An ignominious surrender
As dusk fell on 1 July, MG Doubleday, who had assumed command of the First Union Corps earlier in the day as LTG Reynolds fell in battle, performed his last official act as a battle field commander: he sent word for the Corps to lay down their arms! The Battle at Gettysburg was over!
The past few hours had been a nightmare on so many different levels that he was having a hard time comprehending what had transpired. For most of the day, his 1st Corps had fought well against MG Heth’s repeated attacks. McPherson’s Ridge had served his men well as a protective bunker to repel attack after attack. By mid-afternoon, LTG Howard had begun to deploy his Eleventh Corps to the north of the city, thereby strengthening the Union line. But beginning about 2PM, things began to unravel.
A fierce, if somewhat scattered, artillery barrage announced the presence of more Rebel troops to the north of the city. This turned out to be MG Rodes Division of LTG Ewell’s Corps. At first the combination of some quick thinking on the part of one of his 1st Corps brigade commanders (BG Paul of Robinson’s Division) and the arrival of the 11th Corps kept Rodes at bay. His first infantry assaults were uncoordinated and ineffective. But just as the last of the 11th Corps units were exiting the city on the NE corner to establish themselves on the battleline, another Rebel unit arrived. MG Early re-aligned his Division rapidly from their marching formation and in a brief but fierce battle routed the Union far right flank! Many 11th Corps units simply disintegrated; throwing down their weapons and fleeing back into the city. Word of the panic spread and from right to left, east to west then north to south the Union line unzipped. For the most part, the 11th Corps units to the west departed in unit formation and withdrew into the city. In some cases, they were pursued by units from Rodes division.
To Doubleday’s credit, the First Corps units –for the most part — disengaged with discipline and unit integrity. Using the ridge as a buffer, they marched down the west edge of the city headed for the pre-arranged rally point at the town cemetery. But as they neared the SW corner of the city, tragedy struck.
They came under intense artillery fire from their destination. Canister shot rained down on them from what was supposed to be a friendly base. At first the barrage was slow and somewhat scattered, but as Anderson’s infantry-turned-artillerymen got more familiar with their task, the accuracy and intensity increased. Union officers and NCOs were having trouble controlling their men. Some simply deserted, racing off into the relative protection of the buildings of the city. But over the course of the next few hours, the situation deteriorated rapidly. Eleventh Corps units were tracing their way along the narrow lanes of the city. Deserters and stragglers were wandering aimlessly. Small bands of Rodes’ men were hunting them down.
To add to the chaos, officers and NCOs began to fall. Unlike the green suited Union companies, Anderson had no dedicated sharpshooter units under his command. But his commanders knew their men. Soon after seizing the cemetery, Anderson had called upon the best shooters they could find to deploy in groups of 2-3 into the south of the city. They sought out rooftops, water towers, belfries and the like. From those vantage points they began to target anyone on horseback, the officers, and anyone who seemed to be giving orders, the NCOs. What for many units started as an organized withdrawal deteriorated into a disorganized retreat. As these men emerged from the city, they, too, were subjected to artillery fire from their destination.
Then things went from bad to worst. On the heels of the Iron Brigade who had comprised the Union left flank and approaching from the west was Lane’s Brigade of Pender’s Division. They were forcing the Iron Brigade to make a fighting withdraw. Suddenly, too, a full brigade from Early’s Division rounded the SE corner of the town and established a blocking position at the terminus of the Baltimore Pike. Anderson’s men astride the Emmittsburg Road provided sufficient harassing fire to prevent any escape to the south. The Union force was completely boxed in! There was no place to go and no place to hide.
MG Doubleday made his final command decision. He led a small group of officers down the Emmittsburg Road under a white flag of surrender. MG Anderson was called up into the cemetery to witness this band approach his left flank. He sent word for them to be conveyed to meet him at the cemetery. He also ordered the cannons to cease fire. He had one last revelation to make. As the band of senior Union officers approached him, he wheeled his horse and motioned them to follow him to the south. He led them — now surrounded by jeering Rebel infantry — back to the farmhouse where his three captive Generals waited. Upon seeing them, Doubleday nearly fell from his horse. A lost battle had perhaps turned into a lost war! Doubleday sent word to have two entire Union Corps lay down their weapons. No more men needed to die today.
Not to be left out, elements of Heth’s Division filled the gap along the western edge of the city. The encirclement was complete. Rodes’ men flushed the stragglers out of the city, Nearly 20 thousand exhausted, confused, and demoralized Union soldiers were now POWs.