The Saga of Brigadier General David McMurtie Gregg

The Saga of Brigadier General David McMurtie Gregg


Editor’s Note: The late Charles Schuyler Castner submitted this manuscript in the William A. Hiester Manuscript award competition prior to his death. It was deemed the award winner by the panel of judges.

Gettysburg 12:40 p.m., July 3, 1863: Stuart is comming! The cry ran down the Union lines positioned at the outlying perimeters of the northeast corner of the Adams County battlefield like a blazing stream of fire tracing its course down a tree struck by a thunderbolt. A few miles east, the ingathering of Union CavaIry forces had begun before late morning and various regiments commanded by Brigadier Generals Wesley Merritt, Elon Farnsworth and George Armstrong Custer were “in position” by order of Division Commander/Brigadier General David McMurtrie Gregg.

Gregg’s main elements of the Third and Seventh Pennsylvania Brigades were in place, on station and ready for combat at the front and center of the spear-head waiting to be launched. The dashing spirit of battle carried within the breast of the intrepid James Ewell Brown Stuart was about to clash head-on into the teeth of a mercurial, hot-tempered opponent who had spent most of his life anticipating the upcoming moment of impact.

The line-up on each side was awesome. Stuart’s main Cavalry Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia was girded for battle and flanked on the left side by General Wade Hampton’s Legion of South Carolinians and on the right side by the superb horsemen of General Fitz Lee’s Brigade of Virginians.

Gregg’s centrally poised regiments were commanded by his cousin, Colonel Irvin S. Gregg and were aligned tooth-and-jowl to the Michigan “Wolverine” Brigade of recently breveted Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer. The “outrider elements flung left and right on either side of the spearhead were commanded by Brigadiers (left) Elon Farnsworth and (right) by Wesley Merritt. Of the eight brigade commanders embroiled in one of the most significant engagements to take place at Gettysburg, seven were former West Pointers and the eighth man was Wade Hampton, whose battle skills had never been questioned.

At one minute after 1:00 p.m., the first stages of the battle were joined. Thereafter, each and all of the elements were engaged in rounds of contact, combat, disengage-reform-and-hit-again brawls that lasted until the newly risen moon began showing on the horizon opposite the setting sun. Nominal troop comparisons show that Stuart’s Corps had between 5,500 and 6,500 men available- and all were engaged. Gregg’s scattered legions were estimated to have been somewhat fewer; his “numbers” were given (by his chronicles) as having been between 4,500 and 5,000. Post-combat estimates made by both commander (Stuart and Gregg) show that each of them really believed his own forces were outnumbered.

There were no “hard” numbers for the official records. But the omission becomes easier to understand when viewed in the light of the exact time at which the climax of this most significant but scantly publicized clash took place. This happened because the fever-pitched hellishly violent and widely scattered onslaughts reached their zenith at the hour of 4:00 p.m. At the very moment when Generals Pickett, Garnett, Armistead and Kemper were locking horns in hand-to-hand combat with the union troops on Cemetery Ridge under the command of Generals Webb, Heintzelman and Ames, along with Colonels Strong Vincent and Joshua Chamberlain. That other battle became the historical epic known as “Pickett’s Charge” and in those days and until now, everything else that happened at that time on that battlefield was considered an event of minor importance.

The climax of the Battle of Gettysburg was Pickett’s Charge.

Thus, the headlines of the day subsequently became the linchpins irrevocably lashed to the fame of the 20th Maine, the high tide of the Confederacy, the heroism of Alex Webb (for which he received the Congressional Medal of Honor). . . and all the fuss made as a consequence of Lee’s decision to risk the whole campaign in one last desperate attempt to seize “a clump of trees”.

At that northeast corner of the battlefield when Gregg blocked Stuart’s bold attempt to smash down from the northeast to sever the main elements of the Union forces at Gettysburg, everybody in both High commands had been watching Pickett’s Charge. Later on, despite the fact of Major General Alfred Pleasonton’s having been in command of all Union cavalry forces at Gettysburg, Brigadier General David Gregg was cited by a sizeable host of credible military historians as having “gained one of the most vital cavalry victories of the war.”

He had won a crucial battle against the most celebrated Confederate cavalryman of the Civil War. Indeed, the War itself could have been won or lost, depending on the outcome of that particular engagement. And the records show that Brigadier General Gregg won his victory with smaller forces and with far less time to prepare for battle than his embattled comrades atop Cemetery Ridge.

But nobody was watching.

When David McMurtrie Gregg was born in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania on April 10, 1833, he entered the fold of a distinguished family of longtime settlers in the Keystone State. His paternal grandfather was Andrew Gregg who served from 1791 to 1813 in the United States Congress, first in the House and later in the Senate. At the time Gregg fought at Gettysburg, his cousin, Andrew Gregg Curtin, was seated in the Pennsylvania Governor’s Chair in Harrisburg. Most of Gregg’s early life was spent moving about as he was educated in a number of different private schools. His teenage years were spent at an academy in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, which later became Bucknell University.

Gregg gained entrance to West Point in 1851 and graduated in the class of ’55. He was commissioned second lieutenant of dragoons and assigned to duty on the Indian frontiers. His second tour found him detailed to Fort Tejon, California, where he remained until the Civil War broke out in 1861. Then Gregg was assigned to troop training until receiving an appointment to colonelcy with the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry.

He first gained attention when rated ‘highly capable’ for services performed in the Peninsula and Maryland campaigns under the command of Major General George B. McClellan. Thus, “Little Mac” (McClellan) was instrumental in Gregg’s appointment to Brigadier General of Volunteers, with his date of rank becoming effective November 29, 1862.

Gregg was subsequently promoted to command a cavalry division attached to Major General George Stoneman’s Corps. His most controversial role in that assignment followed Stoneman’s abortive raid against Richmond because that ill-advised ad lib attack had been launched in the midst of the Chancellorsville disaster. It was an initial consequence of this action that Gregg’s mercurial temperament and disenchantment with certain commanders began throwing sparks.

The debacle began when his Commander Stoneman decided to independently seize the initiative by detaching his forces to go on a surprise Richmond raid. This move compounded into a near disaster when Major General Joseph Hooker decided to throw the full weight of the Army of the Potomac entire force straight at Chancellorsville. The debacle ensued because Stoneman had already begun stripping away the spearhead element of the “entire force” Hooker needed to smash Lee’s trio of divided Corps, and the full impact of this classical bit of flubdubbery occurred when Hooker hesitated for a doubtful moment before attacking the fixed center of Confederate lines (under Pickett) in the area in front of Chancellorsville. That was the way observers saw the event. Not so, according to Hooker. He charged Stoneman’s initiative carried the cavalry away from the point where Hooker figured they should have been. Hooker, in turn, had chosen to hold off for a moment while he either tried to learn where Stoneman was and/or to figure out what he had to do if he couldn’t find Stoneman. In the time lapse afforded by these twin errors, Generals Lee and Jackson found a golden opportunity to successfully attack. The absent Stone-man had stripped Hooker of the screening actions the division commanded by Brig. Gen. Gregg could have afforded “Fighting Joe” during his moment of pause. But, without the screen, Hooker’s main body of infantrymen hustled forward so quickly they buckled against the stalled Yanks of his frontal brigades. They all moved so fast they caused a vacant space to open between the driving forces at the head of the column and the wagontrains strung out to the rear or still parked at the main base supply depot.

Major Generals Longstreet, Stuart, and Ewell hit Hooker’s left side; then Jackson, Hood and Early hit him on the right as, all the while, Pickett stood immoveably braced in the center. The screening action of cavalry force helped somewhat because some of the men of Pleasonton and Buford were still close to the scene. And, in some measure both did help. But they only helped by providing a protective shield to cover Hooker’s hell-for-leather flight to the rear.

Gregg, who was absent by reason of being engaged elsewhere some distance from Stoneman’s force when the attack on Richmond was called back, was also absent from the carping debates that subsequently sought to pin the whole reason for the setback on “the missing cavalry divisions.” The sharpest pin was stuck to Gregg’s absent division while they were engaged elsewhere. No opportunity was given for Gregg to establish that command decisions compelled him to carry out his orders as ordered.

He had gone on record with his protests before obeying his Commander and embarking on Stoneman’s mindless mission. But no formal charge was brought against him and it was not long until the attention of the whole Union High Command was diverted elsewhere. For, by that time, the mapmakers were busily studying the northerly expanse of Pennsylvania topography.

Meanwhile, in the two months between Chancellorsville and the onset of conflict at Gettysburg, the Union High Command made some instrumental changes in the Corps commandery, the strategy and the organizational makeup of all the Cavalry as well as in the Brigades and Divisions that would operate under the aegis of the Army of the Potomac. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Gregg held his temper in check.

He was less than devoted to the new Cavalry Corps’ Chieftain, Major General Alfred Pleasonton, but, having recently attained age 30, he was cheered by the promise of a younger, more aggressively disposed group of new brigade commanders being groomed for action. In all truth, Division Commander Gregg was far better pleased with these apple-cheeked replacements because, in part, their aggressive enthusiasm removed the thorns of Stoneman and Hooker from the crown of pain he had been forced to wear.

The new tactics integrating mobile artillery batteries right in with cavalry regiments pleased him. He had all too often seen Stuart, Hampton, Lee and the other Dixie Cavalrymen quickly wheel into line with their cannon ready for action and, just as quickly, to hitch up their guns at a moment’s notice and haul them off again as needed. They always seemed to be in the right place at the time they were needed.

The scant seven week span before his Division was called into the break at Gettysburg was neither a time of respite nor had it diminished the deep seated rancor he had held over Chancellorsville. Gregg had also shown signs of putting aside this disgruntled stance from time to time and there were moments in which private letters and associates’ diaries mentioned a smiling, almost jocular, response to certain new command developments.

He was seemingly more mature than his 30 years projected and yet he maintained an amiable stance regarding news that Brigadiers Judson Kilpatrick (27) and Elon Farnsworth (26) would be joined by some other “new youngsters” coming into the Cavalry Corps. He addressed Brigadier General Wesley Merritt as “young man” when speaking to him, thereby ignoring the fact that Merritt (born June 15, 1834) was barely a year younger than Gregg. But he was more than pleased when he greeted the young golden-haired cavalier whom Major General Meade had posted to his Division.

Brigadier General Gregg was nothing short of delighted when he welcomed the “hellion on horseback,” George Armstrong Custer, who had been brevetted (from Captain) to Brigadier General and assigned to command the Michigan Brigade of Gregg’s Division. They were friends from the day they met and remained friends until thirteen years later on a June day in 1876 when Custer departed his place in the ranks with his last charge near a stream called “The Little Big Horn.”

The mercurial Gregg (sometimes called “Mad Mac” for his middle name McMurtrie) did, however, have one grinding wheel of anger still churning inside him on the day he headed toward his native Pennsylvania. Sometime in mid-June, he had learned about “The Curtin Plan,” the Pennsylvania Defensive Plan cooked up by Major General Halleck, War Secretary Stanton, New York Governor Seymour, along with Gregg’s own cousin, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin. The plan that had been devised to fix the main Pennsylvania defense perimeters along the eastern shore of the Susquehanna River. It was a plan purposefully drawn to protect Philadelphia and Harrisburg at all costs, but at the same time, as Gregg saw it, it would have also abandoned Adams, Lancaster, York, Somerset, Dauphin and Huntingdon Counties – and Huntingdon was Gregg’s home county. His rage should have subsided much sooner because the “lunatic plan” (as characterized by Gregg’s friend and neighbor, Major General John F. Reynolds, First Corps Commander), was disavowed the same day Reynolds learned about it.

Not so with Gregg, whose anger outlasted the plan set aside, in fact, his disputations and disavowal of “the idiot plan and that gang of dirty politicians” never really did subside. To name a full roster of those he cordially detested would have provided a rather voluminous text for another sizeable book. But speculation and suppositions aside, there were reasons on behalf of the hostility Gregg held for that coterie of gentlemen named Hooker, Sickles, Birney, Butterfield, Stanon and Seymour. A roster, had it been audibilized, would have sounded like a roll call at New York’s Tammany Hall. He made only one latter-day withdrawal of a name he had put on his “hate list.” But that didn’t happen until July 17, 1901 when he attended the burial ceremonies for General Dan Butterfield at West Point. A man who Gregg had held in low esteem as a non-West Pointer and had called a “bloody pen-pusher”; then changed his mind.

Perhaps the change came because Dan Butterfield later won the Congressional Medal of Honor in the Atlanta Campaign, or perhaps it came when the War
Department made a special dispensation that allowed former non-academy cadet Dan Butterfield to be buried on “the plains” at West Point. The dispensation made in recognition of a conspicious service the New Yorker performed when he composed the bugle call known as “Taps.”

Somehow the mercurial temperament and the steadfast devotion to duty stirring within the breast of David Gregg never diminished enough to allow him any protracted moments of peace. And though thoroughly exhausted and inwardly convinced that he and his men had done much better than the best that could have been expected of them and more, much more, his men helped mightily to win the Battle of Gettysburg and the War itself. And yet he never entered into disputes or contended with anyone for credit or honor due for his performance if it meant he had to call attention to himself.

After Gettysburg, David Gregg turned in another year of distinguished service in Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign against Richmond. And, despite the adulation of his supreme commander, Grant, and another host of meritorious service citations he made another startling decision with regard to his own particular part in the Civil War. Perhaps (as some battle correspondents were to report) his last days of ’64 found him fighting hard as ever but once again he found himself being overshadowed by another General Cavalry officer. It was indeed true that Major General Philip Sheridan, a native of Albany, New York, who had been raised in Ohio had garnered greater fame and had collected bigger headlines as well as also gaining a closer knit friendship with fellow (and superior) Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. For the record, David Gregg neither said nor wrote anything for publication that adequately expressed his views.

He cordially despised Sheridan, but he never put his feelings “on paper”. So, on February 3, 1865 (two months before the War ended at Appomattox Court House), Major General Gregg resigned from the Army of the United States. The official commentary attesting to the move was written by that same former adversary, Major General Philip Sheridan, and it read: it is regretted that he (Gregg) felt obliged to quit the service . .

Other than that the records were virtually noncommittal, and so they remain. In latter years, Gregg first took up farming at Milford, Delaware. Then President Grant named him United States Consul to Prague. But he served only briefly in that post and resigned. Meanwhile, he had moved his permanent residence to Reading, Pennsylvania, where he lived out the rest of his life. But in the locale of his adopted “home town,” David McMurtrie Gregg became more outspoken in his latter years at a time when anyone else would seemingly have reached an age of decline and silence. He became active in civic affairs and on one occasion presented a memorial service to honor a fallen comrade, former Brig. Gen. Alexander Schimmelpfennig, another Gettysburg veteran, who had gone to an early death shortly after the battle (at a hospital in the village of Wernersville, near Reading).

In the years following Gregg’s demise, a huge bronze statue became part of Reading’s downtown area, and at the close of World War I, American LegionĀ Post No. 12 was named Gregg Post in his honor.

Somewhere deep within the mystique that covered the man while he lived, perhaps written on the pages of some unpublished letters, there is a secret thread-line revealing why he was the way he was and how he felt about himself.

On more than one occasion, the taciturn David Gregg was known to have dropped the stern mantle of cool dissidence and unemotional postures he usually presented when the subject of Gettysburg came up for discussion. But the stiffness always softened and the coolness of his personal ambience disappeared when the name of George Armstrong Custer was brought to center stage for debate.

For whenever Custer’s name came up, the head of Gregg would bend down for a moment and he would close his eyes. Then, as he lifted his head, those standing nearby could detect a glinty, almost tearful flash when he opened his eyes again. The pause was always marked by a gentle
nod, a pursing of the lips, a throat-clearing “hrrumph” and finally followed by the merest, faintest traces of a sad smile.

“Ah, Custer” he’d say, then after another tight-lipped pause and he’d add, “There was a man!”
The same recollection disclosure always seemed to follow, but none of it linked Custer to the Little Big Horn, to Yellow Tavern, or even to Appomattox (where Custer’s troops had finally “ringed” the remnants of Lee’s forces before they surrendered on the morrow). Gregg’s memories of Custer were linked to July 3rd, mid-afternoon, at Gettysburg, in ’63. He recalled the momentous incident as having begun at shortly after 1:00 p.m. when Gregg’s Second CavaIry was bolstered by the Brigades of his cousin, Colonel Irving Gregg and the units commanded by Merritt, Farnsworth and Custer.

The time (1:00 p.m.) was critical because it marked the arrival of orders for Custer’s units (and parts of Merritt’s and Farnsworth’s outfit then under Custer’s command), to depart their station northeast of Gettysburg’s East Cemetery Hill (and due north of CuIp’s Hill) so they could link up with Buford’s Brigade and head southward to bolster the middle of the Union lines. And the order came from Major General Alfred Pleasanton, Union Cavalry Co. Incoming scouts had reported Stuart’s forces had been heading towards Gregg’s position and could be expected to arrive in a matter of two or three hours. Meanwhile, Custer having been ordered by Gregg to take his place on the right flank, had only ridden several yards when the courier arrived with the new orders. So Custer turned and stopped, but he kept his distance as Gregg read the dispatches aloud.

Gregg freely admitted he had been stunned. He also saw Custer nearby and realized that once Michigan Brigades were stripped from his command, the close onto 6,000 men commanded by enemies Stuart, Hampton and Fitz Lee would sweep his forces off the field in less than an hour. He looked up and signaled Custer to join him. He was seized in the grip of startling upset, for he knew that the orders from his chief had to be followed at all costs. He went sick to his innards as Custer rode up and joined him. Then he experienced what he later recalled as “one of the happiest surprises of my life!”

Custer was smiling as he came closer and swept off his plumed hat; then began laughing. Gregg described the moment as one of complete puzzlement, punctuated only by silence on his part.

“General,” said Custer, continuing to show the dash that earned him fame as a happy warrior, “We’ll just go by the book on this one.”

Gregg looked at the order again and then back to Custer. The “Golden Cavalier” replaced the plumed hat, saluted Gregg and added, The book says ‘follow the last order given by your immediate superior!’ Then he turned, check reined the horse to a rearing stance as they wheeled and dashed off to the station Gregg had earlier assigned to him.

Gregg’s sentimentality in recalling the incident became much easier to understand when a latter day smattering of perceptive military historians added the footnote showing that if Custer’s men (dismounted but armed with Spencer repeating rifles) hadn’t smashed Hampton’s and Stuart’s frontal assaults at 4:00 p.m. that afternoon, the Confederates could have swept southwesterly between Cemetery Hill and CuIp’s Hill to show up behind the embattled Hancock, Chamberlain and Vincent forces. All this, while the main troop bodies from both sides were still locked in “a see-saw battle that could have gone either way,” (according to Major General Otis Howard’s latter day accounts) describing the Confederate “high tide” of Pickett’s Charge. So, the difference between winning or losing at Gettysburg may have turned on Custer’s decision to stay with Gregg.

No place for blazing headlines; no epic place in the annals of the Gettysburg Battle as the turning point of the entire Civil War. But, when Brigadier General Gregg remembered George Armstrong Custer from the afternoon of July 3rd at Gettysburg, there was a brimful place in his heart for the respect and admiration he held for “the Golden Haired Cavalier.” Reserved for the one man whose memorable image brought a glint to the eyes of the reputedly “cold, hard and disputatious man known as David McMurtrie Gregg.”‘

The demise of General David M. Gregg (August 7, 1916) in his adopted hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania served as the final marker to another coincidence in the saga of a most unusual man. He lies interred at Charles Evans Cemetery in a grave not too distant from the one he earlier dedicated to his former friend and fellow officer, Gen. Schimmelpfennig.

The Cemetery is located on Centre Avenue (Reading) and a few blocks down the street (at a triangular junction of Centre Avenue and North 4th Street) stands the equestrian statue of General Gregg.

Moving back northward to a spot across Centre Avenue from the Cemetery is the Historical Society of Berks County where George Meiser IX, premier local photo-historian, found a rare copy of Gregg’s only published book titled, The Second Cavalry

Division of the Army ofthe Potomac in the Gettysburg Campaign.

Excerpted portions of an essentially terse, frank and precisely accurate reprise of battle actions and tactical records, this book projects the impritur of an author who was both critical and dissatisfied and, yet one who managed to inflict his emotional “bites” without using any sort of adjectival teeth. The puzzling alternations of mood, temperament and changeable attitudes that flashed from the persona of David Gregg presented him as one of the most baffling (and surely, misunderstood) participants to emerge from the ranks of the “long, gray line” of men who marched from “The Plains” at West Point and onto the pages of immortality in The War Between the States.

In the retrospective sense, David Gregg crafted a self-portrait that painted him as “a cold, hard and extremely unemotional man.” But when he voluntarily undertook to plan, organize and conduct a memorial service to Alex Schimmelpfennig (the “Gettysburg Pig-Pen General”) whom fellow officers had ridiculed, and when he personally visited and paid his respects to the widow of General T. J. (Stonewall) Jackson during her invalid stay at a Wernersville Rest Home and when he quietly slipped into Richmond in 1870 to attend the Robert E. Lee Memorial Service- somehow, some measure of the averred coldness warms up a bit, the hardness softens, and a tiny spark of emotional response peeps through the gray of his dossier.

Contrariwise, Gregg trenchantly refused to attend the memorial dedication ceremonies at Gettysburg for his own Second Cavalry unit in 1880, ostensibly because the program chair was being shared by Generals Sheridan and Sickles. When a newspaperman asked if his demurrer had been lodged because the event called for the presence of his former adversary (Sickles and Sheridan), he gave neither an affirmative nor negative response. By way of reply, he simply asked a question of his own: “What do you mean by ‘former’?”

So it appears that in certain areas, General Gregg may have softened somewhat less than the granite base of the statue standing in a grassy triangle in the heart of downtown Reading, Pennsylvania.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 1993-1994 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.