Those who know me well know of my deep interest in Brig. Gen. Elon Farnsworth and his mounted cavalry charge on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg in which he was mortally wounded. Here is a biography of Farnsworth, containing many obscure details of his short life.
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, due to the battlefield tree clearings of 2006, is now finally visible after decades of overgrowth and neglect. 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.