[From the Richmond Times, April 12, 1896]
THE FIRST DAY AT GETTYSBURG
Tribute to Brave General Harry Heth who Opened the Great Battle.
A description by an eye witness.
Interesting Observations of Jaquelin Marshall Meredith, Chaplain of
Heth's Division--His Version of the "Cause of Failure."
To the Editor of the Times:
Sir,--I have read with regret the war of words in regard to "cause of failure" on the part of the
Confederates at the battle of Gettysburg. In the various accounts of the battle, not one has come
from an eye-witness of the first day's fight, of July 1, 1863. Not one of the accounts, that I have
seen, have done simple justice to the brave and gallant division of General Harry Heth and its
faithful commander, upon whom rested the responsibility of opening the battle. As chaplain of
47th Regiment of Virginia Infantry, Brockenbrough's Brigade, first A.P. Hill's Division, Jackson's
Corps, and afterwards Heth's Division, of A.P. Hill's Corps, I witnessed the events leading to, and
the opening of the fight on the morning of July 1st, and the final charge of the remnants of Heth's
Division, under Pettigrew, who charged, under Pickett, on the 3d of July, at Cemetery Heights.
As no one has done so, I proceed to give a circumstantial account of the 30th of June and 1st of
July, to do justice to a general and division I honor and love. About 2 o'clock P.M., on June 30,
1863, Heth's Division, Hill's Corps, leading the advance of the corps, reached Cashtown and went
into bivouac around the village, on the eastern slope of a ridge, the continuance of the Blue
Ridge, but here much lower than in Virginia. Dr. E.B. Spence, division surgeon, came to me
about 4 o'clock, and requested me to ride forward with him into Gettysburg as he wished to
procure some medical supplies. I mounted my horse, and started at once with him, proceeding
forward on the pike eastwards, for five miles. I saw no troops moving, but was assured by the
Doctor that some of our division was ahead. We reached Gettysburg about 5 o'clock P.M., and
tied our horses at the first drug-store, where we had been but a few moments, when we saw a
regiment of Confederates (I have since read that it was one of Pettigrew's North Carolina
regiments), coming from the eastern part of town at the quick march. We two non-combatants at
once mounted, and joining the colonel at the head of the column, moved steadily back to
Cashtown. The colonel was a stranger to me, although I knew Colonel James Marshall and
Colonel Burgwin, commanding two of General Pettigrew's regiments. I knew General Pettigrew
well, having served under him at the battle of Seven Pines, but I did not see him that evening.
The Doctor and I were told that a superior force of the enemy were moving on Gettysburg. We
were not followed nor did any Federal cavalry attack, or even show itself in rear or flank during
the one hour and a half, to two hours that this regiment took to proceed in orderly march back to
Cashtown. So far as we could see at night-fall on the 30th of June, there was no Federal force
between Gettsburg and Cashtown. Very early on the morning of July 1st, Heth's Division fell into
line, and debouched into the pike, marching towards Gettysburg in the following order, Viz:
Archer's Brigade of Tennesseans leading; next, Colonel John W. Brockenbrough's Brigade of
Virginians; next, Davis' Mississippi Brigade: Fourth, Pettigrew's North Carolina Brigade.
Archer's and Brockenbrough's Brigades each numbered 1,000 men, as many men were left on the
road in the rapid march of A.P. Hill's Corps to overtake Longstreet, and pass him in Clarke
county, Virginia, ours being the corps left to watch Hooker at Fredericksburg.
"WE MUST FIGHT THEM"
I was riding with my colonel, Robert M. Mayo, and with Colonel Brockenbrough, commanding brigade, and had reached a point one mile east of Cashtown, when a staff officer of General H. Heth's--I think it was captain Stockton Heth, the General's brother--rode up to our two colonels, and talked a few moments as we marched along the road. I heard him say: "General Heth is ordered to move on Gettysburg, and fight or not as he wishes." When he rode away I remember Colonel Brockenbrough and Colonel Mayo saying: "We must fight them; no division general will turn back with such orders." We had proceeded very slowly, giving time for the whole division to form in the road and march, and had, at 9 o'clock A.M., reached only about ane and a half or two miles east from Cashtown, when we passed over a long ridge and down into a broad, clean, open valley, with the pike leading gradually by open fields upwards to another long ridge, where some oak woods covered a large part of the crest on both sides of the road. We had begun to ascend this slope, when I noticed Archer's Brigade file to the right of the road and march by columns of four, or marching orders, at right angles to the road. In a few moments Brockenbrough's Brigade filed out on the right about four to five hundred yards in rear of Archer's. While still marching; and without time to face into battle line, with guns unloaded, Archer's Brigade of 1,000 men were suddenly charged upon by Buford's Federal Cavalry, 2,500 strong, from the cover of the wood on the ridge. The attack was so sudden in front and both flanks that in a few moments I saw General Archer and two-thirds of his brigade captured with only a few pistol shots from the cavalry. One-third of the brigade fled back upon the line being formed by Brockenbrough's Virginians, and rallied behind them. Brockenbrough, also in marching order, ordered "left-face, load;" then, unable to fire because of the flying Tennesseans, he back-stepped the brigade until in line with Davis' Brigade, then forming battle line on the left or north side of the Cashtown pike. Buford's Cavalry withdrew with some six or seven hundred prisoners behind the wooded crest. General Het now brought up Pettigrew's Brigade, and advanced the whole division to attack the rest. When we reached the crest the cavalry was gone, and seen a mile away withdrawing to the summit of another ridge. General Heth moved in line of battle slowly but steadily across the valley, charged and drove back this cavalry, now supported by infantry. This must have been only a brigade of the Federal infantry corps, for it fell back on the ridge just west of Gettysburg and overlooking the town. This was a high, commanding ridge, with many open farms and but little woods, and stretching northeast and southwest across the road from Cashtown, Carlisle, and overlooking the valley through which led the road from York. I remember how thankful I felt as Heth's Division moved forward about 1 o'clock P.M. to attack this ridge, which was crowned with long lines of waiting infantry and from which came a steady artillery fire, when, on looking to the left of our line, I saw a Confederate division (Rodes') come of the Carlisle road and form battle line to aid us, while looking back I saw Pender's Division coming up the pike in our rear. Heth's Division had suffered the loss of two-thirds of Archer's Brigade and some loss in sweeping back the Federal infantry from the last ridge, but now held the centre of attack on the right and left of the Cashtown pike. Here for two hours the fight was hot and steady. The Federal corps held its ground stubbornly, ebbing and flowing. Here I saw the Virginians of Brockenbrough's Brigade--22d Virginia, Colonel E. Poinsett Tayloe; 40th Virginia, Col. J.W. Brockenbrough, commanding brigade; 47th Virginia, Colonel R.M. Mayo; and 55thVirginia Regiments--driving the enemy in hand to hand fighting out of houses and barns of which they made forts. Here General Heth was wounded; here fell brae Colonel Burgwin, of North Carolina, and here I buried the next day, on the highest point, under a lone tree, with the Church's solemn services, Captain Brockenbrough, brother and aid of our brigade commander. By 3 o'clock the Federals fled from the ridge, across the valley and through Gettysburg to the Cemetery Heights. Soon after, or about 3 o'clock, I rode to the left where a few pieces of artillery were still replying to the artillery on Cemetery Heights, and there met a long and large force of Federal prisoners marching back on the Cashtown road westward. The guard told me that General Early threw a skirmish line around these and captured them as they were flying in disorder before Rodes', Heths's and Pender's Division. There were about 5,000 prisoners.
I looked down and saw a level valley in which Gettysburg lay and could distinguish Early's
Division forming line and resting across the road from York. This road was in rear of the position
held by the Federal Corps during the battle. No doubt the appearance of Early's Division, coming
up in their rear, completed their defeat. There was no more fighting after 3 o'clock. I was busy
attending to the wounded and hardly noticed the forming of the long battle-line around Cemetery
HETH'S DIVISION SURPRISED.
The fighting next day was far to right and left, and I saw nothing of it, as the losses of our division and brigade were very heavy and I was constantly occupied with the wounded. General Heth was wounded while his division was pressing the centre of the attack. Heth's Division suffered a surprise, because we had no cavalry to meet Buford, but he redeemed this by a separate and special fight on the first ridge where the whole Federal corps had picked their position to command the roads from Cashtown and Carlisle. The position was a strong one, with free sweep for their artillery. Yet, in spite of its commander being disabled, this now decimated division was chosen to be placed under General Pickett, commanded by General Pettigrew, to take part in the fatal, but glorious charge on Cemetery Heights on the 3d of July. In that last charge fell my friend, Colonel James Marshall, of Markham, Fauquier county, VA., colonel of a North Carolina regiment, and commanding Pettigrew's Brigade. This, I think, shows that the bringing on of the battle of Gettysburg by surprise was, in the providence of God, due to the want of cavalry in front of Heth's Infantry. Who could blame General Heth for driving the cavalry before him when he had been surprised into loss. From there being no pursuit of the regiment, I left Gettysburg on the eve of the 30th of June.
General Heth could not know there was a force on the Cashtown road. Besides, had he prudentially withdrawn to Cashtown after suffering loss from the cavalry surprise, what would have been General Early's position? General Early and Rodes, of Ewell's Corps, had orders to move towards Cashtown. Gettysburg lay in Early's direct road, and if Heth had fallen back on Cashtown, and Rodes turned off four miles northwest on to the Cashtown road, then at 3 or 4 o'clock of July 1st Early would have found the Federal corps holding a strong position across his road with fully three times his numbers, and no help nearer than four or five miles. This would have brought on battle at a late hour in the evening when too late to defeat and drive the enemy from their position. All honor is due General Heth and his noble division for pressing the enemy and enabling Rodes and Pender and Early to secure a severely-fought battle. The cause of surprise was want of cavalry but the cause of battle was that the Federal corps commander had seized the ridge north and west of Gettysburg, which blocked the road by which the Confederate corps of Hill and Ewell were converging on Cashtown. Why need we look any further for causes. It sufficeth that the same All-wise Ruler of events that permitted Ashby and "Stonewall" Jackson to be shot in front and perhaps by their own men, and afterwards permitted J.E.B. Stuart to fall after victory by the seeming accidental shot of a Federal trooper, who was fleeing from our lines; the same Ruler permitted the otherwise invincible Army of Northern Virginia and its beloved general to suffer a repulse at Gettysburg.
Jaquelin Marshall Meredith,
Chaplin of 47th Virginia Infantry, Heth's Division,
A.P. Hill's Corps, A.N. Va., C.S.
Wide Water, Va., March 31, 1896.
(Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 24, pages 182-187)