Brigadier General Custer, 23 years old, who gained his title 60 hours before the Battle of Gettysburg, won the East Cavalry Fight (July 3, 1863) against legendary General J.E.B. Stuart
source : Echoes of Gettysburg edited by custerwest.org member Gary Neidert
The main fighting on East Cavalry Field lasted for three hours. Most of the fighting was done with the cavalrymen dismounted however the battle there ended with a short but massive and climactic cavalry charge. The fighting on East Cavalry Field can be divided into two stages: the dismounted stage and the subequent cavalry charge or mounted stage.
When the Confederate cavalry General J.E.B. Stuart finally arrived at Gettysburg on July 2nd he was strongly corrected by General Robert E. Lee for being absent so long from the campaign. Many believe that General Stuart was seeking to redeem himself on July 3, 1863.
On July 3 Stuart's task was to guard and secure the Confederate left flank (Ewell's Corp) by proceeding east out of Gettysburg on the York Road. However Stuart saw additional opportunities. Stuart believed that at the same time as guarding the Confederate left flank he could also strike at the Union cavalry commanded by Brigadier General David M. Gregg, and if successful, attack the Union rear and exploit any success by the main Confederate attack planned that day at the main Union line at Cemetery Ridge (Pickett's Charge). Stuart knew the location of the Union cavalry because he had witnessed the fight on July 2, 1863 for Brinkerhoff's Ridge in which dismounted Union cavalry defeated Confederate infantry.
General J.E.B. Stuart had under his command at Gettysburg four brigades of cavalry: Hampton's Brigade, Fitzhugh Lee's Brigade, W.H.F. Lee's Brigade (commanded by Colonel John Chambliss), and also Jenkin's Brigade (commanded by Lt. Colonel Vincent A. Witcher). Stuart also had one horse artillery battalion commanded by Major Robert Beckham. Stuart had over 4,800 troopers under his command. Stuart's plan for attacking the Union's Second Cavalry Division commanded by Brig. General Gregg involved Stuart approaching from the north (north of the Hanover Road), supress Gregg's command with sharpshooters, and then launch mounted attacks from the west from the shelter of Cress Ridge. Cress Ridge is a ridge that runs north-south and sits on the western part of East Cavalry Field.
Brig. General David M. Gregg had nearly 3,400 officers and men under his command. Gregg had his own two brigades: the First Brigade under Colonel John B. McIntosh and the Third Brigade under Colonel John Irvin Gregg. However Brig. General Gregg also had a third brigade of Union cavalry under his command a brigade from Brig. General Judson Kilpatrick's Division, that brigade was commanded by a certain Brigadier General George A. Custer. At 6:00 AM on July 3, 1863 Brig. General Gregg received orders to move his cavalry division out and occupy a position between White Run and Cemetery Hill. Brig.General Gregg immediately protested the order to Major General Pleasanton who commanded the Union cavalry corp at Gettysburg.
A large body of Confederate cavalry was spotted heading east out of Gettysburg using the York Road. The York Road runs northeast out of Gettysburg and north of the Hanover Road (the Hanover Road runs southeast out of Gettysburg). This movement was spotted by Major General Oliver 0. Howard, commander of the Union 11th Corps, from Cemetery Hill and forwarded the information to Major General Alfred Pleasanton who then forwarded it to General Gregg. Surprisingly however Pleasanton ordered Gregg to relieve Custer's Brigade and send it back to Brig. General Kilpatrick who as at the Union's left flank.
The reasons for this are unclear, some speculate that it was to cause stir among Union troopers and perhaps discover their position while some say it was most likely to try and get Gregg to attack first and create an ambush for Gregg's troopers who would be pounced on by Stuart's concealed troopers. However Union troopers from Custer's 6th Michigan detected the deployment of Jenkin's and Chambliss' brigades around the Rummel Farm. Custer ordered Lt. Pennington's artillery battery to open fire on the Confederate artillery (Jackson's battery- that exposed itself when firing that single shot). Pennington's six guns were positioned four north of the Hanover Road and two south of the road. Pennington's battery was more accurate and soon silenced Jackson's battery.
Custer's "wolverines" formed their line facing north.The 5th Michigan was ordered to dismount at their line. The 1st NJ, from McIntosh's Brigade, also dismounted and formed a line alongside the 5th Michigan. By this time Brig. General Gregg asked Custer to ignore the order to join his division at the Union's left flank. Custer needed no convincing and was more than willing to stay and fight.
The two sides dueled with each other across open fields and squadrons of the 3rd PA advanced and occupied both ends of the 1st NJ's line. McIntosh's remaining cavalry regiment, the 1st MD, was held in reserve behind the Lott House. McIntosh reported to Brig. General Gregg (who commanded the second cavalry division) that he needed reinforcements and was occupied with a superior force in number. Gregg turned down the request but ordered Alanson M. Randol's Battery E, 1st US Artillery to deploy and with Pennington's battery, to open fire on the Rummel Farm buildings where the Confederate troopers were firing from. The Rummel barn became impossible to hold and was abandoned by Lt. Colonel Witcher's men.
Stuart then advanced more portions of Jenkin's and Chambliss' brigades and extended the Confederate line to the Hanover Road, perpendicular to the Union line, and outflanked the 1st NJ and the 3rd PA. Brig. General
Custer observed this and dismounted part of his 6th Michigan who extended the Union cavalry line and prevented the line from being outflanked. The 1st NJ and the 3rd PA (of McIntosh's brigade) ran low on ammunition and Custer advanced the 5th Michigan north from the Hanover Road. The 5th Michigan were armed with seven-shot Spencer repeating rifle. When Chambliss noticed the fire slackening from the 1st NJ and the 3rd PA (low on ammunition) he advanced his line and attacked the Union troopers trying to withdraw.
Gregg approached the Colonel of the 7th Michigan, Willian D. Mann, and ordered the charge against the 1st VA regiment. Brig. General Custer placed himself at the head of the charge and with his saber drawn led the 7th Michigan in the charge.Custer stood and turned in his saddle, took off his hat, and shouted, "Come on, you Wolverines!". The regiments charged five to six hundred yards each man screaming as loud as he could. As the 1st VA charged past the Rummel Farm buildings the 5th Michigan turned and opened fire on the flank of the charging Virginians. The 1st VA also was hit by flanking fire from two squadrons of the 3rd PA that had been placed at the Lott farmhouse.
The 1st Virginia and the 7th Michigan collided at a sturdy wooden fence that ran east-west. The two opposing regiments found themselves on opposite sides of the fence and the 7th Michigan, led by Colonel Mann, discharged the revolvers in the faces of the 1st VA. The soldiers later described the sight of the 7th Michigan hitting the fence as being like the waves of the sea hitting, wave after wave, against large boulders. The 7th Michigan lost its colors in the fighting that ensued. Confederate Brig. General Wade Hampton sent reinforcments in and began pushing the 7th Michigan back towards the Hanover Road.
The 7th Michigan, very much outnumbered, fell back to the intersection at the Low Dutch and Hanover road. General McIntosh tried to stop and rally the 7th Michigan shouting, "For God's sake, men, if you are ever going to stand, stand now, for you are on your own free soil!". However as the 1st VA charged and drove the 7th Michigan back, the 1st VA was deep into the are area of the field held by the Union cavalry. As a result, the 1st VA was hit by flanking fire from 5th and 6th Michigan, the 3rd PA, and the 1st NJ. This enabled the 7th Michigan to regroup and rally. The 7th Michigan then counter-charged and drove the 1st VA all the way back past the Rummel Farm buildings. This then exposed the 7th Michigan to flanking fire from Jenkin's men (led my Lt. Colonel Witcher) who were posted just past the Rummel Farm buildings. At this point Stuart realized that a charge with just one regiment almost reached the Hanover Road and concluded that an all out charge should brush aside the Union troopers holding the road.
Brig. General David M. Gregg, commander of the second cavalry division, aware of the crisis unfolding, ordered his only reserve regiment, the 1st Michigan to charge the two Confederate brigades that were charging through the open fields towards the Hanover Road. The 1st Michigan, commanded by Colonel Charles H. Town (suffering from tuberculosis), who cried out "Draw saber! Remember men; be steady, be calm, be firm! Think of Michigan! Forward- March!". The 1st Michigan moved out at a trot with sabers drawn and colors flying in the breeze.
Brig. General George Custer (23 years old) rode to the head of the 1st Michigan and led the regiment as it began its charge. Both sides now picked up momentum as the charge sounded and as they charged across the fields. " The Union troopers could hear Confederate officers leading their men and saying, "keep to your sabers, men, keep to your sabers!". Men on both sides had their nerves strained as both sides drew nearer. Hampton's and Lee's brigades drew flanking fire from dismounted cavalry as they drew nearer to the Hanover Road and the Union position. The Union artillery positions had close calls as the Confederate charge came close to their batteries. As the charging masses reached a meeting point, Custer turned is his saddle, looked back at the men of the 1st Michigan, and shouted once again, "Come on, you Wolverines!".
The two sides crashed into each other and 1st Michigan, using their sabers, cut straight through the Confederate columns. Captain Miller of the 3rd PA said of the charge, "Like the falling of timber, so suddenly and violent that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them". The air was filled with the sounds of sparring sabers, pistol shots, horses rearing up, and the shouting of men's voices. The battle raged intensely as both sides fought it out with the saber and pistol. The two sides pushed back and forth with neither side gaining an advantage.
However soon the fact that Custer was so outnumbered began to show as the Confederate troopers began to gain the upper hand. However elements of the Union cavalry such as the 3rd PA and the 1st NJ witnessed the change in momentum and knew that action had to be taken. Captain William E. Miller led the 3rd PA in a charge into the tangling mass. The charge cut off the Confederate mass by nearly a third and drove all the way to the Rummel Farm buildings, straight across the length of the field. Capt. Miller then reformed his line and charged all the way back again to Lott's woods. The 1st NJ then emerged from the Low Dutch Road and entered into the fray.
The Union cavalry reinforcements caused the Confederate charge to slow down and lose it's momentum. It was also unclear to Staurt's cavalrymen how many Union cavalrymen they faced. The Confederate troopers of Lee's brigade and Hampton's brigade withdrew back to the shelter of Cress Ridge and the woods past the Rummel Farm. The Union troopers pursued the retreating Confederates however J.E.B. Stuart rallied the 1st Virginia cavalry and it temporarily stopped the Union pursuit before being overwhelmed and scattered leaving the Union troopers in control of the field.
The battle at East Cavalry Field was over. There was skirmishing that continued the rest of the day until night, but J.E.B. Stuart's famous cavalry had been bested. Custer did rejoin the rest of his division (Kilpatrick's Division) at the Union left flank. Brig. General David M. Gregg's two brigades, McIntosh's Brigade and Col. Irvin Gregg's Brigade, remained to guard the intersection of the Low Dutch and Hanover Roads.
Heavy casualties for cavalry, on both sides, were suffered. The Union cavalrymen reported 254 casualties (219 of them in George Custer's Michigan brigade and most from the 1st and 7th Michigan). Stuart reported 164 casualties however this figure is not completely accurate and does not include the casualties of Jenkin's Brigade that was led by Lt. Colonel Witcher. Witcher's brigade lost more than 300 men in its dismounted duel with the 5th Michigan.
The victory of Brig. General David M. Gregg's troopers secured the Union right flank and prevented Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry from getting into the rear of the Union army.
Custer honored at East Cavalry Field with this marker and the Michigan Monument, with his face engraved in the center of the monument.