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Gettysburg's Forgotten Cavalry Actions: Farnsworths Charge, South Cavalry Field, and the Battle of Fairfield, July 3, 1863

Gettysburg's Forgotten Cavalry Actions: Farnsworths Charge, South Cavalry Field, and the Battle of Fairfield, July 3, 1863

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Gettysburg's Forgotten Cavalry Actions: Farnsworths Charge, South Cavalry Field, and the Battle of Fairfield, July 3, 1863

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Oct 27, 2011


An award-winning historical study of the important role played by Union and Confederate horse soldiers on the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg.
The Union army’s victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 3, 1863, is widely considered to have been the turning point in America’s War between the States. But the valuable contributions of the mounted troops, both Northern and Rebel, in the decisive three-day conflict have gone largely unrecognized. Acclaimed Civil War historian Eric J. Wittenberg now gives the cavalries their proper due.
In Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions, Wittenberg explores three important mounted engagements undertaken during the battle and how they influenced the final outcome. The courageous but doomed response by Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth’s cavalry brigade in the wake of Pickett’s Charge is recreated in fascinating detail, revealing the fatal flaws in the general’s plan to lead his riders against entrenched Confederate infantry and artillery. The tenacious assault led by Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt on South Cavalry Field is also examined, as is the strategic victory at Fairfield by Southern troops that nearly destroyed the Sixth US Cavalry and left Hagerstown Road open, enabling General Lee’s eventual retreat.
Winner of the prestigious Bachelder-Coddington Award for historical works concerning the Battle of Gettysburg, Eric J. Wittenberg’s Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions rights a long-standing wrong by lifting these all-important engagements out of obscurity. A must-read for Civil War buffs everywhere, it completes the story of the battle that changed American history forever.
Oct 27, 2011

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Gettysburg's Forgotten Cavalry Actions - Eric J. Wittenberg

© 2011 by Eric J. Wittenberg

Originally printed as Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions (Thomas Publications, 1998)

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Printed in the United States of America.

Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available from the Library of Congress.

ISBN 978-1-61121-070-5 (trade paperback)

ISBN 978-1-61121-108-5 (hard cover)

ISBN 978-1-61121-071-2 (digital edition)

15 14 13 12 11 5 4 3 2 1

First Savas Beatie edition, first printing

Completely revised and expanded edition

Published by

Savas Beatie LLC

521 Fifth Avenue, Suite 1700

New York, NY 10175

Editorial Offices:

Savas Beatie LLC

P.O. Box 4527

El Dorado Hills, CA 95762

Phone: 916-941-6896

(E-mail) sales@savasbeatie.com

Savas Beatie titles are available at special discounts for bulk purchases in the United States by corporations, institutions, and other organizations. For more details, please contact Special Sales, P.O. Box 4527, El Dorado Hills, CA 95762, or you may e-mail us at sales@savasbeatie.com, or visit our website at www.savasbeatie.com for additional information.

This book is respectfully dedicated to the memory of all those men, both Blue and Gray, who served in the cavalry, who heard the bugles call Charge, and who suffered and died for causes in which they believed, including a bold and fearless rider, Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth. It is also dedicated to my loving and patient wife, Susan Skilken Wittenberg, without whose support this project never would have been possible.


Author’s Preface to the Revised Edition

Author’s Preface to 1998 Edition

Foreword by D. Scott Hartwig


Chapter 1

The Strategic Situation

on the Afternoon of July 3, 1863

Chapter 2

Farnsworth’s Charge

Chapter 3

The Great Controversy:

Did Elon Farnsworth Shoot Himself?

Chapter 4

Merritt’s Regulars on South Cavalry Field

Chapter 5

The Battle of Fairfield, July 3, 1863



Appendix A

Orders of Battle

Appendix B

A Walking and Driving Tour of South Cavalry Field

and Farnsworth’s Charge

Appendix C

A Driving Tour of the Battle of Fairfield, July, 3, 1863

Appendix D

Where did Farnsworth Make his Charge?

A Rebuttal to an Erroneous Account


Special Insert:

One Continuous Fight: An Interview with Authors Eric J.

Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi, and Michael F. Nugent

Maps and Photos have been placed throughout the text

for the convenience of the reader

Author’s Preface to the Revised Edition

This book was first published in 1998. It was my first book. It won the Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award, given by the Robert E. Lee Civil War Roundtable of New Jersey, as the best new work interpreting the Battle of Gettysburg of 1998. It was universally well-received, and it sold steadily for a number of years until there were no copies left to sell in the publisher’s warehouse. However, the original publisher elected to allow it to go out of print instead of doing a second printing as I requested, and the publication rights then reverted to me.

The book has now been out of print for several years, something that has always greatly bothered me a great deal. I never wanted to see it go out of print in the first place, so I was constantly on the lookout for opportunities to bring it back into print. To my surprise, it remains the only published book specifically addressing these events, so it continues to be the sole occupant of a niche. I had a difficult choice to make: I could bring it back out in its original form, or I could do an updated edition that includes the large volume of new material that my friend and co-author J. David Petruzzi and I have uncovered over the years since the first edition of this book was published.

I ultimately decided that the opportunity to update this work was too good to pass up, and when Theodore P. Savas of Savas Beatie offered me the chance to bring out a completely new edition of the book, I jumped at it. This now makes the fourth book that we have done together, and I am grateful to Ted for giving me the opportunity to make this book available to a whole new generation and market of readers. The new edition features a completely re-worked account of Farnsworth’s Charge that incorporates many of the new sources that we found, a revised account of the Battle of Fairfield, a new map, an additional appendix that addresses the question of where Farnsworth’s Charge occurred once and for all (co-authored with my friend and writing partner J. David Petruzzi), a number of new illustrations, and a driving/walking tour of the sites described in this book that includes GPS coordinates. In addition, since the original edition was published in 1998, the Gettysburg National Military Park embarked on a massive campaign of tree-cutting in order to restore the battlefield to its 1863 appearance, and the terrain and many of the locations described herein look very different today than they did in 1998. Consequently, I have replaced all of the modern-day views from the old book with all-new shots that show the difference that opening up the terrain has made in interpreting these events.

I am grateful to National Park Service historian John Heiser for agreeing to re-work the map of Farnsworth’s Charge, to Francis Tiny Guber for giving me permission to use a number of his many illustrations of members of the 1st Vermont Cavalry in this work, to Joseph D. Collea, Jr. for providing scarce and useful Vermont newspaper accounts of Farnsworth’s Charge, to Christina Moon for saving me a trip to Carlisle to obtain material on Farnsworth’s Charge, to Don Caughey for providing numerous useful items regarding the U.S. Regular cavalry and for commenting on my account of the Battle of Fairfield; to my good friends and co-authors J. David Petruzzi and Michael F. Nugent for sharing research materials with me that made their way into this book. I am likewise grateful to Ted Savas and his staff for giving me the opportunity to re-work this book and make it even better than it originally was, and I also appreciate their patience in working with me as we brought this project to a successful conclusion.

Last, but certainly not least, I remain grateful to my long-suffering and much-loved wife Susan Skilken Wittenberg for her seemingly endless patience with my obsessive need to tell the stories of Civil War cavalrymen. Without her love and support none of this would still be possible.

Eric J. Wittenberg

Columbus, Ohio

Author’s Preface to 1998 Edition

Ihave studied Union cavalry activities in the Gettysburg Campaign for years. Thus, I knew of a number of major cavalry actions on the afternoon of July 3, 1863, including Farnsworth’s Charge, Wesley Merritt’s fight on the South Cavalry Field, and the debacle at Fairfield. I wanted to learn more about these little-known actions, but discovered that there simply is not much quality material available. I realized that these significant engagements deserved a detailed study. Consequently, I decided to tackle the project. It took several years to gather this material, and the task proved much more difficult than I originally imagined.

All interpretations are exclusively mine, and I accept responsibility for them. I hope the reader finds these three obscure fights as interesting as I do, and that the book will spur new interest in these largely neglected aspects of the Battle of Gettysburg. That is my true motivation for writing; the what-if’s of these engagements are just as interesting as the actual fighting. I hope that I have portrayed some sense of that within this book.

In the years that I have studied the Civil War, I have been fortunate to cross paths with some outstanding people. Several have become my mentors. Three individuals have been unquestioningly generous with their time, resources, and willingness to help. Each has contributed greatly to my efforts, and each deserves recognition. Clark B. Bud Hall, Robert F. O’Neill, Jr., and Brian C. Pohanka, all accomplished historians in their own right, have been extremely helpful, providing guidance and support. Brian and Bob were kind enough to read this manuscript and to provide me with the benefit of their comments. Bud offered invaluable insight, and encouragement to tell the stories of these largely forgotten cavalry actions. These three gentlemen are dedicated to preserving the memory of the men who served in the Civil War. Without their assistance and encouragement, I would not have accomplished whatever I may have accomplished in this field. I am deeply grateful.

I am indebted to: Michael Phipps, licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg, for the many hours he walked these fields with me and for his useful feedback on my manuscript; Charlie Tarbox, proprietor of the Battlefield Bed & Breakfast and owner of a portion of the South Cavalry Field battlefield, for showing me the more obscure portions of that action; Dave Shultz for providing information on Graham’s Battery; and my good friend, touring companion, and business partner, Michael D. VanHuss, who tramped over fields with me and acted as the sounding board for many of my ideas. William R. Howard, Jr. also toured these battlefields with me and gave me the benefit of his opinions.

D. Scott Hartwig, National Park Service historian, allowed me to use the park’s resources, and also wrote the foreword for the book. Louise Arnold-Friend, Dr. Richard Sommers, and David Keough of the United States Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania provided invaluable assistance with the project research. Dr. Richard A. Sauers planted the idea for this book in my head, shared his monumental index to the National Tribune with me, saved me countless bleary-eyed hours in front of microfilm readers digging for material, and read this manuscript for me. Dr. Elliott W. Hoffman of Rhode Island provided a great deal of useful material on the 1st Vermont Cavalry, including a copy of the proceedings associated with the dedication of the monument to Maj. William Wells on the Gettysburg battlefield. Dr. Kenneth Lawrence provided material on the Battle of Fairfield, as well as some photographs. Colonel Wayne Wachsmuth, a licensed battlefield guide, obtained some additional material and reviewed my manuscript for accuracy. Melody Callahan, who faithfully reenacts the 6th U.S. Cavalry, provided me with several good letters by Lt. Louis H. Carpenter on the Battle of Fairfield.

Thanks also go to Ted Alexander, Dr. Dennis Lawrence, Dave Powell, Terry Johnston, James G. Ryan, David F. and Anita J. Wieck, Dr. Edward Longacre, Dr. Ernie Butner, and Dr. Thomas Desjardin for their time and effort to read this manuscript, and for analysis and criticism of my work. John Heiser did a fine job of preparing the maps. I am grateful to James and Dean Thomas of Thomas Publications for their patience during the writing of this book, and also to Sarah Rodgers, my editor, for her patience and valuable ideas.

Most importantly, I want to thank my wonderful and most understanding wife, Susan Skilken Wittenberg. Without her love and unfailing support, none of this would have been possible.

Eric J. Wittenberg

Columbus, Ohio


The clash of infantry at Gettysburg has generally attracted the greatest attention in the study of the Battle of Gettysburg. As author Eric Wittenberg points out, every student of Gettysburg knows of Longstreet’s Assault on July 3. The cavalry, except for the now legendary delaying action carried out by Union General John Buford or the heroics of George Custer in the July 3 cavalry battle, has largely been relegated to the sidelines, as if the role it played in the great clash of armies was less important or significant.

While it is true that the cavalry was no longer the shock troop it had been during the age of the smoothbore musket, it continued to play a critical role in the age of the rifled musket. Its most difficult duty generally occurred before and after the clash of infantry, when it served as the principal means by which an army commander maintained contact with the enemy, secured information about its movements, and harassed or delayed its forces. Maintaining contact with the enemy and gathering vital information was dangerous work with constant risk of getting shot.

While the infantry endured a few days of bloody combat during the Gettysburg Campaign, the cavalry was engaged almost daily. John Buford’s division, for instance, suffered only 127 casualties during the fighting on July 1—light losses for that bloody day. Yet, in the period between Stoneman’s Raid during the Chancellorsville Campaign to the skirmish at Falling Waters at the conclusion of the Gettysburg Campaign, that same mounted division lost 1,813 men. These heavy losses stand as a testament to the nearly constant combat in which it had been engaged.

On the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, cavalry was engaged on both flanks of the two armies. The large cavalry action three miles east of Gettysburg between Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart and Union General David M. Gregg is relatively well known by Gettyburg students. The other action, involving men of Union Brigadier General Elon Farnsworth’s Brigade and Brigadier General Wesley Merritt’s Brigade, is less well known. Farnsworth’s Charge, as it came to be called, was a part of this action. It is an event of some note in the battle, but is generally discussed or examined as a separate action, out of context with the operation as a whole. In reality, the ill-fated attack of Farnsworth’s brigade was an element of what Union cavalry commander General Alfred Pleasonton intended to be an attack by both Farnsworth and Merritt’s brigade against the exposed right and rear of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Drawing from a wide variety of sources, Eric Wittenberg’s Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions tells this interesting and dramatic part of the July 3 battle at Gettysburg in detail, placing it in context with the rest of the battle so that it may finally be understood.

D. Scott Hartwig

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania


Most Americans have heard of Pickett’s Charge. Many know that the great Confederate assault of July 3, 1863, was the climax of the bloody Battle of Gettysburg. It is commonly believed that Pickett’s Charge was the high water mark of the Confederacy and that its hopes for independence were dashed on the rocks of the low stone wall fronting the Angle. The conventional wisdom is that the battle ended with the repulse of the grand Confederate assault and Pickett’s retreat across the bloody and broken fields lining both sides of the Emmitsburg Road. This version of history has been immortalized over the course of several generations and perpetuated by the great American producer of pop icons, Hollywood. Most recently, the feature film Gettysburg ends with Robert E. Lee’s misery as he watches the shattered ranks of his proud army straggle back to Seminary Ridge after failing to take the copse of trees which today marks the High Water Mark of the Confederacy.

Few, however, know that a division-sized Union counterattack, supported by twelve pieces of rifled artillery formed in two batteries, was launched in the wake of the repulse of the grand Confederate assault. Fewer still know that a dashing young commander of a Federal cavalry brigade was killed in action while leading his troopers in a mounted charge that extended more than two miles into the Confederate lines. Only a handful know that, for a brief moment, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had its flank turned by a daring Federal assault, and that Lee’s reeling army could have been driven from the field in a panicked rout. Finally, few people know of the sharp but short-lived mounted struggle between Federal and Southern cavalry that took place late in the afternoon of July 3, 1863, eight miles behind the Confederate lines near the small village of Fairfield, Pennsylvania.

These stories have languished untold for a number of reasons. One reason is that it is far more romantic to think that the great, sanguinary Battle of Gettysburg ended with the repulse of Pickett’s Charge. Literary treatments of the battle, such as the now legendary The Killer Angels and its progeny, the film Gettysburg, focus on the romantic side of the grand assault and portray the repulse of Pickett’s men as the end of the battle. Because only two unsupported brigades of cavalry made the unsuccessful Union counterattack, it is not romantic to remember it. It is not in keeping with the romance of Pickett’s Charge for people to believe that the Union launched a counterattack in the wake of Lee’s repulse.

Another reason is that the National Park Service has done little to encourage the memory of these actions. Although the Civil War veterans were responsible for the erection of monuments on the battlefield, the Park Service failed to place any meaningful interpretation on these neglected portions of the great battlefield at Gettysburg until more than 135 years had passed. For example, nearly every Federal general officer killed at Gettysburg has a monument to his heroic death, but Brigadier General Elon J. Farnsworth, the slain Union cavalry leader, does not. There is only one monument to the charge, to Major William Wells of the 1st Vermont Cavalry, who rode with his commander, Farnsworth. There is only a single wayside marker to interpret Farnsworth’s Charge, and none at all to interpret Brigadier Wesley Merritt’s stubborn fight along the Union left flank that afternoon. Only that single wayside marker and the handsome statute of Wells visibly commemorate either phase of the fighting and the Wells statue is the sole monument to Farnsworth’s gallant charge on a field covered with monuments.

Indeed, the South Cavalry Field, isolated to the south of the Round Tops, is devoid of interpretation and is probably the least visited portion of the vast battlefield. The monument to the 5th U.S. Cavalry, of Merritt’s Brigade, is possibly the single least visited site. It is no stretch of the imagination to say that only a handful of people make the difficult trek through the brambles to the site of that lonely monument each year. Another cavalry fight took place eight miles away at Fairfield, a site that gets virtually no visitation. Only a dilapidated War Department marker and a small plaque erected by the veterans of the 6th U.S. Cavalry along the Fairfield-Orrtana Road (now known as the Carroll’s Tract Road) provide evidence that a battle was ever fought there. Yet, two Federal troopers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroic performances there.

In recent years, these largely forgotten cavalry fights have received some well-deserved attention from historians, but no book has told fully the story of these three interconnected but distinct actions. For example, the book considered to be the definitive work on the role of cavalry during the Gettysburg Campaign devotes precisely one page to Merritt’s fight. The lack of detailed coverage is remarkable. Given the vast number of books written about Gettysburg, someone should have paid appropriate tribute to these forgotten actions. More than 145 years after the end of the battle, this book attempts to do so. It sets the stage for these climactic fights, introduces the key players in these dramas, and describes the tactical aspects of the three actions. It also examines the controversial question of whether Elon Farnsworth was killed in battle or committed suicide to escape the pain of his severe wounds. Analysis of these fights as they were, and what they could have been, follows. This study concludes by examining the reasons why these fights have been so ignored by historians for generations and suggests changes that can be made to bring more attention to these neglected aspects of the Battle of Gettysburg.

The reader will cross paths with such familiar figures as Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Brig. Gens. Evander Law and Jerome Robertson, and Col. William C. Oates of the 15th Alabama Infantry. Familiar Union figures are Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, the commander of the Federal Cavalry Corps, and Brig. Gens. John Buford, Wesley Merritt, George Armstrong Custer, and Judson Kilpatrick. The terrain covered by these actions traverses such familiar sites as Little Round Top, Big Round Top, the Plum Run Valley (Valley of Death), and the Emmitsburg Road. The heroism of individual soldiers is related, including the Medal of Honor exploits of Maj. William Wells of the 1st Vermont Cavalry and Sgts. Martin Schwenck and George C. Platt of the 6th U.S. Cavalry. The tragic and heroic death of Elon Farnsworth is explored in detail. Wherever practical, the words of the participants are used to tell these stories.

Perhaps the reader will gain an appreciation for these forgotten cavalry actions by the end of this book. What is more important, the reader will have an appreciation for the opportunities lost late in the afternoon on July 3, 1863. Perhaps only George McClellan at Antietam had a better chance to deal Robert E. Lee a deathblow. For just a moment, total victory, perhaps the end of the war, was in the grasp of the Army of the Potomac. For many reasons, some valid and some not, the Federal high command let that opportunity slip away. It did not present itself again until the final days of the war in the spring of 1865. While the death of the brave young Farnsworth was a tragedy, the continuation of the war for nearly two more years as a result of this lost opportunity is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Battle of Gettysburg.

The scene portrays Sgt. George C. Platt saving the colors of the 6th U.S. Cavalry from being captured by a trooper of the 6th Virginia Cavalry during the Battle of Fairfield. Platt was awarded the Medal of Honor for doing so, which is why the print is entitled Medal of Honor. Courtesy of Don Stivers

C hapter 1

We will stay and fight it out…

The Strategic Situation on the

Afternoon of July 3, 1863

The Union Army of the Potomac under George G. Meade and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee spent the first two days of July 1863 locked in titanic combat. The second day witnessed large scale Southern attacks against both ends of the Union line. James Longstreet’s massive assault smashed Dan Sickles’ Third Corps, wrecked additional brigades, and nearly collapsed Meade’s left flank. On his right, another attack swept across Rock Creek and up the wooded and rocky slopes of Culp’s Hill, where only hard fighting and good luck saved the Union defenders. The day produced combined casualties of more than 16,000 men and continued late into the night before finally sputtering out on the slopes of Culp’s Hill. ¹

By the end of the day, the Army of the Potomac held a shorter fishhook-shaped line anchored on high ground with the advantage of interior lines of communication. The prominent points on this line were Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill on the northern end, and Little Round Top and Big Round Top on the

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