General Elon Farnsworth:
Elon J. Farnsworth   (US Army War College,   Carlisle, PA)

Elon J. Farnsworth 
(US Army War College, Carlisle, PA)
On the sultry afternoon of July 3, 1863, Pickett’s Charge had just been repulsed with heavy Confederate losses. In the hour that elapsed since the men in gray had failed to take the Federal center, a battalion of artillery roared to life. Confederates operating Bachman’s and Reilly’s batteries at the southern tip of the battlefield harassed the Union left flank on the Round Tops. It was a concern for the high command. There were yet infantry ensconced among the boulders and woods near Round Top – troops of Hood’s Division who had survived and had escaped serious injury the second day. As one of the largest divisions in Lee’s Army, Hood’s troops, now led by Evander Law, retained their position from the previous day’s fight. Something needed to be done to scatter them and reduce the threat of any flanking maneuver against the Union line.

Cavalry division commander General Judson Kilpatrick, with his friend and subordinate, Elon Farnsworth, began to reconnoiter the ground where they stood near Big Round Top. While they conversed, John Bennett of the 1st Vermont Cavalry joined them. “ General Kilpatrick thinks there is a fair chance to make a successful charge,” Farnsworth said to the officer. “What do you think?1

Bennett thought the idea improbable if not impossible, given the terrain and the fact that they would fight infantry who were well-hidden and rested from the previous day’s fight. He answered as much to both generals. But Kilpatrick, restless and eager, and having been given orders to protect the flank, ordered the charge nonetheless. Realizing the futility of argument, Farnsworth acquiesced, “General Kilpatrick, if anybody can charge, we can, sir.” 2

It was the beginning of a fight and a story that remains controversial to this day, with the 25-year-old Farnsworth at the epicenter.

Elon John Farnsworth was born in rural Michigan, at Green Oak, a village west of Detroit and north of Ann Arbor, on July 30, 1837. He was the younger of two sons born to James and Achsah Farnsworth. He was likely named after two uncles, his father’s brothers, although his paternal grandfather was also named John. He spent the early years of his youth on his father’s 67-acre farm in Michigan. When he was seventeen, he moved with his parents to Rockton, Illinois.

Shortly after the move, Elon’s mother died. Two years later his father married the former Amelia Halleck, and the union produced a son, Julius. 3

Elon was educated in local schools in both Michigan and Illinois. He entered the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor shortly after his mother’s death, and decided on a career in science. One of his classmates at the university remembered that Farnsworth “ was a young man of splendid physique, well developed as a Greek god in build. He was a natural athlete and excelled in all athletic sports. He made many friends and being the possessor of a good voice he was a welcome guest in all gatherings of college boys.” 4

In addition to his good looks and popularity, Farnsworth was a prankster. Perhaps it was partly due to the loss of his mother, or the newly found freedom of being away from home, but if there were antics, Elon Farnsworth was likely among the miscreants. Professor Andrew White took notice. He was “ troubled by a group of sophomores in one of his classes. Among the obstreperous youth he noticed one tall, black-bearded man with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and soon he saw that he was the leader of all the annoying demonstrations.” The young man was Farnsworth. 5

The professor spoke with Farnsworth, warning him that if he continued with ridiculous antics, he could face expulsion. Farnsworth did not listen, and the warning, unfortunately, was realized. Two years later, during a drunken party, a terrible tragedy occurred. An intoxicated student fell from an upper story window to his death. Eight students were expelled for the accident, and Elon Farnsworth was one of them. Farnsworth showed humility when he visited Professor White before leaving the university. “ He 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.” 6

With higher education now at an end, Farnsworth went west and accompanied the 1st Dragoons as a civilian going west with General Albert Sidney Johnston’s army, who were answering the call to stop Brigham Young in Utah Territory. President Buchanan believed that the Mormon prophet was trying to defy Federal law and make Utah a sovereign nation. Actually, Young was innocent. A San Francisco journalist had written a false story that soon made national headlines, which prompted Buchanan to act too quickly. Farnsworth, however, enjoyed his new position, which was with the quartermaster as a forager for the army. After the Utah War proved of short duration, Farnsworth remained in the Rocky Mountains as a buffalo hunter and worked as a supplier to miners searching for silver near Pike’s Peak. His foray into the west ended when he learned about Fort Sumter and the beginning of war. He quickly returned to Illinois and enlisted in the 8th Illinois Cavalry, a unit that his namesake uncle, former Congressman John Farnsworth, was raising for the Union. 7

Elon was commissioned as a lieutenant and then adjutant in September 1861, and on Christmas Day he was elected Captain of Company I. Affable and brave, he participated in 41 engagements during the war. Some of the battles he fought included several in the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862, 2nd Manassas, Stone Mountain, Antietam, Stoneman’s Raid (part of the Chancellorsville Campaign), Brandy Station, the Battle of Hanover, and the Battle of Gettysburg. In late 1862 Farnsworth became ill and was unable to serve at the front. When he returned to the 8th Illinois Cavalry in early 1863, his uncle John had been elected again to Congress, and in March the elder Farnsworth resigned his command. Alfred Pleasonton, a division commander in the Union Cavalry Corps, selected Elon Farnsworth as his aide-de-camp. Pleasonton was pleased with the temerity of Farnsworth, and noticed his “ tender regard ” for the men. The politically astute Pleasonton also knew that Congressman John Farnsworth had Abraham Lincoln’s ear, an important fact for anyone hoping to advance his career. 8

After the Battle of Brandy Station, and with a large battle in the north appearing more probable, George Meade, the new army commander, decided that the Cavalry Corps – having come far in the war and now approximating the Confederates in ability – needed reorganization. Needing fearless riders, also, to command, Pleasonton promoted three young captains to the rank of brigadier: George A. Custer (at age 23 the youngest general at Gettysburg), Wesley Merritt (age 29), and Elon Farnsworth (age 25). Custer and Merritt were West Point graduates, but Farnsworth was not. Whether Pleasonton chose him because of his politically connected relative or his affable leadership and unwavering courage, it is not known. Farnsworth had served for several months on his staff, and Pleasonton must have felt that the young captain could carry the new rank and ably command his men. The promotion for the three “Boy Generals” came on June 29, just two days before the Battle of Gettysburg – and they soon would have the chance to prove their abilities. 9

The day following their promotions, Custer and Farnsworth were engaged in the Battle of Hanover, a town east of Gettysburg, against Jeb Stuart’s troops. Farnsworth placed his brigade, which consisted of the 18th Pennsylvania, the 5th New York, the 1st Vermont and the 1st West Virginia cavalries, in the center of town and stretched them outward to the south and east. The strong Union presence pressed Stuart to the degree that the Confederate cavalry withdrew after considerable fighting, riding north to give themselves a wider berth to avoid more conflict until Stuart could reconnoiter with General Lee. The action gave the Union the upper hand for a time at Gettysburg, when the fight began on July 1. General Lee, unable to locate Stuart, was reluctant to engage, which gave the Union the better ground for the continued fighting on July 2 and 3. 10

Farnsworth and Custer were also engaged on July 2 at the Battle of Hunterstown, where Custer, eager to fight, found himself surrounded by Confederate cavalry hidden in the woods and was felled from his horse. Quick action by a subordinate, in grasping the struggling brigadier and pulling him up to his own horse, saved Custer’s life. Farnsworth, while equally courageous, did not attempt any reckless stunt to prove his bravery to his men. That evening, Farnsworth’s brigade was ordered to the village of Two Taverns, where they camped for the night.

The following day, Farnsworth’s men arrived at Gettysburg and went into position near Big Round Top. Due to an oversight, on July 2 no cavalry had been deployed to guard the Union flanks – a bone of contention for General Dan Sickles, the Union’s Third Corps Commander. Pleasonton ordered Kilpatrick to correct this error, and Farnsworth’s men deployed to the left of the Union flank. Custer, too, was to have placed his troops there, but he had been dispatched for fighting by General David McMurtry Gregg and fought again, with glorious results for the Union and himself, engaging Stuart at East Cavalry Field on the afternoon of July 3. Wesley Merritt, who was part of Buford’s Division as a commander of reserves, was ordered to join Farnsworth at the Round Tops.

On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, a courageous attempt to break the Union line at the center occurred with the historic Pickett’s Charge. After a two-hour artillery barrage, three Confederate divisions hurled themselves at the Union. For nearly an hour they pushed for the victory, with increasingly thinned ranks and heavy casualties. The desperate engagement ended with the Union line intact and the Confederates retreating back to Seminary Ridge.

For most, it appeared that the Battle of Gettysburg was over – but it was not. At about 4 p.m., two Confederate batteries began firing upon the Union’s left flank at the Round Tops. The Union high command, it seems, were concerned that perhaps Confederate infantry, having not participated in Pickett’s Charge, might attempt a flank attack. Orders came to Judson Kilpatrick to dispel that concern.

General Judson Kilpatrick was also a boy general, a division commander at age 27.

In the annals of history, the controversy of what happened next begins.

If General Kilpatrick believed the Confederates were demoralized because of the enormous loss of Pickett’s Charge – and it appears he did believe that – he was mistaken. While the historic infantry charge was taking place, Kilpatrick and Farnsworth were conferring about the possible threat to their position. Skirmishers tested the Confederate presence and intelligence came back to the generals that a significant Southern force was well entrenched in the woods, boulders, meadows, and farms from the slopes of Big Round Top to Devil’s Den and Warfield Ridge.

While the two men conversed, John Bennett joined them, and Farnsworth asked the officer his opinion. Bennett believed that a cavalry charge against such a large contingent of infantry, well-hidden and so spread out, was a fruitless pursuit. The two batteries near the Bushman farm on Warfield Ridge continued to pummel them with “ a very severe and uncomfortable shelling.” Kilpatrick believed, understandably, that usually artillery assaults preceded an attack. He told Farnsworth that the batteries needed to be silenced. Captain Henry Potter of the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry later explained, “ Farnsworth contended that the enemy guns, being on a high hill, could not be reached by cavalry, and [they] could not maneuver among the stone walls.” 11

The conversation continued “ for a long while ” according to Potter, but there was no heated argument, no defiance of orders, no name calling as some stories about the coming fight have attested. Kilpatrick supposedly said at last, “ Farnsworth, if you don’t charge, that battery, I will .” 12

Farnsworth, a new general who must have felt the need to prove himself to his men, could not refuse the challenge. “ I am not afraid to go as far as any man,” he said. “If anybody can charge, we can, sir.” 13

Farnsworth rode at the head of the column with his brigade, with Major William Wells, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Vermont Cavalry, at his side. It was 5 p.m.

A soldier in the First Texas Infantry remembered that “ the ground trembled as they came.” The Texans were in front, forming a skirmish line, which the cavalry easily broke through. Over boulders, through woods and on uneven and muddy ground, the horsemen charged, soon finding themselves out of the trees and in a meadow. Among the stone walls of the Slyder and Bushman farms, the Confederates were hidden, and soon Farnsworth and his men were surrounded and in the open. The combined weaponry of infantries from Law’s, Robertson’s and Anderson’s brigades opened on them, along with continued shelling from the batteries. A West Virginia horseman remembered: “ The booming of cannon, the rattle of musketry, the clank of sabres…together with the cheering of men, made it seem as though all the powers of hell were waked to madness.” Merritt, who had come to support Farnsworth, was forced back due to the storm of leaden missiles. Farnsworth’s brigade soon separated in the deadly confusion, but Farnsworth, with about fifty men, rode on.14

General Farnsworth and some of his troops rode from their position near Round Top, cutting a path through the Bushman and Slyder farms toward Devil’s Den. At one point his horse was shot and, like Custer in the Battle of Hunterstown, the rider went down. Another cavalryman gave Farnsworth his own steed and the young general rode on. When Farnsworth saw that the batteries could not be reached, he attempted to break through the Confederate lines to get his men to safety. Galloping toward the slopes of Big Round Top, he neared the position of the 15th Alabama Regiment, part of Law’s Brigade. They were among the men who had attempted to take Little Round Top from the position of Vincent’s Brigade the evening before. These troops were hardened veterans and had no intention of allowing the Union cavalry to get past them. A volley of musketry flew from their weapons, and Farnsworth fell fatally shot with five wounds -- in the chest, abdomen and thigh.

Major Wells managed to get back to the Union position with the survivors of his 1st Vermont Cavalry. He later received the Medal of Honor for gallantry earned during the charge named after his slain commander. 15

At age 25, just weeks before his birthday, Farnsworth was the youngest general killed in the Battle of Gettysburg. He was also the only Union general killed behind Confederate lines at Gettysburg.

Controversy still shrouds Farnsworth’s last moments on earth.

Colonel William Oates, commander of the 15th Alabama, had tried his hand at many pursuits before the war, including passing the bar and purchasing a newspaper. After the war, he wrote a voluminous tome about the four-year conflict – and in it Farnsworth’s Charge was mentioned. In his book, Oates claimed that Farnsworth, in order to escape capture, committed suicide. A skirmisher, calling a dead man in front of them a “ Yankee major ” suggested taking the shoulder straps. When he gave the straps to Oates, the colonel saw that they were a brigadier’s star. “ The men were coming up to it in little squads and looking at the dead man in silent amazement .” The colonel claimed that he searched the officer’s pockets and found letters “ from his wife .” Farnsworth, however, was not married. Oates had not witnessed Farnworth’s death, but was told that when they attempted to capture him he “ swore he would not do it and…shot himself through the heart .” Another Confederate who claimed he saw Farnsworth kill himself said that “ he blew his brains out.” 16

There were no head wounds on Farnsworth’s body when men from his brigade were able to remove him from the field. “ When found ,” explained the surgeon who aided in his burial, “ the body was stripped to flannel shirt and drawers and stockings. There were five bullet wounds upon the body – four in the chest and abdomen and one high up on the thigh. He had no wound or injury of any sort in the head or the face.” 17

A soldier from the 1st Texas claimed that Farnsworth had fallen in front of their regiment and one of their men quickly stripped off his epaulettes. Another Texan wrote that Farnsworth “was shot inside our lines by a cross fire” and "fell dead ." 18

The Farnsworth's Charge Memorial, Gettysburg

Many Union cavalrymen who had fought with Farnsworth, and those who buried him, assert that he did not kill himself. “ The story that General Farnsworth committed suicide by blowing his brains out rather than surrender… had no foundation in fact, and it is time that it ceased to be repeated. He was not the man to commit suicide, though he would fight to the death.” 19 

If Farnworth had survived the crossfire – which is unlikely – he would have been too badly wounded to stand with five serious wounds, including the one in the thigh. There exists the strong possibility that the Confederates may have confused Farnsworth with another officer – as confinement in a Confederate prison was in all probability a death sentence for a wounded man. In the vagaries of battle there are always conflicting remembrances.

Farnsworth was buried that night in Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery. General Pleasonton, who had given the young man his brigadier’s star just five days before his death, sent his condolences: “ I deeply regret to announce to you the death of Brig. Gen. Farnsworth, late captain of Illinois cavalry. He was killed while leading a charge against the enemy infantry in the recent battle of Gettysburg….He has been buried in the Cemetery in Gettysburg, and the grave is properly marked…We have…a consolation in his brilliant deeds in the greatest battle of the war.20 

A few weeks later, Congressman John Farnsworth made the journey to Gettysburg to retrieve his nephew’s remains. Elon Farnsworth was taken home to Rockton for burial.

The enormity of the Battle of Gettysburg, coupled with a hesitancy to shed light on the death of a Republican Congressman’s beloved nephew, cast Farnworth’s Charge in shadow. Any order from the high command to make the charge or repel Hood’s Division from the area was erased, and General Kilpatrick was solely blamed for ordering the charge. In the ensuing years, veterans of the charge split in their opinions of the foolishness and uselessness of the act. “ I cannot fail to refer you to the defensive position the enemy had availed themselves of ,” insisted Charles Capehart, a captain in the 1st West Virginia Cavalry. “ Stone fences so high as to preclude the possibility of gaining the opposite side without dismounting and throwing them down. The whole ground over which we charged was very adverse in every particular, being broken and uneven and covered with rock. Neither can I fail to bring to your notice that this regiment here charged upon infantry, under heavy timber and stone fences .” Another claimed that good had come from the sacrifice: “ Though this charge was not a success, its well directed blow prevented a flank movement, which prisoners asserted was the intention of their leader.” 21 

Whatever history makes of that heated hour at Gettysburg long ago, a young general, probably knowing that his death would be the result, nevertheless went forward. “ Nature made him a general ”, if only for a few days. Remembering the young college miscreant, Professor White fondly recalled the determination of the expelled student to make a man of himself. He wrote, “He made good his promise.” 22

Sources; 1st Texas File, Soldier Accounts, Gettysburg National Military Park (hereafter GNMP). Bachelder, Col. John. “General Farnsworth’s Death.” Farnsworth’s Death File, GNMP. Benedict, C. C. Vermont in the Civil War . Vol. 2, pp. 602, 603. Copy, GNMP. Boudrye, Rev. Louis Account; Potter, Captain Henry Clay Account; Elon Farnsworth Death File, GNMP. Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command . New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1968. Custer, Andie. “The Kilpatrick-Farnsworth Argument That Never Happened.” Gettysburg Magazine, no. 28, Morningside House, Dayton, OH, July 2003, pp. 101-116. Farnsworth Family Genealogy File, Ancestry.com. General Farnworth Obituary, The Chicago Tribune, August 1, 1863. Harrison, Kathy Georg, “The Set Up – Farnsworth’s Charge” Walking Tour Notes, 1991, GNMP. “Interesting Note on General Farnsworth: Highways and Byways of the Civil War”, Illinois Troops at Gettysburg File, GNMP. Hawthrone, Frederick W. Gettysburg: Stories of Men and Monuments . Hanover, PA: The Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides, 1988. Jaehnig, “The Brigadier.” The Livingston County [Michigan] Press, May 11, 1977. Johnson, Allen and Dumas Malone. The Dictionary of American Biography . Centenary Edition. Vol. 6. New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1946. Letter, Alfred Pleasonton to John Farnsworth, July 6, 1863. Copy, GNMP. Oates, William C. The War Between the Union and the Confederacy . Dayton, OH: Morningside Press, 1985 (Reprint: First published in 1905). Snell, Mark. “A Hell of a Damned Fool: Judson Kilpatrick, Farnsworth’s Charge, and the Hard Hand of History”. From My Gettysburg: Meditations on History and Place , pp. 88-111. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2016. Rodenbaugh, T. F. ed. “Journal of Military Service” Letter to U.R. Brooks, March 25, 1910. Copy, Farnworth’s Death File, GNMP. Storrick, William C. “Farnsworth’s Ill Fated Charge in the Battle of Gettysburg.” The Gettysburg Times, July 11, 1934. United States 1850 and 1860 Census, Adams County Historical Society (ACHS). Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders . Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1964.

End Notes: 

1. Storrick, Gettysburg Times, July 11, 1934. 

2. Ibid. 

3. Farnsworth Family Genealogy, Ancestry.com.U.S. Census, 1850 and 1860, ACHS. Both of Elon Farnsworth’s parents and his uncle John were born near Quebec, Canada. His mother, Achsah, faithfully attended the Church of England, suggesting she was English. 

4. Jaehnig, “The Brigadier”, May 11, 1977. 

5. “Interesting Note on General Farnsworth:Highways and Byways of the Civil War.” Copy, GNMP. 

6. Ibid. 

7. Johnson, p. 284. Warner, p. 149. 

8. Bachelder, p. 149. Johnson, p. 284. Warner, p. 149. The Chicago Tribune, August 1, 1863. 

9. Coddington, p. 98. The Chicago Tribune, Aug. 1, 1863. 

10. Snell,p. 95. 

11. Capt. Potter Account, Farnsworth Death File,  GNMP. 

12. Custer, p. 115. Potter Account, GNMP. The account of Captain A.C. Parsons of the  1st Vermont Cavalry attests that Farnsworth and Kilpatrick argued heatedly, and that Kilpatrick accused Farnsworth of cowardice. Parsons had a tendentious streak against Kilpatrick, and it is possible that his animosity fueled his memories. There is a Confederate account of hearing shouting and disagreement – it is impossible to know if the conversation was between Farnsworth and Kilpatrick. It is highly unlikely that these two generals, who were on friendly terms, would argue so aggressively in front of their men. 

13. Harrison, “The Set Up”, Walking Tour 1991, GNMP.Storrick, The Gettysburg Times, July 11, 1934. 

14. 1st Texas Soldier Accounts, 1st Texas File, GNMP. Snell, p. 101. Coddington, p. 525. 

15. Hawthorne, p. 48. 

16. Oates,pp. 236-237. Johnson, p. 284. 1st Texas Accounts, GNMP. Johnson’s and Malone’sbook affirms that Farnsworth was a bachelor. The family files, U.S. census files, and his grave in Illinois also allude to the fact that Elon Farnsworth never married. 

17. Benedict, p. 602. 

18. 1st Texas Soldier Accounts, GNMP. 

19. Benedict, p. 603. 

20. Letter, Alfred Pleasonton to John Farnsworth, July 6, 1863, GNMP. 

21. Rodenbaugh, p. 108. Boudrye Account,Farnsworth Death File, GNMP. 

22. Letter, Pleasonton to John Farnsworth, July 6, 1863. "Interesting Notes on General Farnsworth". Copies, GNMP.

Author’s Note: The monument that marks Farnworth’s charge is located on the western slope of Big Round Top, easily visible from the park road leading to the Round Tops. It states that “Farnsworth fell near here”, indicating that it is not the correct location of his fall.He likely was shot down on the Slyder property. 

Share by: