Review: Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions by Eric Wittenberg

by Brett Schulte on September 21, 2006 · 1 comment

Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions
by Eric J. Wittenberg
Thomas Publications: Gettysburg, PA, 1998.
132 pp., 8 maps

Eric Wittenberg sets out to right several wrongs in his concise Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions. The increasingly prolific cavalry author here focuses on three separate but related cavalry actions on the south side of the Gettysburg Battlefield after the conclusion of Pickett’s Charge. Wittenberg stresses that the National Park Service has not done enough to interpret these cavalry actions, and the official story of the Battle of Gettysburg essentially ends after Pickett’s men fell back from Cemetery Ridge. To make matters worse, Elon J. Farnsworth, the only Union general to fall within the enemy’s lines, is also the only one who does not have a monument specifically dedicated to him. In these 132 pages, the author sets out to shed light on this neglected division-sized assault, the men who participated, and the possibility of a Confederate rout as a result.

As the afternoon of July 3, 1863 moved on into evening, Judson Kilpatrick, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Third Division, ordered a foolhardy cavalry charge over broken ground by Elon Farnsworth’s Brigade. Farnsworth recognized the folly of the charge and asked Kilpatrick if he really meant it. Kilpatrick did, and questioned Farnsworth’s courage in the process. Some believed that this led to Farnsworth’s death in the charge to come. In any case, several regiments of Farnsworth’s Brigade charged, with portions of the 1st Vermont and Farnsworth himself breaking through. Wounded severely, Farnsworth never made the perilous ride back to his own lines, paying with his life for Kilpatrick’s ill-conceived attack. Despite this, there is no monument dedicated to Farnsworth on this area of the field.

While Farnsworth’s Charge was underway, most of Wesley Merritt’s Regular Brigade skirmished heavily with elements of Evander Law’s used-up division and several batteries of Confederate artillery. Two of Merritt’s regular cavalry regiments managed to briefly break through the Confederate right flank, and Wittenberg believes that a golden opportunity to roll up Lee’s entire army was lost here. The author is convinced that one or two divisions of Federal infantry used in a follow-up attack could have caused Lee’s right flank to be rolled up. He further says that the men were available from the fresh Union VI corps, but that Meade was too cautious to use them.

In what was almost a separate essay, Wittenberg discusses the rumor that Farnsworth killed himself. He offers quite a few different accounts, all claiming to be first hand. Many of the Confederate reminiscences speak of Farnsworth shooting himself three or four times, and at least once in the head, a claim which Wittenberg dismisses as absurd. Most Union accounts swear that Farnsworth had no wounds to his head or neck, instead saying that he suffered as many as five wounds to the body. In the end, the author concludes that Farnsworth did not commit suicide, and that most of the Confederate accounts were probably second hand.

The third and last cavalry action on the southern portion of the Gettysburg battlefield actually happened several miles further west. The 6th United States Cavalry was sent on an unsupported mission to capture a Rebel wagon train which a civilian had said was unguarded on his farm near Fairfield. Maj. Samuel H. Starr and his lone regiment ran into an entire Confederate cavalry brigade, that of Grumble Jones, and they were mauled. Wittenberg lays most of the blame on Merritt for sending the regiment out unsupported and on Starr for several tactical mistakes.

I enjoyed Wittenberg’s attention to tactical detail. He and I tend to share somewhat similar views on what makes a book on the Civil War interesting, so this is not surprising. I disagree slightly with the author’s contention that Lee’s entire army could have been rolled up and routed due to one more infantry division placed on the southern flank. Most flank attacks lose momentum before an entire army is routed from the field. Even Longstreet’s massive counterattack at Second Manassas was eventually blunted on Henry Hill. I agree, however, that these cavalry fights have been overlooked by history. I assume most people who are familiar with Gettysburg have heard of Farnsworth’s doomed charge, but many (including myself) may not know about Merritt’s brief breakthrough or the rout of the 6th U.S. Cavalry at Fairfield. These fights deserve recognition, and I feel that the author has given them their due with this volume.

The maps were excellent, giving first an overview of the whole battlefield, overviews of the ground over which these three fights occurred, and lastly going into regimental level detail. An order of battle is also included, with the added bonus of beginning strengths and casualties incurred during the fighting. Although Wittenberg does use some of the better secondary sources (Coddington, Pfanz, Martin & Busey), the end notes are littered with letters, diary entries, and other personal reminiscences. The bibliography and index also appear well done, especially for a book of this length.

Eric Wittenberg mostly succeeds in Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions, though I disagree to some extent that Lee’s army would have been routed from the field with a more determined combined arms effort instead of a division-sized cavalry attack. He sheds light on these eponymous forgotten cavalry actions, allowing students of an incredibly over-studied battle to find some new ground. I am not sure if a Farnsworth Monument has been erected between the publication date of 1998 and the present day, but Wittenberg’s book can only help in that department, as well as possibly causing the National Park Service to finally get around to officially interpreting these cavalry clashes. I would recommend this book to cavalry students and fans of Gettysburg. If you already have quite a few books on the Gettysburg Campaign and you are more interested in infantry actions, this one is probably not necessary, though I found it enjoyable and informative.

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