A prominent Union cavalry officer, Major General Alfred Pleasonton commanded the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac during the Gettysburg Campaign.
Alfred Pleasonton was born in Washington, D.C., on July 7, 1824. He was the second of two sons of Stephen and Mary Hopkins Pleasonton. Pleasonton's father, who was an employee of the U.S. Treasury Department, was credited with saving the original Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, U.S. Constitution, and other important Federal documents during the British invasion of the nation's capital during the War of 1812. Pleasonton's older brother, Augustus, graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1826 and served during the Civil War as a brigadier general in the Pennsylvania State Militia.
Little is known about Pleasonton's early life. He entered the United States Military Academy in 1840 and graduated four years later, ranked seventh in his class of twenty-five cadets. Among his classmates were future Confederate General Simon B. Buckner and future Union General Winfield Scott Hancock.
After graduating from West Point, Pleasonton was brevetted as a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Dragoons on July 1, 1844, and stationed first at Fort Atkinson, Iowa. He achieved the full rank of second lieutenant on November 3, 1845, while serving in the West.
Like many future Civil War officers, Pleasonton participated in the Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848). On May 9, 1846, he was brevetted to first lieutenant for gallant and meritorious service at the Battle of Palo Alto and the Battle of Resaca-de‑la‑Palma. Three years later, on September 30, 1849, Pleasonton was promoted to first lieutenant while serving in New Mexico. For the next several years, he served at various posts in the West campaigning against American Indians. On March 3, 1855, Pleasonton was promoted to captain. The next year he was transferred to Florida where he participated in the Third Seminole War (1855 – 1858). In 1857, Pleasonton was sent west for two years where he helped quell the civil unrest in "Bleeding Kansas." From 1858 to 1860, he served in the Department of Oregon.
When the Civil War erupted, Pleasonton was in Utah. He traveled with the 2nd Dragoons to Washington, D.C. where he served defending the nation's capital. On February 15, 1862, Pleasonton was promoted to major and reassigned to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. During the Peninsula Campaign (March – July 1862) he served as a provost officer assigned to headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, where he caught the eye of commanding General George C. McClellan. After McClellan's withdrawal from the Peninsula, he reorganized his army and created a cavalry division. Pleasonton was promoted to brigadier general on July 16, 1862, and placed in command of one of the new division's brigades. By September he had assumed command of the division in time to lead it during the Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862). Pleasonton was brevetted to lieutenant colonel in the regular army for gallant and meritorious service at the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862).
Following the bloodbath at Antietam, Major General Ambrose Burnside replaced McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside restructured the army into "Grand Divisions" and Pleasonton's cavalry division was attached to the Right Grand Division. Later in the year, Pleasonton participated in the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11 – 15, 1862), but the cavalry was not heavily engaged.
In January 1863, Major General Joseph Hooker replaced Burnside and did away with his predecessor's Grand Divisions. When Hooker reorganized the army he centralized his horsemen and created a cavalry corps consisting of three divisions. Hooker chose Brigadier General George Stoneman to command the new corps instead of Pleasonton, who by that time had earned an unsavory reputation as a self-promoter. Hooker instead placed Pleasonton in charge of the corps' 1st division. In April 1863, Hooker sent Stoneman on a major raid behind enemy lines near Fredericksburg. Distrustful of Pleasonton, Stoneman left the 1st division behind. A month later, Stoneman returned, having accomplished little other than to tarnish his own esteem. In light of Stoneman's failed expedition, Pleasonton's stature rose by default
Following the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30 – May 6, 1863) Pleasonton submitted reports implying that his heroic exploits had saved the Federal army and falsely claiming credit for the mortal wounding of renowned Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. Perhaps determined to find something positive from the Union disaster, Hooker accepted Pleasonton's accounts despite the fact that they were contradicted by other field officers. When President Lincoln visited the site of the debacle, Hooker introduced Pleasonton as the general "who saved the Army of the Potomac the other night!" Eager to find a scapegoat and deflect criticism from himself, Hooker then focused on Stoneman's poor performance during the battle. On June 7, 1863, Hooker sacked Stoneman and placed Pleasonton in charge of the cavalry corps. Two weeks later, on June 22, 1863, Pleasonton was promoted to the rank of major general of volunteers.
Despite the Rebel victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was in need of food, horses, and equipment after the conflict. With northern Virginia ravaged by two years of combat, Lee decided to take the war to the North. Lee planned to disengage from Union forces near Fredericksburg, move the Army of Northern Virginia northwest across the Blue Ridge Mountains, and then push northeast through the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Lee began consolidating his army near Culpeper, Virginia, and troop movements began on June 3, 1863. To mask his intentions and screen the assembly of his invasion force, Lee stationed his cavalry, commanded by Major General J.E.B. Stuart, at Brandy Station, a few miles northeast of Culpeper. Union officials mistakenly interpreted Lee's cavalry deployment as evidence of an impending attack on Hooker's supply lines or, perhaps, an assault on the nation's capital. Stung by the defeat at Chancellorsville, Hooker went on the offensive and ordered Pleasonton to lead his cavalry corps, augmented by 3,000 infantrymen, in a two-pronged attack to “disperse and destroy” the enemy cavalry. At 4:30 a.m. on June 9, 1863, roughly 5,500 Federal troopers crossed the Rappahannock River, surprising Stuart's pickets at Beverly's Ford. At the same time, 2,800 more Federal soldiers crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly's Ford, about four miles downstream. At approximately 11 a.m., Stuart was surprised a second time when other Union forces approached Brandy Station from the south. A series of charges and countercharges followed until late afternoon when Pleasonton ordered a withdrawal as Rebel reinforcements began to arrive. Pleasonton's subordinate officers later criticized him for not defeating Stuart at the Battle of Brandy Station.
As Lee continued to move north on the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he ordered Stuart's Cavalry Division to move in the same direction through the Loudoun Valley on the east side of the mountains, screening the Confederate invasion force. Lee instructed Stuart to prevent Federal reconnaissance forces from advancing through gaps in the mountains to gather information about the Army of Northern Virginia's movements. Frustrated by the lack of intelligence about Lee's operation, on June 16, 1863, Hooker ordered Pleasonton, "to give him information of where the enemy is, his force, and his movements." Pleasonton's cavalry engaged Stuart at the Battle of Aldie (June 17), the Battle of Middleburg (June 17), and the Battle of Hanover (June 21), but Stuart's strategy of yielding ground to buy time deprived Pleasonton of vital information about Lee's movements. Despite his failure to obtain the information Hooker was desperately seeking, Pleasonton was promoted to the rank of major general of volunteers on June 22, 1863.
On June 27, 1863, Hooker impulsively offered to resign his position as commander of the Army of the Potomac after a dispute with Union general-in-chief Henry W. Halleck. The next day, President Abraham Lincoln accepted Hooker's resignation and assigned the post to Major General George G. Meade. Aware of Pleasonton's self-serving reputation, Meade kept a close watch on his cavalry commander during the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 – 3, 1863). Much to Pleasonton's chagrin, Meade oversaw most of the cavalry's actions directly, depriving Pleasonton any opportunity to distinguish himself during the pivotal battle. Despite his lack of action, Pleasonton was brevetted to colonel in the regular army effective July 2, for gallant and meritorious conduct in the Battle of Gettysburg.
Pleasonton continued serving with the Army of the Potomac for another eight months, but his days were numbered, partially by circumstances beyond his own control and partially by his own actions. On March 7, 1864, President Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Although Meade nominally commanded the Army of the Potomac, Grant chose to accompany the army in the field so that he could personally supervise overall campaign operations. Grant's personal affinity for cavalry commander Philip Sheridan, who had served Grant well in the West, was a bad omen for Pleasonton. On the same day that Lincoln appointed Grant as General-in-Chief, Pleasonton contributed to his own demise by criticizing Meade's leadership at Gettysburg while testifying before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. A little over two weeks later, on March 23, 1864, Pleasonton was transferred to the Department of the Missouri. Sheridan was subsequently named as commander of the Army of the Potomac's cavalry corps on April 4.
In August 1864, Confederate General Kirby Smith authorized General Sterling Price to mount a cavalry raid into Missouri, with the ultimate goal of capturing St. Louis. On September 19, Price led twelve thousand mounted soldiers into Missouri. Pleasonton's cavalry defeated Price at the Battle of Westport (October 23) and the Battle of Marais des Cygnes (October 25), eventually driving the Rebels out of Missouri near the end of October.
As the war neared its end, Pleasonton was brevetted to major general in the regular army on March 13, 1865, for gallant and meritorious service in the field. When the fighting ceased, he remained with the volunteer army for a few months. Upon mustering out on January 15, 1865, Pleasonton reverted to his previous rank of major in the regular army. He declined a promotion to lieutenant colonel with the 20th Infantry on July 28, 1866, because he did not want to leave the cavalry. On January 1, 1868, Pleasonton resigned his commission and left the service because he had been passed over for advancement by officers who were subordinate to him during the war.
Following his army career Pleasonton served as a collector for the Internal Revenue Service for two years. In 1870, President Grant nominated him as director of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Pleasonton served in that capacity from January 3 to August 8, 1871, when the president sacked him for insubordination. After leaving public service, Pleasonton served as president of the Terre Haute and Cincinnati Railroad. On October 19, 1888, Congress passed legislation placing Pleasonton on the retired list with the rank of major.
Alfred Pleasonton died in Washington, D.C., on February 17, 1897, at the age of 72. Refusing to be buried in his military uniform, Pleasonton was interred alongside his father in the Congressional Cemetery in the District of Columbia.
Cite this Entry
"Alfred Pleasonton," Ohio Civil War Central, 2022, Ohio Civil War Central. 11 Aug 2022 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1023>
"Alfred Pleasonton." (2022) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved August 11, 2022, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1023
- Abraham Lincoln
- Army of Northern Virginia
- Army of the Potomac (USA)
- Battle of Aldie
- Battle of Antietam
- Battle of Brandy Station
- Battle of Chancellorsville
- Battle of Fredericksburg
- Battle of Gettysburg
- Battle of Middleburg
- Battle of Resaca
- Battle of South Mountain
- Bleeding Kansas
- General Orders, No. 316 (U.S. War Department)
- General Orders, No. 93 (U.S. War Department)
- George Stoneman
- Henry W. Halleck
- J.E.B. Stuart
- Joseph Hooker
- Kirby Smith
- Mexican-American War
- Peninsula Campaign
- Philip H. Sheridan
- Robert E. Lee
- Simon B. Buckner
- Sterling Price
- Thomas J. Jackson
- Ulysses S. Grant
- Winfield S. Hancock
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