How the Battle of Gettysburg Worked

Day One

The Battle of Gettysburg lasted three days -- July 1-3, 1863. Each day has a basic highlight:

  • Day One: The Confederate Army arrived and ran into Union cavalry. The Union was driven from the town of Gettysburg to the hills south of town, but the Confederates did not drive the Union troops from the heights.
  • Day Two: Lee attacked the Union position from the left and right sides. Both attacks failed.
  • Day Three: Lee attacked the center of the Union line. The attack failed.

Let's take a look at each day.


Day One

On June 30, Union Maj. Gen. John Buford had arrived with two brigades of cavalry. He spied the Confederate Army's approach from atop a Lutheran seminary. (The Confederates would use the same vantage point a day later.) He sent word to Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, whose corps was about six miles away. Gen. George Meade, who had been given command of the Union army two days earlier, was another six miles behind Reynolds at his headquarters in Taneytown, Md. At dawn on July 1, Buford's cavalry fought Confederates led by Maj. Gen. Henry Heth, who had approached Gettysburg with General Hill to obtain the shoes.

By about 8:30 a.m., the Union cavalry was barely holding on and had retreated to McPherson's Ridge when Reynolds approached with his infantry. Reynolds, considered by many to be the best general in the Union Army, sent word to Meade to send reinforcements. Reynolds himself led his troops to reinforce Buford, but he was killed almost as soon as he arrived on the battlefield. (Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock succeeded him in command of the battle, and the command of Reynolds' corps went to Abner Doubleday, later of baseball fame.)

By noon, the remaining federal forces had to abandon Gettysburg for the hills to the south of town. When the Confederate troops pressed on, they ran into the fierce 1,800-man Iron Brigade, which pushed them back (the Iron Brigade would suffer 1,200 casualties that day). This allowed the Union troops time to amass on Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill outside of town. That afternoon, Heth attacked the southern end of the Union flank, while Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes confronted the northern end. Neither knew how large of a force he was engaging.

At this point, yet another Civil War what-if comes up. This time, it's "What if Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell had pushed?" Ewell is blamed for not aggressively pursuing the Union line on Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill, which left the Union on high ground. There is some controversy over whether Lee had been strong enough in his message to Ewell to take the ground. Some historians say that it's 20/20 hindsight that Ewell could have easily pushed the Union line from the high ground; others say he was too timid.

Either way, Day One of the Battle of Gettysburg ended with the Union on high ground, placed by Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock along Cemetery Ridge north around Culp's Hills. The Confederates suffered nearly 8,000 casualties that day, while the Federals lost 9,000.

Gen. Longstreet arrived on the scene that night and suggested that Lee take the troops north around the Union Army to find high ground on the way to Washington. That way, the Union would have to attack them on ground of their choosing or allow the Confederates to take the capital. Lee refused to disengage the enemy. Longstreet would continue to argue against all of Lee's non-defensive tactics -- and would also possibly disobey his commander's orders.