July 2, 2008: General Custer and his savior, Bugler Norville Churchill, are honored at Hunterstown Battlefield, PA
sources: Hunterstown 1863 (Hunterstown Historical society), Scott Mingus.
Art: Jared Frederick, http://www.historymatters.biz
By Troy Harman, National Park Ranger and Historian, Gettysburg National Parks Service
Hunterstown Cavalry Battlefield, also known as North Cavalry Field, is a National Shrine waiting to be fully appreciated and brought into the fold of sacred places visited regularly by patrons of Gettysburg National Military Park. Fields and barns to either side of the Hunterstown road, just to the south of old town square mark the site of a significant cavalry fight waged there after 4:00 PM on July 2, 1863.
Union participants involved were Michigan Troopers under Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer versus the Confederacy’s famous Cobb’s Georgia Legion, with support from Phillips Georgia Legion, the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry and 1st North Carolina Cavalry. They were under the overall direction of the capable Brigadier General Wade Hampton, who latter
replaced J.E.B. Stuart as Robert E. Lee’s cavalry chieftain.
Lines of battle were established a mile apart with Custer’s men establishing their artillery at Felty-Tate Ridge on the northern end, to oppose Hampton’s rebel guns atop Brinkerhoff’s Ridge directly south. In the valley between, a fierce hand-to-hand fight would ensue across the J.G. Gilbert and J. Felty Farms, intact to the present day.
It began with Custer ordering elements of the 6th and 7th Michigan cavalry to dismount and move south on foot beyond and below the ridge, along both sides of the Hunterstown Road. Concealed by fields carpeted with ripe golden wheat, the Michigan troopers waded inconspicuously forward to the Felty Farm where some of their best marksmen found excellent cover and elevated fields of fire within the enormous Pennsylvania bank barn west of the road.
Felty’s barn was even large enough to conceal Lieutenant A.C.M. Pennington’s 2nd U.S. Battery M, 250 yards to the north along the Felty-Tate ridge. Meanwhile, to complete the deployment, dismounted men of the 7th Michigan formed undetected in the tall wheat east of the Hunterstown Road, to form a cross fire with the 6th Michigan.
Recognizing this, Custer would use Company A as a small shock force to establish contact with southern troopers. After hitting them hard to get their ire up, he retreated intentionally drawing them back north to the prepared ambush waiting east and west of the Hunterstown Road at Felty’s barn. Custer, a new brigadier nearly lost his life in the initial charge in front of the Gilbert farm, where Confederates resisted.
If it had not been for Norville Churchill’s timely rescue of Custer, whisking him out of harm’s way and onto his horse, later Indian Wars on Western Plains may have taken on a different complexion.
Not being able to stop their horses in time, several Confederates raced beyond the barn where Pennington’s artillery opened at close range, killing five rebel officers. Between the two sides, eleven officers were killed or wounded, indicating the short struggle was vicious. Although statistics vary, the total losses at Hunterstown range from eighty to one hundred men. Confederate survivors withdrew south down the Hunterstown Road to the Gilbert Farm and subsequently Brinkerhoff’s Ridge. With both sides monitoring the other from a mile’s distance, only long range artillery was exchanged the rest of the evening. At 11:00 PM, Judson Kilpatrick withdrew Custer’s men and the rest of the division with new orders to the Baltimore Pike.
What they actually saw was James Longstreet’s countermarch moving northeast before turning due south. Union Army Headquarters responded by giving David Gregg orders to take some of his cavalry north from Hanover Road towards Hunterstown and Heidlersburg to ascertain whether the large Confederate column was coming through by way of modern Route 394 to assault Culp’s Hill and Meade’s lines of communication and supply below on the Baltimore Pike. Judson Kilpatrick’s Cavalry division was given this assignment by Gregg. When Custer struck Hampton at Hunterstown, he was actually trying to ascertain whether a column of 10,000 Confederate Infantry lay beyond.
Because Longstreet’s Corps was without cavalry on July 2, Sickles with Kilpatrick’s help promised a decided advantage for the federals on July 2. Circumstances in Hunterstown sidetracked this logical scenario. There are many other historical points to make about Hunterstown such as its early status as a rival with Gettysburg for the county seat, a stopping point for President George Washington during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, an important early crossroads town, and site of a substantial Confederate hospital.
In all of these actions, Union cavalry buffered key Union positions in four directions of the compass. Each site is equally essential to accurately portraying Gettysburg as the most famous battle for human freedom in American History.
Glen Churchill : "I think it's wonderful that Norville Churchill saved (Custer's) life. This battle started the end of the war."
Norville Churchill joined Company L of the First Michigan Calvary on Sept. 6, 1861 and was honorably discharged in 1865. The family still has the sword used to save Custer’s life. “He (Custer) wanted my great-grandfather to go west with him,” said Susan Theisen.