Why did the union lines collapse on day one?

johncla

Private
Joined
Jun 15, 2015
I'll put forward three theories:
1. XI corps low morale
2. poor selection of positions for union right flank
3. the union line on day one was over-extended

Number 3 might require some explanation. Compare the number of men per mile for the union line on day one versus day three. (The day three line held, the day one line collapsed.)

Day one: 25,535 men/2.07 mile line = 12,335 men/mile
Day three: 85,500 men/2.87 mile line = 29,791 men/mile

IOW, the day three line was better than twice as "dense" (troops/mile). My numbers are not professional, I admit. Details below:

I assume the day one line runs from Barlow's Knoll to the N end of Oak Ridge, then to the Hagerstown Rd where it crosses McPherson ridge. I make that 2.07 miles.

I assume the day three line runs from Culps Hill to Cemetery Hill, then to the S end of Little Round Top (Vincent Spur). I make that 2.87 miles.

My day one union troop totals assume Buford's division plus the 1st corps and 11th corps totals listed by Laino in 'Gettysburg Campaign Atlas'.

May day three union troops total is the one given by Coddington in 'The Gettysburg Campaign'. (Yes, I'm comparing apples and oranges by using 2 different sources for troop numbers.)

Feel free to substitute your own numbers for mine. My guess is the density of the union line on day three was a bunch higher than day one. It seems the union line on day one was over-extended (in addition to the problems with flanks in the air at Oak Ridge and Barlows Knoll).

And of course, the Army of Northern Virginia had something to do with it. Yes!
 

mofederal

Major
Joined
Jun 27, 2017
Location
Southeast Missouri
The Union line was dangerously overextended, and they were outflanked. The 1st Corps fought hard and had high casualties to show for it. They were pushed back, but they gave up ground grudgingly. A big factor was the 11th Corps fighting to it's usual standards, once overwhelmed, the 11th broke and ran. The men of the 11th Corps fought hard, but they were not the 1st Corps.
 

7thWisconsin

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 21, 2014
Don´t forget the gap between XI and I Corps in front of Oak Hill. They were not only outflanked on the right, but Rhodes came crashing through that gap. There was no selection of positions on the other side of town, or selection of routes to get to them, so the movement back through town was not an orderly retreat, but a rout.
 

bayonet

Corporal
Joined
Nov 7, 2012
Out west, in a better army, both the 11th Corps and Howard did well.
From what I understand the 11th Corp regiments in the East were not the same regiments in the West. So apparently the 11th Corp was totally rebuilt when it moved westward. Case in point the 17th Connecticut (one of the non-German speaking regiments) that went South to Florida not West after Gettysburg.
 

Irishtom29

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 21, 2008
Location
Kent, Washington
From what I understand the 11th Corp regiments in the East were not the same regiments in the West. So apparently the 11th Corp was totally rebuilt when it moved westward. Case in point the 17th Connecticut (one of the non-German speaking regiments) that went South to Florida not West after Gettysburg.

Two divisions of 11th Corps, Von Steinwehr's and Schurz's went west. A cursory look at the orders of battle of Gettysburg and Chattanooga shows 16 infantry regiments and 5 batteries of guns the 11th Corps were present at both battles.

These troops were subsequently merged with the 12th Corps to form a new 20th Corps and were part of the Army of the Cumberland.
 
Last edited:
Joined
Dec 22, 2016
Location
NH
If you are going to blame the XI Corps, why not include the I Corps?
I wished to avoid the blame game in my book First for the Union. A lot of First Corps veterans had serious problems with the 11th Corps that day, but historians shouldn't say it was all the fault of a certain group of soldiers. Both corps were going to be overwhelmed because of the Confederate numbers. The lack of artillery for Robinson's division was a serious detriment. Unprotected flanks for every First Corps brigade couldn't be remedied that afternoon unless there was a general retreat. I found it disgraceful that Howard told Hancock that the First Corps broke, which likely cost Doubleday permanent First Corps command. I don't "blame" the 11th Corps. Maybe they could've held out longer, but too many men fell to the north of town to say they were at fault. 9,000 casualties on the first day saved the battle for Meade. No one in the 11th Corps should be blamed for the outcome, not even Howard.
 

bayonet

Corporal
Joined
Nov 7, 2012
Two divisions of 11th Corps, Von Steinwehr's and Schurz's went west. A cursory look at the orders of battle of Gettysburg and Chattanooga shows 16 infantry regiments and 5 batteries of guns the 11th Corps were present at both battles.

These troops were subsequently merged with the 12th Corps to form a new 20th Corps and were part of the Army of the Cumberland.
Guess Grant than Sherman did a better job of motivating them or they got tired of the reputation they gained in the East and made it a point to change that.
 

gettysburgerrn

Private
Joined
Sep 19, 2008
Location
massapequa, NY
Before blame goes to the soldiers of 11th Corps I think the fact that they were seriously undermanned and their leadership put them in an untenable position. I guess the fact that Early's division flanked them was somehow their fault. (as opposed to Perrin flanking and driving the vaunted first corps from their position). To play off Pickett's words..."why did the Union troops break on July 1? I think the Rebels had something to do with it..."

Ken
 

bayonet

Corporal
Joined
Nov 7, 2012
Don´t forget the gap between XI and I Corps in front of Oak Hill. They were not only outflanked on the right, but Rhodes came crashing through that gap. There was no selection of positions on the other side of town, or selection of routes to get to them, so the movement back through town was not an orderly retreat, but a rout.
Just chalk up Day 1 as a battle that was not supposed to happen that day. Lee didn't want it to start that way. The Union Corps came up piecemeal as did the CSA. They banged into each other and that got it going. All because some Rebs wanted some shoes (so they say). After the confusion Howard and Hancock secured the Heights, the 12th Corp secured the right on Culps Hill, and the rest of the Union Corps to the higher ground on the left. Meade settled in and let Lee beat himself against the Union lines. I wonder if Lee just settled in and waited for Meade to attack him would it have ended differently. Pressure from Lincoln on Meade would have been great to attack. Oh well what if?
 

Gettysburg Guide #154

Sergeant
Member of the Month
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Dec 30, 2019
There are a lot of people who express opinions about the Union XI Corps. Pvt. G. W. Nichols, 61st GA (Gordon's Brigade) expressed his view on the fighting ability of the XI Corps on Blocker's Knoll as follows: “We had a hard time moving them. We advanced with our accustomed yell, but they stood firm until we got near them. They then began to retreat in fine order, shooting at us as they retreated. They were harder to drive than we had ever known them before. Men were being mown down in great numbers on both sides.”
 

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
There are a lot of people who express opinions about the Union XI Corps. Pvt. G. W. Nichols, 61st GA (Gordon's Brigade) expressed his view on the fighting ability of the XI Corps on Blocker's Knoll as follows: “We had a hard time moving them. We advanced with our accustomed yell, but they stood firm until we got near them. They then began to retreat in fine order, shooting at us as they retreated. They were harder to drive than we had ever known them before. Men were being mown down in great numbers on both sides.”
The members of the XI Corps were unfairly tarnished by their reputation from Chancellorsville, and the fact that large numbers of the Corps were German immigrants. I don't think they deserve to be sullied for their stand at Gettysburg.
 

rpkennedy

Lt. Colonel
Member of the Year
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May 18, 2011
Location
Carlisle, PA
There are a lot of people who express opinions about the Union XI Corps. Pvt. G. W. Nichols, 61st GA (Gordon's Brigade) expressed his view on the fighting ability of the XI Corps on Blocker's Knoll as follows: “We had a hard time moving them. We advanced with our accustomed yell, but they stood firm until we got near them. They then began to retreat in fine order, shooting at us as they retreated. They were harder to drive than we had ever known them before. Men were being mown down in great numbers on both sides.”

A couple years ago, I looked pretty comprehensively at the casualty lists for the New York and Pennsylvania regiments in the Eleventh Corps. I found that a lot of the men in the "missing and captured" category have no records about them after Gettysburg. In my mind, it's likely that they were either killed or mortally wounded with no account for them before they were buried. In some regiments, these missing men account for more than 40% of the missing/captured. This would indicate that they fought more than commonly thought.

Ryan
 

rpkennedy

Lt. Colonel
Member of the Year
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May 18, 2011
Location
Carlisle, PA
There are a lot of people who express opinions about the Union XI Corps. Pvt. G. W. Nichols, 61st GA (Gordon's Brigade) expressed his view on the fighting ability of the XI Corps on Blocker's Knoll as follows: “We had a hard time moving them. We advanced with our accustomed yell, but they stood firm until we got near them. They then began to retreat in fine order, shooting at us as they retreated. They were harder to drive than we had ever known them before. Men were being mown down in great numbers on both sides.”

A lot of people forget that the Eleventh Corps rallied around the Almshouse and managed to form a line there. Many of the men didn't run pellmell to the rear but rather attempted to fight it out but were undone by terrible terrain and flanking attacks from Ewell's Corps.

Ryan
 

Joshism

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Apr 30, 2012
Location
Jupiter, FL
The XI Corps was not only overstretched, outnumbered, and outflanked but there was also no good defense between Oak Ridge and Barlow's Knoll. They had an impossible mission.

I Corps was defending Seminary Ridge. If you swap the two corps I expect the results of Day 1 don't change much.
 

MichaelWinicki

Private
Joined
Jul 23, 2020
Several well thought out answers above...

The position of the XI Corps was abysmal– combine that with being outflanked and outnumbered and the results were predictable.

In the I Corps, I think the main reasons for their situation was the battering several brigades took along with the ugly defensive position held by Baxter/Paul.

I've war-gamed the 1st day several times and it's just about an impossible task for the Union to hold the position north & west of Gettysburg until the morning of July 2nd. Too many Confederate divisions arriving in the spots the Federals didn't want them to.

The way to slow down the onslaught and reduce casualties was withdraw to Seminary Ridge sooner and more cohesively, withdraw Baxter/Paul to a defense line along the railroad cuts/railroad grade and push the XI Corps no further north than the Almshouse. Also having one cavalry brigade at each end of Union line helps too.
 
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