I recently finished reading Stephen Sears Chancellorsville. One of the three appendices that accompany the book is titled “The Romances of Chancellorsville.” By romance Sears meant the fictions, the fables and yarns, that were spun up after the Battle of Chancellorsville. Gettysburg has no end of romances associated with it so I have decided to borrow from Sears and start a series in this blog exploring some of this battle’s famous romances. My way of thanking Stephen Sears for this idea is to highly recommend his excellent book. A thorough understanding of Chancellorsville and its ramifications to both armies is necessary to fully understand Gettysburg.
No romance of Gettysburg is more cherished, enduring, and oft repeated than the one that claims the Confederates stumbled into the battle on July 1 while marching to Gettysburg to search the town for badly needed shoes. It not only worked its way into the history of the battle – many historians have repeated it through the years– but it is one of those easily remembered stories that became part of the battle’s folklore.
The source of this story was Confederate Major General Henry Heth, a division commander in A. P. Hill’s 3rd Corps. Heth was a professional soldier and a personal friend of Robert E. Lee. Gettysburg was his first battle with the Army of Northern Virginia as a division commander, and it was the advance of his division upon Gettysburg on the
morning of July 1 which precipitated the great battle. In 1877 Heth was asked by Philippe d’Orleans, Comte de Paris, to contribute an article about Gettysburg to the “Annals of War” series being run by the Philadelphia Weekly Times. Times editor Alexander McClure had started the Annals series in March of that year. McClure claimed the series would “furnish the most valuable contributions to the future historian which have yet been given to the world.” The Comte de Paris, a grandson of former French King Louis Philippe I, served for a time with the Army of the Potomac in 1861 and 1862, and after the war established many contacts with former Confederate officers whom he encouraged to contribute articles to McClure’s Annals series.
Heth’s article appeared in the September 22, 1877 paper, titled, “Why Lee Lost at Gettysburg.” Heth affixed the blame for Lee’s defeat upon Maj. Gen. James E. B. Stuart and his cavalry, who were absent from the army during the critical days before the battle. It was the absence of Confederate cavalry, Heth claimed, that caused him to innocently stumble into the Union army at Gettysburg while marching to the borough to seize a supply of shoes. For our purposes, the most important section of Heth’s article is the following passage:
Hearing that a supply of shoes was to be obtained in Gettysburg, eight miles distant from Cashtown [where Heth’s division was camped], and greatly needing shoes for my men, I directed General Pettigrew [one of his four brigade commanders] to go to Gettysburg and get these supplies.
On the 30th of June General Pettigrew, with his brigade, went near Gettysburg, but did not enter the town, returning the same evening to Cashtown, reporting that he had not carried out my orders, as Gettysburg was occupied by the enemy’s cavalry, and that some of his officers reported hearing drums beating on the farther side of the town; that under these circumstances he did not deem it advisable to enter Gettysburg. About this time Gen. Hill rode up, and this information was given him. He remarked, “the only force at Gettysburg is cavalry, probably a detachment of observation. I am just from General Lee, and the information he has from his scouts corroborates that I have received from mine – that is the enemy are still at Middleburg [Maryland], and have not yet struck their tents.” I then said, if there is no objection, I will take my division to-morrow and go to Gettysburg and get those shoes!” Hill replied, “None in the world.”
So, innocently, casually, the decision was made to send an infantry division of nearly 7,000 men to Gettysburg to do no more than seize a supply of shoes. Heth also claimed that his division marched to within a mile (more or less) of Gettysburg without encountering any enemy and that he placed artillery to shell woods to the “right and left” of the town. Receiving no reply to this shelling Heth wrote that he ordered two of his four brigades to advance and occupy the town. This advance was surprised by the enemy infantry and the two brigades driven back “with some loss.” Significantly, Heth made no mention of encountering any Union cavalry that morning. [GNMP Library, Folder 18, Box-42]
Heth’s article elicited an immediate response from the “Gray Ghost,” the famous former Confederate partisan, Colonel John S. Mosby. Mosby was a fierce defender of Jeb Stuart’s reputation and a blunt spoken fellow. He sensed Heth was using the public forum of the Times to shape public opinion about the battle by assigning blame to Stuart and the cavalry and diverting attention away from Heth’s own role in bringing about the battle. Mosby fired off letters challenging Heth’s account and defending Stuart to both the Times, and the Southern Historical Society Papers, which had printed Heth’s Annals of War article in its entirety in its September 1877 edition. Despite his brilliant war record for the Confederate army Mosby’s postwar embrace of the Republican Party made him a pariah to many in the South and the Southern Historical Society did not publish his response to Heth. In his letter to the Times – which principally focused on defending Stuart – Mosby mentioned that Heth skirmished with Buford’s cavalry for two hours before any infantry support came to the cavalry’s support.
Heth replied to Mosby in the Times on March 23, 1878, with a lengthy article, “Gen. Lee’s Orders to His Cavalry.” In it he made the astounding claim that there was not “shadow of truth” to the account that his division had engaged Buford’s cavalry. “Of all the preposterous assertions in connection with the war this is the most so that has ever come to my knowledge,” he wrote. Heth continued: “As I opened the battle of Gettysburg – stumbled into it, going to Gettysburg to get shoes, not to fight – I claim I should know as much about the opening operations and whom I fought as any man living. I did not have so much as a skirmish with General Buford’s cavalry or with any other cavalry. The first force of the enemy I struck was infantry (Reynolds’ corps).” Two important points to keep in mind in evaluating Heth’s statements are 1) the Official Records of the war, including Heth’s Gettysburg report, had not yet been published, and 2) nearly anyone on the Confederate side who might refute Heth’s account of his morning engagement and why he marched to Gettysburg on July 1, were dead. [GNMP Library, Folder 18, Box-42]
[Part 2 to come]
D. Scott Hartwig