A Day Of Deadly Surprises

Confederate General Alfred Iverson sent his
troops into a deadly Union ambush during
the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg on
July 1, 1863.
Historians are still debating whether the Battle of Gettysburg was fought over shoes. The legend goes that Confederate generals in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia believed that there was a shoe factory in Gettysburg where they might find shoes for their many barefoot soldiers.

No such factory existed, and neither Lee nor his adversary, Union General George Meade, were looking for a knockdown drag-out fight in southern Pennsylvania on July 1, 1863. But with tens of thousands of Confederate and Union troops drawing closer and closer to each other in the area around Gettysburg, just such a fight was inevitable.

“The first of July is a day of surprises,” said Gary Kross, a guide who took me on a personal tour of the Gettysburg battlefield a few years ago. “You’re never quite sure where your opponent will be coming from. Men are constantly coming in throughout the day from different directions.”

The fighting was already underway when the 5th North Carolina Infantry and the 52nd North Carolina Infantry reached Gettysburg on July 1. My great-grandfather, William C. Dry, was in the 52nd, while his younger brother Thomas was in the 5th.
The 5th North Carolina Infantry was among the units commanded by Brigadier General Alfred Iverson, a Georgian. Iverson’s leadership on July 1 would prove disastrous for his men, Kross said.

Iverson’s men arrived northwest of Gettysburg and were ordered to drive Union forces from Oak Ridge, which overlooked the town.
But Iverson was the wrong man for that job. “At two o’clock in the afternoon, this Confederate general is drunk as a skunk and can’t sit on his horse,” Kross said. “As his men go off to battle he yells out at them, ‘Give ‘em hell, boys!’ But he doesn’t go with them.”

Still, the approximately 1,400 Confederate troops advancing on Oak Ridge thought they had a Union force of about 500 outnumbered by almost three to one. But the Confederate commanders hadn’t bothered to do any reconnaissance of the area to confirm how many Union troops were in the area.
So the Confederates were walking straight into a stunning and deadly trap.

Just behind the crest of Oak Ridge, where the ground starts sloping down toward the town, was a low stone wall about 3½ feet tall. And behind that wall, just out of sight of the advancing Confederates, crouched about 3,000 Union troops.
The Confederate troops weren’t even ready to fire their rifles as they moved toward Oak Ridge in long lines roughly parallel with the wall. They were marching with their rifles across their shoulders, as though they were on a parade ground instead of a battlefield.

The unsuspecting Confederates advanced to about 200 feet from the crest of the ridge. “That’s when the Union soldiers stand up, some four rows deep, level their rifles and fire a volley right into the faces of the North Carolinians,” Kross said. “They never saw it coming.”
The deadly fusillade struck the first line of soldiers. “Hundreds of North Carolinians went down on the first volley,” Kross said. “One Confederate indicated that there were at least 500 men going down on the first volley. If that’s true, that’s incredible. These men were shot to pieces, blown apart.”

One unlucky North Carolina soldier named Eugene Phillips was hit in the head by six bullets, Kross said.

Another North Carolina soldier survived that devastating blast because he was in the second row – or rank – of soldiers. He wrote about his experience later that day.
“He writes in his journal that night that he was sprayed by the brains of the men in the first rank” Kross said.

Somehow Thomas Dry survived the withering fire that decimated the 5th North Carolina Infantry. What he did in the face of that hail of bullets isn’t known. It’s likely that he flung himself on the ground, and perhaps he tried to fire back at the Union troops. But the odds were hopeless, and shortly after that deadly blast of gunfire, Thomas and other surviving Confederates surrendered and were taken prisoner by the Union troops.  

Between 2 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., the 52nd North Carolina Infantry arrived at the west side of Gettysburg, along with the 11th, 26th, and 47th North Carolina infantries. William was perhaps a mile or so south of where his brother’s unit had nearly been wiped out. The 52nd and other Confederate units splashed across a small creek called Willoughby Run west of the town, cursing at the briars and underbrush that tore at them as they began moving up a hill known as McPherson’s Ridge.

In his epic three-volume work The Civil War: A Narrative, author Shelby Foote described what the 11th and 26th North Carolina infantries encountered after they’d crossed Willoughby Run.

“As they started up McPherson’s Ridge ,,, the woods along the crest were suddenly filled with flame-stabbed smoke and the crash of heavy volleys,” Foote wrote

Soon, the Confederates discovered who was shooting at them. They were being met by the Union Army’s famed Iron Brigade, composed of soldiers from Wisconsin and Michigan. Foote described the unit as “made up of hard-bitten Westerners with a formidable reputation for hard fighting.”

But the proud Union unit had been involved in fighting earlier in the day, and was not quite up to full strength. Still, the Iron Brigade had been told to hold their ground at all costs. What followed was what Kross described as “one of the most remarkable fights of the entire Civil War.”

For an hour and 40 minutes, the 11th and 26th North Carolina infantries slugged it out with the Iron Brigade from a distance of only about 60 feet apart.

Finally, the Iron Brigade broke and retreated to a Lutheran seminary at the western edge of Gettysburg.

The 47th and 52nd were more fortunate. They were met by the 121st Pennsylvania Infantry, an inexperienced unit made up of “pretty raw recruits,” Kross said. “They do not put up a very good fight,” he said. The Pennsylvanians soon fell back to the seminary also.

The North Carolinians then were met by a tougher Union unit, the 80th New York Infantry. But the Union soldiers were caught between the 47th and 52nd North Carolina infantries. Still, they might have been able to hold their line if a drunken Union general had not foolishly ordered a charge against the Confederate positions. About one-third of the men were lost. The Union forces were forced to fall back.

Despite the slaughter at Oak Ridge, Union troops got the worst of the fighting that day and were forced to fall back through the streets of Gettysburg. But they still held high ground south of the town, and reinforcements were arriving. The second day of the battle wouldn’t go as well for the Confederates.
Sources for this post included The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote; and research by licensed Gettysburg battlefield guide Gary Kross.


Christi said...

This is gorgeous!

Lesley Duckworth said...

Love this! My third great uncle Julius Kendall was in the 52 I. He was left mortally wounded on the field of Pickett's Charge on July 3 but that was all of the information my family has ever had on what happened to him. Thank you for an easy to read narrative on their activities on these three days!