In a previous post about silly theories, I discussed the situation about Gettysburg Park Ranger Troy Harman calling the July 3 cavalry fight at Hunterstown Pa “Custer’s Trap.” Check the previous post for more detail, but in essence Harman has been touting Custer’s participation in the fight as setting an actual “trap” for Confederate General Wade Hampton’s rear guard, when actually nothing is further from the truth. Custer led one of his Michigan cavalry companies in an impetuous charge down the Hunterstown-Gettysburg Road, and nearly lost his life doing so. One of his troopers barely got him out alive, and the survivors of the charge beat feet (or hooves) back to their lines, with some of Hampton’s troopers in hot pursuit. Harman states as fact that this latter movement was actually a militarily strategical “trap” that he sprung upon his pursuers. Quite unfortunately, the fine preservation group working at Hunterstown has adopted Harman’s silly assertion.
I said in my previous post that the real danger in these sorts of unsubstantiated (and easily disproven) theories that keep cropping up is that folks will begin to believe them. Troy’s status as a Park Ranger and popular speaker and tour guide causes folks to take his theories as gospel. I’ve toured with Troy and he’s both a fine fellow and deep researcher. But for some reason, many students of the battle and war (both high and low profile) come up with these theories that simply make no sense – and most of them seem to deal with Gettysburg.
Well, today I got my copy of the new (June 2007) issue of The Civil War News. There is an advertisment by the Gettysburg Reenactment Committee for the 2007 three-day reenactment of the battle. In the ad (p. 32) is a schedule of events, and on Saturday, July 7 there will be a reenactment of the Battle of Hunterstown. What is the battle called?
As I said, this is the danger in these types of theories. Troy has narrated the action, I believe, at previous reenactments, and possibly there is now going to be a telling of how Custer set a “trap” for the Confederates. Hundreds, maybe thousands of folks are going to go away from the event thinking such a theory has plausibility. Heck, just calling the thing “Custer’s Trap” can do enough damage, because that title is going to stick in people’s minds.
After that previous post about this theory, I got a stern email from one of the members of the Hunterstown 1863 preservation group, chiding me for daring to contradict Troy’s theory, and also suggesting that I “apologize” to Troy for differing with him. Needless to say, that won’t happen in my lifetime. I’ve been researching the fight at Hunterstown for some 30 years, and wrote the chapter on the fight in my and Eric Wittenberg‘s book on Jeb Stuart’s ride into Pennsylvania. Our research and our book details without a doubt that the action constituted anything but a “trap” set by either side, and the idea of a “trap” never even came up until Troy began proffering it. You won’t find it in the voluminous evidence, and neither side ever made such a claim. Not Custer, nor any of his troopers. Not even any type of implied hint of it. And all evidence plainly and clearly refutes it anyway.
I won’t be apologizing to Troy, as he shouldn’t be apologizing to me or anyone else. I’ve spoken with most of his Ranger comrades at the Gettysburg National Military Park (as well as Licensed Battlefield Guides and many others) and without exception NO ONE buys into his “trap” theory. You won’t find any of them apologizing to Troy. Whenever we students and scholars differ with one another on interpretations of events, are we to go around apologizing to each other? Let’s get real. Troy has an absolute right to his theory, as do all those who disagree with him. To suggest that one or another apologize (unless the situation involves personal attacks, which is never warranted) belies an utter lack of understanding about how historiography works.
Check out the Gettysburg Reenactment Committee’s website on the event and their schedule. You’ll see the Hunterstown event titled “Custer’s Trap.” It’s too late now to undo that damage, but time will tell how the event is portrayed to the spectators of the reenactment.