Harry Heth Blunders Toward Gettysburg


Lee Deliberates Heth’s Advance – Gettysburg by Bradley Schmehl

July 1, 1863

After the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate Major General Henry Heth, commonly called Harry, spent a lifetime admitting that he had blundered into a major engagement at Gettysburg, despite being ordered not to, and then explaining why it wasn’t his fault. In the years after the war, “Why did we lose at Gettysburg?” became a great and contentious topic of debate among Confederate veterans and former generals. There was finger-pointing aplenty, much of it nasty and false. Heth no doubt felt vulnerable in this debate, and perhaps was dogged by a sense of personal guilt that he had brought it all on. The great irony is that Heth defended himself against the wrong mistake. Gettysburg was not his fault: it was ultimately Lee’s. Heth’s blunders that fateful morning of July 1 were tactical and operational, not strategic.

At 5 A.M. on July 1, 1863, Heth’s division, just under 8,000 men, set out on the pike from Cashtown, Pennsylvania, marching east toward Gettysburg. The ground immediately west of Gettysburg consisted of rolling farmland and some woods, with three parallel and well-defined ridges running roughly north to south: Herr Ridge about a mile and a half from the town, McPherson’s Ridge about eight tenths of a mile farther east, and Seminary Ridge just a few hundred yards east of McPherson’s Ridge. The pike ran straight and true at a slight northwest to southeast slant from Herr Ridge to McPherson’s and Seminary Ridges and then into the town.

By 11 a.m., Heth’s division sat on Herr Ridge west of Gettysburg, licking its wounds. While two of his four brigades, including his largest and best, General James J. Pettigrew’s, had remained unengaged, his remaining two brigades under Brigadier General James J. Archer and Brigadier General Joseph R. Davis, nephew of Jefferson Davis, had been brutally repulsed. Both were out of the battle for the day, serving as placeholders in the line as the first day at Gettysburg unfolded. Their fighting strength would be sorely wanted later that day.

The details of this engagement are well-known and have been covered in numerous histories. First, the dismounted cavalry of John Buford’s Union cavalry division had delayed Heth’s advance toward Herr Ridge, causing him to deploy a skirmish line to drive back the much less numerous cavalry pickets. When the Confederates approached Herr Ridge, Buford had a full regiment waiting in skirmish order. Heth halted and deployed. He put Archer’s brigade in line of battle south of the pike, and Davis’s brigade in line to the north. His remaining two brigades remained in reserve. With two brigades against their one regiment, the cavalry made a fighting withdrawal down the far side of Herr Ridge toward Willoughby Run, a shallow creek in the valley between Herr Ridge and McPherson’s Ridge. The rest of Buford’s division, in a long thin line along McPherson’s Ridge, tensely awaited the Confederate onslaught.

General Archer didn’t want to advance against the Union forces on McPherson’s Ridge, despite Heth’s urging, correctly observing that he had no idea what might lie in those woods to his front along that ridge. Heth listened, and an artillery duel began between Confederate and Union guns on their respective ridges. About a half hour passed. Then Heth again ordered Archer and Davis forward. Archer’s brigade drove forward south of the pike as far as Willoughby Run and then stopped at the base of McPherson’s Ridge, facing a steeply rising swell of ground partly covered by the Herbst Woods. Davis’s brigade moved steadily toward the Union line to the north of the pike. Perhaps Davis’s men did not immediately notice that Union infantry were relieving the cavalry to their front, and that their flanks were “in the air,” as Archer’s line did not extend far enough north to actually reach the pike.

Again Archer objected to continuing the advance but this time Heth would not relent. Reluctantly, Archer led his brigade forward. In a short while they found themselves in an intense firefight with the arriving elements of the Union’s feared and elite Iron Brigade. In a short while Archer’s brigade was flanked, then overwhelmed by the Union troops who had arrived just in time to save the hard-pressed cavalry. The brigade collapsed in a retreat that became a rout. At least 200 prisoners fell into Union hands, including General Archer himself, the first general of the Army of Northern Virginia to be captured in the war.

Davis’s brigade fared little better. At first his three regiments did well, flanking and driving back the newly arrived Union infantry to their front. But more Union infantry had deployed in that gap between Davis’s and Archer’s brigades, forming a line parallel to the pike. The 6th Wisconsin Regiment from the Iron Brigade joined the other Union troops on this line and opened a galling fire on the Confederate flank. Davis’s entire brigade turned to face this new threat, and soon his regiments were intermingled and taking cover in the now infamous unfinished railroad cut, a ditch that had been cut for the placement of railroad tracks. Rufus Dawes led the 6th Wisconsin and other Union troops in a now legendary charge against the railroad cut, and despite sustaining heavy losses, ended up capturing at least 200 and possibly many more prisoners in the cut, while the rest of Davis’s brigade fled for their lives back to Herr Ridge.

By 11 a.m. the remnants of Davis’s and Archer’s brigades were back on Herr Ridge, where the remaining brigades of Generals Pettigrew and John Brockenbrough could offer protection. Heth halted his attack and reported to Lee. He did not resume operations until ordered to do so by Lee later that afternoon.

Heth had allowed himself to be surprised first by the strength of the resistance of the Union cavalry he encountered, and then by the surprise arrival of the cream of the Army of the Potomac. What’s worse, this happened after General Pettigrew was sent to Gettysburg the previous day but had retired before entering the town, because he found a strong force of Federal cavalry there and suspected that infantry was nearby.

The question remains: why did Harry Heth blunder so badly?

It’s no good asking Heth himself this question. Over the years he gave numerous and contradictory accounts of what he was thinking and what his orders were during this opening engagement of the Battle of Gettysburg.

In his official written report, the earliest written testimony we have from him, he acknowledged that Pettigrew found enemy cavalry at Gettysburg the day before, and states, “I was ignorant what force was at or near Gettysburg, and supposed it consisted of cavalry, most probably supported by a brigade or two of infantry.” Was this accuracy of his “supposition” based on hindsight? Only much later, in 1877 after Lee, Hill, and Pettigrew were all dead, did he write his most often cited account, in which neither he nor Hill believed Pettigrew’s report, and apparently concluded that any cavalry at Gettysburg was either militia or a detachment of observation—a very small force of perhaps a squadron or two. The “shoes” story—the tale that the Confederates came to Gettysburg to get badly needed shoes—takes its life from this 1877 account. Still later in life, Heth allegedly told a Union officer in an interview that General Lee himself had sent him a note that fateful morning, telling him to “get the shoes even if I had to fight for them.” This whopper doesn’t hold water, but it does show how desperately Heth did not want to be remembered as the man who started the battle that doomed the Confederacy.

Heth spent a lifetime trying to avoid blame for the wrong mistake. The truth is that even after Heth’s force first delayed and then bloodily repulsed, it was Lee, not Heth, who decided to renew the battle that afternoon. Heth’s real blunder was not in engaging; his real blunder was the sloppy way he engaged.

Harry Heth was a vibrant and lovable character with a well-known devil-may-care attitude. His genial, joking, outgoing nature made him one of the best liked of all the Confederate officers. Before and after the Civil War, fellow officers befriended him—Ambrose Burnside was his West Point roommate and lifelong friend; Winfield Scott Hancock loved Heth like a cousin if not a brother, and promised to “take care of” Heth if he won the presidential election of 1880; Robert E. Lee himself was under Heth’s charming spell, and Heth was known to be the only officer Lee addressed by his first name. But Heth also had the impulsive and volatile nature shared by his first cousin George Pickett. (He also shared with Pickett the distinction of being last in his class at West Point.) This impulsive side of his character often served him poorly on the Civil War battlefield.

The trait showed in his first real Civil War engagement at Lewisburg, West Virginia, in May 1862. There, with a very slight superiority in numbers, Heth launched a force composed largely of raw conscripts in a straight-up frontal assault against much more experienced Union foes. The Union forces quickly recovered from any surprise Heth thought he had, and counterattacked the oncoming Confederates. Heth’s force was routed.

Again, commanding a brigade at Chancellorsville in May 1863, he almost blundered into a fatal night assault against a superior Union force in strong defensive terrain. He was saved at the last minute by some alert scouts who got word to him in time to cancel the attack.

Oddly, Heth’s career did not suffer from these seeming setbacks. In fact, he continued to be promoted—a strong affirmation that aggressiveness, even if overly impulsive, was rewarded in Lee’s command. And at no time was this culture of the aggressive spirit more strong in the Army of Northern Virginia than in the summer of 1863 following Lee’s incredible victory at Chancellorsville. There Lee had broken all the rules, twice dividing an inferior force in the presence of a superior enemy, and then driving that enemy to defeat and retreat. Indeed, Lee directed real anger after the battle at subordinates who he believed had failed to show a sufficiently aggressive spirit. Years later Heth wrote in his memoirs that Lee was the most aggressive general in the army.

At Gettysburg, Heth commanded a full division for the first time, and he almost certainly was not going to disappoint the mentor and guardian of his career by showing a lack of aggressive spirit. Furthermore, his orders from his immediate superior, III Corps commander General A. P. Hill, were to conduct a reconnaissance in force to see what Union force was in the vicinity of Gettysburg. A reconnaissance in force calls for aggressive action to provoke an enemy response. Given an impulsive general who has been rewarded for impulsive aggressive behavior, in an army with a cult of the aggressive spirit, and with order to recon in force, there is no question that Heth was going to attack anything he found.

Two questions remain. Why did Heth send in only two brigades against a foe of undetermined strength, and why did he leave his two supporting brigades—Pettigrew’s and Brockenbrough’s—too far to the rear to support his lead brigades if they ran into trouble? Perhaps the answer lies in part with that nagging “other order” Heth had that morning—the order not to bring on a major engagement. A probe with a couple of brigades could still be called minor; throwing his whole command into the fray couldn’t be seen as anything less than a major engagement.

Still, why did he allow himself to be surprised? At times Heth tried to blame the absence of J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry for the “surprise” at Gettysburg, and by implication for his own misfortunes on that first morning. In fact the unavailability of intelligence from Stuart is one of the most often cited reasons for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. This excuse won’t hold for Heth that morning. Heth had been forewarned by Pettigrew. Moreover, Buford’s cavalry line was stretched thin; even a few officers sent on horseback to scout ahead could have ridden around the south end of Buford’s line, and upon reaching the crest of Seminary Ridge they would have seen Union infantry hastening toward the battlefield. In the end, it was his hasty impulsiveness that did in Heth that morning.

The morning defeat is often little noted, given the overall Confederate victory on that first day at Gettysburg. But a nagging question remains: what if A. P. Hill had had two fresh brigades available from Heth’s division late in the afternoon when Lee wanted Cemetery Hill to be taken?

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