The spear-point of the Army of Northern Virginia, currently hoofing it all over southern Pennsylvania in an effort to reunite as quickly as possible, was Maj.Genl. Henry Heth’s division at Cashtown. Heth’s was one of the three divisions in the army’s newly formed 3rd Corps commanded by Lt. Genl. A.P. Hill. Heth chose to use his time by sending a raiding party to Gettysburg eight miles further east. There was rumored to be a stock of some 2,000 shoes there and he was determined to commandeer them for his soldiers, some of whom were barefoot. He assigned the task to one of his four brigades led by Brig. Genl. Johnston Pettigrew. Although only local militia was believed to be in the area, Pettigrew was under strict instructions by Heth, as per General Lee’s orders, to withdraw without a fight if he encountered any resistance. At first light, Pettigrew set off with roughly 1,800 men on his trek to Gettysburg with a complement of empty wagons for hauling away the spoils.
On that same day at about mid-morning, in Gettysburg town itself, a column of 2,900 Union horsemen of Brig. Genl. John Buford’s cavalry division rode noisily through the streets to the relieved cheers of the residents who were noticeably agitated. Buford soon found out why. There was a force of Rebels bearing down on them from the west in the direction of Cashtown along the Chambersburg Pike. Buford had been sent to scout ahead of the Union army heading this way and he immediately ordered his men to fan out into the surrounding countryside to size up the incoming enemy.
As Pettigrew’s column approached Gettysburg, Buford’s men were clearly visible as the cavalrymen aggressively probed along the ridges west of town. Following his orders not to start a fight, the Rebel brigadier dutifully turned the brigade around and marched the eight miles back to base, his wagons still empty.
That night, back at the Confederate camp in Cashtown, Heth and Hill listened to Pettigrew’s report with incredulity. They doubted that what his expedition ran into was anything but local militia. Pettigrew was not a professional soldier but he was highly intelligent and he insisted he knew the well-trained Army of the Potomac when he saw it. Regardless, Heth asked for permission to try again for the shoes in the morning. Corps commander Hill gave his blessing.
As this first chance meeting came and went, forced marches in both armies were underway. Lee’s three corps were racing to reunite. Ewell’s 2nd Corps was marching south toward Gettysburg from Harrisburg. Longstreet’s 1st Corps was headed east from Chambersburg to hook up with Hill’s 3rd Corps at Cashtown. Meanwhile, Meade’s Union army, spread out in seven (smaller) corps across Maryland was marching steadily north toward the Pennsylvania border. Two of them, the I and XI Corps, fielding a combined 18,000 men and several dozen artillery pieces, were headed straight for Gettysburg and would arrive in the morning.
What made Gettysburg suddenly so important wasn’t its shoes or its 2,400 residents or its principal business at the time, which was carriage-making and blacksmithing. It was that it just happened to be where twelve roads converged from all directions. This made it a natural hub of concentration for any army in the area. On June 30, 1863 there were two of them. Big ones. The respected Union cavalryman Buford understood this. His trained eye also took note of the topography, which was highly favorable for defense. He vowed to defend it as best he could.
West of town, where Buford planned to fight a holding action until the two infantry corps arrived, running along north-south parallels to each other, were three modest ridges. Two miles west of town ran Herr’s Ridge, then a mile closer in was McPherson’s Ridge, and then three-quarters of a mile from town ran Seminary Ridge upon which a Lutheran seminary had been constructed atop its wooded crest. The most striking feature of the terrain was the deep gouge of a steep railroad cut hacked through the ridgelines to accommodate an unfinished rail bed running west by northwest out of town.
Immediately south of Gettysburg itself sat two prominent hills: 100-foot Cemetery Hill, site of the gated Evergreen Cemetery, and the steeper, heavily wooded and more rugged Culp’s Hill a half mile east of it. A mile and a half farther south rose up two higher hills called the Round Tops. There was the steep and treacherous Little Round Top, whose western face was clear-cut and strewn with boulders; it was ideal for defense and provided a commanding view of the entire battlefield. Little Round Top bumped up against the higher but thickly forested Big Round Top. Connecting these two pairs of hills ran the gentle rise of Cemetery Ridge. Neatly fenced farmsteads, wheat fields and orchards dotted the gently undulating picturesque landscape. The hilly formation taken together resembled a backwards “?”or, as has often been said, an inverted “fishhook” with Cemetery and Culp’s Hills the hook and barb, Cemetery Ridge the shank, and Little Round Top the eye.
Buford spent the last night of June 1863 fretting over how best to defend Gettysburg in the morning when he, unlike anyone else, expected fighting to come down on the peaceful village. Eight miles south, the bivouacking I and XI Corps were to march to Gettysburg at first light, and that gave him his mission: hold the town until the infantry arrived; keep the Rebels from taking the high ground to the south. When one of his colonels tried to assure the anxious Buford that they would handle anything the “Johnnies” threw at them in the morning, he replied grimly: “No, you won’t. They’re going to hit you tomorrow and they’ll come booming. You’ll have to fight like the devil until supports arrive.”
[Next Segment: Day One …“Tain’t No Militia!”]