Union 11th Corps falters on first day

Encounter: As Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate army invaded Pennsylvania, the closest divisions of the Union army hurried north to stop them

they collided at Gettysburg

Gettysburg: A Remembrance

June 25, 2000|By Monica Leal | Monica Leal,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Striving for accuracy and perfection, organizers and re-enactors of the Gettysburg 2000 battle re-enactments next weekend, will attempt to re-create one of the most chaotic moments of the Civil War - the rout of the Union 11th Corps on the first day of the fighting.

The re-enactment will take place on the field where the movie "Gettysburg" was filmed, with the covered bridge crossed by the Confederates 137 years ago serving as background. About 1,500 to 2,500 re-enactors will demonstrate how the Union line was spilt and weakened.

The Battle of Gettysburg began soon after 5 a.m. July 1, 1863, when Confederate soldiers foraging for shoes for their ill-shod army encountered Union cavalry pickets along McPherson's Ridge northwest of the town of Gettysburg.

Though outnumbered, the Union troopers put up a brisk fight, and both sides soon called for help.

Confederate help was not far away. The troops advancing on Gettysburg were the lead brigades of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth's division. Behind them, moving down Cashtown Pike, was Maj. Gen William Dorsey Pender's division, which arrived on the field at 8 a.m. Still farther west was the third division of Lt. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill's 3rd Corps, Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson's division, which did not reach the battlefield until night-fall.

Attack from the north

To the north, the divisions of Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell's 2nd Corps were closing in. They had been re-called from their intended attack on Harrisburg, Pa., by Gen. Robert E. Lee late on June 28 when he learned from a spy that the federal Army of the Potomac had crossed the Potomac and was headed in his direction.

The three divisions of the 2nd Corps, commanded by Maj. Gens. Jubal A. Early, Robert E. Rodes and Edward Johnson, made their appearance on the battlefield about noon.

Support for the Union cavalrymen was a little farther away.

The nearest Union infantry was Maj. Gen. Robert F. Reynolds' 1st Corps marching from Marsh Run, about 4 miles south of Gettysburg, and arriving on the battlefield between 10 a.m. and noon.

The 1st Corps was almost immediately engaged in the fighting with Heth's division, and Reynolds was killed by a sharpshooter minutes after his arrival on the field.

Still farther away at Emmitsburg was Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard's 11th Corps, which arrived between 10:30 a.m. and noon and quickly came under attack on the northern flank.

Howard arrived about noon and took overall command of the Union forces in the engagement. He assigned Brig. Gen Adolph Von Steinwher's division and two batteries of artillery to the task of fortifying Cemetery Hill.

The divisions of Maj. Gen. Carl Shurz and Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow were sent to extend the northern flank of the 1st Corps and ward off Ewell's approaching divisions. Their intent was to occupy Oak Ridge, especially its highest point, Oak Hill.

But the Confederates succeeded in keeping the two Union corps from linking.

The Union 11th Corps, which was known as the German Corps because of its high percentage of German-speaking units, went into the fighting at Gettysburg with the intention of redeeming its reputation, which had been badly damaged when most of its soldiers were surprised and routed during the Battle of Chancellorsville, Va., on May 2, 1863.

The 11th Corps was made up of least 50 percent German immigrants, said licensed battlefield guide, Civil War author and re-enactment narrator Michael Phipps, a Baltimore native.

"This caused definite leadership problems," said Phipps, "because the Anglo soldiers looked down on the German mercenaries.

"General Howard himself was an extreme Puritan like most Bowden College graduates, and was not very popular among the German soldiers, who were a result of the wave of immigrants escaping religious persecution in Germany," Phipps said. "Howard was not good on the battlefield, but he was a good man and the high-ranking officers in the Union army liked him."

According to David Valuska, history professor at Kutztown University and federal commander for this year's re-enactments, German-speaking re-enactors will play these parts although there are no planned speeches.

"It is a re-creation of historical action," said Valuska. German-born general such as Schurz and Steinwher led several divisions or brigades of the 11th Corps.

Well liked by the soldiers, Schurz served in the Senate and as secretary of the interior after the war, said Phipps.

Schurz and Barlow smashed the first Confederate attack by Rodes' division, but by noon Early's division arrived from York, Pa., and began to buckle the 11th Corps' right flank.

The 11th Corps lines began to give way, slowly at first, then more rapidly as Early's attack gathered strength. By 4 p.m. the 11th Corps collapsed, making a hasty and disorganized retreat through Gettysburg to Cemetery Hill.

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