Forward to next post: Two hundred yards to safety, death was fifty yards behind
To begin with, you must understand that Cemetery Ridge, just south and east of the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is beautiful defensive ground.
One hundred and fifty years ago today, at about five in the morning, two brigades of Harry Heth’s division in A. P. Hill’s corp of the Army of Northern Virginia stepped out toward Gettysburg to make a reconnaissance in force.
July first, 1863, was a Wednesday. The sky had been getting light for a while; by 05:12 the last stars disappeared, although the sun would not rise until 05:44.
The rebels had already taken Gettysburg. On June the 26th Jubal Early’s troops had occupied the town after driving off some local militia in a series of minor skirmishes, and laid the town under tribute. They did not take any significant supplies, however, when they pulled out the next morning.
On the 29th, Lee learned that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the Potomac. He ordered his army to concentrate at Cashtown, Pennsylvania, and in the meantime to avoid any general engagement with Federal forces. The next day, eight miles to the east of Cashtown, Heth sent a brigade back to Gettysburg to gather supplies — primarily shoes. As they approached the town, though, they spied a column of Federal cavalry, and declined to make contact.
That cavalry was a division under the command of John Buford. Cavalry was used, at the time, for scouting and security, and for fighting other cavalry. Buford was aware that the rebel army was somewhere up ahead, and as he scouted the ground on the 30th of June he noted the defensive properties of the ridges around Gettysburg.
Buford set up lines on McPherson Ridge, Herr Ridge, and Seminary Ridge to the north and west of town, intending to fall back slowly, to give the rest of the army time to come up and take position on Cemetery Ridge to the south of Gettysburg. They fought as dismounted cavalry — armed with breech-loading carbines — of every four men three in line spaced thirty feet apart and the fourth in the rear holding their horses.
Ahead of the lines, mounted vedettes — what we would call listening posts — waited for contact. At around 07:30 on July first, that contact came. Lt. Marcellus Jones, Company E. 8th Illinois, stationed out on the Chambersburg Pike, fired the first shot of the Battle of Gettysburg, intended as a signal that there was activity to his front, not actually firing at anyone.
The Confederates believed, at first, that they were facing more local militia, and came on in three ranks of skirmishers. Buford’s dismounted troopers, however, did not break, and instead poured on such effective fire (Sharps carbines; .52 caliber, rate of fire 8-10 shots/minute, effective range 500 yards) supported by one battery of artillery, that Heth, an experienced infantry officer, considered that he was facing infantry. He ordered his men into battle lines and brought up artillery, the maneuver taking about two hours to complete. Sometime between 08:00 and 09:00 the Confederate advance resumed.
The overwhelming numbers of the rebels pushed Buford’s men back off Herr Ridge. They took their next defensive line two hundred yards to the east, on Belmont School House Ridge. Another forty-five minutes and they were pushed back yet again, across a stream called Willoughby Run and up to McPherson’s Ridge.
The purpose of the delaying action was to give time for the Federal infantry to arrive, to fight on a more equal basis of infantry against infantry. General Reynolds of I Corp was moving up rapidly.
As his men rallied on McPherson’s Ridge, Buford sent a dispatch to General Meade, commanding officer of the Army of the Potomac, fourteen miles away in Taneytown, Maryland:
The enemy’s forces are advancing on me at this point, and are driving my pickets and skirmishers very rapidly. There is also a large force at Heidlersburg that is driving my pickets at that point from that direction. General Reynolds is advancing; and is within three miles of this point with his leading division. I am positive that the whole of A. P. Hill’s force is advancing.
This was Meade’s first notice that a battle was happening. Meade had only taken command of the Army of the Potomac on the 28th of June when Fighting Joe Hooker resigned. He dispatched [his aide] [Correction:) trusted corp commander, Winfield Scott Hancock, to assess the situation, while he got the Army of the Potomac moving in the direction of Gettysburg.
Meanwhile, back at Gettysburg, about ten in the morning, an entire Rebel brigade under James Archer was pressing up the hill toward McPherson’s Ridge.
On the Union side, General Reynolds had ridden ahead of his troops, and met General Buford with the words, “What’s the matter, John?” Buford pointed out at Heth’s troops and replied, “There’s the devil to pay.”
What Reynolds had coming up behind him at the double-quick was the Iron Brigade, the “black-hatted bastards,” one of the toughest units in the Union army. Reynolds sent a message back to Meade:
The enemy is advancing in strong force, and I fear that he will go to the heights beyond the town before I can. I will fight him inch by inch, and if driven into the town, I will barricade the streets, and hold him back for as long as I can.
The message got to Meade about 11:20, and Meade remarked “Good! That is just like Reynolds, he will hold out to the bitter end.” What Meade couldn’t have known was that Reynolds was already lying dead on the field, shot in the head at about 10:45.
Reynolds had been personally leading his troops into position: the 24th Michigan into McPherson’s Woods, the 2nd Wisconsin to their right, moving up so rapidly that they didn’t have time to load their rifles before they were in a fight.
The fresh reinforcements reversed the Confederate advance for a time, and re-crossed Willoughby Run. General Archer, Heth’s brigade commander, was captured along with about two hundred of his men. But that was not to last. The numbers that Heth was now bringing up were too heavy. The Iron Brigade set up a defensive line inside the woods. When they could no longer hold, they fell back to a second prepared line, then to a third.
Heth knew that he was in a bigger fight than he’d anticipated, and that the morning hadn’t gone well. He brought up the 26th North Carolina, the largest brigade of either army at Gettysburg, to make a frontal assault on the Iron Brigade. About 14:30 they stepped off, supported by the rest of Pettigrew’s Brigade.
The Union forces could not hold. They were pushed back, step by step, until they reached the prepared barricades on Seminary Ridge. They held off the first Rebel charge, and a second, but it soon became clear that they would have to abandon this position too.
Buford wrote another dispatch:
A tremendous battle has been raging since 9:30 a.m., with varying success. At the present moment, the battle is raging on the road to Cashtown, and within short cannon range of this town. The enemy’s line is a semicircle on the height, from north to west. General Reynolds was killed early this morning. In my opinion, there is no directing person.
P.S.-We need help now.
On the right side of the Union line, the troops came under cannon fire from their own batteries up on Cemetery Ridge to the south and east of Gettysburg. Believing that the Rebels were behind them, rather than that this was a friendly-fire incident, they fell back through the town. With the flanks crumbling, the Union troops made a fighting retreat through Gettysburg, and up the sides of Cemetery Ridge.
Hancock, who had indeed assessed the situation, decided that Cemetery Ridge was “the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw.” He directed the positions and defenses, while awaiting the remainder of the Army of the Potomac.
For the Confederate side, Lee ordered Ewell, Heth’s superior, to take Cemetery Ridge “if practicable.” Ewell decided that it wasn’t — his men were exhausted, low on ammunition, and Lee had refused to send reinforcements — and by the next day, sufficient fresh Union troops had arrived that taking Cemetery Ridge was impossible.
Sunset on the first of July was at 20:41. The moon was full that night.
The 24th Michigan had taken 73% casualties in the fight; it was never the same again. The 26th North Carolina had taken 81% casualties, including their commanding officer and second in command. Those two units suffered the highest regimental casualties of their respective sides in the entire three-day battle