The week leading up to Gettysburg was an arduous one for Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart and his cavalry division. Stuart’s task was gathering intelligence while screening the right flank of Richard Ewell’s Second Corps as it moved north. Leaving two brigades behind under Brig. Gens. Beverley Robertson and William Jones to operate with Lee, Stuart mounted his remaining three brigades (about 5,600 men) early on June 24. The movement, based upon discretionary orders, would eventually become a long-distance ride around the entire Army of the Potomac.
Once the Union army moved north after General Lee’s infantry, Stuart found it difficult to get around and ahead of its component pieces. Within a short time, he was effectively cut off from the Army of Northern Virginia. On June 28 near Rockville, Maryland, he captured 125 wagons loaded with supplies. The supplies were useful, but the wagons slowed him down. Unable to locate Lee, Stuart rode to York, Pennsylvania and then to Carlisle seeking information. Early on July 2, Stuart learned Lee was fighting a battle at Gettysburg. Between June 24 and July 2, his exhausted troopers and jaded horses rode 200 miles and fought a series of skirmishes (Thoroughfare Gap, Fairfax Court House, Rockville, and Carlisle), and three sharp actions: Westminster, Hanover, and Hunterstown.
After riding all night from Carlisle, Stuart arrived at Gettysburg late on the afternoon of July 2 while preparations were underway to launch the en echelon attack against the Army of the Potomac. After a cold meeting between General Lee and his subordinate, a plan was crafted for Stuart to operate beyond the army’s left flank, and to watch for any opportunity to assault the rear areas of the enemy. Back in their saddles early on July 3, Stuart’s cavalry rode out on the York Pike. A portion of Albert Jenkins’ cavalry brigade (which was under Lt. Col. Vincent Witcher, 34th Virginia Battalion), led the column. Behind Witcher rode Col. John Chambliss’ Brigade, followed by Capt. William Griffin’s and Capt. Thomas Jackson’s batteries. Next was Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton’s Brigade, followed by a section of Capt. Charles Green’s battery (which was not horse artillery). Brigadier General Fitz Lee’s Brigade brought up the rear.
Confronting Stuart’s 6,000-6,500 men and thirteen guns were brigades under Cols. John McIntosh and Irvin Gregg, both of Brig. Gen. David Gregg’s Second Cavalry Division. Gregg’s brigade tangled with Ewell’s Second Corps on July 2 at Brinkerhoff Ridge, and was now east of the ridge guarding the Army of the Potomac’s right rear sector. McIntosh’s brigade reached the field at 1:00 p.m. on July 3. General Gregg’s orders were to move his division south to guard the right flank of the XII Corps, but he hesitated when he realized the strategic importance of this area. A brigade under Brig. Gen. George Custer and Lt. Alexander Pennington’s battery (Brig. Gen. Kilpatrick’s division), at Gregg’s request, moved to occupy the pivotal position at the intersection of Hanover and Low Dutch roads. Dismounting two companies each from the 5th and 6th Michigan, Custer threw them forward down both roads.
Stuart intended to leave York Pike and ride south to Hanover Road before riding toward Baltimore Pike. This move would place him close to Ewell’s Corps and the Federal rear. When he reached Cress Ridge (between York Pike and Hanover Road) about noon, Stuart dismounted the 34th Virginia Battalion. The 170 men took possession of the Rummel barn, and shook out along a fence line left of the building. The remainder of the brigade deployed on both sides of the 34th Virginia Battalion. Chambliss’ troopers took up a position behind Witcher. The former’s right regiment, the 13th Virginia, extended to the George Trostle farm. Stuart deployed artillery and fired several shots in an unsuccessful effort to flush out the enemy.
When Custer heard the firing he reoriented his brigade and the battery in its direction and sent the dismounted 5th Michigan across Hanover Road. Cavalry commander Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton agreed to allow Gregg to return to his former position if Custer was released to return to Kilpatrick. Gregg agreed and his two brigades rode to the contested area.
After some confusion, Col. John McIntosh’s 1st New Jersey Cavalry replaced Brig. Gen. George Custer’s 5th Michigan on either side of the Lott farmhouse. The rest of McIntosh’s brigade deployed in column of squadrons in a clover field east of the farmhouse. Realizing he needed more troops, General Gregg convinced Custer to delay his departure. A section of Capt. William Rank’s battery arrived and deployed south of Hanover Road, supported by the 1st Maine Cavalry and 10th New York Cavalry of Col. Irvin Gregg’s brigade.
Once in position, General Gregg decided to test the Confederates with Pennington’s six guns. The four guns in Captain Jackson’s Battery responded, but the Federal superiority in number of tubes and quality of ammunition became quickly obvious. Accurate Federal artillery fire disabled one of Jackson’s guns on Cress Ridge, killing and wounding many of its men and horses. Outgunned and outranged, the Confederate battery fell back and was replaced by Green’s Battery and a section of Capt. William McGregor’s Battery. These guns quickly attracted the Federal artillery fire and half the horses were knocked quickly out of action. “The little artillery we used seemed of little service & I think most of it was soon silenced by the Federals,” grumbled a Virginia cavalry officer. Federal horse artillery officers held a certain disdain for their Southern counterparts. “As a rule,” wrote one, “their Horse Art’y was so badly handled in battle we Art’y officers paid but little attention to it.” The uneven exchange forced five of the Confederate guns to withdraw and the others, for the most part, fell silent.
The 34th Virginia Cavalry Battalion withdrew to replenish its ammunition, leaving behind the smaller 14th and 16th Virginia Cavalry regiments, which in the absence of Jenkins were also under Lt. Col. Vincent Witcher’s command. As the Virginians withdrew, the Federal skirmish line quickly moved forward and attacked the dismounted Confederate cavalrymen behind the fence, forcing the men of the 34th Virginia Cavalry Battalion to sprint back to bolster the line. Their added firepower forced the Federal skirmish line to drift back the way it had come. During this skirmish, Witcher was shocked to see the 14th and 16th Virginia regiments mount up and head for the rear. “The four-company detachment of the 16th Virginia did not exceed 50 men, as it was only a skeleton paper regiment,” explained Witcher. As for the four companies of the 14th Virginia Cavalry, he continued, it was “never famous for its gallantry.” The Federal artillery fire had become so annoying the 34th Virginia Battalion mounted a half-hearted charge to attempt to silence it. The effort was quickly repulsed and the men returned to their jump-off point. Witcher’s men continued holding the area around the Rummel barn with support from Chambliss’men.
With the artillery battle in full swing, General Gregg ordered the 1st New Jersey Cavalry forward toward Little Run, where it came under fire from the 34th Virginia Battalion and Witcher’s other troops near the Rummel farm buildings. The 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, consolidated into five squadrons, deployed on both flanks of the 1st New Jersey. Stuart threw more troops from Chambliss’organization to the right of the 34th Virginia Battalion, overlapping the Federal line. When General Gregg learned the Confederate line extended beyond his left, he threw a portion of the 6th Michigan Cavalry forward and extended his own line accordingly. The 5th Michigan Cavalry advanced when the ammunition of the 1st New Jersey and 3rd Pennsylvania was nearly depleted. The two Michigan regiments were the only troops on the field with seven-shot repeating Spencer rifles. Their firepower convinced the Confederates they were facing more Federal troops than they really were. The Southern troopers had also been advancing, but the heavy fire quickly forced them to the safety of their main line. As one captured Confederate told a Federal cavalryman,“You’ns load in the morning and fire all day.”
Seeing the Jerseymen and Pennsylvanians falling back, many of Witcher’s Virginians mounted a charge. Some of Chambliss’ troopers, including the 9th Virginia, joined them. However, the repeating rifles fired by the Michiganders quickly dampened their ardor, and they also broke off the assault.