The Battle of Gettysburg wasn’t supposed to happen.
Lee’s goal in his Pennsylvania campaign wasn’t a decisive battle in a sleepy little town no one had ever heard of before. He wanted to hit Harrisburg or even Philadelphia. If he could get to one of those cities he might turn the Union against the war.
In war, as they say, the best laid plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy. And so it happened that Lee’s best laid plans were quashed in a little town that would give its name to history. It was a point of convergence; the place where the aura of invincibility that followed the Army of Northern Virginia was shattered and the Army of the Potomac found its backbone. It all started because of one thing.
After Chancellorsville, Lee realized he needed to take some of the pressure of the war off of northern Virginia’s shoulders. He slipped down the Shenandoah Valley with some 70,000 men and headed for the heartlands of Pennsylvania. Joe Hooker refused to follow at first, and instead offered a plan to march on Richmond and force Lee to return. Lincoln rejected it and ordered Hooker to follow Lee to Pennsylvania.
Throughout June the two armies snaked their way towards Harrisburg. On June 28 Hooker got in to an argument with Lincoln and offered his resignation in what has always been assumed a gambit. Lincoln promptly accepted and offered the job to John Reynolds, who turned it down. Command of the Union Army fell to V Corps commander George Meade. Three days before the accidental battle at Gettysburg the Army of the Potomac had a new commander who knew practically nothing about the disposition of the Union forces.
Events transpired to make things difficult for Lee, too. He had detached most of his cavalry from the army under JEB Stuart, a prototypically flashy cavalry officer who was as interested making a reputation as he was in winning battles. As so often happens, the former motivation hurt the latter and Stuart abandoned, for all intents and purposes, the Army of Northern Virginia in an attempt to circumnavigate the entire Army of the Potomac. He’s now mostly remembered not as a dashing cavalry commander, but as the general who allowed his army to stumble blindly in to the biggest battle of the Civil War.
The Union cavalry was on the ball. General John Buford rode in to Gettysburg at the head of a cavalry division on June 30 and had intermittent contact with a Confederate force under Pettigrew but did not engage. Buford decided that the terrain around Gettysburg was some of the best he’d seen for a battle and sent word to General John Reynolds and I Corps.
Pettigrew was not supposed to be in Gettysburg on June 30th. His men, unaware of their proximity to the Union van, were on a scavenging mission. Confederate supply lines were breaking down at that point in the war and the soldiers often lacked shoes. Pettigrew’s men saw Gettysburg as a place to find some decent footwear. As so often happens in war the biggest moment turned on a comparatively small thing.
Lee was amassing his forces a few miles up the road in Cashtown. Jackson’s old command had been parceled out to two new corps under A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell. At the end of June, Ewell was in the van and had nearly reached Harrisburg while Hill was close to Cashtown and Longstreet was about a day’s march behind in Chambersburg. The initial attack engagement would fall to Hill from the northwest and Ewell from the north.
On the morning of July 1 Heth’s Division of A.P. Hill’s Corps headed down the Chambersburg Pike toward Gettysburg for a reconnaissance in force. Buford’s cavalry was dismounted and arrayed along the ridges to the west of town. The cavalrymen were heavily outnumbered but did have one advantage. They were armed with single shot, breech loading Sharps carbines, a favorite of the mounted forces on both sides of the war. The Sharps could fire eight or nine rounds per minute, compared to the three rounds that the best trained users of the muzzle loading infantry muskets could fire.
Buford had no real choice other than to trade ground for time. He engaged in what is known as “defense in depth” fighting, a rolling retreat under fire, the sort of tactic pioneered by Gustavus Adolphus. A bit after ten the first elements of I Corps appeared on the field in the form of the famous Iron Brigade and managed to surround and capture a good chunk of Archer’s Brigade of Heth’s Division, including General Archer himself.
There would be no time for rest. John Reynolds was shot shortly after he appeared on the battlefield to assess the defenses and Abner Doubleday (who is, probably erroneously, best known for inventing the modern game of baseball in a cow patch in Cooperstown, NY) took over. The I Corps was still heavily outnumbered and things were about to get worse.
Heth’s Division was getting reinforcements. Pettigrew and Brockenbrough’s Brigades were arriving in the field along with another of Hill’s divisions under William Dorsey Pender. Ewell’s Corps was approaching from the north at the same time. Oliver O. Howard’s newly arrived Union XI Corps was forced to race up the Taneytown Road, which ran south from Gettysburg along Cemetary Ridge, and up through town in order to hold the line and keep Ewell from outflanking I Corps from the right.
Howard left a brigade under Adolph Steinwehr on the high ground of Cemetery Hill to act as a reserve. This would prove fortuitous as the afternoon wore on.
The terrain south of Gettysburg is practically tailor-made for a battle. Cemetery Ridge forms a sort of fishhook, with the rounded, bottom part of the hook facing the city and the point anchored by Cemetery Hill to the east. The shaft of the fishhook then runs straight south with the heights topped by a low, brick wall. South of the Ridge the high ground gives way to a relatively flat area known as the Wheat Field that is fronted to the west by the Peach Orchard. Further south the hills known as Little Round Top and Round Top rise, covered to the east by a field of boulders called Devil’s Den.
For any force that found itself, as the Army of the Potomac did on July 1, 1863, on the field of Gettysburg and attacked by a larger force from the north and west, the battlefield at Gettysburg defined itself. As the Union forces collapsed throughout the afternoon of July 1, they naturally converged on Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery Hill. The fact that the battlefield defined the Union lines also meant that it defined the Confederate objectives.
This was where the loss of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville came back to haunt Robert E. Lee. He issued an order to Richard Ewell commanding him to take Cemetery Hill if it was possible. Jackson probably would not have taken this order as a suggestion. He would have seen Cemetery Hill’s position as absolutely key to the battlefield, assessed the flagging Union defense north of Gettysburg, and done everything in his power to take Cemetery Hill. Ewell chose to conclude that the assault was not practicable. The Confederates lost their best chance to win at Gettysburg when Ewell made that choice.
Meade’s subordinates, meanwhile, did not fail him. Howard agreed with Buford’s assessment that the land was good for a fight. When Winfield Scott Hancock, Meade’s most trusted subordinate, arrived at a crucial point he, too, agreed and set about making sure the retreating Union forces took their places along the north side of Cemetery Ridge.
Ewell did have a subordinate aggressive enough to take the high ground. Isaac Trimble, who had fought under Jackson at Cross Keys and through every engagement until he was wounded at Second Bull Run, was under Ewell’s command but had no troops under his direct command. He noticed that off to the east of Cemetery Hill another rise, Culp’s Hill, was vacant and in perfect position to dominate Cemetery Hill and keep the Union from anchoring their right flank.
Trimble didn’t get the troops he needed to take Culp’s Hill. In his papers Trimble claimed that Ewell said he had no orders to engage. Throughout 1861 and 1862 men like Stonewall Jackson and Isaac Trimble propelled the Army of Northern Virginia to greatness. At Gettysburg this failure of audacity probably cost Lee the battle.
Day 1 at Gettysburg was a story of uncharacteristic failure on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia and uncharacteristic success on the part of the Army of the Potomac. Stuart failed to play the role cavalry was supposed to play. Ewell failed to exploit the Union retreat. At the same time John Buford proved the Union cavalry was far better than anyone had suspected up until that point. John Reynolds and Winfield Scott Hancock fought more aggressively than expected and held their ground and managed to keep organized in a rearguard all day against superior forces. Oliver O. Howard managed to make up for his failure to hold the right flank at Chancellorsville.
So Day 1 at Gettysburg passed in to Day 2. The Union commanded the high ground at Cemetery Ridge, Cemetery Hill, and Culp’s Hill.
But now Longstreet was in the field. Lafayette McLaws’ Division and John Bell Hood’s Division were on the Confederate right prepared to assault through the Wheatfield and the Round Tops. If they could take the hills they’d be able to roll up the Union left flank.
The fight was far from over.