The Rummel Farm, east of Gettysburg. July 3rd, 1863.
Troopers of the First Michigan cavalry galloped towards Confederate general Wade Hampton’s advancing horsemen. At the head of the Michiganders was a man in a black velveteen uniform topped with a red scarf and a broad brimmed sailor’s shirt adorned with silver stars. He rode with saber upraised, his long blonde hair streaming out from beneath a wide brimmed hat which also was adorned with a silver star. Behold George Armstrong Custer, “The Boy General.”
After much hard fighting, the charge of the First Michigan, assisted by assaults on both of Hampton’s flanks by Yankee cavalrymen from nearby units, succeeded in driving back the last attempt made by Confederate cavalier James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart to disperse the Union troopers, preventing him from getting into the rear of the Army of the Potomac as it beat back Pickett’s Charge.
Now, 150 years after Custer bravely led his men into the fray at Gettysburg, an ugly accusation leveled by historian Stephen Ambrose still hovers over Custer’s performance that day.
In his book Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors, Ambrose claimed that at Gettysburg, Custer’s brigade lost 481 men. 1 Contrast this to the tally of 29 dead, 123 wounded, and 67 missing given in Gregory Urwin’s book Custer Victorious. This same total is given by Custer biographer Jeffrey Wert in his book Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer. Both writers arrived at their figures using separate sources. 2
What sources, if any, did Ambrose consult? He cites in his footnotes part one of Volume XXVII of the War of the Rebellion records. On one of the pages cited–a report of casualties suffered by the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps at Gettysburg–a listing of “451” is given for the second brigade of the Third Division (i.e. Custer’s). If taken at face value, this vindicates Ambrose’s claim, if one gives or takes a margin of 30. But there is a footnote for the section in question that reads: “But see revised statement, pp 185, 186.” Lo and behold: on page 186 Custer’s total losses for Gettysburg are listed at 257! 3 Ambrose did not mention this page in his footnotes. The above facts make it clear that Ambrose lied about Custer’s losses. All he did was take an erroneous report and inflate it slightly. In actuality, Custer’s Gettysburg losses were between 219 and 257.
Ambrose’s claim about Custer at Gettysburg demonstrates his unfortunate penchant for making unsubstantiated claims in his writings, as well as provides a good example of how ink has often been used to slander George Armstrong Custer. 4
1. Stephen E. Ambrose, Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors (Anchor; 1st Anchor Books trade pbk. ed edition, 1996), 196. Ambrose later repeated this claim in an article entitled “Custer’s Civil War,” which was subsequently reprinted in his anthology Americans at War (University Press of Mississippi, 1997), 52.
2. Gregory J.W. Urwin, Custer Victorious (University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 81. Urwin’s footnote for these is from David F. Riggs, East of Gettysburg: Custer Vs. Stuart (Old Army Press, 1985), 49. Jeffrey D. Wert, Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer (Touchstone, 1997), 95. Wert cites several sources in his footnote for the statistics; none are Urwin’s book nor the one by Riggs.
3. United States War Department et al., The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies; Series 1 – Volume 27 (Part I) (Washington: Govt. Print. Off, 1889), 919, 991-998.
4. For an example, see Richard Brayner, “Channeling Ike,” The New Yorker, April 26, 2010, accessed May 30, 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2010/04/26/100426ta_talk_rayner