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.