History hardly remembers young Pvt. Norvell Churchill of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, one of Brig. Gen. George A. Custer’s orderlies. However, the actions of Churchill at the Hunterstown battlefield just outside Gettysburg early in the evening of July 2, 1863, literally changed history. There may have been no “Custer defeat” at the Little Big Horn thirteen years later… indeed, there may have been no George Custer at all after that warm July 2.
Late on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, Jeb Stuart’s tired Confederate cavalry brigades had just made their way to the Gettysburg area after being out of touch with Robert E. Lee’s army for over a week. Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, commander of the Federal Third Cavalry division, had also made his way to the area after battling Stuart at Hanover on June 30. Ordered to protect and scout the Federal right flank near Hunterstown, Kilpatrick’s advance guard came into contact with the rear guard of one of Stuart’s brigade commanders, Wade Hampton, in the main street of Hunterstown.
Falling back under a fighting withdrawal, Hampton’s rear guard proceeded down the Hunterstown-Gettysburg road near the Gilbert farm. Pulling up rein at the top of the Felty farm ridge, Custer, commanding one of Kilpatrick’s brigades, ordered Co. A of his 6th Michigan Cavalry to charge into the Confederates. Before company commander Capt. Henry E. Thompson could spur away, however, Custer drew his saber and shouted, “I’ll lead you this time boys – Come on!”
Custer, a newly-minted brigadier, led that single company down the road and crashed into Hampton’s defiant rear guard near the Gilbert home. Some of Hampton’s troopers had begun deploying on both sides of the road at their position, and Custer’s did as well on their side. In the hand-to-hand melee, Custer’s horse went down, trapping him underneath. He was soon nearly surrounded, with at least one Confederate trooper bearing down on the hapless general.
Seeing his general’s plight, Pvt. Churchill acted quickly. He aimed his revolver at Custer’s assailant and shot him. Reaching down, Custer grabbed onto Churchill’s arm and pulled himself into Churchill’s saddle behind him. Hell bent for leather, Churchill galloped back to the Federal position atop Felty ridge with the survivors of Company A on their heels. Custer had been saved from certain capture or death by the quick thinking of his 23 year-old orderly.
According to his family, Churchill was born on June 11, 1840 in Berlin Township in Michigan. He joined the 6th Michigan Cavalry in August 1861. After the Hunterstown fight, Custer made Churchill his “Special Orderly” in honor of his deed that day.
Following the war, Custer made a visit to Churchill at his farm at Romeo, Michigan, and stayed for three days before heading off to the Indian Campaigns. Custer reportedly asked Churchill to join him, but he declined.
Churchill died at the age of 65 on June 25, 1905 in Echo Township in Michigan. His family still retains his saber.
The pictures are from the Hunterstown1863 website of the Hunterstown Historical Society, and please see the webpage posted there by Churchill’s great-granddaughter, Pat H. Stephens.
The recounting of Churchill’s actions can also be found in the book by Eric Wittenberg and myself, Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg on page 173.