The title ‘Early at Gettysburg’ is actually something of a double entendre. Herein I will explore what might have been if instead of simply passing through Gettysburg on 26 June, MG Early has occupied that city. Of course, this would obviate Lee’s plan to move on the Pennsylvania capital city of Harrisburg, but for purposes of discussion, we’ll circumvent that plan.
The entire battle at Gettysburg seems predicated on the simple fact that MG Buford found the city unoccupied but seemingly threatened by the approach of AP Hill’s Corps. His (rather insubordinate) decision to unilaterally initiate an ambush / delaying action precipitated an epic clash in a place that no one anticipated. Herein I shall explore – again with no preconceived notions of the outcome – what might have transpired if Buford had met Early’s division lying in wait. As always in these speculations, I will simply follow the facts as they lead me to suggest what might have been.
Let’s alter the known scenario just slightly in that Ewell and two divisions do indeed continue north but only with the intention of ceasing supplies at the Carlisle logistics base. This clears the path for AP Hill’s Corps to continue to approach Gettysburg as in reality. Except that Early is there to await Hill’s arrival.
We know that Lee had dispatched Ewell’s Corps northward out of Virginia with little in the way of a supply train. He was expected to live off the land as he proceeded. So upon his arrival in Gettysburg, Early would have most likely have begun to gather any and all ‘supplies’ that the city had to offer [shoes not withstanding!]. But after allowing his men a few hours to enjoy the pleasures of the city, he would have had time to assess the terrain and would most likely have abandoned the town for the hills to the south. As with all West Point cadets, Early would have been taught the lessons of reading the terrain for battle. Some cadets learned these lessons better than others, but Early would easily have recognized the value of these hills over the city itself. The Army of the Potomac would have to be approaching from the south and these hills dominated the three main thoroughfares that approached from that direction. Knowing that more troops would be arriving imminently, he would have looked to occupy the most valuable of these positions.
His scouts would have reported the difficulties that Culp’s Hill would have presented for the placement of artillery, so he’d more likely have used the so-called lower slopes and the adjacent Wolf’s Hill for his artillery platform for the way that they dominated the BALTO PIKE and nearby Taneytown Road. He’d have placed observation posts on both Culp’s and Big Round Top. From these vantage points, he’d have ample notice of any Union troops approaching from the south or east. As a temporary measure, he’d also have likely placed a blocking force on and around the knoll overlooking the Emmittsburg Road that held a peach orchard. The bulk of his infantry he’d have encamped near Little Round Top so that they could respond to any movement along any of the roadways. Although rather thinly spread, his 5400 men would have been a reasonable early warning line against any Union intrusion.
Such is the configuration of forces that Buford would have encountered as he rather leisurely made his way north from Emmittsburg on 30 June. Earliest notice of his approach would have reached Early from Big Round Top. An alert would have been sent to the orchard-based troops and others would have been moved into the area of Devil’s Den and the wheat field to support the blocking force. It is unlikely that Early would have had any significant amount of cavalry to challenge Buford’s two brigades, so the infantry and artillery would have lain in wait.
In something of a reversal of fortunes as compared to the actual Day 1 encounter, Buford would have been the one ‘ambushed’ on that morning as shells would have exploded in his midst as he passed through the shadow of Big Round Top. Other than a rapid probe to try to determine the extent and composition of the force standing in his path, Buford would have had no reason to engage in any significant action. His orders for the day were to locate Lee’s Army. Having done so, at the cost of a few men felled by shrapnel, he would have withdrawn to make his report to LTG Reynolds.
In the ensuing hours of 30 June to 1 July, first Heth’s then Pender’s Divisions would have arrived on site to relieve and reinforce Early. Nearly fifteen thousand Confederate soldiers would have been in place to oppose any approach by Union troops. Anderson’s 7000 men would be on standby just to the north and Ewell’s other two divisions would have been recalled to converge on Gettysburg.
However, there would be no historic clash of two massive armies at Gettysburg. GEN Meade would never have been so foolish to move to the attack of an entrenched army; especially one commanded by GEN Lee. Meade would have implemented the Pipe Creek plan and forced Lee to attack him while he sat near his supply base at Westminster.
And so the history books would record the Battle of Pipe Creek as it developed over the next week or so.