Alfred Pleasonton (1824-1897)

Alfred Pleasonton was a U.S. Army officer and general of Union cavalry during the American Civil War.

Pleasonton was born in Washington, D.C., the son of Stephen and Mary Hopkins Pleasonton. Stephen was well known at the time of Alfred's birth. During the War of 1812, as a U.S. State Department employee, Stephen's personal initiative saved crucial documents in the National Archives from destruction by the British invaders of Washington, including the original Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. However, while working as a U.S. Treasury Department employee, he was involved in scandals in the 1830s involving corruption in awarding of contracts for government lighthouses, which turned out to have substandard construction and began deteriorating prematurely. He was investigated by the U.S. Congress, which cited his "lethargy and maladministration" and led to his dismissal in 1852, casting a pall over the family reputation. (The administration of U.S. lighthouses was transferred to a nine-member Lighthouse Board, which, ironically, included Alfred's future commander during the coming Civil War, George G. Meade.)

Alfred's much older brother, Augustus, attended the U.S. Military Academy and served as Assistant Adjutant General and paymaster of the state of Pennsylvania; his career direction obviously affected his younger brother's and both boys were assured nomination to the Academy by their father's fame from the War of 1812. Alfred graduated from West Point in 1844 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Dragoons (heavy cavalry), stationed first at Fort Atkinson, Iowa. He followed his unit for frontier duty in Minnesota, Iowa, and Texas. With the 2nd Dragoons, he fought in the Mexican-American War and received a brevet promotion to first lieutenant for gallantry in the Battle of Palo Alto and the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, Texas, in 1846. He served as regimental adjutant after the war and was promoted to captain in 1855.

At the start of the Civil War in 1861, Captain Pleasonton traveled with the 2nd Dragoons from Fort Crittenden, Utah, to Washington. Despite active politicking on his part, attempting to capitalize on the faded political connections of his now-disgraced father (who had died in 1855), Pleasonton did not earn the rapid promotions of some of his colleagues and was promoted only to major by early 1862. He fought without incident or prominence in the Peninsula Campaign and was finally promoted to brigadier general on July 16, 1862, commanding a brigade of cavalry in the Army of the Potomac.

On September 2, Pleasonton assumed division command in the cavalry and was wounded by an artillery shell at the Battle of Antietam. Ever ambitious, Pleasanton was displeased that he was not promoted to major general of volunteers for his actions, claiming erroneously that his division, and particularly the horse artillery assigned to him, had had a decisive effect on the battle. (He did receive a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel in the Regular Army, probably based solely on the inflated claims of his battle report, which were not substantiated by the reports of other generals.)

At the Battle of Chancellorsville, Pleasanton continued his practice of self-promotion. He claimed that he temporarily halted an attack by Stonewall Jackson's Corps and that he was able to prevent the total destruction of the Union XI Corps on May 2, 1863. He was persuasive enough that the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, told President Abraham Lincoln that Pleasanton "saved the Union Army" at Chancellorsville. Battle reports, however, indicate that Pleasanton's role was considerably less important than he claimed, involving only a small detachment of Confederate infantry on Hazel Grove. Nevertheless, his claims earned him a promotion to major general of volunteers as of June 22, 1863, and when the inept Cavalry Corps commander, Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, was relieved after Chancellorsville, Hooker named Pleasanton as his temporary replacement. Pleasonton could not accept even this elevated role gracefully. He wrote to Gen. Hooker "I cannot ... remain silent as to the unsatisfactory condition in which I find this corps ... the responsibility of its present state ... does not belong to me."

Pleasonton's first combat in his new role was a month later in the Gettysburg Campaign. He led Union cavalry forces in the Battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle of the war. The Union cavalry essentially stumbled into J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry and the 14-hour battle was bloody but inconclusive, although Stuart was embarrassed that he had been surprised and the Union horsemen had a newfound confidence in their abilities. Subordinate officers criticized Pleasonton for not aggressively defeating Stuart at Brandy Station. Gen. Hooker had ordered Pleasonton to "disperse and destroy" the Confederate cavalry near Culpeper, Virginia, but Pleasonton claimed that he had only been ordered to make a "reconnaissance in force toward Culpeper", thus rationalizing his actions.

In the remainder of the Gettysburg Campaign up to the climactic battle, Pleasonton did not perform as a competent cavalry commander and was generally unable to inform his commander where the enemy troops were located and what their intentions were. The Army of Northern Virginia, under Gen. Robert E. Lee, was able to slip past Union forces through the Shenandoah Valley and north into Pennsylvania. During this period, he attempted to exercise political influence by promoting the son of a U.S. Congressman, Captain Elon J. Farnsworth, a member of his staff, directly to brigadier general. Pleasonton corresponded with the congressman and complained about his lack of men and horses in comparison to Jeb Stuart's; he also politicked to acquire the cavalry forces of Maj. Gen. Julius Stahel, who commanded the cavalry in the defenses of Washington. The machinations worked. Stahel was relieved of his command and his troopers were reassigned to Pleasonton. Hooker was enraged by these activities and it was probably only his own relief from command on June 28, 1863, that saved Pleasonton's career from premature termination.

In the Battle of Gettysburg, Pleasanton's new commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, understood Pleasonton's reputation (and his father's) and kept him on a short leash. For the three days of the battle, Pleasonton was forced to remain with Meade at army headquarters, rather than with the Cavalry Corps headquarters nearby, and Meade exercised more direct control of the cavalry than an army commander normally would. In postwar writings, Pleasonton attempted to portray his role in the battle as being a major one, including predicting to Meade that the town of Gettysburg would be the decisive point and, after the Confederate defeat in Pickett's Charge, that he urged Meade to attack Gen. Lee and finish him off. He conveniently made these claims after Meade's death, when dispute was impossible. On the other hand, however, Pleasonton cannot be blamed for the unfortunate cavalry action on July 3, when Meade ordered the division of Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick to attack the right flank of the Confederate army, which resulted in a suicidal assault against entrenched infantry and the futile death of Elon Farnsworth.

Pleasonton was transferred to the Trans-Mississippi Theater and commanded the District of Central Missouri and the District of St. Louis in 1864. He performed well and defeated Gen. Sterling Price at Westport and Marais des Cygnes, ending the last Confederate threat in the West. He received a brevet promotion to brigadier general in the regular army for the campaign in Missouri, and to major general for his overall conduct in the war, both as of March 13, 1865.

After the war, as part of the general reduction of all officers' ranks, Pleasonton reverted to major and, dissatisfied with his command relationship to former subordinates, resigned his commission in 1868. As a civilian, he worked as U.S. Collector of Internal Revenue and as Commissioner of Revenue, but he was asked to resign from the Internal Revenue Service after he lobbied Congress for the repeal of the income tax and quarreled with his superiors at the Treasury Department. Refusing to resign, he was dismissed. He served briefly as the president of the Terre Haute and Cincinnati Railroad.

Alfred Pleasonton died in his sleep in Washington, D.C., and is buried in the Congressional Cemetery there, alongside his father. The town of Pleasanton, California, was named for Alfred in the 1850s; a typographical error by a U.S. Postal Service employee apparently led to the spelling difference. On the huge Pennsylvania Memorial at the Gettysburg Battlefield stands a statue of General Pleasonton. However, it is likely that this represents Alfred's brother, Augustus, who was a general in the Pennsylvania militia at the time of the battle.