1883 saw the publication of volume 3 of the Comte de Paris’s widely read History of the Civil War in America, which included an extensive treatment of Gettysburg (so popular that in 1886 the Gettysburg section was published as a separate book titled The Battle of Gettysburg). The Comte did not have access to the war’s official records and had to rely upon an extensive post-war correspondence with former officers for his primary source material. Considering his limited resources he did very well and his history remains worth reading. While the Comte did not entirely embrace Henry Heth’s account that he took his division to Gettysburg on July 1 merely to seize a supply of shoes he did accept Heth’s statement that his division stood in great need of shoes and that capturing shoes for Heth’s division figured in A. P. Hill’s decision to send the division to Gettysburg on July 1. [The Comte de Paris, The Civil War in America, (Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1883), v. 3, 533-534.]
In 1889, part 2 of volume 27, of the War Department’s massive War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies was published by the Government Printing Office. Volume 27, which consisted of three parts and ran to well over 3,000 pages, covered the official reports and correspondence of the Gettysburg Campaign. Part 2, volume 27, contained the surviving after-action reports from regimental to army command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Both A. P. Hill and Henry Heth’s reports of the battle were included. Hill completed his report in November, 1863 while Heth filed his on September 13, slightly over two months after the battle. Heth’s report confirmed that on June 30 an important part of Pettigrew’s mission was to search Gettysburg “for supplies (shoes especially),” and that Pettigrew “found a large force of cavalry near the town, supported by infantry,” which was reported to General Hill, who arrived in Cashtown “that evening.” But when Heth moved to the events of July 1 he said nothing about marching to Gettysburg for shoes. Instead, he reported matter-of-factly, “On July 1, my division, accompanied by Pegram’s battalion of artillery, was ordered to move at 5 a.m. in the direction of Gettysburg.” His report also was at odds with his post war claim that his division marched to within a mile of Gettysburg without encountering any enemy soldiers or that he did “not have so much as a skirmish with Buford’s cavalry.” Heth reported, “On nearing Gettysburg, it was evident that the enemy was in the vicinity of the town in some force.” He admits to being ignorant of what force was in his front but that he “supposed it consisted of cavalry, most probably supported by a brigade or two of infantry.” After making this discovery he reports that he had some of his artillery fire upon cavalry vedettes (meaning outposts or skirmishers), then he ordered the brigades of Archer and Davis to advance. This, of course, was at variance with what he wrote for the Times in 1877. [U.S. War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1889), 27:2:637.]
A.P. Hill’s report raised further questions about Heth’s post-war accounts. Hill reported:
On arriving at Cashtown, General Heth, who had sent forward Pettigrew’s brigade to Gettysburg, reported that Pettigrew had encountered the enemy at Gettysburg (principally cavalry), but in what forced he could not determine. A courier was then dispatched with this information to the general commanding [Lee] , and with orders to start Anderson [one of A. P. Hill’s other divisions] early; also to General Ewell, informing him, and that I intended to advance the next morning and discover what was in my front .
On July 1, at 5 a.m., Heth took up the line of march, with Pegram’s battalion of artillery, followed by Pender, with McIntosh’s battalion of artillery. . .” [OR, 27:2:607.]
The key sentence in Hill’s report is “I intended to advance the next morning and discover what was in my front.” It is also significant that he informed Lee of his intentions, to be certain that army HQ approved his advance to Gettysburg, and that he communicated with Ewell, part of whose Second Corps Hill knew to be located north of Gettysburg. There is no mention of gathering supplies or searching for shoes. Hill’s advance upon Gettysburg on July 1 was a reconnaissance in force to determine what enemy forces were present around Gettysburg, not a supply expedition. One does not send two divisions of infantry, two battalions of artillery, and coordinate a movement with another army corps, to gather a supply of shoes.
Despite the publication of the Official Records and the contradictions his own report contained with his post-war accounts, Heth stood by his claim that he went to Gettysburg on July 1 to get shoes and not to fight. In 1897, while serving as a member of the Antietam Battlefield Board, he began work on his memoirs. His hoped to sell them to earn some
badly needed income but was unable to find a publisher before his death from Bright’s disease in 1899. His family kept the memoirs until 1955 when they were donated to the Alderman Library of the University of Virginia. James Morrison published them in 1974. They have been widely read in the Civil War community and his account of July 1 at Gettysburg embraced by many writers since. [James L. Morrison, The Memoirs of Henry Heth (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974).
In his memoirs Heth essentially repeated what he had written to the Times twenty years before with some additional details that are not sustained by any war-time accounts. He claimed that upon arriving in front of Gettysburg he had Pegram’s battalion shell the woods in their front, presumably Herbst Woods, for a half hour. No accounts from Pegram’s battalion, or Union sources, support this. In fact when Pegram did open fire from Herr Ridge, during the advance of Archer’s and Davis’s brigades, he drew almost immediate return fire from Battery A, 2nd U.S. Artillery near the McPherson farm. Heth did admit however, that Archer and Davis engaged Buford’s cavalry, which he had categorically denied in his response to Mosby in 1877. The rest of Heth’s account of the July 1 action is marred by so many errors as to render it of slight historical value. He claimed to have formed his division along Willoughby Run and in “McPherson or Reynolds Woods” [Herbst Woods] after the morning engagement between Archer and Davis and elements of the Union 1st Corps, and that Pettigrew was wounded on July 1. He also returned to his theme that it was the absence of Confederate cavalry that caused the Confederates to stumble into battle. Heth clearly suffered from a poor memory at this point in his life but we cannot discount that at this latter stage of his life he was acutely conscious of his unique opportunity to shape the nation’s memory of his role in the Battle of Gettysburg. [Morrison, The Memoirs of Henry Heth, 173-176.]
It is human nature that Henry Heth sought to distance himself from responsibility for bringing on the Battle of Gettysburg by inventing the idea that he marched to that town on July 1 to do no more than “get those shoes.” But what is surprising is why so many 20th Century historians, writing on the battle, chose to accept what Heth wrote for the Times, and later in his memoirs, without noting its inconsistencies with his and A. P. Hill’s wartime reports. Not until Edwin Coddington’s magnificent The Gettysburg Campaign, was published in 1968, were his post-war accounts questioned in regard to what he had reported in 1863, but even Coddington could not resist in using Heth’s quote from his Times article about getting “those shoes” in Gettysburg on July 1. [Edwin Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968), 264.]
What is clear today is that Henry Heth may have marched to Gettysburg on July 1 hoping to drive off whatever force was in his front so that he could seize the shoes he believed were there, but that this was not the primary purpose of his advance. His primary purpose, which is clear in A. P. Hill’s report, was to conduct a reconnaissance in force to discover what enemy force lay in A. P. Hill’s front, not forage for shoes. That he mismanaged that reconnaissance is unquestioned, and that failure drew Lee’s army into a battle at neither a time or place of Lee’s choosing. Cavalry would certainly have helped Heth, but only if they had been used wisely. Good judgment and management of the forces he did have were more important to Heth than cavalry and that morning of July 1 history must judge that he proved lacking in both.
Heth’s post-war invention of the story that he stumbled into battle on July 1 while going to look for shoes in Gettysburg is a reminder of the immense power of myth in shaping our own memory of historic events. It is such a wonderful story that we want it to be true, so we ignore the evidence that contradicts it, and cling to that which supports it.