Custer's Early "Last Stand"
— Gettysburg Campaign —
After Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's stunning victory at Chancellorsville in May 1863, he led the Army of Northern Virginia west to the Shenandoah Valley, then north through central Maryland and across the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania. Union Gen. George G. Meade, who replaced Gen. Joseph Hooker on Jun 28, led the Army of the Potomac in pursuit. The armies collided at Gettysburg on July 1, starting a battle that neither general planned to fight there. Three days later, the defeated Confederates retreated, crossing the Potomac River into Virginia on July 14.
During the second half of July 1863, the Union army pursued Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia through Rappahannock County as the Confederates marched south for the protection of the Rapidan River. The largest single military engagement in the county occurred here on the morning of July 24 when Union Gen. George A. Custer, with five cavalry regiments and two batteries, attacked the rear of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet's corps and the head of Gen. A.P. Hill's corps as they marched down the Richmond road. Custer placed artillery on the shoulder of Battle Mountain and shelled Hill's men, who returned fire from the embankment on the southeastern corner of the crossroads.
Col. William Oates and the 15th Alabama Infantry conducted a reconnaissance from the crossroads northeastward along the side of Battle Mountain. Confederate Gen. Henry L. Benning, who was farther south on the Richmond Road, doubled back to flank Custer with 2,000 Georgia and Alabama infantrymen at Newman's Crossroads (a quarter mile to the east). A member of the 4th Alabama recalled that an "enthusiastic old citizen led us within 50 yards of the flank of the Union Cavalry."
Custer's rear guard—two guns of Battery M, 2nd U.S. Artillery, and the 5th and 6th Michigan Cavalry—held Benning's Confederates in check for two hours. This delaying action enabled Custer and his command to escape by cutting a road through dense woods and racing back to his camp at Amissville, several miles northeast. Hill's corps continued its march to Culpeper County.
Two Union officers received the Medal of Honor for their actions during this engagement. Lt. Carle A. Woodruff, 2nd U.S. Artillery, commanded the two-gun section of guns in Custer's rear guard when he "was attacked by the enemy and ordered to abandon his guns ? [but] disregarded the orders received and aided in repelling the attack and saving the guns." Likewise, when Capt. Smith H. Hastings, Co. M, 5th Michigan Cavalry, whose squadron was guarding the guns, received orders to abandon them because they "were in imminent danger of capture, he disregarded the orders received and aided in repelling the attack and saving the guns."
"There is no doubt that an entire corps was in line of battle and advancing upon me. ... I think our position to-day the most critical I was ever in." - Gen. George A. Custer, July 24, 1863