How the Town Shaped the Battle: Gettysburg 1863

by Allen C. Guelzo

We think we know who the important players at the Battle of Gettysburg were: Robert E. Lee, or George G. Meade, or the Union Army of the Potomac, or the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. But there is one major player from whom, like the curious case of the dog in the night, we hear little or nothing, and that is the town of Gettysburg. This is not because too little has been written about the town’s inhabitants; to the contrary, we probably know more about the people of the town than we know about any other small American town of the nineteenth century. It is the town itself—its physical reality, its layout of streets and alleys, its stock of buildings—that has been very nearly invisible in almost every account of the battle. And yet, the town of Gettysburg, in both the peculiar fact of its location, and, even more, in the fatal constraints the town placed on the options and maneuvers of the Army of Northern Virginia, which was, throughout the battle, the enormous but silent partner of Union victory.

In the most obvious sense, it was the town’s location that lured the two armies into collision in the first place. Gettysburg sat at the intersection of ten roads in south-central Pennsylvania, including both east-west and north-south routes. It was the first stop for any army (like the Army of Northern Virginia) that had crossed over South Mountain, the first barrier of the Appalachians, and was heading for the Susquehanna River. It would also be the first stop for any army (like the Army of the Potomac) moving north from the Potomac to shield Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg. This was why, as Robert E. Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania that summer of 1863, he told his generals that the most likely place for a battle to occur was Gettysburg. “Gen. Lee wrote to Gen. Ewell that he thought the battle would come off near Fredericks City or Gettysburg,” wrote topographical engineer Jedidiah Hotchkiss on June 28. And when Lee opened a map of the area “between Gettysburg and Emmitsburg,” he remarked to General Isaac Trimble, “Somewhere hereabout, we shall fight a great battle, and if successful, will secure our independence and end the war.”[1]

But the location of Gettysburg at the vortex of the broad plain between the mountains and the river only sets the table for the battle. The town itself had its own role to play, and it was far from a friendly one. In the mid-nineteenth century, there was (for all intents and purposes) no tactical doctrine that described street fighting in towns themselves. For centuries, towns had been besieged and breaches blown in city walls, but a drill for how to conduct “street firing” hardly appeared at all in the manuals of early modern armies. The necessity for house-by-house street clearance occasionally forced itself on European armies, but the general attitude was summed up by Thomas Cooper when he suggested that it had best be avoided altogether in the presence of the enemy.[2]

This reluctance grew out of the nature of nineteenth-century weapons technology: even in the heyday of the rifled musket, the principal aim of fire combat was to deliver as much volume as possible, without regard for individual accuracy of fire (which was difficult to attain anyway, even with the Minié rifling system). The narrowness of streets, however, drastically compressed the volume of fire that any formation of infantry could deliver. This was a gift to poorly equipped bands of urban revolutionaries in the political upheavals in France and Germany in 1825 and 1848—and was romanticized by Victor Hugo’s portrait of the fighting at the Parisian street barricades in Les Miserables—but it was the nemesis of organized infantry.

Both armies at Gettysburg were to learn this lesson the hard way, starting with the Army of the Potomac. Initially ranged to the west and north of the town on July 1, 1863, Confederate attacks cracked the Union defenses and sent the Union troops fleeing for their lives in an unscripted retreat through the streets of Gettysburg. The result was a confusion that beggared description. On paper, Gettysburg appears as a town of neat, parallel streets, meeting at clear right-angle intersections; in practice, it is a town of back alleys that form a labyrinth of dead ends and surprise turns. These streets and alleys were soon “crowded with vehicles of every description, which offered to the passing troops exceedingly troublesome obstructions.” Blocked by the traffic jam, Union soldiers broke away down the alleys only to find that they might run “into a cul-de-sac.” In desperation, soldiers “overflowed into yards and alleys,” struggling to escape capture. Men from the 150th Pennsylvania were “leaping fences, crossing gardens, or passing through shops and dwellings in order to reach streets to which the pursuing forces had not yet penetrated.” Others sought refuge in houses and cellars and a few, with the connivance of civilian homeowners, managed to conceal themselves there throughout the battle. The confusion became panic as stray shells from Confederate artillery landed in the town.[3]

Nevertheless, a surprisingly large number of Union soldiers threaded their way through the maze of the town or entirely skirted the town on its west side and made it to a rallying point just south of the town boundary, on Cemetery Hill. And from this moment, the town of Gettysburg ceased to be a Union problem and became the Confederacy’s greatest obstacle. Bartlett Malone in the 6th North Carolina exulted in how easily “Our Bregaid . . . charged the enemy and soon got them routed and run them threw the town and then we stopt.” The key word is stopt. Few Confederates wanted to move rashly into what might turn out to be traps and ambushes. Instead, they slowed and began a house-by-house clearance of Gettysburg, rounding up “all straggling Yankees in town, and bring[ing] them together to be brought to the rear as prisoners.” Parties of Confederates opened cellar doors and pried into back alleys, looking for fugitive Yankees. Then, the prisoners had to be interrogated. “Rebel officers desired to know the strength of our forces,” recalled 1st Lt. Albert Wallber of the 26th Wisconsin, “whether the entire Army of the Potomac had arrived . . . and how far it was to Baltimore.”[4]

It then became necessary for the Confederate occupiers to begin policing the streets they had captured, warning civilians to stay inside their cellars and arresting anyone who seemed to be harboring suspicious intentions. David McCreary’s son Albertus (a month shy of his fifteenth birthday) had spent the morning on Oak Ridge, trying to catch a glimpse of the action until the fighting made it too hot for him to stay. Albertus unwisely picked up a military cap, and he got the scare of his life when a squad of Confederate soldiers “took me by the arms” and tried to haul him off as a prisoner. Only when his father chased after them, and was joined by “a number of the neighbors, who had come out of their houses on hearing the commotion,” was Albertus finally released. Matilda Pierce’s father was stopped by a menacing Confederate who accused him of concealing a weapon:

Father, who was in his shirt sleeves, threw up his arms and said, “I have no gun!” Whereupon the Confederate deliberately took aim and fired. As soon as Father saw him taking aim, he threw himself down, and no sooner had he done so, when he heard the “zip” of the bullet. . . . The murderous Rebel passed on . . . As soon as he had passed down Baltimore Street, Father got up and had almost reached the house, when he was . . . overtaken by a squad of five Confederates coming down an alley, and who greeted him by saying, “Old Man, why ain’t you in your house?” He replied that he was getting there as fast as he could.[5]

Nothing, however, brought the Confederate occupation of Gettysburg more quickly to a halt than the temptation to loot abandoned stores and houses. Some, like Thomas Causby in Isaac Avery’s North Carolina brigade, looted equipment from dead Yankees in the streets. (Causby “took a new canteen, of which I had need.”) Student rooms in Pennsylvania College, just north of the town, were ransacked, and senior Michael Colver found later that “all my books, trunks and other effects were gone.” Colver’s fellow student, Horatio Watkins, was relieved of his watch by one of the oldest tricks in the pickpocket’s trade:

During the night some of the wandering rebels tried to break into our cellar. . . . Seeing my watch guard, one of the band asked “What time is it?” “Four o’clock,” I replied. “What time of your watch?” “My watch has stopped.” “Let me see it." Of necessity I did. “What will you take for it?” “Twenty dollars,” I said. The man offered me the amount in new Confederate bank notes. “No, sir,” I said. “That is worth no more than as much brown paper.” With an oath he left me watchless, yet watching.[6]

Elizabeth McLean, living just off the town “diamond” on Baltimore Street, saw Confederates break into “stores” and help “themselves to all they could get.” Nellie Aughinbaugh, whose uncle owned one of those stores, remembered how “Boxes and barrels would be dragged into the yard and opened”; she stared, amazed, at seeing the Confederates “knock the tops from kegs of salt mackerel, snatch the fish from the brine, and eat them,—heads, tails and all.” “Sugar in boxes and molasses in pitchers and jugs” were “ransacked from the grocery stores.” Even hastily abandoned clotheslines were fair game: “wherever there was a well of water or hydrant in a yard they washed and put on clean clothes they had taken” from “the week’s wash” left “hanging out to dry and they helped themselves to clean shirts and other underwear, and used other things, such as children’s clothes for wash rags and towels.” John Casler and the pioneer company of the 33rd Virginia found “several barrels of flour, a smokehouse full of bacon, a springhouse full of milk and butter,” along with stoves to “bake bread, cook meat and chickens,” and proceeded to “run the plantation generally. . . . If we did not live well for two days, and fill our haversacks full of good things there, I don’t know a good thing when I see it.” But others were simply obeying an indistinct urge to express their domination of the town by stealing anything that could be stolen. Joseph Polley of the 4th Texas remembered seeing “a lot of shoes—cloth gaiters such as ladies wear—scattered in confusion over the muddy floor of a cellar,” and “selected a pair of no. 3’s and brought them away with me” for no better reason than that he could.[7]

The town seemed to offer the occupying Confederates at least two advantages. The first was a number of observation posts from which the Union position could be scanned. Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell used the cupola of the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church on High Street and Christ Lutheran on Chambersburg Street (actually Ewell didn’t use these posts himself, since he was minus a leg lost after 2nd Bull Run, but he had staff officers shout down information to him in the street), while Lee used the cupolas of both the Lutheran Seminary and Pennsylvania College. The town also offered a supply of sniping posts in houses facing Cemetery Hill. But the cupolas actually lacked enough height to give Lee and his generals a vantage point for viewing the entire Union position, and the Confederate snipers in the town did little more than provide a nuisance to the Federals on the height. Harry Handerson’s Louisiana company occupied “a large, frame house” on the south side of Gettysburg, set up “a generous meal . . . procured by ransacking the pantry and cellar of the mansion, while at the front windows a couple of men were occasionally exchanging shots with the enemy, being relieved at intervals by their comrades and retiring to join in the feast until their turn once more came around.” Relatively few casualties were given or taken, and Confederates who got too close for comfort were generally brushed back by a quick rush of Union soldiers. One Union gunner among the Federal artillery on the hill grew so annoyed by one rebel firing from “one of the church steeples” in the town that he “bade his men run around the cannon and turn somersaults” to induce the rebel shooter to show himself. He did, and the gunner let loose with a round that “struck only a foot above” the shooter’s head, and down came the rebel “swearing he could not stand such shooting as that.”[8]

What was worse, neither the observation posts nor the sniping posts in the town outweighed the more serious problem the town created as an obstacle to Confederate deployment and maneuver. Squeezed into the narrow defiles of the streets, Confederate infantry had no room, once they cleared the last edges of the south end of town, to open up into lines of battle, unless they were prepared to take up to forty-five minutes of hammering in the open—much of it in highly vulnerable close column—by the Federal artillery up on the hill. “An advance through the town,” Confederate general Jubal Early dismally observed, “would have had to be made along the streets by flank or in columns so narrow as to have been subjected to a destructive fire from the batteries on the crest of the hill, which enfiladed the streets.”[9]

The frustration that the physical dimensions of the town placed on the Confederates was probably small consolation to Gettysburg’s civilians, cowering in their cellars. But even then, the town was pulling the Confederacy’s punches. Only one civilian, Virginia Wade, was killed during the three days of battle, and seven others were lightly wounded. (Far more civilians actually died after the battle than during it, mostly small children who found live ordnance scattered around the town and the farms surrounding Gettysburg and proceeded unwarily to play with it.) For all the fighting that occurred in the town, there is no record of any buildings in Gettysburg being destroyed by the fighting, and the town itself rebounded with remarkable speed, with the battle actually providing an economic rainbow for the town. By July 27, Gettysburg’s merchant-prince, George Arnold, was advertising “a very large stock of clothing, suitable for the season, made in the very best manner, and after the latest fashions.” And in a prescient forecast of what would become Gettysburg’s permanent relation to the battle, Arnold wrote, “Our Town has now become immortalized & we wish to make the enterprise as attractive as possible.”[10]

No one, of course, can adequately tell the story of the Gettysburg battle apart from knowing its commanders and its soldiers. And increasingly, we are coming to acknowledge that the story of Gettysburg cannot be fully understood without taking its civilian population into account. But the physical presence of the town had its own silent role to play, in the layout of its streets and alleys, the obstacle posed by its fire-red brick buildings, and the constraints it placed on the maneuverability of the army that thought it had conquered the town, but which was, in the end, conquered by it. 

[1] Stephen W. Sears, Gettysburg (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 117; Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble, February 8, 1883, in Bachelder Papers, ed. D. & A. Ladd (Dayton, OH: Morningside, 1994), 2:925–926.

[2] Philip Haythornthwaite, British Napoleonic Infantry Tactics, 17921815 (Oxford: Osprey, 2008), 52; Richard Brooks, Solferino 1859: The Battle for Italy’s Freedom (Oxford: Osprey, 2009), 45.

[3] Dr. J.W.C. O’Neal Account, Gettysburg National Military Park Vertical Files [#8–14]; Gerald R. Bennett, Days of Uncertainty and Dread: The Ordeal Endured by the Civilians at Gettysburg (Gettysburg, PA, 1994), 29.

[4] Louis Leon, Diary of a Tar Heel Confederate Soldier (Charlotte, NC: Stone, 1913), 34–35; Sgt. J.A. Leach [1st South Carolina] to J.C. Bachelder, June 2, 1884, in Bachelder Papers, 2:1047; Wallber, “From Gettysburg to Libby Prison,” in War Papers read before the Commandery of the State of Wisconsin, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (Milwaukee, WI: Burick and Allen, 1914), 4:192.

[5] Bennett, Days of Uncertainty and Dread, 34–35, 67; Tillie Pierce Alleman, At Gettysburg: or, What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle (New York: Lake Borland, 1889), 86–88; Albertus McCreary, “Gettysburg: A Boy’s Experience of the Battle,” McClure’s Magazine 33 (July 1909): 248.

[6] Thomas Espy Causby, “Storming the Stone Fence at Gettysburg,” Southern Historical Society Papers 29 (January–December 1901): 340; Rev. M. Colver, “Reminiscences of the Battle of Gettysburg,” and Rev. H.J. Watkins, “Gettysburg War Incidents,” 1902 Spectrum [Gettysburg College Yearbook, Special Collections], 179–180, 182.

[7] “The Rebels Are Coming! How This Cry Alarmed the People in ’63—What A School Girl Saw and Heard,” Gettysburg Compiler, July 8, 1908; Nellie E. Aughinbaugh, Personal Experiences of a Young Girl during the Battle of Gettysburg (Washington, DC, 1926), 8; John Overton Casler, Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade (Girard, KS: Appeal, 1906), 176; Joseph Benjamin Polley, A Soldier’s Letters to Charming Nellie (New York: Neale, 1908), 136.

[8] Henry S. Heidekoper, in Michael Winey, Confederate Army Uniforms at Gettysburg (Collingswood, NJ: C.W. Historicals, 2007), 24; Terry L. Jones, ed., Campbell Brown’s Civil War: With Ewell and the Army of Northern Virginia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), 216; Clyde Lottridge Cummer, ed., Yankee in Gray: The Civil War Memoirs of Henry E. Handerson (Cleveland, OH: Press of Western Reserve University, 1962), 63; Hartwell Osborn, Trials and Triumphs: The Record of the Fifty-Fifth Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Chicago, 1904), 99–100; Fitzgerald Ross, A Visit to the Cities and Camps of the Confederate States (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1865), 51; John Linn, “Journal of My Trip to the Battlefield of Gettysburg, July 1863,” Civil War Times Illustrated 29 (September–October 1990): 62–63.

[9] Jubal Anderson Early, Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early, C.S.A.: Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War between the States (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1912), 269.

[10] Charles H. Gladfelter, “George Arnold (1799–1879) and a Town Immortalized,” Adams County History 12 (2006): 23.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College.

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Re Street Firing (a professional military term dating back to 17th Century manuals) is in fact covered in the 1863 U.S. Infantry Tactics manual, describing how to deploy formed troops in urban streets. Similar, though not identical tactics, were discussed in a manual written by Hugh Forbes and published in New York in 1857 - Manual for the Patriotic Volunteer on Active Service in Regular and Irregular War" - purporting to reflect the experience of Garibaldi in Italy. Essentially the same tactics, referred to as street firing were included in a manual for the Royal Marines offered by a Lieutenant of the Royal Marines in about 1786. All essentially describe formed troops in ranks reaching almost across a street from building to building, firing and them moving to either the left or right flank to the rear of the column, where they reload and wait until they again become the front rank ready to fire.

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