When the fighting began at 6 a.m. in the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere, it would be the first of three days of the most horrific carnage the world knew at the time. When it was over on July 3, there would be piles of arms, legs, and horses stinking in the hot, Pennsylvania summer sun. Almost 8,000 soldiers lay dead and another 27,000 injured. In addition, 11,000 were captured or missing. The battle that began on July 1, 1863 was a long time in the making and would redefine a nation. To hear historian David McCullough tell the story in Ken Burns Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg was about shoes. 1 out of 5 Confederate soldiers needed them and Gettysburg had a shoe factory there. Shoes were only a minor part of the why 165,000 Americans fought it out in the wheat fields, forests, and rocky facades around this sleepy, seminary town of 2500. It was more about roads.
When shots rang out at 6 a.m. on July 1, the Battle of Gettysburg had been months in the making. The summer before (1862) saw the Union army invade Virginia and create havoc on the civilian population in northern and eastern Virginia. While the Confederate’s won most engagements in their home state in 1862 and early 1863, victory came at a high price. By the beginning of 1863, the farmers in Virginia needed time to grow crops and raise livestock to feed themselves and the Army of Northern Virginia. By invading the North, Confederate General Robert E. Lee hoped to take pressure of the Virginia farmer and place the onus back on the Union to defend its own.
When Lee began making invasion plans, Gettsyburg was on the map. However, it was not the target. Lee hoped to capture a major northern city like Harrisburg. Harrisburg was not only the capital, but it was also a major rail center and additionally had a training center for the US Army. Lee thought if he could capture the city along the Susquehanna River, he could curry favor from Europe in either money, loans, weapons, troops, or recognition. The closest the Confederates came to Harrisburg that summer was two miles away. Additionally, the time for invasion was ripe. The siege at Vicksburg was not going well for the Confederacy. Lee felt by invading the North, he might draw some troops away for the last Confederate bastion on the Mississippi River. On all counts, Lee would be wrong. Vicksburg was doomed and recognition would not be coming, victory or not.
After the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lee had to restructure his command in the wake of Stonewall Jackson’s death. Lee would have to rely on men who were not fit to walk in Jackson’s boots. For Lee and Jackson, they had been tied together at the hip. Lee always counted on Jackson to succeed in the most improbable conditions, and Jackson had until his own men shot him. Without his right-hand man, Lee had to find new ways of winning wars. Lee divided up Jackson’s army into 2 parts. One part of the crops went to AP Hill, and the other to Richard Ewell. J.E.B. Stuart would again be in charge of the Calvary, or as Lee often referred to the unit, his eyes and ears.Lee felt confident he could win against any Union force.
In early June of 1863, Lee began his move northward through Virginia. Calvary skirmishes at Brandywine Station, Aldie, Upperville, Aldie, and Middleburg showed the movement to Union leaders. Union General Hooker began to set up a defensive position, Hooker, rather than attack. Hooker felt he had to keep Washington, D.C. at his back at all times. Lincoln again, wanted an attack. Up to this point, the Union command structure held true to form that summer as Lincoln kept firing the Generals who lost to Lee. For almost two years straight, Lincoln kept changing what he thought were inept men, incapable of attacking but capable of coming up with excuses not to attack. When Lee and his forces skirmished with the Union in the middle of June, the new man in charge would not give Lincoln the satisfaction of firing him, Joseph Hooker would resign. He was replaced with George Meade on June 28. There was no way Meade would attack only days into his new role. Like Hooker, Meade felt he first duty was to defend Baltimore and D.C. Meade thought it better to fight the battle he wanted to rather than the one Lee or Lincoln wanted. It would be prophetic and sad at the same time.
For the city of 2500, Gettysburg held no great military advantage, arsenal, training center, supply dept, railroad junction or camp. It was a seminary school. Sure, it had some shoes, but it was not world renown for its footwear. Within three days, it would have another distinction. But what Gettysburg did have were roads – lots of them. Lee, having scattered his armies to the four winds in Pennsylvania to avoid to being destroyed in whole, decided the town would be the perfect place to reconvene his forces and use the roads to march out in new directions.
On June 30, 1863, Confederate General Henry Heth sent some of James Pettigrew’s men into Gettysburg to commandeer some shoes and other supplies. What the rebels found were Union Calvary in the town. The Confederates quickly retreated from the town and informed Heth. The next morning around sunrise, Heth began his assault on the town.
Dismounted and waiting for the advance was the 1st Division Calvary Corps (dismounted) under the command of John Buford. Though outnumbered, Buford mustered his troops to fight back Heth’s forces throughout the morning while awaiting reinforcements. His help came with John Reynolds later that day. Reynolds, himself, would not make it through the day. In one flanking movement along McPherson’s ridge, Reynolds was shot and died instantly. Abner Doubleday took over for Reynolds and helped to hold the line Reynolds started.
However, the rest of the day saw the Confederates slowly advance into Gettysburg. The Union had to retreat from the town. At first glance, one would think the Confederates had a great victory. Technically, they did. They had driven the 1st Calvary Division from the town, killed its General, and they now occupied the town. Confederate General John Gordon described one scene in which a Union commander
“was surrounded by Union dead, and his own life seemed to be quickly ebbing out. Quickly dismounting and lifting his head, I gave him water from my canteen, asked his name and the character of his wounds. He was Major General Francis C. Barlow, of New York, and of Howard’s corps. The ball had entered his body in front and passed out near the spinal cord, paralyzing him in legs and arms. Neither of us had the remotest thought that he could possibly survive many hours. I summoned several soldiers who were looking after the wounded, and directed
them to place him upon a litter and carry him to the shade in the rear. Before parting, he asked me to take from his pocket a package of letters and destroy them. They were from his wife. He had but one request to make of me. That request was that if I should live to the end of the war and should ever meet Mrs. Barlow, I would tell her of our meeting on the field of Gettysburg and of his thoughts of her in his last moments. He wished me to assure her that he died doing his duty at the front, that he was willing to give his life for his country, and that his deepest regret was that he must die without looking upon her face again.”
Barlow miraculously survived the battle and the war.
When Union General Winfield Scott Hancock arrived at the battle around 4 p.m., the Union army was in full retreat south towards Cemetery Hill, one of many high points surrounding the town. It was on these high areas that the Union would make their stand. The only consolation of losing the town was now having advantageous positions for day two. However, for the Union, it looked grim. Little did the Union know that all roads lead to Gettysburg. On day two, those roads, combined with the high ground, would create a catastrophe for the Confederacy.