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Re-enactors with the 19th Ohio Light Artillery fire a 10-pound Parrott rifle, one of five guns on hand, to commemorate the first shots fired at the battle of Gettysburg on Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg, Pa., on July 1. (Mike Morones/Staff)
GETTYSBURG, PA. — A Confederate raiding party returned to this sleepy southern Pennsylvania college town this morning with a soft breeze, almost as if they were making a casual trip to the store.
“We moved forward leisurely smoking and chatting as we rode along, not dreaming of the proximity of the enemy,” said Confederate artilleryman Lt. John Marye.
But it didn’t take long for both sides to realize this might just become one of the biggest battles of the war. Indeed, both sides have been spoiling for a big fight for weeks now.
Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, has stuck a 72,000-strong finger in the eye U.S. President Abraham Lincoln with his 200-mile march deep into Union territory.
Just days ago, Lincoln fired his top field commander facing off against Lee, replacing Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker with Maj. Gen. George Meade as leader of the 95,000-strong Army of the Potomac.
In an odd twist of geography, those two armies are now finally colliding in the fields around this small town, with Lee’s forces charging in from the north while Meade troops press into the fight from the south.
Meade’s cavalry commander, Brig. Gen. John Buford, saw the fight coming when he arrived here yesterday afternoon with two brigades of horsemen and decided to hold this ground until Federal troops could arrive in force.
Confederate Maj. Gen. Henry Heth had heard reports that there might be a stockpile of shoes and other supplies — which the rebels badly need — stashed away somewhere in Gettysburg. Yesterday one his units returned after seeing Union troops in the city. He asked his corps commander for permission to investigate.
“If there is no objection, General, I will take my division tomorrow and go to Gettysburg and get those shoes,” Heth was overheard saying yesterday afternoon.
Heth expected to find local militia. Instead, they found Buford’s battle-tested cavalry. Through the morning, Buford’s troops, fighting like infantry, have held up the Confederate advance north and west of Gettysburg in a delaying action that by this afternoon, with fresh divisions pouring in, had checked the rebel advance just outside of town.
With rebel units arriving as well, the Federal lines are now faltering, however, with Union formations now retreating to the south of Gettysburg.
Among the casualties so far is Union I Corps commander Maj. Gen. John Reynolds.
“Forward men! Forward for God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of the woods,” he was heard shouting just before he was shot dead from his horse. On the Confederate side, Heth is also said to have been severely wounded.
A confederate general was was captured by Pvt. Patrick Moloney, a pugnacious young Irishman with the 2nd Wisconsin, who had to wrestle the rebel commander to the ground before he surrendered.
Brig. Gen. James Archer is believed to be the first general officer ever captured from Lee’s army.