The man in charge of the cavalry for the Union army, Alfred Pleasonton, was a man of the world, "a nice little dandy . . . with an unsteady eye, that looks slyly at you, and then dodges," in the words of Frank Haskell at Gettysburg. Short and slight of build, he wore a perky little straw hat with a broad black band cocked to one side of his head, white kid gloves, a cowhide riding-whip, and a carefully waxed mustache, and fitted himself out in dapper uniforms with stylish accouterments, astride a striking light-colored charger. He was decidedly unmilitary in his tastes--he dined on champagne, oysters, and other delicacies he took pains to stock in his headquarters mess, even during active campaigning. His manner was polished and personable, and his conversation was witty and charming, especially when the ladies were present (though he never married).
Such a man could only be a cavalryman, where the romantic ideal of the beau sabreur still had its place in the public imagination. But Pleasonton had another trait as easily distinguishable as his taste in clothes: thirst for fame, combined with a total lack of scruples about how to get it. When the war broke out, he was posted in Utah, keeping an eye on the Mormons with the 2nd Dragoons, about as far from the main arena as he could possibly be. But Pleasonton showed early on that he possessed an unerring eye for the centers of power. He personally marched his cavalry regiment overland from Utah back to Washington D.C., and by the time of the Army of the Potomac's first campaign, on the Peninsula in the summer of 1862, Pleasonton was commanding a regiment at army headquarters, right under the eye of army commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. He attracted McClellan's notice (how could he not, in that get-up?), and the week following the battles of the Seven Days he was jumped from major to brigadier general and given a brigade in the army's new Cavalry Division.
Thirty-nine years old at Gettysburg, Pleasonton was active and energetic, and projected self-confidence and a can-do attitude. His record suggested professional competence: he had graduated 7th in the Class of 1844 at West Point, and had served in Mexico, against the Seminoles, and in Bloody Kansas. The Union cavalry in the early days of the war had an inferiority complex, what with Stuart's Rebel horsemen literally running circles around them, and Pleasonton's swagger was attractive. He worked hard to make it seem like nothing was impossible, that he wasn't afraid of anybody, and that he was someone his troopers could follow with confidence. At the same time, Pleasonton was careful to court the press, and form journalistic and political connections.
In August 1862 Maj. Gen. John Pope proceeded to demonstrate, in the Second Bull Run Campaign, the disastrous consequences of mishandling the cavalry. To introduce reform, McClellan placed Pleasonton, who had caught his attention so recently on the Peninsula, at the head of the Cavalry Division. In the official report of his first battle, at Antietam, Pleasonton turned a small operation into an epic feat after his men charged through Confederate cannon fire to secure a bridge. Although he was far in the rear at the time, the new cavalry chief took credit for the heroics and exploited it in the newspapers. Pleasonton saw his reputation climb. When Stuart embarrassed the Union cavalry again the next month by riding for a second time around McClellan's army, Pleasonton's poor performance in the affair was conveniently overlooked.
The main business of the cavalry arm was reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering, and at this Pleasonton was a spectacular failure. His dispatches to headquarters were so unreliable--due to his inability to break the Confederate cavalry screen, his gullibility by captured enemy stragglers, and his penchant for fanciful speculation--that he was later dubbed "Knight of Romance" by snickering newspapermen. When Lee crossed the Potomac with 40,000 men at the start of the Maryland Campaign, for example, Pleasonton dashed off breathless dispatches to McClellan putting the Rebel strength at 100,000, then 110,000. Later, when Lee marched north again prior to Gettysburg, Pleasonton wrote, "My opinion is, that . . . they will turn westward toward Pittsburgh," a laughable conclusion, given the impossibility of supplying any army attempting to march across the intervening mountains.
Though in February 1863 he was passed up by commanding Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker for command of the newly organized Cavalry Corps--a post that went instead to rival Brig. Gen. George Stoneman--Pleasonton's reputation received a boost in typical style at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May. Stoneman, in an attempt to slight Pleasonton, left him behind with one brigade to accompany the main body of the army while Stoneman himself dashed off to grab glory in a major cavalry raid. The scheme backfired. While Stoneman thrashed around ineffectually in the Confederate rear, Pleasonton found himself in the thick of the action when Jackson's corps crushed the Federal right wing. Cut off from the main body of the army, a surprised regiment under Pleasonton had to fight its way back to the Union lines through a band of advancing Rebels. This action was described in heroic terms by Pleasonton in his official report, where he maintained that he himself had "ordered the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry to proceed at a gallop, attack the Rebels, and check the attack at any cost till we could get ready for them." Later he added the claim that "Jackson was mortally wounded by our troops in his attack upon our right at this time." Thus, according to Pleasonton, he not only saved his command, but saved the Union army and went a long way toward winning the war.
Nor was the Knight of Romance through with his story. In the confusion, twenty-two pieces of artillery had been collected to face the oncoming Rebels. Pleasonton in his account maintained he personally supervised the placement of the cannon, and further that "I poured in the canister for about twenty minutes, and the affair was over." Unfortunately, others who were there remembered the episode differently, as they had his tale about the cavalry charge; the senior artillery officer at the scene reported that eighteen of the cannon were readied under his orders while Pleasonton was fully occupied in placing one battery of horse artillery. Nevertheless, Pleasonton's version of events was accepted at face value. A few days after the battle, when Abraham Lincoln visited the humiliated army, Joe Hooker, desperate to find a positive note in the campaign, produced the cavalryman and exclaimed, "Mr. President, this is General Pleasonton, who saved the Army of the Potomac the other night!"
A few days after the Battle of Chancellorsville, Hooker replaced the discredited Stoneman. In view of Pleasonton's recent exploits, and the fact that Pleasonton was eleven days senior by date of commission to the much more able cavalryman John Buford, Hooker thus crowned Pleasonton's career on May 22 by naming him head of the Cavalry Corps with the rank of major general.
There was considerable grumbling from below. The new Maj. Gen. Pleasonton had become notorious for lack of bravery among the men "who have served under him and seen him under fire." One cavalry surgeon wrote, "Poor little pusillanimous Pleasanton wants to . . . have Stoneman's place--& he is about as fit for it as any 2nd Lieutenant in the command." As a captain in the 1st Massachusetts saw it, Pleasonton was "pure and simple a newspaper humbug. . . . He does nothing save with a view to a newspaper paragraph." As another officer observed, "it is the universal opinion that Pleasonton's own reputation, and Pleasonton's late promotions are bolstered up by systematic lying." Pleasonton soon used his new power to purge the cavalry's foreign-born brigade commanders, believing them insufficiently patriotic because of their foreign origins. His troopers were also antagonized by his growing reputation as a cold-blooded martinet, and soon yearned for Stoneman's return. One cavalry officer pointed to Pleasonton's "tyrannical & illegal exercise of military authority," in calling him an exceedingly brutal disciplinarian. Earlier in the war, one critic had warned army headquarters that "I sincerely believe that somebody will be wanted before long to prefer charges against him."
Nevertheless, nobody did so, and the man that had been in charge of three regiments and a battery at Chancellorsville was, two months later, at the head of nearly 13,000 mounted men. For all his ineptitude in the field, it must be said that Pleasonton was a gifted administrator and organizer, and in the few weeks that he was in command of the Cavalry Corps before Gettysburg, he used his political connections to replace the considerable losses from Stoneman's wasteful raid in the Chancellorsville campaign and make far-reaching personnel changes in the fighting units and command structure of the corps. In typical fashion, his main stroke was accomplished by pulling political strings to strip Hungarian Maj. Gen. Julius Stahel from command of a 3,600-man cavalry division stationed in the defenses of Washington and redesignating it the Third Division of his own Cavalry Corps only three days before Gettysburg.
Pleasonton led strictly from the rear, and his reports were always better than his fighting. Heading into Pennsylvania, he had no experience leading the corps in a major battle, and had only been at its head for little more than a month.
| Pleasonton vindicated his reputation as a desk general in the three
days of Gettysburg. On July 1, as Buford was scouting the enemy, protecting
advantageous terrain and holding off Southern infantrymen until reinforcements
could arrive, Pleasonton was far to the rear in Frederick, Maryland.|
On July 2, his main influence on the battlefield was the bungling removal of Buford's division--only lightly damaged the day before--from the army's left flank, when they were the only cavalry on the field. Pleasonton then proceeded to forget to replace them. The Army of the Potomac operated without cavalry guarding its left flank, on the day when that flank was Lee's target.
When Brig. Gen. David Gregg achieved his success east of Gettysburg on July 3, Pleasonton was again nowhere near the scene of the fighting. When Stuart appeared there, Pleasonton attempted to remove Custer's brigade from the field at the moment it was most needed.
In the entire campaign, Pleasonton's intelligence gathering was completely incompetent. Not only did he continue to demonstrate his lack of ability in able reconnaissance, he at times demonstrated a complete disregard for it, ignoring Buford's valuable dispatches.
Pleasonton continued to serve as cavalry chief for another year, until Grant replaced him with Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan in July 1864 and sent Pleasonton to Missouri.
For further reading:
Longacre, Edward G. The Cavalry at Gettysburg. Lincoln, 1986