Today is Day One of what’s widely regarded as one of the most pivotal battles in American history.
As Confederate forces converged on Gettysburg (a road hub and therefore a logical convergence point for a divided army) the leading elements of the Union army, led by General John Buford’s 1st cavalry division, almost single-handedly blocked Lee from taking valuable high ground positions in and around the town.
But Buford recognized the blunders of the past, when Confederates held powerful high ground positions that dominated larger federal armies, and so he intuitively recognized the ground and deployed his division along a line that, when eventually pushed back, could possibly end up on the high ground, known in military strategy as a “defense in depth.” If you know you’re outnumbered and will have to pull back, place your forces in advance of where you’d eventually like to be. In this case, the high ground.
Once Lee and his commanders hit Buford and John Reynolds’ accompanying First Corp, the lines broke and the Union Army retreated back through town — and onto Culp’s Hill and Cemetary Hill. The high ground.
Meanwhile, Lee gave his Second Corp commander, a one-legged general Richard “Baldy” Ewell, who had just taken command following the death of Stonewall Jackson, the order to advance upon those hills “if practicable,” leaving the attack within Ewell’s discretion. Big mistake, and gratefully so. Ewell felt it was too dark and that the hills were too impenetrable. So he failed to press the attack upon the retreating federal army, which proceeded to dig in and never gave up those positions for the rest of the battle.
And so the basic lines had been drawn for the bloodiest battle of the war. But it never ceases to amaze how two simple decisions won and lost the fighting on that day. Two choices and the unity of the United States remained intact for at least another day.