The Battle of Gettysburg holds a central place in the Southern mythology of the Lost Cause. Here the Confederacy came tantalizingly close to destroying the Union army, and afterwards Lee was never really able to seize the initiative again. As such, assigning the blame for the defeat has long been a pastime of Southern historians, both amateur and professional. The argument can continue indefinitely, for the three days of battle in July offer many fine candidates for The Man Who Lost Gettysburg.
Similarly, the Union had a surfeit of people who could be assigned credit for a victory. Even Joe Hooker eventually attempted to claim a slice of the glory, arguing that it was he who had ordered the cavalry to Gettysburg. Unfortunately, in trying to prove this he turned to Alfred Pleasonton for aid, and the self-aggrandizing cavalryman promptly insisted he had been the one to send the troopers.
The cavalry in question were commanded by John Buford, who would have led the Union cavalry corps if not for the matter of Pleasonton’s slight seniority. As it was, he had to satisfy himself with a division, with which he brushed off the brigade of Johnston Pettigrew, which had been making a reconnaissance towards the town. Taking stock of the situation, and recognizing that the town had good ground, should the army be able to advance quickly enough to make use of it, Buford wrote back to John Reynolds, commanding the Union I Corps, and asked for support. He took position on McPherson’s ridge, west of town, with a preliminary line of defense on Herr’s ridge.
Pettigrew returned to camp and reported that he had encountered soldiers in Gettysburg. Although Lee had given orders not to bring on a general engagement, Pettigrew’s division commander, Harry Heth, and his corps commander, A.P. Hill, decided to make a strong push towards town the next day. The Rebel army had been encountering scattered militia forces throughout Pennsylvania, and the senior commanders probably thought Pettigrew had only seen these.
The next morning proved them wrong. Heth (Hill remained in camp, ill) pushed his troops towards two brigades of dismounted cavalry backed up by a small complement of artillery. Though greatly outnumbered, the cavalrymen were equipped with breech-loading carbines and repeaters that gave them a significant edge in firepower over the slow-loading muskets of the Confederate infantry. The numbers could not really be overcome, but Buford forced the Confederates to deploy two full brigades for the fight. They then swept Buford’s advance forces off Herr’s ridge.
Now Heth could see that he was facing much more than mere militia, but rather than obeying Lee’s orders not to bring on a major engagement, he pushed east towards McPherson’s ridge.
However, Buford’s defense had given enough time, barely, for Reynolds to come up. The I Corps quickly deployed on McPherson’s ridge, bringing artillery to brush back the Confederate cannon. The Yankee troops bloodily repulsed the attacking Rebel brigades (one of those retreating was commanded by Jefferson Davis’ son Joseph). By noon the first major clash had ended, with the Rebels falling back to Herr’s ridge and the I Corps concentrating its forces on McPherson’s. Unfortunately, the morning’s fighting had cost the life of Reynolds himself. Abner Doubleday had command of the I Corps now, but the senior officer on the field, and hence the overall commander, would be Oliver Otis Howard of the XI Corps.
The XI Corps was small, and had performed very poorly under Howard at Chancellorsville. Meade had put him and Dan Sickles, one of Hooker’s pets, under Reynolds’ command for this phase of operation, probably with the hope that Reynolds would compensate for their shortcomings. With Reynolds dead, Howard was free to to make errors, and promptly did so. He left the I Corps essentially by itself on McPherson’s ridge, and did not respond in a timely fashion when it needed his permission to adjust its position. As for his own Corps, he strung it out along indifferent ground north of the city.
This move had to be made because Confederate Second Corps under Ewell, which had been in position at Heidlersburg, was coming south towards Gettysburg. Buford’s pickets had detected the movement earlier in the day, and Howard had initially been detailed to confront this threat as best he could.
The first try on the lines went poorly for the South. Brigades from Robert Rodes’ division launched an attack at the north end of the I Corps, where two brigades had positioned themselves on Oak Hill. As the fight began the XI Corps arrived and formed a line towards the east, making this the spot where the two Corps were connected. The rebel assault failed because its generals arranged it badly and stayed behind rather than guiding their brigades. The North Carolinians under Alfred Iverson were taken by surprise by a group of Yankees hidden behind a low stone wall and lost 2/3 of their strength in minutes; Alabamians under Edward O’Neal fared better, if only because it was hardly possible to fare worse.
Rodes soon attacked the junction again, with brigades under more competent commanders. At the same time, Rebel troops began deploying in formations that overlapped the ends of both the I Corps and XI Corps lines. Despite this development, Howard did not allow the I Corps to withdraw towards Seminary Ridge in an orderly fashion, and did little to improve his own Corps’ position. Of course, there is some doubt that any position could be held by such men. They had stampeded at Chancellorsville, and they gave way here, fleeing almost as soon as they saw Jubal Early’s division coming. Soon en0ugh, the I and XI Corps were retreating through Gettysburg.
Many men were lost in the disorderly retreat, but enough made it south of town to take up a defensive position on Cemetery Hill. Winfield Scott Hancock, the commander of the II Corps, had been sent by Meade to take command of the field at Gettysburg, and he organized a defense on Cemetery Hill, with Howard’s help. A quick reconnaissance showed Ewell that neighboring Culp’s Hill was unoccupied, but he and Early decided that there was no time to organize an attack before nightfall.
This decision has lived on in debates about The Man Who Lost Gettysburg, and a successful attack at this time would certainly have forced the Yankees off of Cemetery Hill, which Culp’s Hill dominated. However, victory had produced as much chaos in the Rebel ranks as defeat had caused for the Union, and when Ewell asked Lee to arrange some support for a further assault, the commanding general declined. Hancock knew the danger posed by Culp’s Hill and quickly had a First Corps division occupy it. Less than two hours elapsed between the collapse of the Union line and the point when Hancock thought his position organized enough to be impregnable. Without additional support, and given the poor scouting, Ewell simply didn’t have time to organize the attack he needed.
These practical concerns, however, have done little to affect Ewell’s candidacy, just as Lee’s failure to properly handle the cavalry he had on hand has not exonerated J.E.B. Stuart for his ill-conceived raid around the Army of the Potomac. The hapless Heth has also been mentioned, for bringing on the engagement against orders, but in truth this day went quite well for the Army of Northern Virginia. Two Union corps were badly mauled, and the Rebels took the field. The Yankees held the high ground, however, thanks to the efforts of Buford, Reynolds, and Hancock. Yet Lee, undaunted by his opponent or the ground, resolved to attack.