Battle of Gettysburg – Day 1
July 1, 1863
“The devil’s to pay!”
Brigadier General John Buford, after being asked by Major General John Reynolds about the situation at Gettysburg.
All throughout the month of May, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, had been pushing for an offensive campaign against the Northern States in order to disrupt any future campaign plans of the Union Army, collect supplies from the resource rich states of the north, and threaten crucial Union cities. Ravaged by war, the state of Virginia had paid a heavy price for the Confederacy.
Although they had been the site of many Confederate victories, the countless numbers of battles, as well as the movement of large armies, have taken a toll on the state, as it was slowly being depleted of supplies and resources. Wanting to relieve the pressure from his home state, as well as bring a possible end to the war, Lee hoped to march north where he can move the fighting away from their territory and display a show of force that would stir up support for those in the Union who wanted to begin peace negotiations to end the raging civil war.
Confederate high command had mixed feelings with this planned operation, especially with the various offensive happening all around the Confederacy. Some wanted to keep the army’s focus on the defensive, so that they could counter any assault struck against them. To them, an offensive would only take up men and resources that could be used to defend their territory.
However, despite those who did not like the plan, Lee’s offensive operation had the approval of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Because of this, on June 3, 1863, Lee gathered his forces and began secretly marching them away from Fredericksburg. Evading detection from the Union’s Army of the Potomac, which had been keeping an eye on the Army of Northern Virginia and guarding against a possible offensive by them, Lee soon moved his forces towards Culpeper.
An attempt to pursue the Army of Northern Virginia was made by Union cavalry, and this chase resulted in the Battle of Brandy Station, where the famous Confederate Cavalry General J. E. B. Stuart had his force surprised and nearly outfought by Union cavalry. However, Stuart’s cavalry managed to push back Union forces, and despite the embarrassment, the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia were kept secret.
With a force of seventy-five thousand men, the Army of Northern Virginia soon began a series of marches that would sneak them up north to the Shenandoah Valley, then to Maryland, and then into Pennsylvania. The first major movement began on June 10, when Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps began moving forward.
Doing their best to pursue the Confederate forces, the ninety-four thousand man strong Army of the Potomac, which was still commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker, began their movement on June 13.
However, despite the Army of the Potomac’s pursuit, the Army of Northern Virginia met light resistance in their march north. Overwhelming the Union forces that stood in their way, they soon managed to reach the bountiful Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania.
Throughout the last week of June Confederate forces found themselves marching and foraging in Pennsylvania with virtually no resistance. Meanwhile, as Ewell’s Second Corps held Pennsylvania, the army’s First Corps, as well as Stuart’s Cavalry Corps, stayed east of the Blue Ridge Mountains in order to slow down the movement of the Army of the Potomac. Facing off with Union cavalry, Stuart’s forces engaged the Union’s advance scouts from June 17 to 23. Because of these actions, the Confederate cavalry were able to prevent their Union counterparts from spotting the main force of Lee’s army.
By June 23, however, new orders were given for him to screen the right flank of Ewell’s Second Corps in Pennsylvania. To do this, he would have to harass Union forces, in order to further slow down their march and prevent them from scouting out the Confederate forces.
Making the decision to move upon Wade Hampton, instead of taking a straight route towards the Second Corps, Stuart’s cavalry moved on a northerly route. In this movement, he hoped to have his force in-between the Army of the Potomac and Ewell’s Second Corps. However, he was surprised to learn that the Union Army had moved faster than expected, and instead of being in-between the Second Corps and the Army of the Potomac, Stuart now found himself on the opposite end, with the Army of the Potomac being between him and the Second Corps.
Because of this situation, Stuart and his cavalry were forced to move east in order to link up with the Second Corps. This movement would take a lot of time to conduct, and as he captured various supplies, his force slowly began burdened by their prizes, which resulted in further slowing down their movement.
With Stuart’s Cavalry Corps cut-off from the main army, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia suddenly found themselves deprived of a cavalry screen, as well as the vital scouts they needed to reconnoiter unfamiliar and hostile territory.
As the various corps of the Army of Northern Virginia began heading north in order to converge in Pennsylvania, the Union’s Army of the Potomac did their best to catch up and counter the invasion. However, despite their surprisingly fast movement, their commander, General Hooker, was becoming increasingly complacent and demanding for more reinforcements against an enemy who he believed outnumbered him. Wanting additional men for the campaign, Hooker made request for various garrisons that were charged to protect vital areas such as Baltimore, Washington, Alexandria and Harper’s Ferry to join his command These request, however, were not granted, and in a furious reaction to this, Hooker asked to be given reinforcements or else have him replaced.
On June 28, at dawn, General Hooker was replaced by Major General George Meade as the commander of the Army of the Potomac. Despite still not having a clear picture to where the Army of Northern Virginia was concentrating, Meade kept the army moving forward in hopes of catching up with them.
On June 29, upon hearing of his opposing foe’s change of command, Lee ordered that his forces should concentrate on Cashtown in anticipation of a possible fight. Wanting to engage the Union forces only when his army was fully concentrated, he gave orders for his generals not to get into a major engagement until all the units of the army were together.
During this time, most of the Army of Northern Virginia was still spread out, but were in close proximity with each other. The Second Corps were at Carlisle, the First Corps was west of Blue Ridge, while a good portion of the Third Corps was at or near Cashtown already.
A day after Lee’s orders, on June 30, a force from Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps moved towards the town of Gettysburg. Composed of one brigade led by Brigadier General James Pettigrew, the unit was ordered by their division commander, Major General Henry Heth, to move towards the town and scout out the nearby area. Located just south-east of Cashtown, Gettysburg had a series of roads converging at the town, making it a vital junction point for future movements.
Upon reaching the town, Pettigrew reported to have seen cavalry heading towards Gettysburg from the south. However, when he reported this to his commanders, they doubted the possibility of cavalry this far and assumed that it was only militia. But despite their assumption that it was merely militia in front of them, the commanders wanted to be sure. To fully confirm this, it was decided that a reconnaissance in force should be conducted the next day, in order to figure out how strong their enemy was in the area.
Although they did not know it at the time, Pettigrew’s report of cavalry was indeed true. On June 30, at around eleven o’clock in the morning, the 3rd Indiana Cavalry Regiment entered the town of Gettysburg. Behind the cavalry regiment was Brigadier General John Buford’s First Cavalry Division, which was a part of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps.
Composed of two brigades of two thousand nine hundred horse troopers, the First Cavalry Division, like the rest of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, had been looking for the invading Confederate forces. The day before, the unit had been at the passes at South Mountain, trying to locate their enemy. After a failed search, the division camped for the night and noticed campfires heading towards the direction of Gettysburg. Deciding to follow this lead when morning came, they soon reached the town of Gettysburg and spotted Pettigrew’s brigade. Further scouting efforts soon told them that A.P. Hill’s Third Corps was only nine miles west from the town.
Assessing Gettysburg, Buford saw no major significance with the small town itself. However, he did notice the various roads running through the town and quickly realized that a lot of vital routes went through it. If someone wanted to go from one part of Pennsylvania to another, then they would have to pass through the vital road junction at Gettysburg. This made the town an important place for the Confederates if they wanted to attack the industrial eastern part of the state. Aside from that, the town’s roads would also prove vital for the Union forces, as any passing Union army that wanted to counter Lee’s invasion force would need a vital road junction like Gettsburg in order to direct their forces.
Seeing the value of the town, and pleased with the various ridges that could be used as strong defensive positions, Buford decided to keep his division in the town and use Gettysburg as an outpost for the coming Army of the Potomac.
But as he positioned his brigades west on McPherson’s Ridge, with the 1st Brigade south of the Chambersburg Pike and the 2nd Brigade on the north, Buford soon realized that the earlier presence of enemy infantry meant that the Confederates might come back the next day. This would be a problem, as there was an estimated number of fourteen thousand Confederate soldiers nearby, a significantly large force, especially when compared to Buford’s two thousand nine hundred cavalrymen. Nonetheless, the cavalry general was determined to hold his ground, knowing how important the roads and surrounding ridges were. Knowing that Union Major General John Reynolds and his I Corps, which was camped five miles south of town, was heading his way, Buford hoped to hold the line against any possible attack until the infantry arrived to relieve him.
On July 1, Buford’s fears were proven true, as his forward pickets on the Chambersburg Pike began encountering Brigadier General James Archer’s brigade of Tennessee and Alabama men. Marching out of camp at around five o’clock in the morning, the brigade headed east along the Chambersburg Pike until their screening skirmish force encountered one of the outposts set up by the 8th Illinois Cavalry Regiment along the road. Seeing the approaching infantry, the cavalrymen opened up with their carbines at around five thirty in the morning, before pulling back as the enemy brigade pushed forward.
Conducting a fighting retreat, the troopers of the 1st Brigade managed to delay Archer’s advance, as they cautiously fought an enemy whose composition and numbers they did not know. With their horses held at the rear, while their skirmishers took cover in whatever piece of land or vegetation they could find, Buford’s men gave no impression to the Confederates that they were dismounted cavalry troopers. Because of this Archer’s advance east towards Gettysburg was slow, as cavalrymen skirmishes against infantry before mounting their horses to fall back to another defensive line and repeating the process.
However, by eight o’clock in the morning, Archer’s brigade managed to reach the base of Herr’s Ridge, two miles west from Gettysburg. Here, some of the cavalry units of the 1st Brigade made one last stand against the advancing Confederates, before falling back to the main defensive line at McPherson’s Ridge, one mile west from the town.
By now General Heth had arrived at the scene and after assessing the situation he soon realized that they were facing Union cavalry. Deciding to regroup his force, he assigned Archer to move south of the Chambersburg Pike and attack McPherson’s Ridge, while Brigadier General Joseph Davis’ brigade was to deploy and march north of the road and attack Buford’s northern forces. At around ten fifteen in the morning these forces began their attack and placed heavy pressure along Buford’s lines. Sensing trouble, and knowing that his forces couldn’t hold long, he desperately needed the infantry of Reynold’s I Corps to move and occupy the line.
Luckily for him, Reynolds had received the various pleas for reinforcements, which encouraged him to hasten his march towards Gettysburg. Because of this quickened pace, the first elements of I Corps began nearing the town just past ten o’clock that morning. Reynolds himself was in the lead with his staff, where he met up with Buford and discussed the current situation.
Seeing the intensity of the fight, as Buford’s brigades began to slowly buckle, and realizing the importance of the town and the good ground around it, Reynolds sent out couriers to order his corps to move faster, while another messenger went to XI Corps, ordering them quickly get to Gettysburg. Lastly, another courier was sent out to General Meade, with a message informing him of the current situation and his intention to fight at the town.
As all of this was happening, Buford’s cavalrymen were fighting for their lives. Fighting against well-organized and determined men, the cavalry brigades began to fall back, with their units unable to stand against fierce infantry attacks. However, just as the cavalry force’s line was about to collapse, the men of the 1st Division, I Corps started to arrive.
Moving up to replace Buford’s 2nd Brigade, the 1st Division’s own 2nd Brigade began deploying north of the Chambersburg Pike, just as Davis’ brigade started his attack. This caused mayhem along the Union line, as regiments started retreat after being outflanked, while the 147th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment was nearly massacred after failing to receive orders to fall back.
Meanwhile, rushing in from the south, the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, I Corps, more commonly known as the “Iron Brigade”, started to relieve Buford’s 1st Brigade. With their famous black campaign hats, the brigade was easily distinguished by both sides. Seeing the brigade come into line, it is said that some Confederate soldiers commented: “Here are those damned black-hat fellers again…’Tain’t no militia – that’s the Army of the Potomac!”
Moving into action, they rushed into Herbst woods, where they fought against Archer’s advancing brigade. Encouraged by Reynolds, who rode just behind their lines, they went into the woods and began pushing back the Confederate forces there. Sadly, during this moment, Reynolds was shot and killed by a bullet that struck him at the back of his head.
Despite the loss of Reynolds, the Iron Brigade managed to achieve great success, as they forced Archer to retreat, while also capturing the general himself. But victory was far from their hands, as the collapsing line of the 2nd Brigade exposed their right flank to attack from Davis’ brigade. Quickly reacting to this new threat, the Iron Brigade shifted their regiments northward towards Davis’ Brigade, who at the time were taking position on an unfinished railroad cut. Because of the suddenness of the charge, and the bad position of the Confederate forces, the 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment managed to capture many of the brigade’s men, while the rest retreated.
By twelve noon, most of the morning fighting had ended, with both sides having suffered heavy casualties. Heth’s Division was badly mauled by the fighting, with two of his brigades having lost many men. The I Corps, now under the command of Major General Abner Doubleday, also suffered badly. Because of this a brief halt in the fighting occurred, as the two sides rested, reorganized, and awaited reinforcements. During this respite, Heth began deploying artillery and infantry for another attack, while Doubleday moved up I Corps’ other divisions in order to further reinforce McPherson’s Ridge.
Arriving at the field during the respite was Pender’s Division for the Confederates, and XI Corps for the Union. Moving up and across the town, XI Corps deployed north and merged with I Corps at Mummasburg Road. Commanding XI Corps was Major General Oliver Howard, who now assumed command of Union forces at Gettysburg.
At two o’clock in the afternoon, just as General Lee arrived at the scene, the fighting began once more, with Heth’s remaining fresh brigades advancing against the positions of the Iron Brigade, south of the Chambersburg Pike. Intense fighting would occur here, as the Iron Brigade desperately tried to hold the line against intense Confederate attacks.
Meanwhile, as fighting occurred at McPherson’s Ridge, General Ewell’s Second Corps began to arrive north of the town. Moving south, they struck the position where I Corps and XI Corps met. Heavy pressure was pressed along this section of the line, but the worst was yet to come for XI Corps. Coming in from the north-east, Major General Jubal Early’s Division, which was part of Ewell’s Second Corps, began arriving. Heading south-west along the Harrisburg Road, they were in a direct path towards XI Corps’ open right flank. Doing their best to shift their forces to meet this new force, XI Corps’ 1st Division fought hard to defend their sector. But the tenacity of the Early’s attacked forced them back with heavy casualties.
The 1st Division, under the command of Brigadier General Francis Barlow, positioned themselves on a piece of elevation at the northern side of the Harrisburg Road. Fighting against Early’s division, Union forces managed to hold the line in an intense exchange of fire. Focusing their fire to their front, they battled to hold the line. However, with their front focused on Early, they failed to notice Brigadier General George Dole’s brigade, from Major General Robert Rode’s division, swing to their left and turn their flank.
Despite receiving support from additional Union regiments, Barlow’s division was unable to hold up against the pressure against them and soon forced them to pull back. Barlow, who tried to rally his command, was shot and killed.
With Early succeeding in pushing back the Union line’s right flank, Lee gave an order for all forces to advance. Although he did not want to fight here, he realized that he held the advantage and could not stop the fighting now. The attack occurred at four o’clock in the afternoon, with Confederate forces hitting the Union lines hard on all fronts. With only two depleted corps facing the two larger Confederate corps, the Union fought a desperate battle. The first to falter was XI Corps, who’s exposed right flank was being overwhelmed by Early’s Division. With their flank fallen, the corps began to fall back from the north and race down to Gettysburg. Most units routing headed towards Cemetery Hill, about a mile south of the town, where the corps reserves had been placed.
With XI Corps retreating, I Corps was left exposed on their right flank. Already, heavy attacks were hitting their front, and the loss of XI Corps just added to their problems. One of the units in this flank was 1st Brigade of the 2nd Division. Ordered to hold the line, they fought on as long as they could until their men were either dead, retreating, or captured.
On Seminary ridge, a similar situation was occurring, as the Iron Brigade fell back from McPherson’s ridge and reformed near Schmucker Hall at Seminary. They were supported by the corps’ artillery and met the strong attack made by Pender’s Division. Resisting as much as they could, they gave the advancing Confederates heavy casualties.
All along the line I Corps fought a bloody battle. However, the constant attack by large numbers of Confederates, and the fact that their rear was now exposed to Ewell’s Second Corps, made it impossible for them to permanently hold the line, and they too soon were forced to fall back towards Cemetery Hill. On that hill, various tattered Union units were gathering, as a steady stream of retreating forces moved south and away from the town.
Arriving in the scene and ordered by Meade to assume command of the field, Major General Winfield Hancock, commander of II Corps, began rallying the remnants of I Corps and XI Corps on Cemetery Hill. Reforming the line there, Hancock realized that their position there had good ground. Because of this, he sent a message informing Meade that the high ground south of Gettysburg was a good place to defend.
Meanwhile, chasing after the retreating Union forces, Lee noticed that their enemy was retreating towards Cemetery Hill. Because of this, he sent orders to Ewell, informing him that he should assault the position “if practicable”.
Assessing the situation, Ewell realized that his Second Corps was tired from the marching and fighting, and that the Union were heavily fortifying the hill south of the town. Unable to bring up artillery to support any attack, and thinking that his corps needed rest, Ewell believed that it was not practicable to attack Cemetery Hill at the time and decided to rest his men instead.
This decision allowed the remains of the Union army to reorganize, as XI was deployed at Cemetery Hill, while I Corps was ordered to defend Culp’s Hill, which was to the east of the former. Both corps had suffered badly in the fighting, with both corps barely able to muster five thousand men at the time. With such few numbers, the Union forces were seriously outnumbered by the Confederates. However, the sudden cessation of the enemy’s pursuit allowed them to rest and wait for reinforcements.
As night fell, it became clear to both sides that the Confederates had won the day’s fighting. Holding their positions and setting up camp, the men of both sides waited as their commanders planned out what was to happen next.
On the Confederates side, General Lee was joined by his most trusted and capable commander, Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Arriving at around nine o’clock that evening, Longstreet met up with Lee to discuss the future operations of the army. To Longstreet’s surprise, Lee wanted to continue the battle on the next day. Giving his advice, Longstreet reminded him that the original plan was to be on the defensive when they encountered the enemy army, and that they should fight only on the ground of their choosing. Because of this, Longstreet wanted to shift away from Gettysburg and find a position better suited for them.
Lee, however, believed that it was too dangerous to withdraw in front of the enemy, especially when he was lacking a proper cavalry screen to protect him. It was also said that he may have been emboldened by the day’s success, and believed that they could defeat the enemy before them with another day’s battle. Whichever the specific reason was, it was clear that Lee wanted to stay and fight, and because of that he made plans for the next day’s fighting.
On the Union side, Meade arrived on the field at around midnight. Meeting with his general officers, it was decided that despite the defeat and casualties inflicted on them, the Army of the Potomac would stay and fight. Positioning his forces, Meade moved I Corps to the ground between Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill, while positioning the newly arrived XII on Culp’s Hill. XI would stay in its position at Cemetery Hill, with its flank protected by II Corps, which would occupy the high ground south of Cemetery Hill, known as Cemetery Ridge,. He also made plans to extend the left flank of II Corps with additional corps once they arrived. It would be III Corps that would be assigned here, and their line would extend south until they reached the Round Top hills. All in all, the Army of the Potomac’s line resembled a giant fishhook.
By the end of the first day victory was on the side of the Confederates. Throughout the first day’s fighting, Union forces suffered nine thousand casualties, while the Confederates suffered seven thousand casualties. However, with the advantage of having good ground, and reinforcements constantly arriving, the Union forces were determined to make a stand and fight. Once the next day arrived, Lee was going to give them the fight they wanted.
Battle of Gettysburg Written by Justin Rojo
There’s the Devil to Pay by Mort Künstler
General Reynolds and Buford on McPherson’s Ridge by Keith Rocco
Iron Brigade Forward! by Mark Maritato
- Reardon, C., Vossler, T. (2013). The Gettysburg Campaign: June – July 1863. https://history.army.mil/…/075/75-10/CMH_Pub_75-10.pdf
- Drake, S. (1892). The Battle of Gettysburg: 1863.
- Longacre, E. (1986). The Cavalry at Gettysburg.
- Johnson, S. (1984). Great Battles of the Civil War.
- American Battlefield Trust. The First Day at Gettysburg: Then & Now.https://www.battlefields.org/…/first-day-gettysburg….