Battle of Gettysburg - Day 1

July 1 - 3, 1863


On the last day of June 1863 tens of thousands of soldiers were streaming toward Gettysburg, Penn. The only troops in the town were two Union cavalry brigades commanded by Gen. John Buford. They were scouting in advance of their Army of the Potomac, which was streaming steadily north through Maryland in an effort to catch up with Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

The Rebels were approaching the area from the north and the west. For a week they had been rampaging through the Pennsylvania countryside seizing livestock, food, and clothes, demanding tribute from prosperous towns heretofore untouched by the ravages of war, and moving to capture the state capital of Harrisburg. A Rebel division, commanded by Gen. Henry Heth, camped four miles west of Gettysburg that night. Heth had learned there was a hidden storage of shoes in the town and told is corps commander, Gen. Ambrose P. Hill: "If there is no objection, General, I will take my division tomorrow and get those shoes."

At about 8:00 the next morning, Heth and his 7,461 men reached the crest of Herr Ridge, about 1.5 miles from Gettysburg, and saw Buford's 2,748 dismounted cavalrymen deployed for battle along Willoughby Run below. Rebel skirmishers moved straight down the hill into a hail of lead delivered by the troopers' rapid-firing breech-loaded carbines and a battery of artillery. The Rebels were stalled but a short time, until reinforcements could arrive to add pressure to the assault.

On Seminary Ridge, 900 yeards east of and parallel to Herr Ridge, was located a Lutheran seminary. Around 9:00 A.M. from atop one of the buildings, Buford was watching his men being pushed back from Willoughby Run when Gen. John Reynolds rode, announced his corps was following him, and asked Buford to hold out until they arrived. "The devel's to pay!" exclaimed Buford. Then he said simply; "I reckon I can."

"Up and down the line," wrote an artillerist on Seminary Ridge northwest of Gettysburg, Pa,., on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, "men reeling and falling . . horses tearing and plunging, mad with wounds or terror' drivers yelling, shells bursting, shot shrieking overhead, howling above our ears or throwing up great clouds of dust where they struck' the musketry crashing on three sides of us' bullets hissing, humming and whistling everywhere. Smoke, dust, splinters, blood, wreck and carnage indescribable."

Two of Gen. Robert E. Lee's three corps had converged on Gettysburg from the west and north. At first the furiously fighting Union troops had stymied the approach of Lee's III Corps from the west. Then Lee's II Corps started arriving on the right of the Union line, and though their advance was savagely disputed, the Rebels gradually began to push the Yankees out of their position. The veteran Confederate II Corps brigade, led by Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur, came up after the two brigades in front of them had been pushed back and applied the pressure that started the Union soldiers' falling back from Oak Ridge. Then Gen. Jubal A. Early's Rebel division of the II Corps arrived on the field, square on the Union flank, causing the Yankees to relinquish their line and to retreat through Gettysburg.

On Herr Ridge with his III Corps, Lee observed Early's attack and immediately sent the III Corps forward toward the Union troops still holding Seminary Ridge. Simultateously attacked from three sides, the Yankee position became untenable, and the men gave way and flooded down the roads toward Gettysburg. The victorious Rebels pursued, capturing 3,500 prisoners in the town.

Union Gen. Winfield S. Hancock arrived on Cemetery Hill, south of Gettysburg, at 4:30 P.M. and saw below the thousands of Yankees stampeding out of the town and toward him. One of his aides wrote, "Wreck, disaster, disorder, the panic that precedes disorganization, defeat and retreat were everywhere."

"I think this is the strongest position by nature on which to fight a battle that I ever saw," said Union Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock as he surveyed the terrain from his position atop 80-foot high Cemetery Hill on the afternoon of July 1, 1863. The town of Gettysburg, Pa., was just to the north; to the west, across a mile of fertile fields and orchards, he could see Confederate soldiers on Seminary Ridge. Culp's Hill, a 180-foot high wooded, and boulder strewn eminence, was just to his east; stretching for two miles to the south was low Cemetery Ridge. At the end of Cemetery Ridge were two more rock-strewn hills -- Little Round Top and Big Round Top. The natural strength of the high ground was augmented by clear fields of fire, stone walls to offer protected defensive positions, and good roads in the rear for the movement of supplies and troops.

A furious battle had waged all day over the ridges west of Gettysburg between two corps from Gen. Robert E. Lee's invading Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and two corps of Gen. George Meade's Union Army of the Potomac. Late in the afternoon, the Union positions had given way under relentless attacks, and the victorious Rebels had chased the Yankees through the town and onto the high ground to the south. Hancock rallied the fleeing soldiers and set up a defensive line to try to hold his position until Union reinforcements could arrive.

Lee, despite his army's victory, was troubled. He recognized the natural strength of the high ground to which the Union army retreated. Lee sent a message to his II Corps commander Gen. Richard Ewell that it "was only necessary to press those people in order to secure possession of the heights," and urged him to do so "if practicable." Ewell was a capable corps commander, but he was new to the position, having replaced Stonewall Jackson, who had died less than two months before. Ewell did not believe the attack was "practicable." Lee sorely missed Stonewall, a man who surely would have recognized the need to "press those people" and would have done so at once.

"Good," exclaimed Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, "That is just like Reynolds, he will hold out to the bitter end." Reynolds was one of the army's ablest generals and commanded the wing of the army advancing toward Gettysburg. He had just notified Meade that he would try to hold the invading Confederate army at that town until the rest of the federal troops could arrive. Reynolds brought his closest division rapidly to the battle being waged on Seminary Ridge, west of Gettysburg. He deployed his men alongside the dismounted cavalrymen who had stalled the Rebel advance for several hours. As Reynolds turned in his saddle to direct an arriving unit into position, a skirmisher's minie ball struck him behind the right ear, and he fell to the ground, smiled, and died.

"There are those damned black-hatted fellows again!" exclaimed a surprised Reb on the right of the Confederate line when he realized there was more than cavalry disuputing his progress up Seminary Ridge. The black-hatted men of the Iron Brigade had a reputation as fierce fighters, and they provided proof all over again on this first day of July 1863. Their unexpected appearance and added firepower caused the Rebs to retreat, and their rapid pursuit netted them 75 prisoneres, including James J. Archer, the first of Lee's generals ever to have been captured.

Those on the left of the Rebel line had made better progress before they too were hit by a devastating fire and forced to seek shelter, many of them finding safety in the deep cut of an unfinished railroad bed. When the federals charged the cut, they captured 250 prisoners and sent the other attackers running to the rear. By 11:00 A.M., the Confederate offense had failed all along the line. For the next couple of hours there was a lull in the firing, then cannonballs started dropping in the Yankee rear, fired by a Confederate force that was approaching the battlefield from the north.

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Map of Day 1 battle in PDF format.

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