‘Kill-Cavalry’

Three years ago, at a small gathering of like-minded friends, one asked if any of us knew the exact origin of Judson Kilpatrick’s nickname, ‘Kill-Cavalry.’ That is, when did the name first appear, and, if we thought we knew, did we have a contemporary source to prove our answer. Postwar accounts or memoirs did not count, as he was looking for the earliest mention of ‘Kill-Cavalry.’ No one had an answer, but the question stuck with me.

Admittedly, ‘Kill-Cavalry’ is a nom de guerre almost too good to resist. And because Kilpatrick has gone down in history as a brash braggart of little common or tactical sense, many cannot resist or refuse to resist using the name. In his very negative biography of Kilpatrick (at least in my view), Samuel Martin, employed ‘Kill-Cavalry’ as his main title.

So, before offering what I believe is the earliest use of the name, let me give some examples of what others have said as to how the name came about. Samuel Martin first mentions ‘Kill-Cavalry’ in describing an expedition in early-August 1862: “For the first time, Kilpatrick heard men muttering his name as Kill-Cavalry.” He cites Henry Meyer’s memoir of his service in the 2nd New York Cavalry that he published in 1911. So, what does Meyer’s say?

Meyer’s complete paragraph reads as follows: “A few days later the Harris Light Cavalry [2nd New York] made a raid in the neighborhood of Fredericks Hall, Virginia, in which movement the command marched some ninety miles in thirty hours. This was hard on the men, and many of them were confined to their tents on their return to camp, from saddle boils and lameness, for a day or two.” Martin’s readers could be forgiven if they believed Kilpatrick’s men referred to him as ‘Kill-Cavalry’ as early as August 1862, but Meyer does not mention the nickname here. In fact, he only mentions the name once in his narrative.

Martin again mentions the nickname in reference to a fight at Leesburg, Virginia, on September 17, 1862. After describing how Kilpatrick ordered his men into an ambush, Martin writes, “The foolish charge added to Kilpatrick’s reputation as “‘Kill-Cavalry,’ but he was unperturbed at taking unnecessary casualties.” He cites the report filed by Kilpatrick’s superior, Col. J. Mansfield Davies, commander of the 2nd New York. Davies, who had not been present, wrote, “The expedition seems to have been conducted with spirit and judgment by Lieutenant- Colonel Kilpatrick.” Now we can parse Davies’s choice of words all day, but he does not use the term, ‘Kill-Cavalry.’ Nor does he offer any clear condemnation of Kilpatrick’s actions or make any unambiguous mention of an ambush. Instead, he talks about Kilpatrick advancing with caution, but he is, admittedly, taking Kilpatrick’s word for exactly how he advanced. Davies cites 2 men killed, 12 wounded, and 1 missing in the skirmish.

Kilpatrick had the 2nd and 10th New York with him, and two squadrons of the 10th New York charged through the town. In his History of the Tenth Regiment New York Cavalry, Nobel Preston described the action. “Coming up with the Regiment, he [Lt. Theodore Weed] took command of one squadron, Captain [Aaron] Bliss commanding the other. On reaching Leesburg, the latter officer with his squadron was sent forward into the town to ascertain whether or [not] there was any one at home to receive company, and if he was successful in finding them, to fall back and so induce them to come out. When Bliss deployed they seemed annoyed and came at him viciously. He retired before them until they came in range of our battery, when bang! bang! went the guns, and several shells were landed in their midst. Lieutenant Weed was ordered to charge and, as the boys went forward with a cheer, they saw the rebel cavalry massed in the streets. Kilpatrick, taking in the excitement of the occasion, had started forward when the charge was made.

“As the command reached a little knoll, giving the boys a good view of the enemy, Kilpatrick rose in his stirrups and exclaimed: ‘See the rascals! Go for ‘em, boys!’ and, with these words ringing in their ears, the boys went for ‘em. The rebels fired a few shots and broke, followed closely by Weed and his men through and out of the town. As they drove the cavalry before them, a force of infantry from behind a fence on their flank opened fire, wounding seven and capturing one man.”

Preston also includes several accounts from other men in the regiment, one of whom writes, in part, “The balance of our command had halted and were pouring in a rapid, well-directed fire, which was being returned with spirit by the rebels. Lieutenant Weed, who was in command, ordered us to fall back. There was a good board fence on one side of the street and the rebels had taken position behind it, and, as they were perfectly protected, we were compelled to retire from the terrible fire we were subjected to. It was a miraculous thing that more of our men were not hit, as we were directly abreast and close to them, and they had but to take deliberate aim at us through the cracks of the fence.”

I quote the accounts at some length so readers can make their own decisions as to whether the Confederates had set up an ambush that Kilpatrick carelessly threw his men into. Or, had the losses simply been the result of a street fight within the narrow confines of the town? I expect some will see an ambush and other may not. Martin refers to the Confederates as “bushwhackers,” but most of the men were convalescents left behind at local hospitals. Capt. Lige White arrived during the skirmish, with his Virginians (soon to be the 35th Virginia Battalion), and his troopers may have been the only truly healthy Southerners in the fight. In his comprehensive history of the unit, the late Horace Mewborn gives a balanced account of the fight but does not mention an ambush. Interpretations aside, Martin gives the impression, again, that Kilpatrick’s men had already begun referring to him as ‘Kill-Cavalry’ by September 1862.

Jumping ahead to the end of May 1863, Martin writes, “Kilpatrick’s efforts under Hooker (Stoneman) were seen as excellent by his superiors. He was persistent, forcible, and daring. He had succeeded in his missions when all other cavalry leaders had failed. And, although Kilpatrick’s horses and men had been exhausted by their hard riding, adding to his reputation as ‘Kill-Cavalry,’ he had ‘spent’ his force following orders.” Again, we get the impression he has already earned his famous or infamous nickname.

So, what does Martin say regarding how Kilpatrick earned the name? He quotes James Kidd’s Personal Recollections of a Cavalryman, published in 1908, in which Kidd, 6th Michigan, writing of the Gettysburg Campaign, notes, “In a few days he had fairly earned the soubriquet ‘Kill Cavalry,’ which clung to him till he left for the west. This was not because men were killed while under his command, for that was their business and every trooper knew that death was liable to come soon or late, while he was in the line of duty, but for the reason that so many lives were sacrificed by him for no good purpose whatever.” Martin cites only the highlighted section.

Henry Meyer began his military service in the 2nd New York under Kilpatrick, and he served a stint on his staff before receiving a commission in another regiment. Meyer mentions the nickname only once in his 1911 memoir, stating, “His usual method when meeting the enemy was to order a charge. Sometimes this was very successful, and at other times it was not so much so and very costly of men. It was because of this that he secured the nickname of ‘Kil-Cavalry.’” Notice here the difference in spelling. Meyer uses one l, more closely matching Kilpatrick’s name, while modern writers, enamored by the negative connotation, generally use two.

James Moore, a medical officer in the 9th Pennsylvania, and author of Kilpatrick and Our Cavalry, never mentions, or at least that I saw, ‘Kill-Cavalry,’ in what is a very pro-Kilpatrick narrative. Moore writes, “We have yet to find the common soldier who will speak of General Kilpatrick in any terms save of praise; and indeed, the feeling is reciprocated.”

But the 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry never fought in the Eastern Theater, so how did Moore, who published the book in 1865, learn the details of Kilpatrick’s service in the east, covered in the first two-thirds of the book? Historian Bruce Venter, author of Kill Jeff Davis, The Union Raid on Richmond, 1864, has theorized that Moore served as a ghostwriter for Kilpatrick and presented only what the general told him.

Capt. Willard Glazier also rode with Kilpatrick, and published his memoir, Three Years in the Federal Cavalry, in the 1870s. About midway through the book, Glazier offers a biographical sketch of his superior and says the following regarding Kilpatrick’s nickname. “If by the losses of men he has sustained he is truly entitled to the nickname of ‘Kill Cavalry,’ which has been quite generally accorded to him, his men know that these casualties have fallen out in line of duty, in bold enterprises that cost the enemy dearly, the wisdom of which will ever exculpate our loved commander from the imputation of rashness with which, by uninformed parties, he is sometimes charged.”

Though Glazier does not use ‘Kill-Cavalry’ again, he does mention the name he recalls the men using for the general. Referring to the October 1863 fight at Buckland Mills, Glazier writes, “This was a critical situation; but ‘Kil’ (as the general is familiarly styled among us) seemed to comprehend it in a moment. All thought and effort now centralized into a plan of escape from the snares which the enemy had laid for us, and into which we had too easily thrown ourselves. Kilpatrick is supposed by some to have unnecessarily exposed himself, in which he suffered his first defeat, though escaping with a remarkably small loss.” Again, I include his complete paragraph so readers can analyze his comment as they see fit.

Glazier, Moore, and Meyer all knew and rode with Kilpatrick and so their opinions matter, but they all wrote after the war, and in Meyer’s case, well after the general died in 1881. Kilpatrick’s skeptics, and they are legion, may dismiss their comments as defensive or laudatory, simply because of their past association. James Kidd also published his Recollections well after the general’s death. While Kidd served in Kilpatrick’s division, he served in a different brigade and may have had little direct interaction with Kilpatrick. Most importantly, Kidd served in George Custer’s Michigan Brigade, when Custer and Kilpatrick were strong rivals. Their rivalry and the slights seen inflicted by them upon the other or upon the other’s men, implied or otherwise, may have impacted Kidd’s writings, especially after Custer’s death and when Kidd had become one of his most vocal defenders.

But how have modern cavalry historians employed Kilpatrick’s most famous nom de guerre? I have, admittedly sampled a rather small pool, to include but not confined to Stephen Starr, Edward Longacre, Eric Wittenberg, and David Evans. Eric and Ed are both especially prodigious writers and I do not have, nor have I checked every possible reference in their works to see if their opinions and comments regarding Kilpatrick and his nicknames have evolved over time. Still, a few commonalities emerged. All use only the nickname Kill-Cavalry (anyone can please feel free to correct me and expand my sample of their work), and several suggest that his men referred to him using this name. In Lincoln’s Cavalrymen, Longacre writes “‘Kill-cavalry,’ as his overworked troopers sometimes called him…” Starr, in volume 1 of his trilogy, The Union Cavalry in the Civil War, writes, “His own men’s name for him was ‘Kill Cavalry’…”

By this point, readers should have noticed the many variations of the name, one l vs two, hyphen vs no hyphen, capital C vs small c, etc. Modern writers, most all of whom take a very caustic view of Kilpatrick, also tend to cite the same sources over and over, namely Capt. Charles Francis Adams and Col. Theodore Lyman. Adams saw Kilpatrick as “a brave injudicious boy, much given to blowing and who will surely come to grief.” Lyman described him as “certainly an odd looking specimen. His colorless eye, big nose, and narrow forehead, with an indescribable air between a vulgarian & a crack-brain, combine to render him almost laughable.” While I do not believe Adams used any form of the nickname in his descriptions, Lyman does mention ‘Kill-Cavalry,’ in February 1864. Meyer, Moore, and Glazier did not have access to the universally negative comments offered by Adams and Lyman, and so their comments are not tainted to the degree of later writers.

Bruce Venter is an exception, as modern writers go. Though an unabashed Kilpatrick admirer, he treats Kilpatrick with extremely rare objectivity, especially within the context of the general’s most controversial expedition. He tells us that his academy classmates named him ‘Little Kil,’ and Venter uses this name often in his narrative, both as his own choice and when using the words of those who rode with him.

Beyond ‘Kill-Cavalry’ and ‘Little Kil,’ did the general’s men have any other nicknames for their commander? Indeed, they did, with the most common sobriquet being, arguably, ‘Old-Kil.’ In his voluminous correspondence, Edwin Havens, 7th Michigan, uses ‘Old Kill’ numerous times. In a letter to his sister of February 16, 1864, Havens writes, “You said you did not think ‘Old Kill’ looked hardly competent to command our division. He may not look [emphasis in original] so, but his career of the past summer and the confidence his men have in him would indicate that he was.”

As to why the men liked Kilpatrick, Havens explains, “He thinks no more of talking with a private than an officer and when not in dress costume no one would take him for what he is.” Havens wrote similar remarks the next month, confirming just how much the men appreciated Kilpatrick’s willingness to step outside the boundaries of the class-conscious army and be ‘one of the boys.’ Interestingly, Havens speaks of George Custer in the same letter as the “little Poodle.” I love it.

So, what did Kilpatrick say of his harshest nickname? According to Asa Isham, 7th Michigan, Kilpatrick addressed the name in his farewell address in the spring of 1864. Isham recalled the general explaining, “the appellation ‘Kill cavalry’ had been unjustly applied to him [Kilpatrick]; that the welfare of his troops had been ever prominent in his mind, and that if the losses in his division had been heavy, it was because the exigencies of the service had engaged them more constantly in conflict with the enemy than other divisions of the cavalry. In parting, he [Kilpatrick] assured them of his continuing interest, and said that the best wish he could express was, that their new commander might have as much consideration for them as he could conscientiously say he had always entertained and displayed.”

A trooper in the 1st Vermont also remembered Kilpatrick’s farewell address, noting, “He [Kilpatrick] spoke of being called Kill-cavalry, but claimed that his division was now larger than either of the other two.”

After this long introduction, what of my questions at the outset; what is the origin of the ‘Kill-Cavalry’ nickname and what is the earliest mention of it? Well, the earliest use of the nickname I have seen is in a July 16, 1863, letter from James Kidd. Writing just after the controversial attack at Falling Waters, involving his regiment, Kidd wrote, “Gen. Kilpatrick is called here Gen. ‘Kill-Cavalry’ which is about as appropriate as his real name.”

The earliest date I have seen the name in a newspaper, is August 8, 1863, in a small blurb noting, “Quartermaster General Meigs says that the government lost 9,000 horses in the Maryland and Pennsylvania campaigns. The cavalry have nicknamed General Kilpatrick ‘Kill-cavalry.’ The loss of horses in his division has been enormous.” Several papers picked up the item, and you may find it by dates varying a day or two before or after August 8, 1863.

Two final thoughts and a final nickname. In a letter of July 9, 1863, a trooper in the 1st West Virginia wrote the following, “On Saturday morning [July 4] Gen. K called all his division together and addressed them briefly. It was no studied speech for a 4th of July, but one of a warrior to his victorious men. He spoke tenderly of the many brave and noble men who had [fallen] while discharging their duties, and down over his cheek stole a tear of sympathy. He said they would start immediately to engage the enemy’s rear, and that he knew enough of them to know that success would be ours.” Kilpatrick’s men had been heavily engaged on several areas of the battlefield on July 3, including the controversial charge resulting in Gen. Elon Farnsworth’s death.

Addressing Farnsworth’s death on July 3, an angry trooper wrote on the 23rd, “Kilpatrick witnessed it all, but what he thought of it – or sabre charging in general – was the greatest detriment to his popularity in the cavalry corps. Thus was Gen. Farnsworth killed at Gettysburg; and he [Kilpatrick] has received the name Kill-Farnsworth.”

Written by a soldier in the 8th Illinois, Farnsworth’s former regiment, the writer would not have been anywhere near the battlefield on July 3 and he would have heard of the event only after the facts had been parsed many times, so what should we make of it? I will leave each of you to reach your own conclusions.

So, what does our overwhelming use of ‘Kill-Cavalry,’ to the near complete exclusion of more collegial nicknames like ‘Little-Kil’ and ‘Old-Kil’ say about our objectivity – especially when we use the name prior to July 1863?

All these men were as complex as each of us, and, like them or dislike them, we owe them more of our time then casually scattering the same time worn comments and empty analysis through our studies. And, in Judson Kilpatrick’s case, we should not insert ‘Kill-Cavalry’ into our writing before we know the name to have been employed by his own men. I believe the key date to be July 16, 1863. If anyone knows of an earlier use of ‘Kill-Cavalry,’ I would like to hear from you.

Sources:

Edwin Havens Correspondence, Michigan State University

James Kidd Letters, University of Michigan

Buffalo Courier

Camden Democrat

Wheeling Daily Intelligencer

Woodstock Sentinel

David Evans, Sherman’s Horsemen

Worthington Chauncey Ford, A Cycle of Adams Letters 1861-1865

Willard Glazier, Three Years in the Federal Cavalry

Elliott Hoffman, editor, History of the First Vermont Cavalry Volunteers

Asa Isham, An Historical Sketch of the Seventh Regiment Michigan Volunteer Cavalry

James Kidd, Personal Recollections of a Cavalryman

Edward Longacre, Lincoln’s Cavalrymen

David Lowe, editor, Meade’s Army, The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman

Samuel Martin, Kill-Cavalry

Horace Mewborn, None Were Truer or Braver

Henry Meyer, Civil War Experiences Under Bayard, Gregg, Kilpatrick, Custer

James Moore, Kilpatrick and Our Cavalry

Stephen Starr, The Union Cavalry in the Civil War

Bruce Venter, Kill Jeff Davis, The Union Raid on Richmond, 1864

Eric Wittenberg, The Union Cavalry Comes of Age

4 thoughts on “‘Kill-Cavalry’

  1. Thank you a most interesting article! I have wondered for years if our negative impressions of the man may be at least somewhat exaggerated.

    John

    Like

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