Maj. Gen. William Sherman had a gift for the brutally apt pronouncement. Summing up Judson Kilpatrick in 1864, he said "I know that Kilpatrick is a hell of a damned fool, but I want just that sort of man to command my cavalry on this expedition." On June 28, three days before the battle of Gettysburg, Cavalry Corps commander Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton must have been thinking the same thing when he chose Kilpatrick to lead his newly acquired Third Division.
Physically, Kilpatrick was a candidate for least heroic-looking of any general in the army. Only twenty-seven years old, a fellow officer described him as "A wiry, restless, undersized man with black eyes [and] a lantern jaw." He sported huge, stringy sand-colored sideburns, had bandy legs that gave him a rolling gait, and spoke in a shrill voice. He constantly attempted to advance himself by aggressiveness and bluster. The combined effect was comical--a member of Meade's staff wrote in his diary that it was hard to look at Kilpatrick without laughing. Yet Kilpatrick was not easy to overlook, either. He was relentlessly ambitious. He predicted a major generalcy for himself, and believed that if he survived the war he would become the governor of his native state, New Jersey, and then President of the United States.
The Civil War began while Kilpatrick was still a student at West Point. There, he had already been noticed as fighting cock. Ardently pro-Union and anti-slavery, he waded into a slew of fistfights with Southern cadets. Graduating 17th out of a class of 45 cadets in May 1861, he realized that the quickest road to promotion was with the volunteers, and rushed into service as captain of the flashy 5th New York volunteer regiment, also called "Duryea's Zouaves." It took just one month for him to land in the headlines--in the first infantry fight of the Civil War, at Big Bethel in June, he was hit in the buttock by a grapeshot and assisted off the field, to be lauded in gung-ho Northern newspapers as the first Union officer wounded in the War. While recuperating he traded on his new notoriety and landed himself an commission in the cavalry, joining the 2nd New York cavalry as lieutenant colonel in September 1861. For the next several months, while the war was largely inactive in the East, he served as a staff officer and took part in cavalry skirmishing in Northern Virginia. When in August 1862 the Second Bull Run Campaign began, Kilpatrick seized on his opportunities for self-promotion. He made a successful raid on a Confederate railroad early in the campaign. When the climactic battle commenced at Bull Run, he ordered a cavalry charge in the twilight at the end of the first day's fighting which succeeded only in annihilating a squadron under his command. The fireworks produced by the charge in the dark were sensationally picturesque, however, and Kilpatrick drew the attention he wanted as a hell-for-leather fighter. He was promoted to colonel of the 2nd New York in December 1862.
Kilpatrick's tireless peacocking won for him the leadership of a brigade when Hooker created the Cavalry Corps in February 1863. In the following Chancellorsville campaign, Kilpatrick led the most successful of the "bursting shell" of raiding parties that cavalry chief Brig. Gen. George Stoneman sent into the Confederate rear. Although the expedition as a whole failed in its goal of throwing Lee into a retreat toward Richmond, Kilpatrick succeeded in a flashy series of wagon captures and bridge burnings, riding completely around the Rebel army and penetrating to within two miles of Richmond. This was heady stuff for an Union army which had been embarrassed earlier by similar exploits by enemy horsemen under Jeb Stuart.
At Brandy Station on June 9, Kilpatrick made a typically vigorous if not highly successful showing. Later that month, he performed erratically but aggressively at Aldie and Upperville. On June 28, new cavalry commander Pleasonton was looking for a fighter to lead the new cavalry division he had stolen from under its Hungarian former commander, Maj. Gen. Julius Stahel, and he chose Kilpatrick. At this moment of triumph for the new division commander, there were a whole raft of misgivings and unanswered questions about him. First was his insensitivity to his men and mounts. He had shown a tendency to take off on wild goose chases without a thought to the waste of horseflesh such adventures involved, and to order reckless charges which slaughtered his troopers, as at Second Bull Run--these traits would earn Kilpatrick the nickname "Kill Cavalry" among the men. His tactical repertoire had lately hardened into an unswerving determination to attack on horseback regardless of the circumstances. His command fought well and paraded well, but clothing and equipment was frequently neglected, carbines were dirty, and the horses showed poor grooming. Further, there were questions about his honesty: he had lain in jail for weeks in 1862 under suspicion that he had sold confiscated Confederate livestock and provisions for personal gain. He had been jailed again for defaming government officials while on a drunken spree in Washington. He had even been implicated in a graft scheme whereby certain horse brokers paid him off in order to get contracts to sell horses to his brigade. As if all this weren't enough, he was a known devotee of prostitutes, though he was married and his wife was with child. He drank hard liquor while at the same time professing temperance. His official reports of battle were notoriously fictionalized, with exaggerated accounts of heroic behavior and enemy casualties. One officer remarked disgustedly that Kilpatrick's campaign reports were "great in 'the most glorious charges ever made,' 'sabering right and left,' and such stuff." Another observer called him a "frothy braggart, without brains," while a third saw him as an "injudicious boy, much given to blowing and who will surely come to grief."
Many others had made similiar predictions since 1861. And yet against all this, Kilpatrick showed a fearlessness and a positive love of fighting that the Army of the Potomac badly needed in its officers. He showed "a great impatience and eagerness for orders," a trait which endeared him to superiors. It was because he was such a fighter that at Gettysburg his star was still ascending.
| On June 30, Kilpatrick's two brigades fought a sharp skirmish with
Stuart's cavalry at Hanover, 15 miles east of Gettysburg, after which
Kilpatrick failed to maintain contact with the enemy horsemen. Mistakenly
supposing that he would find Stuart at East Berlin further north, Kilpatrick
wasted July 1 wandering fruitlessly between the two towns, disobeying
commanding Maj. Gen. George Meade's directions to make accurate
information-gathering the "most important and sacred" duty of the mounted arm.
(On the other hand, Pleasonton--who never appreciated cavalry's
intelligence-gathering role--was thrilled with Kilpatrick's empty
On the morning of July 2, Kilpatrick received orders to move toward the battlefield, and directed his brigades to Hunterstown, five miles northeast of Gettysburg. Arriving in mid-afternoon, he clashed with Hampton's brigade, where both sides made reckless charges and then pulled back. At 11:00 that night, Kilpatrick withdrew from Hunterstown and moved south, reaching Two Taverns, five miles southeast of Gettysburg, between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning.
At 8:00 A.M., July 3, Kilpatrick was ordered to move west toward the Emmitsburg Road and come into position on the Army of the Potomac's left, south of the Round Tops--the flank Buford had abandoned the day before. As Kilpatrick was leaving Two Taverns, Second Division commander Brig. Gen. David Gregg rode up to the rear of the column and commandeered Custer's rear brigade, leading it back up the Baltimore Pike to join his two brigades guarding the army's right rear. Kilpatrick was not notified, and headed west with one brigade instead of two.
Late in the morning, Kilpatrick approached the left of the Union army line at Big Round Top, itching to attack. Before reaching the Emmitsburg Road, he turned Farnsworth's brigade to the north. The terrain was too rocky and rugged for a cavalry attack, but, about 5:30 that afternoon, Kilpatrick gave the order for a fore-doomed, senseless charge by Farnsworth against well-posted Confederate infantry, in which Farnsworth was killed and dozens of his men were shot or captured to no purpose. (For his part, Pleasonton declared himself "highly delighted" with Kilpatrick's operation.)
Despite earning his nickname "Kill-Cavalry" at Gettysburg, Kilpatrick showed no signs of learning from Farnsworth's disaster. Remaining in place as Third Division commander, he devised and led a miscarried raid on Richmond the next spring in which Ulric Dahlgren was killed. Sherman then transferred him to fight in the West, where he finished out the war.
For further reading:
King, George W. "The Civil War Career of Hugh Judson Kilpatrick." Thesis, Univ. of SC, 1969
Longacre, Edward G. "Judson Kilpatrick." Civil War Times Illustrated 10, Apr 1971
Pierce, John E. "General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick in the American Civil War: A New Appraisal." Thesis, PA State Univ, 1983