Overview of the first day of the Battle of Get...

Overview of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 1863. Confederate Union (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At dawn on July 1, 1863, Doles’s Brigade, Army of Northern Virginia, began its march south towards Gettysburg. The brigade – a part of Rodes’s Division – consisted of four veteran Georgia infantry regiments.   The brigade mustered 1,403 men on June 30.  Crab wrote:

We were idle but a short time after Gen’l Hooker retreated back over the river [from Chancellorsville], for Gen’l Lee started over towards Maryland and Pennsylvania. General D. H. Hill was in command of our division, and General Ewell in command of our corps, which we soon rejoined. Many smaller incidents occurred to me on this terrible hot march into Pennsylvania, but I kept real well and in good spirits all the time. A few nights before the famous battle of Gettysburg we camped at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, seventeen miles from the capitol of the state.

Following the death of Stonewall Jackson, Lee promoted Richard Stoddert Ewell to lieutenant general to command the Second Corps of Lee’s army. General Robert Rodes replaced Hill.  Rodes’s Division mustered 8,473 men on June 30, of whom 7,983 fought on July 1.

A promotion had also taken place for William C. Cherry. The men of his company had elected him an officer after the battle of Chancellorsville in early May.  They fought as part of the 4th Georgia Infantry Regiment, which mustered 362 men, including 31 officers.

General Lee had dispatched Ewell north to capture Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. Doles’s Brigade had bivouacked on the campus of Dickinson College on June 27. But then Lee ordered the army to concentrate back to the west of Gettysburg.

A Confederate division accidentally started a battle on July 1 by marching toward Gettysburg in search of shoes.   A Union cavalry unit interposed itself. Each side began feeding troops into the maw as fast as they arrived on the field. Lee’s orders had been not to bring on a general engagement. But the Union I Corps, the first Federal unit to arrive, had taken charge.

Confederate mistakes and Union strength produced several bloody repulses before noon. But when Ewell’s troops began arriving in the afternoon, the battle changed.

Doles’s Brigade marched 10 miles to reach the battlefield. By 1:00 p.m., the entire brigade formed a line of battle in the Gettysburg plain. Rodes placed his other brigades on Oak Hill. His attack sputtered.

When General John B. Gordon’s brigade arrived on Doles’s left, however, both brigades attacked Union positions in tandem. They turned the battle around.

Elements of the Union XI Corps confronted Ewell. These were troops Jackson had routed on May 3 at Chancellorsville. The troops of the Union defenders outnumbered the two Confederate brigades 8,000 to 6,000, but they could not outfight them.

Regiment after regiment of the XI Corps disintegrated before the attacks of Doles and Gordon. By 4 p.m., the Union army was fleeing through town, with the survivors surrendering in droves. With the collapse of the XI Corps, the I Corps that had fought so well in the morning joined the retreat.

Late in the afternoon, Confederate artillery began firing on Doles’s men. Twenty years later, Crab wrote of “the most terrible death” he ever saw:

The first day’s fight (July 1st, 1863) of Gettysburg, I participated [in] with my company without getting even a scratch, although we ran some narrow risks and evilness in open fields with about 20,000 men fighting. At one time I was by the side of one of my company going forward, and our artillery was firing over our heads at the enemy. But one of the pieces was firing too low, and a solid shot passed through him, entering at the back. My eyes were on the spot of his back at the time, and I remember I saw clear through him before it was closed up by the blood. He was an officer, and I took his sword, as I had been elected a 2d Lieutenant, but had not had the time to provide myself with a sword. I have never seen such a terrible death in my life as from this cannon ball.

Doles’s brigade now helped to push the Union soldiers back through Gettysburg. One mounted Union officer riding among his men during the retreat waved his hat and sword and shouted, “Don’t run, men, none but cowards run.” Confederate soldiers, admiring his bravery, shouted, “Don’t shoot that man.” But a volley felled him. D. Martin, Gettysburg July 1, p. 317 (Penn., Combined Books, 1996 ed.)(afterwards Martin).

Lt. Robert Stiles in Carrington’s Virginia battery watched as a 16-year-old courier rode deep into the town and returned herding 50 Federal prisoners.

“Upon no other occasion,” Stiles wrote, did I see any large body of troops, on either side, so completely routed and demoralized as were the two Federal corps who were beaten at Gettysburg on the evening of July 1.” Martin at 325. The Army of Northern Virginia had won yet another victory. Then the Confederate generals threw it all away.

II Corps, Army of Northern Virginia


The remnants of the Union army took defensive positions ringed with artillery on Cemetery Hill, south of town.  After a conference about 5 p.m. – and a dubious report of Union troops advancing on the flank – Ewell broke off the battle. “General Lee told me to come to Gettysburg and gave me no orders to go further,” he had said earlier.

When a staff aide then arrived with Lee’s orders to press “those people” and take the heights “if practicable,” Ewell did not obey.

Instead, Ewell basked in an incomplete victory. He pulled back the two divisions that had started the rout of the Union army over their commanders’ objections. Ewell made no effort to capture the heights of Cemetery Hill, which dominated the battlefield.

Overnight, the entire Union army occupied Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill.