Gettysburg's Forgotten Cavalry Actions: Farnsworth's Charge, South Cavalry Field, and the Battle of Fairfield, July 3, 1863 by Eric J. Wittenberg

I recently read another book from one of my favorite Civil War authors, Eric Wittenberg.  His latest book, Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions, is a revised edition that he originally wrote in 1998.   He updated the book because of new research, interpretations, and conclusions of the cavalry actions.

Wittenberg is my favorite writer not only because he writes about some of the less studied and written areas of the Civil War, but he does it with excellent prose.

Here is a synopsis of the book from the publisher:

Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions examines in great detail three of the campaign’s central cavalry episodes. The first is the heroic but doomed legendary charge of Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth’s cavalry brigade against Confederate infantry and artillery. The attack was launched on July 3 after the repulse of Pickett’s Charge, and the high cost included the life of General Farnsworth. The second examines Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt’s tenacious fight on South Cavalry Field, including a fresh look at the opportunity to roll up the Army of Northern Virginia’s flank on the afternoon of July 3. Finally, Wittenberg studies the short but especially brutal cavalry fight at Fairfield, Pennsylvania. The strategic Confederate victory kept the Hagerstown Road open for Lee’s retreat back to Virginia, nearly destroyed the 6th U. S. Cavalry, and resulted in the award of two Medals of Honor.

This book focuses on the three battles and the “could have beens” of those battles.  For instance, if Farnsworth and Merritt’s charges were coordinated with infantry support, the Union could have rolled up the Confederate right flank and routed them.  Or, if the Sixth U.S. Cavalry was reinforced and its commander deployed his men in a stronger position, the Union could have denied the retreating Confederate Army an easy exit out of Pennsylvania.

Wittenberg not only expounds upon these “could have beens”, but he also explores the positives of the Farnsworth and Merritt charges.  Although neither charge was successful, they siphoned off Confederate troops that otherwise would have supported Pickett’s charge.

Wittenberg discusses not only the strategic ramifications of the battles, but also the events of each battle.  He focuses particular attention on Farnsworth’s charge and how the Union troopers briefly broke through the Confederate line before being overwhelmed by Confederate reinforcements.  One part of this discussion that I find fascinating is the debate on whether General Farnsworth died of his battle wounds or from a self-inflicted gunshot.  Wittenberg explains both sides of the argument and convincingly determines that Farnsworth died from his battle wounds (primarily based on the observations of Union cavalry witnesses and the conclusions of Union doctors who examined Farnsworth’s body after the battle).

In conclusion, this book is a must-read for any enthusiast of the Battle of Gettysburg or of Civil War cavalry actions.

 

About the author

Jeff Grim

Jeff Grim has been a reader all of his life. He has had a particular interest in military history, any war at any time. His fascination with military history has brought him to an interest in historical fiction where the history comes alive with fictitious heroes and villains. Recently, Jeff has become interested in historical mysteries set in various time periods.

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