The Battle of Gettysburg Day One: July 1, 1863
Today, July 1, 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the turning point of the American Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg opened today, on a hot day in rural Pennsylvania, July 1, 1863.
The three day battle ended with General Robert E. Lee retreating back to Virginia, where he and his Army of Northern Virginia would hold out for nearly 2 more years before surrendering.
Year after year, Lincoln sent general after general to fight Lee, and his best generals, Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet. Longstreet has long, and wrongly, been blamed for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, and ultimately the war. Irvin McDowell, George B. McClellan, Joseph Hooker, and Ambrose Burnside; all sent to fight in Virginia, all defeated one by one.
The Confederate Army had been riding a wave of success. Lee attempted to invade the Union once before, but was checked by McClellan in September of 1862 at the Battle of Antietam. While the Confederates were not defeated, the Maryland campaign was forced to end, and the Army of Northern Virginia withdrew back into Virginia.
Nine months later, near Chancellorsville, Virginia, Joe Hooker intended to envelop Lee’s army, attacking from both the front and rear. Lee then did the unthinkable.
He split his army in two in the face of superior numbers.
With only about 80% of his forces at his disposal, Lee attacked Hooker, forcing Hooker to withdraw back to defensive lines in Chancellorsville.
Lee then split his army again, sending Jackson to attack Hookers right flank, completely routing the Union XI Corps.
Jackson, as he was wont to do, went out on a personal scouting mission to take in the situation and dispositions. When he returned, as darkness was falling, he was mortally wounded by his own men, mistaking his group for Union cavalry.
Jackson was shot in the left arm, and it was amputated, but he died of complications due to pneumonia on May 10, 1863.
Lee, on hearing that Jackson had been wounded, immediately sent a message to Jackson:
Give General Jackson my affectionate regards, and say to him: he has lost his left arm but I my right.
Upon receiving news of Jackson’s death, Lee was devastated. He told his cook,
William, I have lost my right arm.
Lee had to move on from the loss of his right hand man, because there was still a war that needed to be fought.
It is generally said that Lee invaded Pennsylvania because he was in search of shoes. While this may be true, it was only a small part of Lee’s reasoning. Lee decided to invade the north to let his troops live off the northerners crops for awhile, which were just coming in, and grant a reprieve to the farmers of northern Virginia. There was also a peace movement underway in the north, and he hoped to bolster that movement, if not make it stronger.
As Lee moved north, he allowed his best cavalry general, J.E.B. Stuart to take some of the cavalry and ride around the east flank of the Union Army of the Potomac. Stuart rode around southern Pennsylvania, getting his name in the papers while Lee was left virtually blind. It was Lee’s own doing, his orders left Stuart too much latitude.
Joe Hooker, commander of the Army of the Potomac, and the man who was defeated at Chancellorsville, resigned, and was replaced by George Meade.
The day before the battle began, on June 30, 1863, General John Pettigrew was sent from Cashtown, a few miles to the northwest of Gettysburg, to Gettysburg proper in search of supplies, shoes in particular. This may be where the perception that Lee was searching for shoes came from.
As Pettigrew entered the town, he ran into a Federal cavalry force, commanded by Brigadier General John Buford, moving in from the south. Pettigrew withdrew without engaging, but when he relayed the information to his superiors, Lieutenant General Ambrose P. Hill and Major General Henry Heth, neither believed that a substantial Union force was in the area, thinking it was Pennsylvania militia instead.
Hill, disregarding orders from Lee to not engage the enemy until the entire army was concentrated (it was strung out from Cashtown to Chambersburg), he mounted a reconnaissance in force to Gettysburg on the first of July.
So the Battle of Gettysburg began.
Buford had laid his defenses with the idea of fighting only a delaying action, allowing the rest of the Army of the Potomac to arrive in the area.
As the Confederates were pushing Buford’s small cavalry force off the ridges and towards the town, Major General John F. Reynolds arrived with his I Corps. He was regarded by many in Washington as the best general they had. As he was directing the placement of his men and artillery, Reynolds was fatally shot near McPherson’s Woods northwest of town.
Major General Abner Doubleday, the purported father of baseball, took command of the corps.
Major General Winfield Hancock was sent by General Meade to stabilize the situation as soon as word was received that Reynolds had been killed. Hancock, upon seeing the ground that Buford had chosen for the battlefield, determined to hold the high ground and fight the battle there. The Union generals decided that they were not going anywhere.
The Confederates continued to push the Union forces back, as more and more troops from both sides began to reach the battlefield.
Lee came forward to appraise the situation, and ordered Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell and his Second Corps to take Cemetery Ridge, just to the south of Gettysburg “if practicable”. One of Lee’s greatest weaknesses is that when he gave orders, he provided the means for them to be disobeyed. He was too much the gentleman.
Lee’s orders to Ewell were to press the advantage as the Federal forces were starting to flee in great confusion over Seminary Ridge towards Cemetery Ridge. Ewell only needed fall on them from the rear, giving the a swift kick in the ass, so to speak, and the Confederates would have ended up with possession of all the high ground in the area.
Ewell decided that taking Cemetery Ridge was “not practicable”, and never even attempted an assault on the ridge.
The Federals ended up rallying, and digging in atop Cemetery Ridge.
The Three Days at Gettysburg blog has a great analysis of why Ewell may not have found an assault practicable.
By the end of the day, the Federals had fled through the town of Gettysburg, but rallied after the Confederates failed to press the attack, and dug into Cemetery Ridge. Over 49,000 men fought that first day, and reinforcements continued to march to the battle field, almost all had arrived by the evening of July 2.
The Confederates were still flying high, thinking themselves invincible as they were beginning to route the Federals. But the battle turned from a route into a withdrawal to the remaining ridges south of town, anchoring on Culp’s Hill to the north, and Little Round Top to the south, a name that will become synonymous with Gettysburg itself.
The battle that ultimately saved the Union, and prompted Abraham Lincoln to make his no famous Gettysburg Address.
A quick note about rank. During the Civil War, generals ranked like this (from highest to lowest):
- Lieutenant General
- Major General
- Brigadier General