Monday, July 1, 2013

Gettysburg — Day One

The Army of the Potomac had been chasing after the Army of Northern Virginia for almost a month when a cavalry division commanded by Brig. Gen. John Buford rode into Gettysburg on 30 June 1863.

The Gettysburg campaign, 3 June - 3 July 1863
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
CS General Robert E. Lee knew Napoleon's dictum was true: "The logical end of defensive warfare is surrender." For that reason, he knew he had to take the ANV into the North, where he could put both military and political pressure on Washington to end the war and allow the Confederate States their separation. Accordingly, on 3 June 1863 he sent his army in two wings into the Shenandoah Valley to clear the Federal garrisons and secure his lines of supply and communication, while his cavalry screened the move on the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The invasion proceeded successfully, as the right wing under Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell defeated the garrison at Winchester (Second Winchester, 13 June) and the two wings moved up the valley first into Maryland and then into Pennsylvania. The cavalry screen was also successful, up to a point. Lee had ordered Maj. Gen. J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart, his cavalry commander, to cross the Potomac, delay the Federals and protect Ewell's right flank. But when Stuart encountered US Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps, he decided to ride around the Federal army to the south, which took him out of contact with Ewell's right and rendered the ANV functionally blind. Lee had allowed his forces to become strung out, from  Chambersburg to York and Harrisburg.

Meanwhile, US Maj. Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker finally realized that the ANV was on the move north when Ewell attacked the garrison at Winchester. His initial plan was to seize Richmond while it was undefended, but Abraham Lincoln reminded him that his primary target was Lee. So the Army of the Potomac moved in a parallel course through Virginia and Maryland, mirroring Lee's advance to the point of having their cavalry screen on their left. By 28 June the Federals had reached Frederick. Alerted by a spy that the Federals were closing in and fearing defeat in detail, Lee ordered his forces to concentrate in the Cashtown-Gettysburg area.

By then, the Army of the Potomac had a new commander, its fifth commander in just over two years. Hooker had argued with Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, the nominal General-in-Chief, over the defense of the armory at Harper's Ferry and petulantly offered his resignation; Lincoln, frustrated with Hooker, accepted it and put Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, a bad-tempered martinet, in charge. Meade hadn't expected the order, but kept the forces moving forward, ordering them on 30 June to move towards Gettysburg while establishing an alternate position south of the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. The stage was set.

Buford, a West Point graduate who had served with distinction in several battles both before and during the war, quickly realized that the best defensive ground was to the south and east of town along and behind Cemetery Ridge. He also knew that a much larger force — Lt. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill's Third Corps — was in front of him, moving along the Chambersburg Pike. So Buford set up a line of pickets well to the west of Gettysburg along Herr's Ridge as a first line, then set up his cavalry in two wings on either side of the pike along McPherson's Ridge, with his artillery battery in the center. He also sent a message back to I Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, asking for reinforcement.

Gettysburg, Day One
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
At about 7:30 a.m. on 1 July, a brigade from CS Maj. Gen. Henry Heth's division of Hill's Third Corps stumbled into the picket line. Lee had ordered his commanders not to engage the enemy in force until they were all concentrated. Hill, however, thought that he'd run into a small reconnaissance party and determined to shove it aside. Buford's defense was so successful that, by the time Heth had pushed through to McPherson's Ridge, the Iron Brigade of I Corps had arrived, personally led by Reynolds, with the rest of the corps on the way.

The first day was a "rolling engagement", spreading as more forces from either side arrived. Reynolds was killed early on in the fight, and command of I Corp passed to Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday. As Heth poured more of his men into the fight, the "black hats" of the Iron Brigade fell back to Seminary Ridge, inflicting heavy losses on the Confederates along the way. By midday, Heth had been joined by Maj. Gen. Dorsey Pender's division, while the rest of the Federal I Corps had joined Doubleday on the ridge. US Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, commanding XI Corps, took field command and sent his men north of town to hold off Ewell, whose Second Corps was marching from Carlisle.

The ground to the north, mostly flat farmland, was not well suited to defense, especially after CS Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes, a division commander under Ewell, took the high ground near Oak Hill, and Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz (filling in for Howard as XI Corps commander) didn't have enough men to cover it. Moreover, Schurz's right had advanced farther than his left, with the division under Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow forming a salient by occupying a hill called Blocher's Knoll (since renamed Barlow's Knoll). 

Fighting had paused around midday; around 2:30 p.m. it resumed. A.P. Hill's corps, still missing a division, eventually pushed I Corps back to Seminary Ridge and through Gettysburg itself. Meanwhile, CS Maj. Gen. Jubal Early, Ewell's most aggressive division commander, had caught Barlow's salient in a murderous cross-fire, while Maj. Gens. Robert E. Rodes and Dorsey Pender's divisions pushed through the weaknesses in the Federal line to the north and northwest. Howard's XI Corps collapsed about 4 p.m., leaving Doubleday's right in the air. By that time, US Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, commander of II Corps, had arrived on the field with orders from Meade to take command and determine whether the ground was suitable for a fight. Hancock ordered the two corps to fall back south of town, where Brig. Gen. Adolph von Steinwehr's division held the ground behind Cemetery Ridge.

Lee didn't want the Federals to have possession of the Ridge or Culp's Hill. However, the order he sent to Ewell, to "carry the hill occupied by the enemy, if he found it practicable, but to avoid a general engagement," may have left too much discretion; Early didn't send a reconnaissance party until near evening, which encountered a picket line and lost two men to capture. Meanwhile, as more of the Army of the Potomac arrived, Hancock placed them to take best advantage of the hills, eventually forming a bent-fishhook shape with his left flank fused on Little Round Top and his right fused on Spangler's Spring.

Meade had the high ground. Lee wanted it. Thus they spent the night, gathering their forces and preparing for the second day.