Hugh Judson Kilpatrick (1836-1881)

Hugh Judson Kilpatrick (14 January 1836 near Deckertown, New Jersey - 4 December 1881 in Santiago, Chile) was a officer in the Union army during the American Civil War achieving the rank of Brevet Major General, the United States Minister to Chile, and a failed political candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives and Governor of New Jersey.

Known as "Kilcavalry" (or "Kill-Cavalry") for using tactics in battle that were considered as a reckless disregard for lives of soldiers under his command, Kilpatrick was both praised for the victories he achieved, and despised by southerners whose homes and towns he devastated.

Early life

The fourth child of Colonel Simon Kilpatrick and Julia Wickham, Hugh Judson Kilpatrick was born on 14 January 1836 on the family farm in Wantage Township, near Deckertown, New Jersey (now Sussex Borough).

Kilpatrick entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York in 1856.

Service during the American Civil War

He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1861, just after the start of the war, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Artillery. Within three days he was a captain in the 5th New York Infantry ("Duryea's Zouaves").

Kilpatrick was the first U.S. Army officer to be wounded in the Civil War, struck in the thigh by canister fire while leading a company at the Battle of Big Bethel, June 10, 1861. By September 25 he was a lieutenant colonel, now in the 2nd New York Cavalry, which he helped to raise, and it was the mounted arm that brought him fame and infamy.

Assignments were initially quiet for Lt. Col. Kilpatrick, serving in staff jobs and in minor cavalry skirmishes. That changed in the Second Battle of Bull Run in August, 1862. He raided the Virginia Central Railroad early in the campaign and then ordered a foolish twilight cavalry charge the first evening of the battle, losing a full squadron of troopers. Nevertheless, he was promoted to full colonel on December 6.

Kilpatrick was aggressive, fearless, ambitious, and blustery. He was a master, in his mid-twenties, of using political influence to get ahead. His men had little love for his manner and his willingness to exhaust men and horses and to order suicidal mounted cavalry charges. (The rifled muskets introduced to warfare in the 1850s made the historic cavalry charge essentially an anachronism. Cavalry's role shrank primarily to screening, raiding, and reconnaissance.) The widespread nickname they used for Kilpatrick was "Kill Cavalry". He also had a bad reputation with others in the Army. His camps were poorly maintained and frequented by prostitutes, often visiting Kilpatrick himself. He was jailed in 1862 on charges of corruption, accused of selling captured Confederate goods for personal gain. He was jailed again for a drunken spree in Washington, D.C., and for allegedly accepting bribes in the procurement of horses for his command.

In February, 1863, Joseph Hooker created a Cavalry Corps in the Army of the Potomac, commanded by George Stoneman. Kilpatrick assumed command of the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division. In the Chancellorsville Campaign in May, Stoneman's cavalry was ordered to swing deeply behind Robert E. Lee's army and destroy railroads and supplies. Kilpatrick did just that, with gusto. Although the corps failed to distract Lee as intended, Kilpatrick achieved fame by aggressively capturing wagons, burning bridges, and riding around Lee, almost to the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia.

At the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign, on June 9, 1863, Kilpatrick fought at Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle of the war. He received his brigadier general's star on June 13, fought at Aldie and Upperville, and assumed division command three days before the Battle of Gettysburg commenced. On June 30, he clashed briefly with J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry at Hanover, Pennsylvania, but then proceeded on a wild goose chase in pursuit of Stuart, rather than fulfilling his mission of intelligence gathering.

On the second day of the Gettysburg battle, July 2, 1863, Kilpatrick's division skirmished against Wade Hampton five miles northeast of town. He then settled in for the night southeast, at Two Taverns. One of his famous brigade commanders, George A. Custer, was ordered to join David McM. Gregg's division for the next day's action against Stuart's cavalry east of town, so Kilpatrick was down to one brigade. On July 3, after Pickett's Charge, he was ordered by army commander George G. Meade and Cavalry Corps commander Alfred Pleasonton to launch a cavalry charge against the infantry positions of James Longstreet's Corps on the Confederate right flank, just west of Little Round Top. Kilpatrick's lone brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Elon Farnsworth, protested against the futility of such a move, but obeyed orders; Kilpatrick essentially questioned his bravery and dared him to charge. Farnsworth was killed in the attack and his brigade suffered significant losses.

Kilpatrick and the rest of the cavalry pursued and harassed Lee during his retreat back to Virginia. That fall, he took part in an expedition to destroy the Confederate gunboats Satellite and Reliance in the Rappahannock River, boarding them and capturing their crews successfully.

The Dahlgren Affair

Just before the start of Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864, Kilpatrick conducted a raid toward Richmond and through the Virginia Peninsula, hoping to rescue Union prisoners of war held at Belle Isle and in Libby Prison. He destroyed much property and had many encounters with the enemy, but was unsuccessful in his aims. And one of his brigade commanders, Ulric Dahlgren, son of Rear Admiral John Adolph Dalhgren, was killed in the process. The "Kilpatrick-Dahlgren" expedition was such a fiasco that Kilpatrick found he was no longer welcome in the Eastern Theater. He transferred west to command the 3rd Division of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Cumberland, under General William Tecumsah Sherman.

Sherman's March to the Sea

Summing up Judson Kilpatrick in 1864, Sherman said "I know that Kilpatrick is a hell of a damned fool, but I want just that sort of man to command my cavalry on this expedition."

Starting in May, 1864, Kilpatrick rode in the Atlanta Campaign. On May 13, he was severely wounded in the thigh at the Battle of Resaca and his injuries kept him out of the field until late July. He had considerable success raiding behind Confederate lines, tearing up railroads, and at one point rode his division completely around the enemy positions in Atlanta.

Kilpatrick continued with Sherman through his March to the Sea to Savannah and north through the Carolinas. He delighted in destroying southern property. On two occasions his coarse personal instincts betrayed him: Confederate cavalry raided his camp while he was in bed with prostitutes, and he was forced to flee for his life in his underclothes. He commanded a division of the Cavalry Corps in the Military Division of Mississippi from April to June, 1865, and was promoted to major general of volunteers on June 18, 1865.

Political ambitions

He became active in politics as a Republican and in 1880 was an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Congress from New Jersey.

Diplomacy in South America

In 1865 Kilpatrick was appointed Minister to Chile by President Andrew Johnson, and he was continued in that office by President Grant, but was recalled in 1868.

In March, 1881, President James Garfield appointed him again to the post of Minister to Chile, where he died shortly after his arrival in the Chilean capital Santiago. His remains returned to the United States in 1887 and were interred at the United States Military Academy Post Cemetery in West Point, New York.


Artist and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt (1920­present) is Hugh Judson Kilpatrick's great-granddaughter.

A member of General George G. Meade's staff, wrote in his diary that it was hard to look at Kilpatrick without bursting into laughter. Described as short in stature, with red hair and stringy sand-colored side burns, he spoke in a shrill voice and walked in a rolling gate. Others described his lack of physical attractiveness in that he was "A wiry, restless, undersized man with black eyes [and] a lantern jaw." Despite these aesthetic limitations, Kilpatrick earned a steady reputation as a philander.

Kilpatrick is the author of two plays, Allatoona: An Historical and Military Drama in Five Acts (1875) and The Blue and the Gray: Or, War is Hell (posthumous, 1930).