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, saved the original Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the 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.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
Historians know little 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.
U.S. Army Officer
After graduating from West Point, on July 1, 1844, army officials brevetted Pleasonton as a second lieutenant with the 1st U.S. Dragoons, stationed 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 took part in the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). On May 9, 1846, officials brevetted him to first lieutenant for gallant and meritorious service at the Battle of Palo Alto and the Battle of Resaca-de‑la‑Palma.
After the Mexican-American War, the army promoted Pleasonton to first lieutenant on September 30, 1849, while he served in New Mexico. For the next several years, Pleasonton served at various posts in the West campaigning against American Indians. On March 3, 1855, the army promoted him to captain. The next year, Pleasonton transferred to Florida where he took part in the Third Seminole War (1855–1858). In 1857, the army sent Pleasonton west for two years, where he helped quell the civil unrest in “Bleeding Kansas.” From 1858 to 1860, Pleasonton 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, army officials promoted Pleasonton to major and reassigned him to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry.
During the Peninsula Campaign (March–July 1862) Pleasonton served as a provost officer assigned to the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, where he caught the eye of commanding General George B. McClellan.
After McClellan’s withdrawal from the Peninsula, he reorganized his army and created a cavalry division. The War Department commissioned Pleasonton as a brigadier general of volunteers on July 16, 1862, and McClellan placed him in command of one of the new cavalry division’s brigades. By September, Pleasonton had assumed command of the division in time to lead it during the Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862). Later, the army brevetted him 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 he attached Pleasonton’s cavalry division to the Right Grand Division. Later in the year, Pleasonton took part 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 comprising 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 reputation. In light of Stoneman’s failed expedition, Pleasonton’s stature rose by default.
Cavalry Corps Commander
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, although they conflicted with reports of 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.
In the wake of the Rebel victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia needed food, horses, and equipment. With northern Virginia ravaged by two years of combat, Lee took 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.
Engaging J. E. B. Stuart
Lee began gathering 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 Union soldiers crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford, about four miles downstream. At approximately 11 a.m., the Yankees surprised Stuart a second time when more Union forces approached Brandy Station from the south. A series of charges and counter-charges followed until late afternoon when Pleasonton ordered a withdrawal as Rebel reinforcements arrived. 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 for Lee deprived Pleasonton of vital information about Lee’s movements. Despite Pleasonton’s failure to gather the information Hooker was desperately seeking, the War Department promoted Pleasonton to the rank of major general of volunteers on June 22, 1863.
On June 27, 1863, Hooker impulsively offered to resign from 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 of any opportunity to distinguish himself during the pivotal battle. Despite his lack of action, officials brevetted Pleasonton to colonel in the regular army effective July 2, for gallant and meritorious conduct in the Battle of Gettysburg.
Replaced by Philip Sheridan and Sent West
Pleasonton continued serving with the Army of the Potomac for another eight months, before circumstances beyond his control, and his own actions limited his tenure.
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 accompanied the army in the field so he could personally supervise operations. Grant’s personal attachment to Philip Sheridan, his former cavalry commander 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, army officials transferred Pleasonton to the Department of the Missouri. On April 4, Sheridan became commander of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry corps.
Action in Missouri
In August 1864, Confederate General Kirby Smith authorized General Sterling Price to mount a cavalry raid into Missouri, with the goal of eventually capturing St. Louis. On September 19, Price led 12,000 mounted soldiers into Missouri. Pleasonton’s cavalry defeated Price at the Battle of Westport (October 23, 1864) and the Battle of Marais des Cygnes (October 25, 1864), eventually driving the Rebels out of Missouri near the end of October.
As the war neared its end, Pleasonton received a brevet promotion to major general in the regular army on March 13, 1865, for gallant and meritorious service in the field. When the Civil War ended, 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 the army had passed him over for advancement in favor of 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 Grant 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 seventy-two. Refusing to be buried in his military uniform, Pleasonton was interred alongside his father in the Congressional Cemetery in the District of Columbia.