A Surfeit of Heroes: Custer At Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 / Part 2

East Cavalry Field, Gettysburg
East Cavalry Field, Gettysburg

The term invincible is often found in accounts of Gettysburg. Lee referred to the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia as invincible, and so they seemed after Chancellorsville. On May 15, when called to Richmond by Confederate President Jefferson Davis for a strategy meeting with the Cabinet, Lee presented his plan to deal the Federal army such a crushing blow that it would end the war. The general proposed to invade Pennsylvania. This move would solve any number of problems: it would remove any threat from the area near the Rappahannock River, it would take the fighting out of war-ravaged Virginia, and it would strengthen Copperhead anti-war support in the North, among other things. Of his own troops, Lee said, “There never were such men in an army before. They will go anywhere and do anything of properly led.” Apparently even Robert E. Lee was convinced his men were, in fact, invincible. So were his men. Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Freemantle, a member of Her Majesty’s Coldstream Guards who was traveling with Lee’s army, reported in his diary that the general feeling of the Confederates was one of confidence, high spirits, and profound contempt for the Federal forces.


Two historians, one very well known, one less so, agree that there was a third part to Lee’s plan of attack for July 3. James M. McPherson’s book, Battle Cry of Freedom, takes for granted the fact that Robert E. Lee believed the attacks of the first two days of battle had softened up Meade’s forces, especially the center. McPherson specifically mentions Stuart and his “Invincibles,” as the Confederate cavalry was called (that word again!), as part of Lee’s overall plan. Lee had done as he had promised Davis. The Confederates had marched into Pennsylvania and, for two days, had attacked both flanks of Meade’s army, which was entrenched along the high ground south of Gettysburg. Lee was certain that Meade had sent large numbers of men to protect his flanks, leaving his center, on the north end of Cemetery Ridge, depleted and therefore vulnerable. Now was the time to put into play the final part of his plan:

            With Pickett’s fresh division as a spearhead . . . Lee would send three divisions preceded by an artillery barrage against that weakened center on July 3. Stuart would circle around the Union rear and Ewell would assail the right flank to clamp the pincers when Pickett broke through the front. With proper coordination and leadership, his invincible troops could not fail.

McPherson includes the placement of both Stuart’s men and the Union cavalry under

J. E. B. Stuart
J. E. B. Stuart

Gregg and Custer in his maps. But in his analysis of the attacks at Gettysburg on the third day, McPherson says very little about Stuart. He only mentions in passing that Meade, in his decision making after the debacle of Pickett’s Charge, knew that, “Stuart was loose in his rear.” Meade did not realize that Custer’s division of Michigan horse soldiers had stopped Stuart from following Lee’s orders to support Pickett by attacking the Union rear at the same time the Virginians attacked the Union front, a plan which, if successful, could have changed the outcome of the entire battle.

The other historian who presents the argument for Lee having a three-pronged attack, not simple a double, is Tom Carhart. He has written two books that mention the theory that Robert E. Lee had spoken at length with Stuart about the role his cavalry would play at Gettysburg. The most detailed is Lost Triumph: Lee’s Real Plan at Gettysburg and Why It Failed. This volume details Carhart’s belief that Lee’s plan consisted of the charge toward the small clump of trees to dissolve Meade’s middle, as mentioned earlier. The second part of the attack was to have been launched by Ewell’s force of 10,000 men. These men were at the bottom of Culp’s Hill, an easy target for the Union XII Corps.

General Ewell
General Ewell

The fight started early for Ewell’s men. The coming dawn brought fire from the Union upon the Confederate infantry. Within the next few hours, the blue infantry fought back two assaults on Culp’s Hill, and by 10:30 Ewell withdrew. He had received a message from Lee asking him to hold his position and wait until Longstreet’s men came up, whereupon they would attack again, reinforced. This attack was never made. The explanation for this failure, a failure that was in large part responsible for the Confederate defeat, lies buried within the actions of General Lee and Jeb Stuart on the late evening of July 2, 1863.

It is known that Stuart went to see General Lee a bit before midnight on July 2. Lee had been studying his maps all evening, and spoken with several of his generals. Stuart had already reported that cavalry on Brinkerhoff Ridge covered the Union right wing. By looking at the maps of Jedediah Hotchkiss, the cartographer for Lee’s forces, it is clear that Lee had ordered up a map of what today is known as East Cavalry Field. Hotchkiss’s map shows the Bonaughton Road connecting both the Hanover Road and the Baltimore Pike. If one follows this map logically, it becomes easy to see that Stuart and his men, beginning on Cress Ridge, could come down the ridge, follow Bonaughton Rode to the Baltimore Pike, then turn right and attack Meade’s rear in the vicinity of Culp’s Hill.

In Carhart’s book concerning Gettysburg, he compares the orders given to Stuart On July 2 to the role of Fiorella at Castiglione, in which Napoleon ordered Fiorella’s cavalry to attack Wurmser’s army from the rear, surprising Wurmser, who sent reinforcements to fight Fiorella. This left the Austrian army’s front and flanks weak, and Wurmser was forced to withdraw his forces to his right rear. Stuart was to come up behind the Union right wing just as it was being attacked by Ewell. He was to hold his men there until a signal from Lee. When he got the signal, he was to follow Hotchkiss’s map down Cress Ridge, then take Bonaughton to the Baltimore Turnpike and commit his men to the attack at Culp’s Hill to support Pickett. Lee gave Stuart Jenkins’s brigade, which consisted of about 1,000 mounted riflemen, and Stuart was to take his own artillery with him.

?????????????????The only fault in Lee’s plan was his poor assessment of the Union forces. He assumed, as mentioned, that his own army was invincible, and that the Union army was almost completely beaten after two days of fighting. Lee was incorrect on both assumptions. Meade’s forces were firmly dug in from the Round Tops to Cemetery Hill. There was no shortage of ammunition for the Union artillery, and Meade had done his own scouting. Not only did Meade know that Lee would be quick to remember how successfully “Stonewall” Jackson had been at Chancellorsville when he attacked the right and right rear of General Hooker’s army, he had fresh information. Observers from O. O. Howard’s XI Corps on Cemetery Hill had reported seeing Confederate horsemen on the Baltimore Pike. Meade ordered his cavalry commander, Major General Alfred Pleasonton, to order both General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick and General David McMurtrie Gregg to take their respective cavalry divisions and protect the Union rear–Kilpatrick to the left and Gregg to the right.

Gregg and Kilpatrick took their respective brigades of the 2nd and 3rd Cavalry Divisions down the Bonaughton Road on the morning of July 3 to an area known now as the East Cavalry Field. Gregg surveyed the area, and then asked Kilpatrick for an extra brigade to support his riders at the southern end of the field. Kilpatrick sent Custer’s 1st, 5th, 6th, and 7th Michigan Cavalry. This added about 1,800 men to Gregg’s 600.

By 1:00, when Lee opened his main artillery bombardment of the Union lines, Jeb Stuart, on his way to bring his men into place to support Pickett, discovered the Union cavalrymen. At that point, Custer’s men were already in place, and General Gregg was dispersing his men, oddly enough, off the potential battlefield and into security posts that surrounded the area. Many have questioned this decision of Gregg’s part, as he was placing Custer’s men, who were complete strangers to him, in harm’s way instead of fighting his own troops, about whom he knew a great deal.

According to Stuart’s reports:

            On the morning of July 3, pursuant to the instructions from the commanding General . . . I moved forward to a position to the left of General Ewell’s left, and in advance of it, where a commanding ridge completely controlled a wide plain of cultivated fields stretching towards Hanover. I moved this command secretly through the woods . . . and hoped to effect a surprise on the enemy’s rear.

Just as Stuart readied his men, estimated at between six and seven thousand, to descend the “commanding ridge,” he brought up a cannon and fired four shots–north, south, east, and west. This action alerted every Federal in the area that someone was there, as well as signaling to Lee, only a mile or so away, that the ridge had been reached and he, Stuart, was about to cross the open fields to await the rear attack. 

Stuart’s “surprise” was less than he had hoped. Custer’s skirmish line and his flanking patrols were directly in the path he had planned to take. Custer aligned his men to face north, near Spangler’s Farm. The 6th Wisconsin was to protect the artillery, the 1st and 7th Wisconsin were to stand in reserve, and the 5th Wisconsin was to dismount north of the Hanover Road. Brevet captain Alexander Pennington brought the full strength of his six Union guns to bear on Stuart’s men, and was aided by Captain Alanson Randol’s four, opposing the fourteen Confederate guns.Gettysburg_East_Cavalry_Field2

By 1:00 p. m., Stuart sent the 34th Virginia forward, dismounted. The veteran 1st New Jersey and 3rd Pennsylvania met them with withering fire. Still, for over an hour the Confederates held their lines. It was at this point that Custer brought the Michigan Wolverines into the fight.

The Union men were armed with Spencer repeating rifles, which fired seven rounds from a tube that was manually inserted into the barrel of the rifle. This gun could sustain a rate-of-fire in excess of twenty rounds per minute. Dismounted, and armed with Spencers, the 5th Michigan advanced on the 34th Virginia. After almost an hour of intense combat, the 5th began to fall back. Custer, whose troopers were placed exactly where they could do the most damage to Stuart, made his move. At the head of the 7th Michigan, which was under the immediate command of Colonel William d’Alton Mann, Custer led the way, bellowing, “Come on, you Wolverines!” Mann and his troopers drew sabers and charged, crashing into the Confederates and getting tangled up in a stout fence that separated the soldiers of both sides. Mann’s Wolverines broke up, which blunted the Confederate attack. Although ultimately repulsed, this charge had checked the advance of Stuart’s Confederates until 3:00 p.m.

The brigades of southern generals Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee (under Colonel J. R. Chambliss, as Lee had been wounded and taken prisoner) made one final charge. Again, it was Custer, this time at the head of the 1st Michigan, who held back the assault. Riding bareheaded up to the commander of the 1st, Colonel Charles Town, Custer asked Town to charge the Rebels. Towne gave the order, and the Wolverines followed Custer, four lengths ahead of them, in front of the Union guns. In the words of William Brooke Rawle, who was there, “As the charge was ordered, the speed increased, every horse on the jump, every man yelling like a demon . . . As Hart’s Squadron and other small parties who had rallied and mounted, poured down from all sides, the enemy turned. ”

"Come On, You Wolverines!"
“Come On, You Wolverines!”

It was not the number of casualties or prisoners that makes this fight so important, but the loss of time. Stuart was never able to get his men past the Union cavalry to support Pickett and come up behind Culp’s Hill. Lee’s plan, brilliant on paper, did not take into account the determination of the Army of the Potomac at this point in time. The soldiers knew how important a win was, and Lee brought them that opportunity. Meade did not evacuate the higher ground, but stood and fought. The Union cavalry was also beginning to come into a period of strength and expertise, with commanders like Pleasonton who were more effective. The simple truth is that Lee lost the fight. The Confederates were both out gunned and out strategized, and the high tide of the Confederacy began to turn in favor of the Federal forces. Custer’s own words, although immodest, express much.  “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry than the one just recounted.”

images-1The historiography of the American Civil War has made Gettysburg almost mythical, a battle of the gods. There are heroes for everyone: General Robert E. Lee and Confederate subordinate commanders J. E. B. Stuart, Pete Longstreet, George Pickett, and Lewis Armistead: General George Gordon Meade and his subordinates John Reynolds, John Buford, Winfield Scott Hancock, Daniel Sickles, and Joshua Chamberlain, to name only a few. After investigating the matter of the actions at East Cavalry Field, finding out that Custer’s Wolverines may very well have saved the Union, or at least the battle, it seems that a name is missing from this surfeit of heroes–that of George Armstrong Custer.

6 Responses to A Surfeit of Heroes: Custer At Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 / Part 2

  1. Thank you for this most interesting post. As a native Michigander I have long been interested in General Custer, and appreciate whenever his valor at East Cavalry Field is discussed. I think that the CSA had a surfeit of dashing cavaliers–Stuart, Mosby, Morgan, Forrest, et al. The North had Custer. It seems to me that the very qualities that distinguish the southern horsemen, and endear them to us, are used to ridicule Custer. I am always glad to see his accomplishments recognized.

  2. As I did the original paper, my respect for Custer grew by leaps and bounds. We are tied by historiography to think of Custer with derision. It took doing this research for me to break those bonds. If anyone questions the importance of academic work, I will be the first to argue.

    I agree as well with your insightful comment concerning the Southern cavaliers. Both sides certainly had a fair share of eccentrics. Custer, however, fought by the rules when he won. To that I say, “Huzzah!”

  3. Eric WIttenberg, the premiere historian on Eastern cavalry, has refuted this Tom Carhart nonsense repeatedly. To say that his book & premise is wrong is an understatement.

    1. Jon,
      You are 100% correct. Carhart’s book is awful. Eric did a great job deconstructing it piece by piece. It’s unfortunate that it’s part of the historiography of the battle at all.

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