At long last, “Come On, You Wolverines!” is ready to roll out on display at Civil War Tails! Come see the diorama, starting on Friday, May 3rd! In our past Mewsings on this diorama, we discussed various aspects of the making of it. But, what actually happened at East Cavalry Field?
The afternoon of July 3, 1863, found Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry facing off against Union horsemen under Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg at what is now East Cavalry Field, a few miles east of Gettysburg. Stuart arrived at the Rummel farm with four brigades and three artillery batteries. Blocking his path to the rear of the Union army was Gregg’s division of two small brigades and one battery, plus Gen. George Custer’s Michigan Brigade and their battery.
The fighting occurred mostly in open fields shaped roughly like a large rectangle running north-south. Low Dutch Road formed the eastern side of the rectangle, Hanover Road (Rte. 116 E) the southern side, and Little’s Run the western side. Col. John McIntosh’s brigade, along with two of Custer’s four regiments, formed a line along Little’s Run and also along the northern side of the rectangle. In the late morning, the Confederates arrived from the north, coming from the York Pike (Rte. 30 E). Skirmishing occurred along the line throughout the early afternoon, developing into fierce fighting around 2:00 p.m. between dismounted units around the Rummel farm, at the northwest corner of the rectangle.
After a brief lull, Stuart ordered the 1st Virginia Cavalry forward in a mounted charge. To meet them, Gregg ordered the 7th Michigan Cavalry forward from reserve. Sweeping across the open fields, the Wolverines topped a rise—and smashed into a low stone wall with a high post-and-rail fence on top! The fighting raged on both sides of the fence, with cavalrymen firing revolvers into each others’ faces over the rails. Some Wolverines opened gaps in the fence, allowing them to rush through. Chasing the Confederates, they nearly reached the Rummel farm, when gray reinforcements arrived. The fighting seesawed back and forth, until the 7th was forced to retreat, with two Confederate regiments coming in on their flank. They dashed to the rear, and flanking fire from McIntosh’s line halted the Confederate pursuit.
Another lull settled over the field, but only for a few minutes. “Severe as has been the fighting,” Gregg recalled, “as yet no advantage has been gained by the Rebels, & now the time has arrived for a supreme effort.” A little after 3:00 p.m., an awe-inspiring sight emerged from the trees north of the open fields. Union cavalrymen stared as “Squadron after squadron, regiment after regiment, orderly as if on parade, came into view, and successively took their places.” With drawn sabers “glistening like silver in the bright sunlight,” came two Confederate brigades under Generals Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee.
The two Union batteries opened fire immediately. “Great gaps were torn in that mass of mounted men, but the rents were quickly closed. Then, they were ready.” As one, the massive column advanced. One Confederate recalled the anticipation: “It was the moment for which cavalry wait all their lives—the opportunity which seldom comes—that vanishes like shadows on glass. If the Federal cavalry were to be swept from their place on the right, the road to the rear of their center gained, now was the time.” The Confederates advanced in close columns of squadrons, first at a walk, moving “in superb style,” then at a trot. Finally, they leaped into a gallop, yelling “like demons.”
The batteries blasted the column with shell, firing as quickly as they could. As the Confederate juggernaut drew closer, the artillery switched to canister. The rear ranks filled the gaps in front “as if nothing had happened.” The situation for the Union line looked grim. Only one regiment, the 1st Michigan, remained in reserve. Gregg had no choice but to order them forward—one regiment against eight.
Col. Charles Town, so weakened from tuberculosis that he needed help to mount his horse, led his regiment forward. As they drew sabers, Custer joined them. The 1st Michigan advanced at a trot, the bugle sounded, and they broke into a gallop. Just before the 1st Michigan crossed the artillery’s field of fire, the guns fired one last round of double canister, staggering the Confederate column. Custer pointed his saber at the Confederates, turned in the saddle, and shouted, “Come on, you Wolverines!” One observer recalled, “And with a fearful yell, the First Michigan Cavalry rushed on, Custer four lengths ahead.”
The two sides crashed together with a sound “Like the falling of timber,” a Union captain remembered, “so sudden and violent that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them.” The 1st Michigan struck the Confederate left and split the column like a wedge. “The clashing of sabers, the firing of pistols, the demands for surrender and cries of the combatants now filled the air.” The melee lasted only five or ten minutes, but those minutes “seemed like years” to the desperate combatants.
The Union line along Little’s Run fired into the Confederate right, and bits and pieces of regiments charged—here a squadron, there a couple dozen men. Even Col. McIntosh charged with his staff and headquarters escort!
“For a moment, but only for a moment,” Custer recalled, “that long, heavy column stood its ground; then, unable to withstand the impetuosity of our attack, it gave way.” The Confederates retreated to Cress Ridge and the woods behind the Rummel farm. Skirmishing continued until nightfall, when Stuart withdrew to the York Pike and returned to Gettysburg.
Had the Confederates succeeded in taking the intersection at Low Dutch and Hanover Roads, they could have caused chaos in the rear of the Union army and cut off the route of retreat down Baltimore Pike. Despite being outnumbered, Gregg had prevented disaster. Gregg’s actions, together with Hancock’s II Corps defeating Pickett’s Charge, helped to ensure the Union victory at Gettysburg.