Lee’s battle plan on the morning of the third day had a lot of moving pieces. Timing would be a factor too, but the Army of Northern Virginia had pulled off such complexities many times in the last two years – against worst odds – and had never failed.

Longstreet didn’t like it…. Didn’t like it at all. “I can safely say there never was a body of fifteen thousand men who could make that attack successfully,” he had warned, but Longstreet was either unaware of, or discounted, Lee’s secret ingredient.

The night before, the “Prodigal Son” had at last returned. J.E.B. Stuart had been off gallivanting around the Union lines, having a grand old time capturing or destroying supplies, or just generally harassing “Billy Yank” whenever and wherever he pleased, but leaving his commander blind – without significant reconnaissance – for the first two days of battle. Lee chastised him, privately, upon his arrival and considered that the end of the matter. Now Stuart and his men were rested and fresh; four brigades – over four thousand horsemen – perhaps the finest cavalry on the planet, led by the best of the best.

His job that day perfectly suited the plumed-hatted Stuart – sneak around the right flank of the Yankees to their rear, signal when in position, and then, upon hearing Porter Alexander’s guns fall silent, charge the Union line, hitting Cemetery Ridge below Culp’s Hill, just as what would become known as “Pickett’s Charge” slammed into their center opposite him…

About 11:00 that morning Stuart reached Cress Ridge, just north of the intersection of the Low Dutch and Hanover Roads, about three miles in the rear of the Yankee line. From here he would be able to hear Alexander’s cannonade; and, when it stopped, a quick jaunt down the Low Dutch Road to get between the Hanover Road and the Baltimore Pike, and then…. Charge!  He ordered the signal cannons fired – one shot in each direction of the compass. Lee had to have heard….

Lee wasn’t the only one who heard, nor was Stuart’s the only cavalry prowling around back there. The cannon shots first awoke and then drew fire from Yankee horse drawn batteries.  Blue-clad riders appeared, led by a brigade of Michigan cavalry. Their commander looked almost absurd. He was hatless as he rode the line, his hair blowing in the wind. He wore a velveteen jacket with loops upon loops of gold braid on the sleeves, a dark blue sailor shirt, and a blood-red cravat flowing from his neck, but his men would not mistake him. He was out in front, and in these three days of battle he would have seven horses shot beneath him.

This crazy looking character was the “Goat” of the June 1861 class of West Point – the lowest overall standing in the class. It wasn’t that he was slow of mind, just often bored to sickness, and so all those pranks, class-skipping and rabble-rousing was medicinal, you see. Here he was, face to face with the proud Stuart, and the youngest Brigadier General in the Union Army.

The Goat knew full well he was vastly outnumbered even in overall force, but he saw that Stuart was stacked up, not fully deployed in line of battle. He took personal command of just one regiment, the 7th Michigan, and from the front of their line hollered:

“Come on you wolverines!  CHARGE!”

Stuart counterattacked, but his men had to ride past dismounted Yankee cavalry wielding the new seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles…..

Again, the Goat took personal command, this time of the 1stMichigan, and again from out in front he led the way:

“Come on you wolverines!  CHARGE!”

The Goat’s horse, Roanoke, fell, but he grabbed another. Steel to steel, the sabers clashed. The Rebs fell back.

Stuart had heard Porter’s guns cease about halfway through all this action. There was no way he was going to break through in time to support the main attack on the center of the Union line. Stuart withdrew, back around Culp’s Hill….

That afternoon the brave men from “Old Virginia” who had survived the bloody march across half a mile of open ground, and survived the murderous Minnie balls and canister shot raining down upon anyone brave or foolish enough to leap out of the slight shelter of the Emmitsburg Road, hit the center of the Union line, and it wavered… butStuart and his horsemen were nowhere to be seen. The Yankees brought up reinforcements.

As the tattered men in grey and butternut fell back, Lee ordered Pickett to place his division so as to repel any counterattack.

“General Lee,” he answered, “I have no division now.”

The battle, and though they did not know at the time, the cause, was lost.

Almost two years later, Grant’s tightening vice grip around Lee at Petersburg simply became too much to endure. Lee retreated westward, hoping to find supplies and reinforcements for his starving men, but cavalry commanded by the Goat kept getting around him, chasing him like blood hounds on the scent.

Waynesboro, Dinwiddie Court House, Five Forks… and finally Appomattox Court House.

On the morning of April 9th– Palm Sunday – Lee found himself surrounded on three sides by solid lines of Union infantry. On the west side, though, there was only Yankee cavalry – our Goat – and so there he attacked. The Goat stalled him long enough for Union infantry to form up on that side as well.

Lee sent a note to Grant asking if he could see him. The Goat’s cavalrymen received the first flag of truce.

The Goat had been so instrumental in Lee’s downfall that General Sheridan presented the table upon which the surrender was signed to the Goat’s wife, Libby, along with a note in appreciation of her husband’s gallantry.

It is an everlasting shame that our Goat will not much be remembered for any of this, but instead for a disaster in a later conflict arguably caused by subordinates given independent commands who lacked the Goat’s audacity in battle, and refused to carry out his orders.

If you wish to honor the Goat by visiting his grave that’s easy enough. Take a tour of the United States Military Academy at West Point (a worthy venture by itself) go to the center of the old cemetery there, and look for the obelisk marked “CUSTER.”

THE END

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David Churchill Barrow is a regular Liberty Island contributor and along with his wife, MaryLu Barrow, is the author of the young adult novella Silver and Lead.