Gettysburg Seminar Papers


The Unsung Heroes of East Cavalry Field
by Thomas Holbrook

Americans have always revered their heroes. Every generation seeks out men and women who, through their deeds, define the character of that generation. Heroes change as generations change, reflecting in their heroes each generation's definition of what is heroic. The changing values of a society can be seen in the individuals that are embraced as heroes. Although each generation's changing mores are reflected in its heroes, certain time-honored American values seem to transcend generations. Common themes of individuality, courage, unselfishness, patriotism, and sacrifice seem to prevail time and again among heroes of any generation.

Although generational values help define a hero, the heroic individual is an individual of action. The common thread that binds all American heroes together is that each one took action at a precise moment of time when action needed to be taken. An old English proverb states:

The draft that blows out a match makes a furnace burn better and what prostrates a coward excites a brave man to action.

Many men and women whom society has deemed heroes often report that they did not consider their acts as heroic at all. Common statements such as, "I was just doing my job," or "I just did what I had to do," reveal no preconceived bravado or patriotic pining. The individual, instead, just took action. Most "heroes" are simply persons who rose to an occasion and took action without thinking about the potential outcome.

War is a natural breeding ground for heroic deeds. The battlefield is a fertile place for men of action. Hence, many of our nation's heroes are, or have been, men of war. The common aforementioned themes that prevail among heroes of any generation multiply on the battlefield. Men rise to an occasion without thought of bravery or patriotism, or without thought of the consequences. Thus, men become heroes to their generation and possibly to generations that follow.

The American Civil War produced many men of action. The exploits of men like Grant, Lee, Jackson, Sheridan, to name a few, are legendary. These men became our heroes. History tells of their heroic deeds and the significance of their contributions to the cause for which they fought. The Civil War, as with any war, produced men of lesser stature, men of lesser notoriety, men whose deeds on the battlefield, however heroic, went unheralded if not outright ignored. The Battle of Gettysburg has produced many of these "unsung heroes"; men whose actions on the battlefield remain clouded in obscurity.

There is hardly a place on the great battlefield of Gettysburg that remains untouched by some long-forgotten heroic deed. This is especially true of the ground three miles East of Gettysburg where on July 3, 1863, two mounted opponents clashed in combat. The fight at East Cavalry Field lasted less than a day and produced far fewer casualties than the other engagements at Gettysburg, but produced its share of men who rose to the occasion, took action and became heroes. Often relegated to the footnotes of the battle, these men and their deeds are all but forgotten. The men that you are about to be introduced to were men of action. Men who through their actions tell the story of the clash of arms three miles east of Gettysburg. Men who should be counted among the "Unsung Heroes of East Cavalry Battlefield."

Major, 5th Michigan Cavalry

Noah Henry Ferry
(Mark Fellows)

Noah Henry Ferry had always been a man of action. Born in 1831 to Reverend William M. Ferry and his wife Amanda, young Noah grew up a son of true pioneers. Reverend William Ferry was appointed Presbyterian missionary to Mackinaw Island, Michigan Territory in 1821. For nearly thirteen years he and his wife ministered to the Indians, fur traders, and soldiers of Fort Mackinaw which was located on the island. Fort Mackinaw is where Noah, the reverend's third son, was born. Within a few years of Noah's birth, the Ferry's moved their family south to the shores of Lake Michigan to what eventually became the Village of Grand Haven.

Lumbering was becoming king in the new state of Michigan (1836) and Reverend Ferry decided to take financial advantage of the new industry. Involving himself in a lumber mill, Ferry soon prospered and branched out into ship building and ironworks. Ferry and Sons eventually added to their enterprises by operating a bank and owning dry goods and hardware stores in addition to their lumber and ironworks business. As the village of Grand Haven grew so did the Ferry family's wealth and influence.

Young Noah grew up in this environment of privilege and responsibility. He was educated by his Aunt, the village's first school teacher, and grew to be involved in the family's business enterprises. He attended college in Chicago and excelled in his studies there. In 1854, at age 23, Noah Ferry took over the reins of the family's White River Township Sawmill. Soon Noah was a prominent member of the township and became a leading citizen and most eligible bachelor. He was responsible for building the first schoolhouse in the township in 1856.

The census records of 1860 show 28-year old Noah Ferry living in a boarding house with 32 other tenants, mostly millhands working for his White River Sawmill. Records also indicate Ferry's land holdings had an estimated worth of $22,000.00 and his personal property was valued at $10,000.00. By 1860 his total worth made him the wealthiest of the township's 359 residents. [1] To many people in his community Noah Ferry was well-respected and well-liked. Upon his death in 1863 "The Grand Haven Union" printed in his obituary, "Self-reliant, manly and generous, kind, sympathizing, wholly above a mean thing, he unconsciously won an almost unlimited control over those around him and in his employ." Noah Ferry was a leader in his community. He was a fair and decent employer who always looked out for his employees. These qualities, along with his experience supervising large groups of men, would be put to the test in warfare.

In 1861, as war came to the country, Ferry attempted to enlist in the 3rd Michigan Cavalry. The 3rd was organizing in Grand Rapids so Ferry made the trip only to find that the position he expected to fill had already been taken. Discouraged, he returned to White River and turned his attention once more to his business. Ferry worked very hard, often putting in long hours to make his sawmill and other enterprises successful during the first year of the war.

Early in 1862, a year after he returned home from his first attempt to enlist, Ferry and other men in his employ agreed to serve the state if they could enlist as a company and if Noah Ferry would lead them as their Captain. Such was the admiration of Ferry as a leader, one veteran of the company recalled in 1925 of the enlistment the response was almost immediate. Engineers and millmen left their work; rivermen cast aside their peevies; choppers came in from the woods; and sailors swarmed over the sides of their vessels to join up with Noah Ferry." [2] Within a day, 102 men enlisted in "The White River Guard," also known by many as the "White River Tigers." [3] The men then elected Noah Ferry as their Company Commander. Ferry encouraged each man to transfer property and get their estates in order, including making out wills, before they left White River for the theater of war.

The White River Guard was mustered into United States Service as Company F, 5th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry in August of 1862 in Detroit, Michigan. Just before the regiment left for Washington, D.C. in December, Noah Ferry was promoted to Major of the Regiment. The Detroit Free Press called Ferry, "A man of real, genuine merit." After arriving in Washington in January 1863, the 5th Michigan Cavalry settled in to a humdrum routine of camping and drilling on East Capitol Hill. "If I go to war, I want to fight. If I go to play, I want to play," a frustrated Ferry wrote his brother at that time.

Soon the regiment moved South and met with the rest of the regiments that would make up the brigade. Upon arriving near Fairfax Courthouse, where the 5th Michigan was to help guard the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, the Michigan Brigade was formed. The Michigan Cavalry Brigade consisted of the older 1st Michigan Cavalry (1861), the 6th Michigan (the 5th's sister regiment having formed at the same time in Grand Rapids), Colonel Freeman Norvell's 5th Michigan, and the newest regiment the 7th Michigan, having just organized on January 27, 1863, in Grand Rapids. The next few weeks became routine for the 5th Michigan and the rest of the brigade. Long periods of inaction, cold weather, and camp life were making Noah Ferry impatient. Only an occasional patrol or raid into Northern Virginia broke the boredom and routine. In a letter to a friend back in Grand Haven, dated February 18, 1863, Ferry wrote of one patrol:

We left Washington in mud; I, in perfect astonishment that an expedition should be ordered out into the sacred soil after such weather, thinking nothing else than that we should have to swim most of the (mud) becomes a clog to the movements of an army when hid from view in a cask of flesh and blood, tastefully wrapped up in bluejacket and brass buttons. Excuse this rambling letter. It is a good deal like me—needs trimming.

Major Noah Ferry soon tired and became pessimistic about army life, as seen in his letters. One event early in February 1863 would be of some importance to Ferry, especially in the months to come. The 5th Michigan was only partially equipped by the time they left for Washington, but that winter the regiment was issued 500 Spencer seven-shot repeating rifles.

The original Colonel of the Regiment, and later Michigan Brigade Commander, Joseph Copeland years later claimed credit for outfitting the Regiment with these expensive weapons, "After much personal effort and expense," he wrote. Two companies of the 6th Michigan Cavalry also received the Spencer rifle in February. It seems that the 5th and 6th Michigan were unique, since records show most men of the Brigade were armed with the breech-loading .54 caliber Burnside carbine, along with the standard .44 caliber Colt Army Revolver and the Model 1860 Light Cavalry Saber. It was not until early 1864 that the entire Michigan Cavalry Brigade was armed with the lighter and shorter Spencer carbine, a weapon much more suited to cavalry use.

Armed with the Spencer rifle, the 5th Michigan possessed awesome fire power that winter and spring of 1863, so they were given much of the scouting and patrol duties assigned to their sector. Much of this work was routine, and boredom and frustration were rampant in the regiment. The 5th Michigan was experiencing problems with morale. In infrequent encounters with Confederate horsemen, the Union cavalry was for the most part ineffective. Southern guerrilla leader, John Mosby, started this humiliation of the Union Army by raiding supply bases, disrupting communications, and even capturing a sleeping Union general in his bed. Noah Ferry was beginning to be bothered by what he considered to be the incompetence shown by the Army and its leaders. In a letter to a brother in late February 1863, Ferry writes:

"I feel ashamed to write so much in the spirit of complaint and criticism of the management of the affairs around me, but one sees enough here to take all the patriotism out of him."

Finally, in early March, all of the pent up emotions felt by Ferry, all of the frustrations of months of mismanagement, came to the surface in a dramatic fashion. This incident provoked Ferry to action and his actions speak to the character of the man. During a patrol through Ashby's Gap, Virginia, 50 miles west of Washington, D.C., Ferry risked his career and reputation and showed what kind of leader he was when he relieved his drunken, obstinate Colonel from command and salvaged a mismanaged operation deep in enemy territory. In a letter between his brothers, Edward and William, dated March 16, 1863, the incident is referenced. Edward writes:

"I've a letter from Noah last night. He is well and seems to like the life (army), though he flies off considerably at drunken and incompetent officers and thinks the long inaction is unnecessary."

In a subsequent letter to his brother Edward, Noah told how the 1,500-man column of cavalry was forced by its Colonel to make frequent stops along the march to search houses, stores, and barns for alcohol. At one time the column actually halted to allow the Colonel to "rest" in a bed in one of the farm houses! The Colonel's obsession with alcohol rendered it impossible for the column to execute its mission. Ferry decided to take action. In his letter to Edward, Noah writes:

After vainly urging Lieutenant Colonel and First Major to take command, I told them all I asked was that they should stand out of my way and I would take the responsibility. They assented; the captains all said they would stand by me. I then faced the column about, galloped back, turned the trains around and took an ambulance and went to where the Colonel lay asleep—or rather dead drunk

Ferry continues. . .

I took two men and was carrying him out to the ambulance when they stumbled and he roused up. Then he resisted and attempted to use authority. T'was pretty hard to compel men to defy an officer they had been taught to obey. So I took him myself and told him I should force him to go, if he did not willingly. We had a hot time for a little while, but I was determined and firm. He then begged to be permitted to go back to the room, put on his boots and ride. I told him he was in no state to ride a horse, but he insisted he could. I reluctantly consented.

The column was heading off course and going through Ashby's Gap, which was unreconnoitered, and possibly controlled by John Mosby's guerrillas. If the command continued forward disaster could be waiting. Ferry insisted the drunken Colonel be put in the ambulance and the column turned around, but the Colonel mounted his horse and proceeded to guide the column forward toward Ashby's Gap! Ferry explains the heated conversation that happened next:

"I said to him, 'Colonel, where are you going with these men?'"

"Though the gap and down the Manassas Gap on the otherside. Go back and tell Lt. Colonel Gould to come on with the column."

"No sir, the Lt. Colonel will not come."

"Why not?"

"Because the column is going the other way. Give the command to halt."

The Colonel did not halt the men, so Ferry started for the head of the column and waved out the command "halt." The column froze in indecision:

"The men were glad to obey me. (But) as I rode up one side (of the column) he (the Colonel) rode up the other, and I asked him to order them to return. He refused."

Again the column froze. Disgusted and excited Ferry took action:

I placed my pistol at the ear of the Lieutenant at the head of the column and again ordered them to move. I should have shot him had he not started. Slowly the column swung around and off they went, leaving the Colonel and I glaring at each other.

Noah Ferry won this war of wills. Colonel Freeman Norvell quietly resigned after Ferry agreed to drop charges against him. Quickly Noah Ferry was offered the Colonelcy of the 5th Michigan which he just as quickly turned down.

It was not until three months later that the regiment was finally tested in its first major skirmishes with the enemy. In a series of fights around the small hamlet of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in June 1863 the Michigan Cavalry made a good showing. In search of Lee's Army, the Michigan Brigade would be among the first Union forces to ride into Pennsylvania, arriving at Littlestown on June 29. [4] Ferry wrote his brother, "Our reception through this country is generally joyful. There are some secesh, but they only dare to look sour." The next three days Ferry and the 5th would be in constant contact with the enemy in running battles north and east of Gettysburg. "Yesterday the Fifth had their first smell of battle near Littlestown and behaved finely. Our loss was one killed, while fifteen dead rebels lay in front of our line. . .We are off again and I must close without finishing." These were to be the last words Noah Ferry would write.

Around 9:00 A.M. the Michigan Cavalry Brigade, under the command of 23-year old West Pointer, Brigadier General George A. Custer, reached the extreme right of the Union line of battle. Sent out to protect the flanks of the Army as well as guarding the approaches to town, the Michigan Cavalry Brigade numbered some 2,000 troopers.

"(At) 9 o'clock A.M. (we) reached the extreme right of our army and are in line of battle. Our artillery has already commenced operations upon the enemy."

—Diary of George G. Brigs, Adjutant, 7th Michigan Cavalry, Gettysburg, July 3, 1863

Around 10:00 A.M. the Confederate cavalry under the command of General J.E.B. Stuart arrived on Cress Ridge, three miles east of Gettysburg. The General quickly placed his artillery in advance on Cress Ridge and they had a short artillery duel with Union artillery batteries to the southeast. General Stuart then sent forward 250 or so dismounted cavalrymen from Ferguson's (Jenkin's) Brigade to occupy the Rummel Barn in their front. In response to the Confederate advance, Union General David M. Gregg had the men of Colonel John McIntosh's Cavalry Brigade advance toward the Rummel Farm. The cavalrymen of the 1st New Jersey soon came under fierce fire and were slowly driven back. Confederate cavalry was again on the advance. Historian Edward G. Longacre writes:

With an advanced line of New Jersey troopers imperiled, newly-promoted Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer tried to rescue them by sending forward a heavy skirmish line under Major Noah Ferry of the Fifth Michigan. [5]

Major Luther S. Trowbridge, 6th Michigan Cavalry wrote about the action:

Our regiment was dismounted to fight on foot, Major Ferry taking the left with his battalion and I the right with mine. We moved forward against the enemy's skirmishers and I can assure you the bullets flew as thick as hail around us.

Majors Ferry and Trowbridge each led between 150 and 200 dismounted cavalrymen forward and were originally successful in driving the Confederates in front of them. Each man of the 5th and two companies of the 6th that went forward bore Spencer repeating rifles. It was not a coincidence then that the 5th and two companies of the 6th were sent out as dismounted skirmishers. The Spencer was a devastating weapon, but it had an appetite for ammunition. The 5th and 6th were steadily pressing forward until the rapid fire that was moments ago so devastating to the Confederate line, began to slacken. The troopers were emptying their cartridge pouches, and the extra ammunition was back across the open fields near their horses. At that moment the Confederates advanced; both mounted charges and dismounted men were thrown at the 5th and 6th. The blue line broke. Edward Longacre describes the confusion:

"The men of the 34th Virginia Battalion saw the newcomers moving dismounted across open fields and poured a heavy fire into the Wolverines. Many of Ferry's men fell, others broke and fled." [6]

Most witnesses and historians agree on what happened next. Longacre continues; "Rally boys, Rally for the fence, shouted their Major, seconds before a rebel bullet drilled him through his red head." As Noah Ferry stood his ground trying to rally his men, death found him. His loss affected both officers and men in the Regiment, dampening their joy in victory against Stuart's "undefeatable" cavalry. "Our best Major was killed on the third. He was Ferry," wrote Private Victor E. Compte, 5th Michigan Cavalry in a letter home a week after the battle. "My loss in killed and wounded was very severe," Colonel Russell A. Alger recollected in a letter to a friend in 1880. "Major Ferry, who was cheering his battalion to hold its ground, was instantly killed. His death cast a deep gloom upon the whole Brigade. He was a gallant soldier, an exemplary man and his loss was a great blow."

Custer's official report noted the loss of "...the brave and chivalric Major N. H. Ferry."

It was not until the next day that Colonel Russell Alger ordered a detail to recover Noah Ferry's body from the field. "During the night rebel prowlers stole their way and pillaged everything they wanted and could find from the dead," recalled Private Compte. "They stripped the Major's body of everything but his coat, and cut from this all the buttons and shoulder stripes."

Because of the hurried pursuit of the Confederate cavalry after the Battle of Gettysburg, Noah Ferry's comrades had only time to bury him beneath a tree at the field headquarters. Two weeks later his father and younger brother had the body disinterred and accompanied it home.

"Going home always seems to be longed for, but the death of dear Noah makes me feel as if I cannot go home. . .we (family) are broken up and trying to put the pieces together again would only show more plainly how much is lost," wrote his eldest brother William to his wife in August 1863. Noah Henry Ferry was laid to rest July 18, 1863, in the Lake Forest Cemetery in Grand Haven, Michigan. His memory will live on where he fell, for he has a headstone in the National Soldiers Cemetery at Gettysburg. The stone is the foremost stone in the Michigan section, but the grave is surely empty.

Many of Noah Ferry's comrades went on to achieve lasting fame due to their accomplishments. Colonel Russell Alger of the 5th would later rise in the Republican Party to become Governor of the State of Michigan and later the Secretary of War under another Civil War veteran, William McKinley. A young 23-year old Brigadier General would eventually lead a division of cavalry. George A. Custer would be a household name years later due in fact to the circumstances of his death at the hands of the Indians in 1876. Still other comrades would write accounts and publish books on the heroic deeds of the Michigan Brigade. In these accounts they tell the story of men and war. So often the stories tell of the bravery and gallantry of the well-known and forget the men of valor whose deeds are "unsung" to many. Men like Noah Ferry who was an inspiration to his men, whether on the battlefield or in civilian pursuits. Noah Ferry gave his life in service to those men and became one of the unsung heroes of the battle that raged at Gettysburg.

1st Lieutenant, Battery M,
2nd United States Artillery

So often history fails to record or promptly acknowledge truly heroic accomplishments. The men and women responsible for these acts of heroism are often ignored and their accomplishments hidden. This is particularly true in regard to men in battle. Men who perform tremendous feats of courage and bravery are often slighted in the history books; lost in the shuffle of the bigger picture. Alexander C. Pennington, Jr. is such a man. His accomplishments on July 3, 1863, during the cavalry clash changed the course of the fight and contributed greatly to the Union victory.

Alexander C. Pennington, Jr.

Alexander C. Pennington, Jr. was born January 8, 1838, in Newark, New Jersey. His father, A.C. Pennington was a state officer who in 1826 was admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. However, academy life did not suit the elder Alexander and he resigned after a year. Alexander Pennington, Sr. would have graduated from the Academy in 1830 had he stayed. It is ironic that Alexander Pennington, Sr., during his short stint at West Point probably knew or had crossed paths with another young cadet from the class of 1829, Robert E. Lee. In 1838 he named his second son A.C. Pennington, Jr. As the boy grew, Alexander, Sr. instilled in his young son the value of service; service to family, to community, and to country. Never a gifted student, young Alexander, Jr. did apply himself enough to—with his father's help—secure an appointment to West Point in 1855 at the age of 17. Alexander did not excel in his studies at West Point, but he was a popular cadet and made friends easily. It was during his second year that Pennington would be introduced to a young, high-spirited plebe from Ohio named George Armstrong Custer. The two became friends. This was the first step that would take the two West Pointers down many a path together in the future. While at West Point, Pennington was to meet his future wife. Pennington befriended West Point Professor Reverend John W. French and met French's youngest daughter. A few years later they were to many. Morris Schaff, author of The Spirit of Old West Point observed,

. . .his (Professor French) family consisted of two or three most beautiful daughters; one of them to be the wife of Lieutenant Greble, already mentioned, and the other became the wife of General Pennington, whose name is connected with so many fields. [7] Although Pennington's academic record cannot be considered outstanding he did apply himself enough to graduate 18 in a class of 40. Among his classmates in that class of 1860 were future Generals James H. Wilson, Stephen D. Ramseur, Wesley Merritt, and Horace Porter.

Upon graduation Alexander Pennington was breveted Second Lieutenant and assigned to battery A of the 2nd U.S. Artillery at Fort Pickens in Florida. Soon after arriving at Pickens, Pennington obtained command experience by becoming Acting Commanding officer of Battery M. He was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant, 2nd U.S. Artillery Battery A, May 14, 1861. By now the clouds of war were thickening around the capital, and a confused quickened pace had taken over the city. Battery M, 2nd U.S. Artillery had been recently transferred to the heart of the war from Texas, via Fort Pickens and arrived in Washington, D.C. mid-June 1861. Pennington was assigned to its command.

On July 14 the men of Battery M arrived in Washington and three days later on July 17 the guns and limbers arrived. Alexander Pennington joined his new command. Henry Hunt, later to be Chief of Artillery for the Army of the Potomac stated that "Necessary repairs and refitting were at once commenced, ammunition and other stores drawn and packed, horses procured, and on Friday, the 19th, (1861) we marched.." [8]

The Confederate Army was on the move also, heading north to a little railroad junction called Manassas. This little crossroads would soon be the first big test for both armies. Battery M arrived near Blackburn's Ford on July 20 and commenced shoeing horses and setting up lunettes and breastworks.

On July 21, the day the battle began, Alexander Pennington and Battery M held the extreme left of the Union line. Their accomplishments that day were stated by Henry Hunt in his official report

The guns kept up a desultory fire during the day, producing little or no effect, as there was no definite object, except when the enemy's moving columns came from time to time within our range.

This was soon to end. About 4:30 P.M., Confederate infantry under General D.R. Jones, commanding approximately 3000-5000 men, attempted a flank movement around the Union Left. Success of this movement so late in the day could have spelled disaster for the Union Army. As the Confederates closed to within 300 yards, the Union batteries raked the field with canister fire in what Hunt later called "...the most rapid, well-sustained, and destructive fire..." he had ever seen. Nearly alone and unaided the batteries of the 2nd U.S. Artillery repulsed the Confederate attack and saved the Union left flank from a disaster.

Throughout 1862 Lieutenant Pennington was acting commanding officer of Battery M, although official confirmation from the War Department did not come through until 1864! This is easy to understand given the kinds of confusion which can afflict a large bureaucracy in time of crisis. Battery M remained fairly inactive throughout the Seven Days Campaign up to the Battle of Antietam. On September 17, 1862, in support of General E.V. Sumner's 2nd Corps near what would be called "Bloody Lane," Battery M...opened on the enemy with great effect, having direct fire in front and an enfilading fire in front of Sumner's Corps on the right..." [9] General George McClellan was later to praise the work of Union artillery on what was to be the "bloodiest day of the war."

In October 1862, the "commanding officer," not Pennington by name, was instructed by the War Department to drop Lt. Pennington from the strength of the company. This action was to "officially" place Pennington back with Battery A, his original battery in 1861. One can only imagine the confusion this meant to the men of Battery M, let alone Pennington himself.

Early in 1863, Pennington went on extended leave which may have confused the command situation even more. On January 25, 1863, he requested twenty days leave for the purpose of visiting New York City on private business. Pennington eventually extended his leave to a total of two and a half months. The leave must have been granted immediately, as the January 31 battery records show Battery M in command of Lieutenant Robert Chapin. [10]

Alexander Pennington returned to duty the last of April and again assumed the command of Battery M. The question of official command, however, did not go away simply because he had returned to claim the command. Throughout 1863 until March of 1864 Pennington made formal applications to the War Department for Command of Battery M. Finally in March 1864, Henry Hunt, Chief of Artillery approved the application stating: " man has established higher claim to the command..." Hunt noted in his endorsement that Battery M's reputation was "...second to that of no other Battery in this Army and much credit for that high standing is due to the leadership of (Bvt.) Captain Pennington..." [11] From April through May of 1863 Battery M was assigned as "Horse Artillery" and participated at Chancellorsville under the command of Cavalry Colonel Alfred Duffie.

In June of 1863 the Confederate High Command decided to take the war to northern soil and the Gettysburg Campaign had started. Early in the campaign at the Cavalry Fight at Culpepper, or Brandy Station, Battery M and Alexander Pennington showed their coolness under pressure, exchanging fire with General J.E.B. Stuart's horse artillery. General Pleasanton, Chief of Union Cavalry was impressed " the admirable manner in which Lieutenants Pennington and Clarke managed their guns, forcing them [Confederate Cavalry] to abandon their line..." [12] Battery M then proceeded north with the Union Army in pursuit of General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

On June 28, major changes took place in the Army of the Potomac that would have a lasting impact on Alexander Pennington and Battery M for the remainder of the War. General George G. Meade replaced General Joseph Hooker as overall commander of the Army of the Potomac, and a reorganization of the Army took place. The Cavalry Corps under command of General Pleasanton reorganized into three divisions and also named new commanders of each division; the First Division under the command of General John Buford, the Second Division under General David Gregg, and the Third Division under the command of General Judson Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick's Division consisted of Two Brigades under new commands, Brigadiers Elon Farnsworth and George Armstrong Custer. The Horse Artillery was also reorganized into Two Battalions and Battery M was assigned to Kilpatrick's Division, specifically General Custer's Michigan Brigade. Alexander Pennington and Battery M, 2nd U.S. Artillery reported to Custer on June 29.

On June 30, Confederate Cavalry, riding hard to meet up with General Lee's main army, arrived in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Kilpatrick anticipated their arrival and by mid-day most of the Third Division was in Hanover, including Custer's Brigade and Battery M. The Confederate line of battle could be seen on the hills south of town. Battery M's role in the action at Hanover consisted mainly of a duel with Confederate Horse Artillery lasting around thirty minutes. It seems little damage was done to either artillery and Stuart finally withdrew northeastward, away from Gettysburg, and reached General Lee late in the evening of July 2. After the action at Hanover was over, Custer's Brigade entered a fight with Wade Hampton's Confederates at Hunterstown on July 1. The 6th Michigan Cavalry and Pennington's Battery M bore the brunt of the fighting. General Kilpatrick stated in his official report, "...the conduct of the Sixth Michigan Cavalry and Pennington's Battery is deserving of the highest praise." Wade Hampton's Cavalry was repulsed.

On July 2, as the battle of Gettysburg raged into its second day, Custer's brigade moved closer to the fight. Custer had received orders to move to the far left of the Union Line of battle, rejoining Kilpatrick's Third Division. The Brigade, with Battery M in tow, moved on toward the left of the line. Because of the shifting movements of the cavalry units and perceived Confederate threats Custer found himself temporarily attached to General Gregg's Second Division who were guarding the roads into Gettysburg from the east. Gregg's Division held the Union far right about three miles east of Gettysburg on the Hanover Road. Custer deployed his brigade as to guard the intersection of the Low Dutch and Hanover Roads. Battery M was placed in two sections on either side of the Hanover Road near the Spangler House. At about 12:00 Confederates Horse Batteries opened on Custer's Brigade from Cress Ridge. The Brigade, in the process of vacating the position due to new orders, became enveloped with artillery fire. Griffin's Confederate Battery was doing a lot of damage from about a mile away. Custer ordered Pennington to " something about that fire." Pennington ordered his men to silence Griffin's Battery. Major James H. Kidd, 6th Michigan Cavalry wrote about the incident a few years later.

Amazing marksmanship was shown by Pennington's Battery and such accurate firing was never seen on any other field. Pennington replied with astonishing effect for every shot hit the mark and the opposing artillerists were unable to silence a single Union gun.

Kidd went on to say:

...Pennington had supreme accuracy standing beside his second gun and directing a shot which struck a Rebel gun squarely on the muzzle, rupturing the barrel, and dismounting it... The distance was three-fourths of a mile... his next shot struck a wheel hub, smashed the gun and killed the crew. The remainder of the battery then retired. [13]

After effectively silencing Griffen's Battery, Pennington kept up sporadic firing throughout the early afternoon.

By around 2:00 P.M. Confederate dismounted Cavalry occupied the Rummel Barn, and General Gregg sent orders for Union dismounted Cavalry to dislodge them. Colonel John McIntosh sent the 1st New Jersey dismounted into action. Soon the men of McIntosh's Brigade were running low on ammunition and were forced to pull back. Custer ordered up the 5th Michigan Cavalry dismounted to replace McIntosh's men. Armed with Spencer Repeating Rifles the 5th soon exhausted their ammunition and were dispatched by a mounted charge of Confederate cavalry. To counter the Confederate charge and save the 5th, Custer ordered the 7th Michigan Cavalry to charge to meet the advancing Confederates. Pennington's Battery provided the preliminaries to the charge. The Battery fired effectively enough to break up advancing dismounted cavalry. The charge of the 7th Michigan almost met with disaster when men of John Chambliss's Confederates fired volley after volley at the 7th from behind a stone fence, forcing Custer to retreat in full. Mounted Confederate regiments were now in pursuit of Custer's men. Pennington's Battery opened up on the Confederate pursuers and allowed the 7th to escape without losing even more men. Round after round of case shot, then canister, was fired in succession, proving too much for Confederate horsemen. General Gregg wrote in his official report,

The Batteries commanded by Captain A.M. Randol and Lieut. A.C.M. Pennington, Jr. rendered most effective service. The fire of the artillery during this engagement was the most accurate that I have ever seen.

In late afternoon around 4:00 General Stuart launched a final mounted charge to crush Union resistance. Nearly 2,000 troops with sabre and pistol drawn started first at a walk, then a trot, then a gallop straight for the Union positions. Once again Pennington's Battery let loose a terrific storm of shot and shell, tearing whole ranks apart and leaving large gaps in the Confederate lines, thinning them enough for General Custer and the men of the 1st Michigan Cavalry along with flank support to meet and stop the enemy's advance. Pennington's Battery even fired over the heads of Custer's troopers right up to the last minute, when horseman met horseman. Alexander Pennington continued firing on Stuart's men who were now in the act of pulling back. Battery M set their sights on Cress Ridge and swept the ground in their front with shot and shell. Custer, Gregg, and Pleasanton all commended Pennington and his battery for contributing to the victory east of Gettysburg.

The day after their outstanding performance on the East Cavalry battlefield at Gettysburg, Custer's Brigade intercepted part of the Confederate supply train at South Mountain and once again Pennington's Battery helped save the day. Custer wrote: "Pennington, always ready, always willing, quickly came into position and returned the enemy's fire." [14] In any event, this quick action by Battery M allowed Union troops to capture a sizable portion of the supply train and several hundred prisoners of war. For his actions at Brandy Station and Gettysburg, Alexander Pennington received a brevet promotion to Captain early in 1864. Like many of his fellow officers, Pennington found promotion slow in the regular U.S. Artillery, even in wartime, and he opted for a position as Commander of the 3rd New Jersey Cavalry. He was as inspirational as a cavalry leader as he was a commander of an artillery battery, and soon won another promotion to command a cavalry brigade in General G.A. Custer's new division. The bond between the two men formed at West Point was to continue.

Commanding his brigade, Pennington won another brevet promotion at Cedar Creek in October of 1864. Pennington continued inspiring men during the battle of Five Forks and the Appomattox Campaign. He was with Custer to the end of the war and was at his side when the news of the surrender of Lee's Army reached the field. On March 13, 1865, Alexander Pennington was brevetted Brigadier General of U.S. Volunteers to go with his brevet Colonel of the Regulars. With the war at an end General Pennington was mustered out of U.S. Service with his brigade on August 1, 1865. Pennington elected to remain in the U.S. Army even though his lineal rank was only a Captain. From 1865 to 1881 Captain, then later Colonel, Pennington commanded his beloved Battery M, 2nd U.S. Artillery, serving in various posts form Florida to California. In 1898 the War with Spain called the sixty-year old Pennington back to battle. He served in Cuba as Brigadier General of Volunteers. After the Spanish-American War Alexander Pennington retired with the permanent rank of Brigadier General, U.S. Army. On November 17, 1917, at the age of seventy-nine, the old General passed away in New York City. Brigadier General Alexander C.M. Pennington was buried with full military honors at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Proper recognition for the contributions made by the "Horse Artillery" in the Union victory at East Cavalry Field have been slow in coming. Historians have often down-played or completely ignored the role men like Alexander Pennington played in the battle. East Cavalry Field remains today as much a monument to the heroic deeds of the artillery as it does to the more highly recognized cavalry. Alexander Pennington and the men that served his guns deserve to be recognized among the Unsung Heroes on East Cavalry Battlefield.

Captain, Company, 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry

It is ironic that men who at times perform heroic deeds are recognized not for what they were expected to do, and a little more, but rather by doing what they were not supposed to do at all. There are times that men of action often disobey an order, neglect a written request, or refuse a command and do what their head and heart tell them to do. By doing so these men gamble their reputations, not to mention their lives, on what they believe to be the correct action to be taken at the time. Without regard to the perils facing them, these men take that gamble and become heroes in the eyes of others. Such a man was William E. Miller.

William Miller

William E. Miller was born February 5, 1836, the son of Andrew and Elenora Miller, in West Hill, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. Andrew Miller was a merchant but soon found farming was more to his liking. Farming was not as profitable and the Miller family was growing. William was the oldest of six children. His father, Andrew, was an invalid, so William was to take on the responsibility of running the farm. Tending to the farm and household matters left young William with little time for school. He received but a limited common school education. According to family records, William showed an interest in the military, joining at age sixteen a company in the "Horse Militia," know as the "Big Spring Adamantine Guards." The next ten years or so would be routine for William, managing the family farm, except for his October 23, 1856, marriage to his childhood sweetheart Elizabeth "Betsy" Ann Hocker and the birth of his first child, Caroline, followed by another daughter, Lizzie, in 1859. Outside of his weekly drills with the horse militia William was pretty much settled down. Tragedy struck when Betsy died suddenly in 1859 at age twenty-four of typhoid. Then came the war.

In 1861 the "Big Spring Adamantic Guards" was among the first militia unit to tender their services to then Governor Andrew Curtin. Cavalry was not included in the three month enlistment call for troops, so the service of the "Guards" was not accepted until the later call for three-year enlistments was made. William Miller at age twenty-five was enlisted into United States Service on August 8, 1861, with the "Guards" being designated Company H, 3rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry on August 17. [15] Miller was mustered into military service as a Second Lieutenant, due in part to his long service in the militia. According to regimental records, Miller was one of the few officers that still held their commissions after the rigid cavalry training school at Camp Marcey, near Washington, D.C., during the winter of 1861-62.

Army life kept William busy. Still hurting after his wife's death some two-and-a-half-years before, Miller received a letter from his parents-in-law telling him his youngest daughter, Lizzie, who had been living with the two of them, had been sick and died. In April 1862, a month after his daughter's death, Miller accompanied the regiment to Fortress Monroe. The 3rd Pennsylvania was to participate in the Peninsula Campaign. The 3rd Pennsylvania drew its baptism under fire in skirmishes around Yorktown, Virginia. Leaving Yorktown the 3rd Pennsylvania was ordered to Williamsburg, Virginia, and reported to General Samuel Heintzelman. The 3rd was placed on Heintzelman's left. During the night, Lieutenant Miller was summoned to General Heintzelman's Headquarters. Miller was to deliver an important dispatch to General George McClellan. The Official Records include the order which went along with the dispatch.

This dispatch is for Gen. McClellan. You may find him at Yorktown, or you may find him on the road between this and Yorktown, or you may find him anywhere along the line of this Army but you must find him, and a reply must be at this headquarters before daylight tomorrow

Throughout the rainy darkness, William Miller set out to find General McClellan. He finally delivered the dispatch and in doing so received congratulations from both General McClellan and General Heintzelman on a job well done. The Peninsula Campaign was hard on the 3rd Pennsylvania despite turning in a fine performance. Horses were played out, ammunition stores low, supplies in general were short. The 3rd was sent north to re-supply.

In September 1862, the 3rd Pennsylvania was to participate in the defense of Maryland following General Lee's invasion. On September 16, 1862, the Regiment helped lead General Joseph Hooker's Corps across Antietam Creek. Company H was assigned directly to General Hooker's Headquarters. Late in the afternoon of September 17, at a most critical period in the Battle of Antietam, William Miller turned in another outstanding job. Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was making a final push toward Union lines when a brigade from his Corps charged a Union gun battery which had opened fire on the advancing Confederates. Passing behind the battery Lieutenant William Miller rode to the aid of the battery and helped in saving the guns from a superior force of Confederates. [16] For his gallantry in action on September 17, Lieutenant Miller was promoted over all the First Lieutenants in the Regiment to Captain. Captain William Miller was now in charge of Company H as its Company Commander.

Throughout the winter of 1862-63 the 3rd Pennsylvania was stationed along the Rappahannock, and the war slowed to a crawl. William Miller was finally reimbursed by the War Department for a horse and saddle he had purchased privately on June 30, but there was not much excitement around camp. Company H went out on a couple scouting missions but mainly the regiment stayed in camp until the 29th of April, when the weather allowed things to be more exciting. William Miller and the 3rd Pennsylvania participated in all the cavalry skirmishes and battles at the start of the Gettysburg Campaign. They had a conspicuous role in the Battles of Brandy Station, Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville. [17] On July 2, 1863, the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry arrived upon the fields around Gettysburg. They had been heavily engaged in skirmishes and running clashes with General Stuart's "Invincables" as recently as July 1. The second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the 3rd Pennsylvania took up position on the Union right flank, between the York and Bonnaughtown (Hanover) Roads and fought skirmishes with Confederate cavalry outside Hunterstown that day.

On the morning of July 3, after a brush with Confederate infantry the night before, the 3rd Pennsylvania was again on the move. William Miller himself described where the regiment was going and how it was to be deployed:

Between 9 and 10 o'clock on the morning of the 3rd "to horse" was sounded and we were in the saddle again. Retracing our steps, we resumed our position on the right, but with a more extended line. Irvin Gregg [Brigade] connected with the right of the infantry line near Wolf Hill and stretched his line nearly to the Hanover Road, while McIntosh [Brigade of which the 3rd Pennsylvania was a member] moved to and halted at the crossing of the Low Dutch and Hanover Roads. Custer's Brigade occupied the ground to the right and front of McIntosh. [18]

By 10:00 General J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate Cavalry was commanding Cress Ridge, about a mile in the 3rd Pennsylvania's front and left. Around 12:00 artillery fire from Confederate batteries opened up on Custer's and McIntosh's Brigades, and dismounted Confederate Cavalry were sent forward to occupy the Rummel Barn in their front. William Miller continues his narrative

About 2 o'clock [Colonel] McIntosh, who well understood Stuart's tactics and had correctly discerned his position, dismounted the First New Jersey and moved it forward under Major Beaumont in the direction of Rummel's. [19]

Soon the skirmishing between the two opponents became heavy and the 1st New Jersey was running out of ammunition. Colonel McIntosh sent part of the 3rd Pennsylvania including William Miller's Company H to occupy the right flank near the Lott Farm and the remainder to the aid of the 1st New Jersey. Sharp skirmishing was taking place and both 1st New Jersey and their relief were being pushed back. General Custer sent the dismounted 5th Michigan Cavalry to their aid. Eventually the line of the 5th Michigan was driven in and Custer mounted up the 7th Michigan and charged the advancing Confederates. The men of Company H, 3rd Pennsylvania held the right flank in the Lott Woods, William Miller observing the confusion of battle. Custer's 7th Michigan was repulsed after their charge and for nearly an hour there was a lull in the fighting, only sporadic small arms fire joined occasionally by the roar of the artillery.

Around 4:00 General Stuart assembled nearly 2,000 troopers from Generals Wade Hampton's and Fitzhugh Lee's Brigades in anticipation to push aside the stubborn Union Cavalry once and for all. Stuart's plan was simple; a mounted charge on Union lines. The weight of the attack should shatter the Union force in his front. General Hampton began his advance, first a trot, then at a cantor toward the Union positions about three-quarters of a mile in his front. Union Artillery opened on the advancing columns, firing both single and double canister into the confederate horsemen. Closing up ranks Hampton and Lee's men continued forward. Upon seeing that the only way to stop this threat was to stop it head on with a counterattack, General Custer rushed up to the 1st Michigan Cavalry Regiment and announced that he would be sending them against the quickly advancing Confederates, although they would be outnumbered almost three to one. With Custer in the lead, the Michigan Troopers set out at a trot and then a gallop, and then suddenly and violently the two opposing columns met head on. William Miller described the collision:

The sound was like the falling of timber, so sudden and violent that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders be neath them. The clashing of sabers, the firing of pistols, the demands for surrender and the cries of the combatants now filled the air. [20]

Even though the 1st Michigan stopped the Confederate advance and was cutting and slashing their way through the gray columns, General David Gregg realized that the 1st Michigan needed some help. He quickly ordered in McIntosh's Brigade, including some elements of the 3rd Pennsylvania to hit the Confederate right. Scattered portions of the 1st New Jersey, 5th, 6th, and 7th Michigan also entered the fray on the right. In the melee of saber slashing and pistol firing at point blank, the outcome of the battle seemed in doubt. No side seemed to be gaining the upperhand. Then on the Confederate left flank, Captain Hampton S. Thomas led a New Jersey squadron into the fight. [21]

As the battle raged around him and he was still under orders to remain on the right flank in the Lott Woods, William Miller decided that the time for action was upon him. Miller figured that Captain Thomas needed support and that staying put in the woods might put in peril the positive outcome of the fight. Miller turned to Lt. William Brooke-Rowle, his adjutant, and stated,

I have been ordered to hold this position, but, if you will back me up in case I am court-martialed for disobedience, I will order a charge. [22]

Lt. Brooke-Rowle gave his pledge of support, Miller mounted the few remaining men of his squadron and charged. Almost from the start of the charge the path of William Miller and his men was blocked by Confederate horsemen. Historian Edward G. Longacre described the charge:

In one mighty thrust they [Miller and Squadron] rode through...penetrating about two-thirds of the way toward the Confederate rear. Not until they neared the lane of the Rummel Farm, within range of Breathed's battery were they hemmed in an halted.

Slicing through the Confederate left flank and dividing the lead of the column from the rear, Miller's timely decision further confused and demoralized the Confederate attackers. William was shot through the right arm as he turned his column northward, then east from which they started. Miller and his command experienced few casualties. Slowly, fearing their retreat route was in danger (thanks to William Miller's charge) the Confederates pulled back. The Union horsemen retired. Small arms firing continued until dark, but the Confederate threat had been repulsed.

After participating in 37 cavalry engagements, Captain William E. Miller was mustered out of Federal Service after the completion of his three-year commitment on August 24, 1864. The War was over for William Miller, or so he thought. He returned to Cumberland County and then moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he entered the hardware business. In 1868 he married for the second time. The war would not go away. Young and old alike wanted Miller to talk about his war experience. He wrote about the charge at Gettysburg. In 1884 at the dedication of the cavalry shaft at Gettysburg, General David Gregg praised William Miller once again by remarking "of course everybody expects to hear from Captain Miller whose name is so inseparably and honorably connected with our shaft." With all the recognition and praise that came William Miller's direction, the United States Congress had failed to recognize his accomplishments on the fields of the Battle of Gettysburg. His name was not mentioned in the Official War Department record of the battle.

Finally in 1896 Congress recognized William Miller for his heroics on the Cavalry Field of Gettysburg by presenting the sixty-year old veteran with the Congressional Medal of Honor. As the years rolled by Miller often reminisced about the war with fellow Company H veterans and was active in G.A.R. Post 201, Carlisle, Pennsylvania and the Military Order of the Loyal Legion. William E. Miller passed away December 10, 1919, just two months shy of his 84th birthday, content that his place in the history of the Battle of Gettysburg was secure.

Sometimes heroic deeds go unnoticed for a long time. Contemporary judgements are often clouded with individual agendas. As the years go by history tends to judge more fairly than contemporaries, and the true value of a person's actions are finally noticed, as with William Miller. This man was willing to disobey a direct order when he saw clearly what his actions should be; sometimes this is the mark of a true hero.

We have met three individuals who through their contributions of bravery, courage, and actions made an important impact on the outcome of the Cavalry Battle East of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. We call them the "unsung heroes" because they are in most cases not even "footnotes" to the story of the Gettysburg battle.

Heroic deeds are very subjective and hard to define; subjective to generational definition and values. The heroic deed no matter its definition, no matter the generation, inspires men and women to find the good that is in themselves. Men and women who can find the courage to act in face of danger or adversity become heroes that transcend generations.

"No man can answer for his courage who has never been in danger."

— La Rochefoucauld (French Philosopher)


Special recognition and thanks to Mr. Mark Fellows of Grand Haven, Michigan. Without Mark's diligent research and guidance Noah Ferry's story could not have been told. Mark provided much of the biographical information for this article.

Bibliography and Sources

"The Battle of Hanover," Pennsylvania. Pamphlet. Gettysburg National Military Park Library.

History of the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry. Regimental. Philadelphia. 1884.

"Register of Graduates, U.S.M.A." Association of Graduates. New York City. 1990.

Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 1869.

Brooke-Rowle, William. Gregg's Cavalry Fight at Gettysburg, Philadelphia. 1884.

Frampton, Roy and Cole, James. The Gettysburg National Cemetery: History and Guide, Hanover, Pennsylvania. 1988.

Historical Committee, Hanover Chamber of Commerce.

Encounter at Hanover, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. 1962.

Longacre, Edward E. The Cavalry at Gettysburg. Cranberry, New Jersey. 1986.

Miller, William E. "The Cavalry Battle Near Gettysburg." Archival Files of the Gettysburg National Military Park Library.

Pyne, Henry R. The History of the First New Jersey Cavalry. Trenton, New Jersey. 1871.

Riggs, David F. East of Gettysburg. Bellevue, Nebraska. 1870.

Schaff, Morris. The Spirit of Old West Point. New York City. 1907.

Sergent, Mary Elizabeth. They Lie Forgotten: The U.S. Military Academy 1856-1871. Mittletown, New York. 1986.

Kidd, James H. Personal Recollections of a Cavalryman in The Michigan Cavalry Brigade in the Civil War. Ionia, Michigan. 1908.

Kidd James H., Michigan Troopers: The Operations of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign. Ionia, Michigan. 1899.

State Census Records. State of Michigan Archives. Lansing, Michigan.

County Records, White Lake Area Historical Society. Grand Haven, Michigan, Mark Fellows, 1993.

Bently Historical Library. Ferry-Montaque Papers. Lansing, Michigan.

Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Century Company; New York City. Vol. 3, 1884.

John S. Mosby. Stuart's Cavalry in the Gettysburg Campaign. Moffat, Yard and Company, New York City, 1908.

David McMurtie Gregg Papers, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Edwin Coddington. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, Scribner's. New York City, 1968.


1 State of Michigan Archives. Lansing, Michigan. Records obtained by Mark Fellows, Grand Haven, Michigan 1993.

2 Bently Historical Library, University of Michigan. Archives of the Detroit Free Press; 1925.

3 White Lake Area Historical Society. Grand Haven, Michigan. Mark Fellows, 1993.

4 Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (hereafter cited as OR), Vol. 27, pt 1.

5 The Cavalry at Gettysburg, Edward G. Longacre, 1986.

6 Ibid.

7 The Spirit of Old West Point, Morris Schaff, 1907

8 OR, Vol. 2.

9 OR, General Alfred Pleasanton's Report, Vol. 27, pt. 1.

10 OR, Vol. 25.

11 OR, Henry Hunt's Correspondence, Vol. XXV.

12 OR, General Pleasanton's Report, Vol. 27, pt. 1.

13 Personal Recollections of a Cavalry Man, James H. Kidd, 1908.

14 OR, Vol. 27, pt. 1.

15 History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, Samuel Bates, Vol. III.

16 Ibid.

17 OR, Vol. 27, pt. 1.

18 The Cavalry Battle Near Gettysburg, William Miller. GNMP files.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 The Cavalry at Gettysburg, Edward G. Longacre, 1986.

22 The Cavalry Battle Near Gettysburg, William Miller.

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