Like Edgar Allen Poe and James Whistler (“Whistler’s Mother”) before him, George Armstrong Custer was a ‘Goat’. Dead last in his class, West Point, class of 1861. Like many of his fellow goats, he would make a greater contribution to history than his academic standing might indicate.
At 25, Custer was one of the youngest Major Generals in the Union army, when Robert E. Lee met George Gordon Meade at the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.
He wasn’t the youngest. That honor goes to Brigadier General Galusha Pennypacker, who at 20 was the only General Officer in history too young to vote for the President who appointed him.
As with another goat, George Pickett, Custer’s contribution at Gettysburg came on the third day. In fact, it was in opposition to Pickett’s Charge that Custer makes his biggest contribution to the Union war effort, though I believe his role is overlooked.
The Battle of Gettysburg is usually described as a contest of men on foot, that cavalry did not play much of a role. On the third day, that would change.
For 19th century armies, the cavalry acted as the eyes and ears of battlefield commanders. Their superior mobility allowed them to report information back on enemy troop strength and movements in a way that otherwise would have been impossible.
For his first two days at Gettysburg, “Marse’ Robert” was out of touch with cavalry commander James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart, leaving him effectively blind. Stuart reappeared at the end of the second day.
On the third came Longstreet’s assault, better known as “Pickett’s charge”. 13,000 Confederate soldiers came out of the tree line at Seminary Ridge, 1¼ mile distant from the Federal line. Prior to pushing off, Lee ordered upwards of 3,400 Confederate horsemen and 13 guns around the Union right, in support of the infantry assault against the Union center.
The “High tide of the Confederacy” is marked at a point on Cemetery Ridge, between the corner of a stone wall and a copse of trees. The farthest that the remnants of Pickett’s charge made it, before being broken and driven back. But, what if Stuart’s cavalry had come crashing into the rear of the Union line? The battle and possibly the Civil War may have ended differently, if not for Custer and his “Wolverines” of the 7th Michigan Cavalry.
Historians write of the 13,000 crossing that field, bayonets flashing and pennants snapping in the breeze. Of equal importance and yet off the main stage, is the drama which played out earlier, at the “east cavalry field”. 700 horsemen collided in furious, point-blank fighting with pistol and cutlass, just as the first Confederate artillery opened against the Union line.
Let the battle be described by one of its participants: “As the two columns approached each other the pace of each increased, when suddenly a crash, like the falling of timber, betokened the crisis. So sudden and violent was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them”.
Stuart sent in reinforcements from all three of his brigades: the 9th and 13th Virginia, the 1st North Carolina, and squadrons of the 2nd Virginia. Custer himself had two horses shot out from under him, before his far smaller force was driven back. The wolverines of the 7th Michigan weren’t alone that day, but of the 254 Union casualties sustained on that part of the battlefield, 219 of them were from Custer’s brigade.
Custer’s later career as Indian fighter would be what he is best known for. On November 27, 1868, then Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief Black Kettle, in one of a series of battles that would end, for him, eight years later on a hill in the eastern Montana territory.
“What if” counterfactual scenarios can be dangerous. We can never know how a story which never happened might have played itself out. Yet I have often wondered how Gettysburg would have ended, had 3,000 Confederate horsemen crashed into Union lines from the rear, at the same time as Pickett’s, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s men hit it from the front.
The Pennsylvania campaign had been Robert E. Lee’s gamble that he could make it hurt enough, that the Federals would allow the Confederate States of America to go its own way. On that third day at Gettysburg, the Civil War could have come to a very different ending.