The hours before the opening shots were fired at Gettysburg found the two great armies poised for action, although in slightly different ways. On the one hand, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was consolidating its somewhat scattered forces, unsure of the enemy’s precise location and strength, but knowing it was much nearer than anticipated. As the various corps moved toward the Cashtown area, Lee made it clear to his commanders that he desired to avoid a general engagement until all of the army was gathered. Meade, meanwhile, had ably positioned his forces to respond to Lee along almost any axis of attack the Confederate general might choose. His corps were edging northward, deployed along the region’s road structure in such a fashion that they could quickly move to consolidate and counter Lee’s forces. Unlike Lee, however, Meade had a better feel for his opponent’s position thanks to the able services of his cavalry, especially those provided by General John Buford.
Buford, who had been tasked to support General Reynolds and the left wing of the army, had supplied Reynolds and Meade with good intelligence on Lee’s movements. Ordered to Gettysburg with two of his brigades, Buford arrived there on the morning of July 30. Within hours, Buford was aware that two of Ewell’s divisions were on the roads from York and Carlisle moving towards Heidlersburg, and, most importantly, that Hill’s corps was in the vicinity of Cashtown, probing towards Gettysburg. The latter was ascertained directly when some of Buford’s men encountered Pettigrew’s brigade on the road from Cashtown. After this encounter, Pettigrew withdrew and reported to Hill and Heth that Federal troops, which he believed to be a portion of the Army of the Potomac, were in Gettysburg. This report was received with some disbelief since Hill had just returned from a conference with General Lee at which it was concluded the Federal army was somewhere near Middleburg. Believing Buford’s force to have simply been a reconnaissance element, Heth requested and received permission from Hill to advance his entire division on Gettysburg the next morning.
Buford, meanwhile, took matters far more seriously. In a battle that would hinge on critical decisions, Buford made the first and, perhaps, one of the most important command decisions. After relaying what he had found to Reynolds and Meade, he elected to make preparations for what he later termed as “entertaining” the enemy until Reynolds and the infantry could arrive. These preparations involved the deployment of his men to conduct a defense in depth, designed to slow the enemy’s advance and give Federal infantry time to reach the field. This tactic, which is one of the most difficult of all military operations, would be both planned and executed to near perfection by Buford and his men.
While the facts of Buford’s defense on July 1 are well known, there has been a great deal of discussion on why Buford decided to stand and fight at Gettysburg. General Pleasanton would later testify that he ordered Buford to hold Gettysburg at all costs, although that claim is dubious at best as there is no record of that order from Pleasanton. Therefore, it seems Buford may have made this decision on his own. If so, it seems very plausible that, as a skilled and seasoned professional, Buford could see the value of the terrain in the vicinity of Gettysburg. Given the fact that the enemy seemed intent on consolidating his forces in the area, Buford probably decided that, rather than simply reporting what he had seen, he would attempt to hold what he believed to be a critical position.
If so, it was a decision that should be noted not only for its value to the eventual outcome of the battle, but also, as I pointed out in an earlier essay, for the exceptional moral courage and decisiveness Buford demonstrated in making it. A lesser officer would probably have simply reported what he had seen and then withdrawn in the face of a vastly superior force. But John Buford, with the skills of a consummate professional, saw the value of the ground he occupied and, rather than making the easy choice, he elected to fight a difficult and dangerous delaying action in the hope of preserving a vital advantage for the Army of the Potomac.
As Heth’s division moved towards Gettysburg on the morning of July 1, they were so confident they would meet little or no resistance, they did not even deploy skirmishers. Buford, who had planned for successive lines of defense, placed small picket or vidette posts in an arc to the west and north of Gettysburg to provide initial warning of the enemy’s advance. When the first of these encountered Heth’s men coming east on the road from Cashtown, they fired the initial shots of the battle and warned Buford of the enemy’s arrival. With this encounter, Heth’s forces deployed skirmishers and, eventually, as additional resistance was encountered, Heth was forced to deploy from column into line of battle, which took time, valuable time for the Federal forces. Buford’s men fell back to Herr Ridge and, finally, McPherson’s Ridge, fighting a continuing battle of delay. Buford made able use of his artillery, spreading them out so as to give the impression there was greater artillery strength than he actually possessed. As stated earlier, his tactics were nearly perfect and they achieved the desired results, buying nearly three hours of time for Reynold’s to advance his infantry to Gettysburg.
As the infantry of I Corps took their positions on McPherson’s Ridge, relieving Buford’s men, they took up positions south and north on the Chambersburg Pike, and were able to blunt the initial assaults of Archer and Davis’ brigades. However, not long after their arrival, I Corps lost General Reynolds, who was killed by enemy fire, and command of the corps fell to the far less able General Doubleday. Over the next few hours, however, I Corps ably defended its ground, stopping attack after attack. However, it was fighting a protracted battle of attrition. As their casualties mounted and more of Hill’s corps reached the field, much of the fighting shifted north of the Chambersburg Pike and I Corps’ position steadily weakened. However, the difficult, violent, and valiant defense of the terrain west of Gettysburg by I Corps, as with Buford’s men earlier, served a vital purpose by buying time for the remainder of the army to move to Gettysburg.
As word of the fighting reached Meade, he hurried the remainder of the army towards Gettysburg. The second major unit to arrive on the field was XI Corps under the command of General Howard. As the ranking officer on the field, Howard assumed overall command, placed his reserves on Cemetery Hill, and established his headquarters there. As the bulk of his corps arrived, Howard turned command of XI Corps over to General Schurz, and deployed his men north of the town on the right flank of I Corps to counter the approach of Ewell’s corps. However, the deployment of XI Corps would turn out to be haphazard and poorly conceived. They were poorly positioned to support one another’s flanks and, while they would put up a fight as best they could, their leadership failed them by placing them in exposed and untenable positions.
Further, Howard’s decision to command from so far to the rear in such a dynamic battlefield situation proved to be costly. Had he moved forward and remained more mobile, where he could observe events first-hand, he might have seen the need to reposition the units of XI Corps to better support one another as the Confederate strength on the battlefield increased. Instead, with the exception of a brief trip to Seminary Ridge to confer with Doubleday, he seems to have remained to the rear, relying on communications from his subordinates to give him a picture of the battlefield. As a result, his moves were entirely reactive and, as I Corps weakened and XI Corps quickly collapsed, the Federals were forced into an orderly retreat to Cemetery Hill. In retrospect, Howard’s decision to place his reserves on Cemetery Hill, thus providing a strong point for the rallying of the retreating units from I Corps and XI Corps along with newly arriving Union forces, was, perhaps, his only positive contribution to the eventual Federal success at Gettysburg.
At this point late in the afternoon of July 1, the Confederate forces followed the retreat of I and XI Corps through Gettysburg, but paused upon confronting the new Federal positions on Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. The town itself had slowed their pursuit of the Union forces and now, Ewell and Hill faced a decision on what to do next. While they had won a tactical victory, they also became involved in the sort of general engagement Lee had advised them to avoid. For his part, Hill had suffered significant losses in his fight with I Corps and was content with what had been gained. Ewell, meanwhile, expressed the opinion that he had brought his troops to Gettysburg as instructed and did not feel he should continue his advance without further instructions. Therefore, he conferred with his staff and exchanged messages with Lee on what was to be done next.
For his part, Lee was justifiably cautious, electing to leave the decision on further action to General Ewell. Lee had ended up with a fight he had not planned for and, while his army had done well, he still did not have his entire force on the field nor a clear picture of the position and strength of the Army of the Potomac. Therefore, he chose to fall back on one of his preferred methods of command, suggesting to Ewell that he could attack the Federal positions, if practicable, and, again, advising him to avoid a general engagement.
Ewell responded that he would attempt an attack but needed additional support, especially on his right. Unfortunately, no such support was available. Therefore, Ewell deferred from making a vigorous assault and decided to send one division to seize Culp’s Hill, which they believed to be unoccupied. Ewell hoped a successful attack there would force the Federals to abandon Cemetery Hill. However, when his men began to move on Culp’s Hill, they found it already occupied and defended by the Army of the Potomac. While Ewell was strongly criticized on some fronts for not attacking Cemetery Hill, it is unlikely such an assault would have been successful. By the time Ewell had coordinated with Lee and his subordinate commanders, the Federal position on the hill was becoming stronger by the minute. According to Edwin Coddington’s study, Federal forces on Cemetery Hill numbered more than 20,000 by 6:00 p.m., and more of the army was arriving and being quickly positioned to oppose such an attack.
In addition, the Federal position had also been strengthened by the presence of General Winfield Scott Hancock. Although junior to Howard, Hancock had been dispatched to Gettysburg by Meade shortly after the latter learned of Reynold’s death and ordered to take command. Meade wanted someone he could trust and rely on in command, and Hancock was an ideal choice. Not only was Hancock a superb battlefield tactician, he also possessed an inspiring physical presence on the field, something that would be badly needed that afternoon on Cemetery Hill. Hancock arrived shortly after the Federal retreat began and assumed command from Howard. While Hancock’s appointment was a source of apparent consternation to Howard, the two men worked together to quickly turn Cemetery Hill into what Hancock referred to as a position that “cannot well be taken.” As a result, had Ewell elected to attack, he would have assaulted a strong position commanded by one of the Union’s ablest battlefield commanders.
Throughout the night of July 1 and into the morning of July 2, more men from both armies continued moving towards Gettysburg. Much of the second day would see the two armies positioning their forces and, in fact, the vicious fighting that marked July 2 would not occur until the final three hours before sunset. While Lee had already arrived on the scene, Meade would not appear until early on the morning of July 2. Once assured by his generals that this was, indeed, a good place to fight, Meade set about learning the ground and positioning his army. Meade elected to leave XI Corps in position on Cemetery Hill with XII Corps on their right, holding Culp’s Hill. II Corps, meanwhile, would move into the left of XI Corps and extend the Union line to the south along Cemetery Ridge, with Sickles’ III Corps continuing that line all the way to the vicinity of Big Round Top. The battered remnants of I Corps, along with the rapidly approaching V and VI Corps would be held in reserve.
Unfortunately, not all went as planned. III Corps was placed along the Emmitsburg Road by Sickles, far in advance of the line Meade desired and deployed in such a manner that both its flanks were exposed. The right of Sickles line was nearly a half a mile in front of II Corps and its left curved to the southeast away from the road but far from the anchor Meade had desired at the base of Big Round Top. To be certain, the position had certain advantages in that the ground along the road was slightly higher than the position Sickles would have occupied, but other areas, such as the low ground along Plum Run, were very vulnerable. Worst of all, the line was exceedingly thin, which, once the fighting began, forced Meade to commit men from his reserves than would have otherwise not been required. In fact, Sickles’ force of less than 10,000 men was stretched nearly a mile and a half, almost twice the length it would have occupied if it had been placed as Meade desired.
How the situation occurred was the result of an all too human process. Sickles essentially thought the position he picked was the better one. While Meade had been clear in what he desired for the deployment of III Corps, Sickles sought and received permission to place his corps as he deemed “most suitable.” However, he ignored or chose to liberally interpret Meade’s provision that the placement be “within the limits of the general instructions” Meade had previously issued. Then, due to poor staff work and flawed communications, it would be late afternoon before Meade discovered the error and the impending assault of Longstreet’s corps made it impossible to correct Sickles’ alignment.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the field, the planning and execution process had problems perhaps even greater than those experienced by Meade and his army. The process between Lee and his generals, even in historical hindsight, is still somewhat confusing. What is clear is that, despite the fact Lee did not know the precise strength of the force he now opposed at Gettysburg, he was determined to fight that force and defeat it there. In addition, in discussing plans and options with his commanders, it seems he found them to be either lacking in enthusiasm, extremely hesitant, or, in the case of Longstreet, in complete opposition. As for the latter, Longstreet proposed not to attack at all, but, rather, to make a strategic turning maneuver to the right and fight a defensive battle on ground suitable to the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee apparently rejected this idea, which may have upset Longstreet to such an extent that it affected his behavior and performance during the remainder of the battle.
The plan Lee developed called for Ewell to make demonstrations on the left, which would be turned into a full offensive action if circumstances warranted, while the main attack occurred on the right. The basis for Lee’s decision to focus his attack on the Union left were the result of three different reconnaissance efforts, conducted on the morning of July 2. These reconnaissance efforts led Lee to incorrectly believe that the Union left only extended a short distance down the ridge from Cemetery Hill and that no substantial Union forces occupied either the high ground along Emmitsburg Road or the two Round Tops.
Therefore, Lee’s initial plan called for a seizure of the Peach Orchard area followed by an oblique attack designed to smash and roll up the Union left flank. In this assault plan, Longstreet’s corps was to attack the far left of the Union line, while Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps supported on Longstreet’s left. Unfortunately, through a series of marching errors and delays, Longstreet’s men were not in place until late in the afternoon, giving Union forces more time to assemble. While there seemingly was little discussion of tactics, the original concept was for McLaws to initially seize the Peach Orchard, which would provide an excellent position for artillery support of the full assault coming from both McLaws and Hood against a Union left thought to be somewhere to the rear and left of the Peach Orchard.
However, at some point, this plan changed. Longstreet’s recollection of events indicates the plan of attack was changed by Lee himself, once it was discovered the Peach Orchard was occupied by a sizable force of Union troops. As a result, the final attack plan would call for a progressive, en echelon attack beginning with Hood’s division, followed by McLaws’, and then an attack by Anderson as Longstreet’s men reached his front. Had the Union left been as weak as Lee had been led to believe and positioned where he thought it was, the plan would have been a reasonable one, as it would have subjected the Union left flank to intense pressure and an eventual pincer-like envelopment. As it was, the attack would encounter far more resistance from a determined foe who was not deployed where he was thought to be.
Even after this change was made, however, the Confederate attack plan still encountered unexpected problems when Hood found the area in front of his line was also occupied by Union infantry and artillery. Hood then learned that the area to his right, in the vicinity of the Round Tops, was completely open. He pleaded with Longstreet, both through couriers and in person, to change the plan of attack and allow him to move over and around the hills to endanger the Federal rear. However, at this point, Longstreet adamantly denied the requests, seemingly determined to carry out Lee’s attack plan, which he had originally opposed. Whether Longstreet had run out of patience, or simply decided to carry out Lee’s orders without regard to the enemy’s actual deployment, is hard to determine. Whatever his thinking or emotional state, he ordered his men to go forward with the attack as planned despite the fact that the tactical situation had clearly changed.
Hood’s attack on the Devil’s Den and Little Round Top, and the opposing Union defense of those positions, quickly became what could be characterized as a “soldier’s fight,” one in which the actions of individual units, their commanders, and the average soldier become more important than the original plan. In some places, especially in Devil’s Den, the fighting took on the characteristics of a nasty brawl. Units had to quickly alter their fronts in defense based on a rapidly changing situation and difficult terrain. For their part, the Union forces in the Devil’s Den area were, indeed, thin and Hood’s men overlapped their left flank. The weight of Hood’s assaulting force was overwhelming in comparison and the attack quickly split into two sections, with one going after the Union forces in Rose’s Wood and Devil’s Den, while the other swept around them to the right towards the Round Tops and an exposed Union left flank.
But, despite the Union disadvantages, any idea that the Confederate assault simply rolled over the Union defenders at Devil’s Den is clearly incorrect. Here, as with the rest of the defense of Sickles’ salient position, the Union defense was a determined one. Unlike at Chancellorsville, there was no general rout of those defending the Union flank. Ground was given grudgingly and those Confederate units who took the ground did not do so cheaply. However, the ground was taken and the Union forces in that sector were forced to withdraw towards the Wheatfield Road.
As far as the attack by Hood against Little Round Top, the situation was entirely different as Meade’s reserves made themselves a deciding factor. As the left of Hood’s division battled at Devil’s Den, the right wing moved through the rocky valley below Little Round Top, with some of them actually scaling the sides of Big Round Top before sliding down into the valley between the two hills. When Hood’s attack began, there were no Union troops on Little Round Top except for a small signal station. That situation, however, quickly changed. Luckily for the Union forces, Meade had dispatched General Warren to assess the situation on the far left flank. Climbing to the top of Little Round Top, Warren could see that Hood’s attack was about to envelop the left of Sickle’s line and that the hill he was standing on was the key to holding the flank. He sought assistance from General Sykes, whose V Corps was moving up to support Sickles. Sykes sent a rider to find General Barnes and tell him to quickly move a brigade to Little Round Top.
While the rider never found Barnes, he did encounter one of his brigades led by Colonel Strong Vincent. Vincent, in a move that exemplifies great initiative and leadership, made the decision to move his brigade to Little Round Top on his own authority. In addition, once his brigade arrived on the hill, Vincent ably deployed them in an excellent defensive position on a shelf about two-thirds up the hillside. Here, small unit tactics would truly prove the critical factor. Vincent’s men would hold off repeated attacks by regiments from Robertson and Law’s brigades of Hood’s division. On the far left, the last Union regiment in line, the 20th Maine, would make a defense that was to become legendary. In fact, more than a 120 years later, the U.S. Army Leadership Manual, FM22-100, would devote its first twelve pages to the defense of the Union left at Little Round Top as a case study in leadership and unit cohesion under fire.
The 20th Maine, led by Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, who had only held his position a few weeks, would stop repeated attacks by the 47th and 15th Alabama. Chamberlain would ably maneuver his regiment, refusing his line to counter attempts to turn his flank. Finally, when his men were virtually out of ammunition and he anticipated another assault, Chamberlain ordered a counterattack with fixed bayonets. Ironically, at that same moment, the 15th Alabama was about to retreat. The retreat quickly became an unorganized rout as Chamberlain’s men swept down the hillside on the surprised Alabamans.
Chamberlain’s counterattack, combined with stiff resistance and additional support to the remainder of the Union line on Little Round Top stopped and then turned back Hood’s assault on the far left. While there were still to be anxious moments and terrible fighting in the Union’s defense of other sectors of the line, the Union’s strong reserves and their ability to put up a determined fight had begun to turn back Lee’s attack.