Prior to July 1st 1863, few people had ever heard of the small commercial town of Gettysburg PA. It was a locally important city with a population of about 2400 and roads leading to all the major cities nearby. Most people went through Gettysburg not to Gettysburg. Essentially it held no strategic nor tactical importance. Unlike the crossroads city of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, neither Lee’s nor Meade’s Army needed those roads to advance. Marching through the country-side was the standard practice. For a 19th century army, cities in general were to be avoided. They provided only narrow streets and taverns for the soldiers to slake their thirst.
As BG Buford’s Union Cavalry approached Gettysburg from the south on 30 June, he skirted the city as he headed west to pursue reports that Lee’s main force had been sighted. As an astute tactician, Buford took note of the hills immediately south of the city. He reportedly remarked to an aide: “Today we fight there (pointing west); tomorrow we defend here (pointing to those hills). He later dispatched a messenger to GEN Meade informing him of his observation and plan. He would engage and delay the advance of Lee’s force and urged Meade to hasten the arrival of his army to Gettysburg.
[Much has been written about this unilateral decision. Was is a brave and bold move worthy of a medal or was it insubordination? See Section 30f]
Lee’s advance element was led by MG Heth. They were marching leisurely along a country road leading to Gettysburg expecting a short day as their objective was the Baltimore Pike.
Buford chose an area of rolling farmland about a mile west of the city to strike. He positioned an artillery section on a hilltop and ordered them to wait until Heth’s men had emerged from a wooded area onto the rolling hills then to fire onto that roadway causing the soldiers to flee north and south.
This initial part of the plan worked perfectly. Men scattered randomly; units were disrupted; officers lost control of their men. It took them a while to sort things out. Meanwhile, a steady flow of troops poured out of the woods.
Buford’s second part of the trap was to have his dismounted cavalry positioned behind stonewalls and split-rail fences that the farmers had used to cordon off their fields and pastures. Although heavily out-numbered, Buford’s men had a distinct advantage. They were armed with the newest Spencer breech-loading rifle. They could produce a rate of fire 3-5 times that of the muzzle-loading weapons that the vast majority of both armies had. Heth’s officers were fooled into believing that they were facing a much larger force. They were reluctant to attack without more support. Their advance ground to a halt.
This was the situation that Heth reported to Lee when he arrived on the scene in about mid-morning. Lee had spent the night in a cabin not far behind Heth’s unit. When he heard the cannon fire, he immediately gathered his command element and rode to assess the situation. Because he had lost contact with his own cavalry scouts under JEB Stuart, he had no idea exactly where Meade’s men were or how many could be opposing him that morning. In fact, there were very few.
By mid-afternoon the Union 1st Corps infantry arrived to support Buford. They aligned behind Buford’s men allowing them to break contact and withdraw. Within minutes of engaging the Rebels, their commander LTG Reynold’s was KIA, but his men held their ground.
Confederate forces under MG Rodes were bearing down on Gettysburg from the north. New 1st Corps CDR MG Doubleday sent troops to oppose them. All in all, the day was a series of running skirmishes with the Union forces slowing drawing the rebels into fragmented attacks. Overall, the Union line broke under the attack by MG Early moving in from the east.
Once in the city, the Confederate commanders were again stymied as their units were drawn down different streets and lost contact. A handful of Union sharp-shooters (snipers) harassed them continuously. Meanwhile, following Buford’s suggestion, newly arriving Union units under LTG Hancock began digging in on Culp’s and Cemetery Hills south of Gettysburg.
Their morning ended with Buford’s cavalry spent and depleted but completely successful in delaying the Rebel advance. They spent the rest of the battle guarding the right flank of the Union forces marching along the Baltimore Pike. At sunset, Lee was observing the Union defenses developing along Cemetery Ridge.
All in all, Day 1 of battle was a victory of tactics and technology.
Perhaps the major blunder of the day was committed by MG Early. He had arrived from the east having reversed his march towards York PA. But having marched all day, Early insisted that his men rest and eat before engaging. Nightfall overtook them and he launched no attack towards Culp’s Hill on Day 1. This became the anchor point of Meade’s defense = a J-shaped line beginning at Culp’s swinging south at Cemetery Hill along Cemetery Ridge down to Little Round Top and on to Big Round Top.