5L Battle in Gettysburg

History recorded it as the Battle of Gettysburg, perhaps it should be more accurately termed the Battle near Gettysburg. In point of fact that small portion of the clash on Day 1 that was fought in the town itself, was only somewhat less brutal than what happened nearby, but not much is recorded about it.

The Battle in Gettysburg took place in the later afternoon and into the evening of 1 JUL 1863. LTG Howard’s Eleventh Union Corps was routed by MG Early’s attack from the northeast. Their only route of escape was back through the city. Their rally point at the cemetery was a mile or so to the south. But it was MG Rodes’ men who pursued them into the city.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the day’s fight took place on the NW corner of the city where the road from Chambersburg and Cashtown enter it. As the troops to their right (east) fell to Early’s attack, the men of the First Union Corps also began to withdraw, in somewhat more of an orderly military fashion. The units at the north end of the Union line also fell back into the city. Some of the units farther south, nearer the Seminary, were able to skirt around the city’s edge and head directly to the cemetery.

But that meant that 3-4 Union divisions were trying to escape through the tiny town of 2400 residents. The streets were a veritable maze. Like many such towns, this one had simply grown over the years without a plan. It was not laid out in a grid-pattern of parallel lanes, but rather the streets meandered around buildings placed wherever the owners saw fit.

Over the next few hours, as darkness fell, the battle that took place in Gettysburg was more a game of hide and seek. Small groups of Union soldiers, not truly organized as military units, were threading their way south. As often as not, they’d find their direct path blocked by a building, wall or fence. As most of the town’s inhabitants were hiding in whatever they considered as shelter, there was no one to point the way. All they could do was keep moving, over or through those walls and fences, while keeping the sun over their right shoulder.

Their pursuers were mostly from MG Rodes’ Division. They had broken through the Union line where it changed direction to the east at the junction of 1st and 11th Corps. Earlier in the afternoon, their repeated assaults had been repulsed, so once they broke the line they felt a need to exploit that success. They charged headlong into the city streets as well. MG Early had retained better control of his assault, re-formed his division and was marching down the eastern side of the city.

The battle in Gettysburg was general chaos. Small gaggles of armed men, hardly resembling military units, would blunder into each other at an intersection or in an alley and stop to fire at close quarters. Men died and some were captured. Some managed to find a hiding place, one of them a Union General [1]! Most simply out of a sense of self-preservation just keep pushing south as best they could. Rebel soldiers were now the hunters and the Union troops the rabbits trying to escape their slaughter.

To assist in their escape, LTG Howard sent a small group of sharp-shooters (aka snipers) into the city. They climbed to vantage points in churches and other taller buildings and attempted to keep the Rebels pinned down to allow their fellow soldiers to reach the cemetery. Soon the southern end of the town was filled with ever-growing groups of Union soldiers, many without weapons or kit. Well into the evening, they continued to straggle out of the town and up the slope to the cemetery. NCOs and officers did their best to sort and re-organize them into their assigned units, then redeploy those units to occupy a place in the growing defensive line.

One of the easier units to reorganize was the Iron Brigade; due to their distinctive Hardie hats. Many of them had simply marched off the field of battle as if they were on parade. Some had dispersed into the town. But since they were on the left flank of the First Union Corps, they were never far from the rally point. They were soon assigned to occupy Culp’s Hill. They worked through the night to consolidate a defensive line of trenches and breastworks. [see Section 5j the Iron Brigade]

As darkness fell in Day 1, MG Early was bivouacked on the east edge of the city and MG Rodes had moved most of his troops to the SW corner. Despite GEN Lee’s concerns, neither received any orders to try to occupy Culp’s Hill or the smaller knoll between it and the cemetery.

It seemed quite obvious to all concerned that the actual town of Gettysburg held no tactical or strategy value to either army. The battleground now shifted to that series of contiguous hills just to its south. Hence the buildings and inhabitants of the town were spared any large-scale fighting or bombardment. As such, only one civilian casualty was reported in the three days of military carnage.

[1] At the Battle of Gettysburg, BG Schimmelfennig commanded a brigade in fellow Forty-Eighter-turned-major general Carl Schurz’s 3rd Division of the XI Corps. For a short time, Schimmelfennig took command of the 3rd Division when Schurz briefly commanded the corps. His brigade suffered greatly, mostly due to a high prisoner rate as hundreds of men became confused in the narrow streets of Gettysburg and ended up being captured by oncoming Confederates. It and Colonel Charles Coster‘s brigade did their best to cover the retreat of the rest of the XI Corps, but they soon became disorganized and fled too. During the retreat through the town, Schimmelfennig briefly hid in a culvert on Baltimore Street, and then stayed for several days in a shed on the Henry and Catherine Garlach property, avoiding capture. After the battle, he rejoined the corps, much to the joy of the troops who thought he was dead. However, Schimmelfennig’s story was seized upon by news writers and presented as another example of German cowardice.

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