First contact: Heth vs. Buford Battle: At sunrise on July 1, 1863, two armies collide at a rural crossroads in Pennsylvania

Revisiting Gettysburg

June 28, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Six score and 15 years ago, Southern and Northern armies met in the greatest clash ever fought on this continent, a battle that decided the nation's fate. After Gettysburg, historians generally agree, the South could not have won the war.

It all began innocently enough, with a Confederate foray to find shoes and supplies in the small town of Gettysburg, Pa. It was at sunrise the first day of July when an infantry division led by Henry Heth, a Southern major general, started shelling a cavalry brigade commanded by John Buford, a Union brigadier general.

The two armies had not run into each other completely by accident. Each knew the other was somewhere in the neighborhood, or at least the vicinity, of that part of Pennsylvania. And both were looking for a fight once they found each other. Gettysburg just happened to be the unplanned place, the crossroads where the two collided. In military terms, it was a "meeting engagement."

Pennsylvania was the farthest north that the Confederate commander in chief, Robert E. Lee, had ever dared to go. Leaving war-wrecked Virginia to cross into unfamiliar enemy territory was a grand stand, to be sure, but it has also been called a reckless gamble. Perhaps it was both.

In any case, the country was flat and open, full of farm fields, with two gentle hills and a clump of trees that would soon go down in military history. The town of Gettysburg was minding its own business when, as a woman who lived there then wrote in her diary, "it begins to look as though we will have a battle soon, and we are in great fear."

Her name was Sallie Robbins Broadhead, and she wrote those words the last day of June.

On July 1, 1863, "I got up early this morning to get my baking done before any battle would begin," she recorded. "I had just put my bread in the pans when the cannons began to fire. ... What to do or where to go, I did not know."

'It was glorious!'

A boy of 13 picking raspberries, Billy Bayly, had an altogether different reaction. "We three boys broke for the open and back to the blacksmith's shop. But to me as a boy it was glorious! Here were my aspirations for months being gratified. ... Here it was right at home and evidently going to be a bang-up fight."

How right Billy was. American history was about to be made "right at home" in a dust-up between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia.

Buford sent word to nearby Maj. Gen. John Reynolds to send help directly. Until then, he wrote, "my arrangements were made for entertaining him [the enemy] until General Reynolds could reach the scene." He observed that the North's dismounted cavalry troops had the better position, while the soldiers in gray had greater numbers.

When Reynolds rode to the rescue with fresh men from 1st and the 11th Corps, the fight was already on. Good for morale on the embattled Union side was the news that the famed Iron Brigade, the experienced western Army unit, was among those that showed up.

Buford and Reynolds set up operations at the Lutheran Seminary, where the steeple's cupola afforded the leaders and the signal corps a view of the landscape. They could see clear across Union lines at Willoughby's Run, the small stream across which the first cannonballs flew.

On the Southern side, masses of rebel soldiers were rushing to converge on the little town where the fighting had erupted, including Lee, who arrived from Cashtown, Pa. The entire 2nd and 3rd Corps were summoned, giving the Confederates a significant advantage in both firepower and manpower. By the time all soldiers arrived on both sides the first day, Lee's men outnumbered Union soldiers 2-to-1.

The two Southern corps commanders, Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell of the 2nd and Lt. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill of the 3rd Corps, certainly had something to show at the end of the first day's encounter. So far, it looked like a Confederate victory, for they had captured the town of Gettysburg in fierce fighting and driven Union soldiers off the Seminary ground they had held north of Gettysburg. They beat a retreat and fled for the hills south of Gettysburg. Finally, the North had suffered the loss of a leader: Reynolds was killed early in the day's action.

Lee, according to Col. Dolf Carlson, military historian at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., believed that his forces could finish off and destroy federal resistance before the rest of Maj. Gen, George Gordon Meade's -- his newly appointed counterpart -- forces moved in the second day of July.

That was not to be. Lee had just lost his lightning right arm, "Stonewall" Jackson, at Chancellorsville, Va., and Ewell, the man who took his place, apparently was not made of the same stuff. Ewell has been faulted, fairly or unfairly, for not pressing the Southern advantage won on the first day.

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