I think the Army of the Potomac got lucky that muggy Wednesday morning, 1 July, 1863. With the death of the brilliant Lieutenant General John Reynolds, command of all troops in and around Gettysburg dropped onto the pompous puritanical epaulets of the next ranking officer on the battlefield, Major General Oliver Otis Howard (above) .
Known as “The Christian General”, at 32 years of age Howard was an arrogant, xenophobic religious bigot whose incompetence had smashed his own XIth Corps just 2 months earlier, at Chancellorsville (above) The Episcopalian Howard successfully scapegoated his own Lutheran emigrant soldiers for the disaster, and the joke in the rest of the army became - the “Dutchmen” who had once boasted “I fight mit Siegle” - their first commander – now chanted “I run mit Howard.” He called them cowards. And this was the man now in charge of the entire battle.
But this was lucky for the the 9,000 German emigrants of the XI Corps, quick- marching up the Emmitsburg Road. Their command now passed to one of the most amazing men tossed up by the American Civil War – the be-speckled and thoughtful firebrand, Major General Carl Shurz (above). During the 1848 revolution, the teenage Schurz was chased out of his home in the German Kingdom of Hanover. He snuck back into Prussian controlled Germany to break his teacher out of Berlin's Spandau prison. Together they then escaped to Austria. Then Carl moved on to France, then to Britain, and in 1852 to America. He brought to his new country a hatred of slavery, a devotion to civic responsibility and the idea of “Kintergarden” for all children. At about 11:30 that morning, on Cemetery Hill, 70 feet above Gettysburg, Shurz got his orders from the pompous and pugnacious General Howard.
The Federal I Corps, fighting under 41 year old Major General John Newton, seemed to be containing Heth's 5,000 man rebel division along McPherson's Ridge – for now (above). But the rebels were reported moving toward the open right flank, along the Mummesburg road. Howard ordered Shurz to occupy the 600 foot high Oak Hill with the 3,000 men of Shurz's own 3rd. division, now commanded by fellow German born revolutionary 38 year old Brigadier General Alexander Schimmelfennig. He also ordered the 2,400 men of the 1st Division under 28 year old New York born boy-faced Brigadier General Francis Channing Barlow to “...connect with the Third Division” at Oak Hill, and guard the Carlisle Road due north of Gettysburg.
Major General Schurz immediately rode to scout his new position on Oak Hill. He found it loomed over the Mummesburg Road and was perfect for artillery (above).
Unfortunately, while he was gone, Howard ordered the Corps artillery reserve and the remaining troops - the 2,700 men of the 2nd Division under General Adolph von Steoinwehr - to remain atop Cemetery Hill (above), in reserve. From there they would secure the vital hill, but could offer no support to the rest of the XI Corps.
Worse, Shimmelfennig's men did not reach the outskirts of Gettysburg until half passed noon. Their forced march had left them weary, but Shurz immediately led them through town and west on the Mummesburg Road, over Oak Ridge – the northern extension of Seminary Ridge - toward Oak Hill.
But just after 1:00 p.m. Shurz was surprised to find Confederate artillery and infantry already atop the hill (above) and digging in.
The 7,900 men under Major General Robert Emmet Rodes (above) were the advance of Lieutenant General Ewell's rebel III Corps. And by 12:30 p.m., with the 5,000 men of Heth's division south of the Chambersburg Pike, the rebels had 12,000 men on the field, giving them a slight advantage against 10, 000 federal troops on or soon to be on the front line - not counting the XI Corps reserve. And scouts from Colonel Devin's cavalry brigade reported the 5,000 men of Early's division coming down the Carlisle Road. They were expected to reach the battlefield by mid-afternoon. The Army of Northern Virginia was about to repeat by accident their brilliant flank attack at Chancellorsville. Sensing this, Shurz pulled Schimmelfennig's division back to Oak Ridge, and had them dig in. This forced Newton's I Corps, to pull back and dig in a new main line along Seminary Ridge. And Shurz instructed Brigadier General Barlow to extend Shimmelfennig's right flank across the Carlisle road with his 2,400 man division. Everything had to happen in a rush.
Not long after 1:00 p.m. Henry Heth finally threw his strength at McPherson's ridge south of the Chambersburg Pike – The 2,500 man brigade of Brigadier General James Pettigrew (above), along with the remnants of Archer and Davis' brigades. Pettigrew's attack found McPherson's Ridge weakly defended, and continued on up Seminary Ridge, where they ran into the new Federal line. Rushing to join the assault, Major General Rode's hastily threw Brigadier General Alfried Iverson's 1,300 man North Carolina brigade against Oak Ridge. All rebel attacks were thrown back with heavy causalities, in particular Iverson's assault.
Captain Lewis Hicks, related the destruction of his 20th North Carolina regiment. "We carried three hundred in(to) action." A Federal regiment opened fire on the their flank and 15 minutes later the regiment surrendered, with just 62 men returning to rebel lines. Wrote Hicks, "In the absence of white flags the wounded men hoisted their boots and hats on their bayonets to show their desperation. The firing continued about ten minutes, our firing ceased and the Federals moved on us to effect our capture". .
Lieutenant General A.P. Hill and Lieutenant General Richard Ewell immediately began preparing to launch a second assault, including now Early's division, which was just arriving on the Carlisle Road. And while they were putting together the elements of the assault – just after 2:00 p.m. - their boss, General Robert Edward Lee (above), commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, arrived via the Chambersburg road. He was at first infuriated – or as infuriated as he allowed himself to be in public. He reminded General Heth of his order to avoid engagement. And then he dropped the issue, in part – probably – because there was a battle in progress and things were changing quickly, and in part because he knew he would have probably done the same thing, Heth had done. It was one of the reasons Heth was one of his favorites.
On 30 June, Ewell's Corps, and in particular Jubal Early's division, were vulnerable to being cut off. Pushing into Gettysburg on 1 July would put Heth's division 10 miles closer – half a day's march - to welcoming those men safely back into the fold. And finding Federal infantry in Gettysburg, between Early's 5,000 men and the rest of the army, was all the more reason to push them out. Lee understood that. And in any case the battle Heth had brought on, was going Lee's way. Lee approved a general assault as soon as the troops were ready.
Francis Barlow (above) and his division arrived via the Emmitsburg Road about an hour before Lee's arrival, and by 2:00 p.m. He had put his men into the battle line assigned, defending Shimmellfiinig's right flank, and blocking the Carlisle Road. But the baby faced Barlow was no less a religious bigot than Howard and vented in letters his contempt for the “beery and impenetrable Germans”. He carried a cavalry sword (above), which he used to beat the backs of stragglers on the march and in battle. Said a subordinate later, "He looked like a highly independent minded newsboy...his features wore a familiar sarcastic smile…”
The action along McPherson (above) and Oak ridges left the Harvard graduate free to make his own decision. Which was usually dangerous for his soldiers.
With cavalry warning of Early's advance, Barlow decided to push the 1,100 men under Brigadier General Leopold von Gilsa, and the 1,337 men of Brigadier.General Adelbert Ames, 700 yards forward of the line he had been assigned (above) - into the vertex of a nut cracker, atop a low broad mound known as Blocher's Knoll. And in doing so he disconnected from the Federal line on Oak Ridge.
At about 3:00 p.m. Pettigrew's brigade launched an assault against Seminary Ridge while Rodes sent his division at Oak Ridge. The Federal line held again. But then, about 4:00 p.m. Brigadier General John Gordon added his 1,800 man brigade, alongside Brigadier General Henry Hay's and Colonel Isaac Avery's brigades of 1,000 men each, and Colonel Eugene Waggaman's 1,000 Louisiana Tigers - all attacking Barlow's Mound (above), from 2 sides at once. Boy-faced Barlow would later insist his Germans broke and ran. But the man doing the attacking, General Gordon, later wrote, “The enemy made a most obstinate resistance until the colors of the two lines were separated by a space of less than 50 paces, when his line was broken and driven back,..."
General Barlow himself was badly wounded, and 2 of his despised Germans tried to carry their commander from the field. The sarcastic newsboy wrote later, with no sense of irony, "One of them was soon shot and fell. . I then got a spent ball in my back which has made quite a bruise. Soon I got too faint to go any further and lay down. I lay in the midst of the fire some five minutes...A ball went through my hat as I lay on the ground and another just grazed the forefinger of my right hand. " Barlow would be captured and would eventually be exchanged, to fight again..
Then, about 4:00 p.m. the Federal battle line began to peel away from Seminary Ridge. The battered First Corps made a fighting withdrawal, across the valley, to Cemetery Ridge. As they did the XI Corp did the same, having suffered 50% causalities. Still they became known as "The Flying Dutchmen". There was panic in the streets of Gettysburg, but its size has been overrated. A brigade of the von Steoinwehr's division went forward to cover the retreat at a place in Gettysburg called the brickyard. After blunting in Gettysburg, and then pulled back to defend the northern tip of Cemetery Hill, and next to it Culp's Hill. But the situation on the Federal side had changed,
At about 3:00 p.m., just about the same time the rebels were launching their assault on Seminary Ridge, 39 year old Major General Winfield Scott Hancock arrived on Cemetery Hill, empowered to take command of the battlefield.
Immediately upon receiving word from Howard - about noon - that he had assumed command at Gettysburg, General Gordon Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, had dispatched Hancock to Gettysburg with orders to replace the bigot from Maine. And now, over Howard's objections, Hancock did just that, inspiring confidence in the exhausted men.
Perhaps the most important order that Hancock issued that evening, at about 5:00 p.m., was to send exhausted the remnants of the I corps to the left, to occupy the 180 foot high Culp's hill.
Culp's Hill is the tallest position above Gettysburg, overlooking Cemetery Hill and Ridge by 100 feet. A "hollow" or saddle connects it to the 70 foot high Cemetery Hill. And as dusk settled over the weary survivors at Gettysburg, the key to coming battle shifted to these two rocky mounts.