Union General Judson Kilpatrick was flamboyant, reckless, tempestuous, and even licentious. In some respects he made other beaux sabreurs like fellow-cavalrymen George Custer and J. E. B. Stuart seem dull. Because he was a passionate man, Kilpatrick won many admirers and made many enemies during his Civil War career–and not all of his enemies wore gray. Those who knew him usually held one of two opinions. He was either a heroic and noble soldier, or (as one Federal officer wrote) ‘a frothy braggart without brains.
Opinions varied because Kilpatrick was complex. He was a hell-for-leather warrior most of the time, but often stood quite as eager to withdraw from a fight as he had been to enter it. He loved to make speeches to his troopers and worked hard to get public notice, but drove his men and horses so roughly, seemingly without regard for their well-being, that he earned the nickname, Kilcavalry. And in an army rife with gamblers and drinkers, Kilpatrick touched neither playing cards nor bottle; but he lacked integrity and cherished certain other vices.
Physically, he looked anything but the romantic concept of the cavalryman. He was bantam-sized, with a lantern jaw, pale eyes, and frizzy red sidewhiskers. But being vain, he dressed with a certain flair. He wore carefully tailored uniforms, great boots, and a black felt hat tilted at a rakish angle. A staff officer once remarked that it was hard to look at him without laughing. But Kilpatrick impressed others with his restless energy, for he seemed always to be in a hurry to accomplish some great deed.
He was born Hugh Judson Kilpatrick near Deckertown, New Jersey, on January 14, 1836. His father was a farmer, but in his teens young Kilpatrick decided against agriculture as his own profession. Politics attracted him–an interest which remained with him through the years–and before he reached 20 he was stumping rural New Jersey on behalf of a local Congressman seeking renomination. The Congressman won and rewarded his young supporter by offering him an appointment to the United States Military Academy.
At West Point, Kilpatrick (Class of 1861) dropped his first name, won satisfactory grades, acted in Dialectic Society dramas, and developed his talent for public speaking. When the secession crisis swept the Academy he harangued cadets from the South with his Union sentiments. As a consequence he found himself involved in several fist fights, but despite his size he thrashed his way to victory more than once.
He was so caught up in the clamor to defend the Union that he got up a petition with classmates’ signatures and sent it to the War Department. The petition asked special permission for the Class of ’61 to graduate some months earlier than usual, so that its members could serve the nation as quickly as possible in this time of crisis. The request was granted.
On the April day on which he graduated (he was the class valedictorian), Kilpatrick married Alice Nailer, of New York, in the West Point chapel. He went to war carrying a silken banner which bore her name.
Although he became a lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Artillery upon graduation, Kilpatrick had no desire to fight the war either in the Regular Army or as an artilleryman. He turned to the volunteer service in a search for high rank and glory, and soon was commissioned captain in Duryée’s Zouaves (5th New York Infantry). At once he hurried south to join the regiment at Fort Monroe, Virginia, where he worked hard to mold his company into an effective fighting unit. But he was humane as well as stern, and able to win his soldiers’ confidence and affection.
His first assignments in the field–minor scouting and foraging expeditions– failed to satisfy his craving for battle. He had to wait until June 10 for his first touch of glory. On that day he became the first Regular Army officer to be wounded during the war, being struck in the thigh by a grapeshot while directing his men during the Battle of Big Bethel. Although this first large land fight of the war was a Confederate victory, Kilpatrick won high praise from the Northern press for his coolness and efficiency. As a result, while on leave to recuperate from his wound, he found himself a lieutenant colonelcy in the Harris Light Cavalry–subsequently designated the 2d New York. He accepted his commission on September 25, as did several other officers from Duryée’s Zouaves.
He served with the newly organized unit in the defenses of the nation’s Capital until late in January 1862. Then, tired of the dull routine of garrison life, he accepted the post of chief of artillery on militia Major General James H. Lane’s expedition into Texas. But he had barely started for Kansas, the rendezvous point for the march, when he learned that the expedition had been scrapped. More restless than ever for activity, Kilpatrick returned to his regiment at Arlington, Virginia.
When Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac sailed down the coast to the Virginia Peninsula, Kilpatrick remained behind with the 2d New York and conducted some minor raids through northern Virginia. During one of these, a night reconnaissance near Falmouth Heights, he demonstrated a talent for cunning and audacity. He had only one regiment in his command, but when he found himself confronting Confederate pickets he shouted orders to nonexistent reinforcements. Hearing him and believing that at least a brigade of cavalry was surrounding them, hundreds of Rebels scurried down the Heights, crossed the Rappahannock River, and burned the bridge so that Kilpatrick could not follow and capture them.
In July and August 1862, Kilpatrick went raiding. He struck at Stonewall Jackson’s communication lines in the Shenandoah Valley, burned railroad depots and destroyed tracks, ties, and telegraph lines. Late in August he participated in his first engagement at Brandy Station, Virginia, where he and the rest of Brigadier General George D. Bayard’s cavalry brigade were repulsed by J.E.B. Stuart’s legions.
On December 6, 1862 Kilpatrick became the colonel of the 2d New York. His fame continued to. grow, and in February 1863 he was given brigade command, at age 27.
He led his brigade on Stoneman’s Raid during the Chancellorsville Campaign. Although the operation, on the whole, was a failure, some of Stoneman’s officers, Kilpatrick among them, acquitted themselves well. With a detached force, Kilcavalry captured towns in enemy country, again destroyed railroad apparatus, and by marching sixty miles a day penetrated to within two miles of Richmond. His daring threw the Confederate Capital into a mild panic, but finally he had to retreat down the Peninsula to the Union lines outside Fort Monroe, to avoid being captured.
Following Stoneman’s Raid, Kilpatrick’s fame crested. He rode the crest when on June 9 he charged up Fleetwood Hill near Brandy Station during the greatest cavalry battle fought in North America. At the top of the hill his troopers engaged in saber-to-saber fighting against Stuart’s horsemen, trying to push the Rebels from the summit. Kilpatrick’s brigade charged in three waves, but the first two melted away under enemy artillery and flank fire. Elsewhere on the field other Federal brigades were faltering disastrously, and Kilpatrick realized the importance of holding the hill. With his third regiment he was able to smash into the Rebels and scatter them–and for a short time it appeared that his success would throw the battle in the Federals’ favor. But Stuart rallied his troopers and ultimately forced Kilpatrick and his comrades from Fleetwood. The battle went into the history books as another Rebel victory. But the Union horsemen had shown dash and determination–and none among them so much as the little gamecock from New Jersey. Four days later Kilpatrick was wearing the star of a brigadier general.
During the operations that preceded the battle of Gettysburg, he helped prevent Stuart from marching his cavalrymen through Maryland, by way of Edwards’ Ferry and Boonsborough, to join the major portion of General Robert E. Lee’s army. Although he was at first roughly handled by Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee at Aldie, Viriginia, on June 17, a counterattack enabled him to chase the enemy from the field. Four days later he engaged in a fierce saber battle against Brigadier General Wade Hampton’s cavalry, which culminated in a charge that drove the Rebels out of Upperville, Virginia, and finally through Ashby’s Gap upon their own infantry columns in the Shenandoah Valley.
On June 28, 1863, the Army of the Potomac was reorganized. When Major General George G. Meade assumed over-all command, Kilpatrick was assigned a division in the Cavalry Corps. The unit consisted of two brigades under newly appointed generals, George Custer and Elon J. Farnsworth. Kilpatrick led his new command in its task of covering the army’s center, as the Federals followed Robert E. Lee into Pennsylvania.
On the last day of June Kilpatrick encountered Stuart’s cavalry division in Hanover, Pennsylvania. The Federals were drawn up in the streets of the town, resting, when Stuart’s leading brigade battered and nearly routed Farnsworth’s command. Farnsworth and Kilpatrick rushed up to re-form and steady their line, and they directed a vigorous counterattack that dispersed the Gray horsemen and nearly resulted in the capture of Stuart himself.
After the Confederates rode off, Kilpatrick took Farnsworth’s brigade toward Gettysburg. After a sharp skirmish against Hampton on July 2, the cavalry reached the rear of the Army of the Potomac. On the morning of July 3 Kilpatrick’s command took position on the left of the Union line, across the Emmitsburg Road.
July 3, 1863, marked the beginning of Kilpatrick’s decline as a soldier. To that date his career had been promising and distinguished; great things had been expected of him. But on July 3 he made an unwise decision that resulted in the shattering part of Farnsworth’s brigade and the death of its young commander.
Following Pickett’s Charge, Kilpatrick directed Farnsworth to attack the extreme right of Rebel line. This was ordered, ostensibly, to exert such pressure on that vital defense point that the Confederates would be thrown back and their line opened up to a crushing assault by divisions of Union infantry. But it is also clear that Kilpatrick ordered the charge in frustration at having been kept out most of the day’s fighting. He realized that only an energetic officer who committed his troops to battle would win glory on this field.
But he asked the impossible of Farnsworth. The brigade commander was required to attack strongly positioned infantry over rough, boulder-strewn ground, despite being outnumbered. In point of fact, Farnsworth had tried that very thing a short while before and had failed signally. Naturally, he was stunned by the order. General, do you mean it? he asked. 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 peices; these are too good men to kill!
Kilpatrick was enraged that Farnsworth should question his command. Do you refuse to obey my orders? If you are afraid to lead this charge, I will lead it.
A witness to the confrontation later recalled the General Farnsworth rose in his stirrups–he looked magnificent in his passion, and cried, ‘Take that back!’ Kilpatrick hesistated a moment and backed down, but would not withdraw his order. For some seconds there was silence between them, until Farnsworth said quietly, General, if you order the charge, I will lead it, but you must take the responsibility.
His troopers made the charge, were as successful as the Light Brigade at Balaklava, and the responsibility indeed rested on Kilpatrick’s shoulders. In his official report of the battle, however, he tried to cover up his mistake with bombastic words about the infantry’s failure to exploit the confusion into which Farnsworth had thrown the Rebel right.
In the same report Kilpatrick praised the young general whose courage he had openly questioned a short time before: …he baptized his star in blood, and…for the honor of his young brigade and the glory of his corps, he yielded up his noble life.
Kilcavalry truly earned his sobriquet that day, but he tried to make amends by vigorously pursuing Lee into Maryland. In the days immediately following the battle he captured some of Lee’s wagons, and at such places as Hagerstown, Falling Waters, Williamsport, and Boonsborough, achieved varying degrees of success in combat against Confederate infantry and cavalry. In reporting these engagements, however, Kilpatrick indulged a perennial weakness for exaggerating the number of prisoners taken and hte number of casualties inflicted upon the enemy.
As the war moved farther south, Kilpatrick returned to Virginia and spent the rest of the summer and that fall slugging away at J.E.B. Stuart’s horsemen. He took a short respite from this grueling work when he used his artillery to bombard two Confederate-manned gunboats in the Rappahannock. Afterward the slugging matches resumed, and he fought fa series of battles at and near Brandy Station. In one of these he achieved a modest feat by escaping from an encirclement set by Stuart’s men. However, this was later described in slightly grander terms by one regimental historian: Kilpatrick thus escaped serious injury, defeated his pursuers, and presented to the beholders one of the grandest sights witnessed in the New World.
During the winter of 186364 Kilpatrick sat in winter quarters and did some thinking. He reassessed his career, and re-evaluated his goals. At length he decided that his future was to be in terms of elective office: first, he would become governor of his native state, and then the President of the United States. And he determined to prosecute the war in a way that would assure the attainment of these goals. He knew that his cateer, and therefore his future, had been jeopardized at Gettysburg and in subsequent campaigning. Clearly he needed a plan that would give him new prominence and would once again splash his name across the North’s newspapers.
After much deliberation he conceived such a plan. He would enter Richmond with his cavalry, free the Union prisoners there, and perhaps even capture Confederate officials. The more he thought about it, the more eager he grew to test teh scheme. he boasted to others of its brilliance, and it was not long before his boasts were circulating through the army, and northward. President Lincoln eventually heard of it, and began to wonder. In this third year of hostilities the President was almost desperately searching for a blueprint for peace. Despite Kilpatrick’s uneven past performances, Lincoln called the cavalryman to the White House and asked for details. Kilpatrick was more than happy to oblige. When he learned that Lincoln was anxious to distribute through Virginia copies of his amnesty proclamation for secessionists who wished to come back into the Union, he assured the President that his expedition would be the ideal means to that end. Lincoln finally gave his approval for the raid, and a joyous Kilpatrick returned south to put it to the test.
On the morning of February 28, 1864 he started his cavalry toward Richmond from Stevensburg, Virginia. His 4,000 troopers rode in two columns. Under his personal command 3,500 of them were to strike the city from the north; 500 in a detachment led by a boyish, onelegged colonel named Ulric Dahlgren, were to attack the Capital from the south. Dahlgren had been taken into Kilpatrick’s plans because he was eager to smell hell–and, incidentally, because he had impeccable social credentials (his father was a prominent Federal admiral).
The raid began smoothly enough. The columns proceeded south by widely divergent routes, planning to make a concerted attack on Richmond–believed to be only thinly guarded this winter–on March 1. Both Kilpatrick and Dahlgren met with little opposition in their destruction of railroad lines and private property, and distributed hundreds of copies of the President’s proclamation.
But the Yankees’ coming had been anticipated by the Confederates. Just outside Richmond Kilpatrick was hit by units of Rebel infantry, artillery, and cavalry. He faltered and then retreated–beaten back fro n the city when success was nearly in his hands. Dahlgren, meanwhile, was stymied by an unfordable river and reached the city too late to coordinate an attack with Kilpatrick. The colonel and his men were sent on a disorderly retreat through a winter storm and were finally surrounded by Rebel home guardsmen. In an ambush fight the detachment was cut to pieces and Dahlgren met a tragic death at 21.
His hopes crippled, Kilpatrick retreated to Fort Monroe. There he fretted that instead of enhancing his reputation, the raid had broken it beyond repair. His anxiety deepened when a national controversy developed around papers found on Dahlgren’s body, stating that the raiders had planned to burn Richmond and kill President Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet.
Before the controversy became clouded and at last faded out, Kilpatrick did in fact see his name prominently displayed in the newspapers–especially Southern newspapers, who called him a barbarian, and worse.
Kilpatrick had just cause to feel concern. His failure resulted in his transfer from Virginia to the Western theater, where he was assigned to a cavalry command under Major General William T. Sherman. It was a demotion of sorts, and Kilpatrick could not delude himself into believing otherwise.
When he went west, Kilpatrick was no longer the cocky, self-assured firebrand he had been the year before. He had tasted defeat and censure, and they had been bitter pills indeed. Nevertheless, he did his best to fit comfortably into Sherman’s command. Soon after joining his new division, he used it to spearhead the Federal drive through Tennessee and into Georgia, over Taylor’s Ridge to Buzzard Roost and through Snake Creek Gap to Resaca, Georgia.
In battle outside Resaca, in May, he had his first large dose of action in the West. There he was so badly wounded that he was forced to leave the field and return north for recuperation.
But through three years of war, he had not learned how to relax from campaigning. He returned to duty in July, against his doctor’s orders, when he heard that Sherman had crossed the Chattahoochee River and was moving on Atlanta.
By the time he returned to the field, his commander was in the city, after General John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee had abandoned it in retreat. Because his wound prevented him from riding horseback, Kilpatrick commandeered a carriage and rode alongside his troopers, shouting orders from the front seat. From the carriage he even conducted a raid against the Confederateheld Atlanta-Macon Railroad.
On August 18 Kilpatrick, now able to ride again, led another raid against Rebel communications south of Atlanta. He marched his division and some auxiliary units to the railroad between Jonesborough and Griffin, destroyed some miles of track, and then was challenged by enemy cavalry, who pushed his force to Lovejoy’s Station. Arriving there on August 20, he found Rebel infantry sitting across his path. Nearly surrounded, Kilpatrick mustered some of the spirit that had won him a strong reputation earlier in the war. He faced his troopers about, charged, and in the words of one historian, simply rode over the Confederate cavalry to safety.
Sherman was not pleased, however, with the scanty accomplishments of the raid. While he did not censure Kilpatrick personally, he relied more heavily than ever before on his infantry to catch and overwhelm Hood. At first Sherman planned to defeat Hood by separating him from his lines of communication and supply. Then he decided to turn his back on the Confederate commander and with a part of his army push east across Georgia to Savannah and the coast, burning out the state. He sent Major General George H. Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland back into Tennessee, where he was to deal with Hood’s westward-marching army. Then Sherman made ready to march to the sea.
He chose Kilpatrick to lead his cavalry, although Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant had previously appointed Major General James H. Wilson to command all the horsemen in Sherman’s theater. Sherman explained his decision to Wilson in curious terms: I know Kilpatrick is a hell of a damned fool, but I want just that sort of man to command my cavalry on this expedition. He then directed Wilson to join General Thomas in Tennessee.
During the march to the sea, Kilpatrick made quite a name for himself. His name, in fact, became infamous to Georgians, who watched his cavalrymen run wild over their property. They learned that Kilpatrick overlooked incidents of pillaging and thievery by his men because he frankly enjoyed wreaking havoc on secessionists.
Some of the general’s favorite vices also came to public attention during the campaign. Georgia newspapers reported that he travelled with female companions, including two Negro girls who cooked for him and with whom he engaged in the most familiar and indecent conversation. And a Confederate prisoner later recalled marching in tow beside Kilpatrick’s carriage and seeing the general stretched out comfortably on the seat with his head in a woman’s lap.
Kilpatrick’s men merrily laid waste to the state, and when the cavalry occupied the capital, Milledgeville, Kilpatrick joined in their fun. He and his officers broke into the Georgia House of Representatives and staged a mock legislative session. Although a teetotaler, Kilpatrick reportedly took the speaker’s stand and regaled the assembly with tales of the cavalry’s gallant campaigns against enemy wine cellars and whiskey store rooms. After a round of speechmaking the congressmen drew up a series of resolutions, including one declaring the Georgia Ordinance of Secession a damned farce.
During the march Kilpatrick carried on a running war against Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, who constantly hovered on the fringes of Sherman’s army. Often Wheeler bested Kilpatrick in skirmishes and engagements, but not even Fightin’ Joe was able to curtail Sherman’s inexorable march through the state.
On the other hand, Kilpatrick got the better of Wheeler now and again, as in November when under Sherman’s orders he swung his cavalry north toward Augusta and then south toward Millen. It was a feinting movement and Wheeler, taking the bait, concentrated his cavalry at Millen, thinking that the Federal horsemen were heralding Sherman’s advance. Actually Sherman was marching unmolested in another direction–toward Savannah–with his four infantry corps.
Fuming at his deception, Wheeler tried to get even. On one occasion he routed Kilpatrick from a night bivouac. On another day he pushed him away from some strategic objectives which he had planned to destroy. And when Kilpatrick’s cavalry reached Aiken, South Carolina, Wheeler’s men struck them so viciously that the Federals were driven out of the town like chickens.
On the whole, however, Kilpatrick did an efficient job of guarding Sherman’s flanks. When the army reached Savannah, just before Christmas 1864, Sherman wrote him: The fact that to you, in great measure, we owe the march of four strong infantry columns, with heavy trains and wagons, over 300 miles through an enemy’s country, without the loss of a single wagon, and without the annoyance of cavalry dashes on our flanks, is honor enough for any cavalry commander.
When Sherman resumed his march, from Savannah through the Carolinas, Kilpatrick redoubled his efforts to make the Confederacy suffer. At the start of that campaign, according to prevalent rumors, he issued large quantities of matches to his troopers. He left no doubt about his intentions when he told some of his officers: In after years when travelers passing through South Carolina shall see chimney stacks without houses, and the country desolate, and shall ask ‘who did this?’ some Yankee will answer, ‘Kilpatrick’s cavalry.’ And he spoke even more plainly to a group of foot soldiers: There’ll be damned little for you infantrymen to destroy after I’ve passed through that hellhole of secession.
He tried hard to keep his word. As an example, consider his short but unpleasant stay in Barnwell, South Carolina, where his troopers were careless with their matches. While flames consumed part of the town, Kilpatrick held a gala ball at his headquarters and even forced some of the local ladies to dance with his officers. Thereafter his soldiers renamed the place, fittingly, Burnwell.
Through South Carolina Kilpatrick continued his war against both Wheeler and Lieutenant General Wade Hampton, whose cavalry guarded the retreat of the Army of Tennessee, once again under General Joseph E. Johnston. In addition to authorized warfare, Kilpatrick engaged in a bitter personal feud with Hampton, stemming from reports that Hampton’s men had lynched captured Federal troopers. Although Hampton denied the charges, Kilpatrick heatedly declared that he would retaliate in kind. It is difficult to determine where the burden of guilt in this should rest, for unauthorized killings undoubtedly took place on both sides, but certainly the issue inflamed the bitter feelings that already existed between Kilpatrick and his opponents. Since Kilpatrick’s men retaliated by violating private property, the people of South Carolina suffered most for it in the long run.
Shortly after Sherman’s army entered North Carolina, Kilpatrick endured perhaps the most embarrassing hour in his career. It came about because of his old fondness for female companionship.
Despite his raccoon-like face and slight build, Kilpatrick had always considered himself a ladies’ man. When his wife Alice died in 1863, his passionate nature apparently turned into licentiousness. While in Virginia he had been intimate with a pretty camp follower who had also been a good friend of his subordinate, Custer. And in North Carolina he travelled with another companion, a tall, handsome, well-dressed lady.
Presumably it was she who, clad only in a nightgown, was routed from Kilpatrick’s headquarters near Fayetteville, North Carolina, when Hampton’s cavalry attacked it one night in March 1865 Kilcavalry himself, wearing nightshirt and boots, was nearly captured when a Confederate swooped down on him and demanded to know General Kilpatrick’s whereabouts. Realizing that in his sleepwear he had been taken for an ordinary soldier, Kilpatrick pointed to a passing horseman and said, There he goes! The Rebel spurred his mount and was off, and Kilpatrick wasted no time finding a horse of his own and riding to safety. His lady friend, meanwhile, had to hide in a ditch until the fighting was over. When the Confederates learned these facts, they laughed heartily at Kilpatrick’s expense.
But the Rebels’ merriment could not last. In subsequent weeks Sherman proceeded to back Johnston into his final corner, and Kilpatrick’s men bagged scores of prisoners–Confederates who sensed the futility of waging a doomed campaign. On April 26 Johnston was forced to surrender his army to Sherman near Durham Station, North Carolina, and the war was over. After the Rebel army disbanded, Kilpatrick was promoted major general of volunteers and won a brevet major generalship in the Regular Army.
Kilpatrick’s postwar life was varied and colorful if ultimately tragic. Resigning his commission, he was appointed minister to Chile by President Andrew Johnson. In South America, his libertine days at an end, he married the niece of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Santiago and settled comfortably into domestic life when he was recalled to the United States in 1868.
Kilpatrick later became a director of the Union Pacific Railroad, tried his hand at playwriting, and spoke to numerous veterans’ associations. He switched his politics to vote for Democrat Horace Greeley in 1872, but afterward returned to the Republican fold and was reappointed minister to Chile in 1880. He served there until his death the following year from a kidney ailment.
He never achieved his most cherished goals. Though in February 1864 he had envisioned himself a future governor and President, he made only one bid for elective office–a rather modest one, as a congressional candidate from New Jersey, in 1880. But he was soundly defeated.
Though it may seem a minor defeat, Kilpatrick never quite got over it; he always longed for the adulation of the electorate. For a man who had seen many hopes destroyed during his lifetime, this was perhaps the cruelest disappointment of all.
This article was written by Edward G. Longacre and originally published in the April 1971 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated Magazine.
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