What it means to commit to the wrong Git branch

The end of the world. Just kidding! This mistake is not unheard of and can happen to just about anyone — expert or beginner.

Let’s say you’re running off two active branches in your Git repository, and one day, you accidentally commit an update to the wrong branch, which you then push to your Git server (for example, Bitbucket). Uh-oh!

It’s worth noting that setting branch permissions on your Git server is good protection against this mistake since it can be used to block direct pushes to mainline branches and enable you to enforce the use of feature branches and pull requests instead.

For the sake of argument, we’ll assume you’ve performed a number of commits to the wrong branch. Now what?

Don't panic!

When you realise this has happened, you need to stop and check which of the commits associated with the wrong branch have been shared with other people, i.e. pushed to your Git server.

The golden rule is to: Never rewrite the history of a branch that you have already pushed to a Git server and shared with others.

Let’s say you have two branches that exist on the server:

  • MG-200-correct-branch
  • MG-201-wrong-branch

You thought you were working on MG-200-correct-branch, but you were actually working on MG-201-wrong-branch.

First, you'll need to run a command that allows you to see what commits have and has not been pushed to the server:

git log --decorate --oneline

Here’s some example output:

afada1d (HEAD -> MG-201-wrong-branch) change on wrong branch (local)

630c250 (origin/MG-201-wrong-branch) change on wrong branch (pushed)

9a208bc (origin/develop, origin/MG-200-correct-branch, origin/HEAD, develop, MG-200-correct-branch) Task-123: activity

The “--oneline” argument keeps the output short (one line per commit), and the “--decorate” argument reveals what commits your references are pointing to.

The references in red starting with origin/ are remote branch references. A remote reference tells you what the server branches were pointing to when you last talked to the server (i.e. got changes from it via a fetch or pull).

The references in green are your local branches. If it has been a while since you shared your changes (pushed), these references will not be aligned with the remote branch references.

The above output shows:

    1. The latest commit you shared (pushed to the server) associated with MG-201-wrong-branch is 630c250. We know this because the commit has the remote branch reference “origin/MG-201-wrong-branch” next to it.
    2. You are on the local branch MG-201-wrong-branch and have made one commit locally to this branch (afada1d).

Let’s first get all of the changes where you actually intended for them to go, i.e. to branch MG-200-correct-branch.

You do this by getting MG-200-correct-branch to point to the commit where MG-201-wrong-branch is currently pointing:

git checkout MG-200-correct-branch

git reset --hard MG-201-wrong-branch

After this, the output of “git log --decorate --oneline” looks like:

afada1d (HEAD -> MG-200-correct-branch, MG-201-wrong-branch) change on wrong branch (local)

630c250 (origin/MG-201-wrong-branch) change on wrong branch (pushed)

9a208bc (origin/develop, origin/MG-200-correct-branch, origin/HEAD, develop) Task-123: activity

You can now share MG-200-correct-branch since it has the correct commits on it:

git push origin MG-200-correct-branch

… and the log output is now:

afada1d (HEAD -> MG-200-correct-branch, origin/MG-200-correct-branch, MG-201-wrong-branch) change on wrong branch (local)

630c250 (origin/MG-201-wrong-branch) change on wrong branch (pushed)

9a208bc (origin/develop, origin/HEAD, develop) Task-123: activity

So all is now well regarding MG-200-correct-branch, however, you still have the wrong commits associated with MG-201-wrong-branch so there's still a bit left to do before you can celebrate.

The good news is you've not yet pushed (shared) your afada1d commit to MG-201-wrong-branch, so you can sort that once again with reset (maybe your main go-to Git commands when you need to fix problems):

git checkout MG-201-wrong-branch

git reset --hard HEAD~1

This at least undoes the local changes made on MG-201-wrong-branch, and the Git log now looks like this:

630c250 (HEAD -> MG-201-wrong-branch, origin/MG-201-wrong-branch) change on wrong branch (pushed)

9a208bc (origin/develop, origin/HEAD, develop) Task-123: activity

Note that you can no longer see the references for MG-200-correct-branch: that’s because they are no longer reachable from where you currently are in the Git commit history.

However, the final problem to solve is slightly trickier. Your commit 630c250 was pushed to the server (shared with others), and as stated earlier, rewriting the history of a branch that has already been pushed to a Git server and shared with others is a big no-no.

For this reason, it is best to make a further commit that effectively undoes the changes you erroneously committed and pushed.

So usually, the best solution is to effectively make a further change that undoes the code changes pushed.

Luckily, Git provides “git revert” command for such a situation:

$ git revert HEAD

After you push the change (git push origin MG-201-wrong-branch), your Git log looks like this:

88431f1 (HEAD -> MG-201-wrong-branch, origin/MG-201-wrong-branch) Revert "change on wrong branch (pushed)"

630c250 change on wrong branch (pushed)

9a208bc (origin/develop, origin/HEAD, develop) Task-123: activity

To prove that your file changes are no longer on MG-201-wrong-branch, use a git diff:

git diff 88431f1 9a208bc

For which git diff returns no output if the commits represent the same repository content.

Finally, you can check out the correct branch and continue with your day! :-)

git checkout MG-200-correct-branch

Job done!

We hope you found this blog useful, and if you need further assistance, please do not hesitate to speak to one of our experts.

Clearvision (now part of Eficode) provides training for businesses of all sizes, covering an array of software applications and systems including Git to help you achieve your goals.

Published: Sep 15, 2020

Updated: Jun 26, 2023