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GETTYSBURG: THE FIRST DAY
Reviewed by Dave Walter
[Note: This is the first of three reviews covering each day of the battle of Gettysburg. Those readers who aren't familiar with the broad aspects of this battle should first read a book that gives a broad overview of this campaign: Champ Clark's "Gettysburg: The High Tide" in the Time-Life series would be a good choice.]
If one were to make a list of the five "most knowledgeable" individuals concerning the events at Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863, , Harry Pfanz' name would surely be on the list. He served as Gettysburg park historian for ten years and retired as Chief Historian of the National Park Service. This book, like his earlier book on The Second Day, is ultra-detailed and should satisfy all but the most curious reader concerning the opening day's battle of the most studied battle in American history.
Pfanz briefly describes the campaign's start, the replacement of Hooker with Meade, the pursuit by the Army of the Potomac, and the concentration of Lee's army after he learns from the spy, Harrison, on June 28th that the AOP is closing in.
Then he gets into the meat of July 1st in such detail that you'd love to have the book in hand as you walked every rise and swale, and waded every brook, to the West and North of Gettysburg. The first controversy to deal with is "who fired the first shot?" As Heth's division of Hill's Corps approached Gettysburg, seeking (non-existent) shoes and other supplies, on the morning of July lst, Lt. Marcellus Jones of Co.E, 8th Illinois Cavalry, Gamble's Brigade, Buford's Division, took a carbine and, at 7:30am, fired a shot at a Confederate officer on horseback who was directing either the 5th Alabama Battalion or the 13th Alabama Regiment across Marsh Creek on the Chambersburg Pike. (You can see Jones' monument there today.)
Buford had some 2,000 troopers holding a thin line on McPherson's Ridge just west of Gettysburg. Gamble's brigade faced west and Devin's brigade faced north, as Buford was fully aware that Ewell's corps was off in that direction. For more than two hours, Buford held off the surprised Confederates, who were not expecting to encounter anything except green militia. Pfanz points out that depictions of a fierce battle between Buford's dismounted cavalry and Heth's trained and hard-bitten infantry are not correct. The casualty figures justify this assumption: for the entire day, Buford's casualties were only 99 in Gamble's brigade and 28 in Devin's. This included the opening fights and a significant action later that afternoon when Gamble held off Lane's brigade trying to turn the Union left on Seminary Ridge. Having suffered about 5% casualties, which was light for many a unit at Gettysburg, it is surprising Meade allowed Buford to retire his division to Maryland to rest and refit. Surely they had enough strength to patrol the Union left, perhaps detecting and slowing Longstreet's move on the second day?
In any case, Buford surprised Heth enough that Heth waited for more support to come up. There was a significant lull, several hours long, in the fighting (which isn't apparent to anyone catching a famous movie) which enabled Reynolds to get his First Corps to the Field, placing Cutler's brigade to the north of Chambersburg Pike and the Iron Brigade to the south.
Pfanz does a great job recounting the back and forth fighting in the unfinished railroad cut and McPherson's Woods as both Union and Confederate brigades are fed piecemeal into the slaughter as they arrive on the scene. The death of Reynolds is described in detail: removal of his body was so swift back through Baltimore that the casket was in the Philadelphia home of his sister, Catherine Landis, before Lee ordered Longstreet to attack the Union center on July 3rd.
Less familiar to me, and perhaps you, will be the description of the battle north of Gettysburg between Howard's Eleventh Corps , which arrived shortly after noon, (commanded by Schurz as Howard became overall commander when he arrived on the field until Hancock showed up with Meade's authority later) and Rodes' and Early's divisions of Ewell's Corps. As Pfanz points out, much of this terrain has been developed since 1863 and its hard to place exactly where Schimmelfennig's and Barlow's divisions fought Suffice it to say, Eleventh Corps regiments, many of them German and under a cloud since their rout at Chancellorsville, fought hard but were overwhelmed by rebel numbers and the indefensible nature of the terrain they occupied.
You'll probably enjoy the chapters on the retreat through Gettysburg, after both Union corps had to retreat. In some instances, there were heroic actions as regiments moved off in order with their colors flying. Others simply broke and ran like mobs through the streets. Gen. Schimmelfennig took refuge behind some barrels in a woodshed and was succored by the homeowners until the Confederates left town on the 4th. If you haven't visited the mural on Stratton St., you'll want to do so next time: it depicts the obscure "Brickyard" rear-guard action by Coster's brigade that kept the Eleventh Corps from being trapped short of Cemetery Hill.
One of those poignant stories that makes the Civil War so fascinating occurred in the aftermath of the Brickyard fight: a dead Union soldier was discovered in the yard of Judge Samuel Russell on the northeast corner of Stratton and York Sts. The body had been stripped of all identification, except in the corpse's hand was an ambrotype of three young children, perhaps the unfortunate's last sight on earth. The story and photo was widely circulated in Northern papers and finally, in November, a woman in Portville, NY identified the children as hers. A monument to Sgt. Amos Humiston, 154th N.Y. Coster's Brigade, now stands on Stratton St. near the site of his death, and you can visit his no longer unknown grave on Cemetery Hill (Grave 14, section B of the New York plot.).
Hancock, arriving around 4:30pm, took charge of organizing the chaos and fortifying Cemetery Hill. You'll want to read Pfanz' take on whether or not Gen. Ewell, and his subordinates, were derelict in not moving to capture Cemetery Hill (which would have caused the Union army to withdraw south). Lee's orders were not very specific, two of Early's brigades were out guarding the York Rd. against phantom Union troops, and Johnson's newly arrived division was not in place in time before Hancock had placed enough Union troops to discourage a move up Culp's Hill.
This is a great read for those endlessly fascinated by the great battle at Gettysburg.