154 years after the engagement ended, students and enthusiasts still debate the “what if?” questions related to the Battle of Gettysburg. What if Richard Ewell had captured Cemetery Hill on the first day? What if Meade had withdrawn from the field to the Pipe Creek line? What if the Confederates had captured Little Round Top on July 2? What if the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble charge had been successful? The list seemingly goes on and on. For myself, the greatest “what if?” does not pertain to any one decision or event, but to an individual, Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth.
Born and raised in Michigan, Farnsworth briefly moved to Illinois before returning to his native state to attend college at the age of seventeen. While at the University of Michigan, Farnsworth and several of his classmates were expelled after a drinking episode resulted in the death of a fellow student.
Possessed with an adventurous spirit, Farnsworth pushed west and joined the U.S. Army as a civilian forage master. He later served in Albert Sidney Johnston’s famed Mormon Battalion. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he returned to Illinois and joined the 8th Illinois Cavalry, a regiment raised by his uncle and prominent Republican, John Farnsworth. Elon was commissioned a First Lieutenant. By the end of 1861, he was promoted to Captain.
Despite his strong political connections, Farnsworth distinguished himself on the battlefield. Along with fellow captains George A. Custer and Wesley Merritt, Farnsworth was promoted to Brigadier General on June 28, 1863. He received command of a brigade in Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s Third Division which consisted of the 1st Vermont, 1st West Virginia, 5th New York and 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Attached to the brigade was Lt. Samuel Elder’s Battery E, 4th U.S. Artillery.
Two days after his promotion, Farnsworth led his brigade in battle for the first time and distinguished himself at Hanover, Pennsylvania. On July 2, Farnsworth again handled his command well at the Battle of Hunterstown. That night, Kilpatrick’s division camped at the hamlet of Two Taverns, southeast of Gettysburg.
Early the next morning, Kilpatrick moved with Farnsworth to the Union left, eventually reaching a heavily wooded eminence adjacent to Big Round Top, Bushman’s Hill. While Elder unlimbered his guns, Kilpatrick anxiously waited for the moment to attack. The ground before him, however, was hardly conducive to mounted operations. Stone walls crisscrossed the rolling terrain, which was occupied by Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood’s division, now under the command of Evander Law. After he observed the enemy position, Maj. William Wells of the 1st Vermont remarked, “I would rather charge into Hell than in there.”
Kilpatrick’s opportunity for an offensive came following the repulse of the Confederate assault against Cemetery Ridge. He directed the 1st West Virginia to launch an attack against the 1st Texas Infantry along the J. Slyder farm lane. Surging ahead, the West Virginians slammed into the Texans. The steady musketry of the Texans forced them to eventually withdraw. Undeterred, Kilpatrick ordered the 18th Pennsylvania forward. Joined by elements from the 5th New York, the Union cavalryman fared no better than their comrades and their charge was turned back.
Despite his lack of success, Kilpatrick determined to try again and ordered Farnsworth to lead another assault, this time with the 1st Vermont. Farnsworth recognized the futility of additional efforts and a discussion begun earlier on the merits of Kilpatrick’s aggressive tactics soon escalated into a heated exchange. At some point during the argument, Kilpatrick challenged his young subordinate’s bravery. Disgusted, Farnsworth took his place Wells’ battalion for the charge.
Like the West Virginians, Farnsworth led the Vermont troopers toward the 1st Texas. Reinforced by the 9th Georgia, the Confederates poured volley after volley into the Union ranks. Still, the Federals continued on. “We charged over rocks, stone walls & fences” Wells wrote several days later. Reaching the Slyder farm lane, Farnsworth was joined by Col. Addison Preston’s battalion from the 1st Vermont, which had skirted the base of Big Round Top. Reaching a short rise, Farnsworth had his horse shot out from under him. As he obtained another mount, e decided to cut his way out from behind the Confederate line. Passing beyond the Slyder farm house, the Vermonters encountered the 4th and 15th Alabama. As he entered one of Mr. Slyder’s fields, Farnsworth was shot down. Without their brigade commander, the splintered battalions of the 1st Vermont did their best to escape and returned to the safety of Kilpatrick’s line.
Farnsworth’s body was recovered on July 4. He rests today in Rockton Township Cemetery in Illinois. Kilpatrick, whose foolhardy decision led to his death, eulogized Farnsworth in his official report. “In this battle the division lost many brave and gallant officers. Among the list will be found the name of Farnsworth; short but most glorious was his career-a general on June 29, on the 30th he baptized his star in blood, and on July 3, for the honor of his young brigade and the glory of his corps, he gave his life. At the head of his men, at the very muzzles of the enemy’s guns, he fell, with many mortal wounds. We can say of him in the language of another, “Good soldier, faithful friend, great heart, hail and farewell.”
Farnsworth’s story now leads to the aforementioned question. George Custer and Wesley Merritt eventually rose where he could not. Merritt ended the war at the head of the Army of Shenandoah. Custer was one of his division commanders. There is no question regarding Farnsworth’s courage and skills throughout his entire service. I wonder how far he could have gone or how his career would have progressed had he lived.