Gettysburg at 150 Day One: Lee Blunders into Battle


Pender’s Brigade on Day One

The Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Robert E Lee was now deep in Union territory and nearly blind to the location of the Federal Army of the Potomac. On the 30th advanced units of Dick Ewell’s Second Corps had gone nearly as far as Harrisburg while most of the Army was on the road around Chambersburg and Cashtown. Lee’s Cavalry Division under the command of J.E.B. Stuart was far away engaging Union Cavalry around Hanover and not in position to report on Union troop movements. General A.P. Hill sent Johnston Pettigrew’s Brigade of Harry Heth’s Division to Gettysburg on the 30th but Pettigrew observing the Federal cavalry of Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division take up positions on Seminary Ridge declined to engage and reported the Federal concentration to Hill.

As reports from the spy Harrison came to Lee and Longstreet Lee began to concentrate the Army around Cashtown. However the morning of July Hill ordered Harry Heth’s division to move on Gettysburg without the benefit of cavalry support or reconnaissance believing that the troops reported by Pettigrew could be nothing more than local militia. His leading brigades under Brigadier General James Archer and Joseph Davis took heavy casualties and soon Heth became embroiled in a fight with Buford’s cavalry and lead elements of the Federal 1st Corps under the command of Major General John Reynolds.


Gettysburg Day One (Map by Hal Jespersen,

Lee was surprised by the engagement and though he chastised Heth for getting involved committed his army to the attack. Reynolds was killed early in the engagement but the fight was bitter, the Iron Brigade exacted a fearful toll on Archer and Davis’s brigades. The attack by Hill’s 3rd Corps was helped immensely when elements of Ewell’s 2nd Corps arrived on the right flank of the Federal XI Corps, forcing the Federal troops to withdraw through Gettysburg and up to Cemetery Ridge. Ewell’s arrival was fortuitous because it tilted the balance to Lee, but the advantage was short lived.


Lee Deliberates Heth’s Advance – Gettysburg by Bradley Schmehl

 Ewell failed to press the attack on Cemetery Ridge or Culp’s Hill while Federal forces were still disorganized, despite the repeated entreaties of Major General Isaac Trimble who was with him. The delay would be fatal to Lee’s intentions as Lee decided to give battle at Gettysburg, ignoring General Longstreet’s plea to disengage take up a favorable position between Gettysburg and Washington DC and force the Army of the Potomac to attack.


Don Troiani’s Painting of Hancock taking Command on Cemetery Hill on Day One

The Army of Northern Virginia came very close to sweeping Federal forces from the field on July 1st in spite of Lee’s lack of planning and clear commanders intent. That much is clear. His orders to Ewell, to take the high ground “if practicable” we interpreted by Ewell in a manner that he determined not to be practicable, so the advanced Federal corps under the command of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock were able to regroup, dig in and be reinforced by the rest of the Army.

Whether Lee intended to engage the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg so early in a campaign where his multiple and contradictory strategic aims and lack of clear commander’s intent to his subordinate commanders created confusion is debated. Much of the controversy comes from Lee’s own correspondence which indicates that he might have not fully understood his own intentions. Some correspondence indicates that Lee desired to avoid a general engagement as long as possible while other accounts indicate that he wanted an early and decisive engagement. The controversy was stoked after the war by Lee’s supporters, particular his aides Taylor and Marshal, and Longstreet’s supporters.

Isaac Trimble, traveling with Lee at the beginning of the invasion of Pennsylvania recored that Lee told him:

“We have again outmaneuvered the enemy, who even now does not know where we are or what our designs are. Our whole army will be in Pennsylvania day after tomorrow, leaving the enemy far behind and obliged to follow by forced marches. I hope with these advantages to accomplish some single result and to end the war, if Providence favors us.” (Glenn Tucker, High Tide at Gettysburg (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co.: 1958), p. 24.)

The vagueness of Lee’s instructions to his commanders, many of whom were occupying command positions under him for the first time and were unfamiliar with his command style led to confusion. Where Stonewall Jackson might have understood Lee’s intent, even where Lee issued vague or contradictory orders, many others including Hill and Ewell did not. Lee did not change his command style to accommodate his new commanders and that lack of flexibility on Lee’s part proved fatal to his aims in the campaign.


The vagueness of Lee’s intent was demonstrated throughout the campaign and was made worse by the fog of war. Day one ended with a significant tactical victory for Lee’s army but without a decisive result which would be compounded into a strategic defeat by Lee’s subsequent decisions on the 2nd and 3rd of July.

Until tomorrow,


Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, History, Military

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