On June 28, Lee learned from a spy about the Union advance. He also learned that Lincoln had changed generals again, putting the Army of the Potomac under Gen. George Meade. Lee ordered his scattered corps commanders to converge, but they weren’t supposed to bring on a major battle. A relatively small number of rebel soldiers looking for supplies — shoes, famously, though like so much else that’s a subject of debate — ventured toward the little town that served as the seat of Adams County. Gettysburg radiated roads to all points of the compass, and those roads became like plumbing that sluiced the two armies toward each other.
Union cavalry under the command of Gen. John Buford spotted a detachment of rebels coming east toward Gettysburg. Buford eyeballed the terrain, with several ridges running parallel. Buford decided to hold the ridges until he could be reinforced. Thus, it was Buford, thinking on his feet — or on his horse — who selected Gettysburg as a field of battle.
The first shot rang out at 7:30 a.m. July 1. The dismounted Union soldiers were on the verge of being overrun when help arrived under the command of Maj. Gen. John Reynolds. Today one of the most magnificent equestrian statues at Gettysburg shows Reynolds, facing west, near where a bullet killed him soon after he arrived at the scene.
This started to look like another rebel victory, a fitting follow-up to Lee’s smashing triumph at Chancellorsville two months earlier. Union forces fled through the town and regrouped on the high ground beyond, including Cemetery Hill. Lee hadn’t ordered up a major battle, but when he arrived at the edge of Gettysburg late in the day, he saw his opportunity. He ordered one of his three corps commanders, Gen. Richard Ewell, to press the attack and take the hills beyond the town “if practicable.” It was a discretionary order. Ewell decided that his men had fought enough for the day, and he did not try to take the high ground. This was a fatal hitch in the Confederate step. The Union soldiers dug in at Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill and along Cemetery Ridge.
That night, the campfires flared around Gettysburg as two huge armies tended to their dead and wounded and prepared to resume their war in the morning.
The second day
The battle, as it unfolded, was a sprawling affair, too big for anyone to keep track of it all. But in some ways, it was a simple set-piece battle, fairly easy to diagram after that first day. The Union line was shaped like an upside-down fishhook, relatively compact, with interior lines of movement that enabled rapid reinforcements from one side of the battle to the other. The rebels were stretched around that position in a looping, thin, five-mile line that made communication and reinforcement more difficult. And the Southerners would have to fight uphill much of the time.