There is no record of any
reporter accompanying the lst Corps and its famed Iron Brigade that first morning at
Gettysburg. Nearly the entire press corps did not arrive until the morning of 2 July.
Samuel Wilkeson, now of the New York Times, and his good friend, Whitelaw Reid of the Cincinnati Gazette, arrived around 10:30 A.M. on the second, at Mead's Headquarters at Leister House by way of Frederick, Maryland. Their journey from Washington had been complicated by the fact that J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry had managed to take out a section of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Yet, what if ... what if Wilkeson had been there to witness the dramatic events of 1 July 1863 at McPherson's Ridge?
1 July 1863
We've been up and on the march since just past
midnight last night with scarcely any rest. This fact falls doubly hard on the men, who
had marched all the previous day in both a heavy summer shower and the baking heat of the
noonday sun, along dusty, hard roads. Word has been passed along of rebel troops in the
vicinity of Gettysburg, where our cavalry under Buford awaits them. General Reynolds, has
at every turn, tried to hurry us along. Night marches are cruel, with each man struggling
to maintain the pace. Some have even been observed to sleep while on the move, stumbling
into the next man, or falling out by the side of the road.
Nevertheless, among Meredith's First Brigade, with whom I am compelled to travel, there have been remarkably few stragglers. orders have just been issued to resume our march yet again. I'll close for now and continue this letter at intervals, as time circumstance permit.
Evidence is everywhere of the coming fight. While the men are cheery enough when the regimental band strikes up and the colors are unfurled as we pass some little village or outpost of civilization, they quickly become quiet as we leave. Only the steady tramp of thousands of feet upon the earth can be heard. Playing cards and dice have been discarded by the side of the road. There is even the occasional French postcard or bottle of spirits, a sure sign of the sober and mortal errand upon which these men have embarked. No word nor sign of the enemy as yet.
Once more, we've paused beside the road. A chaplain conducts an impromptu prayer service, as ammunition from a supply wagon is passed from man to man to fill their cartridge boxes. More ominous still, is the faint yet distinct sound of musketry due north of us.
No one speaks, for they all know how close death is to them now. That rising chorus of battle must be Buford. Our forces are making that fight up that road, and every moment we delay places them in greater peril. Must put away my pencil and rejoin the march.
Where to begin? The dreaded confrontation with our enemy came so quickly.
So it is true then. I did not see him fall but it was said a rebel skirmisher shot him dead. General Reynolds' now lifeless body passes by, borne on by his disconsolate staff. only an hour or two before I saw him ride up to our column and use the whole force of his authority and energy to order them into line of battle. The men literally surged across a large farm field at the dead run, reformed, and stepped off smartly into some woods, said to be owned by a local farmer, a Mr. McPherson. The enemy came on in force but was thwarted in his efforts to flank our line.
Smoke rising above the trees from the further side of the woods bore evidence to the fact that our troops had driven the rebels from their positions. I have learned that the men of the Second Wisconsin performed the service despite facing superior numbers of the enemy and sustaining grievous casualties. Though subsequently driven back by an even greater force of the enemy, they yet steadfastly anchor the end of our line.
It appears that the greater part of Hill's Confederate Corps are before us, with every intention of renewing their assault on a line up the Chambersburg Pike, just west of the town of Gettysburg.
That assault may begin at any moment despite a strange lull in the fighting as I scribble these lines. The First Corps occupies the Union left while the steady stream of reinforcements I've seen marching into town are said to belong to the Eleventh Corps of General Howard.
In the great pellmell rush into battle, I became tangled up with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry and a battery of artillery that only arrived just in time to stop a large force of Confederates from advancing into town along a railway cut. The Sixth Wisconsin came at them at a right angle to the embankment, and caught many of them at a disadvantage, milling about in the railway cut below. A short but vicious and bitter fight ensued.
Heavy volleys of musketry and a dense cloud of smoke rising from the line of the railway bore witness to the intensity of the struggle. Our infantry, changed front more than once to meet fresh assaults by the enemy and frustrated them at every turn. Battery B of the Fourth United States Artillery rode up and unlimbered.
The Union guns poured a murderous fire into the advancing rebels. It was from here that I witnessed the fighting. At one point, a few deserters were seen running to the rear of our lines. I don't know if they came from the Sixth or some other regiment of the First Brigade. Captain Stewart, the commander of the battery, a giant of a man, took one such frightened soldier, who could not have been more than seventeen, grasped him by the scruff of the neck, and literally flung him back toward the fight. An accusatory finger pointed in the young man's direction made it clear that the good Captain was insisting the boy do his duty. To the boy's credit, he picked up his musket and ran to rejoin his comrades. I do not know of his fate. We have taken a considerable number of Confederate prisoners in this fight and even a set of colors.
The fight has been resumed. The sound of so many thousands of muskets and the rumble of so much artillery is deafening. Battery B has just been ordered to cover a retreat on the part of our infantry. They cannot be blamed for the catastrophe unfolding before me. They have held off a far superior number of Confederates nearly the entire day.
A dispatch rider has delivered a message to Meredith to the effect that he is to begin a retreat into town. Howard's Eleventh Corps is said to be badly pressed and may not be able to hold their end of the line. We must yield this ground or be cut off by our enemy.
The retreat is being conducted in good order. The men are not running but they are weary and a bit frightened by the seemingly inexhaustible supply of reinforcements available to our enemy.
It seems like the entire rebel army is upon us. I close in haste, hoping to write still more from a vantage point in town or perhaps the large hill adjoining it.
The foregoing dispatch was derived from research, a personal inspection of McPherson's Ridge and the Railway cut at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in July, and observations made on the field at Wade House in September 1998.