not a single regiment of the Army of the Potomac was even across their namesake river, believed Heth. So confident was he in his ignorance, Heth placed his artillery in line at the front of the column. He had no cavalry to scout, and did not send out pickets, skirmishers or flankers. From Cashtown marched over 7,000 unsuspecting Rebels.
John Buford’s Federal Cavalry, however, knew what was coming. To the west was A.P. Hill’s and James Longstreet’s Corps. Richard Ewell’s Corps was to the north. The entire Confederate Army of 80,000, it seemed, was concentrating on Gettysburg, held by two brigades – numbering less than 3,000, all told. Buford was to hold Gettysburg if he could, until John Reynold’s wing of the Union Army arrived. He was expected to appear from the south with at least the I and XI Corps by late morning.
Perhaps two hours after the Confederate march began, two Union cavaliers spotted a column dust out the Chambersburg Pike from their post upon a ridge two miles west and in advance of the main line along McPherson’s Ridge. Lt. Marcellus Jones could see the advance Rebel artillery deploying. His line had been spotted. Jones asked to borrow the closest carbine and leaned it up against a rail fence. “Let me open this ball,” he was supposed to have said before pulling the trigger.
The Confederate skirmish line had been deployed, overtaking the artillery, still sighting their pieces. It was near 8am when the skirmishing developed fully, and artillery joined the chorus. The Federal troopers contested the Rebel advance, but were soon pushed back to Herr Ridge, about a mile in advance of Buford’s lines.
Heth, still believing this was militia before him, deployed two brigades, each on either side of the Pike – a line over a half mile wide. They marched slowly with the intent of cleansing the town of Gettysburg of the Yankees. But when Buford’s own artillery began to speak, they must have known it was not merely militia.
Before long, Heth’s Confederates carried Herr Ridge, pushing Buford’s troopers into the valley and woods before McPherson’s Ridge, which the Federals were determined to hold. The Rebels did not come with a rush. They were slow and seemed to believe they had lifetimes to get to Gettysburg. They expected no Union reinforcements, no infantry, and nothing at all like what was coming up from Maryland.
From his perch atop a Lutheran Seminary, behind his lines, just west of town, Buford could see the small battle evolving before him. While his main line faced west, he kept an eye, and quite a few of his men, facing north, waiting for Ewell’s Corps to inevitably outflank him. He was probably in the Seminary’s high cupola when General John Reynolds rode up, just before 10am. “The devil’s to pay,” called Buford as he climbed down to meet Reynolds, who promised to have his men up as quickly as possible. “Can you hold out?” he asked the cavalry commander. “I reckon I can,” came the reply.
Reynolds sent word to General George Meade, still in Maryland, fourteen miles south. He would fight the Rebels here, keeping them out of town, and most definitely keeping them from Cemetery Hill to the south. This hill, thought Reynolds, must be held. Whichever side clung to this rise would control the battle.
As his I Corps came quick up the road, Reynolds was waiting for it south of town near a farm owned by the Codori Family. He directed it to cross the fields and head northwest, bypassing the streets of the town they were protecting. In less than a half hour, the first Union infantry crested McPherson’s Ridge and fell into line, just as the Mississippians and North Carolinians appeared before them from an undulating wheat field. Now, the skirmish was a battle.
Reynolds was on the scene again – now placing regiments; now issuing orders. The Rebels were sixty paces to his front when he urged a Wisconsin Regiment on. “Forward!” he cried, “For God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of the woods!” Soon after, he was hit by a ball from a Confederate musket falling dead almost instantly.
Around 11am, Heth pushed the issue and more troops were fed into the tempest. At first, along the north side of the Pike, the Rebels were successful, temporarily dislodging the Federals. But soon their sport was wrecked by a counter charge, pushing them back from McPherson’s Ridge. To the south, the initial Union thrust directed by Reynolds swept up hundreds of Rebel prisoners, including brigade commander, James Archer.
Heth was now very aware that what he was fighting was not militia or even just cavalry. It was the I Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Despite warning and reports, nobody, not even Robert E. Lee, expected infantry. A lull had fallen over the battlefield, now strewn with the morning’s dead. Though he sent word back to his corps commander, A.P. Hill, General Lee was not kept informed of the growing battle. Lee would not learn of it until he heard the guns as he rode east towards the unexpected fighting.
The lull gave both sides the chance to gather forces. As Hill added the remaining weight of his corps, General Richard Ewell arrived with Robert Rodes’ Division. At first, they seemed to be positioned on the right flank of the Union line. This was, for a time, true, and the I Corps bent north to hold on as they might.
But the XI Corps, larger than the first, though still smaller than the newly-arrived Rebels, was quickly marching north along two parallel roads. Oliver Otis Howard, its commander, noticed, as did Reynolds, that the ground south of Gettysburg, especially Cemetery Hill, was key. He placed a division upon it, knowing he might have to fall back.
Howard’s line was not a good one. The ground north of town was mostly flat and useless for defense. But if he didn’t do something, the I Corps, now commanded by Abner Doubleday, would be certainly ripped apart by the right flank.
Around 2pm, the greatest push of the day came from the north. Rodes’ Division had been joined by Jubal Early’s and together, the Rebels beat down upon Howard’s lines, overlapping his right and steadily pushing them back. From Oak Hill, in what was now the center of the Confederate line, myriad artillery ripped holes in the Union lines.
To be sure, there were some small Union victories that day. Early in the fighting, scores of Rebels were caught in an unfinished railroad cut. Later, an entire Rebel brigade was decimated when they guided drunkenly towards a hidden Union line. They were killed where they stood and their blood ran in rivulets.
For the most part, however, the XI Corps arrived and was just as quickly driven back, leaving the I Corps once again on their own. But neither could they hold, and, after falling back to Seminary Ridge, they too were driven back, though in better order.
The streets of Gettysburg were alive with both Federals and Confederates, killing and dying, trying to keep with their regiments, or captured when lost. General Howard had called for an overall retreat and soon Cemetery Hill was gathering orphaned Federal units by the score.
It was around 4pm when Winfield Scott Hancock arrived. He was sent by Meade when it was learned that Reynolds had been killed. Like both Reynolds and Howard before him, he recognized the importance of Cemetery Hill, but he also saw how its sister, Culp’s Hill, attached to the southeast, might also be used. An hour later, the XII Corps arrived, joined shortly by the III Corps.
By now, Lee had been fully appraised of the situation. He was not happy that his orders had been blatantly disobeyed by Henry Heth and A.P. Hill, but a victory was a victory and something might come of it, especially if the enemy could be driven from the heights south of town. Lee ordered General Ewell to take Cemetery Hill, but only “if practicable.”
Ewell did not believe it to be so, and for good reason. Though victorious, his men had suffered greatly. The town had become an obstacle, dispersing regiments and scattering brigades. Even if they could be put together before dark, what use might they be? Though Jubal Early was hounding Ewell to make an attack, it was not upon Cemetery Hill, which was packed with Union artillery, but upon Culp’s Hill, the new Union right flank.
Because of the quickness of Early’s initial attack, he had several fresh brigades. This was promising, but several brigades, perhaps 6,000 men, would not carry and hold the strong Union position. Convinced that it might just be practicable, Ewell asked General Lee for reinforcements. Though there was a relatively fresh division and at least two other fresh brigades in A.P. Hill’s Corps, Lee refused to give them to Ewell, rendering his own request not practicable.
To make matters worse, Early had to give up a brigade when word of Federals coming from York filtered into his headquarters. This was only a rumor, but he had to see to it. Ewell’s attack upon Cemetery Hill or Culp’s Hill would now consist of less than 5,000. Lee had not ordered an assault and thus must not have feel that the assault was necessary. If he had, he might have given Ewell the reinforcements.
Though Lee was now convinced that the Army of the Potomac was in Pennsylvania, he was not yet convinced that so much of it was across the Mason-Dixon Line. General Longstreet had strongly urged that Lee disengage the army and make a quick march towards the Maryland boarder, getting between the Union Army and Washington. Lee, however, demurred. “The enemy is there,” he said, gesturing towards Cemetery Hill, “and I am going to attack him there.” And so he decided that the next day, he would renew the attacks. Meade, believed Lee, could not possibly concentrate his army by the next morning, and so determined to take Cemetery Hill on July 2.
General Meade had arrived well after dark, probably around 1am, at Howard’s headquarters on Cemetery Hill. Howard was worried about being blamed for the defeat, but Meade explained that he imparted no blame. They were joined by Generals Dan Sickles (III Corps) and Henry Slocum (XII Corps). All agreed that Cemetery Hill was to be defended, with Meade concluding, “it is too late to leave it.”1
- Sources: Morning at Willoughby Run by Richard S. Shue; Gettysburg, July 1 Completely Revised Edition by David G. Martin; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin Coddington; Gettysburg by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]