149 Years Ago: A re-evaluation of two famous letters
by Robert F. O’Neill
On June 23, 1863, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton and his aide, Capt. Elon Farnsworth each wrote a letter to Congressman John Farnsworth, a former general in the Union army. The men, undoubtedly, wrote the letters together, as each of them sought Farnsworth’s help and influence. Historians have since sought to characterize these two men by what they wrote; few other personal letters from either man survive. The words they committed to paper that day have, in part, come to define both men, perhaps unfairly.
Pleasonton had commanded the Cavalry Corps for just one month. For much of that time he had, along with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commander of the army, sought to acquire the cavalry division attached to the Department of Washington, and led by Maj. Gen. Julius Stahel.
The Department of Washington, an entity entirely separate from the army, was under the command of Maj. Gen. Samuel Heintzelman, a man who despised Hooker. It was Heintzelman’s animosity toward Hooker that led him to successfully petition that the department be removed from the purview of the army commander. Tasked with defending the capital, Heintzelman oversaw a clearly defined zone of responsibility around the city. The departmental boundary at the point where Hooker expected to enter Maryland was the Potomac River.
By June 23, Hooker was waging an increasingly contentious battle with Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, general-in-chief of the Union forces, for fresh troops to replace those lost by the army during and since the defeat at Chancellorsville. Like Pleasonton, Hooker desperately wanted Stahel’s cavalry division transferred to the army. For several weeks Halleck had mediated the debate between Hooker and Pleasonton on the one hand and Heintzelman on the other. Halleck repeatedly allowed Stahel to assist the army and he allowed Hooker to give orders directly to Stahel as long as Heintzelman concurred. In the event they disagreed, Halleck served as the final arbiter, but Halleck refused to transfer the division. This was a cumbersome and time consuming procedure, especially when Halleck was called upon to intervene, but it was allowed to stand as long as Hooker’s army and Stahel’s cavalry were south of the Potomac River. By June 23, however, elements of Lee’s army were already across the river. Hooker’s army would soon follow, with his cavalry on point.
During the preceding two weeks, Pleasonton’s cavalry had fought four major actions at Brandy Station, Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville, and lost about 2,000 men. With the summer campaign accelerating he needed to replace those losses. He was also looking to secure his promotion to major general, a rank commensurate with corps command.
Pleasonton sat down that night at his headquarters near Aldie, along with his aide, to address Elon’s uncle, John Farnsworth, in another attempt to secure the transfer of Stahel’s division to his corps. Much of what they wrote is, by today’s standards, highly inflammatory. Other comments were overtly self-serving and several were outright lies. These are the comments that have been highlighted in the past, especially the bigotry displayed by the two men against foreigners in general and Stahel, a Hungarian, specifically. But the country as a whole was much less tolerant than today, and tensions within the army following the defeat at Chancellorsville, especially the blame ascribed to the foreigners within the Eleventh Corps, were rampant. The prejudice the two men espoused has also been used to explain changes within the command of the corps following Brandy Station. A dispassionate examination of the facts should convince us that those assumptions are wrong. Still, there is no denying the fact that both men lied about the activity of and the assistance provided by Stahel and his men during the previous weeks.
Have we, however, allowed the more salacious comments penned by these men to conceal the vital point they were trying to make—the need to have “the cavalry consolidated.”
It is easy to view this request as strictly self-serving, as both men sought personal gain, but again, that would be wrong. As Pleasonton stated, “if the President prefers General Stahel, let him have all the cavalry, but concentrate it, or when the shock comes between the two armies he will painfully . . . find the truth of what I now tell him.” Pleasonton recognized that the cumbersome system under which he and Stahel were then operating held the potential for catastrophe as the campaign unfolded.
Cavalry often operated on the fringes of the army, well beyond the vision and control of the army commander. If the present system had prevailed, with Stahel’s division attached to the Department of Washington, there would have been no unity of command. The two cavalry commanders would have taken their orders from different men, Hooker (and later Meade) and Heintzelman. Although he had assisted Pleasonton and Hooker repeatedly throughout the last few weeks, Stahel was not bound to obey their orders. The potential for costly delay or confusion was obvious. Once Stahel was across the river, he would be beyond Heintzelman’s zone of authority, but working in conjunction with Hooker. That concern became reality on June 24, when Hooker ordered him to cross the river and move to Harpers Ferry. In compliance with these orders Stahel entered Maryland the following day. This was the situation that Pleasonton envisioned. Unfortunately, neither Pleasonton nor his aide confined themselves to this vital point in their letters to Congressman Farnsworth. Instead, they riddled their letters with the angry invective that has gained more notoriety by commentators than it deserves.
So what happened to the letters? Did the congressman receive them, and if so did he act upon them? Should we even assume that the letters were actually sent to the congressman, as both letters reside today in the Alfred Pleasonton Papers at the Library of Congress?
What we do know is that Halleck did act to resolve the situation, with or without any prodding from Farnsworth. On June 27 Halleck relieved Stahel from command of the cavalry division and transferred him to the Department of the Susquehanna. We do not know Halleck’s thought process, but an objective analysis of the facts and the military situation suggests that he had no alternative—he had to combine the two cavalry commands. Only one man, Pleasonton or Stahel, could retain control of that force. Pleasonton was the logical choice to retain his command. It was truly unfortunate for Stahel, but Halleck’s decision was one of pure military necessity. Stahel’s ethnicity had no bearing on that decision.
Bibliographic note: The sources used for this article were the letters from Alfred Pleasonton and Elon Farnsworth to John Farnsworth, June 23, 1863, located in the Alfred Pleasonton Papers at the Library of Congress; The War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Robert L. Murphy, “‘I Have No Faith in Foreigners’: Pleasonton Clears the Way for His Boy Generals,” in The Gettysburg Magazine; Robert F. O’Neill, The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville; and Robert F. O’Neill, “The Fight For The Loudoun Valley,” in Blue & Gray.
About the Author:
Robert F. O’Neill is a retired Fairfax County, Virginia, police officer who now lives in Eureka, Montana. His new book Chasing Jeb Stuart and John Mosby, The Union Cavalry in Northern Virginia from Second Manassas to Gettysburg has just been published. The author was forced to re-evaluate his earlier opinions concerning Pleasonton’s motives in writing the letter as he worked on the new book and his thoughts on the matter continue to evolve today as he tries to look past the more sensational aspects of the letter.