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Posted on Jul 30, 2004 in War College

Custer’s Greatest Victory

By Bill Betson

Thus, on this day at least, Custer was not the reckless, impulsive thruster that some claim.  Further, his practiced eye for terrain soon discovered the weakness in the Confederate position. For although Early had placed his troops on the enemy side of a concave bend in the river, he had anchored his left not on the river itself, but on a set of woods south of the hill that dominated the town of Waynesboro.  Custer quickly formulated a plan to exploit this weakness.  The plan would demonstrate that Custer could be a prudent commander and a first rate, imaginative tactician.

Instructing Wells Brigade to maintain a strong mounted skirmish line to the enemy’s front to keep the Rebel attention, he directed his Chief of Staff, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Whitaker, to take three regiments of Pennington’s Brigade (2d Ohio, 3d New Jersey, and 1st Connecticut) and infiltrate the woods in order to take a flanking position on the enemy’s right.  Importantly, these regiments were all armed with Spencer repeating rifles. Custer then had his artillery, 2 guns of the 2d US Artillery under LT Carle Woodruff, conduct a visible withdrawal to deceive the enemy, but then return through the woods to take up firing positions, hopefully without being seen .  Finally, he massed Capehart’s Brigade behind Wells’ and prepared it to make a mounted charge.  At a signal Woodruff’s guns would open fire to keep the enemy heads down, Whitaker’s three regiments would charge the Confederate flank on the run firing their repeaters, and Capehart’s mounted force would charge down the road mounted and in column.


The plan worked like a charm.  Surprised by the attack on their flank and stung by the firepower of the repeating rifles and the masked artillery battery, the proud Confederate victors of New Market and many other battles broke almost immediately and ran toward the bridge to their rear.  The Rebel artillery stuck to their guns and tried to resist.  But they were quickly overrun by the mounted attack of Capehart’s lead unit, the 8th New York Cavalry.  One gun was captured with the ramming sponge still in the tube. Within minutes all organized Confederate resistance ceased and Wharton’s Division dissolved in rout.  The unorganized survivors tried to get to the bridge over the river and apparent safety, but were ridden down by the aggressive Union cavalry.

Rarely in military history has a victory been so complete.  Wharton’s Division was killed or captured (mostly the latter) almost to a man.  The 8th New York – strength about 400 – captured 800 prisoners.  Total Rebel prisoners numbered perhaps 1500 (the exact number is unknown).  All of the Rebel guns were taken, along with nearly 200 wagons – the entire train of the Confederate Valley District.  General Early and his immediate staff somehow escaped, although he lost his headquarters wagons and all his papers and records. Jubilant Union troopers also seized 17 Confederate battle flags – and recaptured the flag of Union General George Crook’s Corps, captured at Cedar Creek.  For their efforts that day a grateful Union government awarded Custer’s Division a total of 15 Congressional Medals of Honor.  The cost to Custer’s 3d Cavalry Division for this stunning triumph in total killed and wounded was a mere 9 soldiers. 

Later that day a proud Custer reported to Sheridan’s Headquarters followed by seventeen 3d Division troopers, each carrying a captured battle flag.  It was certainly a heady moment for the 26 year old, and Sheridan described the action in his official report as a "brilliant fight."  But of course the fighting was not over for Sheridan, Custer or their men.  After Waynesboro Sheridan moved slowly eastward toward the main armies fighting near Richmond, destroying the railroads and anything of military value along the way.  Sheridan and Custer then played key roles in the decisive Union victory at Five Forks and the ensuing pursuit of the Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. And, not surprisingly, it would be Custer’s Division that blocked the last Confederate escape route, precipitating Lee’s surrender.

So what are we to conclude from this action about Custer the soldier. .  Clearly he had the ability to see and understand the battlefield at a glance – something Clausewitz described as a major element of military genius.  He also knew how to achieve synergetic effects through the use of combined arms.  On this day his employment of a combination of mounted and dismounted soldiers, his exploitation of the firepower of his cannons and his soldiers’ repeating rifles, and his ability to synchronize it all with thunderclap surprise was quite remarkable. 

Many histories of the Civil War dismiss this action, suggesting that Early was defeated by Sheridan’s overwhelming force.  But this is not true.  1500 infantry and 11 guns in prepared positions should have been able to hold against 4500 cavalry and 2 guns (and only two thirds of Custer’s men actually participated significantly in the fight).  Others argue that the Rebels simply had no more fight in them.  Certainly Confederate morale was not at the highest level.  But this Confederate Division was a veteran formation that had fought hard a few months prior at Cedar Creek.   The difference this day was Custer and his ability to see the battlefield and employ his forces with a tactical virtuosity that still seems astonishing.  This performance certainly puts Custer in a class with the greatest cavalry tacticians that the United States has produced.

Of course, Custer will always be most remembered for the day on the Little Big Horn when his eye for the battlefield and his tactical instincts failed him.  But that was a different day and a different enemy.  Any balanced appraisal of Custer as a soldier must remember what he did in March, 1865.

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