Questions of interpretation

Years after the war, Judson Kilpatrick addressed a reunion of veterans of the 1st Maine Cavalry. Describing his brigade’s fight at Fleetwood Hill, June 9, 1863, the former general explained how the Tenth New York “had gone in and then come out.” He had watched with dismay, he told the aging soldiers, as his own 2nd New York, went into the fray, only to be driven off “like feathers on the wind.” He told of feeling defeated until he turned and saw the 1st Maine coming up at a trot. Riding to the head of the double column, the former valedictorian of his West Point class, yelled, “Men of Maine, you must save the day!” He then described how the regiment’s “magnificent charge” had caused his “heart to swell with pride,” as the New Englanders drove the enemy before them. In closing, ‘Old Kil’ declared, “to the First Maine Cavalry I owe the silver star I won that day upon the field of battle.”

Kilpatrick’s postwar account, as well as other postwar accounts, raise several questions of interpretation when compared with contemporary documents. First, did he owe the men of the 1st Maine for their valor at Fleetwood Hill, or did he owe the officers of his brigade for action they initiated on his behalf in the wake of the fight?

In an 1887 letter to the National Tribune, Henry Whitaker, a veteran from Kilpatrick’s own 2nd New York, described how, on the evening of June 9, Kilpatrick had “summoned the officers of our squadron [two companies of the 2nd New York] to his headquarters and charged them and their companies with cowardice in the face of the enemy.” He accused the men of disgracing the regiment and he threatened to take away the company guidons. Whitaker recalled Lt. Augustus Martinson, the only officer present from one of the companies, being especially angered by the colonel’s comments and challenging Kilpatrick to a duel. If Whitaker recalled correctly, Kilpatrick refused the offer, promising instead to give Martinson “a more practical” means of proving his courage.

Lieutenant Martinson never had a chance to respond to Whitaker’s version of the confrontation as he died on the field at Aldie eight days after the meeting. And, as an enlisted man, Whitaker could not have been an eyewitness to the officers only meeting he described. With both accounts a little tarnished by age and fading memory, is there anything in the contemporary records to reconcile the two stories?

On June 10, the day after the fight at Brandy Station, 74 officers from Kilpatrick’s brigade signed a petition asking President Lincoln to promote him to brigadier general. The unknown author cited two events in particular, Kilpatrick’s actions during the Stoneman Raid and at Brandy Station. As to the Stoneman Raid, the author credited Kilpatrick with “the most successful and daring feat of the war, leading his command within, through, and out of the fortifications of Richmond.” At Brandy Station, “he displayed qualities that stamp him…as one of the first officers of the Cavalry Corps.” Can we divine anything from the petition pertinent to the question asked above?

Thirty officers from the 1st Maine signed the petition first. Can we then safely infer that one of the New Englanders initiated and or drafted the petition asking Lincoln to promote Kilpatrick? If one of the officers of the regiment drafted the petition, we might have to give more credence to the general’s claim at the reunion.

Twelve officers from the 10th New York signed after the officers from Maine. Should we assume from the paltry number of signatures that the New Yorkers viewed the petition with less enthusiasm than their comrades from Maine? I believe not. Remember the regiment lost several officers at Brandy Station and numerous officers had been dismissed in May, so every officer present may have signed the document.

Finally, 32 officers from the 2nd New York signed, including Lieutenant Martinson, whose signature appears sixth in the list of 32. Had he been persuaded to sign or had Henry Whitaker mis-remembered an event he had not witnessed? Does the fact that their signatures appear last give any credence to Whitaker’s story?

In a cover letter to Senator Ira Harris, dated June 12, two days after the date on the petition, Lieut. Colonel Henry Davies, 2nd New York, explained why he had declined to sign similar petitions “in favor of other officers,” and why he “could not consistently officially sign the one in question.” Continuing, Davies said, “I desire however to…say that in all respects I concur in the views of the officers who have signed…that to me personally the appointment of Col. Kilpatrick would be most gratifying and I am convinced…would be of the greatest benefit to the service.” Davies did not sign with the other officers, but should we assume he did so purely to remain consistent with his previous actions? Kilpatrick remained the colonel of the 2nd New York and commanded the brigade through seniority. Thus, Kilpatrick’s promotion would open the door for Davies to be promoted in his stead, and Davies might have wished to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

At eight a.m., June 10, Gen. Alfred Pleasonton had directed his commanders to form their men “on the plain near the [Bailey] Shumate House…for inspection tomorrow morning at nine o’clock.” After being reviewed and inspected, the men sang songs, made speeches, offered toasts and “all was good cheer and hearty,” as a trooper in the 1st Maine described. According to the soldier, ‘Old Kil’ credited division commander David Gregg with avowing “he had never seen better fighting than that of [Kilpatrick’s] brigade” on June 9.

Kilpatrick then sent Senator Harris a telegram advising, “General Pleasonton…has just telegraphed the Secretary of War to make me at once General of Cavalry. I will be at Willard’s Hotel this evening with letters of recommendation from all the Cavalry Chiefs.” Unfortunately, the telegram is undated. So, when did he leave for Washington? Did he send the telegram on June 11 after the review and parade and leave the same day? The undated communication also raises another question.

I think we can assume Kilpatrick took a train into Washington, D.C. We know, from a June 11 telegram in the Official Records, that Pleasonton sent George Custer, then one of his aides, to deliver a flag captured at Brandy Station to General Hooker. Pleasonton’s telegram does not mention Custer’s mode of transportation, though other documents tell us he also rode a train.

At 12:20 on the afternoon of June 11, a dispatcher ordered a train to Warrenton Junction “immediately,” telling the engineer, “When Captain Custer a bearer of dispatches is on your engine report for further orders.” Seventy minutes later, and with Custer apparently still en route, the dispatcher told the engineer, “When Captain Custer is ready, come to Bristoe & report for further orders.” After another forty minutes had passed, the dispatcher again contacted the engineer, telling him “You can leave Warrenton Junction pick up Captain Custer at Cedar Run and run in.” Two hours later, and with no further mention of Custer, the dispatcher tells an engineer to put together a 15-car train and report to Pleasonton “to do any work he may have for your train.” Had Custer left on the earlier train, or had he been delayed until the later train? And thus the other question – did Kilpatrick ride the same train as Custer?

Imagine the two young lions riding the same train, even for a short distance. As Pleasonton’s aide, Custer certainly knew of the letters of recommendation Kilpatrick carried. And remember that Custer had just lost a bid for command of the 5th Michigan Cavalry. So did the two men ride the same train – Kilpatrick carrying his letters of recommendation to Senator Harris and Secretary of War Stanton and Custer delivering a captured flag and other official papers to General Hooker? The idea of the two men riding together on June 11, possibly having the train to themselves is, in my opinion, a great ‘what if.’ But I think the two men rode different trains, a day apart, one to Washington and one to General Hooker’s headquarters.

Kilpatrick had issued an order on June 12, telling his commanders, “An inspection of the brigade will be held this day at noon with the object of ascertaining the loss of…property, equipage, etc., and the deficiency of the commands. The regiments therefore will be inspected in heavy marching order, with every article of equipments, accoutrements, etc., belonging to man and horse.” Might Kilpatrick have delegated the inspection to an aide while he went to Washington? Possibly, but I suspect not. Also, remember Davies dated his cover letter June 12, and Kilpatrick would have wanted to take his letter along, as the Davies family wielded some political power of their own. Kilpatrick probably took a train into the capital on June 12.

On June 14, Pleasonton contacted Secretary of War Stanton, thanking him “for Kilpatrick’s appointment.” So, when did ‘Old Kil’ take command of his new brigade as a freshly minted brigadier? Evidence supports several dates, including June 14, 15, and 16. He identified his staff on June 17 (the day he fought at Aldie) and signed his oath on June 18.

The new general took command of an unfamiliar brigade, including the 1st Massachusetts, 4th New York, 6th Ohio, and 1st Rhode Island. Probably at Kilpatrick’s request, Pleasonton transferred the 2nd New York to the brigade as well.  When Pleasonton had reorganized his corps following the fight at Brandy Station, he had dispensed with his predecessor’s three weak divisions in favor of two strong divisions. In doing so, Col. Alfred Duffie, colonel of the 1st Rhode Island, had lost his division command (a position he held only by virtue of seniority) and reverted, again as the senior officer, to command of the brigade. When Kilpatrick took charge as a brigadier, Duffie returned to his regiment.

And what of Davies? He mustered as the colonel of the 2nd New York on June 16.

George Custer received his appointment as brigadier less than two weeks later and took command of a brigade in Kilpatrick’s new division. As the summer progressed, an intense rivalry developed between the two men and Kilpatrick had to call Custer to account several times as he sought to establish his authority.

One final question. Pleasonton and the train dispatcher refer to Custer as captain on June 11. Custer’s rank when he received his appointment to brigadier has long been a matter of debate. Was he a lieutenant or a captain? I have my own opinion, but I will let the question linger for another post.


Documents in the National Archives

The C. Ross Smith Papers

Nathan Webb Diary

National Tribune

The Official Records

Edward Tobie, History of the First Maine Cavalry

3 thoughts on “Questions of interpretation

  1. An excellent article Bob. There must have been a great deal of arm twisting being done by Kilpatrick and his staff among the officers of Kilpatrick’s Brigade to get them to sign Kilpatrick’s promotion petition. Add this to a little self-promotion being done by Kilpatrick in the newspapers and among the Lincoln Administration and Judson Kilpatrick gets his star. However, the 2nd Harris Light had much to fear from being placed under Kilpatrick’s command again. At 2nd Manassas on the 29th of August 1862, then Lt. Col. Kilpatrick ordered a squadron of the 2nd NY Cavalry forward in the gathering darkness in a reckless and suicidal charge against Confederate infantry along the Warrenton Turnpike. Eleven soldiers were killed and only a small number of Kilpatrick’s squadron made it back to the Union line that evening (John Hennessy – Return to Bull Run, pages 300 – 302) This was followed by Kilpatrick inept leadership at Brandy Station where he fed the 2nd NY and the 10th NY piecemeal in a fight with Stuart’s cavalry and then had to have the 1st Maine rescue him. As you point in your book Bob, the troopers from Maine came to Kilpatrick’s rescue again at Aldie on June 17th when Gen. Kilpatrick’s Brigade was about to be overrun by Col. Munford’s Brigade. On July 3rd at Gettysburg General Kilpatrick would order another reckless charge by his cavalry against Rebel Infantry, once more with disastrous results for his men. Fortunately for the 2nd Harris Light they were no longer under Kilpatrick’s command.


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