Hunterstown – Silly Theories Part 1

In a previous post, I hinted that I would be posting here about some really loonie theories that have been cropping up lately, and most seem to be about Gettysburg and related actions.  In addition (and perhaps apropos to this blog) many of them seem to involve the cavalry actions.  Cavalry actions in the Gettysburg Campaign have come to be the favorite whipping-boy of much of the silly revisionist clap-trap lately. Later I’ll be posting about some of the wacko theories popping up about the July 3, 1863 action at East Cavalry Field.  For now, though, I want to talk about the cavalry fight at Hunterstown (July 2) which has been the subject of much preservation activities lately as well.

Hunterstown is a small, very old town that lies about 4 miles northeast of Gettysburg, and lay just off the left flank of the Army of Northern Virginia during the battle.  It’s an important crossroads to that area.  Jeb Stuart and three of his cavalry brigades passed through and out the town on the afternoon of July 2 after their circuitous ride to Pennsylvania (need I tell you about a book about that ride?) Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton’s brigade was the last to pass through the town on their way to Lee’s army.  Shortly after passing through, the Federal Cavalry division of Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick approached from the Hanover area, tasked to watch the right flank of the Union army and scout the country.  Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his brigade of Kilpatrick’s division were in the van, and Kilpatrick’s advance guard ran into some of Hampton’s rear guard just outside town. 

A running skirmish ensued, which rolled through the town and on to the road to Gettysburg. Custer and his regiments pulled up onto the Felty farm ridge, an eminence about a mile away from a mirroring ridge where Hampton had set his position.  Due to the lay of the land, neither could see each other very well.  The road below led straight to each other’s respective ridge.  Seeing the defiant rear guard of Hampton in the road ahead, Custer decided to charge them with a company of Michigan cavalry.  They collided close to Hampton’s position at a bend in the road, and Custer’s horse went down in a heap, pinning the Boy General.  Quickly surrounded and fighting for his life, he was fortunately scooped up by a comrade and taken back to Kilpatrick’s line to safety. 

Custer was lucky to get out with his life, and the charge marked the first time that Custer led a mounted charge as a brigadier.  His reckless bravery and impetuousness foreshadowed the rest of his Civil War career, and a particular sultry day a little more than a decade later near the Little Big Horn in Montana.

A detachment of Hampton’s troopers followed Custer up the road to his lines and likewise found themselves in a twist as they were fired into from front and flank.  Casualties on both sides were light, compared to the numbers present, but heavier when considering that only about 400 troopers total were involved. So, there was a charge and then a countercharge, with both sides’ artillery beginning a desultory cannon contest that lasted about to dark when both sides withdrew. That, in a nutshell, is the very interesting fight at Hunterstown. 

Eric Wittenberg and I have the most updated and detailed scholarship on the fight in Chapter 8 of our book on Stuart’s ride.  Hunterstown is the subject of an enormous amount of preservation effort activity lately, with some very dedicated local folks doing commendable duty in trying to save the battlefield from recent threats of development.  You can read much about it on the Hunterstown 1863 website. One of the most active and involved is Gettysburg National Military Park ranger and historian Troy Harman.  Quite a cavalry expert in his own right, Troy has been putting in a lot of time and effort with local groups, developers, and legislators in trying to save the battlefield from being plowed under to put up some 2000 McMansions. 

I respect his efforts more than I can put in to words, since Hunterstown has been a favorite of mine for some 30 years, and until recently was an untouched and unthreatened battlefield that has changed little since 1863 – but it’s also been unprotected by governments and preservation groups that have had their attentions diverted elsewhere lately, until a large developer came in to the picture. Many may be aware of Troy’s book Lee’s Real Plan at Gettysburg, which touts Troy’s popular theory that on July 2 and 3, Lee’s real objective was Cemetery Hill proper.  In other words, what is known today as the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge was not aimed at Cemetery Ridge or even the Copse of Trees, but instead directly at the Evergreen Cemetery.  Troy’s theory is more detailed than this cursory explanation, but that’s the gist of it. Very few serious Gettysburg scholars take Troy’s theory as far as he does, and feel that Troy’s “evidence” is much too conjectural, often taken out of context, and simply isn’t backed by primary source. 

Troy, in fact, has been the genesis of many such theories regarding Gettysburg – most of which have drawn very interesting arguments among students and scholars of the battle. Here is a snippet of Troy’s theory regarding Custer’s role at Hunterstown on July 2, quoted directly from the Hunterstown 1863 website, and can found in its entirety here:

Lines of battle were established a mile apart with Custer’s men establishing their artillery at Felty-Tate Ridge on the northern end, to oppose Hampton’s rebel guns atop Brinkerhoff’s Ridge directly south. In the valley between, a fierce hand-to-hand fight would ensue across the J.G. Gilbert and J. Felty Farms, intact to the present day. It began with Custer ordering elements of the 6th and 7th Michigan cavalry to dismount and move south on foot beyond and below the ridge, along both sides of the Hunterstown Road. Concealed by fields carpeted with ripe golden wheat, the Michigan troopers waded inconspicuously forward to the Felty Farm where some of their best marksmen found excellent cover and elevated fields of fire within the enormous Pennsylvania bank barn west of the road. Felty’s barn was even large enough to conceal Lieutenant A.C.M. Pennington’s 2nd U.S. Battery M, 250 yards to the north along the Felty-Tate ridge. Meanwhile, to complete the deployment, dismounted men of the 7th Michigan formed undetected in the tall wheat east of the Hunterstown Road, to form a cross fire with the 6th Michigan. Custer had arranged the perfect trap, but how to lure Confederate cavalrymen into it required another step. To achieve this and complete the perfect ambush, he would personally lead around sixty mounted men of Company A, 6th Michigan on a daring charge toward the Confederate position. Because the Hunterstown Road was tightly flanked on both sides with post and rail fences, it was impossible for more than one company to move at a gallop. Recognizing this, Custer would use Company A as a small shock force to establish contact with southern troopers. After hitting them hard to get their ire up, he retreated intentionally drawing them back north to the prepared ambush waiting east and west of the Hunterstown Road at Felty’s barn. Custer, a new brigadier nearly lost his life in the initial charge in front of the Gilbert farm, where Confederates resisted. If it had not been for Norville Churchill’s timely rescue of Custer, whisking him out of harm’s way and onto his horse, later Indian Wars on Western Plains may have taken on a different complexion.

Note the phrase above describing Custer’s “trap” that I’ve highlighted above.  In referring to the fight at Hunterstown, Harman often describes it as “Custer’s Trap.”  Troy’s theory is that Custer deployed his brigade (with the artillery and a portion of Brig. Gen. Elon Farnsworth’s brigade) along the Felty Ridge, in position to surround and assault Confederates that he would lure to them by making the mounted assault with the 6th Michigan’s Company A.  As if Custer, in a split second, had set up and deployed a grand scheme to lure as many southerners into a trap that he would spring upon his return.

Troy’s evidence for this?  Well, there ain’t none, to put it bluntly.  In fact, every shred of primary source and evidence makes it very obvious that Custer simply, and with trademark impetuousness, charged with a single company into Hampton’s position (in fact into an unintended “trap” of Hampton’s making) and barely got out with his skin.  Many of his fellow troopers were killed, wounded, and captured.  He then barely got back to his own position – and only by Churchill’s bravery and determination – where Hampton’s pursuers were in turn hit hard by the Michiganders.  No intended trap, no grand scheme, just a classic meeting engagement between two units of cavalry in which each got hammered by the other by a series of charge and countercharge.

Why, then, is it necessary to put forth all this “trap” nonsense?  Perhaps it’s to place more importance upon the fight at Hunterstown, with a view toward the preservation activities.  In my opinion, Hunterstown is important enough in and of itself, without ascribing some fabricated grand scheming to it.  And if the preservation threats pass one day, we’re then left with the danger given to the historical record with all this “trap” nonsense.  Folks will start believing it, and it will be impossible to re-introduce the truth.  I dare say that if any of the troopers of either side could come back and listen to this “trap” idea, as if it were some military tactic specifically employed by anyone on that field, they’d be looking at us crosseyed.

I respect Troy, his research, his dedication, and his efforts considerably.  But let’s stop the silliness about Hunterstown.  The battlefield is worthy of saving, and the fight worthy of study, for the historiography and lessons that it teaches.  We don’t need to fabricate theories about it in order to either save it or understand it, and we don’t need the potentially irreparable damage that the historical record will suffer by such silliness.

Troy will also likely be instrumental in developing the wording of any planned wayside markers or plaques that might be installed on the battlefield.  I’ve had nightmares that Troy is going to have at least one with a huge heading saying “CUSTER’S TRAP.”  Makes me shiver every time I think about it.

Hunterstown was not a trap.  It is classic cavalry, classic meeting engagement, and classic Hampton and Kilpatrick.   And classic needs no inflation of the historical record.

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Published in: on March 27, 2007 at 4:53 pm  Comments (13)  

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  1. Excellent post JD.

    Ever since I read (and perhaps “under-reviewed” Mr. Carhart’s book “Lost Triumph” a couple years ago (I know – I know) it has astonished me of how many “armchair quarterbacking” historians are out there re-examining this particular engagement. In some ways this is good, but it also opens the door for what I like to call “hindsight” history.

    I just spend several days up at Antietam last week and have since come to realize that WE have to be careful when critiquing battles as they never had the amount of information and broad-scope perspective that we have today. They did what they could – with that they knew at the time – usually under terrible stress and combat conditions.

    Not specifically on this topic, but related… I have often wondered what you and Eric think about the recurring theory that IF Jackson had survived Chancellorsville unscathed, that his forces would have been able to take the high-ground at Gettysburg and in the process, change the entire course of the battle (and perhaps the war). Although Jackson of course is a fav subject of mine, I won’t pretend to have the knowledge and understanding (at a tactical and strategic level) that guys like you both have. Therefore this to me is nothing more than a theory and I was wondering if you two had any opinions either way.

    Feel free to ignore or email me if it doesn’t fit here. I don’t want to “hijack” this thread. :) Thanks in advance for any insights and feel free to share my query with your partner.

  2. Hi Michael,

    No – that’s perfectly fine. I’ve often bantered about the “Stonewall at Gettysburg” scenario. Actually, I can only take it so far, though – changing that variable introduces a whole host of changes, any one of which changes history long before Gettysburg. For instance, the ANV advance to PA (if there would have been one at all) would have been vastly different. For instance, with Stonewall alive, there would still have ben only 2 ANV Corps, not three. How would they have advanced, how would they have gotten there, and with what alacrity? What would Stonewall’s input been regarding Stuart’s ride? Would he, for example, convinced Lee to not allow it? Or would he have suggested vast changes? Therefore, the month between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg would have been enormously different with Jackson alive. And when you change one variable, then another, and each further “what if” is predicated on a previous “what if,” it’s very difficult for me to suppose what may have happened.

    East Cavalry Field, since you mention it as well, has been the unwitting subject of some really incredulous theorizing and work lately. Carhart’s book is the best example. In order to support his theories and conclusions, Carhart simply FABRICATES conversations between Lee and Stuart, since conversations necessary to support him don’t exist!! Is this the wave of future historiography?? The book upset me so, that at one point last year I felt that if this was the future of Civil War scholarship, I was gonna quit – and I wouldn’t speak or write on the topic ever again. Let’s hope stuff like that of Carhart never sees a printing press again. Now there are literally thousands of readers out there who think Custer commanded the Federal forces at ECF, that Stuart’s movement had anything at all to do with some pre-planning of the PPT Charge, etc. Carhart set back scholarship on ECF 50 years, and it’ll be generations before the damage he’s done is corrected (if ever).

    Hence why I wrote of Harman and Hunterstown, and I plan more entries on similar situations. If Harman continues this “Custer’s Trap” silliness, and if the junk ever gets on a wayside marker out there on the field, there will be much work to do to correct the injury to that historical record.

    Thanks for your comments, Michael, they’re always insightful and welcome.

    J.D.

  3. Thanks for your answer JD. Great stuff. Yes… I am guilty of perhaps propagating some of this “LT” theory as it was the first book that I ever reviewed for the newspaper and I really wanted to make a good impression. Lesson learned. And I think that I’ve gotten much better at it over the last couple years. That said, I do like the fact that some of “these books” stir up a controversy among experts as it tends to generate some great discussion and debate. In other words, I look at these studies like a match that re-ignites and interest in the study of the war.

  4. Very true. There’s always a silver lining behind every cloud :)
    I do think that the more folks see comments like these about certain books, articles, etc, it does help. Say for instance if one person sees “Custer’s Trap” on a wayside at Hunterstown, they may tell another “that ain’t true.” Then another, and so on. Same with Carhart’s book – it’s received such negative commentary on the internet and discussion groups (online and otherwise) hopefully the truth about his theories and conclusions are just as prominent as the book itself.

    J.D.

  5. J.D.,

    I read this last night, and was too tired to answer, but am with you about the using of the word “trap”. Have been out there with you and just from listening to what occurred there and walking the ground, the word ‘trap” is used in the wrong contest.

    IMHO, those who were in the Barn were there to get some cover, and the sentence Custer retreated intentionally is very misleading as you denoted in the blog entry. As for getting the Southerner’s ire up, am sure their ire was built up and to the simmering point because of how hard they were followed by the Union Cavalry those days in late June and early July, 1863.

    It’s hard enough to get a hold of what really happened during the Battle of Gettysburg, and am all for continuing to explore what did happen, but I draw the line at folks bringing up theories that don’t provide evidence to back up the theory. All that does is to create more confusion, and that’s not good at all.

    Hope all is well.

    Steve

  6. Thanks Steve – it amazes me that some have to come up with these theories. I don’t know whether it’s believed by them, fabricated for an angle such as preservation/attention, or an effort to be “known” for something about a particular event.

    Whatever the reason, its potential for damage is too great.

    And you’re right about the southerners’ “ire” – after knowing what those troopers had just gone through during the ride to PA, and the fights and all-out battle they’d just been through, who in the world would think it would take something like that to get their “ire” up?? I think it all shows, actually, a lack of appreciation for the whole story in context.

    J.D.

  7. JD,

    I get worried any time someone tries to elivate Custer’s abilities. Charismatic; undoubtedly. Brave; undisputedly. But tactically aware?

    Nice post, by the way.

    Best wishes,

    Mark

  8. [...] 23rd, 2007 In a previous post about silly theories, I discussed the situation about Gettysburg Park Ranger Troy Harman calling the July 3 cavalry [...]

  9. Hi Mr. Petruzzi,

    Thanks for setting the record straight on what really happened at Hunterstown a hundred and forty-four years ago today! Obviously I agree with everything in your post. Unfortunately though, I believe there are many people out there who believe Troy Harmon’s version of the battle.

    I had never heard of Hunterstown until the mid-1990s when I was visiting Gettysburg for my first time. As I was wandering through one of the shops downtown, I just happened to pick up issue one of the Gettysburg Magazine and as I was browsing through it, I came across Paul M. Shevchuk’s excellent article about the battle there. What really caught my attention was the map showing how close companies C and H of Cobb’s Legion Cavalry Battalion had come to the Union line just beyond the Felty barn. One of my great-great grandfathers, Thomas Jordan Dunnahoo, was in company H. It’s almost a miracle that every man in both of these companies wasn’t captured, killed or wounded. Company H only lost two men, a private and a lieutenant, neither being my ancestor. Company C lost three men, two privates and a lieutenant. I think the escape from harm of most of the men in these two companies helps to disprove Mr. Harmon’s theory, in addition to all of the sources of info referenced in Mr. Shevchuk’s article. After purchasing a couple of copies of issue one of the GM, I was off to find Hunterstown to see what was still there. I was amazed that I could find right where Custer’s charge and the Cobb’s Legion Cavalry countercharge had taken place on Hunterstown Road and I was even more amazed that the Felty barn was still there. Much like the Felty barn no longer exists today, I don’t think a plan to set a trap for the Confederates by Custer existed back then. Thanks again for the great post!

    Ed Rowe
    Titusville, FL

  10. To read more about the Battle of Hunterstown…

    “Cavalry on the Roads to Gettysburg”
    by George A. Rummel III.

    On p. 346 it reads…

    “After a brief meeting with Kilpatrick (in the Grass Hotel), Custer returned to Colonel Gray and the 6th Michigan Cavalry with orders to immediately attack the Confederate troops
    seen along the road near the Gilbert farm.”

    And then, after reading an account of the battle in an out-of-print book by David F. Riggs,
    Chuck Teague makes the following post on “militaryhistoryonline”…

    “Ranger Troy Harman and LBG Mike Vallone stirred up some controversy a couple years ago when they speculated that Custer’s foray from Hunterstown into the left rear of the Confederates was not accidental but part of a larger tactical plan to thwart Rebel action.”

    “It sure seems to me likely that Custer was not simply “out there patrolling”
    and just happened upon elements of the enemy forces.
    And it is also evidence that cavalry action between Custer and Stuart was integrally related
    to the larger battle and not isolated from it.
    My thoughts, anyway.”
    Chuck Teague

  11. Take Mr. Teague’s comments with a grain of salt, Laurie – he’s a fellow who believes that Barlow’s move to the knoll on July 1 was the greatest military maneuver of the American Civil War, and that Sickles’ came in second place.

    As for Custer’s orders, indeed he was to attack. I also have the same recounting in my book. But to compartmentalize his mounted charge as pre-designed to draw his pursuers into a trap sprung on the Felty Ridge is, well, silly.

    Any look at the facts makes that indisputable.

    J.D.

  12. Help me to understand this one fact then…
    Why were Custer’s men “hunkered down”, out of sight on the other side of the Felty brick home, in the Felty barn…both on top and bottom floors…guns protruding from all the windows and doors…sharp-shooters on their bellies in the wheat and corn fields…and cannons perched along the ridge pointed directly toward the Confederate line as Custer was about charge that very line?
    Maybe it wasn’t the perfect “trap”…
    but it certainly seems like a GOOD PLAN to me!!!
    And obviously, it worked!

  13. Hi Laurie,

    Standard operating procedure. Kilpatrick wanted an attack against them, and began setting up his defensive line along the ridge. Custer surprisingly led the company of Michiganders himself. Kilpatrick set up a line at his position, Hampton set up his own at his.

    SOP, that’s all. SOP is always a good plan, but should never be confused or inflated to mean a trap unless evidence can show that’s what it was.

    J.D.


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