Captain Alanson Randol’s four-gun Federal battery arrived and dropped trail just south of the Lott house, opening blistering fire on the Confederates on Cress Ridge. Pennington’s battery joined in to good effect. “Never was there more accurate and effective fire delivered by the artillery than by the guns of Randol and Pennington,” General Gregg wrote proudly.
The retreat of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, two squadrons from the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, and 5th Michigan Cavalry was hastened by a charge from the 1st Virginia Cavalry of Lee’s Brigade. Desperate for help, McIntosh called for his only reserve regiment—the 1st Maryland Cavalry. To his dismay, Gregg had moved the regiment and it was now too far away to be of service. Overcome with frustration, McIntosh“gave way to tears and oaths.” All was not lost, however, for Custer’s brigade remained on the field. Orders soon arrived for him to counterattack.
Appearing at the head of the 7th Michigan Cavalry, still a novice regiment, Custer yelled to his men, “Come on, you Wolverines!” The Virginians were also moving forward. The attack was “a more determined and vigorous charge… it was never my fortune to witness,” recalled one Federal soldier. A stout fence stood between the combatants. The Michiganders reached it first, and when the first ranks halted, the rear ones plowed into them. “All were mixed in one confused and tangled mass,” one of the Federals reminisced. The men knocked down sections of the fence and the two regiments engaged in hand-to-hand combat. “Bullets were flying mightily thick,” noted a Federal trooper. The 5th Michigan, now on the Virginians’right flank, added a steady stream of small arms fire. Hit in front and flank, the Virginians finally retreated with the Michiganders hot on their tails.
Looking ahead, the men of the 7th Michigan Cavalry spotted more Confederate troopers advancing toward them. These riders belonged to the 9th and 13th Virginia Cavalry regiments (Chambliss), the 1st North Carolina Cavalry and Jeff Davis Legion (Hampton), and the 2nd Virginia Cavalry (Lee). Reaching the farm lane that connected the Rummel Farm with Low Dutch Road, the Michiganders stopped because of both the barrier of the fence in front and the approaching Confederate reinforcements. Outnumbered and well in advance of their line, the 7th Michigan turned back. Riding forward past the Lott house, General Gregg tried to stop the withdrawal, yelling, “For God’s sake, men, if you are ever going to stand, stand now, for you are on free soil!” His words had little or no effect.
The advancing Southern troopers provided a tempting target for the Federal artillerymen, who opened fire with terrible effect. The iron tore into the charging squadrons, hurling horses and men into the air. On their right, the Confederates watched as a mass of Federal troops galloped toward their vulnerable flank. These men were four companies of the 5th Michigan Cavalry, followed by the rest of the regiment. The attack was hastily mounted, for just a short time earlier the Federals were facing what seemed an irresistible Confederate charge. The flank attack and the artillery barrage chewed up and slowed down the Southern attack until it finally ended altogether, the troopers turning away to return to safer territory on Cress Ridge.
With the end of the Confederate cavalry charge, the Federal artillery turned its attention to the Southern batteries unlimbered on Cress Ridge, recently augmented by Capt. James Breathed’s four-gun battery. Neither side gained a decided advantage in the exchange that ensued.
By this time it was approaching 3:00 p.m. General Lee’s massive artillery barrage, in preparation for the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble infantry attack, was tapering off and the infantry was preparing to attack Cemetery Ridge. General Stuart, with three of his brigades, was poised just off the Federal army’s right flank near the Rummel Farm.
Once formed, a long line of horsemen emerged from the woods on Cress Ridge at a walk, then a trot, and finally a gallop. The Federal cavalrymen watched in admiration. “A grander spectacle than their advance has rarely been beheld,” admitted a Federal officer. “They marched with well-aligned fronts and steady reins. Their polished saber-blades dazzled in the sun.” Another witness agreed, writing, “[T]he spectacle called forth a murmur of admiration.”
The Federal units quickly fell back to provide open fields of fire for Pennington’s and Randol’s gunners. General Gregg sent an aide to order the batteries to retreat. The message was greeted with derision. “Tell the General to go to Hell,” answered the artillerymen as they shifted from shell to canister. The blasts knocked down troopers and horses alike, but others filled the gaps and the horsemen continued toward the Federals“ as if nothing had happened.”
Posted behind the guns was the 1st Michigan Cavalry. Gregg ordered the regiment to meet the enemy charge. Asking a small veteran unit to take on more than eight Confederate regiments was a desperate, nearly suicidal, order. The 1st Michigan’s commander, Col. Charles Town, tried to give a short speech but the men were in no mood to wait. The troopers launched into the attack even as pioneer details were busy pushing fences out of their way in front of them along Hanover Road. Crossing the road near George Howard’s house, the Wolverines were joined by General Custer who wanted nothing more than to lead another charge.
The two forces galloped toward each other at full speed. Their collision generated a tremendous crash of men, animals, and equipment. The impact reminded one soldier of “the falling of timber.” Horses somersaulted into the air, throwing their riders to the ground; many were trampled. The wild melee that followed can only describe the chaos as the men hacked at one another with sabers and shot each other at close range with their pistols. Custer’s horse went down, but he quickly mounted another as men cut and slashed on all sides of him.
About this time, troopers from the 3rd Pennsylvania hit both Confederate flanks simultaneously. Some of McIntosh’s own staff joined the small, 30-trooper band attacking the Confederate right. Slicing through the dense throng of enemy soldiers, they headed for a Confederate flag but lost about half their number in the process. An entire battalion of the 3rd Pennsylvania, which had been in the woods north of the Lott house, struck the Confederate left flank. The men had been ordered to hold these woods, but Capt. William Miller, the squadron’s commander, saw an opportunity and seized it. The veteran enlisted men could also see what was occurring and began their attack before being ordered to do so. The 100 or so troopers slammed into the Confederate line about twothirds of the distance from its center and rode through it, only to be engulfed on every side by screaming Confederate riders. Miller was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
Other Federal units joined the swirling combat, including portions of the 5th and 7th Michigan regiments on the Confederate right flank and parts of the 1st New Jersey on the left. The vicious hand-to-hand combat continued for several minutes as both sides tried desperately to gain the upper hand. General Hampton, caught up in the middle of the action, took a severe saber slash to his head that knocked him out of the fight and nearly killed him. Attacked on three sides and unable to make any forward progress, the mass of Confederates began pulling back to Cress Ridge. The Federal troopers followed as far as the Rummel buildings.
Stuart decided it was time to abort his contest with Gregg. Each side suffered losses amounting to about ten percent of those engaged. “Mounted fights never lasted long,” wrote Stuart, “but there were more men killed and wounded in this fight than I ever saw on any field where the fighting was done mounted.”