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150 Years Ago Gen. George Amstrong Custer Saved the Union

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Today is the Sesquicentennial of the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. On that deadly day, Pickett’s Charge failed to breach the Federal line at the Copse of Trees and General Robert E. Lee led the battered Confederate Army of Northern Virginia home, and to eventual surrender at Appomattox Court House 21 months hence.

The Battle of Gettysburg is correctly recognized as the high-water mark for the Confederacy and also the point from which they would not recover and eventually lose the war. Combined battle losses from both armies exceeded 53,000.

The outcome was never certain. Gen. Robert E. Lee had never lost a battle and the Army of the Potomac suffered from one ineffectual leader after another with President Lincoln replacing Commanding General Joseph Hooker with Major General George Gordan Meade just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg began.

Lee’s thrust into Pennsylvania was designed to relieve the pressure on Virginia and also to draw the Union Army into a battle that would wreak so much devastation on Union soil that the North would agree to end the war.

Most Americans today, especially younger ones, get their information on the battle from the movie Gettysburg. Directed by Ron Maxwell, the movie is beautifully illustrated by using thousands of Civil War re-enactors. The acting is superb with Tom Berenger leading as the dubious Lt. General James Longstreet. Martin Sheen convincingly plays the revered General Robert E. Lee with many, many other excellent performances.

What the movie fails to show, disappointingly, is the fight that determined the outcome of the well chronicled battle. Maxwell’s movie, so precise in costumes and location and strategy, completely omits the cavalry collision between Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s Invincibles and the Michigan Brigade led by George Armstrong Custer, the youngest general in the United States Army (who, at 23, had been promoted to Brigadier General only 60 hours before the battle). He is never mentioned in the movie, yet (and not to diminish Buford or Chamberlain or anyone else) Custer was the key to the Union victory at Gettysburg and winning the war.

Pickett’s Charge, over 12,500 infantry crossing a mile of open ground under murderously fierce cannon, canister and rifle fire, has always had civil war buffs wondering, “What was Lee thinking?” This point is underlined in movie scenes prior to the attack when Longstreet tells Lee in two separate scenes, and later the actor/spy Henry Harrison, in detail why he thinks the assault on the center with fail.

And, everyone hearing Longstreet’s apprehension has to agree, Pickett’s Charge was doomed from the beginning.

I have visited Gettysburg three times. I have walked the entire battlefield from the End of the Line at Little Round Top to the Wheat Field, the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, Seminary Ridge, Cemetery Ridge, Culp’s Hill, the Copse of Trees, all of it, more than once. And, I have read many accounts and analysis and never found a reference to Custer’s attack.

Just prior to my third visit to Gettysburg on in July 2003 I was surveying books on the battle to perhaps find something I hadn’t known before and found it: “The Cavalry Battle that Saved the Union" by Paul D. Walker. Walker tells how Pickett’s Charge was only half of Lee’s plan on that fateful day.

The movie depicts a midnight meeting between Gen. Robert E. Lee and Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart where Lee admonishes Stuart for leaving him blind for several days and without intel about the movements of the Federal Army. But missing from the movie is Lee’s plan to have Stuart's cavalry sweep north around the town of Gettysburg and attack the center of the Federal line from the rear and split the Union Army as they are fighting off Pickett’s Charge in the front of the line on Cemetery Ridge.

Consider that Stuart’s cavalry had never lost a battle. An attack on the rear of the Union Army would have drawn defenders from The Angle and given the Confederate infantry attacking the center a much better chance of overrunning the Federals and thus connect with the Confederate Calvary in the rear of the Union line.

Omitting Custer’s role at Gettysburg is one of the major omissions in historical film making and storytelling.

As Custer led the newly formed Michigan Brigade (that had seen its first combat action only 3 days earlier) 3 miles east of Gettysburg (what is now known as East Cavalry Field) he ran into the Invincibles.

Estimates vary from different accounts, but Custer’s force was outnumbered 2 to 1 or 4 to 1. Whatever the odds, reports from Confederates who survived described how some of Stuart’s men were initially amused at what they saw coming towards them. They thought sure it was a feint.

It wasn’t.

Walker describes;

In the distance, and approximately two hundred yards away a gray wall emerged from a slight depression in the field. The general’s flag was in the center, and to the right and left, guidons fluttered along the entire dressed formation.

The sheer number and bold confidence of this mass of oncoming horsemen was enough to make the front rank of the First Michigan falter, but at this crucial moment Custer leaned forward in his saddle and yelled, "Come on you Wolverines!"

Like John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, only for real, Custer clenched his reins between his teeth and with saber in one hand and revolver in the other, led the charge.

Custer’s men crashed into the Invincibles like a hurricane.

Captain Miller of the 3rd Pennsylvania later observed,

As the two columns approached each other the pace of each increased, when suddenly a crash, like the falling of timber, betokened the crisis. So sudden and violent was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them.”

The battle lasted for 3 hours.

Custer led two attacks that repulsed Stuart and had five horses shot out from under him that day. But he and his command routed the Confederate Calvary and the planned attack on the Union rear was thwarted.

Pickett’s men were, as Longstreet predicted, slaughtered and the retreating Confederates had a line of wagons headed south filled with wounded that stretched over 20 miles.

On your next trip to Gettysburg, visit the East Cavalry Field. There are monuments there. It isn’t as dramatic or emotional as other locations, but it is where the Union was saved.

I have spoken to scores of patriotic groups over the years, and many times parents have come up to me and asked,

How can I get my kids to be more patriotic?”

“Take them to Gettysburg,” I would always respond. “Because if the heart of America is the Declaration of Independence, the soul is Gettysburg.”

Tomorrow, on Independence Day, we will celebrate the founding of our great country.
And, the best Americans will reflect a moment, appreciating all the freedom and prosperity that our country has given us and the world. Tomorrow we celebrate the birth of our nation.

Today let's celebrate the preservation of the Union by an embodiment of our nation;

The imperfect, bold, brash and brave, Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

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