Willoughby Run is another place – like Zeigler’s Grove – that played a significant role on Day 1 at Gettysburg and yet seldom seems to get mentioned in accounts of the battle. It is, in fact, where some of the earliest fighting took place. It also figures in prominently a few hours later as where the Union came close to losing the Iron Brigade.
The Run was a stream, little more than a trickle really, that wound its way across the countryside from north to south. Over eons, it had carved a jagged meandering gouge into the landscape. It was the perfect place for an ambush. Buford’s men were happy to be there on the morning of 1 July. They had spent the night curled up in the vegetation along its banks. Cool water to drink; a place to pee. What more could they ask for? But now, as the sun was just rising, they waited. One good thing about facing west was that your enemy was staring into the sun. It made it harder for him to see you. Not that that was really a concern. The stream bed was deeper than a man was tall. They were resting comfortably on its west bank; their heads and weapons well hidden by the dense vegetation that covered the steep banks. The other advantage that most of them had was a clear line of sight back to their commander.
BG Buford was in the cupola of the Seminary a half-mile or so behind them. Through his field glasses, he had a clear view of the soon-to-be battlefield in front of them. They were watching for his prearranged flag signal that would initiate the ambush. In reality, they knew their adversaries were coming before Buford saw them. They could hear the lively music of the band that accompanied them as they marched leisurely towards Gettysburg. Few would actually make it there. The dismounted cavalrymen checked their weapons and ammunition one last time for reassurance and waited.
BG Buford allowed the first two regiments of Davis’ Brigade of Heth’s Division to march out of the dense line of trees that blocked his view to the west. Then he had his signalmen flash the first flag. A hail of bullets tore into the unsuspecting Rebel formation. Cannon balls tore up the road in front of them. The battle had begun in earnest.
Men scattered in all directions except forward. Many turned and ran back into the trees seeking cover. Most went either right or left not knowing which might be safer. The rain of lead continued unabated. From the volume of fire, there had to be thousands of rifles in front of them. Their NCOs and officers were trying desperately to regain control and to have them form up into a skirmish line and to return fire. But for now, chaos reigned. Buford watched as more men poured out of the tree line, compounding the confusion. He knew that there were really only a few hundred of his men firing on the enemy, but their breech-loading carbines allowed them to keep up a sustained rate of fire 3-5x what firing muzzle-loaders would allow.
It wasn’t too long before training and discipline won out and a few hundred Rebels were aligned in neat rows and returning fire. More men were running behind those, extending the line to the north. Soon they would begin to advance. His widely scattered men needed to leave. Notice that the third flag signal had been waved was passed up and down the Union line. His men climbed out the ravine and raced for their horses being held just to their rear by every fourth man. Even though the Rebels were more or less firing blindly, he lost a few men as they exposed themselves on even ground.
The first ‘battle of Willoughby Run’ lasted less than an hour. Another would soon follow.
A few hours later, LTG Reynolds was in the midst of directing his First Union Corps infantrymen into position at a place called Herbst Woods. He was attempting to establish the southern flank of his corps and build north from there as units arrived. The group he was placing was known as the Iron Brigade both for their stalwart performance on prior battlefields and that fact that many were iron miners from Wisconsin and Michigan. He was admonishing them to shift from marching ranks to an attack line and to move into the woods. On the west end of those woods Archer’s Brigade of Heth’s Division was forming up. The two forces met on opposite banks of Willoughby Run. Neither was prepared for those first few minutes of contact. The Rebels were startled to see the infamous black Hardee hats with their up-turned brim that uniquely identified the Iron Brigade. But Archer had the upper hand, his brigade was considerably larger than theirs. Archer gave the command to attack and his men moved quickly through the ravine and crashed into the Union formation that had become somewhat disorganized in their movement through the rather dense woods. Archer’s men were in a tighter formation, their volleys more concentrated. Many Union men fell without ever firing a shot. Their advance halted abruptly then reversed. Archer’s men plunged into the woods after them. But BG Meredith, the Iron Brigade commander, had placed his men well. His left flank was advancing just to the south of the woods. Over the next hour or so a swirling dance developed.
Archer’s left flank was north of the woods; Meredith’s south. Each moved to engulf the other. Archer struck first and Meredith’s right flank took a heavy beating. In the center of the woods, individual soldiers rather than organized units were taking up positions behind trees and exchanging fire at close range. Meanwhile Meredith’s leftmost regiments were swinging into position along the south edge of the woods. When they opened fire, they were in enfilade to the Rebels. In reality, the men in the middle were caught in a crossfire. Rebels firing east and south; Black hats firing west and north. Losses on both sides were heavy. But it was Archer’s men who broke first. His right flank collapsed and retreated back across the Run. Meredith’s men were then able to fall back to the lower end of McPherson’s Ridge and take up a more defensive position. The second ‘battle of Willoughby Run’ also lasted just over an hour.
Over the ensuing hours, the Day 1 battle raged on to the north as the First and then the Eleventh Union Corps took up positions on the edge of the city.
Archer was able to gather his men and make repeated attacks through the woods and onto MacPherson’s Ridge. But the Iron Brigade line held. It wasn’t until part of Pender’s Division maneuvered around behind Archer and threatened an attack from the south that the Iron Brigade simply formed up and marched eastward as if on parade.
By evening, they would find themselves digging trenches on the top of Culp’s Hill. There they would face off against Early’s Division.
At the end of Day 1, both Davis’ and Archer’s Brigades had suffered so many casualties that they were no longer a fighting force and would see no more action at Gettysburg.
Willoughby Run had seen its fight and its name would pass into oblivion.