“Here They Come Boys”: George A. Custer at the Battle of Upperville

Custer, left, and Alfred Pleasonton in the spring of 1863.

Recently, while reviewing the National Tribune, I came across an article written by a member of the 6th Ohio Cavalry. The individual shares his experiences about the fighting in Virginia’s Loudoun Valley during the Gettysburg Campaign. Of particular interest was his narrative regarding the June 21, 1863, Battle of Upperville. He mentions the regiment was accompanied by George Armstrong Custer.

At the time, Custer was serving on the staff of the cavalry corps commander, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton. Just days earlier, Pleasonton had dispatched Custer to Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg’s division on its march toward the village of Aldie. In the ensuing engagement, Custer participated in the charge of the 1st Maine Cavalry, which repulsed an attack by elements of Col. Thomas Munford’s brigade and secured the guns of Capt. Alanson Randol’s Battery E/G 1st U.S. Artillery. As the blue horsemen pushed Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart’s Southern cavalry west through Middleburg and across Goose Creek toward Upperville, it appears Custer was sent forward again to serve as Pleasonton’s eyes and ears and report developments back to corps headquarters. Although it is a relatively short, I wanted to share the account with our readers. It follows below, with a few edits.

“In the afternoon of that day of that day we reached Upperville, and here I first remember General Custer, then a captain, and perfect type of the dashing cavalryman. Our line was formed on the right of the road, on the side of the hill, on whose opposite slope was the town of Upperville. Here, Custer, taking two companies from our left, charged into the town to draw out the enemy in pursuit, upon which the remaining companies were to charge his flank, and gain an easy victory. Soon back came the two companies, Custer, with his long flaxen hair flying in the wind calling out: “Here they come boys.” “Forward!” was the order, and on we dashed, saber in hand, the three above alluded to [the writer and other members of the regiment, a Henry Gillette and likely George Freeman] in some yards in advance, when, turning the hill’s crest, we saw, not open space and rebel flank, but a stone fence, and a brave Southern regiment…in line behind it, facing us and firing into our line. Gillette’s horse fell, then Freeman caught his death-shot in the face, and the survivor of three dashed up to the fence, under an apple tree, within twenty feet of the rebel colors, to his left, and nearer a fine, tall, dark-eyed rebel on his right, who soon met his death. At first advance only sabers were allowed to be carried and the regiment fell back to draw revolvers, and twice again to reload them. At the third advance…the enemy were forced to retreat, but they didn’t do it in a hurried or disorderly manner, you bet! but as quietly as if no Yankees were in their rear.”

Placed in the context with Custer’s actions at Aldie, to a lesser degree at Brandy Station, and earlier in the spring on an expedition to Urbanna, the account of his conduct at Upperville sheds additional light as to why Pleasonton chose Custer for promotion.  To Pleasonton, his young aide’s aggressiveness warranted at least an opportunity at higher command. One week after the battle, Custer was promoted to Brigadier General and assigned to lead a brigade of four regiments of Michigan cavalry.