The Cavalry Fight at the Battle of Gettysburg

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The Great Cavalry Clash On a Climactic Day

Confederate cavalry commander, General J.E.B. Stuart
Library of Congress

One of the most dramatic components of the Battle of Gettysburg, the large clash of Union and Confederate cavalry units on the third and final day, has often been overshadowed by Pickett’s Charge and the defense of Little Round Top. Yet the fight between thousands of horsemen led by two charismatic leaders, Confederate J.E.B. Stuart and George Armstrong Custer of the Union, may have played a decisive role in the battle.

The movement by more than 5,000 Confederate cavalry troopers in the hours preceding Pickett’s Charge has always seemed puzzling. What was Robert E. Lee hoping to achieve by sending a large force of horse soldiers to an area three miles away, to the northeast of Gettysburg?

It was always assumed that Stuart’s cavalry movements that day were intended to either harass the federal flank or strike and sever Union supply lines.

Yet it’s possible Lee intended to have Stuart’s rebel cavalry strike the rear of the Union positions in a devastating surprise blow. A carefully timed cavalry attack, hitting the Union rear at the same time Pickett’s Charge poured thousands of infantrymen into the Union front line, could have turned the tide of the battle and even changed the outcome of the Civil War.

Whatever Lee’s strategic goal was, it failed. Stuart’s attempt to reach the rear of the Union defensive positions failed when he met ferocious resistance from outnumbered Union cavalrymen led by Custer, who was gaining a reputation for being fearless under fire.

The frantic fight was filled with surging cavalry charges across farm fields. And it might have been remembered as one of the greatest engagements of the entire war had not Pickett’s Charge been occurring on the same afternoon, barely three miles away.

The Confederate Cavalry in Pennsylvania

When Robert E. Lee made his plans to invade the North in the summer of 1863, he sent the cavalry commanded by General J.E.B. Stuart to travel through the center of the state of Maryland. And when the Union Army of the Potomac began moving northward from their own positions in Virginia to counter Lee, they inadvertently separated Stuart from the rest of Lee’s forces.

So as Lee and the infantry entered Pennsylvania, Lee had no idea where his cavalry was located. Stuart and his men were off raiding various towns in Pennsylvania, causing considerable panic and disruption. But those adventures were not helping Lee at all.

Lee, of course, was frustrated, forced to move in enemy territory without his cavalry to serve as his eyes. And when the Union and Confederate forces eventually ran into each other near Gettysburg on the morning of July 1, 1863, it was because Union cavalry scouts encountered Confederate infantry.

The Confederate cavalry was still separated from the rest of Lee’s army for the first and second days of the battle. And when Stuart finally reported to Lee late on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, the Confederate commander was supposedly very angry.

George Armstrong Custer at Gettysburg

On the Union side, the cavalry had just been reorganized prior to Lee moving the war into Pennsylvania. The commander of the cavalry, recognizing potential in George Armstrong Custer, promoted him from captain to brigadier general. Custer was put in command of several cavalry regiments from Michigan.

Custer was being rewarded for proving himself in battle. At the battle of Brandy Station on June 9, 1863, less than a month before Gettysburg, Custer had led cavalry charges. His commanding general cited him for bravery.

Arriving in Pennsylvania, Custer was eager to prove he had deserved his promotion.

Stuart’s Cavalry on the Third Day

On the morning of July 3, 1863, General Stuart led more than 5,000 mounted men out of the town of Gettysburg, heading northeast along the York Road. From Union positions on hilltops near the town, the movement was noticed. The maneuvering would have been impossible to hide, as that many horses would raise a large cloud of dust.

The Confederate cavalry seemed to be covering the left flank of the army, but they went farther out than would be necessary, and then turned to the right, to head southward. The intent seemed to be to hit the Union rear areas, but as they came over a ridge they spotted Union cavalry units just south of them, ready to block their way.

If Stuart was planning to strike the Union rear, that would depend on speed and surprise. And at that point he had lost both. Though the federal cavalry force facing him was outnumbered, they were well positioned to block any movement toward the rear positions of the Union Army.

Cavalry Battle on the Rummel Farm

A farm belonging to a local family named Rummel suddenly became the site of a cavalry skirmish as Union cavalrymen, off their horses and fighting dismounted, began to exchange fire with Confederate counterparts. And then the Union commander on the scene, General David Gregg, ordered Custer to attack on horseback.

Placing himself at the head of a Michigan cavalry regiment, Custer raised his saber and screamed, “Come on, you wolverines!” And he charged.

What had been a standoff and then a skirmish quickly escalated into one of the biggest cavalry battles of the entire war. Custer’s men charged, were beaten back, and charged again. The scene turned into a gigantic melee of men shooting at close quarters with pistols and slashing with sabers.

In the end, Custer and the federal cavalry had held off Stuart’s advance. By nightfall Stuart’s men were still positioned on the ridge from which they had first spotted the Union cavalry. And after dark Stuart withdrew his men and returned to the west side of Gettysburg to report to Lee.

Significance of the Cavalry Battle at Gettysburg

The cavalry engagement at Gettysburg has often been overlooked. In newspaper reports at the time the massive carnage elsewhere during the battle overshadowed the cavalry fight. And in modern times few tourists even visit the site, called East Cavalry Field, though it is a part of the official battlefield administered by the National Park Service.

Yet the cavalry clash was significant. It is apparent that Stuart’s cavalry could have provided, at the very least, a considerable diversion that might have confused the Union commanders. And one theory of the battle holds that Stuart could have unleashed a major surprise attack in the middle of the rear of the Union line.

The road network in the immediate area may have made such an attack possible. And had Stuart and his men managed to race up those roads, and meet up with the Confederate infantry brigades marching forward in Pickett’s Charge, the Union Army could have been cut in two and perhaps defeated.

Robert E. Lee never explained Stuart’s actions that day. And Stuart, who was killed later in the war, also never wrote any explanation of what he was doing three miles from Gettysburg that day.