13 October 2005 by Published in: Union Cavalry 19 comments

The second commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps was Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton. Pleasonton, a West Pointer and career dragoon, was a guy with an agenda. And that agenda was not battlefield glory. Pleasonton was a lead from the rear kind of a guy who was a masterful schemer and political intriguer. Pleasonton was the sort of guy who would start a fight on the playground and then step back and watch the chaos that he had started.

He was also one of the worst xenophobes I have ever encountered. Pleasonton hated foreigners with a passion so deep and so abiding that he found a way to remove all high ranking officers of foreign birth from his command through systematic manipulation. Percy Wyndham, an Englishman, made it easy–he was severely wounded at Brandy Station on June 9, 1863. Luigi Palma di Cesnola, an Italian count from an ancient ennobled family was badly wounded and captured at the Battle of Aldie, again making it easy. Others were more difficult. Maj. Gen. Julius Stahel, a Hungarian, ranked Pleasonton, and it was only through political intriguing that Stahel was removed from the path. Brig. Gen. Alfred N. Duffie, a Frenchman with a checkered past, was a classic example of the Peter Principle in action. Pleasonton got rid of Duffie by sacrificing his fine, veteran regiment by sending it on a mission behind enemy lines alone and unsupported, and the regiment was chopped to bits. That was reprehensible in the extreme.

Although Pleasonton was a good judge of talent–he arranged for the promotion of three good young officers–Wesley Merritt, Elon J. Farnsworth, and George A. Custer–from captain to brigadier general on June 28, 1863. He also had some real administrative talent. However, he was not an inspirational leader, and he was no brilliant tactician or strategist.

In short, his legacy is no real legacy. It’s hard to find another officer in the Army of the Potomac who reached higher rank and left less of a legacy than did Alf Pleasonton. And for that alone, he remains a paradox.

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Comments

  1. Dave Kelly
    Mon 17th Oct 2005 at 7:12 pm

    ‘nother words. Alf was the prototypical staff puke…. Halleck on a horse.

  2. Mon 17th Oct 2005 at 8:02 pm

    Given a choice, I think I’d rather have Halleck, Dave. What does that tell you?

    Eric

  3. Dave Kelly
    Tue 18th Oct 2005 at 8:46 am

    Woooof… What was Pleasonton’s real downfall anyway? Tactical or lousy assesment and analysis? His Corps seemed to be able to fight. His feedback to Meade appeared usually weak or wrong. (Apologies, I NEED to get Little Phil but I’m wading thru half a dozen western theater books at the moment.)

  4. Tue 18th Oct 2005 at 9:16 pm

    Dave,

    Pleasonton’s downfall was that he was a lead from the rear kind of guy who managed to really piss off the one person whom he couldn’t afford to piss off. For months, Meade had been protecting him and keeping him from being relieved of command. In February 1864, Pleasonton stabbed Meade in the back by testifying against Meade before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Meade, quite rightfully, was furious about it and withdrew his support. Within days, Pleasonton was on his way to Missouri.

    Eric

  5. David Farnsworth
    Fri 20th Jan 2006 at 11:17 am

    I have just come across a letter from a Gen Graham to G Meade Jr. in which he references the EJ Farnsworth charge. Please see the url below.

    http://pages.warbetweenthestates.com/cgi-bin/google.fcgi?itemKey=1922772255&store=%2Fstores%2Fwar&catId=union-autographs&itemNo=Auto1991

    I have not looked over the Parsons’ account recently, so I am not sure if this feels like hearsay or not. I know that Custer, the battlefield guide and writer has called the Parsons’ account into question. I am curious as to what folks think about the “first hand” feel of it.

  6. Fri 20th Jan 2006 at 11:39 pm

    David,

    Many thanks for passing that along. Are you related to the General?

    The General Graham is William Graham. Graham was George Meade, Jr.’s first cousin; Meade’s mother was Graham’s aunt. At the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, Graham was in command of the battery of horse artillery attached to Wesley Merritt’s brigade, and was engaged in the fighting on the South Cavalry Field.

    Thank you very much for sharing that letter with us–I’ve never seen it before.

    I don’t believe that it is hearsay. Graham was not far away, and the account is very consistent with the traditional interpretations of the action.

    I will reserve my comments on the licensed battlefield guide that you mentioned. As a child, I was taught that if I didn’t have anything nice to say about a person, that I shouldn’t say anything at all. My silence should tell you precisely what you need to know.

    Welcome aboard, and I look forward to your participation here.

    Eric

  7. David Farnsworth
    Tue 24th Jan 2006 at 10:22 am

    Thanks for the quick response.

    Elon Farnsworth was my great great grandfather’s nephew.
    As you know, Elon joined the 8th Illinois formed by his uncle John Franklin Farnsworth of St. Charles IL, and was a brigadier for a matter of days before he went to Gettysburg.

    I would be very interested if you know of any first hand materials that mention Elon Farnsworth. I once talked with a battlefiedl guide, I think his name was Michael Phipps. He wrote a short monograph on Custer at Gettysburg and he maintained that Custer was very upset at the news about Elon’s death. I have never been able to nail down the source of that anecdote. But I am interested in that sort of thing. Of course, to have come across the Graham letter was very exciting.

    thanks again
    DF

  8. Wed 25th Jan 2006 at 12:30 am

    David,

    You’re very welcome.

    Are you related through John F. Farnsworth? Or another of the brothers?

    I have indeed found any number of items that deal with Elon directly. My first book, Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions, has two whole chapters dealing with Farnsworth’s Charge and death, and I invite you to have a look at those chapters and see what you think of those materials.

    Best regards,

    Eric

  9. tom farnsworth
    Wed 25th Jan 2006 at 1:25 am

    Gen John F Farnsworth, I believe, had but one (an older) brother – James Patten Farnsworth, who was Elon’s father.

    David, our brother Christian, our sister Debby, and I are descended from Gen John F’s only son (also John), HIS only surviving son, and HIS only son. Tall family tree; not many branches for several generations.

    I’ve enjoyed your writing, and look forward to the book you mentioned. thanks.

    Tom Farnsworth

  10. Wed 25th Jan 2006 at 10:20 am

    Tom,

    Fascinating…thanks for writing.

    Eric

  11. Rich Behrens
    Sun 25th Nov 2007 at 7:26 pm

    to anyone related to elon j. farnsworth: there is a walking stick that belonged to the general on e-bay through heritageauctiongalleries. do you have any insights about the cane?

  12. Fri 13th Feb 2009 at 7:35 pm

    The history of my family in the US, starts with Alfred or “Nattie”. He was a great talker and a great walker to his talk. A fighter by nature and tough as nails, he led his troops into battle, never to fall behind. I know, He and I are allot alike. It’s in the blood. If indeed he were not taking orders from Pleasonton at the time, He would have had a different route to the main battle field, the Battle of Brandy Station would have had a different outcome.

  13. Tom Fischer
    Thu 27th May 2010 at 10:13 am

    I do not agree with the nube who wrote this at all. Pleasonton was waaaaay cooler than the writer ever will be, cause he’s a bad writer about Alfred Pleasonton. He’s the stuff!!

  14. Thu 27th May 2010 at 10:16 am

    And you clearly have NO clue what you’re talking about, Tom Fischer. Whatever you’re smoking, I would like to have some of it.

  15. Thu 11th Aug 2011 at 9:55 pm

    Love your website, Sir. I first heard about Major General of Volunteers Alfred Pleasonton when I read an article about him that appeared in the December 1974 Issue of Civil War Times Illustrated. After Meade fired him(And rightly so), Pleasonton was sent to Missouri. As I recall, he did serve with some distinction at the Battle of Westport, but the only recognition he received was the Brevet Rank of Major General in the Regular Army, which was honorary. Pleasonton was mustered out of the Volunteers within a year after the war ended and reverted to his permanent rank of Major of Cavalry. The only substantive opportunity for promotion this not very admirable officer received was a Lieutenant Colonelcy in the 20th Infantry. According to the article in CWTI, Pleasonton turned down the promotion mainly because he would have had to serve under a Colonel whom he outranked during the war. In fact, Pleasonton was outranked by Merritt and Custer. Both of whom were appointed to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the 9th and 7th Cavalry Regiments respectively. Major Pleasonton resigned from the Army in late 1867 (Don’t recall the exact date), and was restored to the Army rolls in 1888 as a retired Major. Before he died in 1897, he left instructions not to be buried in his old blue uniform, and was instead laid to rest wearing civilian attire. He got what he deserved. I can only imagine what his classmates from the West Point Class of 1844 (Most notably Winfield Scott Hancock, and Simon Boulivar Buckner) thought of him. Anyway, I thank you for taking the time to read this.

  16. Thu 11th Oct 2012 at 4:22 am

    I would like very much to get in touch with Kevin Duffie that posted a message on feb 13, 2009.
    I maintain the genealogy web site of the family and it would be great to obtain data from the branch of William Duffie, grand-father of Kevin.
    I would appreciate that the webmaster of site on the civil war brings me some help in contacting Kevin.
    Many Thanks

  17. Russ Mason
    Sat 09th Feb 2013 at 9:46 am

    Pleasonton has been the subject of many smears, and some may be true. However, he fought JEB Stuart’s cavalry to an standstill, and was well regarded by other Union Generals. Many considered him brilliant. He was right when he chastised Custer for fighting himself, instead of ‘fighting his command.’ That is what got Custer killed years later. At the time, Army regulations were that a ranking General / commander would stay 300 yards behind the fight of his troops. Many Generals did this, including Meade.

  18. Mon 02nd Jun 2014 at 11:20 pm

    I think Pleasonton is maligned. His performance at Gettysburg, in particular, was very good, sending cavalry in Ewell’s rear to disrupt his attacks on July 2, and blocking Stuart’s on July 3. While Custer was the guy in front in these actions, it was Pleasonton who had promoted him from captain to general. He played a major role in the most important Union victory of the war. He also performed well at Brandy Station and in Missouri.

  19. Rich M
    Thu 22nd Jan 2015 at 2:00 pm

    As i recall, Pleasonton testified before Congress some time after Gettysburg and maligned his superior, Maj General George G. Meade. According to a CWTI article about Pleasonton published in Dec74, General Meade protected Pleasonton from the wrath of Secretary of War Stanton. Well, after Pleasonton displayed his lack to loyalty to his boss during his appearance before Congress, Meade had Pleasonton transferred to Missouri, The so-called “Knight of Romance” got what he deserved.

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