One hundred and sixty years ago, July 1-3, the pivotal battle of the Civil War was fought at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The battle began when units of the 1st Michigan Cavalry Brigade encountered Confederate forces on the outskirts of Gettysburg. The 1st Michigan included men from Almont.
My great-grandfather, Warner Thomas Hoyt, was a member of the Army of the Potomac, which had moved north to repel the Confederate invasion.
Warner was born September 21, 1843, in Pittstown, Rensselaer County, New York, the son of Almon Hoyt (1805-1866) and Ann Maria Mills Hoyt (1817-1890). He grew up working on his father’s farm with extended family living nearby.
Warner enlisted in the Union Army on August 2, 1862 joining Company K of the 125th New York Infantry Regiment. His unit was mustered into the Army on August 27, 1862. It was initially posted to guard Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.
At the beginning of the Antietam Campaign in mid-September 1862, Confederate Generals A. P. Hill and “Stonewall” Jackson approached Harper’s Ferry and the 125th surrendered without a fight earning themselves the nickname the “Coward’s Brigade”. At that time in the Civil War when an army took prisoners they were paroled, which meant they couldn’t fight again until exchanged. The 125th was sent to Chicago for the winter of 1862-63 and possibly participated in the construction of Camp Douglas (the Union’s equivalent of the Confederate’s infamous Andersonville prison). The following spring they were exchanged and rejoined the Army of the Potomac around Washington.
In late June 1863, the 125th New York along with the rest of the Army of the Potomac moved north shadowing General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Virginia into Pennsylvania.
Norvell Francis Churchill was born June 11, 1840, probably on the family farm which was located near the intersection of Almont and Holmes Roads in Berlin Township, St. Clair County, Michigan. His parents were David Churchill Jr. (1801-1864) and Zoa Edgerton Churchill (1811-1877). He had enlisted on August 14, 1861, for three years. He was assigned to Company L of the 1st Michigan Cavalry Regiment, which was formed by fellow Almonter, Captain Melvin Brewer. At least 43 Almont men enlisted in the 1st Michigan Cavalry.
During the first two years of the Civil War, Norvell served as the orderly for several Union Brigade and Corps commanders. Just as the Battle of Gettysburg began, he served a new brigade commander, Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer. On July 2, Custer’s command was sent to determine the location of a Confederate force of about 10,000 men moving toward the Union’s right. Once located, it was determined these troops were Brigadier General Wade Hampton’s forces. Custer always led from the front–he didn’t order attacks, he led them. He ordered Company A of the 6th Michigan to charge down the Hunterstown Road at the retreating Confederates. Custer drew his saber and shouted “I’ll lead you this time boys! Come on!” and then spurred his horse down the road. Being Custer’s orderly, Private Norvell Churchill, along with Company A, followed their commanding officer.
As Custer approached the Rebels, his horse was shot and he went down with his horse and was pinned. As he struggled to free himself, Confederate cavalrymen were bearing down on him. Seeing his commander in trouble, Private Norvell Francis Churchill spurred his horse forward. Norvell got there just in time to save Custer’s life and then pulled Custer up on to the back of his horse and raced him back to the Union lines.
On July 3, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s battle plan was to attack the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. This was planned to be a two-pronged attack with Major General George Pickett’s infantry attacking the front of the Union line from the west and Major General J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry attacking the rear of the Union line from the east. After a two-hour bombardment, which was intended to weaken the Union line, General Pickett’s men moved out from under the trees on Seminary Ridge and formed a line.
As this was going on, the 125th New York was positioned on Cemetery Ridge, about 30 yards from what would become known as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy”. The Confederate bombardment had done little damage to the Union line, so the troops returned to their positions from before the bombardment. The 125th New York regiment would redeem itself that afternoon.
As General Pickett’s men marched across the mile of open ground, General Stuart was bringing his cavalry force up toward the rear of the Union’s line. The only force between General Stuart and the Union rear was General Custer’s 1st Michigan Cavalry Brigade. The initial skirmishes were on foot but eventually General Stuart ordered the majority of his force to charge on horseback.
“Pickett’s Charge” occurred just after 3:30 p.m. and General Stuart moved his mounted cavalry forward to get to the rear of the Union forces on Cemetery Ridge. Stuart’s cavalry overwhelmingly outnumbered Custer’s forces but Custer again lead his men forward. With a cry of “Come on, you Wolverines!”, General Custer led the 1st Michigan Cavalry Regiment forward with Norvell Churchill by his side. They charged into the Confederates with such force “that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders”. The charge split the Rebel column and became a chaotic, close quarter fight waged with pistols and slashing sabers. The 5th, 6th, and 7th Michigan cavalry units then attacked the Confederate’s flanks. Confederate General Stuart withdrew his forces, ceding the field to Custer.
The 5th Michigan’s, Colonel Russell Alger called the 1st Michigan Cavalry Regiment’s charge “the most gallant charge of the war.”
The actions of Brigadier General Custer’s forces thwarted the Confederate’s plans to trap the Union forces located along Cemetery Ridge between Pickett’s infantry frontal attack from the west and Stuart’s forces attacking westward from the Union rear. Crushing the Union center would have won the battle for the Confederates and changed the course of the war and world history. Churchill’s saving of Custer’s life on July 2 was pivotal in the defeat of the Confederate forces.
The last action in the Gettysburg campaign involved the 1st Michigan Cavalry Brigade engaging with Confederate forces as they crossed back into Virginia. Men from Almont were involved in the first action of the campaign and the last action of the campaign.
At least three men from Almont died at Gettysburg or in the immediate aftermath. Philip Wilcox was killed on July 3 while fighting with Custer’s forces against General Stuart. The next day as the cavalry tracked and harassed the retreating Confederates; Charles Sitts was killed in a skirmish at Fairfield Gap. Wilcox and Sitts are both buried in Gettysburg. Henry Dygert of the 16th Michigan Infantry was killed on July 2 while defending Little Round Top.
Six Almont men were captured at Gettysburg. James Conner, David Pierce, and James Sumner were captured from the 5th Michigan. Sumner would die in Libby Prison in Richmond
and Conner was killed in action at Morton’s Ford. George Edgerton, Caleb Hall, and Thomas H. Sheperd were captured from the 1st Michigan. Edgerton would be killed in action in 1864 and Hall would die of disease the same year.
Interesting note: George Pickett was a graduate of West Point. To receive an appointment to the Academy requires a Congressional sponsor. Pickett’s sponsor was Abraham Lincoln.
Copies of the Almont Historical Society’s various books can be purchased by contacting Jim Wade at 810-796-3355 or email@example.com or stopping by the museum on Saturdays from 1-4 p.m.