Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was spread out from Harrisburg to Cashtown on the morning of July 1, 1863 when the fighting began at Gettysburg. The Confederates were conducting raids and sending out scouting groups in every direction, because the purpose of the northern expedition was to find and engage the Federal Army somewhere in Northern territory. The army was operating with little idea of Union troop movements because of the lack of communication with the missing cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart. Lee had ordered his division commanders not to entangle themselves in battle while his army was not concentrated.[i] This order later complicated the situation for Confederate generals at Gettysburg as they attempted to determine their objective in the fighting before a full scale battle became fully involved.
Portions of General Hill’s Confederate corps found General Buford’s Federal cavalry brigade in Gettysburg by chance. Some believe the Confederate troops were approaching Gettysburg searching for a supply of shoes.[ii] It is possible that they were there on simple reconnaissance. Buford decided to dismount his brigade and hold the ground outside of Gettysburg until reinforcements could arrive. He then sent a message to General Reynolds, who commanded a wing of the Federal army, requesting assistance.[iii]
Reynolds arrived late in the morning on the first day of battle, reinforcing Buford as the Union soldiers became more heavily engaged with General Ewell’s Confederate corps. The Southern army successfully broke the Union right flank that afternoon, driving the Federals out of Gettysburg. The Union army retreated to the heights outside of town and was reorganized by General Winfield Scott Hancock to hold Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill south of town.[iv]
Confederate reinforcements moved into Gettysburg throughout the afternoon, all tired from long forced marches and the fighting early in the day. General Ewell considered using these forces to take the hills south of town while they were still unoccupied by Union forces, but delayed in doing so. Southern soldiers had not moved into position on the heights and Union troops began fortifying positions there by nightfall that evening. General Trimble implored Ewell to allow him to take that position but was denied based on the standing order to not become overly entangled before the army was concentrated.[v]
[i] Terry L. Jones, Cemetery Hill: The Struggle for the High Ground (Cambridge, MA: Da Capro Press, 2003), 9-14.
[ii] Jones, 9-14.
[iii] Jay Luvaas and Harold W. Nelson, Guide To The Battle of Gettysburg (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1994), 3-47.
[iv] Bill Hyde, the Union Generals Speak: The mead Hearings on The Battle of Gettysburg (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2003), 1-27.
[v] Jones, 9-14.