Was Alfred Pleasonton a Newspaper Humbug?

Like Judson Kilpatrick and “Kill-Cavalry,” Alfred Pleasonton and “newspaper humbug” go together today like peanut butter and jelly. Unlike the questionable origin of Kilpatrick’s nom-de-guerre, we know exactly who pinned the tag line on Pleasonton and when. The larger question is why?

On May 12, 1863, Capt. Charles Francis Adams, 1st Massachusetts, wrote “if you follow the newspapers, you must often have read of one Pleasonton and his cavalry. Now Pleasonton is the bête noire of all cavalry officers…He is pure and simple a newspaper humbug. You always see his name in the paper…He does nothing save with a view to a newspaper headline.” The phrase bête noire speaks to the degree that Adams and others disliked the general.

The letter is long, covering six printed pages, and Adams saves his comments regarding Pleasonton for the last page, where he compares Pleasonton to Stoneman and disparages Pleasonton’s personality and questions his courage. When I wrote The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville in the early 1990s, I drank all the anti-Pleasonton Kool-Aid and included Adams’s description of him as a newspaper humbug. In the years since, I have found reason to question much of what I and others have recited regarding Pleasonton. In the advent of digital, and easily searchable, newspaper databases, I continue to seek evidence supporting what Adams wrote and what historians have long accepted as unquestioned fact?

Was Pleasonton a newspaper humbug? I believe the answer is an unequivocal No! No evidence supports Adams’s assertion, and, in my opinion, we as historians, at any level, compromise our objectivity and integrity by continuing to repeat his claim in the absence of proof. In a day and age when we disparage ‘fake news,’ we should ask ourselves why we so readily accept yesterday’s ‘fake news,’ when we can easily seek the truth? Some will see Adams’s comments as one man’s opinion and therefore accept them without proof. Fair enough, but by repeating the statement without question or context we validate a statement we can, rather easily, disprove.

Let me also say that I wish we could prove that Pleasonton did everything with a view to a newspaper headline. Why? Because we would then know more about the man who, love him or hate him, guided the Union cavalry through the critical year of 1863. In truth, we know very little about him, but rather than admit to our lack of knowledge, or spend time looking for new evidence or context, we are too comfortable falling back upon the same two or three negative comments used by everyone who has preceded us.

So, I offer readers another challenge – prove me wrong. Conduct your own searches and convince me that Pleasonton did everything he could to grab a headline or otherwise get his name and accomplishments into the papers. Search the databases and send me the links to the newspapers that support Adams and his statement.

When asked why I was re-writing a book I published nearly 30 years ago, I have often, and with a touch of the Irish in me, responded by saying that I planned to rehabilitate Alfred Pleasonton’s reputation. Invariably, I heard a shocked, “How can that be?” After a brief pause, I usually amended the statement by saying something like, “Well, only in regard to his actions in the Loudoun Valley.”

Those of you who tuned in for my Chambersburg presentation last year know that I and everyone before and after me who has written on the topic has been wrong as to what Pleasonton was supposed to do in the Loudoun Valley June 17-22, 1863. We all accepted, without question, the scanty, easily obtained but misleading evidence in the Official Records, as well as the opinions, interpretations, and conclusions of others.

As to contemporary opinions of Pleasonton, there is a lot of agreement on such things as his personality. He was not a collegial person with a warm, friendly demeanor. I am convinced as to the accuracy of such statements by the simple weight of evidence from multiple sources. But only Adams says anything regarding Pleasonton’s apparently overwhelming desire to see his name in the headlines.

Adams wrote his letter on May 12, 1863, and thus we have a good starting point in a quest for proof. What had happened in the several days or weeks preceding his letter to provoke his ire? He opens with a tremendous heart-felt description of cavalry horses, the burdens they endured, and the challenges Adams faced in caring for his horses. He speaks of the Stoneman Raid and the Union debacle at Chancellorsville. He offers his views as to how the cavalry has been misused in the Virginia campaigns and he concludes by touching on the internal strife within the Army of the Potomac in the wake of the failed campaign. Maybe not surprisingly, he focuses on Hooker, Stoneman, and Pleasonton, and the rumors racing through the Cavalry Corps that Hooker intended to replace Stoneman with Pleasonton. As printed, the letter ends with, “mean and contemptible as Pleasonton is, he is always in [emphasis in original] at Head Quarters and now they say that Hooker wishes to depose Stoneman and hand the command over to Pleasonton. You may imagine our sensations in prospect of the change. Hooker is powerful, but Stoneman is successful.” The editor ends the letter here, though ellipses tell us Adams had more to say. The camp rumors proved correct. Hooker did make Stoneman a scapegoat for his failed campaign, and he did replace him with Pleasonton.

After several years seeking evidence to support the claim by Adams, I believe there is only one candidate for sparking his wrath – a May 5 New York Times article. Under a byline of “Chancellorsville, Midnight, May 2,” William Swinton filed a massive seven column story, filling the entire first page and one column on the last page. Across five columns, Swinton describes the campaign to date, as a prelude to his final two columns describing the May 2 fighting.

Swinton mentions Pleasonton twice. Midway through the fourth column, Swinton writes, “Both columns now moved as ordered, for Chancellorsville, at the junction of the Gordonsville turnpike with the [Culpeper] and Orange Court-house plank road – communications being kept up between the two movable columns by a squadron of Pleasonton’s cavalry, while another part of the same horsemen moved on the right flank of the outer column to protect it from rebel cavalry attacks.” I do not see any indication here of Pleasonton’s instigation or interference. Rather, I see a reporter merely describing the way Hooker maintained communications between elements of his army. But there is another mention.

Midway through his last column on page eight, Swinton writes the following regarding the latter stages of General Jackson’s flank attack against the XI Corps on May 2: “Gen. Pleasonton, too, succeeded in turning back a dozen pieces [of artillery] taken from a flying corps and planting them in a favorable position, while he drew up his little brigade of cavalry, consisting of squadrons of the Sixth New York, Eighth Pennsylvania and Seventeenth Pennsylvania, with drawn sabres to protect the guns (a novel sight in battle) Directing the pieces to be double-shotted with canister, he swept the position occupied by the enemy with a murderous fire. The successful check of the advancing foe is in no small degree owing to the indomitable energy of this gallant soldier.”

Here, Adams may have thought Pleasonton blew his own horn, so we need to consider how Swinton learned of the event. I see four candidates as the possible source, including Hooker, Gen. Daniel Sickles and Pleasonton. A case can be built supporting each man, with a final candidate to be revealed shortly.

Hooker never wanted Stoneman as his cavalry commander. Stoneman had been President Lincoln’s choice, and therefore Hooker could not just remove him as he had summarily removed General Averell. So, the army commander may have touted Pleasonton’s battlefield initiative as a means of introducing Pleasonton as a replacement: testing the waters to see how Lincoln might react.

Sickles had seen Pleasonton in action and believed the cavalryman had saved his own command. Much more politically connected than Pleasonton, Sickles was also closer to Hooker. Two weeks later, Sickles told Secretary of War Stanton, “I must not fail to tell you how magnificently Pleasonton [emphasis in original] behaved on Saturday the 2nd. He and his cavalry were under my command a short time and when Jackson attacked me after the 11th Corps ran Pleasonton rendered me assistance I can never forget – without him I would have been lost. He is the man to lead our cavalry… He is more than a good soldier – He is a man of ideas. Remember him.”

I believe Pleasonton comes under suspicion later, when some think he distorted the scope of his work. Yes, he profited in the short term by gaining command of the corps after Stoneman departed, but Hooker had needed to clear the way first and thus had a more immediate need. Still, in the confusion of the long disastrous day, I doubt any of the three men really considered the long game here or conjured up a conspiracy before the smoke had cleared. Swinton may well have crafted the paragraph from information overheard during the night.

Three other accounts fill the remainder of the last page of the paper, including two by Lorenzo Crounse, who would, in time, cover the cavalry, but Pleasonton is not mentioned again, anywhere in the paper.

However, another name is scattered throughout the same paper, as well as the Times of May 7, 8, and. The Federal Navy had detained a foreign vessel or vessels, alleged to have been involved in a blockade running scheme, in the Gulf of Mexico, the previous month. Captain Adams’s father, Charles Adams Sr., the Minister of the United States to Great Britain, became involved in the matter which dominated the news, alongside the accounts of Chancellorsville. Captain Adams said nothing of the irony here, though his comments on the matter, if any, may have been incised by Worthington Ford when he edited the family letters.

President Lincoln visited the army on May 6 and 7. In 1866, then Maj. Clifford Thomson, a former aide to Pleasonton, and a devoted friend, described how Pleasonton “chanced to call at Hooker’s headquarters, when [Hooker] said: ‘Mr. President, this is General Pleasonton, who saved the Army of the Potomac the other night.’” If true, Hooker had, in doing so, preemptively countered any arguments he may have received from Lincoln in removing Stoneman. The next week, when Lincoln debated removing Hooker, Pleasonton and Sickles remained firmly in Hooker’s corner. Shortly thereafter, Stoneman left on a medical leave and Pleasonton took command of the Cavalry Corps.

In several of his obituaries, Pleasonton is credited with having made the claim of saving the army himself, rather than Hooker. Such claims take hold as they support the notion that he was a glory hound, who repeatedly overstated his accomplishments to boost his reputation and grab headlines. However, the most contemporary source I am aware of, Thomson, credits Hooker with the claim.

The events of May 6 and 7, involving Lincoln’s visit, took place after Swinton’s article but before Adams wrote his letter. However, Lincoln’s visit does not appear to have been well covered by the press and I am not aware of any accounts mentioning Pleasonton meeting Lincoln.

Beyond official reports, I know of only one other contemporary account of Pleasonton’s actions at Hazel Grove on May 2. In a letter from “Falmouth, Va., May 13th, 1863,” Abner Hard, Surgeon of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, and at the time a member of Pleasonton’s staff, describes Pleasonton’s action late in the day. Written on May 13, and not appearing in a hometown newspaper until later in the month, Adams would not have seen Hard’s account when he wrote his May 12 letter.

Hard writes: “…late in the afternoon, Gen. Pleasanton [sic] with his cavalry and horse battery was directed to support Gen. Sickles. We had just left a small field and entered a thick grove, when we heard heavy firing on our right, and soon a messenger arrived saying that Gen. Howard’s 11th corps, were retreating, and wanted the cavalry to come to his support. We returned to the little field which we had just left, just in time to meet those of the 11th corps, who were flying before the advancing foe. Artillery, infantry, and ambulances, came rushing through our ranks, in the wildest confusion. Every effort was made by Gen. Pleasanton [sic], his staff, and cavalry, to bring order out of confusion, and arrest the disgraceful stampede. A few pieces of the artillery were halted and scarcely had the Gen. [Pleasonton] time to place his own artillery into position, and get his cavalry in a position to support it, when another dense mass of soldiers were seen emerging from the woods directly in our front, not two hundred yds distant, bearing the American flag. Fearing that it might be another division or brigade of our own men trying to form, the Gen. [Pleasonton]ordered his artillery to aim low, and not to fire until he gave the word, it being too dark to see the uniform. Gen. [Pleasonton] ordered one of his staff, Lieut. [Clifford] Thomson …to ride forward and see who they were. This was a moment of awful suspense. If they were rebels, his was a forlorn hope; if our men he would save the lives of thousands. Without a moment’s hesitation he [Thomson] rode boldly forward, while we all held our breath. When within a few rods of the woods, he was called to come forward, as they were our men; but he was too near to be deceived, instantly wheeled his horse and darted towards us, when the rebels fired a volley of musketry after him, and into our midst, accompanied with such fiendish yells, and charge, as none but rebels ever gave. At the same time, the Gen. [Pleasonton] ordered his command to fire, and instantly from cannon double shotted with canister, belched forth a deadly fire into their midst. The firing continued incessantly for half an hour, the rebels were repulsed with great slaughter. After the firing ceased, Maj. [W. H.] Crocker and Capt. [Joseph] Kennedy of Gen. P’s staff, were sent forward to reconnoitre, and discovered two guns and [caissons] which had been abandoned by the 11th corps, and from which our fire had driven the rebels; these were secured. During that terrible fire, the most savage that I have ever experienced, our battery (Lieut. Martin’s 6th N.Y.) lost six men, and thirty-five horses, in twenty minutes, and in half an hour this battery fired 369 rounds. This may serve to give you some idea of the severity of the onset. Amid the shower of leaden hail, my own noble steed received two balls, one of which made a severe flesh wound which I look upon as an honorable scar.”

Note here that Hard misspells Pleasonton’s name.  Am I the only one surprised that the officer who, according to Adams, had his name routinely splashed all over the newspapers, could not get his name spelled correctly? I’ll come back to this question later.

Surgeon Hard used his wartime letters to help him prepare the regimental history he published in 1868. In his postwar version, he adds a noteworthy piece of information not found in his letter. Just after describing his horse being hit twice, he adds, “In this condition of affairs I took a dispatch to General Hooker, who was at the Chancellor House, informing him of our position, and that we had checked the enemy’s advance.”

Now we have the fourth candidate as William Swinton’s source. Abner Hard had witnessed the events and been sent by Pleasonton directly to Hooker’s headquarters with the information. The dispatch is apparently in the Hooker Collection at the Huntington Library, and as cited by Stephen Sears reads, to include his introductory opinion of the general, “General Pleasonton, ever ready to claim credit where none was due, sent off a dispatch to Hooker: ‘I had to stop a stampede & check Jackson – which we did handsomely. I think we got them [emphasis in original according to Sears].’” As cited, Sears appears to have quoted the missive in its entirety.

The doctor strikes me as an interesting choice to deliver the message. At risk of sounding conspiratorial, and with no reason to think negatively of Surgeon Hard, he might have been the perfect choice. His horse had been shot twice and he had been injured by one of those bullets. Thus, his very appearance would have conveyed an immediate impression as to the severity of the action before he ever said a word. Beyond Pleasonton’s words on paper, Hard almost certainly fleshed out details in response to questions from Hooker and others and Swinton was there to gather his own impressions for his story.

Sears dismisses the entire affair, relying upon Lt. Col. David Winn’s statement, 4th Georgia, that he led but 200 men. Winn describes an officer riding toward the Georgians, some of whom opened fire, and the officer then dashing back to his lines before the Union guns opened fire. Winn’s account mirrors Hard’s account of Thomson’s ride closely.

The action at Hazel Grove has morphed into a swirl of controversy framed by many viewpoints and prejudices. Many questions may never be answered: exactly when did the fight take place? what were the lighting conditions? what could be seen? and how did each participant’s knowledge of events to that point frame their story? For instance, Winn knowledge of the situation, within the larger context of Jackson’s flank attack, would have been vastly different than what Pleasonton knew. Each observer would have seen and interpreted the same events within the lens of what they could see and their knowledge of the situation. Many men played a role in the action, from corps commander to private, and interpretations of what happened and what Pleasonton knew, saw, and did in the moment swing between extremes.

When I try and put everything into, what I believe to be, proper context, I doubt that Pleasonton, in the immediate aftermath of the fight, concocted a scenario where his dispatch and Hard’s description would lead to his name appearing in the paper. And I seriously doubt that Pleasonton knew that Swinton would be present, especially as Hooker was not a fan of correspondents and would soon try to ban them from the army. What Pleasonton and others did later is another matter.

William Swinton’s account covered seven full page columns. The May 5 edition carries several other accounts of the day’s fighting, 12 columns in total, and Pleasonton’s name appears twice. The paragraph concerning Pleasonton’s contribution is but 12 lines and Swinton credits Pleasonton with gathering 12 guns. This is all Captain Adams would have seen when he wrote his letter, as the differing accounts all came later. Wipe all the later controversies from your memory, and then ask yourself what Adams based his accusation on.

Aside from the controversies, an objective reader should also see in the descriptions some vindication of the claims, including one by Adams in his May 12 letter, that Pleasonton was a coward. Lt. Joseph Martin noted in his report, dated May 9, “The brigadier-general commanding [Pleasonton], from the exposed position which he kept throughout the action, in the center of my battery, saw it all, and it would only be wearisome to tell him what he saw as well as myself.” You will, if being fair, also recall the injuries sustained by Hard and his horse in the same area, as well as Lt. Martin’s statement that he had one man killed and four men wounded.

Finally, the spelling of Pleasonton’s name. Abner Hard never did spell his name correctly, even in his 1868 regimental history. To this point, the editors of the New York Times felt the need to insert the following into the paper on September 20, 1863. “Gen. Pleasonton spells his name with an ‘o’ in the second syllable.” One might think that a headline grabber like so many believe Pleasonton to have been would not still need to have his name corrected in late-1863.

As historians, we complain about the myths and falsehoods that are taken as fact by many. We need to be careful we do not create similar problems by our own willingness to accept other falsehoods and our unwillingness to search for the truth. In the overall scheme of the battle, Pleasonton’s role is minor, and an in-depth examination of the later questions and controversies would be a distraction for the author and the reader of a battle study. But a much deeper look is needed before one simply dismisses his contribution as that of a man “ever ready to claim credit where none was due.”

Pleasonton had many faults, but nothing I have seen supports Adams’s claim that he was a newspaper humbug during the war. I hope someone can convince me otherwise. But you will need to show me proof from the newspapers of the day, and the papers need to be dated prior to May 12, 1863, when Adams wrote his letter and accused Pleasonton of a long pattern of headline grabbing.


Unpublished documents in the National Archives

Aurora Beacon

National Tribune

New York Times

Battles & Leaders, Volume 3

Worthington Ford, editor, A Cycle of Adams Letters

Ernest Furgurson, Chancellorsville 1863, The Souls of the Brave

Richard N. Griffin, editor, Three Years a Soldier: The Diary and Newspaper Correspondence of Private George Perkins, Sixth New York Independent Battery, 1861-1864

The Official Records

Stephen Sears, Chancellorsville

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