The first week in July is usually remembered for the creation of America. And with very good cause. But the first week in July is not just the birth of the United States, but it’s saving as well. I don’t mean that the Declaration of Independence is our saving point, but I am referring to the very long weekend of the Fourth of July 87 years later…
The Civil War had been raging or three years, and it seemed to be going badly for the Union. Through in the west, the Army under Ulysses Grant was dong well, they had stalled outside of Vicksburg, often referred to the lynch pin of the south. Lincoln said of Vicksburg: “Vicksburg is the key, the war cannot be won until the key is in our pocket.”
In the East, General Robert E. Lee had bested four Commanding Union Generals (George B. McClellan, Ambrose E. Burnside, John Pope, & Joseph Hooker.) and was now attempting to maneuver into Pennsylvania.
Vicksburg was under siege. For those who don’t know, a siege is an attack and blockade on a fixed position with the intent of reducing it through attrition or assault. In the case of Vicksburg, Grant had made a terrible gamble, cutting his army loose in enemy territory, without his supply lies, and pushed across the Mississippi river and through the back country to arrive surrounding Vicksburg. He had been fighting the campaign since April, and thought it was clearly coming to an end on the front, the newspapers and citizens back home had been waiting for some change, but have been hearing nothing from the west except “Grant’s still outside Vicksburg.”
The Confederate strategy had to change. Lee made the bold assessment and took the long chance (something that had served him well in this war up to this point.) and proposed a new attack. He was going to take his Army of Northern Virginia and invade the north. First they would attack the Capitol of Pennsylvania at Harrisburg, taking the arsenal there, and follow that us with the symbolic attack at Philadelphia, before turning back south and attacking Washington, D.C. from the north.
The Army of the Potomac, under a new commander George Meade, knew abut the move, but were unsure the destination. So they too moved from Virginia into Pennsylvania in an attempt to head them off. Though both sides were aware of each other’s movements by mid June, the two armies didn’t run into each other until July 1st, just south of the town of Gettysburg Pennsylvania.
Confederate Maj. Gen. Henry Heth had moved a brigade under Gen. Pettigrew into the town to gather supplies, particularly the cash of badly needed shoes that were said to be in the town. Union Calvary Commander Brig. Gen. John Buford dismounted his divisions and posted them along three ridges just west of the town. So when Pettigrew came out of the town, the ran into Union Calvary with repeating carbine riffles. The problem was, The union army wasn’t all up yet. The confederates were just up the road, while the rest of the union army was still nearly a days march away. Buford sent back word to his Corps Commander John Reynolds, and he brought up the first army corps on the double time. Unfortunately this wasn’t enough. The Northern position, started to wane, and eventually collapsed. (Particularly when John Reynolds was shot and killed while telling his men to push forward.) and the confederates pushed the Union army back across a large field and the Union took control of some high ground south of the City along what was called Cemetery ridge. (So-called because there was a cemetery, not because of the battle, though it will become a very fitting name.)
July the First ended as a Confederate victory. This was more than just a prelude to the fierce and bloody fighting of the next two days, this first day ranks as the 23rd largest battle of the war. Nearly a quarter of the Meade’s army and a Third of Lee’s was engaged on this day. The casualties are fairly even. Union dead, wounded, and missing was approximately 5,500 men. Confederate losses were about 5,250 men, though confederate records are harder to determine because most of their records were badly kept or destroyed.
Check back tomorrow for day 2. And if you are interested, I suggest checking out both The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and the film based on it, Gettysburg.