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.