July 1, 1863
“The Devil’s to pay”
Mid-morning, McPherson’s Ridge
They arrived just in time. The 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of I Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the men of the famed Iron Brigade, heard the noise of battle west of Gettysburg and stretched out their marching stride behind the 2nd Brigade to hurry to the fight as the band struck up their war-song, The Girl I Left Behind Me.
Ahead of them, Brigadier General John Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division had played itself out to breaking point holding off the Confederate infantry brigades of Henry Heth’s division to the west of the town. All morning Buford had held them, sending messenger after messenger to speed up the arrival of I Corps. Now, as the enemy seemed ready to swamp him, he looked down from his observation point in the steeple of the Lutheran Seminary and saw the dapper Major General John Reynolds ride up with his staff, the long blue columns of I Corps in the not-too-far distance. Buford virtually flew down the steps. Almost teasingly, Reynolds asked, “What is the matter, John?”
“The Devil’s to pay,” he replied.
There was a quick handshake, and then Reynolds, with Buford behind him, raced up the stairs two at a time. From the steeple it took him only moments to survey the battlefield and make his decision. Reynolds turned to Captain Stephen W. Weld. “Ride at once with utmost speed to General Meade. Tell him the enemy are advancing in strong force, and that I fear they will get to the heights beyond the town before I can. I will fight them inch by inch, and if driven into the town, I will barricade the streets and hold them as long as possible.”1 Turning to Buford, he added, “I hope you can hold on until my corps arrives.”
“I reckon I can.”
They did not have long to wait. Brigadier James Wadsworth’s 1st Division was already passing through Gettysburg. In the lead was Brigadier General Lysander Cutler’s 2nd Brigade, coming out of the town onto the Chambersburg or Cashtown Pike. Reynolds had seen the importance of this terrain and had already posted Captain James Hall’s Battery B, 2nd Maine Light Artillery, just south of the railroad cut which paralleled the Pike. Reynolds told Hall to “damage the artillery to the greatest possible extent, and keep their fire from our infantry until they are deployed.”2 Cutler was just arriving when Wadsworth, at Reynolds’ direction, ordered him to send three of his five regiments north of the railroad cutting and two south of it to support Hall’s Battery.
The 2nd Brigade quickly took up its position on the northern extension of the ridge. The 56th Pennsylvania fired a volley into the 55th North Carolina as soon as it showed itself, the first shots fired by Union infantry in the battle. Two of the 55th’s color guard fell. The Carolinians fired in turn, bringing down Cutler and two of his staff.
The 1st “Iron” Brigade double-timed onto the field to the left of Cutler’s two regiments south of the railroad cut. The band of the 6th Wisconsin changed its tune to The Campbells Are Coming. They were an awesome sight that morning, the 1,900 men of the brigade in their blue dress frock-coats and black Hardee hats turned up on the side and adorned with blue ribbons, an elegant contrast to the fatigue blouse and kepi worn by the rest of the army. But it was not for their appearance that both armies respected them. They had earned their pride of place with iron resolve and a lethal combativeness. They figured that if the army was stretched in a single line they would have the place of
1 Stephen M. Weld, Diary and Letters of Stephen Minot Weld, 1861–1865 (Riverside Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1913) p. 230.
2 James A. Hall to John Bachelder, February 27, 1867, Bachelder Papers, New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, New Hampshire (hereafter cited as Bachelder Papers). honor on the extreme right. Few could be found who would disagree. Such was their pride in themselves that when Major General Abner Doubleday exhorted them to fight to the last, they responded: “If we can’t hold it, where will you find men who can?”3
Now they flowed onto the field, a powerful killing-machine of five veteran western regiments—the 2nd and 7th Wisconsin, the 19th Indiana, the 24th Michigan, and the 6th Wisconsin. The gallant Reynolds rode down to post the 2nd Wisconsin, then moved on to the next regiment. He had not been in the line for ten minutes when, turning in the saddle, he fell with a bullet in the back of the head—whether from a Confederate sniper or a stray friendly bullet has never been ascertained. The Iron Brigade’s commander, Brigadier General Solomon Meredith, pressed on and took his men directly into battle against Brigadier General James Archer’s brigade in the woods along Willoughby Run.
Archer was about to pay the price for his superiors’ cavalier approach to their orders. Lee had specifically directed that no element of the army was to bring on a battle until the whole army was up. But Archer’s division commander, Major General Henry Heth, and the 3rd Corps commander, Lieutenant Gen- eral A.P. Hill, had done just that this morning. Hill’s corps was concentrated between Cashtown and Gettysburg when Heth got it into his head that there was a large store of shoes in Gettysburg, sorely needed by his troops. He knew that Early had marched through the town already; how he could have expected even a single pair of shoes to have escaped Early’s flinty thoroughness no one knows. The skirmishers of Brigadier General James Pettigrew’s brigade had brushed with Buford’s cavalry the day before, but so powerful was the lure of shoes that Heth insisted on believing they were only militia, or, at Hill’s suggestion, at best a small cavalry detachment of observation. When Heth asked if Hill had any objection to his advancing, the latter had replied airily, “None whatsoever.” Pettigrew became almost desperate to convince Heth and Hill of the risk, and produced an
3 The War of the Rebellion, A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (hereafter cited as OR), vol. XXVII, part I (Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1889) p.244. officer who had served with Hill, Captain Louis Young, to explain that there was more than a detachment of observation in the town, and that they were trained troops, not militia. Young’s warnings too were brushed aside. Pettigrew then tried to alert Archer, whose turn it was, in the rotation of brigades, to be first into Gettysburg, but he too was caught up in the mood of optimism. Young commented: “This spirit of disbelief had taken such hold that I doubt if any of the commanders of brigades, except General Pettigrew, believed that we were marching into battle, a weakness on their part which rendered them unprepared for what was about to happen.”
At first the fighting was between Archer’s light skirmish lines and Buford’s pickets, an affair which seemed to confirm to Heth that he faced minimal opposition. By the time he leisurely approached McPherson’s Ridge, he found a strong Union battle-line running along Willoughby Run, toward which the skirmishing was drawing his command. At this moment he should have broken off the fight pursuant to Lee’s orders. He did not. Instead he deployed the rest of his division from column, a time-consuming evolution that ate up the clock as Reynolds rushed his corps to Buford’s aid.
Archer’s Brigade had crossed Willoughby Run and was moving up McPherson’s Ridge with Brigadier General Joseph Davis’ brigade on his left. Almost effortlessly, Buford’s cavalry pulled back as Reynolds’ two infantry brigades took their places. Almost immediately the Confederates felt the difference. The cry went up from Archer’s ranks: “Here are those damned black-hat fellers gain . . . ’Taint no militia—that’s the Army of the Potomac.” Both sides fired together at forty yards with deadly impact, and it was here that Reynolds fell. But Meredith was quicker than Archer and outnumbered him three to two as well. He overlapped Archer’s right with the 19th Indiana and 24th Michigan. Almost automatically they wrapped themselves around Archer’s flank and seared it with enfilade fire. The 2nd and 7th Wisconsin drove the rest of Archer’s men down through Willoughby Run and into the woods to the west. Although it was hurt itself, the Iron Brigade had wrecked Archer’s Brigade and taken many prisoners, including Archer himself.
To the north of the railroad cut, Davis’ Mississippi and North Carolina regiments were severely handling Cutler’s men. Flanked by the 55th North Carolina, these three regiments broke and ran back to Seminary Ridge. The Confederates pursued as quickly and soon flanked Hall’s Battery, which had to withdraw, leaving one gun behind. In response to a request for help, Double- day sent the 6th Wisconsin forward at a run. It came up on the fence along the Pike and immediately fired into the flank of Davis’ regiments. Instinctively seeking shelter from this enfilade, the nearest Confederates—the 2nd and part of the 42nd Mississippi—rushed into the railroad cut. Cutler’s other two regiments, the 84th and 95th New York, immediately changed front, and rushed to the fence along the Pike on the left of the 6th Wisconsin. Davis ordered his men out of the cut under the 55th’s covering fire, but it was too late. The cut was too deep to fire from, and the Mississippians did not control either approach into it. Their delay was fatal. The 6th’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Rufus R. Dawes, immediately saw the opportunity. Rushing over to the 95th’s commander, he shouted, “We must charge!” The major repli...