Gettysburg Live 150 – 4:15pm – I Corps is Outflanked

The fighting on Rodes’ front had been going for a few hours with very little to show for it. The Union forces under Brig. General John C. Robinson refused to budge from their position on Seminary Ridge, but the retreat of the XI Corps behind them opened up their right flank and put them at some risk.

150 years ago right now, with the aid of some fresh troops, Maj. General Rodes’ men were finally able to put together a coordinated assault to exploit this weakness. They swept the northern boys from the ridge, and sent them running through town in retreat.

One of the more heroic stories from this part of the battle involves the 16th Maine Infantry, who fought a desperate holding action to cover the retreat of their comrades. They took 241 casualties in the process – almost 81% of their total.

What had started as the withdrawal of the XI Corps from a bad deployment was quickly turning into a disaster for the whole Union army.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 3:00pm – The XI Corps Deploys

Though General Howard arrived a few hours earlier, it took some time for his troops to come off the road in numbers that were large enough to make a difference. While Howard left one division of the XI Corps on Cemetery Hill to form the basis of a fall-back position, the rest were sent north of town to counter the threat from General Ewell’s approaching Confederate Corps.

150 years ago right now, those XI Corps men started forming up. General Schurz’s Division (now under the temporary command of Brig. General Alexander Schimmelfennig) got to the field first, and connected their left with the right of the Union I Corps up on Seminary Ridge, and extended their line to the east, ending at the Carlisle Road. Brig. General Francis Barlow’s Division was responsible for the sector from the Carlisle Road over to the Harrisburg Road.

Barlow had just taken command of the division, and there was bad blood between him and his men. The men of the division saw the young Barlow as a “petty tyrant”. Barlow saw his men as unsoldierly cowards. The XI Corps had a reputation that was earned 2 months before at the Battle of Chancellorsville – the Corps was not well-positioned and was surprised and routed by Jackson’s flank attack. It certainly didn’t help their reputation that the corps was made up of about 50% German immigrants.

With his undersized division in place near the Adams County Almshouse, Barlow surveyed the field in front of him, and saw a small rise that years later would come to be called Barlow’s Knoll. He decided that he needed to hold that little hill, so he moved his division out to it. Making that move meant that he couldn’t effectively cover his whole sector now – his line was stretched too thin.

It didn’t help matters that as soon as he was in position, his division was surprised by the hidden Confederate brigade of Brig. General John Gordon, which had just crossed Rock Creek and started attacking up the hill. It didn’t take much pushing to dislodge the Yankees and send them flying to the rear. Once again, the men of the XI Corps suffered from poor positioning.

When Barlow’s division collapsed, it left Schimmelfennig’s unsupported on it’s right, and thus open to a Confederate flanking maneuver. And that’s exactly what happened. The entire XI Corps line collapsed within the hour, and fled in panic through the town streets – the first of many men to follow.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 2:45pm – Heth Renews the Assault

Now that General Lee has given the OK, Maj. General Henry Heth can move forward and renew his attack against the Union position on McPherson’s ridge. 150 years ago right now, he does just that.

Two of his brigades haven’t yet been engaged: J. Johnston Pettigrew’s and John Brockenbrough’s. These troops – supported on the right by what was left of Archer’s brigade (now under the command of Colonel Birkett Fry), cross Willoughby Run and begin to attack the Union “Iron Brigade“, as well as two other brigades of infantry.

The fighting is fierce, especially between Pettigrew’s men and the “Iron Brigade”. One of Pettigrew’s regiments, the 26th North Carolina Infantry (the largest regiment in either army at Gettysburg), will have a hard time against the 24th Michigan Infantry of the “Iron Brigade” (the largest regiment on the Union side at Gettysburg). When the fighting on McPherson’s Ridge is done, the 800 men of the 26th NC will have suffered 588 casualties, while the 496 men of the 24th MI will take 363 losses – both units lost more than 73% of their number.

The fighting lasted for about 45 minutes. Poor coordination among the Union units, and overwhelming Confederate numbers led to a hasty withdrawal for the U.S. troops to a fall-back position on Seminary Ridge.

That position wouldn’t last much more than half an hour though, due to the fresh division of Maj. General Dorsey Pender joining the assault, and the retreat of the Union troops under Brig. General Robinson on the right flank that we’ll explore further in an upcoming post.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 2:30pm – General Lee Arrives

150 years ago right now, General Robert E. Lee finally makes his appearance on the battlefield west of Gettysburg.

Realizing that an attack is already underway from General Ewell’s Corps to the north, Lee gives the go-ahead for General Hill’s Corps – now including the newly-arrived division of Maj. General Dorsey Pender – to renew their attacks against the Union position on McPherson’s Ridge. It wouldn’t take long for them to comply.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 1:45pm – Rodes’ Division Arrives

The Confederate troops coming in from the north that General Howard was so concerned about were from Lt. General Richard Ewell’s Corps.

The first of these men on the field were Maj. General Robert RodesDivision, arriving 150 years ago right now. They take up a position on Oak Hill, in a perfect place to flank the right side of the Union I Corps‘ line.

Seizing the opportunity, Rodes orders his men to attack, but his subordinates don’t coordinate their movements with each other. Two of the brigade commanders – Iverson and O’Neal – don’t even bother to lead their men, and the assault is repulsed. Iverson’s brigade is pretty thoroughly destroyed in the process, and the area where his men are slaughtered is now know as “Iverson’s Pits” and is one of the areas of the Gettysburg battlefield that is said to be haunted.

For the next several hours, the Confederates will send multiple attacks at the Union position on Seminary Ridge without success. It isn’t until General Lee arrives and the attacks become coordinated and well-supported that the tide turns for the southerners.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 11:00am – General Archer is Captured

The fighting on McPherson’s Ridge has been heavy, but by now (150 years ago, of course) a lull has begun to settle in on the battlefield.

More than half of Archer’s men become casualties in the fight, and nearly 400 of them are captured, including Archer himself. 150 years ago right now, Brig. General James Archer earned the distinction of being the first General from the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to be captured in battle.

The fighting near the railroad cut will stop about 15 minutes later, and Heth will realize that he’s bitten off more than he can chew here. All the Confederate Generals have been given the same orders – avoid a battle until the whole army is formed and ready. Heth knows that he just went against those orders and started a battle all by himself. Instead of pressing his whole division into combat and potentially making things worse, he decides that he needs to wait for General Lee to arrive on the field before he makes another move.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 10:30am – General Howard Arrives

As General Reynolds had requested that morning, Maj. General Oliver O. Howard brought his XI Corps to Gettysburg as quickly as he could.

Right about now, 150 years ago, Howard himself arrived in town and immediately sought out a building to use as an observation point, so that he could figure out where the fighting was happening and how best to deploy his troops. He had sent messengers off to find General Reynolds and figure out what the plan was.

Standing on the roof of the Fahnestock Building around 11:30am, he saw a messenger riding toward him from Seminary Ridge. The rider brought the grim news that Reynolds had been killed and that Howard was now the ranking officer on the field.

Howard turned command of the XI Corps over to General Carl Schurz, directing him to place his men to cover the roads north of town. Howard also set up a headquarters on Cemetery Hill, hoping to hold that ground as a fallback position in case they were overwhelmed by the unknown number of Confederates that were streaming in from the west and now from the north, too.

This would prove to be a very wise move.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 10:15am – Confederate Attack Repulsed

All morning, General Heth has been trying to bring up more of his men, and form them into battle lines to overwhelm the Union position. By now (150 years ago, of course) he has 2 of his 4 brigades formed – Davis’ on the north side of the Chambersburg Pike, and Archer’s on the south side. Now, they begin their main assault.

Davis’ men make some progress against Cutler’s brigade near the railroad cut. Cutler is forced to withdraw most of his overwhelmed men to a position on Seminary Ridge. The gains are short-lived though, as the remaining part of Cutler’s men, along with help from the 6th Wisconsin Infantry of the “Iron Brigade” is able to flank Davis and force his men into an unfinished railroad cut that quickly becomes a trap many of them won’t escape from.

On the Confederate right, things are looking much better. Archer’s brigade is so large and well-positioned, that Archer realizes he can flank and completely envelope Cutler’s left. The Union troops will have no choice but to retreat in disarray. Archer swings his men to the south, and turns northeast to begin the maneuver, crossing over Willoughby Run and entering Herbst Woods.

And then, the unexpected happens.

On Archer’s right, charging down the hillside of McPherson’s Ridge in line of battle, is the bulk of the newly-arrived Union “Iron Brigade” (minus the 6th WI, of course). They slam into Archer’s right flank and completely de-rail his attack. Archer’s men will struggle in vain to maintain their momentum.

The Death of General Reynolds. Illustration by Alfred Waud available at the Library of Congress.
The Death of General Reynolds. Illustration by Alfred Waud available at the Library of Congress.

In the course of ordering the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry into position at the eastern edge of Herbst Woods, General Reynolds is shot in the back of the neck by a Confederate ball. He is killed instantly. Before the major fighting has even begun, Maj. General John Reynolds becomes the highest-ranking man to be killed at Gettysburg.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 9:30am – Union Infantry Arrives

For 4 hours, Buford’s men have fought a drawn-out holding action against skirmishers from Archer’s infantry brigade. The Confederates didn’t expect much resistance, so they had not fully deployed in a battle formation. Doing so would take a lot of time.

General Heth started to realize that this was not (as he had assumed) a group of militia men that he could just brush aside. He ordered Brig. General Archer to deploy his whole brigade, and just a little later, ordered Brig. General Davis to bring his men into line as well. That should be enough to dislodge the Federals, he thought.

Little did he know that more Union troops were on the way, and 150 years ago right now, the first of those men began to arrive on McPherson’s Ridge west of Gettysburg. A brigade of Union infantry and some artillery under the command of Brig. General Lysander Cutler fell in next to Buford’s men and prepared to repulse the advancing Confederates.