By Martin Kelly,
The Battle of Gettysburg was the costliest battle of the American Civil War based on number of casualties. Spanning over three days, from July 1-3, 1863, the Battle resulted in approximately 51,112 individuals being killed, wounded, missing, or captured. Despite the fact that the South continued to fight for two more years, it was a decisive victory for the Union. The South's retreat and terrible losses were a turning point in the war. From that point on, the South had to abandon its attempt to take the war North.
Day One of the Battle of GettysburgThe Battle of Gettysburg began quite accidentally. Two Confederate Brigades under the overall command of General Heth moved in to occupy the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Unbeknownst to them, the town was already occupied by two Union Calvary Brigades commanded by General John Buford. The fighting broke out around 8 a.m. as the Confederate Brigades moved in from the Northwest. They expected little resistance but were quite surprised to find the Union Brigades. Buford's men were able to hold the advancing confederates for over an hour while waiting for reinforcements. They were eventually forced to retreat but not before General Reynolds arrived to assist in the defense of McPherson's Ridge. Unfortunately, while deploying the fresh troops General Reynolds was shot and killed, leaving General Doubleday the ranking commander on the field. The battle raged over the next couple of hours with the Confederate troops attempting to flank their Union counterparts and drive them from the high ground.
General Lee arrived on the scene around 2:30 p.m. and gave A.P. Hill permission to join the attack on General Meridith and his Iron Brigade. The Union troops were unable to hold their ground under this onslaught and began to retreat towards the Seminary. However, their stay at the Seminary was short-lived. The Confederates pressed the advantage and forced the Union soldiers to flee through the town of Gettysburg and to the area known as Cemetery Hill. Fortunately for the Union, the Confederacy had sustained numerous casualties in their first day victory. They had been weakened and were unable to press their advantage effectively.
Around 4:30 p.m. Major General Winfield Hancock arrived at Cemetary Hill and took overall command of the Union Army from Doubleday on the orders of General Meade. He realized he was in an excellent defensive position and continued to deploy the retreating troops of Doubleday. The remains of Meredith's Iron Brigade were sent to occupy the defensible position of Culp's Hill.
As these events were taking place, General Lee was conferring with Lieutenant James Longstreet. The two disagreed on the course the battle should take from here on out. General Longstreet urged Lee to swing around behind the Union army and cut them off from Washington. This would allow the Confederacy to choose the most advantageous location for battle. However, General Lee disagreed and believed they should press their advantage. He ordered General Ewell to "secure possession of the heights...if practicable." However, the orders were confusing to Ewell and he failed to attack the new Union stronghold before they were sufficiently prepared. Thus, day one ended with a win for the Confederacy, but a squandered opportunity.
General Meade arrived at Cemetery Hill at 11:30 p.m. and finished deploying the men in a defensive position along Cemetery Ridge. The prominent features of the region were Cemetery Hill, Culps Hill, Little Round Top, and Big Round Top. These places would soon enter into the annals of American history with the rest of the Battle of Gettysburg.