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Gettysburg--The First Day

Gettysburg--The First Day

by Harry W. Pfanz
Gettysburg--The First Day

Gettysburg--The First Day

by Harry W. Pfanz


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For good reason, the second and third days of the Battle of Gettysburg have received the lion's share of attention from historians. With this book, however, the critical first day's fighting finally receives its due. After sketching the background of the Gettysburg campaign and recounting the events immediately preceding the battle, Harry Pfanz offers a detailed tactical description of events of the first day. He describes the engagements in McPherson Woods, at the Railroad Cuts, on Oak Ridge, on Seminary Ridge, and at Blocher's Knoll, as well as the retreat of Union forces through Gettysburg and the Federal rally on Cemetery Hill. Throughout, he draws on deep research in published and archival sources to challenge many long-held assumptions about the battle.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807898406
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 07/01/2011
Series: Civil War America
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 512,522
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Harry W. Pfanz is author of Gettysburg--The Second Day and Gettysburg--Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill. He served for ten years as a historian at Gettysburg National Military Park and retired from the position of Chief Historian of the National Park Service in 1981.

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Gettysburg - The First Day

By Harry W. Pfanz

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2001 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807826243


Fredericksburg to the Potomac

Its drums were beating, its colors flying, as the 900 officers and enlisted men of the 26th North Carolina Regiment, "beaming in their splendid uniforms," filed from their camp at Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was a beautiful morning on 15 June 1863, and the 26th, with its three sister regiments of Brig. Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew's brigade, was heading off on its first campaign with the vaunted Army of Northern Virginia. "Everything seemed propitious of success," recalled a veteran in later years. It was heady stuff for the virtually unbloodied Tarheels who had been guarding the coastal areas of their native state from Federal invasion. But in a month their uniforms would be worn, and the North Carolinians would learn that war can be horror and hardship as well as beating drums and flaunted colors.[1]

    Pettigrew's brigade belonged to the new Third Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. The corps had sprouted from the wreckage of the battle of Chancellorsville, fought a few miles west of Fredericksburg on 1-3 May 1863. It has been termed by some as Gen. Robert E. Lee's most brilliant victory. Lee and his army of about 60,000 soldiers had befuddled Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commander of the U.S. Army of the Potomac. Lee stopped Hooker's campaign toward Richmond and intimidated him so that he ordered his army back north of the Rappahannock River. Lee's victory had been costly. Nearly 13,000 Confederates had been killed or wounded in the battle, including "Stonewall" Jackson, the commander of Lee's Second Corps. Not only could the South ill afford to lose so many men in an indecisive battle, but it seemed as though Jackson would be impossible to replace.[2]

    Lee had no time to savor the plaudits of victory or to mourn for the dead and maimed. The campaigning season had opened, and he knew that the Federals would not delay to lick their wounds. He had to prepare for further operations.

    His first priority was to reorganize his army and to find a successor for Jackson. The army's two corps of infantry and artillery, the First commanded by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and the Second under the lamented Jackson, had been large and unwieldy. To remedy this, Lee divided the army into three corps having three divisions each. Newly promoted Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell inherited Jackson's old Second Corps, and Lt. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill received command of the new Third Corps. Ewell had commanded a division in the Second Corps until he lost a leg at Second Bull Run, and Hill had led the famed Light Division in that corps. Ewell would have three old divisions commanded by Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early and two new major generals, Robert Rodes and Edward Johnson. Hill would have one old division, that of Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson, and two newly created divisions under recently promoted major generals, Henry Heth and W. Dorsey Pender. Both Heth and Pender had commanded brigades in the Light Division, and these brigades served as nuclei for their new divisions. Each of the army's three corps numbered more than 20,000 officers and enlisted men, and each of its nine divisions was upward of 6,000 strong. In addition to these three corps, the army had Maj. Gen. James E. B. Stuart's cavalry division. On 30 June the Army of Northern Virginia would number about 75,000 officers and enlisted men. Col. Armistead Long of Lee's staff believed that at that time it was "the best disciplined, the most high-spirited, and enthusiastic army on the continent."[3]

    After conferring with President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War James Seddon, General Lee started his army on a campaign that would take it north of the Potomac. In his two reports of the campaign Lee gave his reasons for this movement: It was not advantageous for him to attack the Army of the Potomac in its Fredericksburg position. Therefore he had to draw it away. By moving north of the Potomac, he would pull Hooker's army from Virginia, clear the Shenandoah Valley of Federal forces, and disrupt Federal campaign plans for the summer both in Virginia and elsewhere. Equally important, his army could find badly needed food, forage, horses, and supplies in the North. In addition, there were other valuable results that might be obtained by a military success. Surely they would have included the elusive recognition of foreign governments, the encouragement of the peace movement in the North, and, perhaps, independence.[4]

    In the meantime Hooker was recovering from his traumatic defeat. As early as 7 May one of his staff officers wrote that Hooker would attack again in twenty-four hours. Although this was impractical thinking, it might have reflected expectations at Hooker's headquarters. In addition President Abraham Lincoln and Gen.-in-Chief Henry Halleck visited the army to talk with Hooker and with some of his ranking generals. Lincoln and Halleck believed that Hooker should not be entrusted with command of the army in another battle. Yet, though few candidates were available to succeed him, they delayed for nearly two months before appointing his replacement.[5]

    Meanwhile Hooker was busy. He expressed a desire to open another campaign on Richmond, especially after he learned that all of Lee's army but Hill's corps had moved from his front. Lincoln responded to such proposals with often quoted homespun remarks and forbade such a movement. Although General Lee was able to move with his army essentially as he wished, the administration tethered the Army of the Potomac to Washington and insisted that it be a shield between Lee's army and the capital.[6]

    Part of Hooker's resilience might have resulted from his ability to divert blame for his defeat. Instead of shouldering the responsibility for it, he laid the burden on the Sixth Corps for not advancing rapidly against Lee's rear and on the Eleventh Corps for its allegedly poor, if not disgraceful, performance on 2 May. The Eleventh Corps, which is a major subject of this study, was an easy target. It was relatively new to the Army of the Potomac and had a poor reputation. Its three divisions had come to the army from Maj. Gen. John Pope's Army of Virginia, the loser at Second Bull Run. The corps had been commanded by Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, who was a leader in the German immigrant community but an undistinguished general. More to the point, it contained a number of regiments composed of German immigrants, and two of its division commanders, Adolph von Steinwehr and Carl Schurz, were natives of Germany. It is ironic that the division of the corps smashed at Chancellorsville was the one commanded by a non-German, though its First Brigade, led by Col. Leopold von Gilsa, was one of the first struck. The German officers of the corps were highly incensed by the blame heaped on them; they sought courts of inquiry and permission to publish their reports, but to no avail. Thus, when the Eleventh Corps embarked on the new campaign, many of its soldiers were subject to gibes and insults from men of other corps and had low morale.[7]

    Although the Army of the Potomac had sustained 17,000 casualties at Chancellorsville and was losing about 23,000 officers and enlisted men whose terms of service had expired, Hooker did not attempt to reorganize it. Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, its chief of artillery, wrote that its seven corps of infantry and artillery were too small and required too many commanders and staffs. Yet for a year nothing was done to remedy this problem. Perhaps it would have been politically impossible for Hooker to do so; he would have to rebuild the army's strength by acquiring new regiments by transfer.[8]

    Lee opened his campaign on 3 June by sending Ewell's corps to Culpeper, and Longstreet's corps followed. Rebel cavalry, posted along the Rappahannock River, screened the move from prying Union horsemen and would continue to do so during the Confederate march through Virginia. The Union commanders were not aware of the infantry concentration at Culpeper, but they knew that the cavalry was there in force. They assumed that the Confederates were mounting a raid around the Union right. Hooker ordered Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, commander of the Army of the Potomac's cavalry corps, to "disperse and destroy" the Rebel force at Culpeper. Pleasonton's troopers struck Stuart's force at Brandy Station on 9 June. There was a slam-bang melee, the largest cavalry battle of the war. Although it was a draw, it revealed the presence of Confederate infantry in that area. It showed also that the Union cavalry was much improved and the peer of the Confederate mounted arm, and it boosted the morale of the Federal troopers. It also discomfited General Stuart, who was criticized for having been surprised. There were boasts of other accomplishments, including the gaining of valuable but nebulous intelligence and the breaking up of an imagined raid, but it did not impair General Lee's plans.[9]

    Ewell resumed his march toward the Shenandoah Valley on the 10th, and his corps reached Cedarville north of Front Royal on the 12th. It met Brig. Gen. Albert Jenkins's cavalry brigade there; Jenkins had about 1,000 Virginia troopers divided into three regiments, two battalions, and a battery. Jenkins's brigade had been operating in the Valley area and beyond and was not accustomed to working with a large body of infantry. Ewell's corps followed Jenkins's troopers toward Winchester and Martinsburg while Longstreet's corps remained on the east side of the Blue Ridge to guard Snicker's and Ashby's Gaps.[10]

    On the 14th and 15th Ewell's divisions captured Winchester and Martinsburg and much of their Union garrisons. Ewell's booty at Winchester included 23 cannon, 300 loaded wagons, 4,000 prisoners, and a lot of supplies. Rodes's divisions at Martinsburg captured another 5 guns, 6,000 bushels of grain, and 200 more prisoners. Ewell did not dally. He continued his march north down the Valley. On the 15th, three brigades of Rodes's division and Jenkins's brigade crossed the Potomac at Williamsport, where Rodes's footsore men took three days of rest. Johnson's division crossed the river on the 18th at Boteler's Ford downstream from Shepherdstown, and Early's crossed at Shepherdstown on the 22d.[11]

    While Ewell moved north, Hill's corps remained at Fredericksburg to confront the Union Sixth Corps across the river from the town. The Sixth Corps made one feint across the river; otherwise it was a quiet time. After the Union forces left its front, Hill's corps, on 14 June, started for the Valley and Lee's army. By the 22d all of Ewell's corps was in Pennsylvania, and Lee ordered his two other corps to its support. Longstreet's corps left the gaps to the cavalry and crossed the Potomac on the 24th and 25th at Williamsport. Hill's corps waded the river on the 24th at Shepherdstown. Stuart and his cavalry remained in Virginia to guard the passes and the Confederate rear until the Union forces left their front. On the 25th at 1:00 a.m. Stuart led three of his brigades from Salem, Virginia, on their circuitous ride to Pennsylvania. That, too, is another story.[12]

    The Army of the Potomac moved north also in an attempt to maintain contact with Lee's army and stay between it and Washington. This was a difficult task complicated by its having to remove or destroy its hospitals and the supply depot at Aquia Creek that had supported its operations in the Fredericksburg area. On 13 June Hooker announced that he was shifting his line of communications from the Potomac River to the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Less that a week later, as Ewell's corps was crossing into Maryland, Hooker's army moved north to Leesburg and to confront the Confederates at Thoroughfare Gap and Aldie. On the 17th, 19th, and 21st, Union cavalry clashed with the Confederate horsemen at Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville.[13]

    Hooker was unable to discern Lee's intentions and the location of his army. The Confederate cavalry screen held the Union forces east of the Blue Ridge and away from the moving infantry. On the 21st, after the battles at Middleburg and Upperville, Hooker gave the Confederate cavalry a great compliment. He wrote President Lincoln that his own cavalry had "achieved wonders," but that the Confederate horsemen had "hitherto prevented me from obtaining satisfactory information as to the whereabouts of the enemy. They have masked all of their movements." That was the Confederate cavalry's primary mission, and it had performed it well.[14]

    Although the Confederate march was hard, its generals knew their destinations and could plan their marches. The generals of the Army of the Potomac had to react to what they knew of the Confederates' progress, and their march was stop and go. The weather was hot, the roads were either dusty or muddy, and the warm uniforms were soiled and stinking. Many men dropped from the ranks because of heat exhaustion and fatigue. Brig. Gen. James S. Wadsworth's division rested a day at Centerville, where officers urged their men to take care of their feet. On the next day they countermarched before a halt at Herndon. By this time the troops were in a complaining mood and growled that officers conducting the march had been lost. In one way they were—Hooker could not accurately predict the movements of Lee's army and his own and assuage concerns felt by the president and others for the safety of Washington.[15]

    During the march north the difficulties between Hooker and the administration approached a climax. All worked under pressure; Lee's campaign threatened the country's very existence, and they could not agree to a course of action to oppose it. On 15 June Hooker offered Lincoln some comments on the campaign. He concluded them petulantly by writing, "I do not know that my opinion as to the duty of this army in the case is wanted; if it should be, you know that I will be happy to give it." On the following day he observed that the president had long been aware that he, Hooker, had not enjoyed the confidence of Halleck. He continued, "I can assure you so long as this continues we may look in vain for success, especially as future operations will require our relations to be more dependent on each other than heretofore."[16]

    President Lincoln gave a sharp response. He informed Hooker that he placed him in relation to Halleck as the commander of one army to the general-in-chief of all the armies. He summed it up by writing, "I shall direct him to give you orders and you to obey them." Later that day Halleck stated to Hooker, "You are in command of the Army of the Potomac, and will make the particular dispositions as you deem proper. I shall only indicate the objects to be aimed at."[17]

    On 24 June Hooker concluded that Ewell's corps was across the river—he supposed for the purposes of plunder—and expressed the belief that the "yeomanry of that district should be able to check any extended advance of that column, and protect themselves from their extended aggression." This was wishful thinking, and it did not add to his credibility. He closed with a big "if." If the enemy did not throw additional forces across the river, he wanted to make Washington secure and then, with all of the force that he could muster, "strike for his line of retreat in the direction of Richmond."[18]

    Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum, commander of the Twelfth Corps at Leesburg, recommended on 19 June that the Federals bridge the Potomac at Edwards Ferry. A crossing there, about five miles east of Leesburg at the mouth of Goose Creek, would enable his and other corps to be supplied over Maryland's roads and by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Hooker so ordered, and by 9:00 a.m. on the 21st the engineers had placed a 1,340-foot pontoon bridge there. Hooker asked for another bridge on the 24th beside the first. The engineers assembled the bridging and on the 25th laid a second bridge that contained sixty-five boats. This efficient work of the army's engineers must rank as one of the highlights of the Gettysburg campaign.[19]

    Hooker learned on the 24th that Lee's entire army was crossing into Maryland—Hill's corps was doing so at Shepherdstown. On that day, too, Hooker ordered his Eleventh Corps, which had been guarding the bridge site, to march to Sandy Hook, Maryland. Hooker also instructed Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds to take the First and Eleventh Corps and a brigade of cavalry, cross the river, and seize Crampton's and Turner's Gaps as rapidly as possible. (Hooker believed correctly that the Confederates had not yet seized them.) Reynolds then was to direct his column toward Middletown. The Eleventh, First, and Third Corps crossed into Maryland on the 25th; army headquarters and the Second, Fifth, and Twelfth Corps, on the 26th; and the Sixth Corps on the 27th. General Reynolds complained at the time of the First Corps crossing that the Eleventh Corps had blocked the roads and bridges with "led horses and colts, evidently stolen." By the 28th the Army of the Potomac was concentrated around Frederick, Maryland.[20]

    Hooker had rejuvenated the Army of the Potomac and had led it into Maryland in a highly credible manner. After the Confederates reached the Potomac, the town of Harpers Ferry and its garrison became a bone of contention. Halleck did not wish to abandon the town, but Hooker, who wanted to add its garrison to his army, believed it ripe for Confederate plucking. On the 27th Hooker visited the town and found it garrisoned by 10,000 men who were of "no earthly account" at Harpers Ferry and could be added to the Army of the Potomac. In a dispatch dated the 27th Hooker asked Halleck to present his views to the president and to the secretary of war. In a follow-up message he stated that he could not carry out his original instructions both to protect Washington and Harpers Ferry with the means at his disposal. He asked to be relieved from his command. Halleck referred Hooker's request to the president. In his report Halleck stated simply that Hooker was "at his own request relieved from the command, and Major-General Meade appointed in his place."[21]


    1. W. Clark, Histories, 2:343; Robertson, General A. P. Hill, 200; OR 27 (2):652.

    2. The casualty figures are from Bigelow, Chancellorsville, 473.

    3. D. S. Freeman, Lee's Lieutenants, 3:703-6; Coddington, Gettysburg Campaign, 24; Hunt, "First Day," 258.

    4. OR 27 (2):305, 313.

    5. Bigelow, Chancellorsville, 437, 487; Coddington, Gettysburg Campaign, 36-38, 611-12.

    6. Coddington, Gettysburg Campaign, 32-33; OR 27 (1):30-31.

    7. Coddington, Gettysburg Campaign, 32-33; Bigelow, Chancellorsville, 476-80.

    8. Hunt, "First Day," 259-61.

    9. OR 27 (1):34, 904, (3):27.

    10. OR 27 (2):305, 313, 440, (3):878.

    11. OR 27 (2):306, 440-42.

    12. Ibid., 305-7, 313-15, 358, 613, 692.

    13. OR 27 (1):42, 50, 53, (3):93, 94, 101, 120, 145, 147.

    14. OR 27 (1):54.

    15. Wallace Journal, 17-21, PSA; "Memoirs of Jonathan W. W. Boynton, 157th N.Y.," CWMC, USAMHI; F. B. Jones, "Excerpt," GNMP; Tevis, Fighting Fourteenth, 77, 78.

    16. OR 27 (1):43, 45.

    17. Ibid., 47.

    18. Ibid., 55.

    19. OR 27 (3):208, 209, 228, 233, 246, 283, 310, 311, 313, 314, 316, (1):53.

    20. OR 27 (3):28, 291, 305-7, (1):147.

    21. OR 27 (1):15, 58, 59, 60; Coddington, Gettysburg Campaign, 128-33.

Excerpted from Gettysburg - The First Day by Harry W. Pfanz. Copyright © 2001 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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With this installment, Harry Pfanz completes a three-volume work that every serious student of the battle of Gettysburg must consult. Here is military history at its best.—James I. Robertson Jr., author of Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend

Gettysburg—The First Day continues Harry Pfanz's superbly researched, beautifully written, and exquisitely detailed study of the battle. The three volumes now in print comprise a great classic, and the best Gettysburg material ever published.—Robert K. Krick, author of Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain and Lee's Colonels

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