Marching and countermarching

Thursday, July 2, 1863, was clear and warm, according to Spartan Band diarist William H. Hill:

“General Lee brought all of his forces up this morning in front of the enemy. Both parties skirmished all the morning.”

Barksdale’s Brigade could hear the fighting to the east. But, camped at Marsh Creek along the Chambersburg Turnpike, east of the South Mountains, they were well west of Gettysburg. For them, it began as another day of hurry-up-and-wait.

“The slumbers of all were broken by drum beat and bugle call at sunrise,” J.S. McNeily wrote in 1903 for the Mississippi Historical Society, “and the column was promptly formed and headed toward Gettysburg…We reached the front at nine or ten o’clock…where the road intersected Seminary Ridge. We halted here an hour or more until the plan of battle was decided…”

Confederate veterans later and historians today argue whether Gen. Lee wanted a morning attack by Longstreet’s Corps (but his old War Horse inexplicably delayed), or if Lee himself delayed for unknown reasons, perhaps wanted to keep the Union off-balance.

Longstreet wrote in 1878 that “It was fully eleven o’clock when [Lee decided that Longstreet’s Corps would make the main attack on the extreme right]. We waited about forty minutes for Law’s brigade [of Hood’s Division] and then moved forward.”

Then there’s the problem of Longstreet’s approach march to his corps’s position on the field “one of the most difficult non-combat aspects of the Gettysburg campaign to reconstruct and to understand,” wrote historian Harry Pfanz in his Gettysburg, The Second Day:

“The facts of the matter seem to lie forever concealed by a lack of correct information engendered by personal conflicts and the failure of participants to report what they had done.”

Pfanz concluded that it “must not have begun before noon at the earliest.”

McLaws division, with Kershaw’s Brigade in the lead, followed by Barksdale’s Brigade, led the march to the battlefield. Hood’s division followed McLaws. They marched south down the west side of Herr Ridge and onward to Black Horse Tavern, at a good pace, according to 17th Regiment memoirist William Meshack Abernathy.

They halted when McLaws determined that if they continued they would be exposed to enemy view (and the Union Signal Corps communication flags) on Little Round Top mountain. He and a few mounted staff officers searched for an alternate route. Longstreet approved a countermarch.

“The time taken to cover the intervening space,” McNeily wrote, “has been the cause of much censure, but without cavalry, not even a company to guide the advance over unknown ground for five or six miles, slow progress was unavoidable.”

They apparently returned to Herr Ridge and took another route farther east that also led them south, closer to the west slope of Seminary Ridge.

Finally, close to 4 p.m., they reached the tree line along the eastern side of the ridge, a quarter mile west of the Peach Orchard, where federal artillery unexpectedly took them under fire—revealing that Gen. Lee’s intelligence on the disposition of the enemy was wrong.

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About Dick Stanley

Retired Texas daily newspaperman
This entry was posted in Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade, Battles: Gettysburg, The Commanders, The Spartan Band, William H. Hill Diary and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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