I would call it an ominous beginning. Under a cold drizzle in the predawn darkness of Wednesday, 1 July, 1863, the 7,000 veterans of 38 year old Major General Henry Heth's - pronounced “Heath” - division were roused from an uneasy sleep along the Chanbersburg Pike. The men in the ranks knew the enemy was nearby. They expected that some of them would be dead by noon, and that more would suffer the limited skills of the surgeons But who among their ranks would bleed this day, and which of them were witnessing their last sunrise they could not know. Still, they rose and ate their rude breakfasts, packed their meager belongings and formed up for the 7 mile march to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. They were brave men fighting for an evil cause.
The day before, Tuesday 30 June, 1863, the 1st brigade under 35 year old Brigadier General James Johnson Pettigrew (above) had spotted blue clad cavalry just entering the town. Following General Lee's orders to “Avoid all contact with the enemy until the entire army has arrived”, Pettigrew immediately withdrew back to Cashtown and reported the Yankee's presence.
Pettigrew suspected the Yankee horsemen were regulars. But his commander, the ambitious and charming Henry Heth (above), did not believe him. The story Heth later told was that his Corps commander, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill, had assured him, “ The only force at Gettysburg is cavalry...the enemy are still (in Maryland)...and have not yet struck their tents.” In response General Heth claimed to have said, “Then, if there is no objection, I will take my division tomorrow and go to Gettysburg and get those shoes...Hill replied, “None in the world.”
This myth did not appear until 25 years after the war, in an article written by Heth. It was not so much a lie as a storyteller's invention, like Helen of Troy. There were no shoes in Gettysburg. Jubal Early's division had marched through Gettysburg the week before, Jenkin's cavalry too. They had stripped the town's businesses of most everything of use. And no one even mentioned shoes and Gettysburg in the same sentence until Henry Heth, a quarter of a century later. No veteran in the Army of Northern Virginia marched 140 miles into Pennsylvania on bare feet. We might as well believe they marched into battle already wounded. We have no photo's of either prisoners or war dead (above) without shoes. A soldier may want newer, better fitting shoes, but the barefoot rebel is a myth created to justify Henry Heth ignoring orders to “avoid all contact”. And the myth does a disservice to the men who followed Henry Heth down that road.
The truth was that Henry Heth was one of Lee's favorites, the only staff officer the aristocratic Lee ever called by his first name. Having served Lee's early in the war, Heth had been transferred to East Tennesee for a year, where he proved himself a brave field commander. Returning to the Army of Northern Virginia in the spring of 1863, Heth's aggressiveness, almost to the point of insubordination, mirrored his mentor's nature, and endeared him to General Lee.
That Wednesday morning, A.P. Hill ordered a 2 division “reconnaissance in force”, and Heth volunteered his division to lead the march. And the unit General Heth picked for point was the 1,200 man brigade – 3 Tennessee and 2 Alabama regiments - commanded by his “Little Gamecock” - the 45 year old irascible Marylander Brigadier General James Jay Archer (above).
Second in line was the 2,000 man brigade – 3 Mississippi and 2 North Carolina regiments – under Brigadier General Joseph Robert Davis. Then came the understrength 2nd Brigade of 4 Virginia regiments, about 800 men under 33 year old Colonel John Brockenbrough. And finally, punished by being regulated to the rear of Heth's division, was the largest brigade in the entire Confederate Army, the 2,500 men - in 4 North Carolina regiments – under the scholar and plantation owner, Brigadier General James Pettigrew. With his weight in his tail, it appears General Heth anticipated brushing aside the militia cavalry like annoying flies. Taking to the Chambersburg turnpike (above) about 2 hours behind Archer's brigade were the 6,700 man North Carolina division under 29 year old strict disciplinarian, Major General William Dorsey Pender.
Stepping off at about 6:00am, Archer's brigade moved at a route march – about 2 miles an hour - down the slope from Cashtown Pass toward Gettysburg. About 4 miles west of town – making it about 7:30am - the first shot was fired from atop Herr Ridge at the First Tennessee brigade, perhaps even at 25 year old Major
Felix Grundy Buchanan. He threw his 281 men into a skirmish line along the road. But the outnumbered enemy pickets, armed with faster firing carbines, held their ground. So Heth was forced to throw his division into a line of battle on both sides of the Chambersburg Pike. But that took time.
First each regiment of Archer's 1,200 man brigade had to march in column to the head of the line of march. Then they “wheeled column left march” into the open ground south of the Pike. Each regiment then “double left oblique (marched) until they reached their position in the line of battle, when they FRONT, shouldering arms and dressing up...” And as soon as Archer's brigade had cleared the road, Davis' 2,000 man brigade had to do the same on the north side of the Chambersburg Pike. These were largely veterans, who had spent endless hours drilling these very maneuvers, but still it took time. And with the road finally cleared, Brockenbrough's half sized brigade came forward to occupy the center of the position
The push up Herr Ridge finally began shortly after 8:00 that misty Wednesday morning. And with the advance of 3,000 men, the blue clad skirmishers grudgingly began to fall back – but not before their skill and tenacity convinced the rebels that these were not militia, but Federal regulars. Major General Heth remained unconvinced, but he used posession of Herr Ridge to spread Lieutenant Colonel John Garnett's 4 batteries of artillery along the high ground to provide support for his men, as they decended the steep eastern face of the ridge into the tangle of wood along Willoughby Run.
The first shot from Garnett's guns brought accurate return shots from Federal cannon. This caused the advance to pause. Frustrated, Heth ordered his two brigades to push across the creek and up the next slope – McPherson's Ridge. This order brought General Archer to seek out his superior on the battlefield, where Heth's “Gamecock” urged caution. Might it not be better to bring forward Pettigrew's large brigade, to extend his line, before Archer or Davis sent their troops across the creek? The weight of Lee's orders to “Avoid all contact” could be felt in Archer's hesitancy.
But Heth's temper was now up. This was taking too much time. He was still convoinced what he faced was militia. The Federal Army was still camped in Maryland, and not within a 2 day march from this place. And every suggestion he was mistaken, made him angrier. The delay was uncessecary, uncalled for, unacceptable. General Heth ordered Archer and Davis to not only cross Willoughby Run and the valley, but capture the crest of McPherson's ridge as well.
Henry Heth would write in his after action report, “It may not be improper to remark that at this time--9 o'clock on the morning of July 1--I was ignorant what force was at or near Gettysburg, and supposed it consisted of cavalry, most probably supported by a brigade or two of infantry. On reaching the summit of the second ridge of hills west of Gettysburg, it became evident that there were infantry, cavalry, and artillery in and around the town. A few shots from...Marye's battery) scattered the cavalry vedettes...” In point of fact, it did not. No Federal cavalry pickets (vedettes) anywhere on the Gettysburg battlefield scattered. They all withdrew as the trained, veteran soldiers they were.
Three miles to the east, in the high cupola of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, Brigadier General John Buford was watching the battle at Herr and McPherson ridges develop just as he had intended. In his after action report he wrote that “Colonel (William) Gamble made an admirable line of battle....we having the advantage of position, he (Heth) of numbers. The First Brigade held its own for more than two hours, and had to be literally dragged back a few hundred yards to a position more secure and better sheltered.” At which point, Buford orderd his Second Battalion under Colonel Thomas Casimer Devin, to extend the battle line along the east side of Willoughby Run.
Buford knew he could not stop a rebel infantry division. And he knew that he was asking his men to sacrifice their bodies and their lives by standing in Heth's way this morning. But he knew it was worth the sacrifice because he knew, close behind him, was the First Crops of the Army of the Potomac, under Major General John Reynolds. And because the position Buford was defending by resisting at Herr Ridge was not Herr ridge, nor McPherson Ridge, nor even Seminary Ridge. The position Buford was defending at Herr Ridge was 4 miles to the west - the higher Cemetary Ridge.
Just after 9:00am, Wednesday 1 July, The Federal commanders knew the ground they were asking their men to defend. The rebel officers, like Henry Heth, had at best a hazy idea of the ground they were asking their men to die for.