In this installment, you will take a deeper dive into the details of some of Custer’s fearless actions at the Battle of Gettysburg. And you will be introduced to some fascinating books and the historians who wrote them.
One. Before Little Big Horn: Custer’s dauntless heroism at Gettysburg
For those of you (like me) who didn’t know: Custer commanded the Michigan cavalry brigade at Gettysburg and emerged from the battle as a national hero.
In my research about Custer at Gettysburg, I was quite surprised to learn of his heroic deeds on July 3, 1863, that rank right up there with his Medal of Honor classmate Alonzo Cushing defending the angle during Pickett’s Charge. In fact, I concluded that our nation owes a great debt to Custer’s daredevil cavalry charges and quest for glory on East Cavalry Field that significantly contributed to the Union victory at Gettysburg.
Like most of us, I knew about Custer’s dramatic last stand at the Little Big Horn River in the Montana Territory, and I had strong opinions –—mostly bad. But I was not aware that, when the Civil War ended eleven years earlier, Custer was a national war hero, as mythical in fame as the Greek warrior Achilles of the Trojan War. He had unparalleled success on Civil War battlefields, escaping capture and death several times, often attributed to “Custer’s Luck.”
Excellent books and their authors
Full disclosure: Until I had read Eric Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi, and Michael Nugent’s superb book, One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863, I didn’t know Custer was at Gettysburg.
When I was a Navy student at Marine Corps Command and Staff College, we read Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and then did a two-day battlefield field tour of Gettysburg. It was a great experience and we had top guides, but not once did anyone mention Custer’s deeds on Gettysburg’s East Cavalry Field.
Thirty years later I read One Continuous Fight and was shocked to discover Custer fought in the Gettysburg campaign. In Chapter 3, “The Midnight Fight in the Monterey Pass 4-5 July 1863,” I learned about Custer’s cavalry column’s successful attack against the the summit in a “howling storm.” It’s a story of unparalleled heroism.
After reading about the Battle of Monterey Pass, I wondered if Custer’s brigade was involved in the three-day Gettysburg battle. I was delighted to discover that Eric and David had written books covering Custer’s rise from a 23-year-old captain to “Boy General,” commanding the Michigan Brigade including the period from June 28, 1863, to July 3, 1863. For anyone who would like a primer on Custer at Gettysburg, I highly recommend Eric J. Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi’s Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg and Eric Wittenberg’s Protecting the Flank at Gettysburg: The Battles for Brinkerhoff Ridge and East Cavalry Field, July 2-3, 1863. I highly recommend these two books. They’re great reads.
Two. On July 3, 1863, Custer disobeyed orders. Twice.
In doing so, he helped prevent Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry from penetrating the Union’s right flank and attacking its rear logistics.
Custer twice claimed “justified defiance” in disobeying orders on last day of the Gettysburg Battle.
The first time was when he intercepted General David Gregg’s courier carrying an order to General Kilpatrick requesting that one of Kilpatrick’s two brigades support Gregg’s Second Cavalry division on East Cavalry Field.
Instead of waiting for Kilpatrick to comply with the request and order either Custer’s brigade or brigade to support Gregg, Custer asserted his brigade was closer to East Cavalry Field. Custer’s thinking was, why wait for Kilpatrick to give him the order to support Gregg? Too much time would be wasted. So, on his own initiative, Custer executed Gregg’s order without Kilpatrick’s permission.
The second time Custer disobeyed orders was when General Pleasonton ordered Custer to depart East Cavalry Field and return to South Cavalry Field where Kilpatrick’s division was located. Fortunately, Custer also disobeyed this order, and his “justified defiance” saved the Union’s right flank from being destroyed.
Three. Custer led two cavalry charges on East Cavalry Field on July 3, 1863.
Custer’s first cavalry charge on East Cavalry Field was with the Seventh Michigan Cavalry Regiment. About halfway up the Rummel sloping field, Custer veered to the left, aiming for Confederate batteries on the brow of Cress Field. A small detachment followed Custer. The rest of the regiment charged ahead and, after clearing a berm, crashed in a strong stone-and-rail fence. A fierce fight broke out at the fatal fence. Custer managed to get within a few hundred yards of the Rebel batteries but lacked enough troopers to make a final charge. He retreated to the Fatal Fence and then ordered the 7Seventh Michigan back to their starting position.
Custer’s second cavalry charge on East Cavalry Field was with the First Michigan Cavalry Regiment. The Rebel cavalry heavily outnumbered the Wolverine regiment. Nevertheless, the Boy General with Golden Locks charged fearlessly into the attacking Confederates. The Michigan Cavalry monument marks the spot where the two cavalries collided.
Custer’s First Michigan cavalry charge is considered by many to be one the greatest Napoleonic-like charges in military history. Custer’s beloved horse Roanoke was shot in the leg and Custer was unhorsed in this charge. Custer managed to mount another steed and continue the charge through the middle of the melee. Roanoke survived his wound and Custer sent him to his father’s farm for the rest of the
As Custer demonstrated from Gettysburg to Appomattox, he possessed outrageous courage leading charges. Although General Philip Sheridan described Custer as “boyish as he was brave,” Custer’s performance during the Civil War was bold and gloriously remarkable.