The South Cavalry Field at Gettysburg

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On Saturday, June 13, 2015 I had the distinct pleasure of attending a tour of the South Cavalry Field and Farnsworth’s Charge with Eric J. Wittenberg. Eric is a noted expert on cavalry operations, and is a prolific historian. He’s also a terrific tour guide. Thanks to Mark of the Civil War Talk internet discussion group for arranging the get-together, and thanks to Eric and his wife Susan for donating their time and Eric’s considerable expertise to make this a truly enjoyable experience.

Eric started by telling us about Alfred Pleasonton. Pleasonton took command of the Cavalry Corps from George Stoneman on June 7, 1863 and was promoted to major general on June 22, 1863. Not a terribly energetic or efficient officer, Pleasonton’s main contribution was to elevate three captains to brigadier general: Wesley Merritt, George A. Custer, and Elon Farnsworth. A xenophobic officer, Pleasonton undertook to rid the cavalry corps of commanders who were foreigners. He’s known for having written, “I conscientiously believe that Americans only should rule in this matter & settle this rebellion–& that in every instance foreigners have injured our cause.” He merged Alfred Duffié’s division into David McMurtrie Gregg’s division and demoted Duffié to regimental command.

On June 17 he sent Duffié on what was essentially a suicide mission to Middleburg, Virginia. Middleburg became a trap for Duffié and his men, as they were quickly surrounded by rebels. “With shadows descending, Stuart charged Duffié’s main body, capturing over seventy-five men. The rest, however, stood firm against three attacks. Their obstinate resistance resulted in numerous Confederate casualties … the doomed Federals stood their ground so well that the battle dragged on through the early hours of the eighteenth. Only then did Stuart copy his enemy’s tactics by dismounting much of Robertson’s brigade and sending it into fields flanking the Yankees. As the Confederates moved in for the kill, the Rhode Islanders considered an every-man-for-himself retreat, ‘but such was the discipline of the men that officers and enlisted men seemed to strive to avoid a panic’ and thus rejected the tactic. Instead they grouped about their colonel, who at a critical moment remounted them and led them through a crease in Robertson’s line. The Federals had galloped barely two miles southward, Robertson’s men in pursuit, when Chambliss charged in to foil their escape. The Yankees reared backward as the new arrivals struck them in their front along a gullied mountain road. Realizing their enemy faced annihilation, the Rebels cried: ‘Surrender! It’s no use!’ Most of Duffié’s men agreed, throwing their weapons down and their hands up. Thirty-two others, including the colonel, crossed Little River southeast of the town, hid in riverbank underbrush, and after sunup on the eighteenth escaped Loudoun Valley through Hopewell Gap. Four other detachments, totaling sixty-one troopers, hid in the trees throughout the night and for most of the next day as well, till able to sneak away after dark on the eighteenth. By then nearly one hundred members of the outfit had been killed or wounded and as many others had been started off for Rebel prisons. … Early on 19 June, Duffié and his ragged band of fugitives staggered into army headquarters at Fairfax Court House. … Considering the impossibility of his situation, Duffié had done well to bring off any of his regiment. So thought Hooker, who appointed the Frenchman a brigadier general a few days after the affair at Middleburg. … In the end, his new rank counted for little, as Hooker allowed himself to be influenced by Alfred Pleasonton. The man who had sacrificed Dufié and his troopers charged that the colonel had failed to obey orders while in Loudoun Valley, allowing the enemy ‘to obtain such a position as to be able to kill, wound, & capture a large number of his men & officers.’ He recommended Duffié be court-martialed for ‘not fighting his men properly’ at Middleburg, adding that he had proved himself ‘totally unfitted to command a Regiment.’ Hooker seemed to endorse this patently unfair assessment of Duffié’s performance. He held no court-martial or official inquiry, but neither did he provide Duffié an opportunity to answer Pleasonton’s charges. At the latter’s urging, he sent the new general to Washington for reassignment. Duffié would never again serve in the Army of the Potomac.” [Edward G. Longacre, The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June – 14 July 1863, pp. 111-113] Pleasonton also demoted Colonel Luigi Palma di Cesnola, an Italian who had commanded a brigade under Duffié. “Pleasonton’s campaign to rid his corps of foreign-born commanders was progressing well.” [Ibid., p. 91]

Julius Stahel was another foreign commander who ran afoul of Pleasonton’s bigotry. “Still believing Pleasonton’s corps too weary and too busy to spare for additional chores, Hooker worked out an agreement with General Heintzelman to use Stahel’s division for yet another reconnaissance toward the Rappahannock. … At Hooker’s behest, Stahel on the twenty-seventh ordered patrols to scour the land east of the Catoctin Mountains, within hailing distance of the Pennsylvania line. Two-thirds of Copeland’s brigade moved north to Emmitsburg, then continued toward the road hub of Gettysburg, thus becoming the first body of Union horsemen to enter Pennsylvania.” [Edward G. Longacre, The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June – 14 July 1863, pp. 162-163] Pleasonton arranged Stahel’s reassignment to a small cavalry command, keeping his small division and allowing him to put his own man in command. Colonel Othneil De Forest, a brigade commander under Stahel, was sent on a leave of absence. Brigadier General Joseph Copeland, commanding the Michigan Brigade under Stahel, was another who lost his command. “Copeland at first had hopes of retaining his command under Pleasonton. But when he met his new superior at Frederick, he learned that Pleasonton had been given carte blanche to appoint his subordinates. Since the general preferred young and enterprising officers ‘known to himself and who [were] affiliated with him,’ the fifty-year-old Copeland was soon relegated to a series of desk jobs in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.” [Edward G. Longacre, The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June – 14 July 1863, p. 164]

Pleasonton elevated Hugh Judson Kilpatrick to command Stahel’s old division, putting Farnsworth and Custer in command of the two brigades under “Kill-cavalry,” and he made Wesley Merritt a brigade commander under John Buford, taking the place of Major Samuel H. Starr.

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Our first stop was at South Cavalry Field, located along Emmitsburg Road between the main battlefield and the Eisenhower Center. Here are some photos from a previous visit:

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Eric told us about Wesley Merritt next.

A graduate of the West Point Class of 1860, Merritt served in the 2nd Dragoons in the company John Buford commanded before the war and took part in the Mormon Expedition to Utah. He was essentially Buford’s protegé. He commanded the 2nd US Cavalry at the Battle of Brandy Station and now was in command of the Reserve Brigade consisting of the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 6th US Cavalry regiments, along with the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry [Rush’s Lancers].

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Attached to Merritt’s brigade was Battery K of the 1st US Artillery under command of Captain William Graham, who happened to be George Meade’s nephew. The Reserve Brigade had been left at Mechanicstown, Maryland, which is today’s Thurmont, Maryland. On July 3 they were ordered to Gettysburg and came up the Emmitsburg Road. They approached the battlefield at approximately 11:00 A.M. with the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry in the lead. They were opposed by Colonel John Logan Black and his 1st South Carolina Cavalry, approximately 100 troopers joined by another 300 teamsters armed with muskets and a single cannon in the middle of the Emmitsburg road, facing south. Due to the July 2 actions at Brinkerhoff’s Ridge and in Hunterstown, Lee saw that he had at least two divisions of Union cavalry on his left flank, so he stripped his right flank of most of its cavalry to deal with that threat.

The 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry went forward on foot [there were 10 companies of the 6th there. The other two companies, Companies E and I, were providing escort for Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. When they reached the Alexander Curren house, several members of the 6th went to the second floor as snipers. Black went looking for support and comes upon Evander Law, who had taken over Hood’s division when Hood was wounded. Law sends George “Tige” Anderson’s brigade, consisting of the 7th, 8th, 9th, 11th, and 59th Georgia regiments. The brigade double-quicked from the vicinity of Little Round Top to this area.

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Merritt looks out and sees the rear of Lee’s line.

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He orders the 5th US Cavalry to mount and charge, aiming for the red barn in the photos above. Anderson’s brigade, with the 9th Georgia in the lead, comes up in the nick of time to repulse the charge. This was a great lost opportunity for the Union. “Had Merritt’s attack been properly coordinated with Farnsworth’s, ‘Tige’ Anderson’s Confederate brigade could not have been shifted to meet both threats, and the far right flank of the Confederate army would have been held by only the inadequate force of cavalry led by Colonel Black and Hart’s crippled battery. The Federal cavalry could have been used as a shock force to set the stage for an infantry assault. In a properly conceived, coordinated, executed, and supported attack, the Confederate right flank may have been rolled up and the Army of Northern Virginia driven from the field in a panic. Instead, Judson Kilpatrick cobbled together an uncoordinated plan that stood little or no chance of succeeding and unnecessarily cost Elon Farnsworth his life.” [Eric J. Wittenberg, Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions: Farnsworth’s Charge, South Cavalry Field, and the Battle of Fairfield, July 3, 1863, p. 109] The 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry troopers were also driven away from the Curren House. The fighting lasted from 11 A.M. to 7 P.M., but resulted in comparatively low casualties.

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Farnsworth and Kilpatrick arrived on the field, and Pleasonton ordered Kilpatrick to operate on the confederate flank. He made his headquarters on Bushman’s Hill. Custer and his brigade were at the East Cavalry Field at the time.

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Farnsworth’s brigade consisted of the 1st Vermont Cavalry [one of the top five cavalry units in the war], the 5th New York Cavalry, the 1st West Virginia Cavalry, and the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry. The first four were all veteran units. The 18th PA Cav was a new unit largely raised in Adams County. Its first action was the Battle of Hanover.

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Farnsworth took command on June 28, 1863.

He had been expelled from the University of Michigan and was a teamster during the Mormon Expedition under Albert Sidney Johnston. In 1861 he enlisted in the 8th Illinois Cavalry, a unit raised by his uncle, John Franklin Farnsworth, who was an abolitionist congressman from Illinois and leader of a brigade of cavalry at the Battle of Antietam. Elected to Congress again in 1863, he resigned his commission and took his seat. At Brandy Station, Elon Farnsworth commanded the 8th Illinois Cavalry when its commander was wounded.

Kilpatrick wants to order a cavalry charge after the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge had been repulsed. Farnsworth performed a reconnaissance and came to the conclusion a successful charge would be impossible.

“When [Evander] Law took personal charge of Merritt’s opposition [at South Cavalry Field], Kilpatrick took heart anew. As the Confederate commander rushed to the west, the cavalry leader thought he saw his opening. Aiming to strike the rear of Round Top while Law’s attention was distracted, he ordered Farnsworth to lead a charge down the wooded, hilly terrain toward the east. The mission smacked of what a Rebel officer later called ‘wholesale slaughter,’ and Kilpatrick’s subordinate protested it to some degree. Just how much, is difficult to determine, given conflicting testimony–though probably not as loudly or as heatedly as Captain Parsons later recalled in a widely disseminated article. Even so, Farnsworth was upset enough to tell the commander of his 5th New York: ‘My God, Hammond, Kil is going to have a cavalry charge. It is too awful to think of.’ ” [Edward G. Longacre, The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June – 14 July 1863, p. 242]

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The 1st Vermont Cavalry was the only unit that had the appropriate horses for this terrain. They had Morgan horses, which are shorter and more stable in hilly terrain such as Bushman’s Hill. The 5th New York Cavalry will stay behind in support of the artillery under Elder. It’s impossible for the other three regiments to maintain cohesion in the charge.

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The 1st Vermont Cavalry troops were led by Major William Wells, who has a monument at Gettysburg. The bas relief on his monument depicts Farnsworth’s Charge.

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Not only did the charge go up against infantry, but it was also into the teeth of two batteries, one of which had divided its sections so that there were actually three artillery positions firing on the charging Federals. The charge veered toward the John Slyder Farm. The 4th Alabama fired into the charge and killed Farnsworth’s horse. Farnsworth was rescued by a private in the 1st Vermont who gave up his own horse to the brigadier general, then later as the Federals were trying to make their way back in the “D-shaped field” near the Slyder House, “Pistol in hand, Farnsworth demanded the surrender of Lt. John B. Adrian, the officer commanding Oates’ skirmish line. Farnsworth raised his pistol, and a dozen Rebel Enfields opened on him, killing his horse and wounding Farnsworth in several places, including the leg and thigh, the shoulder, and the abdomen.” [Eric J. Wittenberg, Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions: Farnsworth’s Charge, South Cavalry Field, and the Battle of Fairfield, July 3, 1863, p. 64] “Wounded in several places, including the pelvis, Farnsworth cried out a refusal to surrender, then fell dead.” [Edward G. Longacre, The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June – 14 July 1863, p. 243] Altogether, the charge covered about 2.2 miles.

This was an outstanding tour covering several places that normally don’t get visited. Thanks again to Eric and all involved.

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7 comments

  1. Eric J. Wittenberg · · Reply

    My pleasure, Al. I’m glad you were along, and I’m even more glad to hear that you found it worthwhile.

    And thank you for the kind words. I enjoy leading tours.

  2. Thanks for the introducing Duffie, another Pleasanton victim. Eric Wittenberg did a terrific job, showing Pleasanton’s mismanagement playing out on the fields of Gettysburg. Beginners ( myself ) sound silly commenting at length in these formats. Thanks very much for all this, so helpful!

    1. Eric did a great job. Nothing silly at all about your comment. 🙂

  3. Rosieo · · Reply

    Wonderful, comprehensive post, Al. Eric makes the cavalry come alive… He is the only author who gets me psyched about the cavalry… otherwise I cannot get into their doings and I don’t know why….. the idea of Custer, maybe…
    As an aside, are you attending the G. Institute this year? I know, The answer is “Yes”…. 🙂 …. One of these years I am going to make it there.
    In other news and as you can see, I adapted my name because, hey, why not?

    1. Thanks, Rosemary, and the answer most assuredly is yes. C-SPAN is broadcasting live on Saturday and Sunday beginning at 8:30 AM EDT. See if you can find me. 🙂

      P.S. I’ve got your back. 😉

  4. Rosieo · · Reply

    “P.S. I’ve got your back. ;)”

    Air Force guys are the greatest !

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