In the August 2005 issue, “In Their Footsteps” featured the movements and battles involving cavalry forces of the Federals and Confederates as they advanced toward Gettysburg, as well as the skirmishes and raids in nearby areas of Pennsylvania during the three-day battle. Upon arrival at Gettysburg, the main force of Confederate cavalry, under Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, and most of the three divisions of the Army of the Potomac cavalry, including those previously engaged by Stuart’s troopers, fought on battlefields that are now part of Gettysburg National Military Park. The tactical actions and incidental activities of these units during the battle are the focus of this month’s column.
This one-day excursion starts from the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center on Taneytown Road and follows the engagements chronologically. Sometime in the next two years the Visitor Center and Cyclorama Center will be moved to a new location on Baltimore Street, closer to the first point of interest on this tour. Of course, one can visit other parts of the battlefield by car, take a commercial bus tour or hire a licensed guide, but this tour focuses exclusively on the activities of the cavalry. There are so many facets to exploring Gettysburg, and much has been written on its importance as an American shrine and a focal point for Civil War history. I myself have returned to the park multiple times just to concentrate on the events of a specific command, location or time frame. The area offers a wide array of visitor ammenities. For specific ideas consult the contact information on P. 18.
Ironically, the very first cavalry action in Gettysburg during the campaign involved neither Stuart nor the Army of the Potomac cavalry. A skirmish occurred on June 26, 1863, between two independent units. The 35th Virginia Cavalry, led by Lt. Col. Elijah White and nicknamed the “Comanches,” advanced on Gettysburg from the northwest after a rendezvous with Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s Division at Chambersburg. They engaged and scattered Company B of the 21st Pennsylvania under Captain Robert Bell. The recently formed company was known as the Adams County Cavalry. George W. Sandoe, a citizen from Adams County who had just enlisted in Company B, was killed in the skirmish. A monument marks the place where Sandoe was killed, and a second monument to Company B is nearby. Take Hunt Avenue (a park road) east from the Visitor Center to Pennsylvania 97, the Baltimore Pike. The two monuments are to the left near the entrance to Spangler’s Spring on Slocum Avenue, a one-way park road.
Return north on the Baltimore Pike, through Gettysburg and west on U.S. 30, Chambersburg Pike, to the West End Guide Station. The first horsemen of the Army of the Potomac to arrive at Gettysburg were those in the 1st Cavalry Division under Brig. Gen. John Buford. The general entered the town at 11 a.m. on June 30 with orders to cover the front and report on enemy activity. The head of his column arrived just as North Carolinians under Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew, whose brigade was in Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, were advancing from Cashtown.
Denied entry to the town, the column turned back. Buford then sent out patrols in virtually all directions, while forwarding information to left wing and I Corps commander Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds and cavalry chief Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton. Buford reported cavalry, probably the Comanches, on the roads north of Gettysburg. By nightfall, he concluded that Lee’s army was advancing toward Gettysburg from two directions— Hill’s Third Corps and Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps were coming from Cashtown, and Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps was advancing from Carlisle. The next morning, the 1st Division’s reconnaissance duties would change—to a combat role.
The Battle of Gettysburg opened at about 7:30 a.m. on July 1 when the pickets of the 8th Illinois Cavalry of Colonel William Gamble’s brigade, stationed east of Marsh Creek, fired on Alabamians and Tennesseans in Brig. Gen. James J. Archer’s Brigade as they advanced down the Chambersburg Pike. Division commander Maj. Gen. Henry Heth had permission from Hill to conduct a “reconnaissance in force” and search for supplies in Gettysburg. The 8th Illinois troopers fell back to join the rest of their brigade on Herr’s Ridge, and then retreated to McPherson’s Ridge as Archer sent skirmishers forward and unlimbered artillery. The Federal troopers primarily used breechloading carbines that could fire more rapidly but less accurately than the rifle-muskets of the Rebels. The Federal troopers fought dismounted, with one out of every four men stationed behind the line holding his own horse and those of three comrades.
Buford spread out his two brigades from Fairfield Road to Mummasburg Road. He hoped to have his rapid-firing troopers and two sections of horse artillery give the appearance of a larger force and hold on until the arrival of the I Corps infantry. Thus Buford, by making a stand northwest of Gettysburg, and Heth, by committing forces to contest that defense, established the field for one of history’s greatest battles ahead of their army commanders. General Robert E. Lee wanted to meet the Federals on more defensible terrain along South Mountain at Cashtown Gap. Arriving on the field in midafternoon without Stuart’s cavalry to assess the force against him, he acquiesced once the battle was in progress. Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George Meade did not arrive on the field from his headquarters just south of the Pennsylvania border, where he was preparing a line of defense along Pipe Creek, until after midnight on July 1. He then offered his support to his subordinates’ decision to make a defensive stand at Gettysburg.
After about two hours of slowly giving ground, Buford’s cavalry yielded to the arriving units of the I Corps. The troopers continued to fight dismounted throughout the day, contributing to a vigorous I Corps stand along Fairfield Road at Shultz’s Woods, and alongside the XI Corps while it tried to hold off Early’s Division of Ewell’s corps north of Gettysburg. By July 2, Buford’s two brigades that had fought on the 1st were ordered to Westminster, Md., to guard the cavalry trains. From the West End Guide Station, proceed about 1 l⁄2 miles northwest on U.S. 30 to the intersection of Knoxlyn Road. The First Shot Monument can be found here, north of U.S. 30 on the front lawn of a two-story brick house (that will soon be part of the park). Lieutenant Marcellus Jones of the 8th Illinois fired at Archer’s approaching column, and began the Battle of Gettysburg. Other units, primarily New York cavalry, claimed the distinction, but these actions in the pre-dawn hours of July 1 were most likely exchanges with White’s roaming horsemen, who had been discovered north of Gettysburg.
Return southeast on U.S. 30, crossing Herr’s Ridge to Reynolds Avenue. This is McPherson’s Ridge. On the north side of U.S. 30, near the equestrian statue of General Reynolds, is a monument devoted to General Buford, standing with field glasses in hand as he observes the battleground. This is the commemorative memorial to the 1st Cavalry Division’s efforts on July 1. Less than a mile to the southeast is the Gettysburg Theological Seminary. The cupola of the red brick building is where Buford was stationed, observing the battle, when Reynolds arrived on the field ahead of his corps.
Shultz’s Woods, the Railroad Cut and other areas where the brigades of Colonels William Gamble and Thomas C. Devin assisted the Union infantry on July 1 can be reached by following the one-way route of park roads starting north on Reynolds Avenue to Buford Avenue, then east on U.S. 30. Turn south on Seminary Avenue to Pennsylvania 116 west and then north on Reynolds again.
From this area, return to Gettysburg on U.S. 30, proceed east on Pennsylvania 116 for 3l⁄4 miles to East Cavalry Avenue and turn left. This is one of the areas occupied by Federal artillery during the July 3 cavalry battle here. There are parking pullouts along the road. Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s 2nd Calvary Division had not seen combat since the cavalry left Virginia. While he was covering the right flank of the Union army, his orders to march east to protect the North Central Railroad and route to Baltimore were countermanded after the battle began at Gettysburg. After his troopers slept in the streets of Hanover on the night of July 1, they rode northeast along Hanover Road to take a position on the Federal right flank. On the night of the 2nd, Gregg’s units clashed briefly along Hanover Road with the Stonewall Brigade of Ewell’s corps during the Confederate advance to Culp’s Hill.
At about the same time, Stuart’s cavalry was riding east to Gettysburg on parallel roads, with Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton’s Brigade bringing up the rear after being slowed by the Federal 3rd Cavalry Division under Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick at Hunterstown. Stuart arrived ahead of his troops, after couriers he sent out returned with a message from Lee to proceed at once to Gettysburg. It was at his headquarters along Chambersburg Pike that Lee delivered his famously understated rebuke of the cavalryman’s long absence, “Well, General Stuart, you are here at last.” On the night of July 2, Stuart’s men camped on the Confederate left flank, north of York Road.
At that time only parts of two Federal cavalry divisions remained at Gettysburg. Gregg had two brigades, having left one at Manchester, Md. Kilpatrick also had only two brigades, those of newly promoted Brig. Gens. Elon J. Farnsworth and George A. Custer. Orders came for them to proceed to Two Taverns on the Baltimore Pike to protect the Federal left. Buford’s Reserve Corps, under Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt, remained near Emmitsburg, Md.
Just before noon on July 3, Stuart, apparently with thoughts of getting to the Federal rear independent of any other Confederate maneuvers, advanced south along Cress Ridge. The addition of Brig. Gen. Albert Jenkins’ independent brigade to Stuart’s Division gave the Confederate commander more than 6,000 horsemen. Stuart did not advance unseen, however, and he helped to ruin the element of surprise by firing an artillery shell as a signal or reconnaissance shot. The advance placed him northeast of Low Dutch Road, where Custer’s brigade, recalled from Two Taverns, was set up in an L-shaped defensive position along Hanover Road.
Stuart placed skirmishers and artillery among the buildings of the Rummel farm. By this time Colonel John B. McIntosh had arrived with his 2nd Cavalry Division brigade to relieve Custer. McIntosh began to probe the Rebel position with dismounted troopers, but Stuart called up more men from Jenkins’ and Colonel John R. Chambliss’ brigades, and the fighting escalated. Custer’s orders to return south were countermanded by Gregg when he realized that his other brigade, under his cousin Colonel J. Irvin Gregg, was too far away to come to McIntosh’s aid. The fighting intensified as Stuart ordered the 1st Virginia to make a mounted attack, which was countered by Custer and the 7th Michigan.
The battle continued to seesaw across the fields of the Rummel farm. The brigades of Hampton and Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee became involved in the fight. About 3 p.m., a gallant mounted charge led by Hampton himself was met by Union artillery fire and a charge of the 1st Michigan, with Custer again taking the lead. With the rallying cry “Come on you Wolverines!” Custer led the troopers into a hand-to-hand melee with Hampton’s men in classic Napoleonic style. Other mounted and dismounted forces joined the fight, and eventually the Confederate horsemen gave way and were forced back to Cress Ridge. The fighting died down. However, there were heavy casualties for a relatively short action. The Federals scored a victory by blocking Stuart’s advance and controlling the field of battle.
The East Cavalry Field offers a number of markers, artillery pieces and monuments. Follow East Cavalry Avenue, Low Dutch Road and Gregg and Confederate Cavalry avenues through the cleared area of the Rummel farm and the wooded area of Cress Ridge. There are a number of interesting monuments located here, but to see them visitors must walk from parking areas along the park roads. The location of these memorials gives a good idea of how the forces in the battle were positioned.
Leave the East Cavalry Field and go west on Pennsylvania 116 to U.S. 15. Take the bypass to Business U.S. 15, Emmitsburg Road, and turn right (north). The South Cavalry Field is about a mile to the north. Parking is available along the road or at the South End Guide Station. Here at about 5 p.m. on July 3, Kilpatrick, thinking he would follow the successful repulse of the Pickett-Pettigrew charge with a victory of his own, ordered Farnsworth and his brigade of 1,925 men, along with Merritt’s Reserve Brigade that had come up from Emmitsburg, to assault the portion of Longstreet’s corps holding the base of Big Round Top. East of the road on the Bushman farm, Confederates from Texas, Alabama and South Carolina stood behind a stone wall topped with fence rails. West of the road, Brig. Gen. Evander Law, now commanding Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood’s Division, personally led Georgians from one of his brigades, supported by artillery and dismounted cavalry.
Merritt’s men, primarily U.S. Regular Cavalry, advanced against Law but were beaten back within about 15 minutes. Farnsworth advanced with a dismounted skirmish line but made no headway against the strong Confederate position. Incredibly, Kilpatrick ordered Farnsworth to make a mounted attack against the Rebels manning the stone wall. Farnsworth led the charge himself with the 1st Vermont in the lead—and met with predictable results. He was killed along with several of his men. Like most of the rest of the forces at Gettysburg, the cavalry units spent the night of July 3 resting and tending to their wounded.
There are two monuments to this action on the west side of Emmitsburg Road about two-tenths of a mile south of the entrance to a campground. They are for the 1st and 2nd U.S. Cavalry. The rest of the site contains some open fields that were parts of farms during the battle. In a future “Footsteps,” I hope to complete the role of the cavalry in the Gettysburg campaign by exploring sites of raids and skirmishes during the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia through southern Pennsylvania and Maryland and its pursuit by Federal forces.
Originally published in the July 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.