The Battle of Gettysburg was the largest battle fought on American soil and the turning point of the American Civil War. The small farm town in Pennsylvania erupted into a clash between hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers. Many people simply known of the famed “Pickett’s Charge” on July 3rd or the fighting at Little Round Top on July 2nd. The day before was even more vital to the battle than the others, organizing positions, creating command problems, and yielded a massive amount of casualties.
1. Buford’s Cavalry
Brigadier General John Buford, commanding the Union’s 1st Cavalry Division ran into Henry Heth’s division early on July 1st and began to delay their advance while awaiting reinforcements. Gamble, Devin, and Merritt held off attacks by Archer’s brigade while Buford surveyed the land. Holding their position on McPherson’s ridge, the Union cavalry desperately put up a fight against the Confederate infantry streaming down the Chambersburg Pike. Look at Buford’s statue along the road as he looks up the road with his field glasses. One of the four cannon barrels at his feet has a small plaque showing that it fired the first shot of the battle.
2. “For God’s Sake Forward!”
Finally at about 9:30 in the morning, Buford’s weary cavalry saw the flags of James Wadsworth’s division of John Reynolds’ 1st Corps from the South. The cavalry dropped back as the infantry sped into the gap to repel the Confederates. Davis’ brigade arrived and placed even more pressure on the Union. General Reynolds ordered forward the legendary Iron Brigade, an elite unit of troops from Michigan and Wisconsin. The brigade hurled themselves against Archer’s brigade in Herbst Woods. Reynolds was struck by a Confederate bullet and fell off his horse. Abner Doubleday replaced the dead general. Trek up Reynolds Avenue and find his marker on the edge of the woods. The Pennsylvania native lends his name to the woods now, as many refer to it as Reynolds’ Woods. The Iron Brigade’s memorials are on the other side of the woods.
3. The Railroad Cut
While the battle for Herbst Woods raged, three Union regiments rushed to cover their flank on the other side of the Chambersburg Pike. As Mississippians and North Carolinians under Davis slid down into an unfinished railroad bed, the Union troops charged their positions. Suffering one casualty for every foot they advanced, the troops were presented with a murderous Confederate fire. The 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade, which had separated from the rest of its brigade, jumped into the cut and a fierce hand-to-hand battle ensued until the Confederates fell back. The railroad is now complete and operational, but is hardly ever used. You can go into the cut from the side. Feel free to charge down like the Union troops and when you’re in there, look at how exposed the Union troops were to volleys from the defenders.
4. Oak Ridge
Continue north towards the metal observation tower. This is Oak Ridge where Union forces were pushed back by Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s Corps. Edward O’Neal and Alfred Iverson’s brigades attacked Doubleday’s Corps along the hill on what is now Doubleday Avenue. Robert Rhodes’ Confederate division continued to pound Union forces here until about 5 PM when the Union centre collapsed under constant attacks from Brockenborough, Pettigrew, and Scales. Doubleday gave up the defense of the ridge and rushed back towards Cemetery Ridge. Climb the tower to get a view of the Union positions on the hill and back towards the center of their lines.
5. Barlow’s Knoll
A young Union division commander, Francis Barlow, placed his troops along a small hill jutting out from their lines. These were the lead elements of Oliver Howard’s XI Corps made up of mostly Polish and German immigrants from Ohio and Pennsylvania. Rhodes sent Doles’ brigade north to fight them, as Barlow’s division was too far forward to be supported. Hays and Gordon’s brigades slammed into Barlow’s position and the Union brigades routed under pressure from the attack. Francis Barlow was wounded and paralysed from the legs down as his troops streamed through the town of Gettysburg. Left on the battlefield, Barlow needed help until Gen. John Gordon spotted him. Gordon got Barlow a litter and helped tend to him and the two would become great friends after the war finished.
Union troops fell back through Gettysburg as the Confederates chased them. Howard’s XI Corps found a position on Cemetery Hill by the Evergreen Cemetery but still struggled to organize a solid resistance to Ewell’s Corps. The timely arrival of Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps provided much needed assistance for Howard and the Union managed to form a solid defensive line. Hancock took position on the hill while Howard drifted towards Culp’s Hill. Cemetery Ridge would mark the center of the Union line for the rest of the battle.