Gettysburg, The First Day

Robert E. Lee And The Army Of Northern Virginia Invade The North

The Battle of Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg

July 1, 1863

Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his invading Army of Northern Virginia were on the march into Maryland and Pennsylvania in June of 1863. This is Lee’s second attempt to invade the North, his failed first attempt being Antietam in September of 1862. Washington, D.C. was Lee’s goal for this second Confederate invasion, he was hoping for a negotiated end to the Civil War and a Southern victory.

Lee’s plans of Confederate invasion and victory would die at the Battle of Gettysburg.

A New Commander For The Army Of The Potomac

Gettysburg Day One Overview. Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com.

Gettysburg Day One Overview. Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com.

The Army of the Potomac gained a new commander immediately before Gettysburg. At the end of June, Abraham Lincoln decided that General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker was not the kind of fighting man needed to lead the Army of the Potomac. On June 28, Major General George Gordon Meade becomes Lincoln’s new commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Meade would not have long to become familiar with his new position before he faced a huge challenge. Only three days after becoming the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Meade would battle against Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the invading Army of Northern Virginia at a quiet and peaceful crossroads town in Pennsylvania named Gettysburg.

John Buford Holds The High Ground For The Union

Rebels Search For Shoes

The Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863.

Early that morning Confederate soldiers belonging to General Henry Heth’s division of A. P. Hill’s corps met up with unmounted Union cavalry led by General John Buford. The Confederates were heading towards Gettysburg looking for supplies. The resulting skirmish on the outskirts of Gettysburg was the beginning of the three-day battle.

General John Buford’s cavalry arrived at Gettysburg only slightly before the Confederate troops. General Buford realized Gettysburg was a key position because of the many roads from all directions leading into the town, and because of the high ridges and hills which made up Gettysburg’s terrain.

Buford’s unmounted cavalry successfully held off three times their number for two hours, crucially allowing time for more Union troops to arrive. Buford’s clear and quick thinking allowed the Union troops to occupy the high ground of Gettysburg. This was a very important advantage for the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg.

Major General John Reynolds Falls At Gettysburg

Major General John Reynolds arrived on the field at Gettysburg at approximately 8:30 in the morning. Buford’s cavalry had held the high ground for the Union, and now they were under heavy fire and pressure from the advancing and gathering Confederates. Reynolds and the infantry Union I Corps were needed to relieve General John Buford’s unmounted cavalry. Reynolds met with Buford at the Lutheran Seminary and decided to hold the field position. Reynolds then rode to the field to direct the Union I Corps.

The Fall of John Reynolds

The Fall of John Reynolds

“The enemy is advancing in strong force. I will fight him inch by inch, and if driven into the town I will barricade the streets and hold him back as long as possible.“

…Words of General John Reynolds at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.

“Forward! For God’s sake, forward!“

…General John Reynolds at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 shortly before being struck in the head and killed instantly by a Confederate sharpshooter’s minie bullet. At the time, Reynolds was directing Meredith’s Brigade into position at the edge of McPherson’s woods.

John Reynolds was 43-years-old and a brilliant soldier who would be missed by the Army of the Potomac. Reynolds was born only fifty miles from Gettysburg at Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Three days after his death, Reynolds was buried at nearby Lancaster. Today, when you tour the Gettysburg National Military Park, you will find a statue where Reynolds fell on McPherson’s Ridge.

The Iron Brigade

Hardee Hat - Black Hat

Hardee Hat – Black Hat

The fighting was furious by afternoon of the first day as all nearby Confederate and Union troops made hurried tracks for Gettysburg. A division of the Union I Corps met the rebel assault and stopped it after hard fighting. This division of the Union I Corps had a unit made up of five regiments from the Midwest that was known as the Iron Brigade. The Iron Brigade was distinctive because its members wore black hats, also making it distinctive was its reputation for tough fighting.

The Iron Brigade lived up to its hard-fighting reputation at Gettysburg, but paid a dear price as two-thirds of its black-hatted members were lost in the battle.

General O. O. Howard’s 11th Corps arrived north of Gettysburg around noon and faced units of General Ewell’s 2nd Corps who were arriving after a fast march from the Susquehanna. More and more troops from both sides rushed to Gettysburg and eventually approximately 24,000 rebels faced approximately 19,000 Yankees. The Yankees formed along a line in the shape of a semicircle running north and west of Gettysburg.

Robert E. Lee Arrives At Gettysburg And The Yankees Retreat

Ewell Should Attack “If Practicable”

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee

Lee arrived at Gettysburg and ordered Generals Hill and Ewell to send all they had against the Union lines. With this Confederate onslaught, the Yankees began to retreat through Gettysburg towards the high ground of Cemetery Hill. Fighting continued street by street, house by house, and yard by yard as the Yankees retreated.

The Union retreat through Gettysburg was harried, hurried, and full of confusion. Approximately two or three thousand Yankees were captured as they tried to escape through the streets of Gettysburg. Not knowing the layout of the town streets led to confusion and entanglement for the fleeing Yankees. The men in blue could never be sure when they ran down an unfamiliar Gettysburg street… there might be Confederates waiting for them behind a house or hidden in an alley, or the street may lead them to safety.

Afterward, some of the Yankee soldiers joked about the situation. They said the rebels caught them because the names of some of their 11th Corps officers had tripped them up. Some of the names of the 11th Corps officers were: Lieutenant Colonel Detleo Von Einsiedel, Colonel Waldimir Kryzanowski, and Brigadier General Alexander Schimmelpfennig.

The Confederates pushed the retreating Yankees through the town of Gettysburg until General Winfield Scott Hancock organized strong Union positions on the high ground of Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. General Howard had earlier placed a reserve division and artillery on Cemetery Hill. The Confederate advance ended late in the afternoon of July 1.

Lee ordered General Richard Ewell to renew the attack on the Yankee troops before night fell. In his orders to Ewell, Lee said the attack should happen “if practicable.” However, General Ewell thought his men needed rest, and renewing the attack on the Yankee-held high ground was impracticable. Ewell chose not to attack.

Yankees Hold The High Ground

General Meade Arrives

George G. Meade

George G. Meade

At the close of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union held the high ground of Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. During the night, General Meade and three more Union corps arrived at Gettysburg.

The Yankees held a formidable defensive position. Their lines stretched two miles in the shape of an inverted hook around Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill, and another hill named Little Round Top.

The Union held a convex interior line at Gettysburg. Picture a rainbow. The Union troops are inside the rainbow and the Confederates are on the outside of the rainbow’s arc. This meant the Yankees were able to move their troops faster from position to position than the rebels could move theirs, and communication was faster too for the Yankees because the distance between the Union troops was less.

Holding the high ground was an important advantage for the Union at Gettysburg.

The First Day at Gettysburg – Gettysburg National Military Park Ranger John Nicholas

 

NEXT: Gettysburg, The Second Day

 

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Chancellorsville May 3 – 6, 1863

Any Victory Would Be Dear At Such A Cost

May 3-6, 1863

Stonewall Jackson shot at Chancellorsville.

Stonewall Jackson shot at Chancellorsville.

Stonewall Jackson, shot by friendly fire from North Carolina troops the night of May 2, has his mangled left arm amputated early in the morning of May 3 at a field hospital. General Robert E. Lee says of Jackson’s importance to him and the Army of Northern Virginia; “He has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right. Any victory would be dear at such a cost.”

Hazel Grove Is The Key

The best artillery officer of the Confederacy, Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, reports to General James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart early the morning of May 3 that a high piece of ground called Hazel Grove would be the perfect point to stage an artillery attack. Stuart sends a brigade made up of Tennessee and Alabama regiments to Hazel Grove. The Confederates attack at dawn, just in time to capture four cannon and one hundred men of a Union rear guard.

Because of its very advantageous position for artillery, Hazel Grove is the key to the battlefield. If “Fighting Joe” Hooker controls Hazel Grove, he could keep the two wings of the Army of Northern Virginia separated. Hooker, with his superior number of troops, could then destroy Lee’s parted army.

Despite the great advantage of holding Hazel Grove, Hooker decides to abandon the position. Hooker chooses instead to have his troops fall back from Hazel Grove to an elevated clearing called Fairview.

Colonel Alexander quickly moves about 36 cannon into the open space of Hazel Grove and begins firing at Yankee artillery located about 1200 yards away at Fairview, and at the crossroads of Chancellorsville itself. The Confederate artillery is triumphant. It was recently reorganized into a battalion system, allowing it to have an ample amount of guns in large, mobile groups. This organization of the Confederate artillery made it much more efficient and effective.

The advantageous high ground of Hazel Grove and the battalion system of artillery management led Douglas Southall Freeman (the Army of Northern Virginia’s leading historian) to comment: “At Hazel Grove the finest artillerists of the Army of Northern Virginia were having their greatest day.” With the artillery support, the Confederate infantry stages a full attack on the Federal lines.

A Dazed And Groggy “Fighting Joe”

Joe Hooker

Joe Hooker

General “Fighting Joe” Hooker experiences personally some of the Confederate artillery. Hooker is at his Chancellorsville house headquarters leaning against a white porch column on the second-story veranda. A Confederate shell hits the porch column but does not explode. Hooker is knocked unconscious and suffers a concussion, but the dazed and groggy “Fighting Joe” continues in command.

Some of Hooker’s officers wish Hooker would start a counterattack in response to the Confederate offensive. These officers are disappointed when Hooker instead chooses to retreat one or two miles towards the north into a defensive line.

Robert E. Lee’s Gamble Pays Off

The two wings of Lee’s army reunite and Lee’s great gamble at Chancellorsville pays off. The Confederates push the Yankees back to the Chancellorsville crossroads intersection. General Lee rides his horse Traveller onto the battle scene, the sight of Lee with Traveller charges the enthusiasm of the Confederates and they cheer their general. Lee is in triumph and his men are celebrating, but a crisis soon comes.

Word comes from Fredericksburg that Lee’s rear guard is in trouble. General Jubal Early leads the rear guard and his 11,000 men are up against twice as many Union soldiers led by General John Sedgwick. On the morning of May 3, Confederate Colonel Thomas M. Griffen accepts (against regulations) a flag of truce. During the truce, the Federals see that they outnumber their enemy. The Federals advance upon the Confederates, moving over ground where so much loss and grief had occurred for them the previous December during the Battle of Fredericksburg. They cross the plain below Marye’s Heights, and move over the stone wall and Sunken Road, giving Sedgwick’s troops a path to the rear of General Lee’s position.

General Robert E. Lee and Traveler

General Robert E. Lee and Traveler

Sedgwick’s advance ends at Salem Church, about four miles west of Marye’s Heights. Five brigades of Alabama troops (all tough and veteran fighters) led by Marcellus Wilcox, use Salem Church for protection as they make a stand. Lee sends General Lafayette McLaws and his troops to Salem Church for reinforcement of Wilcox and his Alabamians. Later, Lee himself arrives. The fighting tapers off late in the day on May 3. On May 4, the Confederates push Sedgwick back to the Rappahannock River. The Union soldiers retreat across the Rappahannock on the night of May 4-5.

With Sedgwick now across the Rappahannock River, Lee returns to Chancellorsville on May 5 and begins planning a new offensive against Hooker’s men. Nevertheless, a new Confederate offensive proves unnecessary. On the morning of May 6, Lee learns from scouts that under the cover of night, the Yankees have retreated north of the Rappahannock River.

My God! My God! What Will The Country Say?

President Lincoln has been monitoring the Chancellorsville battle from the telegraph office in the War Department. During the battle, Lincoln hears reports that are often contradictory or incomplete. On May 6 however, Lincoln learns the certain results of Chancellorsville. He is not pleased. A newspaperman wrote Lincoln’s face turned “ashen” upon hearing the bad news of Chancellorsville. The president exclaims: “My God! My God! What will the country say?

The country’s reaction to the Union defeat at Chancellorsville is not good. With the Union’s defeat at Fredericksburg, and now a loss at Chancellorsville, the country has been hearing too much bad news too often. Things are looking bad for the Union.

Lee’s Masterpiece

For General Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy, things are looking good. Lee has won a great battle at Chancellorsville, it his masterpiece.

Stonewall Jackson Is Recovering

Stonewall Jackson

Stonewall Jackson

Meanwhile, twenty-five miles southeast of Chancellorsville in a house at Guinea Station, General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson is healing from his wounds and amputation.

The news from Guinea Station is good too for General Lee and the South: Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson is recovering.

 

 

 

 

NEXT: Stonewall Jackson’s recovery…
PREVIOUS: Chancellorsville May 2, 1863

 

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