On June 30, Confederate General JEB Stuart's cavalry was heading north in order to get around the Union Army of the Potomac when it encountered a Federal cavalry regiment. The Rebels succeeded in pushing them through Hanover. Union General Elon Farnsworth's brigade arrived and counterattacked, routing the Confederate vanguard and nearly capturing Stuart himself.
When Stuart counterattacked, General George A Custer's Michigan Brigade, armed with the Spencer Repeating Rifle, joined the fight and a stalemate ensued. But Stuart was forced further east to get around the Union cavalry, further delaying his return to the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia and depriving Lee of critical intelligence information. Stuart arrived at General Lee's headquarters shortly after noon on July 2, and his exhausted brigades arrived that evening, too late to affect the planning or execution of the second day's battle.
Lee's orders for Stuart were to prepare for operations on July 3 in support of the Confederate infantry assault against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Stuart was to protect the Confederate left flank and attempt to move around the Union right flank and into the enemy's rear. If Stuart's forces could proceed south from the York Pike along the Low Dutch Road, they would soon reach the Baltimore Pike, which was the main avenue of communications for the Army of the Potomac, and they could launch devastating and demoralizing attacks against the Union rear, capitalizing on the confusion from the assault that Lee planned for the Union center.
Stationed near the intersection of the Hanover Road and the Low Dutch Road—directly on Stuart's path—was the division of Union Gen. David M Gregg, who was supplemented by the newly formed Custer's Michigan Brigade. The mass of small arms fire that poured from Custer's forward unit completely disrupted Stuart's advance as the Confederates misinterpreted the size of the opposing force. Armed with Spencer Repeating Rifles, the 5th Michigan detachment crept stealthily through a wheatfield as Rebel bullets whistled over their heads.
The men then stood and fired. Confederate officers ordered a counter strike before the troopers could reload but the Wolverines blasted them with a second volley, withered them with a third and sent them running with a fourth. The failure of Stuart's cavalry to flank the Union right was instrumental in the failure of Pickett's charge and the outcome of the battle.
This unique weapon was the invention of Christopher Minor Spencer. Throughout the 1850’s, Christopher Spencer was an inventor and tinkerer. While working for The Colt Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut, Spencer got interested in gun manufacturing. He tinkered around with the idea of a single shot, magazine fed, repeating rifle which used a large metallic cartridge. In 1860 Spencer applied for and received a U.S. patent for his Spencer Repeating Rifle.
Raising capital and securing a manufacturing site in Boston, MA, Spencer began limited production of “his rifle”. Expecting U.S. Government contracts to flood into his new business after the Confederacy was formed and war was a certainty, the 28 year old Christopher Spencer was greatly disappointed. The U.S. Ordnance Department passed on the Spencer rifle in favor of time-tested and less expensive weapons. In 1860 Spencer priced his rifle at $45.00. In comparison an 1861 Springfield muzzle loader was $14.00.
In 1861 the Navy Department placed an order with Spencer for nearly 1,200 rifles, but the army refrained to follow suit. Spencer decided to market his new rifle directly to Northern state governments. The strategy worked and some governors made purchases of the rifle. Finally, after nearly two years of frustration with the War Department, Spencer secured an appointed to see President Lincoln himself in the spring of 1862 to promote his rifle and secure a contract with the War Department. President Lincoln was impressed with Spencer and his new weapon after a personal shooting exhibition. Since Spencer refused to sell to the Confederacy his weapon was available to the Confederates only by capture.
In February 1863, Governor Austin Blair of Michigan purchased 680 Spencer Repeating Rifles with state funds which were then issued to Colonel Russell Alger’s 5th Michigan Cavalry, which during the battle was in Brigadier General George A. Custer’s brigade. Blair and Alger were close friends which accounts for why the 5th was the lucky recipient of these weapons. Ordnance records of the 5th and 6th Regiments Michigan Cavalry, submitted a month after the Battle of Gettysburg, indicate these two regiments carried a total of 572 Spencer Repeating Rifles and 10,000 rounds of ammunition to the field.