July 1st 1863
Gettysburg Day One. The battle of Gettysburg is the most well known battle of the American Civil War. The battle lasted for three days and when it was over more than 8,000 soldiers on both sides would be dead.
Arriving in town on June 30th 1863, Union General John Buford was in command of two brigades of cavalry. These were the first Union troops to arrive at Gettysburg. Buford was never ordered to defend the town he did it on his own accord.
Dismounting his troops to fight on foot Buford set his men in a defensive position on McPherson’s Ridge. He knew his men were greatly outnumbered and could never repel a Confederate attack so his main goal was simply to be able to buy some time while waiting for the main body of the Union army to arrive.
The old story as to why the Confederates went to Gettysburg is that they went in search of shoes of all things. This story is in fact true and it was a unit of Confederate infantry dispatched into the town to look for shoes that initially noticed Buford’s cavalry. There was no fighting at this point just observation.
If you’d like to learn more about the first day of the battle of Gettysburg check out Gettysburg–The First Day
The next morning on July 1, 1863 Confederate General Heth ordered his infantry division to attack the Union cavalry that was defending the town. The Confederates advanced with two brigades led by James Archer and Joseph Davis (nephew of Jefferson Davis).
The rebels thought the Union troops would be easily defeated but that was not the case, they fought very bravely and held the rebels off for two hours before Union General John Reynolds arrived with his veteran infantry corps.
No sooner than Reynolds had arrived at the battle of Gettysburg he was shot in the back of the head and killed instantly. There is debate as to who actually killed Reynolds. Was it a Confederate sharpshooter, regular infantry or even friendly fire? No one knows for sure, however the most widely accepted theory is a Confederate sharpshooter.
Despite his death Reynolds’ men fought hard and eventually drove the rebels from McPherson’s ridge inflicting heavy casualties on the rebels. Davis’s troops were trapped in an unfinished railway cut. They were essentially in a deep hole, which was not a good defensive position. They took many casualties before retreating.
As for Archer he led an attack against the famous Union Iron Brigade. His men suffered heavy casualties in this assault and many were taken prisoner including Archer himself who was found hiding in some bushes.
At around two o’clock in the afternoon Ewell’s corps suddenly without orders attacked the Union line in their right flank. This proved to be a great opportunity for the Confederates and Lee immediately seized it and ordered a general attack all along the line.
The Union troops were outmatched. They broke from battle fleeing through the town of Gettysburg from the pursuing rebels. Union forces were being defeated all along their line prompting General Howard to order a general retreat to higher ground on Cemetery ridge. Lee realized very quickly that if the Union could establish itself on this ridge it would be in an excellent defensive position, which would be very difficult to dislodge.
Lee suggested to Ewell that Cemetery ridge be taken if it was “practicable" Ewell decided it was not and did not even attempt to take it. Despite the urging of his subordinates Ewell refused. Thus passed one of the greatest opportunities the Confederates had to decide the battle very early on.
Over on the Union side General Hancock had arrived and taken command from General Howard. He was able to calm everybody down and it was he who determined that they were in an excellent defensive position. They would stay right where they were and fight this battle.