June 1, 1863
Battles are often decided before the first shot is fired. Gettysburg is indeed an example of this kind of predetermined fate, as the groundwork for the infamous three days following was laid in the philosophy, decisions, and errors made in the days previous.
Following the outline set out through chapters in Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels, we see that the first hours of the infamous First Day of battle are comprised of several key elements: the dispute between Longstreet and Lee over defensive verses offensive strategy, the defense of the high ground by Buford, and the failure of Ewell to pursue the scrambling Federals.
In the first chapter of the first day of battle, we find the great General Robert E. Lee, thinking to himself, quietly, slowly. His heart has been giving him trouble, and he cannot will his heart to health. Indeed, Lee’s health may have had a factor in the Confederate collapse in the following days, perhaps clouding some judgement and strength. Lee may even have had a mild heart attack. In Shaara’s novelization, we see hints of this idea.
Lee then receives news that General A.P. Hill is moving on Gettysburg to requisition shoes for his battered forces. This significant action forces the Confederates into engagement with Buford’s cavalry, which has been observing since the day before. Lee does receive word of cavalry in the town, but Hill overrules his subordinate General Pettigrew’s conviction that there is indeed such a force. They are believed to be militia, and Lee is inclined to let this conclusion be drawn. He is hesitant to believe any large force exists to the east, still trusting that J.E.B. Stuart would have warned him about such a development.
So Lee lets the matter rest with his generals, only reiterating that they understand that no fight must be engaged. But Hill is new to command, one of a pair with Richard Ewell who replaced the “irreplaceable” Stonewall Jackson after the latter’s untimely death. That Jackson was not in command to receive Lee’s later orders is arguably quite significant in the factors leading to the Confederacy’s subsequent loss. Lee and Jackson knew each other well, and the latter could read Lee’s more general orders and translate them into specific, precise orders to his subordinates – who, in fact, included Ewell and Hill.
Longstreet repeats to Lee that Buford’s cavalry has been spotted in Gettysburg and that Meade appears to be trying to shift around them to attack. Longstreet advises swinging around the Federals in a defensive move that will allow the Confederates to define the battleground. But Lee sees that Meade has been forcing the march and that his men would enter the field piecemeal and weary. He should attack here, now, while they are weak.
But the battle afar is already under way. Hill has moved into the town, unprepared, and John Reynolds has arrived to support Buford’s cavalry at Gettysburg against Hill’s divisions.
Shaara’s second chapter of Day 1 covers Buford’s pivotal experience in the battle: his delay of the Confederate army and his defense of the high ground south of Gettysburg. We find him atop Seminary Ridge, observing the battle before him. There is a spark of battle with Harry Heth, a division under Hill. General Gamble of Buford’s forces reports a weakening hold on the west. Buford reinforces him with Devin’s brigade from the north. He sends a squad to spy out how close is the northern threat. Buford cannot hold out much longer, and he knows Longstreet to the west and Ewell to the north, not to mention the rest of Heth’s division, are breathing down on him. Yet Buford does not retreat – not yet. He stands by his conviction that delaying the Confederates from reaching Cemetery Hill is worthwhile.
Reynolds and the infantry come in time to reinforce the faltering cavalry. The latter recognizes Buford’s foresight and he sees what Buford is fighting for. To the south, Reynolds gazes at the high ground and compliments Buford that he may indeed make a soldier yet. The lines hold, despite Reynolds’ early death in the engagement.
We enter Shaara’s chapter three with a strategically visual view from Lee as he enters the Gettysburg area in a desperate search for information. Lee sets up headquarters at Cashtown, west of the city, and meets A.P. Hill, who is ignorant of the origin of fire from Heth’s division. Lee considers retreating: This was not his plan, Longstreet’s corps are not up, information on the enemy is painfully thin. He rides closer and finally sees the situation, but wonders why Heth would engage an infantry force as powerful as his – with Ewell still north and Longstreet far west. Heth appears at last and explains the misunderstanding of taking Buford’s skilled dismounted cavalry for mere militia. Heth had been prevailing – until timely reinforcements from the south (Reynold’s) stayed the Federal retreat. Lee, armed with this information, looks on and sees the Union troops move north. A messenger confirms that Rodes’ and soon Early’s divisions (of Ewell’s corps) have engaged from the north. Complete victory seems too close to evade. Lee orders all generals to attack.
Lee is still uncomfortably ignorant of the general assembly of his and the enemy’s men, yet with Ewell’s troops joining the fight, soon the Confederates prevail, pushing the Federals towards Cemetery Hill. They cannot hold the hill; Lee orders fire upon it. The assault must continue, Lee determines. But Hill’s divisions of Pender and Heth are fatigued and Ewell’s forces are closer. So Lee gives the now-infamous order for Ewell to take the hills “if practical.”
Longstreet comes up finally and victory is strong in the air. Lee is surprised that Longstreet still imagines moving the army around towards Washington. Lee sees only inertia, momentum, to get the job done now while the Federals are reeling. A messenger reports that Ewell needs support from Hill before he can move towards the hills with Rodes and Early. Indeed, after such a large fighting as they had just experienced, Rodes and Early were badly battered and disorganized, even if victorious, and Ewell’s third division was not in position to make the wished-for assault. The few precious hours before the Union formally entrenched itself and gained reinforcements would be lost to Ewell’s preparatory maneuvers.
With Ewell clamoring for help and Hill admittedly weak, Lee turns to Longstreet, but his nearest division under McLaws is still six miles away. So Lee maintains his order to Ewell to take the hill “if at all possible.” But Lee notices that his artillery is not firing on Cemetery Hill and still no assault is coming from Ewell. Longstreet is too far to join the offensive.
The night of July 1, 1863, closes showcasing the deep-set strategic differences between Lee and Longstreet. Despite the reeling victory achieved on the first part of the first day of battle, Longstreet still believes the army should retreat and move around to threaten Washington. Longstreet’s case is compelling: The Confederates will be outnumbered soon, the groundwork for the attack was already premature, and the battlefield is not of their choosing. With the Federals digging into Cemetery Hill, they hold the best ground. But Lee believes in the momentum of the army. Turning back now will destroy the delicate achievement of good morale, the morale that enabled his army to defeat greater numbers in past battles. Lee will trust that his can overcome any odds.
The night ends with Longstreet conceding to Lee’s wishes. Lee waits for the attack on Cemetery Hill that on this night, will never come.
Lee’s decision to assault the heights and not take the defensive position as advocated by Longstreet is reasonable when other factors are considered: Without his “eyes and ears” J.E.B. Stuart, Lee had no information on what his army may encounter on a march around the Federals. Yet his overall situation was still poor: On the first day of battle, he found himself up against an entrenched enemy on its native soil, in the land of its choosing and on high ground.
In hindsight, the inevitable end of the Battle of Gettysburg seems almost too clear: From this first day of the conflict, we see the two options for the battle argued and decided: Lee’s pushing, offensive strategy over Longstreet’s maneuvering, defensive one. This is the grand plan for the battle. On this first day, we see the Federals delay the advance of the Confederates in time to give itself a more fair advantage in the conflict to follow: Buford slows the enemy advance enough to enable the Federal withdraw to Cemetery Hill. And we see that same high ground kept in the hands of the Federal army by the failure of any Confederate force to dislodge it before the Federals entrench and reinforce. With Lee insistent on pushing into the Federals, the doomed charges of Longstreet and Pickett are almost all too clear. On July 1, 1863, the strategy had been set, and the land, laid out in blue and gray. History had taken its course.
Catton, B. (1982). Gettysburg: The final fury. New York, NY: Berkley. (Original work published 1974)
Shaara, M. (2004). The killer angels. New York, NY: Modern Library. (Original work published 1974)
Symonds, C.L. (1983). A battlefield atlas of the Civil War. Annapolis, MD: Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America.
The previous entry is a part of a series of Gettysburg posts recounting Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and the actual battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. The complete list of entries can be found at the page The Killer Angels.