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Volume 23, No. 4 – April 2010

flaggeUpcoming Program: Wednesday, April 14, 2010

BonekemperEdward H. Bonekemper, III is the author of four Civil War books: How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War; A Victor, Not a Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant's Overlooked Military Genius; McClellan and Failure: A Study of Civil War Fear, Incompetence and Worse; and Grant and Lee: Victorious American and Vanquished Virginian. He is a dynamic, controversial, and informative speaker who will entertain and enlighten you on “George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln’s Worst Nightmare.” He will be available to autograph copies of his books.  Ed is an adjunct lecturer of U.S. military history at Muhlenberg College. For over 34 years he served as a Federal Government attorney  (including 11 years of active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard and 17 as the senior hazardous materials transportation attorney for the U.S. Department of Transportation). He is a retired commander in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.

March 10, 2010 Program

Marshall D. Krolick delivered another spellbinding talk, this time on “The Boy Generals: The Promotions of Custer, Merritt and Farnsworth.”  An abridged text follows:

During the early morning hours of June 28, 1863 Joseph Hooker was relieved as commander of the Army of the Potomac and George Gordon Meade was appointed to replace him.  Less than twelve hours later Meade sent the following telegram to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

"To Halleck, Major General                                                                            June 28, 1863

To organize with efficiency the cavalry force now with this army, I require three Brigadier Generals. General Pleasonton nominates Captain Farnsworth, 8th Illinois Cavalry, Captain (sic) George A. Custer, 5th U.S. Cavalry, Captain Wesley Merritt, 2nd U.S. Cavalry. Can these officers be appointed?

                                                                        Meade, Major General Commanding"

Without waiting for a response, Meade issued Special Order No. 175 the same day, stating that “The following-named general officers are assigned to duty with the Cavalry Corps, and will report to Major-General Pleasonton: Brigadier-General Farnsworth, U.S. Volunteers; Brig. Gen. George A. Custer, U.S. Volunteers; Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt, U.S. Volunteers.”  The commissions were granted on June 29, 1863.

The lives and fates of three young officers (two captains and a first lieutenant) were unalterably changed by one of the most unusual promotions in the history of the United States Army. These promotions can be readily understood if they had been made for cause, such as for great deeds, for battlefield bravery, for exhibited qualities of leadership, or for brilliant strategic and tactical ability. To determine if that was the case here, the lives and careers of the promoted officers up to June, 1863 must be examined.

MerrittCaptain Wesley Merritt was born on June 16, 1836. in New York City, but spent most of his early life in Illinois. At West Point, he graduated twenty-second out of forty-one in the class of 1860 and was commissioned a lieutenant in the 2nd Dragoons. Subsequently, Merritt served in Utah where one of his superiors was then Captain Alfred Pleasonton. After the outbreak of the Civil War, he marched back east with his regiment and, by February of 1862, Merritt was serving as aide-de-camp to Philip St. George Cooke, the commander of the Federal cavalry during the Peninsula Campaign. For the balance of that year he served as a staff officer in the Washington defenses. In the Spring of 1863, just prior to the Chancellorsville Campaign, he became an aide-de-camp to George Stoneman.

At one point during the fiasco that has come to be known as Stoneman's Raid, Merritt commanded a detachment which was successful in burning bridges over the South Anna River and destroying railroad facilities. In late May, he renewed his relationship with Alfred Pleasonton by becoming an aide-de-camp on the latter's staff. However, early June found Merritt back with his old regiment, now known as the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, which he commanded at the Battle of Brandy Station.

Let James Kidd, future colonel of the 6th Michigan Cavalry describe “Wesley Merritt, whom I saw then for the first time, was one of the "youngsters" who received their stars in June, 1863. As a cavalry commander he was trained by John Buford. The latter was rightly called, "Old Reliable," not because of his age, but for the reason that he rarely if ever failed to be in the right place at the right moment -- solid rather than showy, not spectacular but sure. His courage and ability were both conspicuous. He belonged to the school of officers of which Thomas, Meade, Sedgwick and Gregg were exemplars, rather than to that of which Kearney, Sheridan and Custer were preeminent types. Such also was Merritt, an apt pupil of an illustrious teacher, the lineal successor of Buford. He came by natural selection to be the commander of the First division, and at the last was chief of cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, the capable successor of Pleasonton and Sheridan, a position for which he was peculiarly fitted by nature, by acquirements, and by experience. Modesty which fitted him like a garment, charming manners, the demeanor of a gentleman, cool but fearless bearing in action, were his distinguishing characteristics."

FarnsworthCapt. Elon J. Farnsworth was born July 30, 1837 in Green Oak, Michigan. His early life was spent in Michigan and then in Rockton, Illinois. In 1855 Farnsworth enrolled at the University of Michigan, but in 1858 he and several others were expelled for what was described as a "drunken escapade."  Almost immediately he joined Albert Sidney Johnston's Mormon Campaign as a civilian forage master. After the Civil War began, he returned to Illinois to become a first lieutenant and adjutant in the 8th Illinois Cavalry, a regiment raised in the summer of 1861 by his uncle, John Farnsworth, a powerful Republican politician. In December he was promoted to captain of Company K. The regiment was quartered in Alexandria, Virginia in the winter of 1861-1862.  Elon is reported to have physically pulled from the pulpit an Episcopal rector who had omitted from his service the normal prayer for the President of the United States. In the spring of 1863, Farnsworth joined Gen. Pleasonton’s staff.  James Kidd, future colonel of the 6th Michigan Cavalry, pictured Farnsworth as “proud, ambitious and fiery, yet poised and discreet, a man true as steel to his country and to his convictions of duty and manhood.”

First Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer (picture on next page) was born on December 5, 1839, in Ohio and spent his early years in Monroe, Michigan. At West Point he was ranked last in the class of 1861, a standing achieved partly because of the excessive time he spent under detention because of rules violations. His first assignments during the Civil War were as an aide on the staffs of Winfield Scott and George B. McClellan. By May 15, 1863 he had been appointed to the staff of Alfred Pleasonton, the new commander of the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac. In this capacity he rode with John Buford at the Battle of Brandy Station and there helped to rally the brigade of Grimes Davis after the latter's death early in the battle. A description of Custer is certainly unnecessary, but among the words which come automatically to mind are impetuous, flamboyant, brave, and vain.

Thus, as the armies rested after Chancellorsville, an evaluation of Merritt, Farnsworth and Custer would cite to jobs well done, but certainly not to careers of great distinction. Their performance, while commendable, was not any different from that of hundreds of other officers. In fact, such veteran colonels of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac as John McIntoch, William Gamble, George Chapman, Henry Davies and others could certainly expect promotion before junior grade staff and line officers. Yet, on June 28, 1863 these three young men were jumped from captain and first lieutenant to brigadier general and thus the obvious question is "Why?"

CusterThe answer clearly was not based on accomplishment or proven ability. That fact was confirmed by Custer himself. In a confidential letter written July 26, 1863 to his close friend and patron, Judge Christiancy of Monroe, Michigan, Custer stated:

"I was never more surprised than when I was informed of my appointment as a Brigadier General. It was a position I had never in the faintest measure asked for. . . . . I felt highly complimented but had not the most remote idea that the President would appoint me, because I considered my youth, my low rank and what is of great importance at times I recollected that I had not a single friend at court."

Rather, these unprecedented promotions were the result of ambition, desire for power, bigotry and political intrigue by others. In fact, the three promoted officers were but pawns in a much larger game. To examine those circumstances two more individuals must be introduced to the cast of characters.

John FarnsworthThe fourth is John Farnsworth, uncle of Elon. Born in Quebec, Canada on March 27, 1820, he spent his early life in Ann Arbor, Michigan as a surveyor. In 1842 he relocated to St. Charles, Illinois and opened a law practice. Ten years later, in 1852, he moved his office to Chicago where he became a friend of Abraham Lincoln and quickly established a reputation as a virulent abolitionist. On that platform, and as a Republican, he was elected to Congress from Chicago in 1856 and again in 1858. However, by 1860 the political climate had moderated in his district as people of reason sought a less strident representative in an effort to avoid war.  Defeated that year for renomination, Farnsworth returned to his law practice in Chicago.

As did many politicians and men of prominence during the summer of 1861, in response to President Lincoln's call for troops John Farnsworth raised a regiment, the 8th Illinois Cavalry. He became its colonel and his nephew Elon was appointed a lieutenant. When the regiment moved to Washington in September, 1861, it was personally reviewed by the President, who referred to it as "Farnsworth's big abolition regiment." During the first year of the war, the 8th Illinois and its colonel performed adequately, if unspectacularly. However, by Antietam Uncle John was in command of a cavalry brigade in the division led by Alfred Pleasonton. On November 29, 1862, John Farnsworth was commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers, but that same month he had been re-elected to Congress. On April 4, 1863 he took his seat, resigning his army commission that same day.

The fifth and final piece of the puzzle, in fact the prime mover of the entire scenario, has already been associated with each of the other members of our cast of characters. That man, referred to by historian Edward Longacre as "The Knight of Romance," is, of course, Alfred Pleasonton.

He was born in Washington, D.C. on July 7, 1824 and graduated from West Point in 1844, ranking seventh out of twenty-five. He saw service in the Mexican War, on the frontier, and in the campaign against the Seminoles. By 1860, Pleasonton was a captain in the 2nd United States Dragoons, serving in Utah where Wesley Merritt was a lieutenant and Elon Farnsworth was a civilian forage master. In the fall of 1861 he was ordered to march the regiment back to Washington and he served with it that winter in the Washington defenses. Promoted to major on February 15, 1862, he saw action during the Peninsula Campaign. On July 16, 1862, Pleasonton was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers and during the Antietam and Chancellorsville Campaigns he commanded a cavalry division. At Antietam one of his brigades was led by John Farnsworth. In early June, 1863, Pleasonton replaced George Stoneman as commander of the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac and was in command of all Federal troops on the field at the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9th.

PleasontonDescriptions of Alfred Pleasonton in the writings of his contemporaries often include such favorable terms as professionally competent, self-confident, and an able strategist and battlefield tactician. However, these are more than offset by the negative references, which include ambitious, desirous of power, vain, swaggering, overly concerned with his reputation and, most damning of all, an unprincipled liar, as witness his report of Brandy Station. In dress, he was a dandy, affecting fancy uniforms, a jaunty mustache, gauntlets, and a riding whip.

To complete the picture, Pleasonton’s relationship with the three young officers must be reviewed. At least two, his then current staff officers, Custer and Elon Farnsworth, regarded Pleasonton as a father figure, even to emulating his manner of dress. Custer, writing in October, 1863 said:

            "I do not believe a father could love his son more than General Pleasonton loves me. He is as solicitous about me and my safety as a mother about her only child. You should see how gladly he welcomes me on my return from each battle."

That Custer returned this affection is evidenced by his gift to Alfred Pleasonton, in the spring of 1863, of a magnificent horse captured from a Confederate officer.  As for Wesley Merritt, he had served directly under Pleasonton several times, including a short stint as aide-de-camp. Both Custer and Merritt had been previously recommended for promotion by Pleasonton. Last, but certainly not least, Elon Farnsworth was John Farnsworth's nephew and by June 1863 John Farnsworth had become a most important man in Alfred Pleasonton's life.

It was through the elder Farnsworth that Pleasonton hoped to accomplish what he wanted most in life at this time. These goals were: (1) promotion to major general; (2) an increase in the size of the Cavalry Corps, thereby making his command more important; (3) the appointment of subordinate commanders personally loyal to him so as to solidify his power base; and (4) elimination of foreigners from his command.

The last of these desires resulted from the fact that Alfred Pleasonton was a bigot, prejudiced against anyone not a native born American. He regarded all foreigners as inept mercenaries. To illustrate this, among his writings of this period can be found statements such as "In every instance foreigners have injured our cause." When Alfred Pleasonton assumed command of the Cavalry Corps, Europeans such as Sir Percy Wyndham, Luigi Di Cesnola and Alfred Duffie held important commands. In every instance, by the end of the Gettysburg campaign they were gone. In several cases these removals were for unjust cause fostered by Pleasonton.

However, in June of 1863, those gentlemen were not Pleasonton's prime target among the foreign born. That distinction belonged to an unfortunate Hungarian, Brigadier General Julius Stahel. This poor soul not only was a foreigner, but had the misfortune to be in command of a cavalry division, containing thirty-six hundred troopers, attached to the defenses of Washington. Alfred Pleasonton not only instinctively disliked Stahel because of the latter's foreign birth, but he also coveted Stahel's division as an addition to his cavalry corps. Thus communiques began to descend on Washington from Pleasonton's headquarters criticizing Stahel's performance and cooperation, although in fact at this time Stahel's troopers were providing better intelligence of Confederate movements than was Pleasonton. 

To support his desire to populate the command structure of the cavalry corps with his own people, Alfred Pleasonton also resorted in June, 1863 to his always prolific, if not always truthful, pen. For example, his report of the Battle of Upperville, fought on June 21, stated: "Give me good commanders and I will give you good results". In a letter he defined the qualities he sought in a good cavalry commander as follows:

"A good cavalry commander is like an actor on the stage before a watchful audience; in a crisis one leader may cause confusion, even panic, by the way he shouts orders, while another, with the dramatist's gifts, can hold the attention of his men, make every soldier feel like a hero of the play, forget his fears and charge recklessly."

However, above all, Alfred Pleasonton was a realist and a veteran observer of the politics of Washington. He knew letters alone would not accomplish his four goals. He needed a friend in court, a powerful political voice with the ear of Lincoln and the Radical Republican leadership of Congress. Fortunately, Pleasonton knew just where to turn, to his good friend and former subordinate, the Radical Republican congressman and friend of Lincoln, John Farnsworth. Already Pleasonton had cemented their relationship by appointing Elon Farnsworth to his staff. In addition, Pleasonton and John Farnsworth had become regular correspondents since John Farnsworth left the army. Now Alfred Pleasonton peppered his letters to John Farnsworth with criticisms of Stahel, suggestions that the latter's division belonged with the Army of the Potomac, pleas that Pleasonton should be allowed to appoint his own officers, and queries why he as a corps commander was not a major general.

The schemes of Alfred Pleasonton reached their finest hour on June 23, 1863 when he wrote the following letter, marked "private," to John Farnsworth:

“... Our cavalry business is badly managed and will lead us into trouble unless speedily corrected - We have too many detachments - independent of each other scattered over this country. We need reinforcements, including Stahel's div., which heretofore has been scattered about frittering away on trifling objects - Remember Stahel ranks me and if put over me, I shall retire -- as I have no faith in foreigners saving our Government or country -- Stahel has not shown himself a cavalry man and it is ruining cavalry to place it under him... Stahel's force is watching empty air down about Warrenton...

Tell the President from me that I will sacrifice my life to support his Government and save the country, but that I will not fight under the orders of a Dutchman, that I conscientiously believe that Americans only should rule in this matter and settle this rebellion -- I should have been made a Major General -- My commission should date from Antietam or South Mountain to give me the proper rank to command a corps...  Give me 15,000 cavalry, let me place my own officers over it- - Elon Farnsworth has done splendidly and I will make him a B.G., What say you? 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 a head of the rebs -"

Not content with his own words, Alfred Pleasonton added the coup-de-gras. Enclosed with the letter to John was a note from nephew Elon:

"Pleasonton is still not a Major General. While Pleasonton has fought thru 3 severe battles, all this time Stahel has four or five thousand cavalry in and about Washington just doing nothing at all. Trains passing between here and Fairfax C.H. are burned by Bushwhackers, our dispatches intercepted and yet Stahel does nothing. Now if you can do anything to get the cavalry consolidated and Stahel left out, for God’s sake do it. You hardly know or can imagine the bitter feeling that exists among the officers of the cavalry towards Stahel and those who are trying to set him and other Dutchmen up, Duffie has failed on two occasions. The Gen'l. speaks of recommending me for Brig. I do not know that I ought to mention it for fear that you will call me an aspiring youth. I am satisfied to serve through this war in the line in my Reg't as a Capt. or on Gen'l Pleasonton's staff. But if I can do any good anywhere else of course 'small favors and etc.' now try and talk all this into the President and you can do an immense good..."

Since these letters were written from the area of Aldie, only fifty miles from Washington, it can certainly be assumed that they reached John Farnsworth by the 25th, if not on the 24th. In determining the result of this and the other Pleasonton correspondence, an examination of the events of the next few days proves very interesting. On June 24, 1863, Alfred Pleasonton was nominated to the Senate for confirmation as a Major General. On June 28, Custer, Merritt and Farnsworth, Pleasonton's personal choices, were promoted to brigadier general. On that same day Julius Stahel was relieved from the command of his division. Also on June 28, Stahel's former division was added to the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac, giving Alfred Pleasonton a total force of over twelve thousand men. Thus, four goals had been set and four goals had been achieved.

The reaction of the three promoted officers was clearly revealed by how they handled the change of uniform in the midst of a volatile campaign. Merritt, quiet and understated, simply continued to wear what he had until he could obtain a proper general's uniform. Elon Farnsworth, fiery and dashing, borrowed a general's trappings from Alfred Pleasonton, whose dress he already was copying. And then there was George A. Custer. It is perhaps best to let Major James Kidd of the 6th Michigan Cavalry describe Custer's self designed new attire when the latter arrived to assume his new command:

“my eyes were instantly riveted upon a figure only a few feet distant, whose appearance amazed if it did not for the moment amuse me. . . He was clad in a suit of black velvet, elaborately trimmed with gold lace, which ran down the outer seams of his trousers, and almost covered the sleeves of his cavalry jacket. The wide collar of a blue navy shirt was turned down over the collar of his velvet jacket, and a necktie of brilliant crimson was tied in a graceful knot at the throat, the long ends falling carelessly in front. The double rows of buttons on his breast were arranged in groups of twos, indicating the rank of brigadier general. A soft, black hat with wide brim adorned with a gilt cord, and rosette encircling a silver star, was worn turned down on one side giving him a rakish air. His golden hair fell in graceful luxuriance nearly or quite to his shoulders, and his upper lip was garnished with a blonde mustache. A sword and belt, gilt spurs and top boots completed his unique outfit."

Another contemporary description, perhaps a touch more critical, stated that Custer's attire made him look like "a circus rider gone mad".

As to the reaction of others to these three promotions, that of the lamented Julius Stahel was unfortunately not recorded, but certainly can be presumed. Many officers who had been passed over did protest in one way or another. Among these was Colonel J. Irvin Gregg, a brigade commander in the division of his cousin, David McMurtry Gregg. In a confidential memo written to a political contact, he said: "I doubt any reason can be assigned by the most favorably disposed to warrant these appointments". Not all reaction was unfavorable, however. For example, the New York Times, a pro-administration newspaper, on June 30, 1863 described our three young heroes as "Three dashing and brilliant young officers, who have been appointed in violation of red tape and regardless of political influence because of their rare fitness to lead cavalry."

In any event, the promotions were made and duly confirmed. The three officers, regardless of the style of uniform they adopted, reported to their new commands. For Merritt, it was back to his old command, as he took over the Reserve Brigade, officially the Third Brigade of Buford's First Division. This division was assigned to lead the left front of the Federal advance into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Stahel's former division was designated as a new Third Division and divided into two brigades. The first was given to Elon Farnsworth and the second to George Custer. The latter brigade, consisting of the 1st, 5th, 6th, and 7th Michigan Cavalry regiments, would become famous under Custer's leadership as the "Michigan Brigade."  The new commander of this third division was Judson Kilpatrick. Rash, foolish and reckless, without tactical or strategic ability, he would quickly earn his nickname, "Kill Cavalry". Unfortunately the "cavalry" referred to was usually his own, not the enemy's.

As this division moved north, scouting the center of the Federal advance, it encountered Stuart's Confederate cavalry as the latter groped for the Army of Northern Virginia. These meetings resulted in clashes at Hanover on June 30th and Hunterstown on July2nd, the first taste of combat for Elon Farnsworth and George Custer as generals. Each did well in what were really little more than skirmishes. However, they set the stage for the events of July 3rd at Gettysburg. That afternoon, on the eastern edge of the town, Gregg's Second Division, aided materially by Custer's brigade, dueled Stuart as the latter attempted to gain the Federal rear. The key moment in this too often neglected action was the mounted charge of the 1st Michigan, personally led by George Custer, against the advance of the troops of Wade Hampton and Fitz Lee. This, of course, was the famous "C'mon you Wolverines" incident and it, and the way Custer handled his brigade generally, played an important role in Stuart's defeat.

Later that same afternoon, as the remnants of the divisions of Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble were streaming back to Seminary Ridge, another cavalry charge was mounted, this time on the southern edge of the field and with tragically different results. The idiotic Judson Kilpatrick had decided that the Army of Northern Virginia was demoralized after its repulse. Thus he ordered Elon Farnsworth to make a mounted charge against the Confederate right, the divisions of Hood and McLaws, posted in the south end of the Devil's Den area, west of Big Round Top. This was an area of woods, fences, huge boulders, and broken ground, certainly no place for a cavalry attack. Upon Kilpatrick's orders for this suicidal charge, a Federal officer heard the following exchange between them:

"Farnsworth: 'General, do you mean it? Shall I throw my handful of men over rough ground, through timber, against a brigade of infantry? The First Brigade has already been fought half to pieces; these are too good men to kill.' Kilpatrick: 'Do you refuse to obey my orders? If you are afraid to lead this charge I will lead it.' 'Take that back!', Farnsworth shouted as he rose in his stirrups, his wrath blazing out of control. As Kilpatrick apologized the quarrel died down and Farnsworth said: 'General, if you order the charge I will lead it, but you must take the responsibility.'"

When the attack began, Farnsworth and his men soon found themselves riding a gauntlet between two Confederate lines. As the troopers desperately sought an escape route, Elon Farnsworth was killed, his body pierced by five bullets. The reaction of Alfred Pleasonton when he heard of Farnsworth's death was to say "Nature made him a general". One can only wonder at the reaction of John Farnsworth, whose machinations with Alfred Pleasonton, not nature, had resulted in the promotion and subsequent death of his nephew.

As for Wesley Merritt, his assigned role on the Army's far left flank resulted in two other clashes on July 3rd. Badly outnumbered, one of his regiments, the 6th U.S., fought unsuccessfully at Fairfield against the cavalry guarding the Confederate trains. Later that day, just prior to Farnsworth's charge the remainder of Merritt's brigade battled Confederate infantry in an inconclusive action along the Emmitsburg Road.

So the Gettysburg Campaign ended and the actors on our stage went on to play out the roles in life that fate, and Alfred Pleasonton, had dealt them.

For Alfred Pleasonton himself it was not to be a happy road, certainly not the one he had envisioned. By the spring of 1864, Meade had had enough of him. Pleasonton's testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War had supported Hooker, Butterfield, and Birney in their attacks against Meade.  Also, Pleasonton's lies were catching up with him. Thus when Grant brought Sheridan east with him, Meade was more than happy to let Alfred Pleasonton go. He was relieved from command of the Cavalry Corps on March 25, 1864. Banished to Missouri, he performed extremely well during Price's Raid and the balance of the war, but it was an arena without an audience. On the reorganization of the army in 1866 he declined an infantry command. However, his regular army rank was still only major of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. Incensed that this left him subordinate in the regiment to those he had ranked during the war, he resigned. For thirty years he lived out a lonely life in Washington, holding minor government jobs for his livelihood. Alfred Pleasonton died on February 17, 1897. His bitter memories of his career in the army are best reflected by the fact that no reference to his military service appears on his tombstone.

As for the three young men whose careers Pleasonton's ambition had so profoundly affected, Elon Farnsworth of course was dead, forgotten today except for a restaurant in Gettysburg bearing his name and a monument over his grave in Rockton, Illinois. Custer's career needs no retelling here, except to emphasize that in 1864 and 1865 he performed brilliantly as a cavalry leader. Quiet, unassuming Wesley Merritt went on to enjoy one of the most distinguished careers in the history of the United States Army. His regular army promotions included colonel in 1876, brigadier general in 1887 and major general in 1895. For a period of time he served as Superintendent of West Point, and later commanded the forces in Philippines during the Spanish American War. Retiring in 1900, Merritt died in 1910 and was buried at West Point, near the grave of Custer.

So as a result of the ambition and conniving of Alfred Pleasonton, the lives of these three young men touch such diverse places as the foot of Big Round Top at Gettysburg, the Little Big Horn in Montana, and Manilla in the Philippines. One can only wonder where Elon Farnsworth, Wesley Merritt and George Custer would have gone and how different their lives might have been if they had not been pawns in the manipulations of Alfred Pleasonton.

A rousing round of questions and answered ended this most entertaining and informative presentation.

The following is an article from The New York Post for April 4, 2010 sent to me by Howie Krizer:


By Clint Johnson (author of “A Vast and Fiendish Plot: The Confederate Attack on New York City)

Their aim was to spread fear, t o destroy a huge swath of the United States’ largest city, to turn the tide of the war, to influence a presidential election.

It wasn’t a modern plot by alQaeda--it was an attack planned by Confederate officers in 1864, a nearly devastating (and almost forgotten chapter) of New York City history.

The vast and fiendish plot originated in Toronto, as an attempt by the Confederate Secret Service to disrupt the Nov. 8 election. With the battles of the Civil War going against the South, Confederate officials hoped that Lincoln could be defeated by a peace-seeking Democrat – if the electorate saw how easily the Confederacy could strike at the North’s largest cities.

The original targets included Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati and New York. Ultimately, the Emerald City, as it was then known to its 814,000 residents, was one of the cities chosen. Fires would be set throughout Manhattan, destroying homes, businesses and hope.

The attack was to be carried out by six officers, all in their 20's, with the oldest being 29.  They sincerely believed that 20,000 of New York’s  residents would rally to their cause. They had been told by a handful of well-placed New Yorkers that once the fires started, an “army” of civilians would rush to City Hall to raise a flag that most Manhattanites would not recognize -- the Second National Flag of the Confederacy, a white banner with the Confederate battle flag in the upper left.

But one double agent working for the Union, and another still unknown source in Canada,  alerted the Lincoln administration to the plot.  Telegrams were rushed off to the mayors.  On November 3rd,The New York Times reprinted the telegrams with the headline: “REBEL CONSPIRACY TO BURN NORTHERN CITIES.”  The body of the article explained that rebels intended to set “fire to the principal cities in the Northern States on the day of the Presidential election.”

Curiously, though, the article explained that the mayor of Buffalo had received the telegram, but no mention was made that New York City’s Mayor C. Godfrey Gunther had received the same threat. The Confederates never targeted Buffalo, but New York City had been mentioned as a potential firebombing target in a Richmond Whig editorial of October 16, an editorial which the Times reprinted without any elaboration on October 18.  Most New Yorkers probably thought they were safe.

Nevertheless, acting on tips, the Lincoln administration set 3,500 Union troops to guard the New York City polls. That spooked the Confederates’ contacts,  including James McMaster, editor of the Freeman’s Journal and Catholic Digest.

McMaster, imprisoned early in the war for his anti-Lincoln editorials had promised the Confederates who arrived in the city on October 27, that an army of “Copperheads” would take over the city once the fires halted the polling. Yet when the Union troops arrived, McMaster told the Confederates that they could expect no support at all in carrying out the plot.

Election day passed without incident and Lincoln was reelected.  The Times ran a remarkable editorial on November 16 thanking the just-departed Union forces for keeping the peace and then challenged New Yorkers it deemed as Southern sympathizers with being “too slothful to take on the danger and fatigue of the battlefield.”

The Confederates, who had waited out the Union troops, may have reacted to the bluster.

They struck on November 25, the day after the nation’s second official Thanksgiving, setting fires in the rooms they occupied in 21 commercial hotels along Broadway.  Their weapon was “Greek fire,” a complex chemical compound that spontaneously combusts when exposed to air.  They had been given 144 vials of the material by an unnamed chemist living just west of Washington Square.

None of the room fires caught beyond burning some bed linen. The Confederates had not practiced with the compound, had left their hotel room windows closed! That robbed the Greek fire of the oxygen it needed to spread. Police and firemen rushed to the hotels and extinguished the flames.

The Confederates had picked the wrong targets. On the city’s west side was the Manhattan Gas Works where coal was distilled into gas that lit the city’s homes and businesses.  Had the Gas Work’s pressure-regulating tanks been sabotaged, gas flowing into the city’s homes and business would have made any lit match a potential firebomb!

If the Confederates had been better saboteurs, spies and scouts, there is little doubt New York City would have burned down in 1864– perhaps changing the course of the Civil War.

Last changed:  08/06/10

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