Pleasonton’s June 23 Letter and the Boy Generals

Today I offer the last of the several appendices that did not appear in Small but Important Riots. I have decided to expand the narrative, which covers several related themes, into a two-part story. Here, in Part 1, I address Alfred Pleasonton’s oft-cited June 23 letter to Congressman John Farnsworth. In Part 2, I will take a closer look at Alfred Duffie and his rocky relationship with Pleasonton. Thirty years ago, I drank deeply from the tankard of anti-Pleasonton Kool-Aid, and presented the standard anti-Pleasonton interpretation of his comments to Farnsworth. I also employed the very dangerous investigative technique of starting with a conclusion and then working backwards to make the facts fit the crime. Pleasonton’s critics continue to do so today. Having considered and researched these events for three decades, I hope I have reached a more objective interpretation and brought us a bit closer to the truth.

On June 23, 1863, Gen. Alfred Pleasonton wrote a letter to Congressman John Farnsworth, a friend and former cavalry general, in which he offered his views on several topics, including foreigners in the military, and his own case for promotion. Critics of his, and they are legion, have since used his comments as proof of his abiding prejudice and unbridled ambition, while ignoring more vital, campaign specific, though less sensational, concerns raised in the letter. Viewing his comments objectively, while seeking to understand all the events and concerns raised by Pleasonton (briefly outlined below), within the context of the campaign, puts the letter in a more accurate light.

Along with Gen. Joseph Hooker, Pleasonton had, for some time, been angling to increase the size of his Cavalry Corps. Both men coveted Gen. Julius Stahel’s division, attached to Gen. Samuel Heintzelman’s Department of Washington. As Pleasonton pointed his disparaging comments regarding ‘foreigners’ directly at Stahel, let us examine those comments first. “With regard to General Stahel [Pleasonton’s emphasis] he ranks me and if put over me I shall retire – as I have no faith in foreigners saving our Government or country. Stahel has not shown himself a cavalryman and it is ruining cavalry to place it under him…Already the guerrillas under Mosby [Pleasonton’s emphasis] are burning trains…between [Aldie] and Fairfax and Stahel’s force is watching empty air down about Washington.”[1]

As I laid out in greater detail in my previous book, Chasing Jeb Stuart and John Mosby, and in an article titled “Julius Stahel’s Cavalry Division, June 1863,” Pleasonton is almost certainly telling a bald-faced lie here. I say almost certainly, because we do not know everything that he knew at the time regarding Stahel’s activities. Also, evidence suggests that Hooker and Pleasonton had worked together for a common purpose several times in the previous weeks. As I explain in Chapter 7 of Small but Important Riots, there may have been collusion between Hooker and Pleasonton in the hours before the fight at Aldie on June 17. If so, Pleasonton backed out at the last minute and disobeyed Hooker’s orders, choosing instead to do what he should have done and search for the enemy. Likewise, evidence suggests the two men may have conspired in May, when Hooker sought to oust George Stoneman (see Chapter 1). But, again, we do not have an admission or ‘smoking gun’ of a premeditated plan from either man in the effort to unseat Stoneman. Pleasonton’s comments regarding Stahel hint at another common scheme with Hooker, as both men wanted Stahel gone. Thus, each shared a motive, but any other evidence remains circumstantial.[2]

Without restating the entire case supporting Stahel’s role in the campaign to date, as well as his cooperation with Hooker and Pleasonton, let me offer three examples. When Pleasonton asked Stahel to move into supporting distance prior to his attack on June 9, he knew that Stahel had promptly done so. He may also have known that Stahel had sent a heavy reconnaissance into the Shenandoah Valley on June 6. When Pleasonton finally received a copy of Hooker’s June 17 order (the order captured by John Mosby but re-issued the following day), Pleasonton knew that Hooker had sent “Regiments from Stahel’s command [to] Warrenton and Sulphur Springs [to] penetrate in that direction.”[3]

And, finally, he must have had some intimation, that Hooker had, on the morning of June 21, ordered Stahel to make an immediate “reconnaissance in force in the direction of Warrenton and the Upper Rappahannock…[and] make every effort to ascertain the whereabouts of the enemy’s forces, and particularly of the corps commanded by A. P. Hill.” Stahel had promptly departed with most of his division and was near the Rappahannock River, with some men across the river, when Mosby attacked the wagon train referred to by Pleasonton in his June 23 letter. Meanwhile, Pleasonton’s men, though tired after a week of fighting, had regrouped near Aldie, mere miles from the site of the attack. Still, Stahel was ordered to return to prevent further incursions. Contrary to Pleasonton’s claim, Stahel was not “watching empty air down about Washington.”[4]

Returning to his June 23 letter, Pleasonton then explained, “Tell the President from me that I will sacrifice my life to support his Government and save the country, but that I will not fight under the order of a Dutchman [Pleasonton’s emphasis], that I conscientiously believe that Americans only should rule in this matter and settle this rebellion and that in every instance foreigners have injured our cause.” Pleasonton’s statement looked offensive in 1993 and more so today, but in 1863, in the wake of the perceived role of foreign soldiers in the debacle at Chancellorsville, he almost certainly voiced the opinion of most everyman and every rank in the Army of the Potomac. But because we have only a couple personal letters from Pleasonton and because he states his view so unequivocally (he did mark the letter ‘Private’), we interpret his comments as though he was the only man in the army with such opinions, rather than one among thousands. Lost in the myopic rush to condemn Pleasonton by focusing on the salacious, we have tended to ignore the most important aspect of the letter.[5]

General Samuel Heintzelman had been placed at the helm of the Defenses of Washington, South of the Potomac River, in September 1862, and shortly thereafter the Defenses of Washington, which, at the time, fell under the overall direction of the general commanding the Army of the Potomac. He particularly despised Hooker, and thus, when Hooker received command of the army, Heintzelman asked that his jurisdiction be split off into a separate department, free of any oversight by Hooker. The War Department complied on February 2. Now termed the Department of Washington, Heintzelman had responsibility for an area with defined geographical boundaries, including the northern boundary just north of the Potomac River between the Monocacy River and Annapolis Junction, Maryland. By June 22, and with the Army of the Potomac preparing to cross the Potomac, the question of Hooker’s authority over Heintzelman’s men became ever more critical. [6]

Notoriously prickly, Heintzelman had, as the summer campaign developed, allowed Hooker to pull infantry from his department without argument, and he had allowed his cavalry to cooperate with Hooker, but he had refused to surrender his cavalry to the army commander. On June 19, Hooker asked Gen. Henry Halleck to clarify the question of his authority over Heintzelman. “Are orders for [Heintzelman’s] commands to be given by me where I deem it necessary? The nature of the control to be exercised by me I would like to have distinctly and clearly fixed and understood by [General Heintzelman] …”[7]

General Halleck pondered the matter for several days before pronouncing his less than satisfying decision. “The Department of Washington will continue as heretofore, your orders being given direct to General Heintzelman, he reporting them to headquarters before executing them, where they conflict with his special instructions.” In other words, in the event of a disagreement, Halleck would serve as the final arbiter. But with the army, especially the cavalry, moving ever farther from Washington, to include Stahel’s men moving beyond the geographical limits of Heintzelman’s authority, such questions could take hours, if not days, to resolve. Recognizing the idiocy and potential danger of the arrangement, Hooker again asked Halleck for clarification; did he have authority to issue orders directly to Heintzelman’s men? Halleck went silent.[8]

As Hooker and Heintzelman waited for answers to their questions of authority and jurisdiction, General Stahel became their shuttlecock, batted back and forth by an ever-increasing number of stressed, intolerant, and impatient commanders. Still, Halleck remained mute. On June 24, Hooker sent Stahel’s division across Potomac, beyond the bounds of Heintzelman’s authority. Then, several of Heintzelman’s infantry commanders refused to obey orders from Hooker, without Heintzelman’s approval. Frustrated, Hooker told Halleck, “You will find, I fear, when it is too late, that the effort to preserve department lines will be fatal to the cause of the country.”[9]

Likewise, Pleasonton recognized how such unresolved questions of authority could adversely affect military operations in the coming days. As he explained in his June 23 letter, “all the cavalry in Washington, Stahel’s command should be combined with this corps & held for heavy blows & not scattered about & frittered away on trifling objects…. If the President prefers General Stahel, let him have all the cavalry, but concentrate it (Pleasonton’s emphasis), or when the shock comes between the two armies he will painfully [learn] the truth of which I now tell him.”[10]

Pleasonton was correct. He knew from his experience in the 1862 Maryland Campaign that the rugged nature of the terrain would hinder rapid communication and concentration, as the army passed through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. Efforts to coordinate his actions quickly and effectively with Stahel might prove impossible, especially if the status quo remained. In other words, what calamities might result if Stahel sought guidance and approval from Heintzelman and Halleck rather than promptly obeying orders from Hooker, Pleasonton or other senior officers, such as wing commander, John Reynolds. With the cavalry advancing on several fronts, Halleck’s unwillingness to clarify the question of authority could prove a recipe for disaster. Pleasonton’s plea, possibly made after speaking with Hooker, had little to do with personal ambition and everything to do with common sense.

Beyond the unresolved question of authority, an unrelated event, possibly announced as Pleasonton wrote his letter, and overlooked by the cavalry chief’s critics, may have triggered Pleasonton’s comments regarding foreigners. Just after 3 p.m., Gen. Daniel Butterfield told Col. Alfred Duffié, “Your appointment as brigadier general waits for you” at army headquarters. Hooker and Pleasonton sharply disagreed on the colonel’s merits as a commander. Hooker had twice recommended the Frenchman for promotion, while Pleasonton scorned Duffié for his incompetence rather than his national origin. Following his disastrous expedition to Middleburg, Pleasonton believed Duffié should have been brought before a military court. Promoting him shocked Pleasonton like salt rubbed into a raw wound.[11]

Having led the corps for a month without the commensurate rank of major general and confronted with the possibility of being forced to yield his position to Major General Stahel, Pleasonton brought up the question of his own promotion. As the only brigadier commanding a corps, Pleasonton had a valid claim for promotion. He had, since June 9, led the corps through the two largest cavalry battles to date, at Brandy Station and Upperville, but General Stahel, a division commander, out ranked him. Not wishing to yield his position, Pleasonton wanted Stahel transferred. Such transfers happened throughout the war, and in both armies, as a means of resolving similar disputes. Though his critics see Pleasonton’s request as the ultimate example of his unbridled ambition, we should ask ourselves, if in the same position, would we respond any differently?[12]

Pleasonton then broached the need to promote junior officers, telling Farnsworth, “I am sadly in want of officers with the proper dash to command cavalry – having lost so many good ones.” By his count, he had lost 80 to 100 officers during the fighting at Brandy Station and in the Loudoun Valley, and he had raised the question with Hooker the previous day. Specifically, he needed a dependable, energetic officer to lead the Reserve Brigade. Samuel Starr had not impressed Pleasonton and Whiting had been transferred. After observing Starr at Vineyard Hill on June 21, Pleasonton had recommended 27-year-old Capt. Wesley Merritt be promoted to replace the 53-year-old Starr. “Give me good commanders,” Pleasonton told Hooker, “and I will give you good results.” Seeking to resolve a critical need, the cavalry chief had planted the first seed of what soon grew into a remarkable harvest.[13]

In his letter, Pleasonton also suggested promoting Capt. Elon Farnsworth to brigadier. That Pleasonton wrote the letter to Elon’s uncle suggests a bit of unsavory backroom scheming. Extrapolating from their rush to judgment, Pleasonton’s critics conclude that Custer, Merritt, and Farnsworth received their promotions only through the intersession of Congressman Farnsworth. An objective view of events suggests that Pleasonton never mailed the letter and Congressman Farnsworth played no role in the subsequent promotions. Unbeknownst to Pleasonton when he wrote his letter, he had already been promoted to major-general. Once he found out, probably the same day, he held the letter and subsequent events negated the need to mail it.[14]

On the evening of June 26, Hooker forced a resolution to the open question of his authority over Stahel, by asking Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to transfer Stahel, as “His presence here as senior major-general will embarrass me and retard my movements.” Within hours, Stanton transferred Stahel to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. At 1 p.m. the following day, Hooker offered his resignation, and President Lincoln accepted it seven hours later. In what may have been his last official act as commander of the army, Hooker issued Special Order 174 on June 28, announcing Stahel’s transfer and the transfer of his division to the Cavalry Corps. Gen. George Meade learned of his promotion to command the army about the same time.[15]

General Pleasonton had luck on his side on June 28, as he had established his headquarters close to Meade, at Meade’s request. Thus, Pleasonton may have been one of the first corps commanders to learn of the change of command. He may also have seen the order from Halleck placing Meade in command and the authority granted therein to “to appoint to command as you may deem expedient.”[16]

Ever the cagey opportunist, Pleasonton immediately penned a letter to Meade asking him to promote captains Farnsworth, Custer, and Merritt to brigadier. “Cavalry must have able commanders with dash & spirit or it will inevitably fail,” he explained. “The officers I mention, have proved themselves by their brilliant & distinguished conduct…to be suitable selections for cavalry commanders.” Importantly, Pleasonton saw the three captains as “disposable.” The word may strike readers as curious, but he did not mean that he could afford to lose them to death or injury in battle. Rather, as junior officers and with Custer and Farnsworth serving in staff positions, their promotion would complement rather than upset the existing brigade leadership within his corps, which had, with one exception, proved effective in the Loudoun Valley.[17]

General Meade agreed and penned three brief notes, asking the War Department to promote the men. Special Order 175 appointing them to brigadier followed shortly thereafter. Pleasonton sought, unsuccessfully, similar promotions for Capt. John Tidball, commanding his horse artillery, and Col. John McIntosh, commander of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry. With three of his five requests granted, Pleasonton quickly reorganized his corps, creating a third division from Stahel’s former command. Custer and Farnsworth took command of brigades in the 3rd Division, now led by General Kilpatrick, while Merritt took command of the Reserve Brigade. He now led three strong divisions and he announced the new organization in Special Order 98 the same day.[18]

Working backwards from the events of June 23 and 28, historians have sought to condemn Pleasonton’s motives for his reorganization on June 11, in which he consolidated his predecessor’s three weak divisions into two strong divisions. In the process, three foreign officers appear (my emphasis)to have been demoted from brigade and division commands. Combined with his comments regarding foreigners in June 23 letter, his critics assume Pleasonton demoted the three men because they were foreign, and to clear a path for the younger American officers.

The three foreign officers are Col. Alfred Duffié, who led the 2nd Division at Brandy Station, and colonels Luigi di Cesnola and Percy Wyndham who led brigades at Brandy Station. Regardless of their national origin, all three were haughty, excitable men, who had exalted opinions of their own abilities and qualifications to command.

Colonel Wyndham, an Englishman, had been wounded at Brandy Station and returned to Washington to recover. Pleasonton neither demoted him nor desired to be rid of him. While recovering, Wyndham, who bristled under the command of others, received temporary command of the budding remount facility in the capital. Having achieved his goal of an independent command, he then ignored repeated orders from Pleasonton to return to the Cavalry Corps. When he finally returned to the army in October, he was arrested by authority of Secretary of War Stanton on an unrelated matter having nothing to do with Pleasonton, and eventually mustered out of the army.[19]

Both Duffié and di Cesnola had achieved their division and brigade commands through seniority rather than official appointment. Duffié lost his position as division commander when Pleasonton consolidated his corps and eliminated the division. Under the new structure, Duffié resumed command of his brigade as the senior colonel. Attached to the same brigade and junior to Duffié, di Cesnola, an Italian, who had led the brigade as the next senior colonel, returned to command his regiment. Duffié returned to his regiment on June 16, when Judson Kilpatrick received his confirmation as brigadier and took permanent command of the brigade. None of the three foreign officers had been fired. Kilpatrick’s promotion, followed by the promotion of Farnsworth, Custer, and Merritt, brought permanent leadership to the affected commands rather than the merry-go-round of commanders under the seniority system. In doing so, Pleasonton brought youth, vigor, and stability to the Cavalry Corps.[20]

 To be continued…

[1] Pleasonton to My dear General, June 23, 1863, Alfred Pleasonton Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[2] O’Neill, Chasing Jeb Stuart and John Mosby, The Union Cavalry in Northern Virginia from Second Manassas to Gettysburg, Jefferson, McFarland, 2012, and O’Neill, “Julius Stahel’s Cavalry Division, June 1863,” North & South, Volume 14, Number 4, 2012.

[3] OR 27, pt. 3, 31, 33-35; Butterfield to Pleasonton, June 17, 1863, Charles Venable Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.

[4] OR 27, pt. 3, 244-245.

[5] Pleasonton to My dear General, June 23, 1863, Pleasonton Papers.

[6] OR 19, pt. 2, 220, 227-228, 237; OR 25, pt. 2, 3-4, 42, and OR 27, pt. 3, 258-59.

[7] OR 27, pt. 1, 52.

[8] OR 27, pt. 1, 51-56.

[9] OR 27, pt. 1, 56.

[10] OR 27, pt. 1, 55-56, and pt. 3, 271, 279, 283, and 286; Pleasonton to My dear General, June 23, 1863, Pleasonton Papers.

[11] Gen. Daniel Butterfield to Col. Alfred Duffié, June 23, 1863, RG 107, M504, NARA; OR 27, pt. 3, 288.

[12] Pleasonton to My dear General, June 23, 1863, Pleasonton Papers.

[13] OR 27, pt. 1, 912-13.

[14] Pleasonton to My dear General, June 23, 1863, Pleasonton Papers. Based on events which transpired over the next few days, historians have assumed that Pleasonton mailed his letter, as well as a letter from Elon Farnsworth to Congressman Farnsworth, thus facilitating the promotions of Merritt, Farnsworth, and Custer a few days later. But the letters are in the Alfred Pleasonton Papers, not the John Farnsworth Papers. Nor has any correspondence been found to confirm the congressman ever received the letters or played any role in the promotion of the three captains. In a letter of July 1, a correspondent announced the promotions by stating the three officers had been “appointed in violation of red tape and regardless of political influences, because of their rare fitness to lead cavalry,” (emphasis in original), see New York Times, July 4, 1863. A skeptic, however, might see the correspondent’s statement as protesting too much and thus take his comment as proof of political influence.

[15] OR 27, pt. 1, 58-61, and pt. 3, 373. In the Official Records, Special Order 175, announcing the promotion of Farnsworth, Merritt, and Custer, follows immediately after Special Order 174, but much transpired between the two orders being published.

[16] Gen. Seth Williams to General Pleasonton, June 28, 1863, RG 107, M504, NARA. Some Pleasonton critics interpret Meade’s request, that Pleasonton establish his headquarters near Meade’s, as proof that Meade did not trust Pleasonton and wanted to keep an eye on him. I believe the evidence supports the opposite conclusion, that the two men had become good friends. They had maintained their headquarters near each other for several days at Aldie. Meade had supported Pleasonton on June 21, and they may have spent time together during the several days between June 22 and June 27. Though only speculation, Pleasonton may have discussed his concerns with the state of the cavalry and the need for young, aggressive officers with Meade over these several days. I doubt Meade would have promoted the three captains at Pleasonton’s request if he neither trusted nor liked him. Moreover, I think their friendship extended beyond the campaign, as evidenced by Lt. Louis Henry Carpenter, 6th U.S. Cavalry, who, in August, observed that Meade and Pleasonton “seem to have become inseparable friends, they are together all the time. Gen’l Pleasonton passes nearly every night at [Meade’s] headquarters.” Carpenter made the comment while the badly depleted regiment was attached to Pleasonton’s headquarters. All of which makes Pleasonton’s testimony against Meade before the Committee on the Conduct of the War the following year more troubling and shameless. See Carpenter to Father, Warrenton Jct., August 8, 1863, Carpenter Letters, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[17] General Pleasonton to Gen. Seth Williams, June 28, 1863, RG 393, Part 1, Entry 3986, NARA (emphasis in original). Critics often ask why Pleasonton did not recommend senior men like colonels John Irvin Gregg and John Taylor. As they already held brigade commands, albeit as the senior colonels in their brigades, he did not see them as disposable. Moving them might have upset the efficiency of the corps.

[18] Gen. George Meade to Gen. Henry Halleck, June 28, 1863, RG 94, M1064, and Pleasonton to Williams, June 28, 1863, RG 393, Part 1, Entry 3986, NARA; OR 27, pt. 3, 373, 376. The entire process took place in less than 24 hours. Anyone who sees Pleasonton as an officer of unbridled ambition should read Colonel McIntosh’s files, counting the number of letters he wrote on his own behalf seeking promotion or engaged others to write for him. Then consider that Pleasonton’s files contain only the unmailed June 23 letter.

[19] OR 25, pt. 1, 40; Regimental Committee, History of the Third Pennsylvania, 250; Gen. Lorenzo Thomas to Gen. Joseph Hooker and the Governor of New Jersey, February 28, 1863, Col. Percy Wyndham to Gen. Seth Williams, March 1, 1863, Unknown to Wyndham, March 9, 1863, RG 94, Entry 496, Wyndham to Secretary Edwin Stanton, July 29, 1863, Letter from Surgeon Higgins, August 1, 1863, and Wyndham to Lt. Col. John Taylor, August 3, 1863, Wyndham’s CSR, RG 94, and Gen. Alfred Pleasonton to General Williams, September 3, 1863, Charges and Specifications against Wyndham, and Special Order 227, July 5, 1864, RG 94, Entry 797, NARA. For further information on Wyndham’s career and the charges against him, see O’Neill, Chasing Jeb Stuart and John Mosby.

[20] Regimental Committee, History of the Third Pennsylvania, 250; Col. Alfred Duffié’s CSR, RG 94, and Gen. William Averell to Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, March 28, 1863, RG 393, Pt. 2, Entry 3986, NARA.

6 thoughts on “Pleasonton’s June 23 Letter and the Boy Generals

  1. Great article, Bob. I wonder how many historians would make the candid comments you did about your earlier writings on Pleasonton. As usual, your research and analysis are top drawer. I always found myself defending Pleasonton, but only because of his promoting Custer, Merritt and Farnsworth and for his understanding the concept of massed cavalry. I always took the criticisms at face value, but thought the good outweighed the bad. You throw a whole new light on the general.


    • Thank you, Tom. Too often we find painting with a broad brush as the easiest solution. There is much to examine in this series of events, and we need a finer brush and a deeper examination of the events.


  2. Another great article full of detailed information that you have uncovered about Pleasonton’s cavalry division. Duffie came to Hooker’s attention after showing initiative at Kelly’s Ford, but probably lost whatever good will he had with Hooker (and Pleasonton) with his late arrival at Brandy Station. I am looking forward to next month’s conclusion. Thanks Again!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s