Gettysburg, a Virtual Tour
The South Cavalry Field

South Cavalry Field Map

South Cavalry Field is located on both sides of Rt. 15 (the Emmitsburg Road) just south of its intersection with Confederate Avenue.
On the morning of July 3, Union Cavalry Corps commander Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton ordered two of his brigades to the left flank of the Union army. He ordered Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt's Reserve Brigade of Buford's division to move north from Emmitsburg to join Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick's division, moving from Two Taverns on the Baltimore Pike to the area southwest of the Round Top mountain. By this time, the only brigade in Kilpatrick's division was that of Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth, George Custer's brigade having been detached for service with David Gregg at East Cavalry Field. It is unclear what Pleasonton hoped to accomplish. There is no record that he performed any reconnaissance in this area. It has been speculated that Army of the Potomac commander George G. Meade was preparing for a possible counterattack to follow the repulse of Pickett's Charge, which he had anticipated since the night before.
Farnsworth reached the area at approximately 1 p.m., about the time the massive Confederate artillery barrage started in preparation for Pickett's Charge, and his 1,925 troops took up a position in a line south of the George Bushman farm. From left to right, the regiments were the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry, the 1st West Virginia, and 1st Vermont. Battery E., 4th U.S. Artillery, occupied a small, rocky knoll in the rear and the 5th New York cavalry was placed in a nearby ravine to guard the artillery. Joined by Kilpatrick, they awaited Merritt's brigade, which arrived at about 3 p.m. and took up a position straddling the Emmitsburg Road, to Farnsworth's left. By this time the infantry portion of Pickett's Charge had begun and Kilpatrick was eager to get his men into the fight.
On the Confederate line to the east of the Emmitsburg Road, only infantry troops were involved. The four brigades of Hood's division, under the command of Evander M. Law, had occupied the area from Round Top, through Devil's Den, and back to the road since the battle on July 2. Initially Law had just the 1st Texas Infantry (from Brig. Gen. Jerome B. Robertson's Texas Brigade) facing Farnsworth to the south, but he soon reinforced them with 47th Alabama Infantry, the 1st South Carolina, and artillery. To the west of the road, facing Merritt, was the Georgia brigade of Brig. Gen. George "Tige" Anderson.
Young Kilpatrick had little experience in commanding cavalry and he demonstrated that by attacking fortified infantry positions in a piecemeal fashion. West of the road, Merritt went in first, with his 6th Pennsylvania cavalrymen fighting dismounted. Anderson's Georgians repulsed their attack easily. Farnsworth was to follow, but he was astonished to hear Kilpatrick's order for a mounted cavalry charge. The Confederate defenders were positioned behind a stone fence with wooden fence rails piled high above it, too high for horses to jump, which would require the attackers to dismount under fire and dismantle the fence. The terrain leading to it was broken, undulating ground, with large boulders, fences, and woodlots, making it wholly unsuitable for a cavalry charge. Accounts differ as to the details of the argument between Farnsworth and Kilpatrick, but it is generally believed that Kilpatrick dared or shamed Farnsworth into making the charge the latter knew would be suicidal. Farnsworth allegedly said "General, if you order the charge I will lead it, but you must take the awful responsibility."
First in the assault was the 1st West Virginia Cavalry, led by Colonel Nathaniel P. Richmond. They rode in great confusion after coming under heavy fire from the 1st Texas, but they were able to breach the wall. Hand-to-hand fighting with sabers, rifles, and even rocks ensued, but the attack was forced back. Of the 400 Federal cavalrymen in the attack, there were 98 casualties. The second wave came from the 18th Pennsylvania, supported by companies of the 5th New York, but they were also turned back under heavy rifle fire, with 20 casualties.
It was finally the turn of the 1st Vermont Cavalry, about 400 officers and men, which Farnsworth divided into three battalions of four companies each under Lieutenant Colonel Addison W. Preston, Major William Wells, and Captain Henry C. Parsons. Parsons's battalion led the charge, passing the Texans and riding north into the blinding sun toward the John Slyder farm. Evander Law sent three Georgia regiments (the 9th, 11th, and 59th) to move to the support of the Texans and the artillery batteries. A staff officer carrying the order encountered the 4th Alabama, who also joined in support. An Alabama lieutenant yelled "Cavalry, boys, cavalry! This is no fight, only a frolic, give it to them!" And the infantrymen eagerly found many easy targets.
All three battalion advances were turned back with great losses. The final group, led by Wells and by Farnsworth himself, circled back toward Big Round Top, where they met a line of the 15th Alabama across their front. Farnsworth's party had dwindled to only 10 troopers as they weaved back and forth, trying to avoid the murderous fire. Farnsworth fell from his horse, struck in the chest, abdomen, and leg by five bullets. Postwar accounts by a Confederate soldier that claimed Farnsworth committed suicide with his pistol to avoid capture have been discounted. Major Wells received the Medal of Honor for his heroism in leading the rest of his men back to safety. The Vermont regiment suffered 65 casualties during the futile assault.
Kilpatrick's ill-considered and poorly executed cavalry charges are remembered as a low point in the history of the U.S. Cavalry and marked the final significant hostilities at the Battle of Gettysburg. Six miles west of Gettysburg, one of Merritt's regiments, the 6th U.S. Cavalry, was defeated that afternoon at Fairfield by Brig. Gen. William E. "Grumble" Jones's "Laurel Brigade," an action not considered to be a formal part of the Battle of Gettysburg.
All of Pleasonton's cavalry brigades would be exercised for the remainder of the Gettysburg Campaign in the lackluster pursuit of Lee's army back across the Potomac.

Photos/text this page courtesy of Richard Edling, Philadelphia, PA
For any use of these photos contact

(2007) Emmitsburg Road looking east
Interpretive Marker above

Interpretive Marker: Army of the Potomac Cavalry Corps, 1st Division

(2007) Emmitsburg Road looking west



(2007) Emmitsburg Road looking east

(2007) Emmitsburg Road
Interpretive Marker

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