Book Review: “Kill-Cavalry,” Sherman’s Merchant of Terror: The Life of Union General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick ( Samuel J. Martin) : ACW

8/11/2001 • Mag: America's Civil War Reviews, War of 1812

“Kill-Cavalry,” Sherman’s Merchant of Terror: The Life of Union General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, by Samuel J. Martin, Associated University Presses, Cranbury, N.J., $48.50.

During the 1960s, popular historian Glenn Tucker wrote a two-volume history of the War of 1812 with a particularly engaging title, Poltroons and Patriots. It can certainly be argued that the Civil War produced more than its share of officers, on both sides, to whom these labels could readily apply. In rare instances, both labels could apply to the same man. Union Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick is one of those.

Born in New Jersey in 1836 and graduated from West Point in 1861, the same class as another cavalryman with a colorful reputation named George Custer, Kilpatrick had, in the words of his biographer, “a life plan; he would be a military hero, governor of New Jersey, and finally president of the United States.” Obviously, Kilpatrick’s plans did not work out quite as he had hoped. Despite that, Judson Kilpatrick still had a singularly successful life.

In this first full-length biography of Kilpatrick, Samuel J. Martin has taken a slightly different course than most biographers in presenting their subjects; he has taken great pains to point out every possible flaw and misdeed in Kilpatrick’s life. In the prologue, Martin points out that Kilpatrick’s many friends considered him a gallant leader, then quickly points out that his enemies “were convinced that he was a coward–an egotistical, lying, sadistic, philandering, thieving miscreant whose lofty reputation had been gained by words, not deeds.”

Kilpatrick was, in many regards, all the things Martin claims. There is no doubt that he was vain, a notorious womanizer, a glory-seeker, often cruel (especially to Southerners), and an incorrigible liar. But Maj. Gen. William Sherman may have said it best in November 1864, just before starting his March to the Sea, when he stated, “I know that Kilpatrick is a hell of a damned fool, but I want just that sort of man to command my cavalry in this expedition.”

Martin has done such a fine job of detailing Kilpatrick’s career that not all of the charges against Kilpatrick hold up. For instance, Martin claims that Kilpatrick was a coward, always staying in the rear and sending his men forward to be needlessly slaughtered. But the facts do not bear out the charge. In fact, it could be argued that in many ways Kilpatrick was a good deal like his old classmate and future subordinate, George Custer, in his daring, especially during the early years of the war.

If the reader approaches “Kill-Cavalry,” Sherman’s Merchant of Terror with an open mind, it should prove to be an entertaining and informative reading experience.

B. Keith Toney