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Farnsworth's charge and death.

by H. C. Parsons, Captain, 1ST Vermont cavalry.
On the eve of the battle of Gettysburg Captain Elon J. Farnsworth, of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, an aide on General Pleasonton's staff, was promoted for gallantry to be brigadier-general and given command of a brigade in Kilpatrick's division, consisting of the 5th New York, 18th Pennsylvania, 1st Vermont, and 1st West Virginia regiments.

On the evening of the 2d of July we were on Meade's right wing, and by noon of the third day of the battle we went into position on his left wing, near the enemy's artillery line, on the south end of Seminary Ridge. When the cannonading which preceded Pickett's charge opened, General Farnsworth rode to the position marked “A” upon the map [p. 394], and I think Kilpatrick joined him. A long skirmish line of the enemy was at that moment moving toward us. I was commanded to take one squadron, charge as foragers, ride to cover of the stone house (Bushman's), and wait for orders. At our approach the enemy's skirmish line fell back. We rode to the house with the loss of two men. Captain Stone was sent with a squadron to my support. We remained some time at the Bushman house, near the enemy's batteries, and returned under fire without loss.

At 5 o'clock that afternoon we went into position, and were resting behind a battery on the low, wooded hill at the left of Round Top, and separated from it by a narrow valley. The enemy's picket line confronted our own near the base of the hill, but there was no firing. There was an oppressive stillness after the day's excitement. I rode out to the brow of the hill and had an excellent view of the field. Directly in front of us opened the valley toward Gettysburg, with its wheat-fields; at the right, and less than half a mile distant, rose Round Top; in the intervening valley lay the Slyder farm, with low, cross fences. Projecting from Round Top was a hill, perhaps one hundred feet high, on the top of which was a field surrounded by high stone walls. The slopes of this hill were covered with immense granite bowlders; a road or lane extended from the Emmitsburg pike to its base, and then turned to the left toward Devil's Den. Beyond this road ran a high rail fence, the only openings being at the right and left of the walled field on the hill. Above this, and along the rocky and wooded slopes of Round Top, Law's brigade was firmly intrenched, and pressing him in front and on the right was the Union army. Toward the openings described, the charge that was afterward made was directed. While I was looking out upon the field General Kilpatrick rode near, showing great impatience and eagerness for orders, and an orderly dashed by shouting, “We turned the charge; nine acres of prisoners!”

From this point the position of the troops on the Confederate right appeared to be full of peril. Law's brigade had held an almost untenable but essential position through two hard-fought days, while their batteries and support, nearly a mile in the rear, were at that moment turned upon Merritt's advancing squadrons. The gates to the valley behind Round Top, toward which Longstreet's eye turned so eagerly, were held by them, and the valley in the rear was protected by a single Texas regiment and a weak skirmish line. Kilpatrick had been given large discretion by General Pleasonton when he had been sent in the morning against Lee's right, with Merritt's and Farnsworth's brigades. (Custer had been detached and sent to General Gregg.) Kilpatrick's orders were to press the enemy, to threaten him at every point, and to strike at the first opportunity, with an emphatic intimation that the best battle news could be brought by the wind. His opportunity had now come. If he could bring on a battle, drive back the Texas regiment, and break the lines on the mountain, Meade's infantry on Round Top would surely drive them into the valley, and then the five thousand cavalry in reserve could strike the decisive blow. [394]

The 1st West Virginia was selected to attack the Texas regiment. The Second Battalion of the 1st Vermont was thrown out as skirmishers; the First and Third battalions were held for the charge on the mountain. The 1st West Virginia charged at our left and front down the open valley, nearly in the direction but toward the right of the Bushman house, upon the 1st Texas regiment, which was in line behind a rail fence that had been staked and bound with withes. A thin line shot forward and attempted to throw the rails, tugging at the stakes, cutting with their sabers, and falling in the vain effort. The regiment came on in magnificent style, received a deadly volley, before which it recoiled, rallied, charged the second time, and fell back with great loss.

I was near Kilpatrick when he impetuously gave the order to Farnsworth to make the last charge. Farnsworth spoke with emotion: “General, do you mean it? 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.” Kilpatrick said: “Do you refuse to obey my orders? If you are afraid to lead this charge, I will lead it.” Farnsworth rose in his stirrups — he looked magnificent in his passion — and cried, “Take that back!” Kilpatrick returned his defiance, but, soon repenting, said, “I did not mean it; forget it.” For a moment there was silence, when Farnsworth spoke calmly, “General, if you order the charge, I will lead it, but you must take the responsibility.” I did not hear the low conversation that followed, but as Farnsworth turned away he said, “I will obey your order.” Kilpatrick said earnestly, “I take the responsibility.”

I recall the two young generals at that moment in the shadow of the oaks and against the sunlight — Kilpatrick with his fine features, his blonde beard, his soft hat turned up jauntily, and his face lighted with the joy that always came into it when the charge was sounded; Farnsworth, tall, slight, stern, and pale, but rising with conscious strength and consecration. Kilpatrick was eager for the fray. He believed that cavalry could “fight anywhere except at sea.” He was justified by his orders and by results, and he was brave enough to withdraw the hot imputation, even in the presence of a regiment. Farnsworth was courage incarnate, but full of tender regard for his men, and his protest was manly and soldierly.

The direction of our guns was changed; new guns were brought into position. A shell shrieked down the line of my front company a few feet above their heads, covering them with leaves and branches. We rode out in columns of fours with drawn sabers. General Farnsworth, after giving the order to me, tool his place at the head of the Third Battalion. In this action I commanded the First Battalion and Major Wells commanded the Third. Captain Cushman and Lieutenant

Map of Farnsworth's charge. From a sketch map by Captain H. C. Parsons. note.--The reader is referred to the map on page 344 for the full position of Kilpatrick's Cavalry division, and Merritt's brigade of Buford's division.--editors.


Watson rode with me; General Farnsworth and Adjutant-General Estes rode with Major Wells.

As the First Battalion rode through the line of our dismounted skirmishers, who were falling back, they cried to us to halt. As we passed out from the cover of the woods the 1st West Virginia was retiring in disorder on our left. A frantic horse with one leg torn off by a cannon-ball rushed toward us as if for protection. We rode through the enemy's skirmish line across the fields, over the low fences, past the Slyder house, and down the road. The sun was blinding; Captain Cushman shaded his eyes with his hand and cried, “An ambuscade!” We were immediately upon the enemy, within thirty paces, and the deadly volley, which is referred to in the Confederate reports, was fired, but it passed over our heads; although they report that half our saddles were emptied, not a man was shot, yet the fire was the close and concentrated volley of a regiment. Captain (afterward Colonel) Jones, who commanded on the right of the 4th Alabama, says: “I was ordered to face about to resist cavalry; we marched rapidly to the rear over the rocks, and the Vermonters were upon us before we could form. They were within a few paces when we gave the order to fire. . . . The whole regiment fired, but when the smoke cleared I only saw one horse fall. A private at my left said, ‘Captain, I shot that black.’ I said, ‘Why didn't you shoot his rider?’ He replied, ‘Oh, we'll get him anyhow; but I'm a hunter, and for three years I haven't looked at a deer's eye — I couldn't stand it.’ ”

Taken by surprise, they had shot over us; the next, a random volley, was effective. With the head of the column we cleared the wall at the right and formed under cover of the hill. The rear companies fell back and formed behind a cross fence and in the edge of timber. In the mean-time the most important movement of the day was being made. The Third Battalion, under Major Wells,--a young officer who bore a charmed life and was destined to pass through many daring encounters to the rank of brigadier-general,--moved out in splendid form to the left of the First Battalion and swept in a great circle to the right, around the front of the hill and across our track; then, guiding to the left across the valley and up the side of the low hill at the base of Round Top, they charged along the wall, and between it and the mountain, directly in the rear of several Confederate regiments in position and between them and the 4th Alabama. It was a swift, resist-less charge over rocks, through timber, under close enfilading fire. Colonel A. W. Preston had taken my Second Squadron and rode with part of the Second Battalion in support.1 The direction was toward Devil's Den. At the foot of the declivity the column turned left and passed a battery, receiving the fire of its support, then divided into three parties. One swept across the open field and upon the rear of the Texas skirmish line, carrying in a part of this line as prisoners, and one rode through into the Union lines. Farnsworth's horse had fallen; a trooper sprang from the saddle, gave the general his horse, and escaped on foot. Captain Cushman and a few others, with Farnsworth, turned back and rode at full gallop toward the point of entering. My First Squadron was again ordered forward. The enemy's sharp-shooters appeared in the rocks above us and opened fire.

Brigadier-General Elon J. Farnsworth. From a photograph.

We rode obliquely up the hill in the direction of Wells, then wheeling to the left, between the picket line and the wall. As we turned, Corporal Sperry fell at my side. Part of my men turned back with prisoners. The head of the column leapt the wall into the open field. Farnsworth, seeing our horsemen, raised his saber and charged as if with an army; at almost the same moment his followers, and what remained of the First Battalion, cut their way through the 15th Alabama, which was wheeling into position at a run and offered little resistance. We charged in the same general direction, but on opposite sides of the wall that runs parallel with the Round Top range, and within two hundred paces of each other. Sergeant Duncan, a black-eyed, red-cheeked boy, splendidly mounted, standing in his stirrups, flew past me with his saber raised, shouted, “I'm with you!” threw up his left arm, and fell. My horse recoiled over his dead body, my men swept past, and I was for a moment alone on the field. The enemy ran up crying “Surrender!” as if they did not want to shoot me, but as I raised my saber a gun was planted against my breast and fired; my horse was struck at the same moment and broke frantically through the men, over the wall, and down the hill. Corporal Waller overtook me from the left, and, riding close, supported me on my horse. [396] As we rode on, he told me how Farnsworth and Cushman had fallen together.

I have spoken of the battalions as distinct. They were not, nor were the companies. At the sharp turn at the top of the hill, Captain Cushman and Sergeant Stranahan, who commanded Company L after Watson's horse was shot, kept straight on with part of his company, and rode in the main charge. A number of my men had turned back with prisoners, so that not over fifty men,2 including those with Farnsworth, cut their way through in the outward charge. The whole number who rode with Farnsworth was about three hundred. Their casualties were sixty-five. They brought in over one hundred prisoners; they rode within the Confederate lines nearly two miles; they received at short range the direct or enfilading fire of three regiments of infantry and of a battery of artillery; they drew two regiments out of line and held them permanently in new positions, breaking the Confederate front and exposing it to an infantry charge if one had been immediately ordered. Their assault was so bold that the Confederates received it as the advance of a grand attack, and, finding themselves exposed to infantry in front and cavalry in the rear, they were uncertain of their position. Why no advantage was taken of this it is not for us to explain. Why the infantry, when they heard fighting in Law's rear, or when, afterward, we delivered to their skirmish line our prisoners, did not advance and drive his brigade into the valley where it would have been exposed to a general flank attack, has never been explained; but it was not “a charge of madmen with a mad leader.” We believed, and yet believe, that Farnsworth's charge was wisely ordered, well timed, well executed, and effective.3

The behavior of the horses in this action was admirable. Running low and swift, as in a race; in their terror surrendering to their masters, and guiding at the slightest touch on the neck; never refusing a fence or breaking from the column; crowding together and to the front, yet taking or avoiding the obstacles with intelligence, they carried their riders over rocks and fallen timber and fences that the boldest hunter would hardly attempt to-day; and I doubt if there was a single fall of man or horse, except from the shot of the enemy. I may be permitted a remorseful tribute. My powerful bay had been disabled in the action at Hanover, and I was riding my bugler's horse, a gentle sorrel, scarred and stiff with long service. Whem I saw the work before us I condemned him, and would have ordered some trooper to change if it had not seemed like exposing another's life,--and yet, how he sprang into the charge! How he leaped the four walls! How he cleared Farrington's horse as it rolled over in the rocks! And how gently he carried me from the field, although blood spurted from his side at every step. Four better horses passed him in the race, but only to fall or carry their riders to death! And when I was lifted down into unconsciousness, my last recollection was of his great eyes turned upon me as in sympathy and reproof.

There was no charging of cannon, no sabering of men. Farnsworth and his troopers understood that they were to draw the enemy's fire, to create a diversion, preparatory to the main movement. They were to ride as deep into the enemy's lines as possible, to disclose his plan and force his positions. The taking of the prisoners on the return was the accident, not the order, of the charge. There was no encouragement of on-looking armies, no cheer, no bravado; and each man felt, as he tightened his saber belt, that he was summoned to a ride to death.

Farnsworth fell in the enemy's lines with his saber raised, dead with five mortal wounds, and without fame. So fell this typical volunteer soldier of America — a man without military training or ambition, yet born with a genius for war which carried him to high command and to the threshold of a great career.

1 Colonel Preston, in his report, does not refer to the repulse by the 4th Alabama; he refers to Major Wells as leading the Second Battalion, but the latter says he was with the Third.--editors.

2 The officers of the 15th Alabama say there were not over ten men with Farnsworth when he fell. His horse dashed through their lines riderless. Colonel Oates kept for a long time the star cut from Farnsworth's coat, hoping some time to return it to his family, but it was accidentally lost or destroyed.--H. C. P.

3 A strange story which appears in all the Confederate reports shows how a mistake may make history. It is stated that Farnsworth wore a linen coat and a have-lock; that he fought desperately with his revolver after he was down, and that he blew out his brains rather than surrender.

When Farnsworth was notified of his promotion3 on the field it was impossible to secure a new uniform, but Pleasonton, as a token of esteem, divided his own wardrobe with him. Farnsworth wore in the action Pleasonton's blue coat, with a single star, and a soft black hat; he fell with his saber raised, and as if dead; and when his remains were taken from the field by Doctors Edson and Wood there were five mortal wounds in his body and no wound in his head. Captain Cushman wore a white duck “fighting jacket,” trimmed with yellow braid. To my objection, he answered, “A lady sent this to me, and said it was made with her own hands, and no rebel bullet could pierce it. It may be a good day to try magic mail.” While we sat behind the guns in the heat he threw a silk handkerchief over his cap, pinning it to the visor. This he forgot to remove; he, and not Farnsworth, rode in the charge on the 4th Alabama; he rode with Farnsworth in the charge on the 15th Alabama; he fell at Farnsworth's side, terribly wounded in the face, and fought with his revolver until he fainted. He was a notably handsome officer, and it was clear that he was mistaken throughout the fight for General Farnsworth. Captain Cushman lay insensible and apparently dead until the next day, but finally revived, only to die in his next battle.--H. C. P.

4 Major Clifford Thomson, of General Pleasonton's staff, writes to the editors: “Farnsworth's commission was dated June 29th, four days before his death. As he had been on detached service, it had not reached him, being carried among Pleasonton's headquarters papers until after the battle.”--editors.

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