Custer made mark in battle

Cavalry: The Union's flamboyant 23-year-old general and his Michigan Brigade gained fame in the fighting on the third day at Gettysburg.

June 26, 2005|By Kaylin Rocco | Kaylin Rocco,SUN STAFF

Gettysburg was a classic infantry battle, but it also had a cavalry component, and one of the most famous units was Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer's Wolverines, composed of the 1st, 5th, 6th and 7th Michigan Cavalry regiments.

Gen. Robert E. Lee, determined to break the Union center, sent Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry about three miles east of Gettysburg around to the Union right on the third day of the battle. Their instructions were to get into the Union rear, to break through, and to get into the pack trains and artillery reserves, according to Col. Edwin E. Bryant in "The Battle of Gettysburg," a paper that he presented on Oct. 4, 1893.

"Had Lee's plans carried, Stuart would have had rich booty," wrote Bryant. "But he found [Brig. Gen. John Irvin] Gregg there with his Second Division of the Cavalry Corps, and Custer's gallant Michigan Brigade of the Third Division, whom he fondly called his `Wolverines.' Stuart's force is met by a strong skirmish line, which checks his advance for a time."

According to the Comte de Paris in A History of the Civil War in America, published in 1886, "Their artillery immediately opens fire upon Custer. His brigade, which he has till then kept in reserve, and his guns soon silence those of the Confederates."

Countercharge ordered

With the hopes of breaking the Union line, Stuart put Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton at the head of the brigade. However, Hampton's force was met by the alert Union cavalrymen who, Bryant said, did not "stand still and receive this column with its momentum on their own ground."

A countercharge was ordered for the Union to meet the Confederates halfway.

"The Confederates reach the Union batteries," reported Bryant. "Their onset is gallant and brave, but Custer launches upon them at this moment two of his Michigan regiments. This is a surprise to the Confederates. They sheathe sabers and draw pistols, but in an instant the saber-strokes of the Union men are raining upon their heads and shoulders. They are literally pushed back."

The remainder of Hampton's brigade, along with Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, was then sent in by Stuart, whose cavalry outnumbered the Union force. Custer and his men were pushed back a little, but were soon aided by Gregg and one of his two brigades, led by Brig. Gen. John Baillie McIntosh, who charged the Confederates.

"The sabers fly in the air, and strong men hack at each other," wrote Bryant. "Custer, in the front, falls back. Gregg and McIntosh, on each side, are gashing into the Confederate column. As Custer falls back he unmasks the guns of ... [a] battery. They let fly right into the solid mass, with an accuracy that Gregg reports he never saw surpassed."

Confederates waver

According to the address of Col. William Brooke Rawl, which was delivered at the dedication of the Cavalry Monument at the location of the fight, "Staggered by the fearful execution of ... two batteries, the men in the front of the Confederate column drew in their horses and wavered, some turned, and the column fanned out to the right and left, but those behind came pressing on. Custer, seeing the men in the front ranks of the enemy hesitate, waved his saber and shouted, `Come on, you Wolverines,' and with a fearful yell the 1st Michigan rush on, Custer four lengths ahead."

In the official reports both sides claimed victory but as the Comte de Paris recounted, "They [Union cavalry] have, however, accomplished their object and frustrated the plan of their adversaries. By their first attack, and subsequently by their vigorous resistance, they have interrupted Stuart's flank movement."

After the ground of this engagement was abandoned, a total of 736 Union men were lost. One hundred twelve were killed, 289 were wounded, and 335 were taken prisoner. According to the Comte de Paris, Custer's brigade suffered the most.

As for Custer, who was 23 years old when he was promoted to brigadier general on June 29, 1863, Gettysburg brought him to the forefront of public notice, a spot he held until his death in 1876 in a battle with the Dakota Indians on the Little Bighorn River.

Kaylin Rocco is a senior majoring in journalism at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of an academic internship at The Sun.

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