This is EXACTLY what I was talking about…

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?

“Custer’s Trap.”

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.

Published in: on May 23, 2007 at 11:01 am  Comments (10)  

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. JD your right, historians who came up with different theories do not have to apology to other reseachers who have differing conclusions. All that needs to be done is to submit the evidence and explain the train of thought and deductions. It’s all in the evidence, not the theory. If a theory does not stand regorous re-evalution this would indict it’s probably buily on a false premise or misinterpretation.

  2. JD,

    I really applaud Troy for his enthusiasm, and it’s pretty much impossible not to appreciate the fact that he has focused attention on Hunterstown.

    However, at the same time, I have the same problem with this that I have with Carhart’s stuff. It’s making stuff up without a shred of evidence to support it, selling it as the truth, and having the gullible public buy into it. It is at best irresponsible and at worst a fraud on the public, and I’ve got REAL problems with it.


  3. Eric, indeed Troy has attention focused on the area, and we can’t applaud him enough for that. But as you say, to do so at the expense of the truth is undesirable.

    Gunner, I think the evidence does indeed tell the story – if one reads our unbiased account of Hunterstown in the book on Stuart’s ride by Eric and myself (the largest collection of primary source on the fight EVER published, by the way), it’s quite clear that the “trap” theory disproves itself. We can only hope that the less gullible will hear the real facts.


  4. J.D.

    Thanks for bringing this up. It never ceases to amaze me what I gain from you and Eric almost on a daily basis.

    I would never have pondered that the guide would be telling less than credible info.


  5. Thanks, Chris. Everyone needs to understand that we don’t mean to imply that Troy Harman promotes his theory with any nefarious motives – just that he’s apparently convinced himself he’s right even though the evidence refutes it. Or, perhaps, it’s a “marketable theory” designed to help promote the preservation of the Hunterstown battlefield. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, I guess.

    As I also mentioned in that previous post about this subject, since Troy is so instrumental at Hunterstown, and there’s going to be at least a few information waysides there, I can just envision at least one prominently displaying the title “Custer’s Trap.” If that happens, generations of visitors to the battlefield are going to be fed a “version” of the story that has nothing in common with the truth.


  6. I’ve always maintained that the big, mainstream reenactments generally have little to do with the actual history they’re supposed to represent and this latest bit only reinforces that.

    I really wish that reenactments weren’t held to coincide with the anniversaries of major battles and called “The Anniversary Reenactment of the Battle of Such-and-such”. At best, reenactments can recreate and show a very small slice of how CW soldiers lived and fought. Obviously “reenacting” one of the major battles is a logistical (and theatrical) impossibility.

    The real sore point of course is that the twisted view of “history” that gets presented is taken as gospel truth by many of the less-informed spectators at these events.

    That’s a dis-service not just to the spectators but to the memory of the soldiers that these reenactments supposedly honor. Unfortunately there’s money to be made with these big charades and that’s what drives the train.

  7. Amen, Mike – and you hit on something that I had forgotten about… the disservice of these theories and such that is done to the veterans’ memories. Calling Hunterstown a “trap” does a disservice to the men who fought there (again, perhaps not intentionally or nefariously) but when the evidence so blatantly refutes it, it’s time for the silliness to stop.


  8. Sometimes I think people miss the big picture. Hampton’s men had stumbled through York County for two days, had risen in the middle of the night at Dillsburg and wearily trekked 10 miles Sw towards Gettysburg, and then arose after just a couple hours sleep to march down to Gettysburg. They had been the rear guard for days, and had skirmished with Yankees at Jefferson and Dover. They were wary of pursuers, and, although exhausted, were not likely to be caught in a trap. They had been on the watch for bluecoats steadily since leaving Hanover.

    No trap, just a lot of tired horsemen colliding with one another.

  9. Thank you, Scott – for those not familiar with Scott Mingus, he is quite THE local expert in the York/Gettysburg area. Eric and I used his knowledge and research heavily in our book on Stuart’s Ride. As you say Scott, anyone familiar with the story of the Confederates’ ride from VA to Gettysburg is going to see through this “trap” nonsense. We all want to ascribe these great, grand schemes to actions that are nothing more than meeting engagements like Hunterstown, but they’re all too often at the expense of the truth.


  10. Thank you for the kind words, J.D.! There’s a lot of claptrap regarding the Gettysburg Campaign, some of I which I fell into before I sorted things out by cross-referencing accounts and field studies. Even here in York County, there was a lot of misinformation and oft-repeated secondary “facts” cited as truth, often by well respected scholars and writers. However, short of a time machine, we will never know all the details that we might want to grasp, and that’s what makes history so much fun – the constant quest to dig up new and fresh sources that shed additional light on the topic of interest.

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