First contact: Heth vs. Buford Battle: At sunrise on July 1, 1863, two armies collide at a rural crossroads in Pennsylvania; Revisiting Gettysburg


Six score and 15 years ago, Southern and Northern armies met in the greatest clash ever fought on this continent, a battle that decided the nation's fate. After Gettysburg, historians generally agree, the South could not have won the war.

It all began innocently enough, with a Confederate foray to find shoes and supplies in the small town of Gettysburg, Pa. It was at sunrise the first day of July when an infantry division led by Henry Heth, a Southern major general, started shelling a cavalry brigade commanded by John Buford, a Union brigadier general.

The two armies had not run into each other completely by accident. Each knew the other was somewhere in the neighborhood, or at least the vicinity, of that part of Pennsylvania. And both were looking for a fight once they found each other. Gettysburg just happened to be the unplanned place, the crossroads where the two collided. In military terms, it was a "meeting engagement."

Pennsylvania was the farthest north that the Confederate commander in chief, Robert E. Lee, had ever dared to go. Leaving war-wrecked Virginia to cross into unfamiliar enemy territory was a grand stand, to be sure, but it has also been called a reckless gamble. Perhaps it was both.

In any case, the country was flat and open, full of farm fields, with two gentle hills and a clump of trees that would soon go down in military history. The town of Gettysburg was minding its own business when, as a woman who lived there then wrote in her diary, "it begins to look as though we will have a battle soon, and we are in great fear."

Her name was Sallie Robbins Broadhead, and she wrote those words the last day of June.

On July 1, 1863, "I got up early this morning to get my baking done before any battle would begin," she recorded. "I had just put my bread in the pans when the cannons began to fire. ... What to do or where to go, I did not know."

'It was glorious!'

A boy of 13 picking raspberries, Billy Bayly, had an altogether different reaction. "We three boys broke for the open and back to the blacksmith's shop. But to me as a boy it was glorious! Here were my aspirations for months being gratified. ... Here it was right at home and evidently going to be a bang-up fight."

How right Billy was. American history was about to be made "right at home" in a dust-up between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia.

Buford sent word to nearby Maj. Gen. John Reynolds to send help directly. Until then, he wrote, "my arrangements were made for entertaining him [the enemy] until General Reynolds could reach the scene." He observed that the North's dismounted cavalry troops had the better position, while the soldiers in gray had greater numbers.

When Reynolds rode to the rescue with fresh men from 1st and the 11th Corps, the fight was already on. Good for morale on the embattled Union side was the news that the famed Iron Brigade, the experienced western Army unit, was among those that showed up.

Buford and Reynolds set up operations at the Lutheran Seminary, where the steeple's cupola afforded the leaders and the signal corps a view of the landscape. They could see clear across Union lines at Willoughby's Run, the small stream across which the first cannonballs flew.

On the Southern side, masses of rebel soldiers were rushing to converge on the little town where the fighting had erupted, including Lee, who arrived from Cashtown, Pa. The entire 2nd and 3rd Corps were summoned, giving the Confederates a significant advantage in both firepower and manpower. By the time all soldiers arrived on both sides the first day, Lee's men outnumbered Union soldiers 2-to-1.

The two Southern corps commanders, Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell of the 2nd and Lt. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill of the 3rd Corps, certainly had something to show at the end of the first day's encounter. So far, it looked like a Confederate victory, for they had captured the town of Gettysburg in fierce fighting and driven Union soldiers off the Seminary ground they had held north of Gettysburg. They beat a retreat and fled for the hills south of Gettysburg. Finally, the North had suffered the loss of a leader: Reynolds was killed early in the day's action.

Lee, according to Col. Dolf Carlson, military historian at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., believed that his forces could finish off and destroy federal resistance before the rest of Maj. Gen, George Gordon Meade's -- his newly appointed counterpart -- forces moved in the second day of July.

That was not to be. Lee had just lost his lightning right arm, "Stonewall" Jackson, at Chancellorsville, Va., and Ewell, the man who took his place, apparently was not made of the same stuff. Ewell has been faulted, fairly or unfairly, for not pressing the Southern advantage won on the first day.

It all came down to this, according to Lee's official report: "General Ewell was, therefore instructed to carry the hill occupied by the enemy, if he found it practicable, but to avoid a general engagement until the arrival of the other divisions of the army. ... He decided to await Johnson's [2nd Corps] division, which ... did not reach Gettysburg until a late hour." A Baltimorean fighting for the South, Maj. Gen. Isaac Ridgeway Trimble, argued in vain against Ewell's decision.

'If practical'

So much hung on Lee's two words: "if practicable." They have been endlessly debated by those who wished the battle had gone the other way. Ewell has been made a scapegoat of history, criticized for failing to seize the strategic advantage of high ground.

Instead of giving chase to withdrawing federal troops, Ewell let them go up the heights. As was his custom, Lee's orders left generals free to exercise their own judgment in the field.

As a result, Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill -- two important placenames in the Civil War lexicon -- stayed in Yankee hands. And that was not an accident, but a lesson Buford and others had learned the hard way at the second Battle of Bull Run (or Groveton, as the South called it). There Buford saw that holding the high ground made all the difference to the outcome of Southern victory and Northern humiliation.

So one entire division of the Union's 11th Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, did nothing at first but build fortifications and breastworks on Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill.

Chronology of the re-enactment

The opening battle of Gettysburg, Buford vs. Heth, will be re-enacted at 4 p.m. Friday, July 3.

8 a.m., July 1, 1863

Brig. Gen. John Buford's Union 1st Cavalry Division entered Gettysburg June 30 with orders to hold the town until the infantry arrived. The nearest Union infantry was the 1st Corps, on the Emmittsburg Road about five miles south of Gettysburg. Buford posted two brigades, commanded by Col. William Gamble and Col. Thomas C. Devin, north and west of the town.

That night Buford prophetically told Devin, "They will attack you in the morning, and they will come booming - skirmishers three deep. You will have to fight like the devil to hold your own until supports arrive. The enemy must know the importance of this position and will strain every nerve to secure it, and if we are able to hold it, we will do well." By 8 a.m. two brigades of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth's division, commanded by Brig. Gen. James Jay Archer and Brig. Gen. Joseph R. Davis, were trading fire with the dismounted cavalry. Buford's troopers were badly outnumbered, but their position was good and they had breechloading carbines, which gave them an advantage in firepower over the muzzleloading muskets of the South. For two hours they stopped Heth's advance.

10 a.m.

Buford called on Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds' 1st Corps for infantry support. Shouting, "Forward. For God's sake, forward," Reynolds sent his lead division, commanded by Brig. Gen. James S. Wadsworth and including Brig. Gen. Solomon Meredith's Iron Brigade, into action and briefly stabilized the situation west of the town, but as Reynolds was examining the ground to place his troops, he was killed by a sniper. He was succeeded by Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday, commander of the 3rd Division. By 11 a.m. Wadsworth's division relieved Buford and smashed Heth's two leading brigades with a counterattack. The Confederate force contending for the ground, Archer's brigade, had been told they would meet nothing but Pennsylvania militia, which they expected to brush out of the way. But when they saw the Iron Brigade, some of them were heard saying, " 'Taint no militia. There are the black-hatted fellows again. It's the Army of the Potomac." Meredith's men secured the ground and captured Archer and a large part of his brigade.


Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell's 2nd Corps was arriving at the battlefield from the north. Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes' division collided head-on with Devin's cavalry brigade, which was soon supported by the 11th Corps arriving under Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, with two divisions taking positions north of Gettysburg and the third digging in on Cemetery Hill. In the west, Maj. Gen. William Dorsey Pender's division arrived to support Heth.

2 p.m.

Gen. Robert E. Lee arrived on the battlefield and ordered the entire Confederate line forward. Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early's division attacked the right flank of the Union 11th Corps position. In the west, Pender's division pushed back the 1st Corps.

4 p.m.

The Confederates outnumbered the Union forces about 2-to-1, and Howard ordered a withdrawal to Cemetery Hill. In the retreat, the 11th Corps became entangled in the streets of BTC Gettysburg and was overrun by the pursuing Confederates, losing about 4,000 men as prisoners. By evening, the 3rd Corps and 12th Corps arrived to reinforce the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. The first day of Gettysburg was a Confederate victory. Two Union corps were driven from the field, with losses exceeding 10,000 men killed, wounded or captured, leaving them at less than half of their original strength.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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