Saturday, July 01, 2006

“Them Damned Black Hats Again!”

July 1, 1863. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Morning.

Major General Henry “Harry” Heth was anxious to get his men going in the pre-dawn hours of July 1. Camped along the Chambersburg Road near Cashtown, his force for the morning’s march to Gettysburg would use only two of his brigades, Archer’s and that of Joseph Davis, totaling about 3,000 men. Behind them would come an additional 3,500 men in Brockenborough’s and Pettigrew’s Brigades. At the head of Heth’s column was young Major Willie Pegram’s Artillery battalion, five batteries – twenty guns in all, and 400 men. This unusual line of march was through admitted carelessness on the part of Heth. The infantry should have been in the lead.

[In the Confederate Army, the standard artillery battery was four guns, in two sections of two guns. In the Union Army, the standard arrangement was six guns, in three sections of two guns. There were exceptions, and in many Confederate batteries, gun types were often mixed, Napoleons, Howitzers, etc. This was also true in the Union Artillery, though not nearly to the extent of the Confederates. Each gun would generally have a team of horses to pull the gun and a limber chest, and another team to pull linked caissons full of ammunition and powder.]

As the artillery followed by Archer’s and Davis’s infantry filed down the road toward Gettysburg, they passed the bivouac of Brigadier General J, Johnston Pettigrew about two miles west of Marsh Creek, where it had stopped the day before after turning back from Gettysburg. As the last of Davis’s Mississippians filed past, Pettigrew ordered his men to join the march. Back in Cashtown, Brockenbrough Brigade finally got on the road.

Just days ago Major General John Fulton Reynolds of nearby Lancaster, Pennsylvania, had been offered command of the Army of the Potomac by President Lincoln. The popular and capable officer was the senior officer left after Hooker was relieved of the command. But Reynolds prevailed upon the President to allow him to remain in Field Command, to be with the troops. Lincoln then asked who Reynolds would recommend, and he replied that George Meade, of Philadelphia would be his choice. Steady, and a tough fighter, Meade, commanding the 5th Corps, had broken through Stonewall Jackson’s lines at the Battle of Fredericksburg the previous December. Lacking support on his flanks, and lacking a second wave of troops from reserves behind him, Meade was forced to fight his way back out of his salient.

And so it was that on this morning Reynolds was awakened early at his overnight Headquarters in Moritz Tavern by a messenger from the new Commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General George G. Meade. The message contained marching orders for the entire army, all to proceed via various routes to eventually concentrate on Gettysburg.

Reynolds, commanding the 1st Corps, and in charge of the left wing of the army (his own 1st Corps and the 3rd and 11th Corps), would lead the way, marching straight up the Emmitsburg Pike.

Brigadier General John Buford had placed his vedettes (small units of cavalry posted in advance of their own lines) forward across Willoughby Run about a mile west of Herr’s Ridge. His two brigades of cavalry were dismounted and waiting behind a fence on McPherson’s Ridge, waiting for the Confederates to come marching down the Chambersburg Pike into their waiting lines. The stiff and sturdy five rail fences on either side of the road would force the Confederates to advance up the road in a tight column. Once under fire, it would take them a while to knock down the fences and spread out in any sort of line of battle to confront Buford’s men. During that whole time, the 2,000 men of Buford’s two brigades that were on the line would be pouring in a rapid fire using their breech-loading rifles.

[Cavalry generally carried carbines and the Sharps or other varieties were much easier to load and fire than the muzzle loading rifles of the infantry. They could put out as much as 3-5 times the rate of fire as a muzzle loaded weapon. The troopers, fighting in Dragoon style (ride to battle, fight dismounted) were reduced numbers because every fourth man, nearly 700 in Buford’s division, would be in the rear holding his own horse and those of three other men.]

It was not long before the vedettes began firing on the advancing Confederate skirmishers. The fight was soon on in earnest. Starting about 8:00 AM, the Confederate artillery under Major Pegram spread out along Herr’s Ridge just above Willoughby Run, and began firing on Buford’s men, and the four guns of Calef’s Battery located on either side of the Chambersburg Pike at the crest of McPherson’s Ridge, and the other two guns of his battery located at the corner of the McPherson barn.

Buford was at the front line, encouraging his men, and directing the defense. Heth sent Archer to his right, and Davis to his left, and ordered them to break through. The cavalry held them off. For the next hour and a half it was a slugfest of almost toe-to-toe combat, sometimes a mere fifteen yards separated the ranks of blue and gray. Several times, during a lull in the action, Buford went to the Seminary and climbed the stairs and ladders into the cupola on the roof, where he would first search the southwest for signs of Reynolds and his First Corps infantry.

About 10:30 Buford spotted the line of blue snaking its way cross country toward the Seminary, and the relief of his men.

Shortly thereafter, Reynolds rode up with his staff. He shouted up to Buford in the cupola, “What’s the matter John?”

Buford responded, “There’s the Devil to pay!”

“Let’s go take a look,” replied Reynolds. Buford began his climb to the ground, and the men then rode the quarter mile to where Gamble’s Brigade was having a tough time holding his ground. Returning to the Seminary after Reynolds was well satisfied at what Buford had mapped out and was carrying out, the two men greeted the First Brigade, First Division, First Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the fabled Iron Brigade. Hastening forward at the double quick, Reynolds directed them into Herbst’s woodlot south of the Chambersburg Pike, and south of the McPherson Farm, where Gamble’s boys were about to be outflanked by Archer’s Brigade.

Brigadier General James Archer lined his men up in a meadow on the west bank of Willoughby Run, and ordered them forward across the small stream and up into the woodlot belonging to the Herbst Farm. After climbing the steep east bank, the men from Tennessee and Alabama advanced through the woods. Suddenly, there was shouting all along the line, “Yanks!”, and after a minute, the word was passed down the line, “It’s them damned ‘Black Hats’ again!”. They were referring to the distinctive tall black hats by the Midwesterners of the Iron Brigade. Firing rippled up and down the line. Somewhere in the woods, a marksman took aim on a prominent target…

John Fulton Reynolds was urging his men on into the woods, moving with them as they began to engage Archer’s men. Suddenly, the shooting flared up as the two units became engaged. Riding along with the ranks of Black Hats, Reynolds shouted out, “Forward! For God’s Sake Forward! Suddenly he lurched from the saddle, dead as he hit the ground, from a shot that struck him behind his ear. The men of the Iron Brigade pressed forward, driving the Tennessee regiments back through the woods and down the hill to the stream. Still they pressed forward, until the men of Archer’s Brigade fell exhausted in the field where they had formed up. The Iron Brigade members encircled them and took them prisoner, including James Archer.

Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes was in temporary command of the Sixth Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. At the moment, the Sixth was being held as the reserve of the Iron Brigade, and was idle along the south side of the Chambersburg pike. Suddenly, the regiment came under fire from somewhere on the north side of the road. A quick check revealed that the enemy had gotten into the sunken roadbed of an under construction railroad about 200 yards north of their position. Ahead of Dawes and the 6th Wisconsin were two regimens from the brigade of Brigadier General Lysander Cutler, the 14th Brooklyn (84th New York Regiment), and the 95th New York.

In concert with each other even though they were from two separate brigades, the three regiments turned to form a line of battle facing north on the south side of the road. They began to advance, climbing the five-rail fence on the south side. As they hovered at the top of the fence, swinging their legs to the other side, men began to fall, hit by fire from the enemy regiments in the railroad cut. They pressed on. Across the road, they climbed the fence, again hovering at the top, this time taking more hits, as the enemy kept up its fire. Once over the fence on the north side of the road, they men took a moment to dress their ranks, and then raced forward to the edge of the cut. In a wild melee, they poured fire down on the men in the railroad cut, most of whom were getting out on the other side and running for the trees three hundred yards to the northwest.

Suddenly it was over. Dawes received the colors of the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment and the swords of six of their officers. When the survivors of the 2nd returned to Herr’s Ridge, they numbered about 18 men. [They were given a fresh set of colors the next day and continued to fight as the 2nd Mississippi.]

For the next two hours, there was little fighting. In the early afternoon that would change. But while the two sides regrouped and caught their breath, the Union still held the ground west and north of town [where the 11th Corps was formed in a line that stretched across the valley north of the town and the college.

Novus Livy

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