The First Day at Gettysburg:
Lee, Meade, and John
Gettysburg Map Morning July 1, 1863
The credible evidence shows that General Lee planned his
army’s encounter with the enemy at Gettysburg many months before beginning the
movement from Virginia. This is evident from the testimony offered by credible
eye-witnesses: A.L. Long, his military secretary, and Isaac Trimble, and from
the fact that Jed Hotchkiss drew for him road maps that included the mountain
road from Shippensburg to Arendtsville. The idea was a classic one: by sending
Ewell’s corps toward the Susquehanna River, with Early’s division marching east
as far as York, his brigades and cavalry reaching Wrightsville and Hanover, Lee
induced the Union army to string itself out to the northeast, along the
Mason-Dixon line, its corps reaching as far as Manchester to cover the threat
that Ewell’s corps, followed by Lee’s main body, would move on Baltimore or
Washington. When, after the war, Longstreet talked about the “agreed upon” plan
being to “force” the enemy to attack the Rebel army, instead of the army
attacking the enemy, he was referring to the political pressure that would be
brought to bear on the Lincoln government to move on the offensive against Lee.
The conflict between the pressure to move on the offensive and the necessity to
wait for Lee’s movement toward the Mason-Dixon Line to develop, caused Meade,
with the backing of Halleck, to stand on the defensive for three days. Only in
the middle of the night of June 30/July 1, when the word came from Harrisburg
that the rebel forces on the Susquehanna were falling back, did Meade decide to
move his left wing toward Gettysburg and confront Lee’s main body that he had
known for almost forty-eight hours was camped in the twenty-two mile corridor
through the South Mountain, between Chambersburg and Cashtown.
In calculating the time table that would bring the two
armies in contact at Gettysburg, General Lee had expected that the enemy’s
advance would reach Gettysburg on June 30th. This is proved by Jubal
Early’s post-war testimony in his letter to H.B. McClellan and in his writings
in the Southern Historical Society Papers and in his posthumous autobiography. When
he met with Ewell at Chambersburg, on June 25, it was understood between the
two of them, Early states, that they would march toward each other on June 29:
Ewell from the vicinity of Carlisle toward Early, and Early from York toward
Ewell, the junction point designated at that time to be Churchtown, a point on
the northern extreme of the South Mountain range. But neither Ewell nor Early
marched toward each other on the 29th. What had changed the time
General Lee controlled the record of his instructions to his
corps commanders through his control of the Gettysburg Letterbook. He did not
allow his staff to make any record of his actual movements orders, from
the time he crossed the Potomac, on June 25, to sometime on or after July 1,
when he allowed Charles Marshall to copy into the book his instructions to
Imboden to bring his cavalry to Chambersburg and relieve Pickett’s division
from its role as the army’s train guard. At this time, his aide, Walter
Taylor, had taken the place of Robert Chilton as the assistant adjutant
general of the army, a position Taylor held, not as a member of Lee’s personal
staff, but as a member of General Samuel Cooper’s, the Adjutant General’s,
office in Richmond. As such, just as Chilton did during the Antietam campaign, Taylor was responsible for maintaining his own letterbook in which his duty as AAG
required him to copy all movement orders Lee issued. Chilton’s letterbook
exists in the National Archives today because it was part of the records sent
by Cooper in a wagon train to Goldsboro, N.C., when Petersburg fell. Where is Taylor’s letterbook?
Without any credible written record of what orders Lee
actually issued to his corps commanders between June 25 and July 2, we are left
to rely upon the testimony offered by a number of witnesses, first in their
battle reports, and, later, in the post war years, their public writings. Longstreet,
Ewell, Early, and Charles Marshall prominently fall into this category. But,
when compared to what the elements of Lee’s army actually did, their stories
conflict in important ways. For some reason, Ewell and Early did not march
toward each other on June 29 as they had planned on June 25. No record exists
as to why this is so, except that the enemy was not moving toward Gettysburg on that day as Lee had expected. Despite the political pressure to move
forward, the enemy was known, by the 28th, to be concentrated
instead around Frederick. To induce the enemy to move toward him, Lee must have
caused orders to be sent to Ewell and Early to fall back toward the South Mountain. Those orders reached Early on the 29th and both he and Ewell began
marching toward Heidlersburg on June 30.
While they were marching, Lee had an infantry brigade, with
at least a squadron of cavalry, advanced to Fairfield within observation
distance of Emmitsburg. John Reynolds, in command of Meade’s left wing (1st
and 11th Corps, to be supplemented by the 3rd Corps at
Taneytown) was aware of this force and this force certainly had to be aware of
him. When Reynolds moved the 1st corps northward several miles,
camping at Moritz Tavern, Lee could anticipate that the following day, Meade
receiving the news of the rebel fall back from the Susquehanna, that Meade
would then be “forced” to take the offensive against him. This is what Lee
wanted, what he had been waiting for patiently to happen, because Meade’s
movement almost certainly would mean his army would arrive at Gettysburg in
pieces, and Lee was reasonably sure he could overwhelm the advance and throw it
back on Meade’s main body.
Meade, for his part, thought the same thing. This is why he
delayed and delayed, with Halleck’s concurrence, in taking the offensive. Until
he was certain his right flank was not in danger of being attacked and turned
by the enemy appearing from the direction of York and Hanover, he stand on the
defensive at the Mason-Dixon Line. Even when he was sure the danger had passed,
he still was unwilling to assume the offensive against Lee. His experience with
Lee stretched back to the battles on the Chickahominy, included Lee’s attacks
at Gaines Mills, Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, and Chancellorsville. He knew from experience that Lee was extremely aggressive and it made him
certain that, indeed, Lee would be coming toward him and that his best
countermove was to meet Lee in a defensive position. Still, the pressure to
move built up in him and, at 4:00 a.m. on July 1, John Reynolds received his
order to move the 1st Corps forward, supported by the 11th
Corps. The evidence clearly shows, in doing this, Meade expected Reynolds to do
no more than advance to the point his front made contact with Lee’s, and then
fall back fighting, slowing Lee’s advance as well as he could, and take
position in the center of Meade’s defensive line at Taneytown. By slowing down
Lee’s anticipated advance, Reynolds would be giving Meade time to bring into
line behind Pipe Creek the 2nd, 12th, 5th, and
6th corps, on the right of Taneytown, and the 11th and 3rd
corps on the left of it.
John F. Reynolds, however, had a different plan. Like Meade,
Reynolds was from Pennsylvania and anxious to protect his state from Lee’s
marauding. Like Meade, he had moved up the ranks through the experiences gained
in handling first a brigade, then a division, then a corps, through the battles
the Army of the Potomac fought with Lee, from the Chickahominy to the Potomac. Like Meade, Reynolds was ambitious and his ego was chaffing to win recognition as
a fighting general. Indeed, it is claimed that after the disaster at Fredericksburg, Lincoln offered army command to him before he offered it to Hooker.
Reynolds is said to have turned the offer down because Lincoln exercised too
much control over how the army would be allowed to move.
However Lee’s and Meade’s actions set the stage, the battle
of Gettysburg happened because John Reynolds decided to make it happen. When
Reynolds rode ahead of the 1st Corps to Gettysburg he knew from
reports received from Buford that A.P. Hill’s corps was massed just back of
Cashtown, that the by-roads were infested with prowling cavalry patrols, and
that Ewell was marching with Rodes from Carlisle, and Early from York, toward
Heidlersburg. This could only mean one thing: If he were to engage the enemy
the likelihood was great he would eventually be fighting on two fronts—Hill’s
forces coming at him from the west and Ewell’s from the north. Under such
circumstance, Meade would expect him to fall back, but he had no intention of
Reynolds rode into the town of Gettysburg. He saw high
ground offered by Cemetery Hill and the long ridge connecting it to the Round
tops and immediately recognized it provided a defensive position as strong as
the position Meade had selected at Pipe Creek. Instantly, he decided his
objective was to hold the enemy west of the town, long enough for Meade to
bring the army forward. At this time two of Henry Heth’s rebel brigades—Archer’s
and Davis’s—were rapidly driving back Buford’s skirmishers from Herr Ridge and
moving against his main line at McPherson’s Ridge.
Reaching Buford’s position about 10:00 a.m., Reynolds saw the rest of Heth’s division in line of column coming forward on the Cashtown Road and immediately put his mount to the gallop and went back across the fields
toward the Emmitsburg Road. As he rode, he calculated time, distance, numbers,
thinking he could organize a battle line that could match Heth’s, hold the
ground Buford was on and bring up the 11th and 3rd Corps.
Reaching the road in the vicinity of the Cordori Farm, he came upon Cutler’s
brigade leading the advance of the 1st Corps. Here he sent a
message to Meade that he was going to engage the enemy and another to Howard to
hurry the 11th Corps forward. Then, with the 147th N.Y.
Regiment, he recrossed the fields to McPherson’s Ridge and directed the
regiment where to break down from column into line.
As the 147th NY was moving across the fields,
Buford’s troopers were falling back from McPherson’s Ridge, with Archer’s
brigade advancing from south of the Cashtown Pike and Davis’s brigade advancing
north of it.
Putting the 147th NY into line on the north side
of the pike, engaging Davis, Reynolds galloped back toward the Emmitsburg Road and took charge of the Iron Brigade, directing its regiments toward the
stand of trees that covered the middle ground of McPherson’s Ridge on the south
side of the pike. Archer’s brigade was rushing up the western slope of the ridge
as Reynolds got the Iron Brigade in line and sent it into the woods. “Forward
men, for God’s sake drive those fellows out of the woods,” he is claimed to
have shouted, as the 2nd Wisconsin Regiment charged the front of the
14th Tennessee. Both regiments let loose with a rifle volley at a
distance of fifty yards, staggering the fronts of both. Reynolds followed the 2nd
Wisconsin into the woods. Here, as the fighting became almost hand to hand,
Reynolds reined his stallion around, looking off to the southeast, straining to
catch sight of the flags of the following Iron Brigade regiments, when a bullet
slammed into his brain, killing him instantly. Reynolds had been on the ground
for little more than two hours when he was killed, but in that time he had
given General Lee the opportunity he had planned so long for: One Union corps
was now engaged with his front and had no choice but to fight, disengagement
impossible without mad flight, making it certain that other Union corps would
be drawn piecemeal into the coalescing battle.
Here, as Cutler’s brigade fell back from McPherson’s Ridge
to Seminary Ridge, Abner Doubleday, acting commander of the 1st
Corps, assumed command of the battlefield. On the south side of the pike, the
Iron Brigade stopped Archer’s brigade cold, pushing it back to Willoughby Run,
then back to Herr Ridge where it met the advance of Heth’s reserve brigade and
withdrew to McPherson’s Ridge. In the process of this, the rebel front on both
sides of the pike withdrew to Herr Ridge and the firing dropped off to a lull.
Without a credible record of Lee’s orders, no one can know with certainty why
the lull developed, since it is obvious if he wanted to, Lee could easily have
crushed the 1st Corps before any support could have arrived. The
most reasonable explanation for the lull is that Lee ordered Heth to reduce the
intensity of the struggle, to encourage the 1st Corps’ support to
come up. Lee had Rodes and Early poised on the north of the battlefield, and
expected their force, cooperating with Hill’s, could destroy two Union corps.
About 11:00 a.m., Howard arrived at the head of the 11th
Corps and, as senior officer on the field, took command of the battlefield from
Doubleday. Leaving Doubleday to handle the Union front facing Hill, Howard rode
onto Cemetery Hill, directing two of his divisions to take position north of it
and face Ewell’s force that had appeared on Doubleday’s flank, the deployment occurring
about 2:00 p.m. At this time the closest supports behind Howard, were Slocum’s
12th Corps, then approaching Two Taverns about five miles from
Gettysburg on the Westminster Road, and Sickles 3rd Corps, about 14
miles away reaching he vicinity of Emmitsburg.
Howard’s two divisions—Schurz’s and Barlow’s—faced Rodes.
Rodes attacked at about 2:00 p.m., as Heth’s fresh brigades—Pettigrew’s and
Brockenbough’s—renewed pressure against Doubleday’s front. The battle now raged
on two fronts, with some initial Union success in resisting the onslaught
pushed by O’Neal’s and Iverson’s brigades of Rodes’s division, but now Early’s
force appeared and, with a line of three brigades, Gordon’s, Avery’s, and
Hays’s. Buford sent here a message to Pleasonton: “We need help now.” Between
Doubleday’s front and Howard’s, there was a gap which Rodes and Early forced
themselves into as Heth attacked again, while Rodes pushed forward Daniels,
Ramseur’s, and Doles’s brigades. Behind Heth came Lane’s, Scales, and Perrin’s
brigades from Pender’s division. The weight of these brigades crumbled first
Howard’s lines and then Doubleday, his flank exposed, ordered retreat.
Now the Union defensive position collapsed. . . first the
men trickling away, then a stampede and a flood. . . Here Barlow was killed.
Doubleday had taken huge losses: Wadsworth’s division had lost over half its strength,
Rowley’s division the same. Most of the field officers were dead or wounded.
Robinson’s division, the last of the 1st Corps had lost 1,600 men
out of 2,500. The Iron Brigade lost two thirds of its men. Heth’s division
likewise was decimated by the four hours of fight.
The time had come for Lee to administer the coup de grace,
to swarm after the fleeing Union troops, pursuing them into the town, through
the streets, around the edges, and up and over Cemetery Hill driving them down
the roads toward the Mason-Dixon Line. It didn’t happen. Despite all his
planning, the long preparation, the incredible physical effort of an army of
60,000 soldiers, with thousands of horses and hundreds of wagons, walking a
hundred miles to reach the battlefield, it didn’t happen. There certainly was
time enough: It was only about 3:30 p.m. when the Union front collapsed and the
men, chased by Heth’s and some of Pender’s men, with Rodes’s and Early’s, rushed
pell mell for Cemetery Hill. Howard was there with a reserve division, but that
division, another one of the luckless German ones that failed at Second
Manassas and Chancellorsville, hardly could be expected to have stood up
against a fresh rebel division throwing itself upon it.
The Cashtown Gap
According to Jacob Hoke, writing his The Great Invasion
after the war, on the Monday night, June 29, “sometime in the after part of the
night, say 2:00 a.m., a continuous stream of wagons coming back from the
direction of Carlisle, and turning east at the Public Square of Chambersburg,
drove onto the Gettysburg pike”: a low rumbling sound, grinding wheels—this was
part of Ewell’s trains, a twenty-five mile long wagon train passing into the twenty-two
mile long corridor between Chambersburg and Cashtown, where already there was
crammed two divisions of Longstreet’s corps camped at Greenwood, and R.H.
Anderson’s division behind Pender’s at the eastern mouth of the Cashtown gap,
plus Hill’s trains somewhere, perhaps in a mountain cove, or side road. So the
night of the 29th, Lee, camped at Messersmith’s Woods on the eastern
suburb of Chambersburg, had to be aware Ewell’s trains were heading into the
corridor and what their presence meant to his ability to get his divisions out
onto the rolling plain between the eastern face of the South Mountain and
At this time, the night of the 29th, Lee must
also have known that Ewell’s third division, Edward Johnson’s, was camped about
Shippensburg, perhaps his lead brigade camped that night close to Green Village, on the road leading to Fayetteville and the Cashtown road through the gap.
Longstreet writes in his From Manassas to Appomattox that he and Lee
camped the night of the 30th at Greenwood and the next morning, July
1, rode together toward Cashtown. About noon, Longstreet writes, they
encountered Johnson’s division appearing at Fayetteville and cutting into the
Cashtown road, Johnson being accompanied by his own division train. At this
point, he says, Lee ordered him to hold his divisions so that Johnson’s could
pass first. This means that Ewell’s corps trains must have passed through the
gap on the 30th, reaching Ewell’s position at Heidlersburg either
that night, while Johnson moved on the 30th toward Green Village, continuing his march the morning of July 1. With these facts in mind, certainly
General Lee, as early as the night of the 29th, could have foreseen
the bottleneck that would occur at the mouth of the Cashtown gap on July 1, the
day, given Rodes’s and Early’s movement toward Heidlersburg, he could expect
the encounter battle with the enemy to commence.
Perhaps this development forced Lee to change his plans, to
delay initiating a battle with the first of the Union corps to appear at Gettysburg, to delay long enough to get Johnson’s division out of the gap and connected to
the rest of Ewell’s corps. Perhaps, but we cannot know because Lee did not
record his orders. The “sketch” he allowed Charles Venable to write in the
Gettysburg Letterbook cannot be relied upon as evidence of his orders; given its
text, and the identity of the writer, it is obvious Lee drafted the text after
he knew the result of the first day’s encounter. The only reason the sketch
exists in the letterbook seems plain to be Lee’s excuse for Ewell’s trains and
Johnson’s division being out of place; i.e., Ewell was first ordered to march
toward Chambersburg which justified him ordering his trains south with
Johnson’s division, while the second part of the text, explains Lee’s change of
plan, brought on not by an intent to assume the offensive but by an intent to
protect his communications.
Longstreet’s statement of timing seems clearly wrong since
the evidence shows that Johnson’s division had reached the vicinity of Early’s
position on the 1st at about 4:00 p.m. This means that the head of Johnson’s
division must have reached the mouth of the Cashtown gap around noon on the 1st; since marching at a pace of three miles per hour, would bring
the head of the division to Early’s position about 4:00 p.m.
General Lee had a crucial decision to make here: Which
division—Johnson’s or Anderson’s—should Lee order march out of the gap first?
He had to think of the end point of the encounter battle—the anticipated
pursuit of the broken Union force toward the Mason-Dixon Line. The prime
tactical consideration for him had to be the issue of which direction did he
want his pressure to force the Union retreat toward: southeast toward Westminster, the enemy’s obvious base of supply, or south toward either Taneytown or
Emmitsburg? If the former then Anderson’s division would be best to go out
first, since it could pass through Pender and Heth and drive directly east
against Cemetery Hill. If the latter, then Johnson’s division should go out
first, to pass around to the north and push the Union retreat south. Clearly,
as Johnson must have been marching through Fayetteville early on the 1st
(it’s 12 miles from there to Cashtown: a four to five hour march), Lee had time
to move Anderson out of the gap to make room for Johnson to pass. But did Anderson have room to move out behind Pender? Indeed, since Anderson would have to move
out before Johnson arrived at noon, did Lee think it prudent to show the first
arriving Union corps so much strength? If he did, would the enemy commander
realize his force was too weak to make any kind of successful stand against
him? And, thus, not engage west of the town, but wait on the Emmitsburg Road for Lee to advance and then slowly retreat toward Maryland where Meade’s
defensive position was situated? Here it seems plain Lee gambled. His prime
motive was to draw the Union advance into contact with Heth, leaving Heth for a
time unsupported as encouragement to the Union commander to solidify the
engagement, allowing his forces to become fixed in a struggle not easily broken
off without disaster. Then as a second Union corps appeared push out Pender and
bring down Ewell. So he held Anderson behind the gap and let Johnson come out
first, after the battle was fully raging, gambling that the slight superiority
in numbers he had achieved in the battle would be sufficient to press the
pursuit, with the possibility that Johnson might arrive at his designated spot
in time to reinforce it. When the moment of crisis came, it seems at least part
of Johnson’s force had come close to where it should have been, and but for the
lack of Stonewall Jackson’s character it failed to rush forward to attack
Cemetery Hill before dark. So in the end the game came down to Jackson’s absence from the field at Gettysburg.
Deb of Texas writes: I recently heard a distinguished author/speaker at our round table say General Lee went to Gettysburg strictly to forage for his army. I had never heard that. I am wondering what your thoughts are on this.
Joe Ryan replies: Take a look at the videos displayed on the website, under Joe Ryan's Battlewalks, Approaches to Gettysburg and Gettysburg The Second Day. They answer your question the long way. My short answer to the speaker's statement that General Lee went to Pennsylvania to forage, is that it is silly.
Of course Lee's army appropriated anything that could be moved—livestock, wagons, harness, tools, horseshoes, clothing, flour, grain, and money—but the caloric value of the food products gained by the foraging was plainly cancelled out by the calories expended by the men and animals not only marching to and from Gettysburg but also in fighting a horrific battle there. Even assuming that the speaker offered some objective evidence of the fact that the army gained a substantial surplus in the exchange, the surplus cannot possibly justify in terms of military science, much less in terms of Confederate war policy, Lee's marching his army to Gettysburg and fighting there the battle that determined the fate of Virginia, and with it the fate of the Confederacy.
Oh but the battle simply happened by accident during the course of the foraging, the speaker might say. In other words, from the start (which means from Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock) Lee meant to march his army of 80,000 men and 20,000 animals in a two hundred mile loop because he expected to gain for it more food than it would consume. Simply ridiculous.
Tim, a descendent of a soldier in the 44th Alabama Regiment at Gettysburg, inquires, regarding the battle’s first day: How did Edward Johnson’s division of Ewell’s corps manage to get to Gettysburg eight hours late in the first place? In other words, what route was he ordered to take and by whom?
Joe Ryan replies: The answer must depend upon reasonable inferences to be drawn from the facts established by the evidence. In his battle report, Johnson expressly states: “On June 29, in obedience to orders, I countermarched my division to Greenville, thence via Scotland, to Gettysburg, not arriving in time, however to participate in the battle of the 1st.” Richard Ewell. in his report, states merely this: “I. . . was starting on the 29th for [Harrisburg] when ordered by [Lee] to join the main body of the army at Cashtown, near Gettysburg.”
It is an undisputed fact that, on the morning of the 29th, Johnson’s division was strung along the road between Carlisle and Shippensburg, and that between Johnson and Rodes’s division was the corps trains. In complying with the order he states came to him somehow from Lee, Ewell had to decide whether to have the trains and Johnson’s division follow Rodes down the east side of the South Mountain toward Cashtown, or have Johnson and the trains move south down the west side of the South Mountain to the road between Cashtown and Chambersburg; or, in the alternative, have Johnson take the trains, on the road between Shippensburg and Arndtsville, over the table top of the South Mountain.
Since we have nothing in evidence that is credible concerning what exact instructions Lee actually communicated to Ewell, and precisely when, we must base our judgment of the reason for Johnson’s late arrival on the fact that Ewell probably ordered Johnson to march south, ignore the road from Shippensburg to Arndtsville, and cut into the road from Chambersburg leading to Cashtown. It was the taking of this route that caused Johnson’s division to arrive on the field too late.
Tim also offers the observation that, in his view, Lee at Gettysburg was gambling on a one shot winner-take-all-attempt to end the war in Pennsylvania.
Joe Ryan replies: I don’t think so. General Lee had designed a classic “encounter” battle that was intended to crush a piece of the enemy’s army, throwing that piece back, inducing the enemy to retreat to the natural line of defense offered by Pipe Creek. In this projected scenario, as the enemy was assuming the defensive at the Pipe Creek line, Lee intended to march his army south on the Emmittsburg road, turning the Pipe Creek line, which would have caused the enemy to continue their retrograde movement closer to Washington, perhaps falling back into its forts, in which case Lee would occupy Frederick and then advance. General Lee hoped in this way to bring his army up to the Washington forts on the 4th of July. Then, most certainly, he would have warmly embraced the gamble of a winner-take-all struggle for possession of the Union Capital. In such case, the concurrent fall of Vicksburg to Grant would have been irrelevant.
Tony Wood of England remarks: I am a family lawyer from England and have visited Gettysburg several times now. I agree with your view of Ewell's performance. As you walk Culp's Hill you realize how crucial it was and yet the historians seem to still dwell on Cemetery Ridge. I think you are right that Jackson probably would have taken the hill and that the tide of the encounter would have washed closer to Washington.
Joe Ryan replies: Yes, the historians and Civil War writers dwell on Cemetery Ridge; I think the reason is that romance sells books, and there is the problem of breaking loose from the herd—the silly story line of the battle happening by accident and that Meade was actually in danger of losing his army in the struggle. These people are lazy, working in a profession where the digging deep into primary sources is apparently deemed to be beneath them.
Nicholas Hollis writes:
At the General Longstreet Recognition Project (link), we have been seeking to establish some objective truth in relation to Longstreet's actions on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and appreciate the clarity your Gettysburg videos offer on the subject.
Joe Ryan replies: The historical myth of the Battle of Gettysburg is now so seeped in the literature—literature layered by generations of writers repeating the story line—that it will probably take another 150 years to get the public's mind aligned to the objective truth of the matter. It seems to me the story line probably developed out of the politics of professional historians, from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.