Gettysburg: The Opening Salvo

On this day in history, July 1st, 1863, during the American Civil War, the first engagement would occur in the Battle of Gettysburg. The battle most historians consider marked the major turning point in the war. Although the Civil War would continue for another two years following the three day clash, this would mark the first time Lee would suffer an undeniable defeat, one from which he, and his army, would never fully recover.

Leading up to the battle, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, having just won a major victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, would march northward. This would mark the first move in Lee’s plan to invade the north, find the Union’s Army of the Potomac, which outnumbered him by at least 10,000 men, and defeat them utterly on favorable terrain. 

Although his army had just won a major victory, Lee himself had suffered an immense loss. His right hand and closest confidant, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, had just died from wounds sustained at the hands of his own sentries while returning to camp during the recent climactic battle. 

In the coming months Lee would look to General Longstreet to fill the void left by Jackson. Longstreet is a cautious man, however, a defensive strategist in many ways ahead of his time. He does not hold the same unwavering faith in Lee that Jackson did, and will question his orders repeatedly in the coming battle. 

In June, The Army of Northern Virginia would cross the Potomac and enter the North. Lee is determined to not be seen as an invader, and orders the local populace to remain unmolested, and that any seized livestock, or any other material, be paid for. The fact that the north and south currently had separate currencies, unrecognized in turn by the opposing faction, did not help to endear them, however. Other than minor skirmishes with militia though, they met no resistance. 

The Army of the Potomac, ever sluggish, and reeling from their defeat at Chancellorsville, began their pursuit of Lee later that month. Dissatisfied with yet another of his generals, President Abraham Lincoln had just relieved the then head of the army, Joseph Hooker, from command, and replaced him with George Meade.  

The army has little faith in their commander, having seen many come and go since the war began, but they have faith in their cause, as well as those generals directly under Meade. Namely, Major Generals John Reynolds and Winfield Scott Hancock. 

As a scouting force, and a screen for the Confederate cavalry, Meade sends out Brigadier General John Buford. Buford, however, will not meet the Confederate cavalry, under the command of General JEB Stuart, who is currently disregarding Lee’s orders and harassing union townships rather than scouting for their main army. Rather he is destined to make an even greater discovery. The entire Confederate army.

On June 30th, General Buford reached the town of Gettysburg. He had scouted the Southern Army’s movements and hoped to delay them until the 1st Corps, under General Reynolds, arrived. All he knew was that Reynolds was coming “with all speed” but did not know how long that would be. He deployed his dismounted cavalry on high ground to the north and west of town, and waited.

On July 1st the Army of Northern Virginia advanced cautiously. Lee had been informed, via a spy, that the Army of the Potomac awaited him somewhere nearby. He had given strict orders to his corps commanders to not commit to an engagement if they came into contact with the Union forces. 

The lead element for the southern army was a division of the Third Corps, commanded by Major General Henry Heth. Upon making contact with Buford’s dismounted cavalry, Heth, mistaking them for militia, pushed his attack. Thus the opening salvos of the Battle of Gettysburg were fired.

For most of the morning Buford was successful in holding the Confederate advance at bay. As noon approached, however, and there was still no reinforcements from Reynolds, he was forced to yield his westernmost position where the advance was most fierce.

Shortly after this Reynolds did arrive, personally leading the 1st Corps vanguard. The reinforcements bolstered the union resolve and they succeeded in repulsing the next several advances by the Confederates, even managing to take some prisoners. Unfortunately, not long after this, General John Reynolds was shot and killed while directing artillery. This was a major blow to the Union forces, and they were soon driven back, taking up a position south of town. 

While the Confederates succeeded in taking the town of Gettysburg, that was where their advance halted. Despite orders from Lee to take the heights to which the Union soldiers had retreated, known as Cemetery Ridge, the commander of the southern army’s Second Corps, General Richard Ewell, decided against the assault, stating that it wasn’t practical. 

His decision to not press the south’s advantage, and thus allow the north to reinforce the heights south of Gettysburg, would prove a devastating one. Against the advisement of Longstreet, who was unhappy that they were allowing the Union to pick the battlefield, Lee would decide to stay. His hopes of crushing the northern army utterly, as he had at Chancellorsville, was not diminished. He would continue the fight on the following day.

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