A Surfeit of Heroes: Custer At Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 Part I of a 2-part Series

A newly-minted Brigadier General Custer
A newly-minted Brigadier General Custer

In American history, it is doubtful if any battle has been studied more closely than the battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. Strategy, tactics, weather, politics, communications, personalities, and just plain luck have been written about ad nauseam. The historiography concerning this battle has, however, rarely changed: July 3 remains Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s most puzzling day. Again and again historians ask why Lee sent three divisions of infantry, 13,000 men, under the command of Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble up the mile-long slope north of the Round Tops toward “that clump of trees.” There is rarely an answer.

Could Lee, the most brilliant tactician of the American Civil War, simply have had a bad day? There is nothing in his past to indicate that this was a possibility, nor were there any “bad days” in his future. In short, there is nothing to back up the claim made by at least five major popular historians whose work, both written and cinematic, has created the idea in the public mind that this was just a run of poor luck.

The earliest historian whose work is still widely read by the public is Bruce Catton. In his three-book series The Army of the Potomac, Glory Road contains a description of the battle of Gettysburg that runs almost seventy pages. It is meticulously written, and bountifully researched, but Pickett et al charge alone on the blistering hot afternoon of July 3. As the shattered Confederate divisions stagger back, Shelby Foote, in the matchless prose of Stars In Their Courses, joins Catton in quoting Lee: “The fault is entirely my own . . . It’s all my fault . . . The blame is mine . . . All this has been my fault. It is I who have lost this fight . . .” With this amount of emotion on the page, it is easy to believe that Lee was simply taking responsibility for a serious tactical error. This is the version of Pickett’s Charge that most appear to believe.

Pickett, of Pickett's Charge
Pickett, of Pickett’s Charge

Another way historical information has been disseminated in the last eighty or so years is by movies. The motion picture, whether one wishes this were true or not, is part of historiography. Two movies–one made-for-television–have contributed to the idea that July 3, 1863 was all about a single failed military strategy.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’s noted Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) compilation, The Civil War, has seen by at least 27 million people, according to the PBS website. Every time it is shown on television, or digitally re-mastered and offered for sale, that number grows. The impact this film has had on the historiography of the Civil War is enormous. Many feel it is “not real history,” but those arguments pale when compared to the numbers of viewers who judge it as such.

Half of Disc 3 is focused on the battle of Gettysburg. Burns weaves his art tapestry of pictures, music and sound very skillfully, using many images from the Gettysburg Cyclorama to illustrate various parts of the battle. For Burns as well, it is Pickett’s divisions and their desperate charge up the slope of Culp’s Hill that provides the climax of the afternoon. Yet the charge is presented singularly, not as part of a greater action, much less an integral part of a winning strategy. Lee is as befuddled in Disc 3 as he is almost anywhere else.

The last two popular purveyors of Gettysburg historiography must be taken both together and separately. Michael Shaara’s 1974 offering, The Killer Angels, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975. It has been accorded the praise of almost every Civil War historian for its accuracy. Shaara’s ability to portray the battle of Gettysburg, in all of its complexity, to a wide audience is what makes it so much a part of the historiographical myth concerning Pickett’s Charge. Shaara, too, fails to look at the battle as being more than a two-pronged attack on the middle of the Union line. This leaves the reader wondering just what happened to Lee’s usually fine sense of strategy and tactics.

Gettysburg, the movie made from Shaara’s book, makes the same error.  This time it is made with as many experts and advisors as could be gathered to oversee the filming of the story, and apparently not one of these experts mentions any concern with Pickett’s Charge.

Does it seem reasonable that Robert E. Lee had no better plan than to run three divisions of the Army of Northern Virginia up a hill, hoping that the Army of the Potomac would run away? As glorious as Pickett’s Charge may be in the eyes of many, there is much to support another point of view.

John Imboden
John Imboden

The first indication that there may have been more to Lee’s plan can be seen, or rather read, in the official records of Confederate General John Imboden. Imboden writes that Lee, in response to Imboden’s own comment about this being a bad day, is said to have replied:

I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of  Virginians did today in that grand charge upon the enemy. And if they had been supported as they were to have been–but, for some reason not yet fully explained to me, were not–we would have held the position and the day would have been ours. Too bad! Too bad! Oh! Too bad!

It seems as if General Lee is referring to something other than the results of Pickett’s Charge. He could not have meant the artillery effort either. Twenty-three year old Major James Dearing’s collection of cannon bombarded the Union lines for almost two hours. They stopped because their ammunition was perilously low, giving Confederate General James Longstreet the signal to send in Pickett’s Virginians. Although two of Pickett’s brigades turned back before they reached the thigh-high stone wall marking the beginning of the Union lines, the third breached the line, but were unable to hold their position. Was Lee talking about something else?

There are three branches of the army. It is historically clear what both the artillery and the infantry, both Union and Confederate, were doing on July 3, 1863. The cavalry is rarely mentioned.

Part of the historiography of Gettysburg concerns the behavior of Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart. Stuart had led Lee’s cavalry since July 4, 1861. He had made a name for himself by directing his men in a circle around the Union forces, not once, but several times. Prior to Gettysburg, on June 5, Stuart had created a grand review of his cavalry about two miles outside the small town of Brandy Station. General Lee was unable to attend this spectacle, so Stuart repeated it on the 8th for the benefit of his commander. The review was complete, including the Rebel Yell and a staged attack on “artillery,” which fired back with blank charges.

Postcard of the Battle of Brandy Station
Postcard of the Battle of Brandy Station

General Joseph Hooker, whose Army of the Potomac was near the area, heard the cannon and interpreted this to be preparations for a raid on his supply lines. Hooker’s reaction to this was to order Major General Alfred Pleasonton to take a combined force of 8,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry and disrupt Confederate plans. Although the Battle of Brandy Station is considered a draw, Pleasanton’s ability to surprise Stuart was an undeniable blemish on the Confederate cavalier’s record. It also foreshadowed the increasing capability of the Union cavalry as an arm of the Union army.

As Lee’s army began its march northward, he ordered Stuart to guard the mountain

Stuart Finally Shows Up
Stuart Finally Shows Up

passes with part of his force while the Army of Northern Virginia was still south of the Potomac. Then he was to cross the river with the remainder of the army and screen the right flank of Ewell’s Second Corps. Instead of taking a direct route north near the Blue Ridge Mountains, however, Stuart chose to reach Ewell’s flank by ordering his three best brigades (those of Brigadier Generals Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee. and Colonel John R. Chambliss, who replaced wounded Brigadier General W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee) between the Union army and Washington, moving north through the Shenandoah, and on into Pennsylvania. Stuart hoped to capture supplies along the way and cause havoc near the enemy capital, restoring his tarnished reputation in Lee’s eyes. Stuart and his three brigades left Salem Depot at 1 a.m. on June 25. Stuart did not see General Lee again until July 2.

Lee still had four other brigades of cavalry with him when he crossed the Potomac, while Union general George Gordon Meade, who replaced General Hooker on June 28, had three cavalry divisions under Pleasonton. In addition, Pleasonton had recommended three young captains on his staff to the rank of brigadier general: Wesley Merritt, George Custer, and Elon J. Farnsworth. Meade took Pleasonton’s recommendations.

George Custer, newly minted brigadier, was now in command of the Michigan Brigade, consisting of the 1st, 5th, 6th, and 7th Michigan cavalry. Its officers were a little surprised and equally offended that a twenty four year old captain had been jumped up to general’s stars, but within a few days, Custer would show these men that he deserved the new rank.

"Showy like Murat . . ."
“Showy like Murat . . .”

During the Civil War, even in the Union Army, there was a great deal of freedom concerning an officer’s uniform. Custer pushed this freedom to an extreme. Captain James H. Kidd, one of Custer’s key subordinates described his general’s appearance:

A keen eye would have been slow to detect in that rider with the flowing locks  and gaudy tie, in his coat of velvet and gold, the master spirit he proved to be.   That garb, fantastic as at first sight it appeared to be, was to be the distinguishing mark which, during all the remaining years of that war, like the white plume of Henry of Navarre, was to show us where, in the thickest of the fight, we were to seek our leader–for, where danger was, where swords were to cross, where Greek met Greek, there was he, always . . . Showy like Murat, fiery like       Farnsworth, yet calm and self-reliant like Sheridan, he was the most brilliant and successful cavalry officer of his time. Such a man had appeared on the scene, and   soon we learned to utter with pride the name of–Custer.

By July 3, 1863, the battle of Gettysburg had already been fought for two days. Even as late as that morning, General Lee was planning for a Confederate victory. Most historians lead one to believe that Lee thought his combined attack of Pickett’s divisions, reinforced by Longstreet’s men (Pender, Early, and Johnson) to the north, against the fishhook formation of the Union infantry on both Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill, would be enough to break both the lines and the morale of the blue soldiers.

A few historians think it had to be more–much more–than that.

4 Responses to A Surfeit of Heroes: Custer At Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 Part I of a 2-part Series

  1. Lee never had a bad day? Lee would never send a large body of men charging across an open field up a hill in the face of overwhelming Union firepower? Is anyone here familiar with Malvern Hill, which happened a mere year before “Pickett’s charge,” and shows remarkable similarities? Just asking…

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