George Armstrong Custer is best known as having led the 7th Cavalry Regiment to near destruction at the Battle of the Little Big Horn at the hands of Native American warriors. But before that battle, he had won fame in the Civil War.
Custer, having graduated last in his class at West Point and having received numerous demerits for bad behavior, according to the Civil War Trust, was an unlikely person to become a Civil War hero. Nevertheless, even though he started the war as a lieutenant, by the eve of Gettysburg, Custer was a brigadier general in command of a brigade of Michigan cavalry. He played a crucial role in the fighting on the third day of Gettysburg.
Around the time Confederate artillery had opened up on Union positions at Cemetery Ridge in preparation for Pickett’s Charge, General Lee’s best cavalry commander, General J.E.B. Stuart was advancing around the Union Army’s right flank with four brigades of cavalry with a view of engaging a division of Union cavalry under Brig. General David M. Gregg. If Stuart could drive off Gregg’s division, he could fall upon the Union rear just as Pickett’s charge was hitting the Army of the Potomac’s front line.
An account of the ensuring battle, which took place in and around the Rummel Farm in what is now called the East Cavalry Field, featured skirmishes between dismounted cavalry, with Custer’s men using multi-shot Spencer carbines to good effect, as well as more traditional cavalry charges and counter charges. It was in the latter type of combat that Custer was in his element.
Custer, at one point in the battle, placed himself at the head of the 7th Michigan Regiment and charged the Confederate 1st Virginia Cavalry Regiment, itself in the process of charging the Union lines in an attempt to split them open. Outnumbered, Custer’s “wolverines”, as the Michigan cavalry were called, were driven back, but managed to rally as the Virginians were caught in flanking fire by other regiments, including from the 5th and 6th Michigan. But the 7th Michigan in turn found itself exposed to fire and then were subjected to a counter charge by two Confederate brigades, being forced to withdraw.
Custer then found himself at the head of his last remaining regiment, the 1st Michigan, which charged the charging Confederates as they were being hit by Union artillery and carbine fire. After achieving an initial success, Custer’s men were soon engaged in a sharp saber and pistol fight and were being overwhelmed by superior numbers. But then two more Union regiments joined the fray, slowing down the Confederate charge and eventually pushing them back.
The battle concluded at this point, with Stuart’s attempt to turn the Union flank and fall upon its rear thwarted. The legend of Custer, riding at the head of his troops, shouting, “Come on, you wolverines!” was well established.