Wednesday morning, July 1, 1863, began with a gentle rain, but the clouds soon gave way to sunlight that promised a typical hot and humid summer day. Heth’s men started off from Cashtown at sun-up. Despite his firm belief that only Sunday-soldier militia were in front of him, corps commander Hill (who would remain behind sick in his tent) was taking no chances. Instead of just one brigade, this time he sent Heth’s entire division, most of the corps artillery and then a second division commanded by Maj. Genl. Dorsey Pender in support—a full 14,000 men—back to Gettysburg. That was two-thirds of his 3rd Corps for what was ostensibly a reconnaissance en force. The shoes themselves now seemed incidental.
By 7:30 a.m. Heth’s lead element was nearing the outskirts of Gettysburg when a mutual sighting was made about three miles west of town. An outpost of the 8th Illinois cavalry atop Herr’s Ridge led by Lt. Marcellus Jones spotted a dust cloud to the west about 1,000 yards distant along the Chambersburg Pike. Lt. Jones sent word back to Genl. Buford of the approaching enemy. Then he asked a sergeant for his carbine and requested “the honor of opening this ball.” He fired toward the Rebel column, the first shot at Gettysburg. Although at that long range his bullet hit no one, it did serve to put all elements in the area on alert that fighting was underway.
The Confederates, still believing they faced nothing more than untrained militia, fired a cannon shot toward Herr’s Ridge hoping to disperse the impudent rabble and move on into town. But when the Union forces did not run—even after several more projectiles were lobbed their way—Heth soon realized that he was in a fracas.
The fighting soon spread like a wildfire as every Union and Confederate unit in the area now converged on Gettysburg. Having delayed the Rebels a good hour and a half, forcing Heth to halt his advance and shake out his tight marching columns into a line of battle over a half-mile wide, the cavalry pickets bugged out and formed up with Buford’s main line of defense on McPherson’s ridge closer to town. From the crest of Herr’s Ridge, gazing east through the battle smoke towards Buford’s defiant blue line of dismounted horse soldiers and Gettysburg in the hazy distance beyond, Harry Heth took in the scene and made an impetuous decision. With no knowledge of what other Yankees may be in the vicinity, he ordered his division to “advance and take the town.”
But just as Heth’s men began to press Buford’s out-numbered cavalry to the breaking point, the 9,000 men of the Union I Infantry Corps under the hard-fighting Maj. Genl. John Reynolds arrived from the south to relieve the beleaguered horsemen whose stance had saved the town from falling into Rebel hands…for now. Reynolds, a Pennsylvanian furious over the invasion of his state and itching to get at the Rebels, was nonetheless as surprised as everyone else that a battle was underway. But he took stock of the situation, and quickly grasping the defensive value of the terrain, acted decisively to launch the I Corps into the fight. After urging his men forward to form up on McPherson’s Ridge, he sent word to Meade (who was with the middle of the army at Taneytown, MD nine miles south) that he would fight the Rebels for the town street-by-street if need be. “Good,” declared Meade when he received the dispatch. “That is just like Reynolds!”
Having made the decision to commit the Union Army to battle, Reynolds did not live long enough to see it play out. While encouraging his men to strike the Rebels with “Forward men! Forward, for God’s sake and drive those fellows from the woods!” he fell from his horse, killed instantly by a bullet through the back of the head. Though only on the field an hour, John Reynolds had left the Battle of Gettysburg as his legacy. Maj. Genl. Abner Doubleday took over I Corps command and, despite having a reputation for timidity, led the men quite ably throughout the morning.
As the unexpected conflict escalated, the outcome would depend upon who got to the scene the fastest with the most men. Here the Confederates had the advantage of proximity and that would ultimately be the deciding factor. Fighting was ferocious as more opposing infantry units arrived on the scene, colliding in the fields, woodlots and farmsteads along the length of McPherson’s Ridge. Of the Union brigades present that morning none was more famous than the one made up of rugged westerners from Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana nicknamed the “Iron Brigade.” Seasoned veterans of many battles and distinctive in their high black Hardee hats, they were immediately recognizable to the Confederates—one of whom was heard to say “’Tain’t no militia. It’s those damned black-hatted fellows!”
The battle lines rolled back and forth in the heat of the sweltering summer sun and dense smoke hung thick in the humid air that reverberated with the steady crackle of musketry and the deep roar of cannons. The fighting took on new violence with the appearance of reinforcements from both sides…ironically the North coming in from the south and the South coming in from the north.
The Union XI Corps under Maj. Genl. Oliver O. Howard arrived on the heels of the I Corps. With Reynolds dead, the senior Howard took command of all Union forces in the area, which was a tragedy for the North. Having lost an arm in combat, no one doubted Howard’s courage but his judgment was less sound. He arrived on the scene just as Doubleday’s men led by the 6th Wisconsin regiment of the Iron Brigade launched a furious counter-attack, repulsing some of Heth’s division and inflicting heavy casualties on the surprised Rebels, many of whom were trapped within the steep railroad cut and either shot down in droves or forced to surrender.
By noon it had grown eerily quiet as a lull in the battle occurred…the armies acting like two exhausted prizefighters retreating to their corners after a mutually punishing first round.
But it was a faux peace, for Howard knew from intelligence that Pender’s fresh division of Hill’s 3rd Corps would soon be pounding down the Chambersburg Road from the west and, more ominous still, Ewell’s entire 2nd Corps of three additional infantry divisions and their artillery was fast approaching from the north. The heavily bloodied Union I Corps and the undermanned XI Corps combined would field less than 15,000 uninjured men to face the majority of two full Confederate corps, or nearly 30,000 Rebels. Furthermore, Howard stubbornly refused Doubelday’s pleas to take advantage of the pause in the fighting to withdraw his depleted I Corps to a stronger position on Seminary Ridge. Then, to compound the error Howard positioned two of his three divisions in a broad fan north of Gettysburg in flat, open terrain that was indefensible against Ewell’s superior force bearing down on them from the north and northeast. The seeds of a Union disaster had been sown.
Farther west, riding with Longstreet and 1st Corps, General Lee was surprised to hear the distant rumble of what sounded like a pretty serious engagement and spurred his horse toward the front to see what was happening. When he arrived on the field he was given a report. Though no doubt furious with Heth for starting a fight against orders, he was intrigued by the opportunity Dame Fortune now presented to him. From the beginning of the campaign, Lee envisioned stretching out the numerically superior Union army and then pouncing upon pieces of it with his entire force and crushing it corps by corps. Now, completely by accident, he had stumbled into just such a scenario. Here he had a good portion of his army coming down in a huge arc from the west to the northeast—perfectly positioned to fall upon and destroy the Union I Corps and especially the exposed XI Corps. Lee could see that a major battle was already underway. A.P. Hill (who was now on the scene though pale and weak) was heavily engaged west of Gettysburg and Ewell was already striking south with the bulk of his newly arrived 2nd Corps. Thus Lee accepted that this was the showdown he’d sought, albeit sooner than he’d planned, and ordered an all-out attack.
Two-thirds of Howard’s XI Corps was decimated within an hour by the irresistible tide of Ewell’s massed battalions in butternut and grey screaming the Rebel yell as they surged over the open fields in unstoppable waves, halting only to deliver punishing volleys while their artillery raked the desperately fleeing Union men. Those hapless Yankees who hadn’t been killed, wounded or captured in the collapse scrambled in headlong flight back down into the narrow streets of Gettysburg through which they’d just passed the other direction on their way to the front but two hours before. The Union survivors were seeking the shelter of the XI Corps’ one still uncommitted division, held back in reserve by Howard south of town on the crest of Cemetery Hill.
With support from Howard’s men quickly crumbling on their right, the gallant Union I Corps stubbornly fell back to the line of Seminary Ridge contesting every inch of ground. But as Pender’s fresh Confederate division laid into them, they too began to be cut down from three sides as the Rebels overlapped their shrinking perimeter. Finally what was left of the Union I Corps fell back through the smoke-filled town, whose walls echoed with the screams of shot and shell ricocheting off buildings and smashing through windows while terrified civilians huddled in their cellars as if seeking shelter from a raging storm passing overhead.
When the exhausted Yankees reached the high ground of Cemetery Hill, they at last found relative safety under some forty-three surviving guns of the I and XI Corps, lined hub-to-hub in a solid wall of artillery. They were also heartened to see the rock steady figure of Maj. Genl. Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the II Corps still on its way, organizing the defenses south of the town. He’d been ordered by Meade to ride ahead to take over the battle from the incompetent Howard until the army commander himself arrived on the scene. The unflappable Hancock, profanely shouting instructions and encouragement, inspired confidence in the surviving men who in turn steeled themselves for the final Confederate onslaught. It never came.
At the same time Hancock and Howard sat on a fence rail lining the Evergreen Cemetery and pondered the Rebels’ next move, the Confederate flag was hoisted in triumph over Gettysburg’s main square. Cheers and Rebel yells rang out from Lee’s troops who could justifiably claim another battlefield success to add to their unbroken winning streak. But victory can be as chaotic as defeat; his corps having taken Gettysburg, Ewell was unsure what to do next so he sent word for guidance from General Lee. Lee, peering through his spyglass at the high ground where the blue-clad enemy was reorganizing, sent a message back that Ewell was to take Cemetery Hill “if practicable.” Jackson would have understood this language as Lee’s polite way of issuing a direct order, but Ewell was used to specific instructions (his former commander Jackson never minced words when giving orders). Even though his 2nd Corps had suffered far fewer losses than Hill’s 3rd, Ewell decided it was not “practicable” to assault Cemetery Hill.
In hindsight, considering the powerful line of artillery frowning down from the crest, the still untouched division of XI corps, and the superb Hancock now in charge, Ewell probably made the right call to leave Cemetery Hill alone.
But Culp’s Hill, taller and farther east, was, at the time, undefended. And here Ewell made the first major mistake of the Rebel high command by failing to seize it immediately when it was his for the taking. He instead waited for fresh troops who were still en route to the battlefield. By the time they arrived, the astute Hancock had sent remnants of I Corps, including the battered Iron Brigade, to defend its wooded summit. In the fading twilight, some of Ewell’s men at last attempted to storm Culp’s Hill but were beaten back violently. The opportunity to take the hill with little bloodshed was gone. With the arrival of Hancock’s II, Sickles’ III and Slocum’s XII Corps during the night, both Cemetery and Culp’s Hills would become Union citadels, anchoring the northern flank of the solidifying Yankee position.
Had Jackson been present it’s very likely he’d have sprung to occupy Culp’s Hill post haste making the Union lines on the lower Cemetery Hill untenable and forcing the Yankees to retreat yet again. But Ewell, one-legged from a wound at 2nd Bull Run, in his first combat in a year, and new to independent corps command, was less confident. Though handpicked by Jackson to be his successor, Ewell, it turned out, was no Jackson.
And so, as night fell, the clatter of muskets and boom of cannons dissipated and then ceased altogether. The deafening roar of battle gave way to the melancholy moan of thousands of horribly wounded men lying on the fields, in ravines, woodlots and barns, in the streets and alleyways of the town itself or writhing in agony in the many make-shift hospitals visible in the dark summer night by the soft yellow glow of lantern lights—a scattering of bright pinpoints dotting the landscape. The first day of a battle that neither side had expected was over.
Gathered by the light of campfires that now ringed the town for miles around, or lying among the dead and staring up reflectively into the starry night sky, the survivors contemplated the fighting just ended as commanders tallied the casualties of the day’s action. The North had suffered grievous losses. Calvary losses were minor; not so the I and XI Corps, which counted 9,000 killed, wounded, captured or missing out of 18,000 engaged: 50% losses. But they held the high ground that Buford and then Reynolds so presciently committed to defending that morning—and for which Reynolds paid with his life. The South, for its part, had scored another victory, suffering 7,000 losses out of 27,000 engaged. But in leaving the high ground to their enemies, the Confederacy lost its best chance at achieving a decisive outcome at Gettysburg that first crucial day. . .one that started out so promising for Lee despite his wishing to avoid any combat at all.
[Next Segment: Day Two: July 2… “The Best Three Hours’ Fighting”]