Civil War Series

The Battle of Gettysburg



Early on July 1 General Reynolds, now commander of the army's left wing, ordered his First Corps from its bivouac along Marsh Creek just north of the Maryland line to Gettysburg to support Buford in case the Confederates should return to the Gettysburg area. He ordered the Union Eleventh Corps under Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard to follow. Meade's instructions for his forces to form a defensive position along Pipe Creek had not yet reached either general. As Reynolds's troops marched north, Heth's division, of Hill's Corps was approaching Gettysburg from the west over the Chambersburg Pike. Early in the morning Heth's leading brigade ran into a cavalry picket post about three miles west of Gettysburg.

The pickets fired a few shots, the first shots of the battle, and fell back. Heth's men trudged on. Soon they encountered a heavier force of Buford's cavalrymen sent forward to dispute their advance. There was heavier fire, and Heth's leading brigades, those of Brig. Gens. James J. Archer and Joseph R. Davis, deployed on each side of the road and pressed slowly ahead. At about 10 A.M. they neared Herr Ridge two miles west of Gettysburg, and Colonel William Gamble's brigade of Buford's division formed on McPherson, Ridge to dispute their advance. Buford's men, supported by Lt. John H. Calef's U.S. Battery, had done a fine job in delaying the Confederates' approach, and their breechloading carbines had given them some advantage, yet they had only skirmished, and casualties on both sides had been small. The heavy fighting was ahead.



Reynolds rode ahead of his troops into Gettysburg and west along the Chambersburg Pike to McPherson Ridge, where he met Buford. At this time Archer's and Davis's brigades were forming on Herr Ridge about 1,300 yards to the west in preparation for an attack on Buford's line of dismounted cavalry. The two generals conferred. Reynolds studied the ground, told Buford to hold on as long as he could, and rode back to hurry the infantry along. He met the head of Wadsworth's division south of Gettysburg near the Codori farm buildings and sent it across the fields toward the seminary, breathless but ready for a fight.

By this time the two Confederate brigades, seeing little opposition io their front, advanced in expectation of an easy victory. As they crossed Willoughby Run at the west base of McPherson Ridge, Reynolds directed Captain James A. Hall's Maine Battery to the position occupied by Calef's guns on the west arm of the ridge near the pike. He designated positions for Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler's brigade and Brig. Gen. Solomon Meridith's "Iron Brigade," Cutler's to the ridge astride the road and railroad bed and the fields to the north, the Iron Brigade to its left in Herbst's (McPherson's) Woods between the ridge crest and the run. (These woods, long known as McPherson's Woods, were actually the property of John Herbst, whose house, 750 yards to the south, was burned by the Confederates.) As Reynolds rode along the east edge of the woods, directing the Iron Brigade into the trees and shouting, "Forward! men, forward! for God's sake, and drive those fellows out of the woods!" a bullet struck him in the head and killed him.


Three regiments of Cutler's Brigade crossed the railroad bed to form the right of the Union line. Before these leading regiments could take their positions on the ridge, Davis's brigade raked them with a deadly fire. Although the two brigades of both Heth's and Wadsworth's divisions were of comparable size and their lines of similar length, they deployed so that the left of each line overlapped the right of its enemy. As Davis's brigade assailed the three Union regiments north of the railroad cut from the front, the left of its line enfolded Cutler's right, making Cutler's position untenable. General Wadsworth ordered Cutler's right regiments back to Seminary Ridge. Unfortunately, the commander of the 147th New York Infantry was shot before he could relay the order to his troops, and that lonely regiment continued to fight on until a second order came. According to General Cutler, 454 of the 1,007 troops engaged north of the railroad bed became casualties in less than thirty minutes' time, the 147th losing 207 of its 380 officers and men.


Charles A. Veil, Reynolds's orderly, described his commander's death at Gettysburg in a letter written April 7, 1864, (Note: Grammar and punctuation appear as originally written.)

The Genl road along in rear of our line towards the woods on our left ("Called I believe McPhersons, though I heard while in Gettysburg that they belonged to Mr. Herbs't"). As he rode along he saw the enemy advancing through the woods, facing the Cashtown Road. The Genl saw at a glance that something desperate must be done or our troops would be entirely flanked as there was a Reg't comeing down, from the Seminary—(was but a short distance from the woods)—was the 19th Indiana—belonging to Brig on left of Cashtown Road—but had by some means got in rear) He ordered it to "Forward into line" at a double quick and ordered them to charge into the woods, leading the Charge in person; the Regiment Charged into the woods nobly, but the enemy was too strong, and they had to give way to the right. The enemy still pushed on, and was now not much more than 60 paces from where the Gen'l. was. Minnie Balls were flying thick. The Genl. turned to look towards the Seminary, (I suppose to see if the other troops were comeing on,) as he did so, a Minnie Ball Struck him in the back of the neck, and he fell from his horse dead. He never spoke a word, or moved, a muscle after he was struck. I have seen many men killed in action, but never saw a ball do its work so instantly as did the ball which struck General Reynolds, a man who knew not what fear or danger was, in a word, was one of our very best Generals. Where ever the fight raged the fiercest, there the General was sure to be found, his undaunted Courage always inspired the men with more energy & courage. He would never order a body of troops where he had not been himself, or where he did not dare to go. The last words the lamented General spoke were—"Forward men forward for Gods sake and drive those fellows out of those woods," (meaning the enemy). When the General fell the only persons who were with him was Capt's Mitchell, & Baird, and myself. When he fell we sprang from our horses, the Gen'l. fell on his left side, I turned him on his back, glanced over him but could see no wound escept a bruise above his left eye. We were under the impression that he was only stunned, this was all done in a glance. I caught the Genl. under the arms, while each of the Capt's. took hold of his legs, and we commenced to carry him out of the woods towards the Seminary. When we got outside of the woods the Capt's. left me to carry the word to the next officers on Command, of his death.



After driving Cutler's three right regiments from the field and sustaining casualties while doing so, some of Davis's victorious troops turned south toward the Union position south of the railroad bed while others pressed east toward Seminary Ridge. In its seeming triumph, Davis's brigade lost its cohesion and firepower.

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Davis's and Archer's brigades of Heth's Confederate division are confronted along McPherson's Ridge by Wadsworth's division, which is placed personally by Reynolds. South of the Chambersburg Pike, the Iron Brigade defeats Archer, although Reynolds is killed at the opening of this engagement. North of the pike, the Union forces are defeated by Davis, but a counterattack by the 6th Wisconsin and 84th and 95th New York drives Davis back with heavy loss.

As Davis's brigade drove the Union regiments north of the railroad bed, Hall's Battery, Cutler's two regiments south of the Pike, and the Iron Brigade made short work of Archer's Brigade on Heth's right. Union regiments met Archer's men as they pushed across Willoughby Run and climbed the slope into McPherson's Woods. Their longer line enveloped its right, capturing Archer, "that most gallant and meritorious officer," and driving his brigade back to Herr Ridge.


Then, Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday, the acting commander of the First Corps, sent his reserve, the 6th Wisconsin Regiment, north against Davis's disordered brigade near the railroad bed. The 6th paused at the fence along the pike and fired, halting Davis's attack on Cutler's men and causing many of them to seek cover in a cut where the railroad bed slices through McPherson's Ridge. The 95th New York and 14th Brooklyn regiments joined the 6th along the pike. Lt. Col. Rufus R. Dawes of the 6th and Major Edward Pye of the 95th yelled, "Forward, charge!" and the Union regiments charged for the cut, Dawes shouting, "Align on the colors! Close up on that color! Close up on that color!" The three regiments jogged toward the railroad cut where many of Davis's men had sought cover. The charge was a success. They captured over 200 Mississippians at the cut and drove the remainder back to Herr Ridge. The Union forces had won the opening round at Gettysburg. In one of the great understatements of the war, General Heth, in his report of this engagement, wrote: "The enemy had now been felt, and found to be in heavy force in and around Gettysburg."

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