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 Road-Hanover 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 regiments–the 7th, 8th, 9th, 11th and 59th–followed 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 charge–that 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 Ridge–Brig. 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.’
This article was written by Jeffry D. Wert and originally appeared in the July 2002 issue of America’s Civil War. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!