Brigadier General James Archer’s 1,100-man brigade trudged toward Gettysburg on Chambersburg Pike in the van of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s Division. Second in line, Brig. Gen. Joseph Davis deployed his brigade on the opposite side (north) of the pike. Heth’s other two brigades under Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew and Col. John M. Brockenbrough marched behind Davis, with Maj. Gen. W. Dorsey Pender’s Division following Heth. None of these foot soldiers expected a serious fight on what promised to be another muggy summer day.
Two brigades of Maj. Gen. John Buford’s cavalry division, slightly more than 2,700 men, stood between Gettysburg and almost 13,500 Confederates approaching from the west. Buford intended to fight a delaying action, knowing the Federal I and XI Corps were closing on the battlefield. He knew he could not stop an entire enemy division, but he could force Heth to shift from marching column into line of battle.
Approaching Herr Ridge, Archer deployed his men into line of battle on the right (south) of Chambersburg Pike. The 5th Alabama Battalion, with 50 men from the 13th Alabama, formed the skirmish line that first encountered the dismounted 8th Illinois Cavalry of Col. William Gamble’s brigade, slowly pushing it back toward Willoughby Run. Behind the skirmish line, Archer deployed his line of battle from left to right: 7th Tennessee – 14th Tennessee – 1st Tennessee – 13th Alabama. Because of gentler terrain, the regiments on the left outdistanced those on the right, forcing Archer to order the advanced units to halt until the others caught up. One foot soldier in the 13th Alabama recalled that we “halted to reform, reload, catch our breath, and cool off a little.” Willoughby Run was up ahead, clear water nearly knee-deep with “pebbles in bottom,” recalled an Alabama foot soldier. The cautious Archer halted his brigade. General Heth rode up and ordered him to test the “strength and line of battle of the enemy.” Archer demurred, stating that his “brigade was [too] light to risk so far in advance of support.” Unconvinced, Heth ordered Archer to continue advancing.
Neither Archer nor any of his men knew of the rapid approach of the Iron Brigade on the opposite side of Willoughby Run. Major General James Wadsworth’s division of the I Corps approached Gettysburg from the south along Emmitsburg Road, having spent the night at Marsh Creek. Near the Codori House, the men abandoned the road and marched overland in a northwest direction toward the Lutheran Theological Seminary on the ridge that bore its name. In the van, Lysander Cutler’s brigade straddled Chambersburg Pike. The 1,800-man Iron Brigade under Brig. Gen. Solomon Meredith hurried after Cutler’s men as they crossed the fields leading to Herbst Woods.
The 2nd Wisconsin led the Iron Brigade, followed by the 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, 24th Michigan, and 6th Wisconsin. Lieutenant Colonel John Kress of General Wadsworth’s staff met the column as it approached the Seminary. When General Meredith could not be found and with Archer’s men swarming across Willoughby Run, Kress ordered each regiment to shift from column of fours into line of battle with two ranks, and sent them west toward the enemy. This resulted in an en echelon attack formation as the units were fed into the combat as soon as they arrived. The 6th Wisconsin formed the reserve near the seminary.
The 2nd Wisconsin barreled toward Herbst (McPherson’s) Woods without waiting for the other regiments to form beside it. On its left, Sergeant Charles Pergel’s two-gun section of Calef’s battery continued firing at the approaching enemy.
The left flank of Archer’s brigade line extended as far as the northern portion of Herbst Woods. The 5th Alabama Battalion, still deployed as a skirmish line, thinly extended the line north to Chambersburg Pike. The men from the battalion exchanged musket fire with the 84th and 95th New York regiments of Cutler’s brigade that occupied the McPherson farm buildings.
Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Shepard of the 7th Tennessee was deeply concerned about the terrain around Willoughby Run. The landscape included “a fence and undergrowth, which was some disadvantage to our line in crossing.” Still, his men “rushed across with a cheer” and began climbing the steep bank on the opposite side of the stream. The rugged terrain opened gaps between several of the regiments. Archer’s men were no longer advancing as a solid, cohesive brigade.
The 2nd Wisconsin moved to meet the advancing Confederates. Just prior to reaching Herbst Woods, the regiment encountered a fence that disorganized its lines. The men were also ordered to load their weapons on the run, which threw them into further disarray. They took no time to halt and dress their lines but moved quickly down the sloping pasture toward Willoughby Run. As the infantry advanced, Pergel’s section of Calef’s battery pulled back to safety.
A heavy volley from the 7th and 14th Tennessee met the men of the 2nd Wisconsin as they descended the slope. Dozens of men—possibly as many as 30% of the regiment—fell killed or wounded. The 7th’s Col. S. G. Shepard reported this initial volley was delivered at a range of only 40-50 yards. Although it will never be known with certainty, the volley may have also killed Maj. Gen. John Reynolds. (Some claim a sharpshooter’s bullet killed him, but this is very unlikely as there were no sharpshooters operating in that sector.) “Our men fired with great coolness and deliberation,” Shepard later reported, “and with terrible effect.”
The 2nd Wisconsin’s advance ground to a halt as the officers reformed the men and judged their losses. The rest of the brigade had not yet arrived. As the men of the 13th Alabama on the right of Archer’s line finally reached the stream bed that provided some shelter from the Federal bullets, they halted momentarily to rest, re-form, and reload before moving up the slope. One Alabama soldier recalled seeing the Tennesseans on their left fan out as they moved up the ridge from Willoughby Run. At the same time, an officer, probably from the 14th Tennessee, requested that the unopposed 13th Alabama on the right of the line oblique slightly to the left and throw enfilade fire into the 2nd Wisconsin. The Alabamians complied, moving slowly up the slope while swinging its left toward its crest until it was only 75 yards from the left flank of the 2nd Wisconsin. The subsequent converging fire killed and wounded several Federal infantrymen. The Tennessee soldiers in front of the 2nd Wisconsin loaded while lying on their backs and rolled over to fire at the enemy, repeating the process again and again.
Help was on the way in the form of the 7th Wisconsin. Approaching the seminary behind the 2nd Wisconsin, Lt. Col. John Kress quickly sent it toward Willoughby Run after it formed into line of battle. Colonel William Robinson rushed his men forward at the double-quick with orders to load their rifles as they moved. Robinson explained in his report that just moments earlier “no one expected that we were to be engaged so quickly.”
When the regiment reached the crest of the hill, several men were struck by fire from Archer’s men. A heavy layer of smoke made it difficult for Colonel Robinson to evaluate the surrounding terrain and identify the troops firing into his unit. When he inquired of an aide as to the source of the fire, the subordinate merely pointed to the left, where the colonel spotted a Confederate flag. Rather than pitching forward like the 2nd Wisconsin, Robinson decided to wait until the 19th Indiana and the 24th Michigan regiments arrived and formed on his left.
As it happened, the 19th Indiana had been on picket duty the night before so its men’s rifles were already loaded. The 24th Michigan had halted to load its weapons upon arriving on the crest of the McPherson Ridge, but a staff officer ordered the regiment to hurry forward to catch up with the other two regiments now rushing toward Willoughby Run.
On the right side of Archer’s line, officers of the 13th Alabama apparently spotted the 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, and 24th Michigan approaching and ordered a hasty retreat. Other soldiers in Archer’s remaining regiments did not see the Federal threat and were confused by the sudden withdrawal. “We could see no reason for the order, as the Tennesseans were keeping the blue boys busy, and things seemed to be going pretty well for us,” explained one soldier.
After driving the 13th Alabama back to Willoughby Run, the 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, and 24th Michigan delivered a final volley and then, in the words of Col. William Robinson of the 7th Wisconsin, “rushed into the ravine with a yell.” According to a member of the 13th Alabama, “all of a sudden a heavy line of battle rose up out of the wheat, and poured a volly into our ranks, it wavered and they charged us, and we fell back to the ravine again, and before we could rally, it seemed to me there were 20,000 Yanks down in among us hollowing surrender.” The newly arrived Federal troops scooped up scores of Alabamians and sent them to the rear as prisoners. Private E. Boland, a member of the 13th Alabama, recalled that “we discovered that we had tackled a hard proposition … we had Yankees on the front, Yankees on the flanks, and seen Yankees behind us…. After a short, furious fight,” Boland continued, “surrounded by infantry and cavalry, nothing was left for us to do but lay down in the field and allow the enemy to come on or surrender, which we did.”
Although the 1st and 14th Tennessee in the center of Archer’s line could not see the advancing Federals, they knew they were there because of the heavy musketry and rifle fire zipping in from the right. Every man in the ranks knew what the increasing regularity and intensity of the fire meant. According to Captain Jacob Turney of the 1st Tennessee, when the Federal shooting suddenly ceased, “[I] dropped on my knees, and, looking beneath the hanging smoke, saw the feet and legs of the enemy moving to our left.” Rushing over to General Archer, Turney told him what he saw. “I guess not, Captain, since Gen. Joe Davis is to occupy that timber to our left,” Archer is said to have replied.
The men of the 2nd Wisconsin could see Confederates darting from tree to tree as they sought out better defensive positions. Colonel Lucius Fairchild realized the Confederates were reforming their lines and that three other Federal regiments had come up to join him on the left. He ordered his 2nd Wisconsin to resume its charge. A bullet ripped into his arm soon after, forcing him to relinquish command to Maj. John Mansfield. The Tennesseans held their ground until the 2nd Wisconsin came to within about fifteen paces before falling back across the stream. Finding no resistance in their front, the 24th Michigan on the left of the line splashed across Willoughby Run and wrapped behind the remnants of the retiring 13th Alabama and 1st Tennessee, capturing additional men as it did so. With increasing pressure against their front, and with the 24th Michigan curling around their left flank and rear, Archer’s men fell back as quickly as possible to avoid the closing enemy jaws.
The threat posed to the right flank of the Federal line by Joe Davis’Brigade resulted in the 6th Wisconsin and the 84th and 95th New York regiments of Cutler’s brigade being moved in that direction. The shifting of these regiments prevented them from participating in the repulse of James Archer’s Brigade.
Archer’s heavy losses totaled about 375 men, including 240 captured. As the soldiers of the 2nd Wisconsin crossed the stream to round up additional prisoners, they captured a knot of men in the thick undergrowth. One of them was General Archer himself—the first general officer from the Army of Northern Virginia to be captured on the field of battle. Just moments before, Archer was observed to be “very much exhausted with fatigue.” Colonel Birkett Fry of the 13th Alabama assumed command of the shattered brigade after it fell back and regrouped.