Battlelines: Gettysburg: Day 1, July 1, 1863

July 1, 2016 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: Battlelines, books, Civil War.

Once again, we are sharing a post with the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable.

Note: The annual anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg is this weekend. To commemorate that, we are posting, with permission, excerpts from Battlelines: Gettysburg, that describe aspects of the battle. Battlelines: Gettysburg contains the battlefield drawings of Alfred Waud and Edwin Forbes, the only two artists who witnessed the battle.

Lee had wanted to avoid any major engagements with Union forces until he could determine where they were and could choose a battleground that would give his smaller force an advantage. But, as often happens, the plans of the generals dissipate into the realities of the battlefield.

Early on July 1, Confederate generals Henry Heth and William Pender rode with their forces down the Chambersburg Road toward Gettysburg in order to drive Union forces out of the town. They did not expect to encounter much resistance. Instead, they found Union General John Buford’s division of Federal cavalry about three miles northwest of Gettysburg. That division had no intention of being moved, at least not without a fight.

Heth committed his lines to the fight, and Buford’s lines stiffened. The battle was joined.

Alfred Waud's drawing of the seminary near Gettysburg.
Alfred Waud’s drawing of the seminary near Gettysburg.

In this initial battle, the Confederates had the advantage in numbers and position, and the Union forces gradually dropped back. General John Reynolds, hearing that the battle was unfolding, brought his brigades up to join the Union lines on ground known as McPherson’s Ridge. As the fighting began to intensify, Reynolds commanded the lines from his horse and was hit by a bullet at the base of his skull. He died instantly.

The death of Gen. John Reynolds was captured by Alfred Waud. Reynolds died early on the first day of the battle, but his actions set up three days of fierce action between the two armies.
The death of Gen. John Reynolds was captured by Alfred Waud. Reynolds died early on the first day of the battle, but his actions set up three days of fierce action between the two armies.

By noon, a lull had settled over the field. Each side was reinforcing itself and waiting on the next move of the enemy. Inadvertently, the Union forces had committed themselves to defending Gettysburg; just as inadvertently, the Confederates became committed to its capture.

Lee arrived that afternoon, and one by one Confederate divisions resumed their attacks on various parts of the Union lines. Sometime after 4 p.m., the Union line around the west and north of Gettysburg cracked, and the Confederates drove the Federal troops through the town to Cemetery Hill to the south of the village. A hour later, Lee told General Richard Ewell to take Cemetery Hill “if practicable.” Ewell accessed the situation and felt like he needed reinforcements to do that, but no reinforcements came forward. He decided to end the day’s fighting.

As it stood at that moment, the Confederates had won. They had drive off Union forces from ground they had tried to hold for most of the day. They had suffered about 6,500 casualties compared to the Union’s 9,000. The Confederates could have withdrawn at that point, declared victory and chosen another time and place to fight. They did not.

The Union forces also could have withdrawn. General Meade did not arrive in Gettysburg until the fighting was over for the day. What he found was his forces exhausted and beaten up but not beaten. They held the high ground. Like Lee, he could have chosen to withdraw and fight elsewhere. But after meeting with his commanders, he chose to stay in place. If Lee chose to bring the fight to him, he would be there to receive it.

Battlelines Gettysburg: Civil War Sketch Artists and the First Draft of War
Battlelines Gettysburg: Civil War Sketch Artists and the First Draft of War

Battlelines: Gettysburg displays many never-before-published drawings of the professional artists who saw the war as eye-witnesses — the sketch artists known as Specials by publications of the time, such as Harper’s Weekly. Almost nowhere among the vast array of photographs related to the Civil War is a picture of a battle. That’s because, of course, photography at the time was limited to that which was stationary. Civil War sketch artists had no such limitation. They could move quickly, go to the scene of the action, draw and interpret of what they, and communicate that to their viewers. They provided an important and vital record of what happened on and off the battlefields of the conflict. Yet the work of these men — about 30 in all — has been largely ignored for the past century and a half. We are familiar with few of their names, and we rarely see their original work. This series, Battlelines, hopes to correct that. More importantly, we have produced this series with the hope of bringing the interested reader fresh insights into America’s defining conflict.

Previously from Battlelines:

The Road to Gettysburg

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