First Day at Gettysburg
Crisis at the Crossroads
Publication Year: 2010
“Hassler’s history will survive as our most detailed narrative of the first day’s battle, examining the day’s action so minutely that no succeeding historian of Gettysburg will be able to ignore it. Hassler’s book has solid virtues in addition to its thoroughness of detail: it offers a persuasive argument that the first day’s events largely determined the eventual outcome of the battle; Hassler displays uncommonly complete knowledge of the battlefield terrain [and] makes uniquely good use of the information that can be gleaned from the monuments and markers on the battlefield.” – American Historical Review
Published by: The University of Alabama Press
Table of Contents
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It has in general been conceded that the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, was one of the most decisive - indeed pivotal - combats waged during the American Civil War. Certainly it was the greatest dash of arms that has ever occurred in the Western Hemisphere. So vast and so momentous were the consequences hinging on this terrible battle that Gettysburg is justly termed one of the mountain peaks of the American historical past.
1. The Convergence on Gettysburg
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The Civil War was into its third year in June 1863, but it had hardly touched the sleepy little market town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1780 by James Gettys, an early settler, and situated amidst the magnificent rolling farmlands of the Keystone State, the village numbered little more than 2,000 inhabitants, and was known chiefly as the county seat of Adams County, and for its Lutheran Theological Seminary and Pennsylvania College. Leather and carriage manufacture flourished, and Thaddeus Stevens had owned some property in the area, but the town was little known to the outside world.1
2. The Meeting of the Ways
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In order to comprehend the fighting on the first day’s Battle of Gettysburg, a clear, somewhat detailed description of the physical features of the country which comprise the battlefield is essential. The accidents of terrain often playa key role in the progress and outcome of a military contest, and Gettysburg is no exception to this axiom. A hill here, a wood there, a stream coursing through the arena of combat, the lack of a natural or man-made bastion on which to anchor a flank-these and other physiographic features might well have a decisive effect on the development of a battle.
3. The Early Morning Fight of Buford
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The momentous day of Wednesday, July 1, 1863, dawned rainy and misty, with scattered showers prevalent across the countryside of southern Pennsylvania.1 However, as the morning advanced, the weather was to clear, the sun to come out, and the heat to become intense, with high humidity.2 After the fog and clouds had lifted, a blood-red sunrise, like the storied sun of Austerlitz, was noted.3 A gentle wind was blowing from south to north.4
4. Reynolds Climaxes His Career
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The commander of the Union Left Wing was anxious to march to Buford's assistance with the leading elements of Doubleday's First Corps. But before leaving Marsh Creek for Gettysburg early on the morning of July 1, several duties occupied John Reynolds' attention. These he performed in his customary meticulous way. First he read to Doubleday the messages he had received in recent hours. Then Reynolds indicated to the First Corps leader the locations of the various units of the Army of the Potomac.
5. The First Affair at the Railroad Cut
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General Wadsworth’s First Division of some 4,000 Federal troops1 had arrived on the field, as noted, at 10:00 a.m., and was put into action on McPherson Ridge almost simultaneously on both sides of the Chambersburg pike. While Reynolds was placing the 14th Brooklyn and 95th New York in position on the ridge to the left (south) of the road, Wadsworth had been instructed to deploy the other three regiments of Cutler's brigade on the right (north) of the railroad grading, which was almost 200 yards north of the pike.2
6. The Iron Brigade in McPherson Grove
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While the Federals were striving and finally winning out to the north of the Chambersburg pike, their fortunes were taking a similar turn to the south of that road during the forenoon of July 1st. It will be remembered that Wadsworth's Union division had turned off the Emmitsburg road at the Codori buildings about 9: 30 a.m. Cutler's Second Brigade and Hall's 2nd Maine battery, leading the column, had been followed through the fields to McPherson Ridge by Brigadier General Solomon Meredith's First Brigade-the so-called "Iron Brigade."
7. Reinforcements Come forward
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The one thing which commanders in battle ever look for is reinforcements. And it was true of Doubleday and Heth in the late morning hours of 1 July 1863. In the first fierce infantry clash just west of Gettysburg, Cutler's and Meredith's brigades of Wadsworth's Union division had thus far won a decided advantage over two of Heth's brigades-Davis' and Archer's-and had driven them back in confusion.
8. The Arrival and Deployment of the Eleventh Corps
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During the lull in the fighting, about 11: 00 A.M., Doubleday was anxiously observing the build-up in strength and the concentration of the Confederate forces opposed to him. The Union First Corps commander was eagerly awaiting the arrival from the south of the Federal Eleventh Corps, Major General Oliver Otis Howard commanding. Howard would bring with him a total of some 9,500 effectives,1 and they would be desperately needed on the field to try to check the preponderant enemy forces being arrayed against the National soldiers.
9. The Advent of Early, and His Fight with Schurz
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The Union defeat at Chancellorsville was all the Eleventh Corps' fault-so said many of the critics of this unfortunate body of troops; and 0.0. Howard and Fighting Joe Hooker were the particular malefactors in that dreadful fiasco. The Eleventh Corps had been stationed on the extreme right wing of the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville in early May of 1863, and had been overwhelmed by the ferocious flank attack of Stonewall Jackson.
10. The Oak Ridge Combat of Robinson and Rodes
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Early’s swift and striking success against the Eleventh Corps did not mean that similar good fortune would fall to the Confederates attacking the First Corps-far from it. While Schurz' two divisions were striving futilely to maintain their position on the plain north of Gettysburg, Doubleday's new right wing, under Robinson, on Oak Ridge, was gallantly resisting the heavy pressure of Rodes. The arrival at the Seminary of Robinson's Second Division, First Corps, at approximately 11:00 a.m.1...
11. The Second Contest at the Railroad Cut
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Most inviting to Rodes-even while he was contending with Robinson on Oak Ridge-was the seemingly exposed right flank of Doubleday's line on McPherson Ridge. But, as Davis' brigade of Heth's division had discovered in the morning, this Union right flank was partly protected by the railroad cuts in the two crests of McPherson Ridge. In mid-morning, as will be recalled, a great many of Davis' men had been captured or shot down in the cut in the more easterly crest of the ridge.
12. The Federals Lose McPherson Ridge
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In the heavy fighting on the morning of July 1, 1863, Abner Doubleday's Union First Corps had done exceedingly well in repelling Heth's early thrusts from the west. Wadsworth's brigades of Meredith and Cutler, before noon, had bloodily repulsed Archer and Davis, and had captured large numbers of men. Then Rowley's brigades of Stone and Biddle came up to reinforce the McPherson Ridge position.
13. Pender's Clash with Doubleday on Seminary Ridge
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King Numbers was finally asserting himself. Pettigrew, aided by Brockenbrough and Daniel, had at last succeeded in pressing the stubborn Doubleday off McPherson and Oak Ridges, but at fearful cost to the Southern invaders. It was only when Heth's division had been terribly cut up that Hill decided to throw the four fresh brigades of Major General William D. Pender's Third Division into the conflict.
14. The Retreat through the Town
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While a description of the retreat of the Union First and Eleventh Corps soldiers through the streets of Gettysburg might seem a random and useless collection of isolated incidents put together at the whim of the author, the withdrawal was in reality chaotic, episodic, and filled with unconnected events. Therefore, if the reader finishes the chapter with a feeling of confusion, he is experiencing only the true flavor and spirit of what actually was a maelstrom of desperate, uncoordinated happenings in the retreat and pursuit.
15. The Federals Rally on Cemetery Hill
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Events followed one another quickly after the remnants of the Federal First and Eleventh Corps neared Cemetery Hill. During the retreat through Gettysburg, Howard, the Union commander of the field, sent an aide to Slocum, Howard's senior, in command of the Right Wing of the Army of the Potomac, requesting that Slocum come forward and assume command. However, being unfamiliar with the field and with the events of the battle which had transpired, Slocum declined to come up, saying that Meade did not wish to bring on a general engagement.1
16. The Price in Blood
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In any compilation and assessment of the battle casualties of July 1, 1863, one begins with the official reports of both armies, even though later information reveals that these figures should be revised. Many of those men reported missing in the Union and Confederate armies, it was subsequently learned, were either wounded or killed; and one-fourth of the missing, on an average, should be added to the killed or wounded.
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“The first day’s battle,” asserts an authority on Gettysburg, Captain Joseph G. Rosengarten, "was ... indeed 'the soldier's battle,' for it was the fixed determination of the soldiers to hold the ground that counted far more than any skiIlful maneuvers of military art or the best tactical methods." 1 Yet, while this statement may well be true, in part at least, it does not mean that strategic and tactical leadership, especially on the part of the generals, was not of vital significance.
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Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2010