The American Civil War Battles: Gettysburg -- First Day (July 1, 1863)

Figure 1.--This painting depicts the arrival of II Corps commander Major Gen. W.S. Hancock at Gettyburgh to take command on the first day of the battle (July 1). The other two commanders are Maj. Gen. A. Doubleday (acting commander of the battered I Corps) and Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard (commander of XI Corps). They are pictured outside the Evergreen Cemetary Gateway. The decisions taken by Hancock upon arrival were key in the development of the formidable Federal Fish Hook position which Meade inherited when he arrived to take command at midnight. Meade would not confirm Doubleday's command of I Corps having received inaccurate information that I Corps had broke and run. In fact the determined resistance of I Corps had resulted in severe Confederate casulaties and the delaying the Condederate advance, the major reason the Confederates failed toseize either Culp's Hill or Cemetary Hill despite their numerucal advtage. These two hills woulf prove to be the key stomes of the Federal Right. Artist: Don Troiani

Gettyburg as infrequently happens in history was not chosen by either commander as a place to fight a major battle. The two armies simply collided at Gettysburg (July 1). The reason the battle developed at Gettysburg was largely because Federal calvary commander John Buford at Willoughby Run stood and fought overwealmingly superior Confederate forces coverging on Gettysburg. Their repeating carbines proved effective in slowing the Confederate advance. This was important because it significantly affected the development of the battle. Also after 2 years of being bested by Confederate calvalry, the Federal calvary was finally developing into an effective force. Buford was responsible more than anyone else for the fact that a battle was fought at Gettyburg. Strangely the Army of Northern Virginia arrived from the north and west and the Army of the Potomac from the south and east. I Corp Commander Gen. Reynolds engaged the advancing Confedeates and was killed. Gen Howard's XI Corps joined uin the battle. The outnumbered Federals were driven out of the town and on to Culp's Hill and Cemetary Hill. And by this accident of war, the Federal forces were given the ability to to fashion a defensive a position that most military commanders could only dream of--the fabeled Fish Hook. It was centered on Cemetarty Hill/Culp's Hill in the north and Little Round top in the south, connected by Cemetary Ridge. Gen. Meade who had just been given commnd of the Army of the Potomac 3 days earlier had envisioned forcing Lee to attack a defensive line he was going to build to the south--The Pike Creek Plan. He was conferring with Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, II Corps Commnder, when they learned at the fighting at Gettsyburg. Meade ordered Hancock to Gettusburg to take command and to report on the situation. Upon arriving, Hancock made several key decisions. One was to move reenforcements on to Cemetary Hill Culp's Hill and other positions close by to support these position. Although not under immediate threat, he ordered troops on to Little Round Top to the far south. [Bretzger] These noth and south bastions would become the foundation on which the Fish Hook was built. Lee could read a map as well. He ordered Confederate II Corps commander Gen. Ewell to take Culp's Hill on the first day. It was not untill the second day, however, that Lee focused on Little Round Top. The first day was Lee's best chance at victory. It was on the first day that Lee had a superior force available at Gettysburg. The development of the Fish Hook was surely one of the two critical factors in the battle. The other factor that Lee had no idea where the Federal army was located and the extent of the forces arrayed against him. This was in large part because J.E.B. Stuart had separated his cavalry forces from Lee's army. [Heath] The First day was a series of Confederate successes, except the all-important failure to take Cemetary Hill and Culps Hill. Confederate forces pushed the Federals back through Gettsburgh, but did not take the hills to the south of town. This was largely because of the Federal calvary stand before Gettysburg had delayed their advance. The Condederate II Corps were Jackson's men. Almost certainly the aggressively minded Jackson, if he had been there, would have pursued the Federals and made a more determined effort to take Culp's Hill on the night of July 1. The Condederates under Ewell came close to taking the position as it was. There was intense fighting into the night, but the Federals with a relatively small, but entrenched force held. This gave Meade time so that major elements of the Army of the Potomac could reach Gerrysburgh and to build the Fish Hook defense to the east and south of Cemetarty and Culps Hill. Meade turned these hills into the impregnable anchor for the Federal right flank. Lee continued to attack Cemetary Hill and Culps Hill and to outflank the positions there. And he began planning a massive attack on the Federal left flank. Meade himself did not arrive at Gettysburg until shortly after midnight, meaning July 2. After speaking with his corp commanders at the Evergreen Cemetery gatehouse, he issued orders for further deployment, basically continuing to build the Fish Hook position that Hancock had envisioned.


Bretzger, Paul. Observing Hancock at Gettysburg (2016).

Heath, Henry. "Why Lee lost at Gettyburg," Weekly Times (Philadelphia), September 22, 1877. (Heath was a brigadier general who commanded a division in A.P. Hill's corps.

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Created: 1:25 AM 10/9/2017
Last updated: 1:25 AM 10/9/2017