February 18, 1817 The Awful Tragedy, of Friends at War

Three years came and went before the old friends once again faced each other, this time across the field of battle.   Gettysburg.

Armistead is a prominent name in Virginia.  The family goes back to colonial days.  Five Armistead brothers fought in the war of 1812. Major George Armistead commanded Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore, the inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner.

Major Armistead became an uncle this day in 1817, to Lewis Addison Armistead, the first of eight children born to General Walker Keith and Elizabeth Stanley Armistead.

“Lothario” or “Lo” to his friends, Armistead followed the family footsteps, attending the Military Academy at West Point.  He never graduated.  Some say he had to resign after breaking a plate over the head of fellow cadet and future Confederate General, Jubal Early.  Others say it was due to academic difficulties, particularly French class.

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Lewis Addison Armistead

Be that as it may, Armistead’s influential father gained him a 2nd Lieutenant’s commission awarded in 1839, about the time his former classmates, received theirs.

Armistead’s field combat experience reads like a time-line of the age:  cited three times for heroism in the Mexican-American War, wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec, going on to serve in the Mohave War and the Battle of the Colorado River.

Stellar though his military career was, the man’s personal life was a series of disasters.  Armistead survived two wives and two daughters, only to lose the family farm in a fire.  All while fighting a severe case of Erysipelas, a painful and debilitating Streptococcal skin infection known in the Middle Ages as “St. Anthony’s Fire”.

The act of conjugating the “Be” verb changed after the Civil War.  Before, it was the United States “are”.  Afterward, it became the United States “is”, and not for no reason.  This was a time when Patriotic Americans felt every bit the attachment to states, as to the nation itself.

Though often plagued with doubt, fellow Americans took sides on the eve of the Civil War.  Even brothers.   Like fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee, Armistead wanted no part of secession, but followed his state when the break became inevitable.

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Winfield Scott Hancock

Pennsylvania native Winfield Scott Hancock went the other direction, staying with the Union.  Years later, “Hancock the Superb” would be the Democratic candidate for President of the United States, narrowly losing to Republican James A. Garfield.

At a time of rampant political corruption, Hancock was noted for personal integrity.  Though himself a Republican, President Rutherford B. Hayes spoke in terms of admiration:

“[I]f…we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold.”

Neither Armistead nor Hancock were politicians, nor the sort of hotheads responsible for starting the war.  These were professional soldiers, serving together and developing a close personal friendship, as early as 1844.  On final parting on the eve of Civil War, Armistead made Hancock the gift of a new Major’s uniform.

Three years came and went before the old friends once again faced each other, this time across the field of battle.   Gettysburg.

Robert E. Lee intended to break the Federal will to fight at Gettysburg, before moving on to threaten the Union capital, in Washington DC.  ‘Marse Robert” attacked his adversary’s right on that first day, looking for a soft spot in the line. On day two, he went after the left.  On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, Lee came straight up the middle.

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A Union perspective, from Cemetery ridge

Armistead and Hancock looked out across the same field as gray and butternut soldiers formed up along seminary ridge.  The action began with the largest bombardment in the history of the western hemisphere, the mighty crash of 170 guns spread over a two-mile front.  The attack lasted for an hour, most shells flying harmlessly over the Union line and exploding, in the rear.  One shell disturbed the lunchtime mess of that “damn old goggle-eyed snapping turtle” George Gordon Meade, cutting one orderly in half and sending much of the senior staff, diving for cover.

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The eighty guns of the Union line responded at first, before going silent, one by one.  In the smoke and confusion, it was easy to believe they were put out of action, but no.  These would be held, until the final assault.

The action has gone into history as “Pickett’s Charge”, though that’s a misnomer.  Major General George Pickett commanded only one of  three Divisions taking part in the assault, under Corps Commander Lieutenant General James Longstreet.

The pace was almost leisurely as Pickett’s, Trimble’s and Pettigrew’s gray and butternut soldiers stepped out of the forest, and over the stone wall.  Twelve to fifteen thousand men crossing abreast, bayonets glinting in the sun, banners rippling in the breeze.  One Yankee soldier described the scene as “an ocean of men sweeping upon us.”

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You can’t escape the sense of history, if you’ve ever crossed that field. Stepping off Seminary Ridge with nearly a mile to go, you are awe struck by the mental image of thousands of blue clad soldiers, awaiting your advance.  First come the shells, exploding and tearing jagged holes, where men used to be.  Halfway across and just coming into small arms range, you can’t help a sense of relief as you step across a low spot and your objective, the “copse of trees”, drops out of sight.  If you can’t see them they can’t shoot at you.  Then you look to your right and realize that cannon would be firing down the length of your lines from Little Round Top, as would those on Cemetery Hill, to your left.

Rising out of the draw you are now in full sight of Union infantry.  You hear the tearing fabric sound of rifle fire, exploding across the stone wall ahead.  Cannon have converted to canister by now, thousands of projectiles transforming federal artillery into giant shotguns.  You quicken your pace as your lines are torn apart from the front and sides. Fences hold in some spots along the Emmitsburg Road.  Hundreds of your comrades are bunched up in the attempt to climb over, mowed down where they stand.

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Canister shot, Gettysburg

Finally you are over, closing at a dead run.  Seeing his colors cut down, Armistead put his hat atop his sword, holding it high and bellowing above the roar of the guns “Come on, boys, give them the cold steel! Who will follow me!”

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Eight months before, Federal troops were cut down like grass in that frozen December, attacking the Rebel-held stone wall at Fredericksburg.  So numerous were the multitudes of dying and maimed as to inspire the Angel of Marye’s Heights, one of the great acts of mercy, in the history of war.

Now on this hot July day, came the payback.  All along the Union line, the chant arose to a roar, resounding above the din of battle:  “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!”

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Alonzo Cushing

The savagery of that desperate struggle, can only be imagined.  With a shell fragment entering his shoulder and exiting his back and holding his own intestines with a free hand, Brevet Major Alonzo Cushing directed battery fire into the face of the oncoming adversary, until the bullet entered his mouth and exited the back of his skull.

150 years later, the 22-year-old received the Medal of Honor, posthumously awarded by President Barack Obama.

The “High Water Mark of the Confederacy” marks the point between the corner of a stone wall and that copse of trees, the farthest the shattered remnants of Longstreet’s assault would ever get.  Lewis Armistead made it over that wall before being shot down, falling beside the wheels of a Union cannon.

One day, the nation would reunite.  The two old friends, never did.  As Armistead sat bleeding in the grass, he was approached by Major Henry Bingham, of Hancock’s staff.  Hancock was himself wounded by this time, the bullet striking his saddle pommel and entering his thigh, along with shards of wood and a bent saddle nail.

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Armistead was grieved at hearing the news.  Bingham received the General’s personal effects, with instructions they be brought to his old friend. To Almira (“Allie”) Hancock, the General’s wife, Armistead gave a wrapped bible and his personal prayer book, bearing the inscription ”Trust In God And Fear Nothing”.

There are those who debate the meaning of Lewis Armistead’s last message, though the words seem clear enough: “Tell General Hancock for me that I have done him and you all an injury which I shall regret the longest day I live.”

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From the film, Gettysburg’

Feature image, top of page:  “The Friend to Friend Masonic Memorial is on the south side of Gettysburg in the National Cemetery Annex off Taneytown Road at the intersection with Steinwehr Avenue. (39.8210° N, 77.23177° W)” H/T Gettysburg.stonesentinels.com

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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November 27, 1868 Goat

One of the more amusing images to emerge from this terrible chapter in American history is the notion of Custer, cinnamon-oiled hair, trademark red scarf and that broad brimmed sombrero, riding away with Wilmer McClean’s table, strapped to the backside of his horse.

Like Edgar Allen Poe and James Whistler (“Whistler’s Mother”) before him, George Armstrong Custer was a ‘Goat’.  No, that doesn’t mean ‘Greatest of all Time’. This ‘Goat” was dead last in his class, West Point, class of 1861. Like many of his fellow goats, Custer’s contributions to history were vastly out of proportion to a less than brilliant academic record.

At 23, Custer was one of the youngest General officers in the Union army. History.com calls him the youngest, but I believe that to be in error.  That honor goes to Brigadier General Galusha Pennypacker who, at twenty years of age, was the only General Officer in American history too young to vote for the President who appointed him.

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As with another goat, George Pickett, Custer’s contribution at Gettysburg came on the third day.  The Battle of Gettysburg is usually described as a contest of men on foot, that cavalry did not play much of a role. The third day, was different.

For 19th century armies, the cavalry acted as the eyes and ears of battlefield commanders. The superior mobility of men on horse allowed them to report information back on enemy troop strength and movements in a way that would have otherwise been impossible.

For the first two days at Gettysburg, “Marse’ Robert” was out of touch with cavalry commander James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart, leaving the General effectively blind. Stuart reappeared at the end of the second day.

dhm1254On 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-miles 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 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 belonged to Custer’s brigade.

It was Custer’s cavalry who blocked Lee’s forces at Appomattox, and forced the white flag of surrender.  After the final capitulation, Major General Philip Sheridan helped himself to the table, and presented it to Custer as a gift to his wife, Libbie,   “Permit me to say, Madam,” Sheridan wrote, “that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your gallant husband.”

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One of the more amusing images to emerge from this terrible chapter in American history is the notion of Custer, cinnamon-oiled hair, trademark red scarf and that broad brimmed sombrero, riding away with Wilmer McClean’s table, strapped to the backside of his horse.

Fun fact:  Custer served the duration of the Civil War, from 1st Bull Run (First Manassas), to Appomattox.  Another man who could say the same was Wilmer McClean, whose Manassas, Virginia home was taken as headquarters, by Confederate General PGT Beauregard.  McLean wanted to get away from it all and moved to the quiet town of Appomattox Courthouse.  It was in his parlor that General Grant met with General Lee, to discuss terms of surrender.  After the war, McClean would famously quip: “The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”

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On April 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant sat on the chair to the right and General Robert E. Lee to the left, in the Wilmer McLean home at Appomattox Courthouse, to discuss terms of surrender. This is the table that later rode away, with George Armstrong Custer. H/T Smithsonian Museum

Custer’s later career as Indian fighter would be what he is best known for. On November 27, 1868, now-Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer led the 7th United States Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief Black Kettle, in one of a series of battles which would end, for him, eight years later on a hillside, in the eastern Montana territory.

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Las Stand Hill

“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 turned out, had 3,000 Confederate horsemen crashed into Union lines from the rear as Pickett’s, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s men hit it from the front.

The Pennsylvania campaign was Robert E. Lee’s gamble that he could make it hurt enough, that the Federals would allow the Confederate States to go their own way.  On that third day at Gettysburg, our history could have taken a very different direction.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

July 1, 1863 Gettysburg

One hundred and fifty-four years ago today, the Union and the Confederacy met in the south central Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.  

After two years of civil war, Robert E. Lee wanted to take the war to his adversary. Lee intended to do enough damage to create overwhelming political pressure in the North, to end the war and let the South go its own way. Lee had his best cartographers draw up maps of the Pennsylvania countryside, all the way to Philadelphia.  And then he took his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania.

One hundred and fifty-four years ago today, the Union and the Confederacy met in the south central Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.

Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, to whom Lee contemptuously referred as “Mr. F.J. Hooker”, wanted to attack Richmond, but Lincoln ordered him to intercept Lee’s army to protect Washington DC.  Hooker was replaced on the 28th by Major General George Gordon Meade, “that damn old goggle eyed snapping turtle” to his men, in a move that so surprised him that he thought he was being arrested over army politics, when the messenger came into his tent.

The “North” came up from the south that day, the “South” came down from the north.  No one wanted the fight to be in Gettysburg, it was more like an accidental collision. What started out as a skirmish turned into a general engagement as fighting cascaded through the town. Confederate forces held the town at the end of the day, with the two armies’ taking parallel positions along a three-mile-long “fishhook” from Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill to the north, toward two prominences known as Big and Little Round Top to the south.

Fighting would continue and prove inconclusive at Culp’s Hill on day two, as the two armies stretched their position toward the Round Tops. Dan Sickles, the Tammany Hall politician best known for murdering the nephew of Francis Scott Key (he would be the first in American legal history to plead temporary insanity), had been ordered to move his corps into position on cemetery ridge, anchored at Little Round Top. Instead he took his corps a mile forward, into a Peach Orchard where they were torn apart in the Confederate assault. Some of the most savage fighting of the Civil War took place that day, at places like Devil’s Den, the Wheat Field, and bloody run. Sickles himself lost a leg to a cannonball. There was a foot race to the top of Little Round Top, leading to as many as 15 attacks and counterattacks for control of a small prominence at the Union’s extreme left. At the end of the day, the positions of the Armies had not changed.

Picketts Charge

On day 3, the last day, Lee came up the middle. 13,000 Confederate soldiers came across 1¼ miles of open field, to attack the Union Center at a position between a small copse of trees and a corner in stone fence called the angle. Cannon fire from their left, right and center tore them apart as they pressed on. A battered remnant actually penetrated Union lines: the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. It’s anyone’s guess what would have happened, had 4,000 Confederate cavalry smashed into the Union rear at that point, as Lee seems to have intended. But a 23-year-old general named George Armstrong Custer had waded into them with his 450 Union cavalry, routing the much larger force and very possibly changing history.

Lee withdrew in the rain of the 4th, ending the largest battle of the civil war. Lincoln was convinced that the time had come to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, but Meade and his battered army did not follow. Lee and his army slipped back across the line and returned to Confederate territory. The most lethal war in American history would continue for two more years.

Years earlier, then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis had brought some 75 camels into West Texas, to try them out as pack animals. Davis’ camel experiment had been a flop, but the King of Siam, (now Thailand), didn’t know that. Seeing the military advantage to the Confederacy, the King wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, proposing to send elephants to help the Union war effort. This “animal arms race” appears to have gotten no further than the King’s letter to Lincoln but, the imagination runs wild, at the idea of War Elephants, at Gettysburg.

April 26, 1859 “Devil Dan” Sickles

Just in case you thought your own member of congress was a piece of work…

With apologies to A. Lincoln, “It is altogether fitting and proper” that the first use of the insanity defense in an American courtroom, was for the murder of a District Attorney, by a member of the United States Congress.

In case you think your own member of congress is a piece of work, he or she probably has nothing on Tammany Hall’s own, Daniel “Devil Dan” Edgar Sickles.  Sickles carried on an “indiscreet affair” for years, with well-known prostitute Fanny White.  No fan of Victorian era propriety, Sickles loved nothing more than to introduce her to scandalized breakfast guests.  As a member of the New York assembly in 1847, Sickles earned a censure from the opposition Whig party, for bringing White into the assembly chamber.

He almost certainly arranged the mortgage on White’s brothel, using the name of his friend and future father-in-law Antonio Bagioli.  Sickles married Teresa Bagioli in 1852 when he was 33 and she 15 and pregnant, much to the chagrin of both families.  Fanny White was so angry she followed him to a hotel room, where she attacked him with a riding whip.

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As personal secretary for the Ambassador to the Court of St. James and future US President James Buchanan, Sickles left his pregnant wife behind, bringing Fanny White instead.  Meeting Queen Victoria herself at Buckingham palace, Sickles introduced the prostitute as “Miss Bennett”, using the name of the hated editor of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, Sr.  Queen Victoria never got wise to the ruse, but Bennett was furious at the use of his name.

Sickles_homicideCarrying on with a known prostitute was one thing, but the Mrs. having an affair with a United States District Attorney, was quite another.

After Teresa’s confession of her adultery with the US Attorney for the Washington District, Congressman Sickles shot and killed him in Lafayette Park, across from the White House.  He was Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

Sickles immediately surrendered and went on trial for premeditated murder.  He obtained the services of future Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.  By the time the defense was at rest, Washington newspapers were praising Sickles for “saving all the ladies of Washington from this rogue named Key”.

He was acquitted on April 26, 1859, in the first use of the temporary insanity defense in US legal history.  I’d always thought that stuff like this only happened in the age of social media, but apparently not.  Supporters and detractors alike seemed more upset with Sickles’public reconciliation with his wife, than with the original charges.

As a “War Democrat”, a Democrat in favor of the civil war, Sickles became an important political ally to Republican President Lincoln, receiving a commission as Brigadier General despite having no previous military experience.

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Sickles III Corp position, Gettysburg, day 2

At the Battle of Gettysburg, Sickles defied orders on the second day.  Ordered to anchor the Union left at the base of Little Round Top, Sickles insubordinately moved his 3rd corps a mile out front, taking a position in a peach orchard.

Virtually alone, III Corps was shattered in the Confederate assault.  Sickles himself lost a leg to a cannon ball, watching the destruction from the sidelines, while propped up on one elbow and smoking a cigar.

The footrace to the undefended crest of Little Round Top and the savage hand to hand fighting which followed, were very possibly all that saved the Union army that day.

Sickles legSickles donated his leg to the newly founded Army Medical Museum in Washington, DC, along with a visiting card marked, “With the compliments of Major General D.E.S.” He visited his leg for several years thereafter, on the anniversary of the amputation.

Sickles was awarded the medal of honor despite his insubordination, and continued his service through the end of the war, though he was disgusted that he never received another battlefield command.Sickle, leg

Sickles commanded several military districts during Reconstruction, and served as U.S. Minister to Spain, reputedly carrying on with none other than the deposed Queen Isabella II.  Eventually returning to the US Congress, Sickles made important legislative contributions to the preservation of the Battlefield at Gettysburg.

Dan Sickles is one of only two Union Corps commanders not represented by his own statue at Gettysburg.  One had been planned for him, but Sickles himself “reappropriated” the funds. He was once asked where his monument was.  Devil Dan Sickles replied, “The whole park is my monument.”

February 18, 1817  Friends and Enemies

The two looked across that field as gray and butternut soldiers formed up along seminary ridge.  It’s unlikely they ever saw one another

Armistead is a prominent name in Virginia, the family going back to colonial days.  Five Armistead brothers fought in the war of 1812. Major George Armistead commanded Fort McHenry during the battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner.  Major Armistead became an uncle on this day in 1817, to Lewis Addison Armistead, the first of eight children born to General Walker Keith Armistead and Elizabeth Stanley.

 

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Lewis Addison Armistead

“Lothario” or “Lo” to his friends, Armistead followed in the family footsteps, attending the US Military Academy at West Point.  He never graduated, some say he had to resign after breaking a plate over the head of fellow cadet and future Confederate General Jubal Early.  Others say it was due to academic difficulties, particularly French class.

 

Armistead’s influential father gained him a 2nd Lieutenant’s commission nevertheless, awarded in 1839, about the same time his former classmates received theirs.  Armistead’s field combat experience reads like a time-line of his age:  cited three times for heroism in the Mexican-American War, wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec, going on to serve in the Mohave War and the Battle of the Colorado River.

Stellar though his military career was, the man’s personal life was a mess.  Armistead survived two wives and two daughters, only to lose the family farm in a fire, all while fighting a severe case of Erysipelas, a painful skin condition known in the Middle Ages as “St. Anthony’s Fire”.

It’s been said that conjugating the “Be” verb changed after the Civil War.  Before, it was the United States “are”.  Afterward, it became the United States “is”.  Not for no reason.  This was a time when Patriotic Americans felt every bit the attachment to their states, as to the nation.

Fellow Americans took sides on the eve of the Civil War.  Even brothers.   Like his fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee, Armistead wanted no part of secession, but followed his state when it became inevitable.

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Winfield Scott Hancock

Pennsylvania native Winfield Scott Hancock went the other direction, staying with the Union.  Years later, Hancock would run for the Presidency, only narrowly losing to James A. Garfield.  Noted for personal integrity in a time of rampant political corruption, President Rutherford B. Hayes said of Hancock, “… [I]f, when we make up our estimate of a public man, conspicuous both as a soldier and in civil life, we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold.”

Armistead and Hancock served together on the frontiers, developing a close personal friendship as early as 1844.  On their final parting on the eve of war, Armistead made Hancock the gift of a new Major’s uniform.  To Hancock’s wife he gave his own prayer book, bearing the inscription ”Trust In God And Fear Nothing”.

Three years came and went before the old friends once again faced one another, this time across the field of battle.   Robert E. Lee tried to go after the Union right on that first day at Gettysburg, looking for a soft spot in the line. On day two, he went after the left.  On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, Lee went straight up the middle.

The two looked across that field as gray and butternut soldiers formed up along seminary ridge.  It’s unlikely they ever saw one another.  The action has gone into history as “Pickett’s Charge”, though the term is a misnomer.  Major General George Pickett commanded only one of  three units taking part in the assault, under Lieutenant General James Longstreet.

The pace was almost leisurely as Pickett’s, Trimble’s and Pettigrew’s Confederate soldiers stepped over the stone wall.  13,000 crossing abreast, bayonets glinting in the sun, pennants rippling in the breeze.

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You cannot escape the sense of history if you’ve ever crossed that field. Stepping off Seminary Ridge with a mile to go, you are awe struck at the mental image of thousands of blue clad soldiers, awaiting your advance.  Halfway across and just coming into small arms range, you can’t picketts_chargehelp a sense of relief as you step across a low spot and your objective, the “copse of trees”, drops out of sight.  If you can’t see them they can’t shoot at you.  Then you look to your right and realize that cannon would be firing down the length of your lines from Little Round Top, as would those on Cemetery Hill to your left. Rising out of the draw you are now in full sight of Union infantry.  You quicken your pace as your lines are torn apart from the front and sides. Fences hold in some spots along the Emmitsburg Road.  Hundreds of your comrades are shot down in the attempt to climb over.

Finally you are over and it’s a dead run.  Seeing his colors cut down, Hancock puts his hat atop his sword, holding it high and bellowing above the roar of the guns “Come on, boys, give them the cold steel! Who will follow me!”

bloody-angleThe “High tide of the Confederacy” marks the point between the corner of a stone wall and that copse of trees, the farthest the shattered remnants of Longstreet’s assault would ever get.  Lewis Armistead made it over that wall before being shot down, falling beside the wheels of a Union cannon.

I always wondered what would have happened had J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry come out of the woods to the Union rear, but that wasn’t meant to be.  The Confederate advance couldn’t hold, wilting in the face of overwhelming Federal firepower.

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Gettysburg veterans on the 50th anniversary of the battle, July 1-3, 1913

Armistead lay bleeding as he asked a nearby soldier about Hancock.  General Hancock was himself wounded by this time, the bullet striking his saddle pommel and entering his thigh, along with shards of wood and a saddle nail.  When told his best friend was also wounded, Armistead said ”Not both of us on the same day!”.  Armistead spoke to Captain Henry Bingham, Hancock’s aide, saying “Tell General Hancock, from me, that I have done him and you all a grave injustice”.

One day, the country would reunite.  The two friends never did.  Lewis Armistead died of his wounds, two days later.

November 27, 1868 George Armstrong Custer

Like many of his fellow “goats”, George Armstrong Custer would make a greater contribution to history than his academic standing might indicate.

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”.

east-cavalry-fieldStuart 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.