American Civil War: Battle of Gettysburg - East Cavalry Fight

David McM. Gregg in the Civil War
Brigadier General David McM. Gregg. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Battle of Gettysburg: Union Order of Battle - Confederate Order of Battle

Gettysburg-East Cavalry Fight - Conflict & Date:

The East Cavalry Fight took place on July 3, 1863, during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and was part of the larger Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-July 3, 1863).

Armies & Commanders:

Union

Confederate

  • approx. 4,800 men

Gettysburg-East Cavalry Fight - Background:

On July 1, 1863, Union and Confederate forces met north and northwest of the town of Gettysburg, PA.  The first day of the battle resulted in General Robert E. Lee's forces driving Major General John F. Reynolds' I Corps and Major General Oliver O. Howard's XI Corps through Gettysburg to a strong defensive position around Cemetery Hill.  Bringing additional forces up during the night, Major General George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac assumed a position with its right on Culp's Hill and the line extending west to Cemetery Hill and then turning south along Cemetery Ridge.  The next day, Lee planned to attack both Union flanks.  These efforts were late in commencing and saw Lieutenant General James Longstreet's First Corps push back Major General Daniel Sickles' III Corps which had moved west off of Cemetery Ridge.  In a bitterly fought struggle, Union troops succeeded in holding the key heights of Little Round Top at the south end of the battlefield (Map).

  

Gettysburg-East Cavalry Fight - Plans & Dispositions:

In determining his plans for July 3, Lee at first hoped to launch coordinated attacks on Meade's flanks.  This plan was thwarted when Union forces opened a fight at Culp's Hill around 4:00 AM.  This engagement raged for seven hours until quieting at 11:00 AM.

  As a result of this action, Lee changed his approach for the afternoon and instead decided to focus on striking the Union center on Cemetery Ridge.  Assigning command of the operation to Longstreet, he ordered that Major General George Pickett's division, which had not been engaged in the previous days' fighting, form the core of the attack force.  To supplement Longstreet's assault on the Union center, Lee directed Major General J.E.B. Stuart to take his Cavalry Corps east and south around Meade's right flank.  Once in the Union rear, he was attack towards the Baltimore Pike which served as the primary line of retreat for the Army of the Potomac.

Opposing Stuart were elements of Major General Alfred Pleasonton's Cavalry Corps.  Disliked and mistrusted by Meade, Pleasonton was retained at the army's headquarters while his superior directed cavalry operations personally.  Of the corps' three divisions, two remained in the Gettysburg area with that of Brigadier General David McM. Gregg located east of the main Union line while Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick's men protected the Union left to the south.  The bulk of the third division, belonging to Brigadier General John Buford, had been sent south to refit after playing a key role in the early fighting on July 1.

  Only Buford's reserve brigade, led by Brigadier General Wesley Merritt, remained in the area and held a position south of the Round Tops.  To reinforce the position east of Gettysburg, orders were issued for Kilpatrick to loan Brigadier General George A. Custer's brigade to Gregg.

Gettysburg-East Cavalry Fight - First Contact:

Holding a position at the intersection of the Hanover and Low Dutch Roads, Gregg deployed the bulk of his men along the former facing north while Colonel John B. McIntosh's brigade occupied a position behind the latter facing northwest.  Approaching the Union line with four brigades, Stuart intended to pin Gregg in place with dismounted troopers and then launch an attack from the west using Cress Ridge to shield his movements.  Advancing the brigades of Brigadier Generals John R.

Chambliss and Albert G. Jenkins, Stuart had these men occupy the woods around the Rummel Farm.  Gregg was soon alerted to their presence due to scouting by Custer's men and signal guns fired by the enemy.  Unlimbering, Major Robert F. Beckham's horse artillery opened fired on the Union lines.  Responding, Lieutenant Alexander Pennington's Union battery proved more accurate and succeeded in largely quieting the Confederate guns (Map).

Gettysburg-East Cavalry Fight - Dismounted Action:          

As the artillery fire subsided, Gregg directed the 1st New Jersey Cavalry from McIntosh's brigade to dismount as well as the 5th Michigan Cavalry from Custer's.  These two units commenced a long-range duel with the Confederates around the Rummel Farm.  Pressing the action, the 1st New Jersey advanced to a fence line closer to the farm and continued the fight.  Running low on ammunition, they were soon joined by the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry.  Tangling with a larger force, McIntosh called for reinforcements from Gregg.  This request was denied, though Gregg did deploy an additional artillery battery which began shelling the area around the Rummel Farm. 

This compelled the Confederates to abandon the farm's barn.  Seeking to turn the tide, Stuart brought more of his men into the action and extended his line to flank the Union troopers.  Quickly dismounting part of the 6th Michigan Cavalry, Custer blocked this move.  As McIntosh's ammunition began to dwindle, the brigade's fire started to slacken.  Seeing an opportunity, Chambliss' men intensified their fire.  As McIntosh's men began to withdraw, Custer advanced the 5th Michigan.  Armed with seven-shot Spencer rifles, the 5th Michigan surged forward and, in fighting that became hand-to-hand at times, succeeded in driving Chambliss back into the woods beyond the Rummel Farm.     

Gettysburg-East Cavalry Fight - Mounted Fight:

Increasingly frustrated and eager to end the action, Stuart directed the 1st Virginia Cavalry from Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee's brigade to make a mounted charge against the Union lines.

  He intended this force to break through the enemy's position by the farm and split them from those Union troops along Low Dutch Road.  Seeing the Confederates advance, McIntosh attempted to send his reserve regiment, the 1st Maryland Cavalry, forward.  This failed when he found that Gregg had ordered it south to the intersection.  Responding to the new threat, Gregg ordered Colonel William D. Mann's 7th Michigan Cavalry to launch a counter-charge.  As Lee drove back Union forces by the farm, Custer personally led the 7th Michigan forward with a yell of "Come on, you Wolverines!" (Map).

Surging forward, the 1st Virginia's flank came under fire from the 5th Michigan and part of the 3rd Pennsylvania.  The Virginians and 7th Michigan collided along a sturdy wooden fence and commenced fighting with pistols.  In an effort to turn the tide, Stuart directed Brigadier General Wade Hampton to take reinforcements forward.  These troopers joined with the 1st Virginia and compelled Custer's men to fall back.  Pursuing the 7th Michigan towards the intersection, the Confederates came under heavy fire from the 5th and 6th Michigans as well as the 1st New Jersey and 3rd Pennsylvania.  Under this protection, the 7th Michigan rallied and turned to mount a counterattack.  This succeeded in drove the enemy back past the Rummel Farm.

Given the near success of the Virginians in almost reaching the crossroads, Stuart concluded that larger attack might carry the day.  As such, he directed the bulk of Lee and Hampton's brigades to charge forward.  As the enemy came under fire from Union artillery, Gregg directed the 1st Michigan Cavalry to charge forward.  Advancing with Custer in the lead, this regiment smashed into the charging Confederates.  With the fighting swirling, Custer's outnumbered men began to be pushed back.  Seeing the tide turning, McIntosh's men entered the fray with the 1st New Jersey and 3rd Pennsylvania striking the Confederate flank.  Under attack from multiple directions, Stuart's men began to fall back to the shelter of the woods and Cress Ridge.  Though Union forces attempted a pursuit, a rearguard action by the 1st Virginia blunted this effort.

Gettysburg-East Cavalry Fight - Aftermath: 

In the fighting east of Gettysburg, Union casualties numbered 284 while Stuart's men lost 181.  A victory for the improving Union cavalry, the action prevented Stuart from riding around Meade's flank and striking the Army of the Potomac's rear.  To the west, Longstreet's assault on the Union center, later dubbed Pickett's Charge, was turned back with massive losses.  Though victorious, Meade elected not to mount a counterattack against Lee's wounded army citing the exhaustion of his own forces.  Personally taking the blame the defeat, Lee ordered the Army of Northern Virginia to commence a retreat south on the evening of July 4.  The victory at Gettysburg and Major General Ulysses S. Grant's triumph at Vicksburg on July 4 marked the turning points of the Civil War. 

Selected Sources