Thomas Kane was described by First Division commander Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams as being small and precise and full of "pluck and will." Kane's forty-one years had been one improbable episode after another. Born into a wealthy Philadelphia family, Kane was educated in the United States and Paris. Although he studied law under his father, who was a Federal judge, he was averse to actual practice, preferring instead to go back and forth between a variety of appointed offices. Kane's trans-Atlantic education had made him a dedicated abolitionist. When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, he resigned his post as a U.S. commissioner. He was thrown into jail for contempt of court by his own father, who considered his son's refusal to aid in the return of escaped slaves an insult to the court. Kane the younger was freed by an order of the United States Supreme Court, whereupon he joined the Underground Railroad.
Though not a Mormon himself, Kane was a friend of Brigham Young and associated himself with the Mormons during the 1850s. During the Mormon Expedition of 1858 he was instrumental in avoiding a shooting war between the Mormon settlers and the U. S. Army. Returning east, he founded the town of Kane in the wooded hills of northwestern Pennsylvania shortly before the Civil War broke out.
In the weeks following the fall of Fort Sumter, Kane recruited as a leading citizen in the towns and hamlets of backwoods Pennsylvania, putting up placards announcing that he was authorized to accept for service "any man who will bring in with him to my headquarters a Rifle which he knows how to use." "Come forward, Americans, who are not degenerate from the spirit of '76!" read another. He looked for men who were used to shooting their food, who could survive in a forest, and who had the strength of mind and body that came from a life of rugged work. When he got the men he was looking for--woodsmen and lumbermen, mostly--he drilled them while carrying an umbrella for a sunshade. One day a recruit ornamented his hat with a snippet of fur cut from the carcass of a deer hanging in front of a town butcher shop. The other men and liked it, and they all did the same. Thus was born the regiment's famous nickname: the "Pennsylvania Bucktails." The Bucktails built four large rafts and floated down the Susquehanna river to Harrisburg, where they were mustered in. Once the regiment was assembled, Kane resigned for the simple reason that he lacked any military experience.
Kane was a visionary, however. He taught the Bucktails what would become known as "skirmisher tactics"--to scatter under fire, to make use of whatever cover the ground offered, to press continually forward along advantageous ground, and fire only when they could see their target. In complete contradiction of the military thinking of the day, Kane stressed individual responsibility in his soldiers. He held target practice, which was also an innovative idea at the time. He stressed long-range firing, and developed them as sharpshooters.
The Bucktails (assigned to the "Pennsylvania Reserve" Division, Fifth Corps) became a huge success in the war's early fighting, and when the regiment's first colonel resigned a few months later to enter Congress, Kane, who had stuck with his regiment as second-in-command, became their colonel after all, and turned out to be an excellent officer. In his regiment's first action, at Dranesville, Virginia on December 20, 1861, Kane was wounded in the right side of his face, knocking out some teeth and producing long-term difficulty with his vision.
Kane rejoined the Bucktails in time for the frustration of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign in the spring of 1862. He was again wounded, this time by a bullet which split the bone below his right knee at Harrisonburg, Virginia in June. Faint from shock and loss of blood, he was left on the field. When he tried to rise after the fighting was over, an enemy soldier broke Kane's breastbone with a savage blow from the butt of his rifle. Knocked unconscious, Kane was captured.
Exchanged in August 1862, Kane returned to the Bucktails for the Second Bull Run Campaign for what would be the final time, although he was so weak that another officer had to lead the regiment. He was promoted to brigadier general in September and put at the head of a Twelfth Corps brigade in the First Division in October, though at first he had to be helped onto his horse and could not walk without crutches (his Harrisonburg wound would continue to reopen for two years). This brigade was mustered out in March 1863 never having seen action under Kane's command. He was reassigned to a new brigade in March 1863, and led them little more than a month later in the Battle of Chancellorsville. There, his command was spared the terrible losses of the other two brigades of the division, but shared the terror of the many-fronted fighting of May 3 and lost 139 men.
While crossing the Rapidan in the early stages of the Chancellorsville Campaign, Kane's horse had stumbled, and he had been drenched and developed pleurisy. A few days after the battle his condition worsened into pneumonia, and he was forced to leave the army. When he heard about the impending showdown in Pennsylvania at the end of June, however, he rose from his sickbed in Philadelphia and, after a hard journey by railroad and buggy, and avoiding capture by Stuart's cavalry by disguising himself in citizen's dress, he arrived on the battlefield at 6:00 A.M. on the morning of July 2.
| At the moment Kane arrived on the field, his brigade was in reserve
behind Cemetery Hill. He resumed command of the brigade, but a few minutes
later, he again turned the brigade over to his senior colonel, George Cobham,
"being too much prostrated to continue it." For the rest of that day and the
next, active command went back and forth between Kane and Cobham, depending on
how well Kane was feeling. Kane was among the best of the civilian brigadiers,
but his abilities were negated by his pneumonia at Gettysburg.|
Kane's brigade was posted on Culp's Hill on the morning of his arrival. The afternoon was spent building breastworks. That evening, division commander Brig. Gen. John Geary mistakenly led the brigade off the battlefield for a few hours, and when they returned, they were fired on by the Stonewall Division, who had captured their earthworks while they were away. Kane's men filed carefully into a position near Greene's brigade, which had maintained its line on the crest of the hill, and waited for light.
Kane's brigade participated in the battle for the hill the next morning, July 3, losing only 98 men before the Rebels were pushed off the hill.
General Kane never recovered his health. Before long, with his face wound reopening, his chest still hurting, and his vision altered, he returned to Philadelphia. He was forced to resign from the army four months later, in November 1863.
For further reading:
Imhof, John D. "Two Roads to Gettysburg: Thomas Leiper Kane and the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves." Gettysburg Magazine 9, Jul, 1993