Summary

Conflict Period:
Civil War (Union) 1
Branch:
Army 1
Rank:
Brigadier General 2
Birth:
30 Jul 1837 2
Green Oak, Michigan 2
Death:
03 Jul 1863 2
Gettysburg PA 2
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Personal Details

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Full Name:
Elon John Farnsworth 2
Full Name:
Elen J Farnsworth 1
Birth:
30 Jul 1837 2
Green Oak, Michigan 2
Male 2
Death:
03 Jul 1863 2
Gettysburg PA 2
Cause: Killed at the Battle of Gettysburg 2
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Civil War (Union) 1

Branch:
Army 1
Rank:
Brigadier General 2
Company:
K 1
Discharge Rank:
Capt 1
Enlistment Rank:
Batt Q M 1
Military Unit:
8th Cavalry 1
State:
Illinois 1

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Sources

  1. Civil War Service Index - Union - Illinois [See image]
  2. Contributed by bruceyrock632
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Stories

Elon J. Farnsworth was born in Michigan in 1837.  At the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted in the 8th Illinois Cavalry as a 1st lieutenant.  He served as an aide to the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps commander, Major General Alfred Pleasonton.  Farnsworth was promoted to brigadier general on June 29, 1863.  At about the same time, two other young cavalry officers who made their mark in the Civil War were promoted to brigadier general — George Armstrong Custer and Wesley Merritt.

Farnsworth was given command of the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Division of the Cavalry Corps.  Farnsworth’s command included the 5th New York, 18th Pennsylvania, 1st Vermont, and 1st West Virginia Cavalry regiments.  The 3rd Division commander was Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick.

On the morning of July 3rd, 1863, the third day of fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg, Kilpatrick was ordered to the Federal left flank on the southern end of the battlefield.  He was issued non specific orders to engage the enemy.  The Confederate line at this location wound around from the rocky Devils Den eastward to the western slope of Big Round Top, with a skirmish line extending west from Big Round Top to the Emmitsburg Road. These southerners were from Major General John B. Hood’s Division of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps.  Hood was seriously wounded July 2nd, and his division was now under the command of Brigadier General Evander Law.   Early in the afternoon, Farnsworth’s brigade went into position south of the Big Round Top — Emmitsburg Road skirmish line, on a wooded hill called Bushman’s Hill.

That afternoon, the famous assault of Major General George Pickett was repulsed by Federal forces on Cemetery Ridge.  When word reach Kilpatrick of this, he decided to attack the Confederate right flank.

Judson Kilpatrick was nicknamed “Kill cavalry”; unfortunately, it was often his own cavalry that was killed.  He was aggressive without regard to the consequences, and his tactics were questionable.  Kilpatrick thought that the skirmish line of the 1st Texas Infantry could easily be breached and the lines on Big Round Top broken.  However, the defenders were well dug in, supported by artillery, and outnumbered the Federals.  There were also stone walls, fences, trees, and broken ground, all impediments to cavalry.  Nonetheless, Kilpatrick ordered Farnsworth’s brigade to attack.

The 1st West Virginia was the first regiment to attack.  They managed to get past the skirmish line with great difficulty and casualties, only to be hit by musket and artillery fire  from Confederate units that nearly surrounded them.  They were almost trapped in the field of fire before managing to cut their way out.  Both the 5th New York and 18th Pennsylvania then attacked but were quickly repulsed.

Despite this setback, Kilpatrick ordered Farnsworth to send in his last regiment, the 1st Vermont.  Captain A.C. Parsons of the 1st Vermont remembered the exchange between Kilpatrick and Farnsworth:

Farnsworth spoke with emotion: “General, do you mean it?  Shall I throw my handful of men over rough ground, through timber, against a brigade of infantry?  The First Vermont has already been fought half to pieces; these are too good men to kill.”  Kilpatrick said “Do you refuse to obey my orders?  If you are afraid to lead this charge, I will lead it.”  Farnsworth rose in his stirrups — he looked magnificent in his passion — and cried , “Take that back!”  Kilpatrick returned his defiance, but soon repenting, said “I did not mean it; forget it.”  For a moment there was silence, when Farnsworth spoke calmly, “General, if you order the charge, I will lead it, but you must take the responsibility.”

The two conversed quietly, ending with Farnsworth agreeing to obey his orders and Kilpatrick accepting the responsibility for the consequences.

Farnsworth divided the 1st Vermont into three battalions of four companies each.  Captain Parsons would lead the 1st battalion and Major William Wells commanded the 3rd battalion.  Those two would make the charge, while the second battalion remained dismounted and would fight in support of the others.  Farnsworth would ride with Wells’ battalion.  Meanwhile, Evander Law moved the 9th Georgia Infantry east from the Emmitsburg road and repositioned the 4th Alabama Infantry down from the slopes of Big Round Top.  When the Vermonters broke through the 1st Texas skirmish line, they would be caught in a crossfire from all directions.

The cavalrymen, about 300 in all,  moved out in columns of four, with sabers drawn. The 1st battalion headed north, and then swung around and headed east–and into the position of the 4th Alabama.  The 4th Alabama was taken by surprise and fired a volley over the heads of the Vermonters, but quickly reloaded and fired a second, more accurate one.  The 1st battalion veered off to the south and into a field near Big Round Top.

The third battalion rode north along the base of Big Round Top, taking fire from several regiments on the slopes of the hill.  Continuing northward, the battalion approached the Confederate occupied Devil’s Den.  The battalion veered west and then headed southwest away from Devil’s Den.  This path took them into the line of fire of the 9th Georgia.  The cavalrymen were taking enemy fire from all directions.  Both battalions fought their way through the 1st Texas skirmish line and back to their original positions.

The charge resulted in 65 casualties.  Among the wounded were Captain Parsons and Major Wells.  Wells received the Medal of Honor for his actions.   General Farnsworth was among the dead.  His horse had been killed, but he was given another.  With a small group of soldiers, he  tried to make his way to Parson’s battalion near Big Round Top. Confederate fire killed his second horse, and Farnsworth himself was shot 5 times.  He refused to surrender and died on the field.

This assault essentially marked the end of the fighting at Gettysburg.  Kilpatrick’s ill advised charge had only added to the length of the casualty list.

The young brigadier was born on July 30, 1837 in the small hamlet of Green Oak, Michigan. He was the nephew of an influential Illinois congressman, John F. Farnsworth. When Elon was 17, his family relocated to Rockton, Illinois, and at age 18, he enrolled in the University of Michigan. During his sophomore year, the mischievous young man was called on the carpet for leading student hijinks and was nearly expelled. During his third year at the University, he and several of his friends “engaged in a drinking frolic” in which another student apparently died. Farnsworth and the others were expelled.

His academic career over, Farnsworth joined the army’s march to the Utah Territory as a civilian foragemaster. He remained at Utah’s Camp Floyd until the outbreak of the Civil War. When his uncle John F. Farnsworth organized and armed the 8th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry, young Elon joined the regiment and was quickly commissioned a first lieutenant. He was popular with the men, who felt that his “shrewdness and wit were proverbial.” He was “tall, slight, stern and pale”, and was “courage incarnate but full of tender regard for his men.” In early 1862, shortly after being promoted to captain, the impulsive Farnsworth heard of a pastor in Alexandria, Virginia who failed to offer the customary prayer for the health of President Lincoln. The young cavalry officer approached the parson and asked him to recite the usual prayer for the president’s health and well being. When the parson refused, Farnsworth demanded that he do so. When he refused again, Farnsworth had him arrested. Several members of the congregation assaulted the young lieutenant, and it took the threat of shooting them to settle the dispute.

Late in 1862, Farnsworth became seriously ill, and was unable to serve in the field for a time. After he returned and performed further good service with the 8th Illinois, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton selected Elon Farnsworth to serve on his staff during the campaigns of the spring of 1863. He appears to have done well in that capacity. Farnsworth caught Pleasonton’s eye at the Battle of Brandy Station, when casualties among the 8th Illinois’ officers left him the senior officer in the regiment, and he returned to the regiment to assume command for the afternoon phase of the battle.

Pleasonton was known as a toady, and he regularly courted the favor of his political patron, John F. Farnsworth, now an influential Congressman who still held the rank of brigadier general. Perhaps in an effort to curry favor with the elder Farnsworth, Pleasonton wrote on June 23rd, “Captain Farnsworth has done splendidly—I have serious thoughts of having him made a brigadier general…I am sadly in want of officers with the proper dash to command cavalry—having lost so many good ones—Do assist us until we can get ahead of the Rebs.”. The young captain was not above using political influence to promote his career. In a letter to his uncle written on June 29, 1863, the cavalryman wrote: …The general speaks of recommending me for Brig. I do not know that I ought to mention if for fear that you will call me an aspiring youth. I am satisfied to serve through this war in the line in my regt as a Capt on Genl Pleasonton’s staff. But if I can do any good anywhere else of course “small favors &c.” Now try and take this into the President, and you can do an immeasurable good.

This tactic was successful, because along with Merritt and Custer, Elon Farnsworth was promoted from captain to brigadier general of volunteers on June 28, 1863, and took command of a brigade of cavalry under Kilpatrick.

He did not have long to wait before an opportunity to prove himself in command presented itself. On the morning of June 30, Kilpatrick ran into J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry in the town of Hanover, Pennsylvania, twenty-four miles from Gettysburg. There, a nearly day-long battle raged in the streets of the town, with Farnsworth leading the decisive charge that drove the Confederates out of the town. Two days later, Kilpatrick and Stuart tangled again at Hunterstown, Pennsylvania, where Farnsworth joined Custer and his brigade in attacking the brigade of Confederate Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton. A few of his troopers may have reached Gettysburg late in the afternoon of July 2 in time to assist in the repulse of the Confederate assault on Little Round Top. In the short time he wore a general’s star, Elon Farnsworth proved to be an inspirational leader of men who was not afraid to lead charges. This trait would soon cost him his life.

On the afternoon of July 3, after the repulse of Pickett’s Charge, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick ordered a mounted charge by Farnsworth’s Brigade. Over the vigorous protests of Farnsworth, Kilpatrick persisted. He challenged Farnsworth’s honor and courage, prompting Farnsworth to agree to lead the charge. Crashing out of the woods on Bushman’s Hill, his small column was repulsed from the main Confederate line of battle, turned off, rode around the Slyder Farm, and up the side of Big Round Top. There, in a D-shaped farm field, Farnsworth met his fate. Men of the 15th Alabama Infantry shot him down. He was a bold and fearless, who died needlessly in a gloriously futile charge akin to that of the famous Light Brigade. He was a bold and fearless rider. Warner, p. 148.

Faculty Minutes of the University of Michigan for May 3, 1858, copy in files at Gettysburg National Military Park; Manuscript by Col. John B. Bachelder, “General Farnsworth’s Death”, copy in files, Gettysburg National Military Park. This account indicates that “Two years later, the University was shocked by the news of a wretched carousal in which this young man was a leading spirit. One of the students lay dead at the coroner’s rooms. Eight students were expelled, among them this man. On leaving the University he went to [Dr. Andrew D.] White [professor of history] and thanked him for what he had done for him, acknowledged the justice of the actions of the faculty, but expressed the hope that he would yet show that he could make a man of himself. Five years later that student fell at the head of his brigade at Gettysburg. It was Farnsworth. He made good his promise.” There is no verification of this story available, other than this account.

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