A Brief Overview of the East Cavalry Field Fight (Gettysburg), July 3, 1863
An Article Contributed by Eric J. Wittenburg
The key to understanding the fight on the East Cavalry Field is to remember that there were two separate and distinct phases to the battle. First was the dismounted phase that occupied most of the afternoon. The dismounted phase was followed by two distinct mounted actions. If you can keep those straight, you can understand the battle that raged there. Before getting to the details of the combat, some background is necessary.
On the morning of July 3, 1863, after the fighting on Brinkerhoff's Ridge, David M. Gregg's Second Cavalry Division held the critical road intersection of the Hanover and Low Dutch Roads. The Low Dutch Road connects with the Baltimore Pike in the center of the rear of the Union army's position at Gettysburg. It is crucial to protecting the Federal rear. At 6 A.M., Gregg received an order to move his division forward to a position behind Cemetery Hill in the event of a change in the Federal position. Gregg realized that there would be no cover for the Federal right flank if he moved his command, so he objected to the order and asked for permission to remain in place. He later wrote:
I then requested the aide-de-camp to return to General Pleasonton and to state to him that I regarded the situation on the right of our army perilous; that I was familiar with the country east of Brinkerhoff's Ridge, that it was open, and that there were two roads leading from the Hanover Road to the Baltimore Turnpike; that if these were not covered by a sufficient force of cavalry it would be to invite an attack upon our rear with possibly disastrous results.
Gregg than waited for a response. He received a message from Pleasonton that reaffirmed the prior order, but that also gave Gregg discretion to detach one of Kilpatrick's brigades (which were advancing to assume a position on the Federal left flank) and send it to hold the Hanover Road position. In response, Gregg sent one of his staff officers to search for Kilpatrick. On the way, the staff officer found Brig. Gen. George A. Custer and his Michigan Cavalry Brigade and related the order. Custer obeyed, marching to the intersection of the Hanover and Low Dutch Roads. Custer and Gregg conferred, with Custer expressing concern about the implications of his disobeying Kilpatrick's orders. When Gregg assured Custer that he would assume responsibility for the actions, and that he would handle any problems with Kilpatrick, Custer agreed to stay.
About 10:00 a.m., Gregg broke camp. He deployed J.I. Gregg's brigade across Brinkerhoff's Ridge to cover the advance and block the Confederate approaches to the Baltimore Pike. McIntosh's brigade came up and assumed a position near the intersection of the Hanover and Low Dutch Roads. McIntosh briefly conferred with Custer, and Custer, having been relieved, began to withdraw from the field to join Kilpatrick. However, before the withdrawal was complete, about noon, Gregg received a report from Pleasonton indicating that a large force of Confederate cavalry had been spotted moving in Gregg's direction. Gregg heard the report and spurred off to find Custer, realizing that he would need the additional manpower to hold the crucial intersection. Gregg found Custer and asked him to stay. Custer agreed, and the Wolverines countermarched, returning to the crucial road intersection. There, they awaited the arrival of the Confederate horsemen Gregg would go into battle with approximately 2,500 troopers and 10 guns.
About 2 p.m. Stuart arrived on Cress Ridge. He has 6,000 men, formed in four brigades, with him. He intends to take the Low Dutch Road to the Baltimore Pike, looking to get into the Federal rear and raise some havoc. He orders his lead brigades (Jenkins and Chambliss) to file down a farm road but to maintain the cover of the woods near the Rummel farm buildings. The Bold Dragoon knew that Federal cavalry had been in the area the day before, as a result of his seeing the end of the Brinkerhoff's Ridge fight, but as a result of the terrain, he could not see whether Federal troopers remained in the area. He deployed the guns of Griffin's batter, each facing a different direction of the compass, and had a shot fired by each gun. Stuart never explained his reasons for doing this, but we can assume that it was intended to flush out the presence of Federals in the area.
In response, Custer ordered Lt. Alexander C.M. Pennington to deploy Battery M, 2nd U.S. Artillery, and to open fire on Cress Ridge. The return fire of Pennington's guns convinces Stuart that there are Federal forces in the area, although he does not know what they are. However, he can see McIntosh's men deploying near the Rummel farm buildings. As he pondered his next move, his other two brigades, Fitz Lee's and Hampton's arrived. Stuart deployed them in the fields of the Stallsmith farm, in a swale where they couldn't be seen. He also ordered Lt. Col. Vincent Witcher's 34th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry to occupy the Rummel barn (Although Col. Milton Ferguson should have been in command of the wounded Jenkins' brigade, there is no evidence that he was present on the field. Witcher appears to have had tactical command of the brigade during the fight on the East Cavalry Field). For reasons that remain a mystery today, the men of Witcher's brigade were only issued ten rounds of Enfield ammunition apiece, instead of the usual forty. The lack of ammunition will play a critical role as the fighting unfolds.
THE DISMOUNTED PHASE OF THE FIGHTING
John McIntosh saw Witcher's men deploy. He responded by dismounting the 1st New Jersey and sending it forward to occupy a fence line west of Little's Run. The Jersey troopers were to feel out the Confederate position. They moved forward and opened fire across the fields of the Rummel farm. McIntosh split the 3rd Pennsylvania. Most of the regiment was put in position to support the 1st New Jersey, but a squadron, commanded by Capt. William Miller, was sent to hold a position in heavy woods along the Low Dutch Road, guarding the flank. Miller received orders to hold the position at all costs. The Purnell Legion troopers covered the intersection. Randol's battery also deployed and opened fire, and a severe counterbattery duel opened.
The Jerseymen had a severe firefight with the dismounted Confederates hiding in the Rummel farm buildings. Soon, Witcher's entire brigade had joined the fight, moving into position in and among the Rummel farm buildings, and threatened to flank McIntosh's position. Maj. Hugh Janeway, the regiment's second ranking officer, rode the regiment's lines encouraging the men. Seeing the deployment of Witcher's full brigade and the threat to his flank, Custer reinforced the 1st New Jersey by dismounting the men of the 5th and 6th Michigan and advancing them into the fields around the Rummel farm buildings. The 5th and 6th, armed with seven-shot Spencer rifles, advanced and laid down a severe fire. As the Wolverines deployed, McIntosh ordered the 1st New Jersey to pull back to support them. When they failed to do so, McIntosh approached the regimental commander, Maj. Myron Beaumont, and asked, "Major, where is your regiment?"
"On the skirmish line, sir."
"But I ordered them to be relieved."
"The other regiment cannot be got to relieve them."
"I will see about that," replied McIntosh. "Recall your men."
"I have recalled them and they won't come!", responded Beaumont. The Jerseymen, who were running out of ammunition, borrowed rounds from the nearby 3rd Pennsylvania, and held their position, cheering as they continued to fight dismounted.
Elements of Chambliss' brigade also dismounted and moved forward to support Witcher's beleaguered men as they quickly ran out of ammunition. Chambliss' troopers punished the men of the 1st New Jersey and 3rd Pennsylvania, but the heavy fire of the Michigan men drove back Chambliss' attack. The combination of the fire of Randol's guns and the severe fire of the Spencers of the Wolverines compelled Witcher's men to withdraw to the safety of the woods behind the Rummel farm buildings. Supported by the Wolverines, McIntosh's men advance and clear the farm buildings. A lull in the action took place, ending the dismounted phase of the fighting.
THE MOUNTED PHASE OF THE FIGHTING
Chambliss responded by ordering a mounted sortie by about 200 officers and men of his brigade. Col. Richard L. T. Beale, commander of one of Chambliss' regiments, the 9th Virginia Cavalry, described the scene:
- The mounted men of our brigade now were ordered to charge. Passing through the yard of the barn under a raking fire from the guns on the hill, and doubling the head of the bottom, they dashed up the slope to meet the foe. The little band, led by Chambliss, did not exceed two hundred men. Reaching a fence under a hundred yards from the enemy, now standing in line and using their rifles, they halted until the fence was thrown down. It seemed to me, standing in a place of comparative safety, the Yankees slackened their fire, curious to see is so few dared cross sabers with them. The fence down, in two columns of fours, the brigade with headlong impetuosity hurled its column upon the line, and for a moment, sabers flashed and pistols cracked. The work was soon over: pierced and doubled up from center to flank, the enemy fled in wild disorder, leaving many prisoners in our hands. But, met by fresh troops, the brigade in turn had to fly, and captors in charge of prisoners soon became prisoners themselves. The charging column was pursued to the barn lot.
After the 3rd Pennsylvania countercharged, Stuart spotted two distinct Federal lines, of McIntosh's brigade, and Custer's Wolverines, and ordered the 1st Virginia Cavalry of Fitz Lee's brigade to make a mounted charge between the two Federal lines. McIntosh tried to deploy his reserve, the Purnell Legion, but discovered that Gregg had moved the Maryland men off to guard the flank. McIntosh realized that he had nothing to plug the gap, and that the Confederate charge would hit the seam between his brigade and Custer's splitting them apart and opening the way to the road intersection.
Custer also recognized the threat. He ordered one of his two uncommitted regiments, the 7th Michigan, to mount. Drawing his sabre, and falling in at the head of the 7th Michigan, Custer bellowed, "Come on, you Wolverines!" and led their charge across the open fields. Sabres glinting in the afternoon sun, the Wolverines thundered toward the charging Confederates, their commander's flowing blonde locks distinctly visible at the head of the Yankee column. As the men of the 7th Michigan charged, the troopers of the 5th Michigan wheeled to fire into the Confederate flank as the charge passed by, raking them with Spencer fire. The 7th Michigan and 1st Virginia collided along a wall at Little's Run, and a fierce sabre melee broke out.
Seeing the Confederate charge bog down, Wade Hampton sent the 1st North Carolina and Phillips Legion forward to support them. The arrival of the grayclad reinforcements forced the men of the 7th Michigan to fall back, but not before Hampton himself had a duel with a mounted Wolverine, suffering a sabre cut to his head, and a pistol wound to the arm. As the Wolverines fell back, a desperate McIntosh tried to rally them, yelling, "For God's sake men, if you are ever going to stand, stand now, for you are on your own free soil!"
The success of Hampton's limited counterattack persuaded Stuart that the intersection could be taken. At 3:00, he ordered all of the remaining forces of Hampton and Fitz Lee to charge. As the Confederate troopers emerged from the protection of the woods, they presented a magnificent sight. "A grander spectacle than their advance has rarely been beheld," marveled Capt. Miller of the 3rd Pennsylvania, "Their polished sabre blades dazzled in the sun. All eyes turned upon them."
As they steadily advanced across the fields, Randol's and Pennington's gunners opened on them, tearing holes in the Rebel lines. The ranks quickly closed up, and the grayclad horse soldiers continued their advance. Gregg realized that the moment of truth had arrived. He rode to his only available reserve, Col. Charles Town's 1st Michigan Cavalry, and ordered them to charge. Town, dying a slow, horrible death from tuberculosis, was so weak that he could hardly ride. In the moment of crisis, he gathered his strength and ordered his men to draw sabers and charge. As the 1st Michigan moved forward, Custer again fell in at their head, telling Town that he would lead the charge. Crossing the Hanover Road and passing the Federal batteries, they went from trot to gallop, with Custer again yelling, "Come on, you Wolverines!" Elements of the 5th Michigan also mounted, and rallied troopers of the 7th Michigan also joined their lines as they flew across the fields. Custer's gallant little command was outnumbered 5-to-1.
The opposing forces collided in the farm fields with a tremendous clash. Capt. Miller wrote, "Like the falling of timber, so sudden and violent that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders under them. The clashing of sabers, the firing of pistols, the demands for surrender, and the cries of the combatants now filled the air."
That portion of the 3rd Pennsylvania positioned alongside the 1st New Jersey near the Rummel farm turned and opened a raking fire upon the flanks of the charging Confederates. Capt. Miller's squadron still held the woods. Worried, Miller turned to Lt. William Brooke-Rawle and said, "I have been ordered to hold this position, but if you will back me up in case I am court-martialed for disobedience, I will order a charge." Brooke-Rawle readily agreed, and Miller ordered his squadron to fire a volley and then charge. They fired a volley, drew sabers, and crashed into the left flank of Fitz Lee's brigade, cutting off a portion of it. Instead of a court-martial, Miller received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his courage and initiative in ordering the charge.
Capt. James H. Hart's squadron of the 1st New Jersey, also holding the flank with Miller's men, also charged from the Low Dutch Road, falling in on Miller's left. The sudden and furious Union counterattack broke the momentum of Lee's charge, and the Virginians fled in the face of the determined flank attacks.
"Then it was steel to steel," recounted Capt. James H. Kidd of the 6th Michigan, "For minutes, and for minutes that seemed like years, the gray column stood and staggered before the blow, then yielded and fled. Alger and McIntosh had pierced its flanks, but Town's impetuous charge in front went through it like a wedge splitting it in twain, and scattering the Confederate horsemen in disorderly rout back to the woods from whence they came."
Lt. Brooke-Rawle, who later became the principal historian of the East Cavalry Field fight, later wrote:
- We cavalrymen have always that we saved the day at the most critical moment of the battle of Gettysburg-the greatest battle and the turning point of the War of the Rebellion. Had Stuart succeeded in his well-laid plan, and, with his large force of cavalry, struck the Army of the Potomac in the rear of its line of battle, simultaneously with Pickett's magnificent and furious assault on its front, when our infantry had all if could do to hold on to the line of Cemetery Ridge, and but little more was needed to make the assault a success, the merest tyro in the art of war can readily tell us; fortunately for the Army of the Potomac, fortunately for our country, and the cause of human liberty, he failed. Thank God that he did fail, and that, with His divine assistance, the good fight fought here brought victory to our arms!
David M. Gregg noted, "General Stuart had in view the accomplishment of certain purposes, his plans were disarranged by being compelled to enter into a fierce encounter with a smaller force of Union troops. His was to do, ours to prevent. Could he have reached the rear of our army with his force of perhaps six thousand bold and tried troopers, disastrous consequences might have resulted."
Kidd, who gave the dedication speech for the Michigan Cavalry Brigade's handsome monument years later, recounted:
- There was no mistake about it. It was Gregg's presience. He saw the risk of attempting to guard the right flank with only the two decimated brigades of his own division. Seeing with him was to act. He took the responsibility to intercept Kilpatrick's rear and largest brigade, turn it off the Baltimore Pike, to the right, instead of allowing it to go to the left, as it had been ordered to do, and thus, doubtless a serious disaster was averted…If Custer's presence on the field was, as has often been said, "providential", it is General D. M. Gregg to whom, under providence, the credit for bringing him there was due.
Custer's brigade lost Major Noah Ferry of the 5th Michigan, killed while rallying his men during Chambliss' charge. Custer lost another 28 men killed, 11 officers and 113 men wounded, and 87 men missing for total losses of 239. McIntosh's brigade lost one man killed, 7 officers and 19 men wounded, and 8 men missing for total losses of 34. Stuart went into battle with approximately 6,000 men. His losses were 40 men killed, 111 wounded, and 134 missing, for total losses of 285. Among the wounded was Wade Hampton, whose nasty wound forced him to miss much of the fighting that took place during the retreat.
From this point forward, the Federal cavalry was always on an even footing with the Confederate cavalry. Never again would the insulting phrase, "Whoever saw a dead cavalryman" be heard.