Hunterstown, 1863-2008

Publié le par custerwest

July 2, 2008: General Custer and his savior, Bugler Norville Churchill, are honored at Hunterstown Battlefield, PA
Hunterstown 1863 (Hunterstown Historical society), Scott Mingus. 
Art: Jared Frederick,

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.

Custer had arranged the perfect trap, but how to lure Confederate cavalrymen into it required another step. To achieve this and complete the perfect ambush, he would personally lead around sixty mounted men of Company A, 6th Michigan on a daring charge toward the Confederate position. Because the Hunterstown Road was tightly flanked on both sides with post and rail fences, it was impossible for more than one company to move at a gallop.

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.

In Kentucky Derby fashion, the horses of Cobb’s Legion raced in the summer air nose to tail with Company A, for a quarter mile up the narrow Hunterstown Road, all-the-while bouncing between the fences which hemmed them in like a bowling alley. So caught up in the chase were the Georgians, that they fell like a hungry mouse right into the trap which was released on them as soon as Union cavalry cleared the waiting crossfire.

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.

The significance of this action far exceeds the fight itself, and the ramifications were greater than many realize. The first of these has to do with Culp’s Hill being saved for the Union on July 2. When Custer enticed Hampton’s Georgia and South Carolina Cavalrymen into a fight, he prevented them from reaching the left flank of the Army of Northern Virginia by way of the Hunterstown Road. Jeb Stuart had ordered them there to protect Richard Ewell’s left, while the latter assaulted Culp’s Hill. When Stuart learned of Union Cavalry at Hunterstown, he countermanded his original order, to permit Hampton to stay and fight. Ewell has been criticized greatly for not beginning his attack at Culp’s Hill earlier on July 2, but his delay in part was related to Hampton’s cavalry not arriving to protect him from David Gregg’s division of Union cavalry sitting squarely on his flank along the Hanover Road. To compensate, Ewell had to reassign 3,000 officers and infantrymen to the Hanover Road. This weakened his main assault upon Culp’s and Cemetery Hills. Indirectly then, the episode at Hunterstown helped to save the Army of the Potomac's main position at Gettysburg.

Another great consequence of Hunterstown is that Daniel Sickles Union Third Corps, representing the left flank of that army near the Round Tops, was largely unprotected by cavalry. Outside of one or two cavalry units doing spot duty there, the Federal flank was vulnerable. This is so because the Signal Station at Little Round Top incorrectly reported between 1:30 PM and 1:45 PM on July 2, to have spotted a column of 10,000 Confederates with trains to be marching towards the extreme Union right.

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.

Had the Round Top Signal Station not crossed its signals, Kilpatrick’s division with Custer most likely would have moved to protect Sickles’ left. Such a result should have erased the Meade-Sickles controversy, because Kilpatrick’s men naturally would have discovered, harassed, and delayed Longstreet’s men until Commanding Union General Meade rectified Sickles’ line.

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.

Regarding the hospital connection, the old town is still filled with the charm of a late 1700’s hamlet, untouched thus far by modern development. Quaint homes and settings undisturbed, harkening back to another time include Kilpatrick’s Headquarters at the Grass Hotel, the John Tate House, Barn & Blacksmith Shop where George Washington shod his horse’s shoes in October 1794. One of the Tate sheds even bears artillery shell marks left from the cavalry battle in 1863. The Great Conewago Presbyterian Church is another impressive structure from the period, made of stone, and documented as a Confederate Hospital. Each of these dwellings adds so much to the historic time capsule that is Hunterstown, Pennsylvania.

With that said, every effort must be made to preserve the principle battlefield at Hunterstown along with the charm and richness of the old town sitting directly north of it. As development comes to Hunterstown, it must tastefully build around the two and save both. Doing so is not only imperative with respect to its National Register of Historic Places status, but it is also wise. If developed right, all Hunterstown property owners can boast a preserved national shrine in the heart of their town that will only increase in monetary and cultural value.

Finally, as the July 3 cavalry fight, three miles east of Gettysburg, is widely known today as East Cavalry Field; and as the ill-fated cavalry charge led by Elon Farnsworth on July 3, two miles south of town, is commonly called South Cavalry Field; so too should the Hunterstown clash, only four miles north of Gettysburg be regarded as North Cavalry Field. In this same vein, Buford’s cavalry fight one mile west of town on July 1 might be called West Cavalry Field.

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.



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