Society of the Old West

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The third day of the battle at Gettysburg is famous for Pickett’s Charge up to the “high water mark” of the war for the Confederacy.  Pickett’s men were cut to pieces by the Northern artillery.  One has to ask how it was possible for a commander to order his men to their certain death. 

There are a couple of details that many are unaware of.  One is that Major General J. Stuarts Confederate cavalry was ordered to attack the Northern artillery from the rear in a circular route to come in from behind.  Neutralizing the artillery was paramount to the success of Pickett’s charging infantry. Union Cavalry under General Gregg and the newly formed “Michigan Brigade” just happened to get in the way.  Lee's orders for Stuart were to prepare for operations on July 3 in support of the Confederate infantry assault against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Stuart was to protect the Confederate left flank and attempt to move around the Union right flank and into the enemy's rear. If Stuart's forces could proceed south from the York Pike along the Low Dutch Road, they would soon reach the Baltimore Pike, which was the main avenue of communications for the Army of the Potomac.   From here he would easily attack the Union artillery.  Stuart had about 3430 men for this maneuver.

Stationed near the intersection of the Hanover Road and the Low Dutch Road—directly on Stuart's path—was the division of Brig. Gen. Gregg.  Gregg had two brigades present at Gettysburg, but the other was stationed on the Baltimore Pike.  Irvin Gregg's one-brigade command was supplemented by the newly formed “Michigan Brigade” of Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Custer was assigned to the division of Brig. Gen. J.B Kilpatrick, but happened to be on loan to David Gregg and requested permission from Gregg to join his fight. Altogether, 3,250 Union troopers opposed Stuart.  At about 11 a.m. on July 3, Stuart reached Cress Ridge, just north of what is now called East Cavalry Field, and signaled Lee that he was in position by ordering the firing of four guns, one in each direction of the compass.  The brigades of McIntosh and Custer were positioned to block Stuart. As the Confederates approached, Gregg engaged them with an artillery duel, and the superior skills of the Union horse artillerymen got the better of Stuart's guns.

Stuart's plan had been to pin down McIntosh and Custer around the Rummel farm and swing over Cress Ridge, around the left flank of the defenders, but the Federal line pushed back tenaciously; the troopers from the 5th Michigan were armed with Spencer repeating rifles, multiplying their firepower. When Stuart decided on a direct cavalry charge to break their resistance, Custer’s men cut them to pieces.  He ordered an assault by the 1st
Virginia Cavalry, his own old regiment, now in Fitz Lee's brigade. The battle started in earnest at approximately 1 p.m., at the same time that the Confederate artillery barrage opened up on Cemetery Ridge Fitz Lee's troopers came pouring through the farm of John Rummel, scattering the Union skirmish line.Gregg ordered Custer to counterattack with the 7th Michigan. Custer was at the forefront of the charge, shouting "Come on, you Wolverines!" Waves of horsemen collided in furious fighting along the fence line on Rummel's farm. Seven hundred men fought at point-blank range across the fence with carbines, pistols, and sabers. Custer's horse was shot out from under him, and he commandeered a bugler's horse. Eventually enough of Custer's men were amassed to break down the fence, and they caused the Virginians to retreat. Stuart sent in reinforcements from all three of his brigades: the 9th and 13th Virginia (Chambliss's Brigade), the 1st North Carolina and Jeff Davis Legion (Hampton's), and squadrons from the 2nd Virginia (Lee's). Custer's pursuit was broken, and the 7th Michigan fell back in a disorderly retreat.

Stuart tried again for a breakthrough by sending in the bulk of Wade Hampton's brigade, accelerating in formation from a walk to a gallop, sabers flashing, calling forth "murmurs of admiration" from their Union targets. Union artillery attempted to block the advance with shell and canister, but the Confederates moved too quickly and were able to fill in for lost men, maintaining their momentum. Once again the cry "Come on, you Wolverines!" was heard as Custer and Col. Charles Town led the 1st Michigan into the fray, also at a gallop. A trooper from one of Gregg's Pennsylvania regiments observed,  As the two columns approached each other the pace of each increased, when suddenly a crash, like the falling of timber, betokened the crisis. So sudden and violent was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them. As the horsemen fought desperately in the center, McIntosh personally led his brigade against Hampton's right flank and the 3rd Pennsylvania and 1st New Jersey hit Hampton's left from north of the Lott house. Hampton received a serious saber wound to the head; Custer lost his second horse of the day. Assaulted from three sides, the Confederates withdrew. The Union troopers halted the pursuit beyond the Rummel farmhouse.

The losses from the 40 intense minutes of fighting on East Cavalry Field were relatively minor: 254 Union casualties, 219 of them from Custer's brigade; 181 Confederate. Although tactically inconclusive, the battle was a strategic loss for Stuart and Robert E. Lee, whose plans to drive into the Union rear were foiled. George Armstrong Custer must be considered an unsung hero of the Battle of Gettysburg, marking the high point of his Army career.

Ref:

 (Ladd, David L. and Audrey J., eds.), Bachelder's History of the Battle of Gettysburg, ca. 1886, Morningside Press (maps of East Cavalry Field).

Clark, Champ, and the Editors of Time-Life Books, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide, Time-Life Books, 1985,

Coddington, Edwin B., The Gettysburg Campaign; a study in command, Scribner's, 1968,

Parsons, H. C., "Farnsworth's Charge and Death", Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Century Co., 1884-1888.

Longacre, Edward G., The Cavalry at Gettysburg, University of Nebraska Press, 1986,

Symonds, Craig L., American Heritage History of the Battle of Gettysburg, HarperCollins, 2001,.

Trudeau, Noah Andre, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, HarperCollins, 2002,

Gettysburg: Day Three, Simon & Schuster, 2001,

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