Hunterstown ...Then and Now

Norvell Churchill

Story by Mike Connell, free lance writer

"As I bend for a closer look, it occurs to me there is another message here: History's grandest episodes are a mosaic of unremembered moments."

Courtesy of the Churchill Family
Norvell Churchill

ALLENTON -- If not for the gallantry of a young St. Clair County farmer, George Armstrong Custer might have died at Gettysburg in 1863 rather than 13 years later at Little Bighorn.

The pursuit of that story took me to the West Berlin Cemetery on Holmes Road, where a lichen-flecked obelisk marks the Churchill family plot.

The stone monument, which is about 8 feet tall, has stood here for a century and a half. It has a pronounced lean, and many of its inscriptions are difficult to read.

As I bend for a closer look, it occurs to me there is another message here: History's grandest episodes are a mosaic of unremembered moments.

No casual visitor to the cemetery would associate this grave marker with Gettysburg or Custer's Last Stand. Yet the link is real enough.


ON THE SECOND DAY of the Battle of Gettysburg -- July 2, 1863 -- Custer led a few dozen Michigan cavalrymen on what has been described as "a seemingly suicidal charge" toward an enemy that outnumbered them and had the advantage of cover.

It marked the birth of his reputation as a gutsy commander. Custer, who ranked last in his class at West Point, was just 23 years old. He had been promoted from captain to brigadier general only three days earlier.

What he had was courage. Buckets of it. Before the charge, the "boy general" reportedly waved his saber and shouted to the Wolverines of the 1st Michigan Cavalry: "I'll lead you this time, boys! Come on!"

And with that he led them onto Hunterstown Road, five or six miles northeast of Gettysburg, toward what would become known as North Cavalry Field. At a gallop, they charged into the rear guard of a Confederate cavalry brigade led by Gen. Wade Hampton, who later would serve as governor of South Carolina.

Custer led from the front, and early in the melee, his horse was shot out from beneath him. He landed hard, trapped beneath the dead animal.

By the time he pulled himself free, he had been set upon by Confederate cavalrymen.


HIS RESCUER APPEARED in the person of Pvt. Norvell Francis Churchill, a native of Berlin Township in the southwest corner of St. Clair County.

The private, only six months younger than his general, watched as a saber-wielding Rebel struck at Custer, who raised an arm to shield himself. The stroke slashed the sleeve of Custer's uniform but caused no injury.

As the attacker prepared to strike again, Churchill spurred his horse forward and used his saber to deflect what might have been a killing blow.

What happened next depends on who's telling the story.

In 1905, when Churchill died, the author of his obituary in a Traverse City newspaper said he "clave the man through before his upraised saber could descend upon Custer."

Other accounts report Churchill used his Colt revolver to shoot the Rebel attacker.

All accounts agree on what followed -- Churchill extended an arm to Custer and pulled him onto his horse. They then raced to the safety of Union lines.

J. David Petruzzi, a historian who has a blog called "Hoofbeats and Cold Steel," said Churchill's daring "literally changed history. There may have been no Custer defeat at Little Bighorn 13 years later. Indeed, there may have been no George Custer at all after that warm July 2."


IN THE GRAND SWEEP of Gettysburg, as pivotal as any battle in American history, the skirmish at Hunterstown is a footnote. It claimed few lives. The combat ended almost as quickly as it began.

Still, Hunterstown is not without significance. It occupied two brigades of cavalry, diverting them from the main theaters of Little Round Top and Peach Orchard.

In his official report of the battle, a grateful Custer named Churchill and saluted his courage. He also kept him close, making him his "special orderly." The bond between the general and the man who saved his life would remain strong.

Churchill had joined the cavalry two years before Gettysburg. Not long after the fall of Fort Sumter, he rode to Almont -- four miles west of his family's farm -- and volunteered.

An athletic man and superb horseman, Churchill rode with the Army of the Potomac. He served as an orderly first with Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks and then with Maj. Gen. Joseph Mansfield, who was mortally wounded at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, the bloodiest day in American history.

A sketch in the "Biographical History of Northern Michigan," published in 1905, credits Churchill with catching the dying Mansfield as he fell from his horse. I could not confirm that account.


THE SPELLING OF CHURCHILL'S first name has as many variations as a Michigan weather report -- "Norville," "Norval" and "Norvel" among them. Since "Norvell" is carved on his headstone, let's stick with it.

He was born in Berlin Township on June 11, 1840, the son of pioneer settlers David and Zoa Churchill. The obelisk at West Berlin Cemetery marks their graves.

They were among the original settlers of Berlin Township, arriving at least two years before 1840 when it separated from then-sprawling Clyde Township. (Initially, Berlin Township covered the county's western end, also encompassing what are now Lynn and Mussey townships.)

The Churchills farmed a quarter section -- 160 acres -- at the intersection of Almont and Holmes roads, about a mile west of Allenton.

The homestead, owned today by Alvin and Debbie Ferguson, included the parcels now occupied by the cemetery and the adjacent West Berlin United Methodist Church.


THE CHURCHILL STORY is typical of the pioneers who settled Michigan.

David Churchill was born in Vermont in 1801. He was 27 and living in Upper Canada when he married Zoa Edgerton, a New York state native whose father had served as an officer in the American Navy in the War of 1812.

Their first three children were born in Ontario's Zorra Township -- Peter (1829), Warren David (1831) and Louisa (1834). A fourth child, Nelson, was born in 1836 in Connecticut.

Four younger children were born in Berlin Township -- Judson in 1838, Norvell in 1840, Cyrus in 1843 and Ermina in 1849.

Cyrus died before his second birthday and is buried with his parents. I could find no information on Ermina, although her oldest brother, Peter, gave the same name to a daughter born in 1878.


FOUR OF THE SONS served with the Union Army. Norvell joined the cavalry, of course, while Nelson enlisted with the 22nd Michigan Infantry and compiled "a brilliant record," in the words of historian Charles Moore.

Peter and Judson signed up with Company H of the 4th Michigan Infantry.

Judson fell ill and died on Jan. 11, 1865, at Fortress Rosecrans at Murfreesboro, Tenn. He was laid to rest near his father, who had died four months earlier.

Louisa, who died in 1875, is buried beside Judson. Their mother joined them in the family plot two years later.


AFTER THE WAR, Peter and Norvell divided the family farm. They left Berlin Township not long after their mother's death in 1877.

Norvell and his wife, the former Hannah Savage, bought property in Antrim County's Echo Township, where they raised seven children to adulthood.

Peter settled in the Snover area of Sanilac County, where his descendants still gather at Brown's Pond for family reunions. He died in 1906 and is buried at Novesta Township Cemetery in Tuscola County.

Warren, who did not serve in the war, farmed 160 acres near Capac. He served as Mussey Township supervisor in 1868 and owned a hotel in St. Clair for a brief time. He died in Port Huron in 1914 and is buried at West Berlin.

Nelson also put down roots in Mussey Township, buying a farm there in 1867. His son, Judson, studied at Capac High School under a young teacher named Bina West, the founder of what is now Woman's Life Insurance Society.

After graduating from high school in 1892, Judson taught for eight years before going to Ann Arbor to study architecture. He became a prominent architect in Lansing.


I LEARNED OF NORVELL'S gallantry from David Kitchin, a Vietnam veteran who retired from the Postal Service a year ago. He is Peter's great-great grandson.

"I would describe myself as curious," he told me. "I also seem to be the designated family historian. I can't throw away, or sell, any of the family historical items."

Kitchin remembers his grandfather mentioning the Custer episode many years ago, but he and about 60 other family members delved into the story more deeply in the summer of 2008 when they were special guests for the unveiling of a battlefield monument at Hunterstown.

"I think it's wonderful that he saved (Custer's) life," Glen Churchill told the Gettysburg Times. "This battle started the end of the war."


THE FINAL CHAPTER of Norvell's life unfolded in Antrim County, not far from Traverse City, where he and Hannah bought 125 heavily wooded acres in 1879.

Kitchin said one of their descendants, Pat Hedgecloth, believes they moved north "to possibly start a hunting or fishing camp, or to just be closer to nature."

The biographical sketch of Norvell published in 1905, the year of his death, said he and his wife launched "a wonderful transformation" of the property. They grew crops and raised cattle and swine.

Norvell was known as a superb hunter and remarkable horseman who would re-enact his cavalry feats at Fourth of July festivities.

Hannah died in childbirth on Sept. 25, 1894.


AS EVERY SCHOOLCHILD surely knows, Custer met his end on June 26, 1876, at Little Bighorn in Montana, a victim of glorious hubris.

Before going west for the Indian wars, the general paid a call on his good friend in Berlin Township.

Custer took a train to Romeo, where Norvell met him. They spent three days at the farm on Almont Road, where Custer tried to convince his old orderly to join him on the frontier.

That's not surprising. The general liked to surround himself with men he felt he could trust. Two of his brothers, a brother-in-law and a nephew died with him in Montana.

Churchill resisted Custer's appeal. His saber, still showing two nicks from the battle at Hunterstown, would not go to war again.

Mike Connell is a freelance writer. Contact him at fort or visit his website at www.abbey

Pat Hedgecoth Stephens with General Custer
Holding the sword that saved Custer's Life!

Laurie,   ( 10/10/11 )
Thank you very much.  I did see the article and contacted Mike Connell to thank him.  I especially liked the mention of Gr. Grandfather Norvell's involvement with General Mansfield, in addition to General Custer.  I finally received a letter written from Norvell while he was guarding General Banks (the only existing letter I'm aware of that Norvell wrote).  I'm just trying to figure out how I can protect and preserve it. 
Again, thanks for the heads up.  I still want to make it back to Hunterstown in the near future.  Pat
Pat Hedgecoth Stephens

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