- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

In early July 1863, three days after Gettysburg, Union Brig. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick led his Third Cavalry Division into a trap outside Williamsport, Md., that almost caused Brig. Gen. George Custer to have his last stand 13 years before Little Bighorn.

Exhausted from engagements at Gettysburg, Kilpatrick’s division moved forward on July 4 looking for Gen. Robert E. Lee’s retreating army. Early that morning, Custer’s Second Brigade (1st, 5th, 6th and 7th Michigan Cavalry — known as the Michigan Brigade and nicknamed the Wolverines) rendezvoused with the First Brigade under Col. Nathaniel Richmond near Emmittsburg, Md. The move to Emmittsburg was difficult due to continuous rain throughout the day as the First and Second brigades searched for Lee in the passes of the Catoctin and South mountains.

Late in the afternoon, as the rain let up, Custer’s troops spotted a Confederate wagon train passing through the Monterey Gap in South Mountain. Near midnight the Wolverines came under fire from a single artillery piece where the steep narrow road crested the summit near the Monterey Hotel. The artillery was supported by a Confederate rear guard, which also opened fire. Leading the Union column were the 5th and 6th regiments, dismounted and deployed as skirmishers. In the rainy darkness, the skirmishers advanced on both sides of the road while a small mounted detachment followed, ready to exploit a breakthrough.

In the darkness and dense thickets, the skirmishers had trouble locating the Confederate rear guard, seeing them only by the flashes of their rifles. Progress was slow, and not knowing the opponent’s strength, Kilpatrick ordered caution until he could determine the extent of the situation, an unusual move for an officer whose nickname was “Kill Cavalry.”

Slowly the Confederates were pushed back, and in the early morning the road opened. Kilpatrick then sent units from the First Brigade and the remainder of the Michigan Brigade charging down the mountain, capturing 400 wagons and 1,500 prisoners belonging to Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps.

Custer’s cavalry had been marching and fighting for more than a day without a break, but after only a two-hour rest on July 5, they moved out again. Wet, covered with mud and sleeping in their saddles as the column moved forward, they soon found themselves far in front of the rest of the Union Army and between Lee and the Potomac River. Lee had placed Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry between his army and the Michigan Brigade, and throughout the day Custer skirmished with Stuart, with the hardest fighting at Smithsburg, before the Michigan cavalrymen pushed on to Boonsboro.

On July 6, Kilpatrick received word that Lee’s wagons were in Williamsport, and he was anxious to seize the prize and possibly cut Lee off from the river. With Brig. Gen. John Buford’s First Cavalry Division engaging Stuart on his left, Kilpatrick believed the way to Williamsport was wide open.

In the morning, Kilpatrick sent Richmond’s First Brigade into Hagerstown, where it drove out the defending Confederates and captured Col. J. Lucius Davis of the 10th Virginia Cavalry. The Confederates counterattacked with Alfred Iverson’s North Carolina Brigade and retook the town. Richmond counterattacked several times, but the Confederate infantry, reinforced by horse artillery, was too strong. After several hours of hard fighting the First Brigade was forced to pull back about two miles from Hagerstown.

Near midafternoon, Custer arrived near Hagerstown and turned south on the Hagerstown-Williamsport turnpike toward Williamsport, five miles to the south, with the 5th Michigan in the lead. Unknown to Kilpatrick and Custer, however, Lee’s wagons were protected by Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden’s command, comprising 2,100 Virginia cavalrymen from the 18th Virginia Cavalry, 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry and Virginia Partisan Rangers, supported by an artillery battery.

The Michigan Brigade halted a few miles from Williamsport, and the 5th Michigan drove Imboden’s pickets into the town. The river bluffs, however, used by the Confederates for defensive positions left little room for the Federals to maneuver, and the attack faltered. The brigade then came under intense fire from Imboden’s artillery. The battery accompanying Custer, commanded by Lt. Alexander Pennington, returned fire, and an artillery duel continued until dark. The continuous Confederate artillery fire disorganized the Michigan Brigade, and for the remainder of the afternoon it remained pinned down but continuously engaged Imboden’s infantry in fierce fighting as it pushed out from Williamsport.

To their rear, the Wolverines heard Richmond’s brigade battle Lee’s forces as they were pushed out of Hagerstown. By dark, the two Union brigades were almost back to back. Their only means of escape was the road to Boonsboro, which was kept open by Buford, who was still engaged in sharp fighting with Stuart’s cavalry.

Just after dark, Buford decided to disengage from Stuart, now reinforced by Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade. About the same time, Kilpatrick also gave the order to withdraw. Imboden’s and Iverson’s forces were “within plain sight” and pressing the cavalrymen on two sides. Crossing the Hagerstown-Williamsport Pike under intense fire, Custer formed his brigade on the road leading to Boonsboro, expecting the Confederates to attack. They did not, however, probably because of their own exhaustion and the darkness, and the Michigan Brigade safely retired to Boonsboro, escaping from the potentially disastrous trap.

After a day’s rest, the Michigan Brigade resumed its efforts and were engaged daily with Lee’s forces until it pushed the weary troops in the divisions of brig. gens. Henry Heth, James Lane and James Pettigrew across the Potomac River on July 14 at Falling Waters.

Garry L. Bush is a writer in Gaithersburg.Bush, Garry L.

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