Custer’s Wolverines visit York just before the Battle of Gettysburg
Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer, a native of New Rumley in my native Ohio, remains one of the most colorful (and controversial) figures in American military history. Vilified by many for his stunning defeat at Little Bighorn, a fight that became immortal as “Custer’s Last Stand,” Custer was a lightning rod for adoration as well as hatred. Perhaps more books have been written about him than any other Western Indian fighter, and many also cover his extensive Civil War history where he rose from an obscure lieutenant to a renown major general in just three short years.
Custer’s first battle as a brigadier general was here in York County, Pennsylvania, where he led his Michigan Brigade at the Battle of Hanover, where his men first became acquainted with the “boy general” in action. That same day, some of Custer’s men traveled through southwestern York County and up into downtown York.
Here is this little known account of some of Custer’s Wolverines visiting “Little York.” It is adapted from Pennsylvania-born author Eric J. Wittenberg‘s interesting book Under Custer’s Command: The Civil War Journal of James Henry Avery.
According to Trooper James Henry Avery, a patrol of the 5th Michigan Cavalry regiment under Lieutenant Charles H. Safford of Detroit was sent on a scouting mission toward York. Along the way, they met a suspicious person who would not divulge his identity or mission. On the advice of Safford’s sergeants in Company I, he had the unidentified stranger hauled back to Custer’s headquarters camp near Hanover, where he was arrested. The man finally proved to be a civilian-clothed spy reporting to General Meade, who had sent out small parties of scouts, couriers, and spies into the region to ascertain the position of the Rebel forces. Why he did not readily admit this to the arresting officer is not clear, although perhaps he was under strict orders not to compromise his true identity until he was interrogated by the proper authorities within the Army of the Potomac’s chain of command.
Another of Meade’s solitary riders, a uniformed courier of the 5th New York Cavalry, was shot and killed in southern York County by a frightened farmer named George Bair, who mistook the soldier for a Rebel in the night when he knocked on the front door of Bair’s remote farmhouse.