Friday, June 30, 2006

“Fight Like the Devil”

June 30, 1863, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The sight that greeted Sarah Broadhead as she looked out her window on the west side of Gettysburg on the morning of June 30th, 1863 caused her to draw a sharp breath. There had been rumors, but the view of the Seminary and the ridge on which it stands was complicated by a large group of men, and the Confederate flags they were carrying. She would later write, “We had a good view of them from our house, and every moment we expected to hear the booming of cannon, and thought they might shell the town. As it turned out they were only reconnoitering.” She was looking at three North Carolina Infantry Regiments, some 1,800 men constituting most of a brigade under the command of Brigadier General James Johnston Pettigrew. Pettigrew, the highly educated and well lettered graduate of the University of North Carolina was the pride of his state.

Ordered forward on a supply gathering expedition, Pettigrew and his staff were anxiously searching the town and its environs for signs of Union troops. Numerous civilians questioned as to the presence of Union troops in the area gave a variety of answers, most of them based on rumors, but one thing became evident: there were many Union troops close by. It did not take long for their field glasses and telescopes to find the body of blue moving towards town from the south on the Emmitsburg Road. Mistaking a column of cavalry for infantry, Pettigrew turned his column around, 3 regiments of infantry, an artillery battery, and 27 empty wagons that were to have hauled the shoes, hats, and food back to their divisional camp near Cashtown on South Mountain. Instead, they returned almost empty-handed.

On his return to Cashtown, Pettigrew reported to his superior, Henry J. Heth, that there were large bodies of troops in and around Gettysburg and more were arriving all the time. Heth took Pettigrew to see their Corps Commander, General Ambrose Powell Hill. Neither Hill, nor Heth believed the report. Both graduates of the United States Military Academy, they had a disdain for the civilian soldier’s abilities, and Pettigrew was just that. Even though he was a battle-tested, wounded veteran of many engagements who had fought his regiments well, he was, and always would be, a civilian soldier, and not “one of them”, an Academy graduate. Hill and Heth graduated from West Point in the same class, 1847. Hill was 15th in his class of 38, and Heth was dead last. It did not matter. Heth was the nephew of General Robert E. Lee.

[Heth’s Division was not the advanced element of the Army of Northern Virginia, as that honor belonged to Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps, which passed through Gettysburg a week earlier on its way to York, and then north to Harrisburg. But Hill’s Third Corps was the lead of the main body of Lee’s army, which included Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps, still situated in the Cumberland Valley west of Hill’s advanced position at Cashtown.]

In a similar predicament to Pettigrew’s were his fellow brigade commanders in Heth’s Division. Brigadier General James J. Archer was a Mexican War veteran who joined the US Army before the war, and now commanded a brigade of Tennessee and Alabama troops. As such, he was a notch above Pettigrew professionally, as was Colonel John M. Brockenbrough, who was a graduate of Virginia Military Institute. Not so the fourth brigade commander under Heth, Brigadier General Joseph R. Davis, the nephew of Confederate General Jefferson Davis, and a pre-war politician in Mississippi.

[It was the same in the Union Army. Political and civilian officers were awarded commissions early in the war usually for raising a regiment, or at least a company. Major political figures such as Benjamin Butler, a Massachusetts Democrat, and his political and law student, Daniel Sickles, commander of the Third Corps, Army of the Potomac, and a key figure in the Battle of Gettysburg were exceptions to the rule. For the most part, the war was taken over by 1863 by the West Point graduates, and the civilian and political generals were relegated to side areas, or out of the army altogether. The West Point officers on both sides generally were much better all around officers, and had made the learning transition on maneuver and logistics concerning large armies, as the prewar US Army in which they served had, at most, 20,000 men…the size of a medium sized Civil War brigade.]

Pettigrew’s report was disbelieved. When forwarded to Lee, the report was also disbelieved based on the intelligence information Lee had at the time. Even so, the cautious Lee ordered Hill to advance on Gettysburg the next day and “feel” for the enemy. He was ordered not to bring on a general engagement. Hill ordered Heth to undertake the task and passed on Lee’s admonition to avoid spurring a large fight.

John Buford, Brigadier General, West Point ’48, commanding officer of the First Division, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac, led his men up the Emmitsburg Road from Maryland into Pennsylvania and a few miles later, Gettysburg in the late morning of June 30. It was Buford’s command that Pettigrew had spotted from a long distance and mistaken them for infantry. At the time, the long column of blue-uniformed troopers may have been dismounted and marching by leading their horses, something cavalry did on the march to give both riders and horses a break while continuing to move.

Buford rode at the head of two of his three brigades. First Brigade, under Colonel William Gamble, comprised of the 8th and 12th Illinois Cavalry, and the 3rd Indiana, and 8th New York, was with him, as was the Second Brigade, under the feisty Colonel Thomas Devin. Devin commanded the 6th and 9th New York Cavalry, the 3rd West Virginia, and the 17th Pennsylvania. Buford’s Reserve Brigade, under newly promoted Brigadier General Wesley Merritt was left south of the area guarding the southwestern approaches to Gettysburg.

[Merritt, along with Elon J. Farnsworth, was promoted from Captain to Brigadier General (skipping Major, Lieutenant Colonel, and Colonel!) two days earlier in a last minute reorganization of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac by Major General Alfred Pleasonton, Corps Commander. Along with Merritt and Farnsworth, a young First Lieutenant was also springboarded to Brigadier General, and given command of the Michigan Brigade in Judson Kilpatrick’s Third Division of the Cavalry Corps. His name was George Armstrong Custer, last in his West Point class of 1861 in everything but equitation.]

Riding through Gettysburg just before noon Buford’s troopers were serenaded by the people of the town, particularly the young ladies and children. Showered with patriotic songs, some stopped to have flowers pinned on their dusty coats.

[These men were no longer the laughingstock of the Army. In the first two years of the war, the Union Cavalry had been ill used, poorly commanded, and severely abused when they came in contact with Major General James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart’s Cavalry Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. In fact, an early war sentiment among the infantry was that “nobody ever saw a dead cavalryman.” But recently, with better commanders of the Army of the Potomac, and with a Corps Commander who excelled at the administrative side of running a cavalry unit, the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps distinguished themselves in battles along the gaps and passes leading into the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, and at such places as Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville. Finally, a surprise attack launched by Army Commander Joseph Hooker on June 9th caught Stuart at a very vulnerable moment. Attacking across the Rappahannock River while Stuart was conducting a grand review for General Lee and assorted visiting dignitaries, Pleasonton’s forces, backed up by a corps of infantry interrupted the review and fought a series of pitched battles around a place called Brandy Station. Eventually Pleasonton grew timid and withdrew his forces back across the river, but not before serving notice that his cavalry had matured into an outstanding fighting unit capable of standing toe-to-toe with the vaunted Stuart. It was a lesson that was ignored by Stuart and Lee, and thus to be repeated throughout the Gettysburg Campaign.]

Buford moved his men through town ordering Devin to bivouac his brigade north of the college in the open fields above town, and Gamble to set up his brigade camp west of the Seminary on the Chambersburg Pike.

Buford’s long years of experience as an Indian fighter out west before the war had taught him to be an excellent judge of terrain. Indeed, he was the man who initially decided the opening strategy of the Battle of Gettysburg, and how it would eventually play out. He reasoned that if he could hold the Confederates off west of town long enough for the Infantry to arrive and occupy the high ground southeast of town, he would have accomplished his goal and given the Infantry a large advantage in high ground, well suited for defensive positions, from Culp’s Hill, north around the upper reach of Cemetery Hill, and then south along the west side of Cemetery Hill and down Cemetery Ridge. He would need help, however, and later that evening he sat down near the Lutheran Seminary and wrote a letter to Union First Corps Commander Major General John Fulton Reynolds, telling him just that.

James Ewell Brown “JEB” Stuart, 13th of 46 in his West Point class of 1854, where he was first exposed to Robert E. Lee. Lee was superintendent of the Military Academy, and Stuart was one of his prize cadets. Later, in 1859, after a few years fighting Indians out west, and dealing with the unrest in ‘Bleeding Kansas’ Stuart acted as Colonel Robert E. Lee’s aide during the suppression of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

At the start of the Civil War, Stuart, a young Virginian with piercing dark eyes and a large beard, was commissioned a Captain of Virginia Cavalry. In little more than a year he was promoted to Major General commanding the Confederate Cavalry Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Stuart’s early war exploits after taking command are legendary. He led his entire command unhindered on rides around the Army of the Potomac – twice! He was a skilled commander, and a trusted officer serving under his old mentor, Lee. At the Battle of Chancellorsville, he temporarily took command of Stonewall Jackson’s Second Corps after Jackson was wounded by friendly fire. He fought Jackson’s men with skill the next day. By the time of the Gettysburg Campaign his reputation as a dashing and daring commander was encased in the lore of the South. It was about to come undone.

Ordered by Lee to screen the movement of the Army of Northern Virginia north into Pennsylvania, Stuart proceeded to go on an extensive raid through Maryland, capturing several large wagon trains full of food and supplies belonging to the Army of the Potomac. These wagon trains seriously slowed his movements north and he lost touch with the Infantry he was supposed to be screening.

Late in June, he found his route north into Pennsylvania at Littlestown blocked by Union Cavalry (Kilpatrick), which forced him to move east to Hanover, in southern York County, just above the Mason Dixon Line.

As Stuart was heading toward Hanover, intent on occupying the town, some of his units were skirmishing with Union Cavalry – elements of the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry, stationed on a line southwest of Hanover and northward, screening the town from any advance on it by Stuart. The 18th was struck by two regiments of Stuart’s cavalry in two separate places, sending them reeling back through Hanover. Stuart then entered the town along with his advanced units (Chambliss’ Brigade) and some of his Horse Artillery, which he quickly got into play by targeting the retreating 18th Pennsylvania.

As this was occurring, more Union Cavalry under newly promoted Brigadier General Elon J. Farnsworth appeared suddenly on a large farm at the south edge of Hanover, and Stuart moved to attack. Nearly surrounded, Stuart made his escape by riding his horse like a steeplechase, leaping the hedgerows that divided up the fields, and at one point leaping a 15 foot ditch. Regrouping in town, he awaited developments. Farnsworth moved his forces into town and forced Stuart to withdraw to the west and south.

Judson Kilpatrick heard the sounds of the fight and raced south to Hanover. Custer took up a position northwest of town, and in the late afternoon, began an advance on the Brigade of Fitzhugh Lee. Ordering 600 men from the 6th Michigan to dismount, Custer led them through the brush, part way on hands and knees, to get within three hundred yards of the Confederate line and its artillery that was shelling the town. Custer’s men opened up and drove off the cavalry support defending the guns. A second, similar attack followed on and convinced the Confederates that they must disengage and move out to York after darkness fell.

Buford had laid out his plan well. He had Gamble’s Brigade astride the Chambersburg Pike just east of the steep defile through which Willoughby Run flowed. Gamble’s men were in position on the next high ground east of the stream, now called McPherson’s Ridge, so named for the farm that sat on the ridge along the south side of the road. The road itself was lined on both sides with stout five-rail fence, and almost parallel to the road, a sunken railroad bed, still under construction and without rails ran about one to two hundred yards from the road. Devin’s men were formed on Gamble’s right, and extended north to the Mummasburg Road.

When he visited Devin that evening, Devin was in a high mood, and began predicting how easily they would dispense with the Rebels, the next day. Buford rounded on him and angrily exclaimed, “No you won’t! They will attack in the morning and they will come booming—skirmishers three deep. You will have to fight like the Devil to hold your own until supports arrive. The enemy must know the importance of this position and will strain every nerve to secure it, and if we are able to hold it we will do well.”

Novus Livy

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