Daily Archives: July 1, 2012

Gettysburg Day One Accident and Intent: How the Actions of Harry Heth and John Buford Helped Decide the Battle

On June 30th 1863 the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under the Command of General Robert E Lee was deep in enemy territory. His mission was to draw the Federal Army of the Potomac now under the command of Major General George Gordon Meade into battle and destroy it.  His Army composed of three Corps, the First Corps under Lieutenant General James Longstreet, the Second under Lieutenant General Richard Ewell and the Third Corps under the command of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill.  Lieutenant General J.E.B. Stuart commanded his cavalry but was operating independently of Lee conducting a movement around the Army of the Potomac and unable to provide Lee information on the deployment or movement of the Union forces.

Lee’s army was spread out. Early’s Second Corps was spread out near the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg while his other two corps were concentrated in the area around Cashtown about 8 miles west of Gettysburg. On the 30th a brigade of Major General Harry Heth’s division of Hill’s Corps made a reconnaissance in the direction of Gettysburg. The brigade commander Brigadier General James Pettigrew observed Federal cavalry entering the town and chose not to engage reporting the matter to General Heth.

Major General Henry (Harry) Heth

Heth was a graduate of West Point who had served as an Infantry Officer in the United States Army until he resigned to enter the Confederate Army. He had commanded a company in battle against the Lakota Sioux in 1855 and wrote the first marksmanship manual for use in the U.S. Army. Unlike many of his fellow officers he had not taken part in the Mexican-American War.

Heth spent the early part of the war as Lee’s Quartermaster where he became one of Lee’s favorite officers and began a relationship where Lee looked after his career.  He then served as regimental commander in the actions in the Kanawha Valley of Western Virginia being assigned to Kirby Smith’s Department of Tennessee where he commanded a division but took part no no major actions. Lee brought him back to the Army of Northern Virginia in 1863 to command a brigade in Hill’s Division. He took commanded that brigade at Chancellorsville in which he made an ill advised unsupported attack against Union forces with heavy casualties. He was promted to command of the Division when Hill assumed command of Third Corps when it was created following the death of Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Lee had given his commanders orders not to provoke a major engagement until the Army was fully concentrated to meet Meade’s troops which had crossed the Potomac and was moving north. However neither Heth nor Hill believed that the troops that Pettigrew observed were a threat, believing them to be nothing more than local militia. Heth ordered half of his division to make a reconnaissance in force on the morning of July 1st. It was not what Lee wanted and Heth’s conduct of it and the resultant action led to the largest battle of the Civil War, the costliest battle.

Lee’s intent was clear. He desired to have a tired and weary Union force under a new commander under political pressure attack him on ground of his choosing. He hoped to defeat the Union forces piecemeal as they came into the battle. By initiating the action Heth caused Lee to have to improvise an attack contrary to his initial plan.  It was an accidental encounter which was compounded by Heth’s action to commit his entire division into battle in spite of his orders.

Brigadier General John Buford

The Federal Cavalry was the First Cavalry Division under the Command of Brigadier General John Buford. Buford’s division arrived in Gettysburg ahead of the Army of the Potomac on the 30th. Buford and his brigade commanders immediately recognized the importance of the ground when they saw Pettigrew’s troops. Buford order his troops to deploy on the ridges west of Gettysburg, Herr Ridge, McPherson Ridge and Seminary Ridge. It was the perfect place for a delaying action against superior forces.

Buford was also a graduate of West Point and served as a Cavalry officer in the Army before the war. He was from Kentucky and though his father was a Democrat who had opposed Abraham Lincoln and had family that chose to fight for the Confederacy he remained loyal to his oath and remained in the Army. He served against the Sioux and on peacekeeping duty in the bitterly divided State if Kansas before serving in the Utah War in 1858. He was a modern soldier who recognized that the tactics of the Army had to change due to improvements in weapons and technology.  He was promoted to Brigadier General in 1862 and served in numerous engagements as a Cavalry Brigade commander before being given command of the 1st Cavalry Division after Chancellorsville.

The Delaying Action, July 1st 1863 Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.posix.com/CW

Buford was a keen student of war and a commander who was able to control his forces. When Heth engaged his division he fought a masterful action which allowed the Infantry Corps of the Army of the Potomac to arrive on the field of battle. His action to select the ground upon which the battle was fought led to the Union victory because even though Federal forces were pushed back on the first day they were able to maintain control of the high ground east of the city with interior lines of communication which they fortified.

Lee decided that he had to force the battle and continue the attack despite the objections of General Longstreet and the fact that he did not fully know the numbers and disposition of the troops arrayed against him. It would be a fateful decision born of a ill conceived action of Heth and correspondingly excellent command decisions of Buford. I am sure that part of the reason for this was Heth’s lack of experience in the East against the Army of the Potomac and limited battle experience as a senior commander. Buford had spent the war in action against Lee’s Army. He knew the capabilities of his enemies and what had to be done to give his side a chance to win.

Like many battles success is often due to such factors.  Had Heth held up and had Lee followed Longstreet’s advice the battle and war might have turned out quite differently. Had Buford not seen the importance of the ground that he selected and deployed himself accordingly the rest of the Army may not have gotten to Gettysburg before Lee had gained the critical ground east and south of the town.

On such decisions battles are decided and wars won.  Heth’s relative inexperience and inability to control his command was a decisive factor in the battle while Buford’s experience and poise under pressure probably saved the Army of the Potomac from a decisive defeat.


Padre Steve+


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