This is a continuation of my five-part Battle Spotlight on the Gettysburg campaign. If you haven’t already, please read my previous post: Battle Spotlight #14: Gettysburg – Introduction to get a sense of what the situation was prior to the battle of Gettysburg.
Brigadier General John Buford, commander of a division of Union cavalry, knew that the Confederates would be back in Gettysburg in the morning of July 1. So, he set up a defense on three different heights to the west of Gettysburg – McPherson Ridge, Herr Ridge, and Seminary Ridge – which were more or less one behind the other. This was ideal for fighting the delaying action which he was planning to. He would hold back the Confederates for as long as he could with his two brigades under William Gamble and Thomas Devin, to buy time for Reynolds’s infantry to arrive and deploy.
Meanwhile, two brigades of Henry Heth’s Confederate division of A. P. Hill‘s Third Corps, under the command of James J. Archer and Joseph R. Davis, moved towards the town in marching columns, hoping to sweep away any resistance they encountered. At 7:30 AM, they encountered the advance skirmishers from Gamble’s brigade, eventually meeting the main force. The cavalrymen were fighting dismounted, which meant that they were off their horses, with one out of every four men holding the horses behind the main lines. Gamble’s brigade set a strong resistance, equipped with new breech-loading carbines which could fire much faster than any regular infantry musket could.
Finally, at 10:20, with Buford’s line about to give way, advance troops from the I Corps marched up – two brigades, under Lysander Cutler and Solomon Meredith. They deployed to the north and the south of Chambersburg Pike, respectively. Davis’s Confederates achieved initial success against Cutler, but were driven back near an unfinished railroad cut by the Federals. To the south, Meredith’s Iron Brigade also repulsed Archer’s brigade. While he was placing artillery and infantry, John Reynolds was shot and killed by a Confederate bullet. His last words were “Forward! For God’s sake, forward!” The Union army had lost their most valuable general.
Reynolds’s senior division commander, Abner Doubleday, took command of the I Corps, feeding more troops into the fight. Heth did the same on the Confederate side, adding his other two brigades under Pettigrew and Brockenbrough. As Pettigrew’s brigade engaged, they flanked the 19th Indiana of the Iron Brigade – that is, they fired into the side of the regiment so that they inflicted devastating power with almost no return fire. His North Carolinians slowly drove the famed Iron Brigade back. When Hill ordered a second division under William Dorsey Pender forward, the entire I Corps was pushed back from Seminary Ridge and into the streets of Gettysburg.
At 2:00, Ewell launched a full-scale attack with two of his divisions, Rodes’s and Early’s, and drove back the Union XI Corps troops after they flanked their line. Howard, who was in command of the field, ordered a general retreat back to Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill, where he had left a brigade under Adolph von Steinwehr to rally the troops.
This was the second time within three months that the XI Corps had been routed. Comprised mostly of German immigrants, they were fiercely loyal to their German commanders like Carl Schurz and Alexander Schimmelfennig. In May at Chancellorsville, they were the unfortunate corps that bore the brunt of Stonewall Jackson’s surprise assault on the Federal army’s flank, and they were subsequently routed. Now, in July, they again were driven back from their positions. There was no doubt why Howard’s corps was ever after dubbed “Howard’s jumpy Dutchmen.”
Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, commander of the II Corps, was Meade’s most trusted subordinate and sometimes considered the best Union corps commander of the war. So, he was sent by Meade to assume command of the field with orders to determine whether Gettysburg was the right place to put up a fight. When he arrived, Howard sparred with him over Meade’s order, since it wasn’t a written order and since Howard was actually senior to Hancock, who had only taken command of his corps a few months before. But Howard eventually reluctantly agreed to let Hancock take command.
Hancock used his charismatic personality to rally the troops which were streaming back up the hillside, and directed commanders to place their troops in strong defensive positions and to “dig in”, that is, to make trenches. Hancock stated that “this is the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw.” Howard agreed, and so did Gouverneur K. Warren, the chief engineer of the army who was also sent by Meade to survey the position. And so, Hancock said to Howard, “Very well, sir, I select this as the battlefield.”
Meanwhile, on the other side, the Confederates were ecstatic about their victory. But Lee knew that the battle was not won yet. He knew that if the Federals were allowed to entrench in the high ground, the Federals would have the advantage, even though Lee’s army had scored an initial victory today. Therefore, Lee ordered Ewell to launch an attack and take Cemetery Hill “if practicable.” Lee was used to scripting his orders as suggestions, giving leeway to his subordinates like Jackson and Longstreet to take the initiative. But Jackson was dead, and Ewell was no Jackson. Lee had expected his order (to take the hill) to be carried out, but Ewell interpreted “if practicable” to to mean “with guarantee of success.” Not feeling that his attack would be a success, he did not move his corps forward to take the hill. This was one of the Army of Northern Virginia’s greatest missed opportunities.
And so, the first day’s battle was concluded. No attack was launched on the Union right, allowing the Federal troops to fortify themselves on the hills, possibly giving them a crucial advantage for the next day’s battle. More troops from both sides streamed onto the battlefield during the night, setting the stage for the battle on July 2.