Skip to comments.Elon John Farnsworth
Posted on 05/05/2006 12:17:43 PM PDT by robowombat
Elon John Farnsworth
Elon Farnsworth was born on July 30, 1837 in the small town of Green Oak, Michigan. The son of James Patten Farnsworth and Achsah (Hudson), he was descended from veterans of the French and Indian, Revolutionary, and 1812 wars. An older brother, Robert, died while very young, and he had one younger half-brother, Julius, who was born in 1855 of his father's second wife. When Elon was 18, his family moved to Rockton, Illinois, and the following year he enrolled in the University of Michigan. A young prankster, Elon often led other students in mischievous acts. In his second year, he was nearly expelled. In his third year, he and several others got drunk and rowdy one night, and apparently one student died after being thrown out of a building. Farnsworth and seven other students were finally expelled from school. As evidence of Farnsworth's underlying character, he went to one of his professors and thanked him, acknowledged that the expulsion was justified, and stated that he would yet show that he "could make a man of himself."
With his schooling now over, Farnsworth followed the Federal Army's march to the Utah Territory, where he served them as a civilian forage master. At Utah's Camp Floyd when the Civil War began, Farnsworth traveled back to Illinois and joined the 8th Illinois Cavalry, which his influential politician uncle John F. Farnsworth had organized at President Lincoln's direction. Young Farnsworth, then only 24, was immediately commissioned a first lieutenant in the regiment and in command of Company K. Amiable and still a bit of a prank, he was popular with the men, who said his "shrewdness and wit were proverbial." The tall, thin Farnsworth proved to be brave under fire and was described as "courage incarnate but full of tender regard for [the] men" under his command.
Farnsworth was commissioned captain early in 1862. Ever the patriot, Farnsworth had been told of a church pastor in Alexandria VA who had not offered the customary prayer for the good health of President Lincoln at one of his services. Approaching the clergyman, Farnsworth asked him to recite the invocation. When the pastor refused to do so, Farnsworth demanded it of him. After a second refusal, Farnsworth had him arrested. Several members of the congregation got into the argument and assaulted the young Captain, and it took a threat to shoot them to settle the affair.
The Confederates grew to both fear and hate the impetuous young officer. In November, he and other members of the 8th skirmished with troopers of the 1st Virginia Cavalry in November near Warrenton VA. A Confederate horseman named Billy Dulin had his horse shot from under him and was pinned under the animal. Farnsworth, drawing his pistol, shot Dulin, mortally wounding him. The men of the 1st Virginia swore vengeance upon Farnsworth, and every trooper in Dulin's company scratched Farnsworth's name on their cartridge boxes, swearing that "it would only be a matter of time until he [Farnsworth] would meet his fate." It would be a savored task indeed to be the one to bring the young captain down.
After returning to the regiment following a serious illness, and serving effectively, he was placed on the staff of Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton at the general's request. Pleasonton had often courted the favors of Elon's uncle John and looked for opportunities for self-promotion. John had resigned from the regiment upon being elected to the Congress, and Pleasonton recognized him as one who was influential amongst the chain of command. At the June 9, 1863 battle of Brandy Station, Farnsworth returned to his regiment to command them during the afternoon phase of the engagement when heavy casualties among the regiment's officers left him as the senior officer on the field. Farnsworth's exemplary command abilities caught Pleasonton's eye that day. Likely in a maneuver to both give Farnsworth broader command as well as to curry favors from the elder Farnsworth, Pleasonton wrote to the latter on June 23: "Captain Farnsworth has done splendidly - I have serious thoughts of having him made a brigadier general... I am sadly in want of officers with the proper dash to command cavalry - having lost so many good ones - Do assist us until we can get ahead of the Rebs." Hearing of the request, and not one above using some influence to promote himself as well, the young Farnsworth, on June 29, wrote a letter of his own to his uncle, saying: "The general speaks of recommending me for Brig[adier General]. I do not know that I ought to mention it for fear that you will call me an aspiring youth. I am satisfied to serve through this war in the line in my regt as a Capt on Genl Pleasonton's staff. But if I can do any good anywhere else of course "small favors &c." Now try and take this into the President, and you can do an immeasurable good."
The elder Farnsworth must have acted quickly, since Elon was promoted from captain to Brigadier General of Volunteers (skipping three ranks) on June 28, and immediately took command of a brigade of cavalry under Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick. Promoted along with Farnsworth, also from captain to brigadiers, were Wesley Merritt and George Armstrong Custer. The young trio would be known as the "boy generals."
Opportunity to prove himself in field command came quickly. On the morning of June 30, Kilpatrick's division clashed with JEB Stuart's gray troopers in the small Pennsylvania town of Hanover, just a little over 20 miles from Gettysburg. Farnsworth led a charge that drove Stuart from the town, which had raged through its streets all day. Two days later, Kilpatrick and Stuart tangled again at Hunterstown PA, where Farnsworth joined Custer and his brigade of horsemen in attacking Confederate Brigadier General Wade Hampton's cavalry brigade. In just a few days as a new brigadier, Farnsworth saw heavy action, fighting the most experienced and able of Confederate horsemen. He was unafraid to lead smashing mounted charges himself and proved himself as an inspirational commander who led by example.
After the Confederates were repulsed in the grand Pickett/Pettigrew/Trimble assault on the afternoon of July 3 at Gettysburg, the 27-year-old Kilpatrick (pictured) saw what he thought to be an opportunity to strike the enemy's right flank and attain some glory. From atop Bushman's Hill, just south of the Round Tops, Kilpatrick (who had received orders from Pleasonton to attack at any opportunity) ordered Farnsworth to lead his brigade, which had just arrived on the field a few hours earlier, in a mounted charge down the hill and into the Confederate ranks. Skirmishers of the 1st Vermont Cavalry of Farnsworth's brigade had been trading shots with Confederates of Brigadier Generals Evander M. Law and Jerome Robertson for several hours. Farnsworth's brigade was the only unit available, since Merritt's troopers were skirmishing to the south and Custer's brigade had been assigned to Brigadier General David M. Gregg's division. Seeing the boulder-strewn, wooded terrain, broken by rock walls and fences, Farnsworth rightly recognized the folly of leading his men in such an assault. Earlier, Kilpatrick had ordered the troopers of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry to charge the 1st Texas infantry near the Slyder Farm, and the troopers had run into a sturdy rail fence that stopped their movement. Tugging at the stakes and slashing at the rails with their sabers, the Mountaineers received a devastating fire from the Texans and were repulsed, suffering terribly. As the West Virginians regrouped, Kilpatrick threw in the horsemen of the 18th Pennsylvania, who were also repulsed by the Confederates well-hidden behind stone walls. Falling back along with men of the 5th New York Cavalry who were supporting Federal artillery, the troopers had to leave dozens of dead and wounded cavalrymen and horses strewn in the fields and woods.
Watching the action from above, Kilpatrick and Farnsworth's animated conversation began to heat up. Both were dismounted and standing near roaring Federal cannons. Farnsworth stated that charging the position was "worse than folly and certain destruction." Kilpatrick walked over to Major John Hammond, commanding the 5th New York, to ask his opinion about the chances of a mounted charge succeeding. Hammond observed the stone fences, heavily timbered swampy ground, and a "range of boulders and rocks that was appalling." Out of earshot of Kilpatrick, Farnsworth told Hammond, "My God, Hammond, Kil is going to have a cavalry charge. It is too awful to think of - will be but a slaughter of the boys - they have no chance for themselves."
However, Kilpatrick wanted his charge, his glory on his end of the line. He had received word of the massive cavalry clash going on east of the field between Gregg's and Stuart's horsemen, and he felt if he could break the Rebel right flank, Meade could roll up Lee's army and end the war on this ground. Kilpatrick even envisioned himself as President one day, and this scheme could be just the glorious assault to win the White House for him.
Walking over to the group, Major John W. Bennett of the 1st Vermont was asked by Farnsworth what he thought of the chances of success. "You have been up front all day," stated Farnsworth. "What do you think?" Before Bennett could answer, Kilpatrick yelled, "The whole Rebel army is in retreat! I have just heard from the right, and our cavalry there is gobbling them up by the thousands. All we have to do is charge, and the enemy will throw down their arms and surrender!"
Calmly, Bennett replied to Kilpatrick, "Sir, I don't know about the situation on the right, but the enemy in our front are not broken or retreating." He then described how a mounted charge had no chance for success through the trees and rocks. Kilpatrick shook his head and snorted with disgust. Bennett and Farnsworth mounted their horses to look the ground over further. As they rode, Farnsworth told Bennett he could "not see the slightest chance for a successful charge." Bennett agreed.
Returning, Kilpatrick ordered Farnsworth to mount the assault. Angrily, Farnsworth responded, "General... shall I throw my handful of men over rough ground, through timber, against a brigade of infantry? The 1st Vermont has already been fought half to pieces; these are too good men to kill!" Having enough, Kilpatrick glared at his brigadier and responded, "Do you refuse to obey my orders? If you are afraid to lead this charge, I will lead it!"
His honor and courage thus called into question by the goading Kilpatrick, whom Sheridan would call "a hell of a damned fool," the gallant young general affirmed that no one would lead his men but him, rising in his stirrups and crying out, "Take that back! I ask no man to lead my troops forward!" Rebuffed, Kilpatrick backed off, saying simply, "I didn't mean it. Forget it."
After an eerie silence, with troopers gawking at the generals' exchange, Farnsworth said in a solemn and firm voice, "General, if you order the charge, I will lead it; but you must take the responsibility. I will obey your order." "I take the responsibility," Kilpatrick replied, as Farnsworth rode off to prepare for his grim fate. The argument between the two was so loud that men of the 1st Texas infantry claimed to have heard it from 200 yards away down the hill. Knowing a charge of some sort was imminent, they readied themselves to receive it, with Law shifting his forces to meet the assault. He sent for reinforcements from the 9th Georgia to double-quick the half-mile to their front from the south, and they would arrive just in time.
Shaking hands with his officers and bidding them a prophetic farewell, Farnsworth organized the assault. Preparing, the Vermonters were stoically silent, as "each man felt, as he tightened his saber belt, that he was summoned to a ride to death."
With federal artillery whistling overhead and bugles blaring, Farnsworth, leading the column, crashed his troopers down the rocky hill and into the ranks of Law's 15th Alabama brigade, some of the finest riflemen in Lieutenant General James Longstreet's corps, and who were supported with two batteries of artillery. The terrain, unsuited to a mounted charge, quickly threw the brave troopers into disarray. Farnsworth had divided the 1st Vermont into three battalions for the charge; the third was commanded by Major William Wells (pictured). Farnsworth chose to ride alongside Wells, who, after observing the ground, had remarked himself that he would "rather charge into Hell than in there." The 2nd section was dismounted behind a stone wall to support the charge.
Repulsed by the Confederates firmly entrenched behind rock walls and fences, Farnsworth's column galloped near the Slyder Farm (west of Big Round Top) and toward a D-shaped farm field enclosed by high stone walls. His silk neckerchief flapping as he galloped, the "boy general" raised his saber and charged with his small party toward the 15th Alabama. Aiming his pistol, he demanded the surrender of Lieutenant John B. Adrian, in charge of the Confederate skirmish line. Suddenly, a dozen southern riflemen opened on him, killing his horse and wounding him in several places. Blood strewed from his shoulder, stomach, and a leg. Adrian approached Farnsworth, who still held his pistol and was struggling to stand up. The lieutenant asked his surrender, but Farnsworth refused. He died where he fell.
There, the young general had been shot down, the only known Federal officer of general rank to be killed behind enemy lines during the Civil War. Proving his courage, Farnsworth was felled in a futile charge which he knew to be suicidal, but which he himself led.
Major Wells was issued the Medal of Honor for his brave service that day. However, no such honor was given to Farnsworth, nor does he have a separate monument of his likeness anywhere on the Gettysburg battlefield. Past attempts to correct this tragic oversight have met with failure, although recently a renewed effort has been mounted with a possible chance of success. The Monument of the 1st Vermont Cavalry, which stands near the spot where the young general was felled, recounts his service in the charge, and a Park Service Placard along the park road which bypasses the Slyder Farm tells the story, of which most visitors are unaware. On the face of the boulder used as a base for the portrait statue of Wells is a sculpted plaque which depicts the charge, complete with likenesses of many of the participants.
Most visitors to the Gettysburg battlefield do not know of the ground which comprised Farnsworth's ill-fated charge, although they drive through the middle of it when eagerly approaching Little Round Top, the site of several famous actions on days 2 and 3 of the battle. Just before coming to Big Round Top, the visitor must look closely to see the walking paths on both sides of the park road, remnants of the old back lane of the Slyder Farm. Walking up the one to the right will take the visitor up Bushman's Hill, where the assault was formed, and where monuments to the 5th New York and 18th Pennsylvania Cavalries stand. To the left, the path leads past the D-shaped field, where Farnsworth fell, to the Slyder Farm.
The D-shaped field today is hardly a field now, overgrown and virtually neglected. Most of the stone walls enclosing it are the original walls, and the monument of the 1st Vermont stands in it. In this field, the gallant, impetuous young brigadier, a prankster in his youth and a stalwart, courageous leader in his prime, fell leading his veteran troopers. Perhaps someday a monument to Farnsworth, befitting of his likeness and worthy of his service, will stand upon this field and bear witness to the dedication and steadfastness of the soldiers on both sides who swirled through their own hell, in both an action and a part of the battlefield, that is all but forgotten by most.
They didn't call Kilpatrick "Kill Cavalry" for nothing.
Article from America's Civil War Magazine
Battle of Gettysburg: 'All The Powers of Hell Were Waked to Madness'
After the conclusion of Pickett's Charge, ill-advised Union cavalry attacks killed dozens of Federal horsemen and a promising brigadier general.
By Jeffry D. Wert
Union Brigadier General Elon John Farnsworth had seen enough of war to know that the order he had been given for a mounted cavalry charge was a grievous mistake. From where he stood on a hill east of the Emmitsburg Road, facing nearly due north toward the Bushman and Slyder farms, he could see that the terrain favored the defenders. The ground was uneven, scarred by outcroppings of rocks, splotched by stands of trees and crisscrossed by stone walls and wooden fences manned by Confederate infantrymen. Behind them, unlimbered on a ridge, the muzzles of enemy cannons pointed toward the Federals. To Farnsworth, it had the look of defeat.
It was midafternoon on Friday, July 3, 1863, at Gettysburg. The day's events, begun at daylight at the opposite end of the battlefield on Culp's Hill, had just boiled to a fearful climax on Cemetery Ridge with the repulse of Pickett's Charge. As on the two previous days at Gettysburg, when fighting had continued after dark, the gods of war seemed unfulfilled in their thirst for sacrifice and carnage. Before July 3 ended, a final tragic engagement would occur at the southern end of the battlefield in the shadow of Big Round Top.
When the combat had ended on July 2 at about 10 p.m., after General Robert E. Lee had assailed the Union position, the two days' slaughter totaled roughly 34,000 killed, wounded and captured. The fighting on July 2 was some of the war's fiercest, and the Confederate infantry and artillery came close to breaking the Union lines. Major General George G. Meade and his army's ranking subordinates shifted units to fill gaps, salvaging the day for the Army of the Potomac. With darkness, Lee issued orders to resume the offensive on July 3, while Meade and his senior officers voted at a council of war to stay and defend the ground for another day.
While war's fury engulfed the Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, Devil's Den, Little Round Top, Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill on July 2, Union cavalrymen protected the army's right flank east of Gettysburg. Regiments from Brig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg's 2nd Division skirmished with Confederate infantrymen on Brinkerhoff's Ridge, and troopers from Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick's 3rd Division clashed northeast of Gettysburg at Hunterstown with rear guard units of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's Southern horsemen en route to join Lee's army after a week-long absence.
Later in the day, Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, Meade's cavalry commander, posted Gregg's two brigades along the Baltimore Pike, south of the bridge over Rock Creek, and ordered Kilpatrick and his two brigades to Two Taverns, farther south on the Baltimore Pike. Kilpatrick's men rode through the night, arriving at daylight on July 3 at the small village. Exhausted and hungry, the troopers slept for three hours and then tended to their mounts and prepared breakfast.
At 8 o'clock on the morning of July 3, Kilpatrick received an order from Pleasonton to march his two brigades northward to the army's left flank near Big Round Top. There, he was to join with Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt's Reserve Brigade of Brig. Gen. John Buford's 1st Division, coming north from Emmitsburg, Md., and to attack the Confederate right flank. Soon, however, a second order arrived, directing Kilpatrick to send Brig. Gen. George A. Custer's Michigan brigade north from Two Taverns to the Low Dutch RoadHanover Road intersection, where they would later get into a spirited fight with Stuart. Gregg, whose command had held the vital crossroads on July 2, had requested the switch, and Pleasonton agreed. Kilpatrick, however, was worried that the move weakened his force, and believed that the new orders had been issued "by some mistake."
Left with only Farnsworth's brigade of approximately 1,900 officers and men, Kilpatrick led it toward the army's southern flank later that morning. If Pleasonton wanted aggressive action, he had the right man in Kilpatrick, regardless of the number of troopers he commanded. Although he was a small man, Kilpatrick had the temperament of a fighting cock. An 1861 graduate of West Point, the 27-year-old brigadier had been in command of the division since June 28. He had searched for action and had found it at Hanover on June 30, when he had battled Stuart during the armies' pre-Gettysburg maneuvering, and at Hunterstown on July 2. Before long he would earn the nickname "Kil-Cavalry" for his lavish expenditure of horseflesh and of men.
Kilpatrick and Farnsworth's brigade reached the area southwest of Big Round Top about 1 p.m. As the column of horsemen began shifting into position, massed Confederate batteries unleashed the cannonade on Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery Hill that preceded the Southern infantry assault. Farnsworth deployed three of his regiments in Bushman's woods, on the farm of George Bushman. The 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry held the left of the line, followed by the 1st West Virginia Cavalry and the 1st Vermont Cavalry. Behind the troopers, Lieutenant Samuel S. Elder's gunners of Battery E, 4th U.S. Artillery, unlimbered their four 3-inch ordnance rifles on a small, rocky knoll. As support for the battery, Farnsworth placed the 5th New York Cavalry in a ravine.
Union skirmishers soon dismounted and strung out along the northern edge of the woods. To their front, Confederate infantry pickets and a pair of batteries opened fire, with Elder's crews replying with occasional rounds. The fitful exchanges lasted more than two hours while Pickett's Charge climaxed on the bloody slope of Cemetery Ridge. Kilpatrick was content to wait for Wesley Merritt's Reserve Brigade from Emmitsburg.
Merritt's column had departed from the Maryland village around noon. During the march north, Merritt detached the 6th U.S. Cavalry to Fairfield, Pa., after receiving a report that a Confederate wagon train was foraging in the area. That regiment set off on its mission, and the rest of Merritt's brigade met up with Farnsworth at about 3 o'clock. Merritt's Regulars added more than 1,300 officers and men in four regiments and a battery to the Union cavalry congregating along the Emmitsburg Road.
When Merritt arrived at the southern end of the battlefield, he deployed his regiments in the fields on both sides of Emmitsburg Road. They pushed back some Confederate skirmishers and set up a line north of the David Currens farm. Companies of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry stretched toward the left flank of Farnsworth's brigade in Bushman's woods. Six 3-inch ordnance rifles of Captain William K. Graham's Battery K, 1st U.S. Artillery, braced Merritt's line.
The skirmishers that Merritt's horsemen had pushed back were part of a line of infantry, artillery and cavalry that the Confederates had drawn up to oppose the Federals. When the fighting had ended on that portion of the battlefield on July 2, the division of Maj. Gen. John B. Hood held a line west of Little Round Top from Rose's woods, along Houck's Ridge, south through Devil's Den to the southwestern base of Big Round Top. Hood had been wounded early in the action on July 2, and was succeeded by Brig. Gen. Evander Law. During the night, Law had shifted the Texas Brigade, consisting of the 1st, 4th and 5th Texas and the 3rd Arkansas, into position on the left of Law's own Alabama brigade, the 4th, 15th, 44th, 47th and 48th Alabama, now under the command of Colonel James L. Sheffield of the 48th. Together, the two brigades covered the woods from the foot of Little Round Top to the base of Big Round Top.
At daybreak on July 3, Law ordered three companies of the 47th Alabama to form a skirmish line south of Bushman's woods, covering the ground from the trees to the Emmitsburg Road. Later during the morning, 100 troopers of the 1st South Carolina Cavalry, commanded by Colonel John L. Black, and Captain James F. Hart's Washington Light Artillery (two Blakely rifles) joined the skirmishers of the 47th Alabama, covering the fields west of the Emmitsburg Road. When Farnsworth's Federals appeared about 1 o'clock, the Alabamians, South Carolinians and artillery crews withdrew farther north.
Law continued to reinforce his right flank in the face of the Union cavalry threat. The 1st Texas was withdrawn from Law's main line along the base of the Round Tops and shifted westward to take up a position behind a stone wall that ran in an east-west direction from the southern end of the Bushman farm lane. They pulled rails from a nearby wooden fence, piling them on the wall to add to its height and increase their protection.
To their left, Sheffield extended a line of his Alabamians at a right angle to confront the Federals in Bushman's woods. When Farnsworth's men got close enough, those Texans and Alabamians opened up with rifle fire.
Brigadier General George T. Anderson's brigade of five Georgia regimentsthe 7th, 8th, 9th, 11th and 59thfollowed the Texans, filing across the Emmitsburg Road as support for Black's South Carolina troopers and Hart's cannoneers. The Georgians numbered about 1,200 officers and men and, like the Texans and Alabamians, were veteran infantrymen. As they moved into position, Merritt's Union troopers had dismounted and were advancing on foot.
The contest that had been simmering for nearly two hours came to a boil as Kilpatrick ordered an attack by Merritt and Farnsworth. Merritt's men went in first in a heavy line of dismounted skirmishers. Hart's Confederate gunners responded with cannon fire. The Federals pressed ahead into the crescent-shaped Rebel line west of the Emmitsburg Road, but when some of the Georgians rose from the ground in a wheat field and blasted the Yankees, Merritt's line stalled.
The 11th and 59th Georgia enfiladed the left flank of the Northerners. "Though every one fought like a tiger," claimed a Union sergeant, "we had to fall back." A Georgia major wrote that the Southerners "soon gave them a good whipping. They ran after a hotly contested fight of about fifteen minutes." Merritt's effort had ended almost as soon as it had begun.
As Merritt's men were stepping out for their dismounted attack, Farnsworth's troopers prepared for a mounted charge. When Farnsworth received the order for an assault on horseback, he must have been stunned. To go in on foot would have been tough enough, and the enemy position was, in the words of one of his officers, "one that above all others is the worst for a cavalry chargethat is, behind stone fences so high as to preclude the possibility of gaining the opposite side without dismounting and throwing them down."
Pleasonton had only promoted Merritt, Custer and Farnsworth from captain to brigadier general on June 29, so all three men were new to brigade command. Twenty-six years old, Farnsworth was a Michigander who had entered the Army in the fall of 1861 as an adjutant to his uncle, Colonel John Farnsworth of the 8th Illinois Cavalry. Elon Farnsworth commanded the regiment during part of the fighting at Brandy Station on June 9, 1863, prompting Pleasonton to appoint him to the general's staff. Though inexperienced at leading more than one regiment, Farnsworth had seen enough of combat to know that Kilpatrick's order meant heavy losses.
The recently appointed brigadier apparently conferred with a number of his subordinates. When they questioned the wisdom of a mounted charge, he protested the order personally to Kilpatrick. There are various accounts given of the exchange between the two young generals. All witnesses agree, however, that it was heated.
According to one version, when Farnsworth objected to the order, Kilpatrick told him that he had a report that the enemy was retreating. "No successful charge can be made against the enemy in my front," asserted Farnsworth. Kilpatrick seemed "annoyed, not to say angered."
"So you refuse to obey my orders? If you are afraid to lead this charge, I will lead it," Kilpatrick replied. Rising in his stirrups, Farnsworth answered, "Take that back!" Although Kilpatrick rose "defiantly" from his saddle, he responded, "I did not mean it; forget it."
"General," said Farnsworth, "if you order the charge I will lead it, but you must take the awful responsibility." He then turned and rode away to convey the instructions to his regimental commanders.
Colonel Nathaniel P. Richmond's 1st West Virginia Cavalry led the charge, clearing the trees of Bushman's woods. The skirmishers of the 1st Texas fired at the Federals and then scattered. "The ground trembl[ed] as they came," wrote a Texan. When Richmond's cavalrymen closed to within 60 yards, "our Boys rose and pitched into them," added the soldier. The volley from the Confederates' Enfield rifles tore into the ranks of the blue-jacketed men, knocking numbers of them from their horses.
The West Virginians jumped their mounts over the stone wall into the midst of the defenders. The Federals slashed with their sabers as the Texans swung rifles, triggered shots and even threw rocks. "The firing for a few minutes was front, rear and towards the flank," said a Confederate. Texas Private H.W. Berryman claimed that he personally rounded up five or six prisoners and "pointed to the rear and told them to git." He watched as a comrade shot at a Yankee and "blew his brains out."
The West Virginians milled about in great confusion. When they were entirely surrounded, Richmond shouted for them to cut their way out. Some of them jumped their horses back over the wall, while others veered left or right to escape. They fled to the safety of Bushman's woods. "Our regiment suffered terribly," wrote a member. "It cost us a fearful price." Their losses amounted to 21 killed, 34 wounded and 43 captured, or a fourth of the nearly 400 in the regiment.
Within minutes, however, the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry, supported by several companies of the 5th New York Cavalry, renewed the attack. The Texans, who had numbered slightly fewer than 200 when they had manned the stone wall, braced themselves. The Federals came on "with energy," but as Lieutenant Henry C. Potter of the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry declared, "The Rebs in our front appeared by the thousands. They seemed to come out of the ground like bees."
The Enfields flashed in another volley from the stone wall. "They gave us such a rattling fire," Potter wrote of the Rebels, "we all gave way and retreated toward the woods." It was over in a handful of minutes. The losses in the two regiments amounted to 20 officers and men killed or wounded.
In the meantime, Farnsworth had readied the 1st Vermont Cavalry, 12 companies in all, roughly 400 officers and men. He divided the regiment into three battalions, four companies each under Lt. Col. Addison W. Preston, Major William Wells and Captain Henry C. Parsons. As they formed ranks, Parsons noticed Captain Oliver T. Cushman in "a white duck fighting jacket,' trimmed with yellow braid." When Parsons remarked that it would make Cushman a conspicuous target, the officer replied that a "lady" had made it for him and "no rebel bullet could pierce it."
The Vermonters emerged from the woods after the repulse of the other three regiments. "The Texans had ceased firing," wrote bugler Joseph Allen, "and we knew they were waiting to pick us off at short range." The Federals surged ahead. When the Texans fired, most of the bullets whizzed over the heads of the troopers. The Vermonters reached the wall and went over it. The smoke was so thick that the Texans "could not take accurate aim," recalled a Vermont trooper.
Parsons' battalion spearheaded the charge. Once across the wall, the captain led his companies north toward the John Slyder farm. "The sun was blinding," recalled Parsons. At the stone farmhouse, the column turned east, following a farm lane toward the lower wooded slope of Big Round Top.
Confederate division commander Evander Law had watched the Texans' valiant stand at the stone wall. When the 1st West Virginia initiated Farnsworth's attack, Law ordered the 9th, 11th and 59th Georgia to the support of his two batteries behind the Texans and sent an aide to his Alabama brigade at the base of Big Round Top. Law instructed the staff officer to direct the first regimental commander he found in the woods to advance "in a run" to the rear. The aide came upon the 4th Alabama, repeated Law's order, and watched as the regiment hurried through the trees to the wood line that overlooked the fields of the Slyder farm. They saw a column of Federal cavalry directly ahead and moving toward them.
"Cavalry, boys, cavalry!" yelled an Alabama officer. "This is no fight, only a frolic, give it to them!" The Southerners stood and triggered a volley. For a second time Parsons' men were fortunate as the enemy fired too high. But the Confederates reloaded and unloosed a "random volley," in Parsons' words. Vermonters toppled from saddles. "Every time a man near was hit," wrote bugler Allen, "I could hear the pat of the bullet." The Yankees could only see the enemy riflemen "by puffs of smoke." "Our boys really enjoyed that part of the battle," bragged an Alabamian.
Parsons wheeled his column south, away from the 4th Alabama, then halted the companies in the shelter of a wooded hill and re-formed ranks. His rear squadron, however, had become separated, and it retreated across the meadow to Bushman's woods. As he waited to regroup, Parsons saw William Wells' battalion cross the tracks of his command and sweep "in a great circle to the right."
Wells' companies had charged to the right, or east, of Parsons' battalion. Wells' men knifed through the skirmish line of the 47th Alabama on the left of the Texans, entered the meadow of the Slyder farm and then followed a low stone wall east to a spur of Big Round Top. It was then that Parsons watched them pass.
Farnsworth had accompanied Wells. When the column reached the spur, the brigadier led it north through the woods in the rear of the Alabama regiments posted at the foot of Big Round Top. Many Confederates, however, saw the Union horsemen; they faced about and opened fire. "It was a swift, resistless charge," wrote Parsons of the advance of his comrades, "over rocks, through timber, under close enfilading fire."
Wells' horsemen cleared the treeline into fields west of Devil's Den and Houck's Ridge. They did not, however, clear the Rebel threat lurking to their right on Houck's RidgeBrig. Gen. Henry L. Benning's bri-gade of Georgians turned toward the Federals, lashing them with musketry. A section of a Confederate battery on Emmitsburg Road burst shells above the Vermonters. Farnsworth's horse was killed, and a corporal gave his mount to the general. Caught in a circle of hellfire, the battalion splintered into three groups.
While one contingent hurried south and then east, returning to their lines, a second group angled toward the Bushman house and down its lane. The Vermonters passed through a gantlet of rifle fire as the 9th, 11th and 59th Georgia raked the column. Most of the Yankees were spared, and they even bagged several Texans as prisoners before reaching Bushman's woods.
The final group, led by Farnsworth and Wells, retraced their route toward the spur of Big Round Top. The woods swarmed with Rebels, and gunfire sang through the column. The 15th Alabama came rushing into line as the Federals re-emerged into a field. On the left of the 15th, the skirmishers of the 47th Alabama took aim. By that time, Preston's battalion had joined Parsons', and squadrons from their commands raced to the aid of Wells' men. But time had run its course for the bloodied Vermonters.
A scissors of musketry cut into the ranks of Wells' column. Farnsworth reeled in the saddle and fell to the ground, struck in the chest, abdomen and leg by five bullets. Postwar accounts by Confederates alleging that he had committed suicide are bogus. In his report, Kilpatrick wrote of the fallen brigadier, "We can say of him, in the language of another, Good soldier, faithful friend, great heart, hail and farewell.'"
The surviving Vermonters slashed their way through the ring of Confederates with their sabers. Wells led one party to safety and would earn the Medal of Honor for his actions. Other splinters of cavalrymen, including the troopers from Parsons' and Preston's battalions, escaped in other directions. It had been a senseless slaughter of good men. The attack accomplished nothing and reportedly cost the 1st Vermont Cavalry 13 killed, 25 wounded and 27 missing or captured.
As Farnsworth and other officers in the brigade believed, the order should never have been issued. Primary responsibility, which Farnsworth had demanded of Kilpatrick, rested with the division commander. Although he had orders from Pleasonton to attack the Confederate flank, Kilpatrick could see for himself the difficulties of a mounted charge across that ground defended by veteran Confederate infantrymen and artillerists. Only he seemed to believe that the enemy was retreating. His aggressiveness and misjudgment had led the Vermonters into a bloody trap.
A survivor of Farnsworth's charge later wrote that it seemed "as though all the powers of hell were waked to madness." Texas Sergeant D.H. Hamilton had it right when he said, "It was simply a picnic to fight cavalry under such conditions."