Gettysburg: Cavalry Battle at the East Field

 

The disastrous Pickett's Charge most often dominates any discussion of the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863. Two very significant cavalry battles also took place that fateful day: three miles to the east known as East Cavalry Field, and to the southwest of Round Top mountain , known as South Cavalry Field. Confederate States of America Major General J.E.B. Stuart attempted to get his famous Confederate cavalry, known as "The Invincibles", behind the Union soldiers engaged during Pickett's Charge. Union cavalry, under Brigadier Generals David McMurtie Gregg and George Armstrong Custer, foiled the Confederate advance in the East Cavalry Field.

At approximately 11 a.m. CSA General Stuart arrived just north of East Cavalry Field, and fired four canon shots, each in the directions on a compass, to signal other CSA leaders he was in position. Union General Gregg also heard the firing and he and General Custer’s Troopers responded to block the Rebel advance. When the Confederates got close enough, Union canons fired and the Confederates responded with canon fire. An artillery duel ensued with the Union gaining the upper hand.

General Stuart attempted to pin down the Union skirmishers and flank them by crossing Cress Ridge. The Union troops fought valiantly, and aided by the Spencer Repeating Rifles of the 5th Michigan Cavalry, began pushing the Confederates back. Seeing this, General Stuart ordered the 1st Virginia Cavalry to charge headlong into the Union troops, hoping to terminate their advance. At approximately 1 p.m., Confederate artillery opened a barrage on Cemetery Ridge. Confederate troopers poured through Rummel’s Farm, effectively smashing the Union skirmish line.

General Gregg commanded General Custer to counterattack with the 7th Michigan. Custer led the regiment, out front leading the charge, with a cry of "Come on, you Wolverines!" The opposing cavalry forces literally smashed into each other on Rummel's farm. Imagine seven hundred men and horses fighting, literally at point blank range. General Custer commandeered a bugler's horse after his own was shot down from under him. General Custer's men massed and broke down the fence they were fighting across, forced the 1st Virginia Cavalry to retreat, and followed after them. CSA General Stuart then sent in heavy reinforcements, causing General Custer’s 7th Michigan Cavalry to fall back in retreat.

As the Union Troopers were being pushed back, General Stuart sent in CSA General Wade Hampton’s brigade , at a gallop, to break through the Union lines. Union horse artillery tried to stop the Confederate advance, but the determined attackers pushed on. "Come on, you Wolverines!" was once again a rallying battle cry issued by General Custer, as the Michigan Wolverines galloped to meet their foe. Neither cavalry foe slowed, in fact they accelerated when engagement was imminent. The smashing of men and horses into each other at full speed resulted in many horses being upended and many Troopers, from both sides, were killed or injured by them. During the melee General Custer had his second horse of the day shot out from under him.

After forty intense minutes of fighting on East Cavalry Field, the Confederates withdrew. The exhausted and battered Union troopers were in no condition to pursue them, only making a short half hearted chase.

Of the 254 Union casualties, 219 of them came from General Custer's brigade. The Confederates lost 181 men. Although the East Field was pretty much a draw, the operation must be viewed as a strategic loss for the Rebels who failed to get through to the rear of Union soldiers fending off Pickett's Charge.

General George Armstrong Custer is an unsung hero of the Battle of Gettysburg, for without his gallant charges the Confederates would have broken through the Union resistance. Critics often cite his high casualty rate in the battle as poor performance. General Custer knew the Rebel advance had to be stopped at all costs. He didn’t order his men into a known high casualty fight. He LED them. I wonder how many armchair quarterbacks would have changed seats with him?

Some photos of my trip to the battlefield in August 2010. I'll be adding a much larger selection to the vacations section later this year.

Rummel's Farm.

That's me on Custer Avenue with the Michigan Cavalry Monument.

General

David Gregg

General

J.E.B. Stuart

General

Wade Hampton

 

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