Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions—A Review

Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions: Farnsworth’s Charge, South CavalryField and the Battle of Fairfield, July 3, 1863.
Author: Eric Wittenberg
Publisher: Savas Beatie
244 pages, 8 maps, 4 appendices.

Many historians and students of the Battle of Gettysburg ultimately conclude the fighting near the Copse of Trees and the end of Pickett’s Charge. However, author Eric Wittenberg takes the reader beyond the High Water Mark, to tell three distinct stories of Union and Confederate Soldiers who clashed late on the afternoon of July 3, 1863. Wittenberg is one of the foremost cavalry historians today and through Savas Beatie Publishing has released a revised and expanded edition of his 1998 book, Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions: Farnsworth’s Charge, South Cavalry Field and the Battle of Fairfield, July 3, 1863.

Wittenberg begins the narrative by providing the reader with a brief overview of the situation on the field up until the morning of July 3 and introducing the key players in the drama that unfolded after Pickett’s Charge. Not only does one meet such famous names as Wesley Merritt and Judson Kilpatrick but throughout the text, Wittenberg relates the stories of other, lesser known individuals, including George Hillyer of the 9th Georgia Infantry and William Wells of the 1st Vermont Cavalry, who would receive a Medal of Honor for his actions that day.

The reader is then carried to a portion of the battlefield that is often overlooked by visitors. There, in the fields fronting Big Round Top, would take place one of the most tragic events of the battle. Throwing discretion to the wind, Union Cavalry division commander Judson Kilpatrick committed the regiments of Elon Farnsworth’s brigade piecemeal against the Confederate line. After witnessing the repulse of two of Farnsworth’s regiments, Kilpatrick ordered Farnsworth and the 1st Vermont Cavalry forward. The assault would cost Farnsworth his life. Farnsworth was one of the “Boy Generals” promoted just days before the battle and with his passing, the Union Cavalry would never realize his full potential.

Wittenberg infuses his tireless research into his re-worked account of Farnsworth’s famous charge, weaving primary accounts into the text in a magnificent fashion, leaving the reader feeling as if they are riding alongside Farnsworth. The new map by National Park Service historian John Heiser is a valuable addition. Wittenberg also devotes a chapter to thoroughly examining and critiquing the many accounts surrounding the circumstances of Farnsworth’s death.

Wittenberg then carries the reader to an even more remote part of Gettysburg, South Cavalry Field. Advancing up the Emmitsburg Road, Brigadier General Wesley Merritt and his brigade of U.S. Regulars and the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry would squander an excellent chance during the fight to turn the Confederate line and ultimately wreak havoc in the Confederate rear.

Moving outside the National Park, the reader is taken to the strategic town of Fairfield, Pennsylvania. Whichever side controlled this town would effectively control one of the possible retreat routes for the Confederate army. On the afternoon of July 3, Merritt would detach one of his regiments, the 6th U.S. Cavalry to attempt to capture an enemy wagon train. The Regulars and the wagons and William E. “Grumble” Jones’ brigade of cavalry, some of the best the Confederates had to offer. Severely outnumbered, the Sixth put up a gallant fight, but would eventually be driven from the field. Like the chapter on Farnsworth’s Charge, Wittenberg has also re-worked the fight at Fairfield

Of special interest to the reader are the appendices which feature an Order of Battle as well as two driving tours of the sites discussed in the work. Each of the stops contain a brief summary of the events that took place there and GPS Benchmarks. Also included is an additional and fascinating examination of Farnsworth’s Charge. This section was written by Wittenberg and one of his co-authors, J. David Petruzzi in response to an article in the Gettysburg Magazine that presented different theories as to the location of the charge and the events surrounding Farnsworth’s death. The authors effectively challenge these theories and provide more details concerning the event that complement the text.

Readers will also find an interesting interview with Wittenberg, Petruzzi and fellow co-author Michael Nugent, discussing their book One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863 (also published by Savas Beatie).

As an avid follower of the Union Cavalry in the Eastern Theater and owner of the First Edition of the book, I was very excited to learn that a revised edition was in the works. To say the least, my expectations were exceeded. Wittenberg is at his best; analyzing the leadership skills on both sides and the tactics employed during the fighting while at the same time weaving a very compelling and easy to read narrative. He provides an excellent glimpse into actions and events that have long been forgotten and overlooked by visitors of the battlefield. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac as well as students of the battle itself.

8 Responses to Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions—A Review

  1. Wow, what a nice review. I’m humbled to see it. Thank you for all of the kind words, Dan. I’m pleased that you enjoyed it, and I’m even more pleased to know that you find merit in the new edition.


    1. It is great; I love the stuff on Farnsworth’s Charge. I was very excited when Kris asked me to review it.

  2. Great review and I hope you a lot of people read your book. Maybe then they will realize fully what Lee’s plan on the July 3, 1863 and stop with the making Stuart’s actions on this day appear to be insignificant.

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