Kilpatrick and Custer – The Beginning of a Rivalry

As I worked to finish the final edits for the new edition of Small but Important Riots, I read a book review, in which the reviewer explained how, “A nonfiction author is a massive filtration system. You’re only as good as what you leave out.” A good friend, who had been patiently reading and offering suggested editorial changes for several years at that point, had already told me the same thing several times. In other words, if you want a good fast-paced story, you need to leave some facts in your files. Slow and stubborn I accepted his great advice grudgingly. The reviewer’s comment helped to convince me. After taping the comment to a prominent spot on my desk, I re-sharpened my own editorial knife and began going through my friend’s suggestions. I soon had a file folder full of intriguing snippets of information looking for another home, including the following.

On June 11, 1863, Gen. Alfred Pleasonton sought to reward his men for their efforts and sacrifice at Brandy Station two days earlier. Most of his wounded already resided in hospitals in Alexandria and Washington, D.C. Likewise, most of the Southerners captured on June 9, now resided in the capital as well. After taking the reins of the Cavalry Corps, Pleasonton had continued his predecessor’s organizational structure, but now, after three weeks at the helm and with the largest cavalry battle to date behind him, Pleasonton intended to re-shape the corps to fit his own vision. First, he would review his men.

He called for the men to gather “at 9 [a.m.] precisely on the plain” near his headquarters. With nearly 1,700 men having already resumed picket and patrol duty, Pleasonton reviewed and inspected about 5,000 troopers. The men enjoyed their well-earned moment in the sun. As one trooper declared, “Songs were sung, speeches made, toasts given & all was good cheer and hearty.”

With the festivities concluded, Pleasonton retired to his quarters, to finish re-organizing the corps. But he must have had an idea of where he wanted to the command to go in the future and who would lead his brigades and divisions in the campaigns to come. And so, I believe, he set about planting seeds. As noted in an earlier post, about 70 officers from Col. Judson Kilpatrick’s brigade had signed and submitted a petition to Pleasonton the previous day, asking President Lincoln to promote Kilpatrick to the rank of brigadier general and thus solidify command of their brigade. We will probably never know if the petition had been unsolicited or if Pleasonton, Kilpatrick, Lt. Col. Henry Davies, or someone else had instigated the request. Whatever the genesis, Pleasonton saw merit in the idea.

Touted by the petitioners as “as one of the first officers of the Cavalry Corps,” Kilpatrick possessed the aggressive spirit Pleasonton sought to instill throughout his command. But had the petition inspired Pleasonton to seek Kilpatrick’s promotion, or had he considered the colonel’s promotion prior to receiving the June 10 petition? I have no answer, but Pleasonton wasted no time in advancing the idea.

And what then of George Custer? Pleasonton and Custer almost certainly met each other during the Peninsula Campaign the previous year, after Custer had joined General McClellan’s staff and while Pleasonton, then a major, commanded the 2nd U.S. Cavalry attached to army headquarters. Their paths undoubtedly crossed several times throughout McClellan’s tenure in command. Following McClellan’s removal from command and his own long absence from the army, Custer met Pleasonton again in early-May 1863. The younger officer had been ordered to rejoin the 5th U.S., but with the regiment away on the Stoneman Raid, Custer found his way to Pleasonton’s headquarters near Chatham, across from Fredericksburg. After getting reacquainted, Pleasonton invited Custer to join his staff.

On May 20, Pleasonton sent his aide to accompany a squadron of cavalry from the 3rd Indiana to intercept an enemy mail transport near Urbanna. Had the general already recognized Custer’s talents and seen him as an asset to the expedition? Was he trying to get Custer noticed by a superior or had he simply acceded to pleas from the ever-eager young officer?

The force returned four days later and on May 27, General Hooker summoned Pleasonton to his headquarters. In his telegram to Pleasonton, Hooker’s adjutant noted, “The General wishes to have Capt. Custer accompany you.” Custer later told a friend, “General Hooker sent for me and complimented me very highly on the success of my expedition and the manner in which I had executed his orders. He said it could not have been better done, and that he would have something more for me to do.” Despite his boast, Custer had not commanded the expedition, but he had gained the notice of his two superiors.

Custer had also been seeking command of the 5th Michigan Cavalry and on May 30, Pleasonton wrote to Michigan’s governor, Austin Blair, on Custer’s behalf. “Permit me to recommend to your favorable consideration for the appointment of Colonel of the 5th regiment of Michigan Cavalry, 1st Lieutenant G. A. Custer, of the 5th Regular Cavalry, at present an aide-de-camp on my staff. Lieutenant Custer will make an excellent commander of a cavalry regiment & is entitled to such promotion for his gallant & efficient services in the present war of rebellion.  I do not know anyone that I could recommend to you with more confidence than Lieutenant Custer.” (I have seen two forms of Pleasonton’s recommendation, one referring to Custer as a lieutenant and one referring to him as a captain) Custer’s earlier meeting with Hooker had not hurt either, as Custer also secured the commanding general’s endorsement. Despite what his many ever-suspicious critics might say, Pleasonton could have had no personal motives for supporting the career of the young lieutenant, beyond the respect with which he must have already held Custer.

Following Pleasonton’s June 11 review, he sent a telegram to Hooker advising, “This will be handed you by Captain Custer, aide-de-camp, who will take down the standard captured and report the prisoners taken.” Of all the members of his staff, Pleasonton had again selected George Custer for a special honor.

There the matter rested, until I uncovered several unpublished messages from June 11. In a telegram without the time affixed, Pleasonton asked Gen. Herman Haupt, the army’s railroad, and engineering expert, “Could you let me have a locomotive & a train of 12 or 15 cars for use here?  It is particularly necessary for me to have this transportation if you can possibly spare it.” Pleasonton still had some wounded, as well as some prisoners to send north but he also had another need for the train.

A series of inter-railroad communications provide more of the story. At 1220, a superintendent told the engineer on the train, “come to Warrenton Junction with your engine immediately. When Captain Custer a bearer of dispatches is on your engine report for further orders.” Seventy minutes later, and still waiting for Custer, the engineer is told, “When Captain Custer is ready, come to Bristoe & report for further orders.” Forty minutes later, and possibly due to some confusion as to where Custer would meet the train, the engineer is told, “You can leave Warrenton Junction pick up Captain Custer at Cedar Run & run in.” Shortly after four o’clock, another telegram goes out, presumably to the same engineer, “You will remain at Warrenton Junction. Couple to the five empty cars left there… making 15 cars for your train [and] report to General Pleasonton at Warrenton Junction to do any work he may have for your train.” The train is now of the size requested by Pleasonton but there is no further mention of Custer. A final message, sent shortly before 5 p.m., mentions the last six wounded men being on the train.

So, you may be asking yourself, this is all nice but what does it have to do with Kilpatrick and the beginning of a rivalry. Well, Kilpatrick may well have been on the same train, though I cannot say so with certainty. In an undated telegram sent from Warrenton Junction, Kilpatrick tells his friend and benefactor, Senator Ira Harris, “Pleasonton … has just telegraphed the Secretary of War to make me at once Gen’l of Cavalry. I will be at Willard’s Hotel this evening with letters of recommendation from all the Cavalry Chiefs.” We know Custer’s train came through Warrenton Junction and we know Custer and Kilpatrick both began their journey from Pleasonton’s headquarters, by way of Warrenton Junction. Yes, Kilpatrick’s message does not include a date, but does anyone think he waited a minute longer than necessary before heading to the capital?

I believe they rode the same train toward Washington. If so, what might the mood have been like. Maybe they got on like two boisterous friends from the same fraternity. Or maybe they saw each other as competitors with similar goals. If so, imagine the mood, the tension, and the conversation, as the two supremely ambitious young men passed the time and contemplated and or discussed the fight at Brandy Station and their future.

Custer left the train in Alexandria, and one can wonder if Kilpatrick breathed a sigh of relief at being rid of the upstart. Someone, presumably Pleasonton, had arranged a boat to be waiting at the Alexandria dock to carry Custer south to Hooker’s headquarters at Falmouth. Stepping from the boat, Custer then boarded another train. He may have already been on the train when an officer at Alexandria sent the final message of the day (that I have located) to an officer in Falmouth: “Capt. Custer of Pleasonton’s staff has just arrived on a special boat from Alexandria with important dispatches for Hooker and is going up to your place in an engine.  Can you give him a horse or ambulance so that he may reach headquarters without delay?”

Kilpatrick succeeds in his purpose, taking command of his reorganized brigade by June 16 and bearing the stars of a newly minted brigadier. Custer had not gone to army headquarters to be promoted but rather as a reward and, I believe, to gain the army commander’s eye. Both are back with the Cavalry Corps on June 17, and probably near each other throughout the long hot march to Aldie. Before the day ended, they made at least one charge together. Before the month expired, Custer had been promoted to brigadier and Kilpatrick elevated to division command. They saw near constant combat during the first three weeks of July, and by early August, with Kilpatrick on leave, Custer found himself commanding the division until Kil returned. The senior officer soon had several occasions to chastise Custer. Their rivalry had well and truly begun.

As you read this, you may have noticed how Custer is referred to as both a lieutenant and a captain. The question of his rank when promoted to brigadier is still debated, and I’ll offer my own thoughts. He retained the regular army rank of lieutenant in the 5th U.S. Cavalry, but he had attained the volunteer army rank of captain, when he joined Major General McClellan’s staff in 1862. He would have reverted to his regular army rank of lieutenant when he returned to the army in May 1863, as he had been ordered to rejoin his regiment and he retained the rank of a lieutenant when he joined Brigadier General Pleasonton’s staff that same month. When Pleasonton received his promotion to Major General effective June 22, Custer was again entitled to the volunteer rank of captain on his staff. Some have asked if the change became automatic or had to be affirmed by the War Department. The question becomes important because, as we all know, Custer receives a promotion to brigadier in the volunteer army on June 29. In other words, was he promoted from lieutenant to brigadier or from captain to brigadier?

Custer answered the question two ways. According to Marguerite Merington, when he told an unnamed friend or family member of Pleasonton’s promotion, Custer wrote, “Which makes me a Captain again!” His comment suggests that he could change his shoulder straps as soon as Pleasonton’s promotion came through, without waiting for authority from the War Department.

Writing to Judge Isaac Christiancy almost exactly one month after his promotion to brigadier, Custer explained, “I never supposed that in one sudden and unlooked for leap, I should change the 1st Lt’s shoulder straps (my real rank) for the ‘Star’ of a Brigadier.” He was, I believe, correct on both counts. When promoted to Brigadier in the Volunteer Army, he held the rank of 1st Lieutenant in the Regular Army and the rank of Captain in the Volunteer Army.

By military custom, he was entitled to be referred to by the highest rank he had attained, thus some referred to him in the spring of 1863 as a captain and others as a lieutenant.


Documents from the National Archives

Austin Blair Papers, Detroit Public Library

Henry Clay Christiancy Papers, University of Virginia

George Custer Correspondence, Monroe County Historical Museum and Archives

George McClellan Papers, Library of Congress

C. Ross Smith Papers, Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle

Nathan Webb Diary, Clements Library, University of Michigan

The Official Records

Marguerite Merington, The Custer Story, The Life and Intimate Letters of General Custer and His Wife Elizabeth

4 thoughts on “Kilpatrick and Custer – The Beginning of a Rivalry

  1. Very interesting article, Bob. I can understand heavily editing a book, but you always have such great info. I hope everything deleted from your upcoming book will appear here.


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