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.
Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had sought to capture the strategic point of Vicksburg, Miss., since late 1862. A railroad hub and a key point for river commerce along the Mississippi, both President Abraham Lincoln and his counterpart Jefferson Davis knew full well of Vicksburg’s crucial importance.
Unfortunately for Grant, his every attempt to take the city fell far short of success until May of 1863, when he embarked on a bold campaign that witnessed him deliberately abandon his supply line and subsist his troops off the land as they struck first towards the Mississippi state capitol at Jackson and then wheeled back west towards Vicksburg, centering the advance of his army on the railroad linking Vicksburg to Jackson and points east.
Confederate Gen. John C. Pemberton, commander of the army based at Vicksburg, sought to stop Grant by coming out from his fortifications and taking the fight to him. Pemberton’s military skills were pedestrian, however, and while his men fought well, Grant had the advantage in both skill and numerical superiority. The inevitable result was that Pemberton lost every battle he picked with Grant.
But Pemberton’s army regained confidence once back inside the formidable defenses that ringed the eastern side of Vicksburg. Grant twice tried to break through them, but a measure of his old bad luck returned to haunt him when both failed –though some historians such as Ed Bearss and Stephen Ambrose argue that Grant failed to properly support a breakthrough made by Gen. John C. McClernad’s corps, though scholars such as Bruce Catton do not agree with this argument.
No matter what Grant did or did not do during his attempts to crack Pemberton’s lines, the very fact that Grant had the hapless Pennsylvanian-turned Confederate –Pemberton was married to a Virginia lady– ensured that victory would be his regardless of how long a siege might take.
As Grant’s army ground away at Pemberton’s, Confederate soldiers and civilians alike found themselves under increasing hardships; hardships not even jocular pieces of writing like a “Bill of Fare” for the “Hotel de Vicksburg” that circulated amongst the Confederate ranks promoting “pastries” such as ” pea meal pudding” or “entrees” like “mule beef jerked a-la-Mexicana” or “liquors” like “Spring Water, Vicksburg brand” could obliterate growing pangs of hunger. By early July Pemberton’s men had had enough of no food and slipped a note signed “Many soldiers” that demanded: “If you can’t feed us, surrender.” It was the writing on the wall.
On July 3, 1863, a delegation bearing a flag of truce emerged from the Confederate works.
Pemberton and Grant soon met beneath a tree located between the opposing lines. At first Grant demanded unconditional surrender just like he had done at Fort Donelson the year before. But Grant changed his mind, and Pemberton was offered generous surrender terms: He was to disarm his troops, who would then be paroled home for the duration of the war. Pemberton accepted, and on a date replete with tragic irony -July 4, 1863- Old Glory waved once more over the city.
Ironically enough, some of Pemberton’s 30,000 men broke their paroles and returned to combat, being captured again at the battle of Chattanooga the following November! Regardless of this breach of good faith on the Confederacy’s part, Grant had won again. With Vicksburg gone, the last remaining Confederate bastion along the Mississippi at Port Hudson, La., capitulated to Union forces besieging it under the command of Gen. Nathaniel Banks. President Lincoln announced that “The Father of Waters again flows unvexed to the sea”… and Jefferson Davis had to cope with a country now divided in two.
Only July 3, 1776, delegates from the Thirteen Colonies gathered in Philadelphia, Penn., were debating a momentous decision: whether or not to declare independence from Great Britain.
Only July 3, 1863, two armies faced each other at a town 111 miles west of Philadelphia. One army wore blue, the other gray. As the morning wore on a fateful conference occurred between two generals of the Army of Northern Virginia: Gen. Robert E. Lee. and Gen. James Longstreet.
Lee was eager to attack the center of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge after failing to turn both of its flanks of the Army of the Potomac the day before. His vision was of a massive artillery bombardment of around 200 guns lined up hub to hub on Seminary Ridge that would pulverize the Union defenders. After that Longstreet would follow through with three divisions. One of his own –Gen. George Pickett’s recently arrived one– as well as two from Gen. A.P. Hill’s III Corps, Johnson Pettigrew’s and Isaac Trimble’s.
Longstreet was highly reluctant. Both men had witnessed from atop Mayre’s Heights at Fredericksburg the previous December massed assaults by waves of Union troops crumpling beneath massed Confederate fire from the heights; and those attacks had been launched by numbers greater than that which the hapless Gen. Ambrose Burnside had flung against Lee on that bloody December day. Longstreet could appreciate Lee’s zeal, given what he had accomplished at Chancellorsville the previous May –a battle Longstreet had missed due to detached duty with two of his divisions– but he would not stand idly by while disaster was in the making. He finally said to Lee something that went like this: “General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.”
Lee listened politely, but his fateful decision had been made.
Longstreet dutifully made his preparations, albeit with a heavy heart.
As the great barrage echoed and reechoed across the hills and fields of Gettysburg and the Union defenders endured the storm as best they could –some dying, some horribly wounded, but most unscathed due to the guns firing too high– Gen. Pickett eventually rode up to Longstreet bearing a message from I Corps artillery commander Lt. Col. E.P. Alexander:
“If you are coming at all, come at once, or I cannot give you proper support, but the enemy’s fire has not slackened at all. At least eighteen guns are still firing from the cemetery itself. –Alexander.”
Longstreet’s heart surely sank lower when he learned that Union cannon were still in action; cannon that could rake the left flank of his attack from their position on Cemetery Hill.
“General, shall I advance?” Pickett asked.
Longstreet could only nod in reply.
Pickett rode off in high spirits. Soon the grand panorama of the charge that would bear his name appeared on the fields between Seminary and Cemetery Ridge: Soldiers marching in perfect cadence as their battle flags snapped above their gray and butternut-clad ranks. The sight excited the admiration of their waiting opponents in blue.
But they sight did not overawe them into retreat.
“Do not hurry, men, and fire too fast, let them come up close before you fire, and then aim low and steady,” Union Lt. Frank Haskell heard Gen. John Gibbon tell his men. The night before Gibbon had been warned by Gen. George Meade himself that the next place Lee would attack would be on his front. He could see now that Meade had displayed an incredible sense of foresight into his legendary opponent’s mind.
Five minutes after Lee’s men had emerged from Seminary Ridge the first shots of the epic finale of the battle of Gettysburg cracked out; skirmishers firing what Haskell eloquently described as “the first drops, the heralds of a storm, sounding on our windows.”
The storm finally broke in earnest as the Union batteries on not only Cemetery Hill but also the ridge –many untouched by the great barrage– opened up. As soon as Lee’s men came into rifle musket range, the long lines of Union infantry arrayed before them began to fire and fire.
The carnage besetting Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble’s men defied description. The survivors still marched on, their ever shrinking ranks closing on their battle flags as they fell repeatedly only to rise again and again. Meanwhile, a Union brigade on the left flank of Pickett’s charge along with one on its right maneuvered out of their defensive positions and poured an enfilading fire into the Confederates, winnowing their ranks even more.
The gray and butternut mass reached the Emmittsburg Road; and while some sections of the fence were down as a result of an attack across this same ground the previous evening. the fence remained largely intact. More men fell as they tried to surmount this obstacle, while many others crossed. It was at this point the Confederates began to return the fire that decimated them right and left; but by now they were taking fire on both flanks from two Union brigades that had maneuvered out of their defensive positions and were now pouring enfilading fire into them. Their odds of success were rapidly dwindling.
One of the men who reached the road was Gen. Lewis Armistead. Hat perched on his sword as a guide for his brigade, he lead his men not only against the Union II Corps but also a personal friend –II Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock. He marched with a heavy heart, sad to be confronting his friend in battle at last. His sense of duty kept him marching into the face of hell, however.
Meanwhile, down at the angle of the low stone wall fronting Cemetery Ridge was Lt. Alonzo Cushing. Cushing’s battery had been one of the few Union batteries Confederate shells had played havoc with during the preceding massed barrage. By now Cushing only had two guns left in action, and only had canister shot left; canister that flayed the oncoming Confederates.
Cushing was already suffering from a wound suffered during the barrage as well as a burnt thumb suffered when he jammed it over an exhaust vent on one of his guns before it fired when a Confederate bullet entered his mouth and drove into his brain.
He fell dead into the arms of a devoted Sgt. named Fuger, who laid him on the grass before taking command of the two guns. He did not command them long, however, for their infantry support began to waver and pull back as the Confederates closed in; Fuger and the surviving battery crewmen had no choice but to follow.
Armistead led his brigade through Kemper and Garnett’s survivors. At last Lee’s army had pierced Cemetery Ridge!
But Armistead and his men were alone. Pettigrew and Trimble’s men had not been able to make any appreciable penetration of the Union line to the north and were now pulling back.
Fresh Union reinforcements closed in to seal the breach by the copse of trees. None other than the First Minnesota Volunteers was amongst them. Even the death of their temporary commander Capt. Nathan Messick did nothing to staunch their adrenaline as they crowded in with many other regiments. They may not have captured a Confederate banner during their lone charge the evening before, but today they got one courtesy of the 33rd Virginia Infantry, captured by Pvt. Marshall Sherman when he charged its bearer and demanded his surrender.
Lew Armistead finally fell severely wounded amidst the scuffle at the angle. He was soon was succored by two Union officers. He learned from them that Hancock too had been recently wounded, and asked them to convey to their general how sorry he was.
Those Confederates that could beat a hasty retreat, while the rest surrendered.
As the battered and bloodies survivor streamed back to Seminary Ridge –some horrifically wounded– Lee met them.
The sight shocked him to his very core.
Finally a realization dawned inside Lee’s soul, one that he knew he could not deny. “It’s my fault,” he said out loud over and over.
For decades and centuries after the Civil War, many sought to assign blame to various generals serving in the Army of Northern Virginia –James Longstreet in particular, for his alleged “slowness” in getting his corps into battle on the second day– but such blame-seeking is invalidated at a stroke by Lee’s admission to his men on that hot, bloody afternoon 150 years ago. Lee knew his fateful decision was his fault and his alone. No more, no less. It was an act of moral courage lacking in many a general who made a costly mistake in wartime.
Poor George Pickett. When Lee asked him to look to his division afterward, the now-traumatized Pickett exclaimed “General Lee; I have no division!” As indeed he did not: All three of his brigade commanders were now gone, as well as numerous junior officers and enlisted men.
After the war Pickett’s Charge was hailed as the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. To those that survived it, however, it had been a journey to hell and back; a journey none of those delegates gathered in Philadelphia less than a hundred years before could have dreamed of.