Hugh Judson Kilpatrick was born on his family farm in Wantage Township, near Deckertown, New Jersey on January 14, 1836. He was the fourth child of Colonel Simon Kilpatrick and Julia Wickham.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
Early in life, Kilpatrick decided that he preferred a military life over the drudgery of farming. His political activism for New Jersey Congressman George Vail landed him an appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1855. Upon entering the Academy on July 1, 1856, Kilpatrick preferred to go by his middle name, Judson. During his years at West Point, Kilpatrick was an above-average student, graduating 17th in his class of 45 cadets on May 6, 1861.
On the evening of his graduation, Kilpatrick married Alice Shailer of New York. The young bride died two years later, on November 23, 1863. Their only child died in infancy the following year.
After graduating from West Point, the army brevetted Kilpatrick as a second lieutenant with the 1st U.S. Artillery. Three days later, on May 9, 1861, Kilpatrick received an appointment as a captain with the 5th New York Infantry, also known as “Duryée’s Zouaves,” in the volunteer army established at the beginning of the Civil War. On May 14, officials promoted him to the rank of first lieutenant in the regular army.
Wounded at the Battle of Big Bethel
Kilpatrick was possibly the first Union officer injured in combat during the Civil War when he suffered a shrapnel wound to his thigh during the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10, 1861. Forced to go on sick leave to recuperate, Kilpatrick returned to active duty on a recruiting assignment on August 1. On August 14, 1861, officials assigned him to the command of a cavalry regiment. On September 25, Kilpatrick received a promotion to lieutenant colonel in the volunteer army and transferred to command of the Harris Light Cavalry (later designated the 2nd New York) in the defense of Washington, D.C.
During the summer of 1862, Kilpatrick was engaged in many skirmishes in Virginia including Brandy Station, Freedman’s Ford, Sulphur Springs, Waterloo Bridge, Thoroughfare Gap, and Haymarket. He also took part in the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 29–30, 1862). In mid-September 1862, Kilpatrick led a cavalry brigade on a reconnaissance mission near Leesburg, Virginia, causing him to miss the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). Three months later, on December 6, 1862, Kilpatrick officials promoted him to the rank of colonel in the volunteer army but he was on a recruiting assignment during the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862).
Following the Federal defeat at Fredericksburg, Major General Joseph Hooker replaced Major General Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. On February 5, 1863, Hooker reorganized the army, centralizing his horsemen and creating a cavalry corps comprising three divisions. Hooker assigned Kilpatrick to the command of the 1st brigade of Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s 3rd Division. During the Chancellorsville Campaign, Kilpatrick accompanied the Cavalry Corps during Stoneman’s Raid (April 13–May 7, 1863).
During the Gettysburg Campaign, Kilpatrick distinguished himself at the Battle of Brandy Station (June 9, 1863), the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War. Four days later, on June 13, officials promoted him to brigadier general of volunteers. During the next three weeks, Kilpatrick took part in many cavalry engagements with Confederate Major General J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry, including the Battle of Aldie (June 17, 1863), the Battle of Middleburg (June 11–June 19, 1863), and the Battle of Upperville (June 21, 1863). Officials brevetted Kilpatrick to the rank of major in the regular army for “Gallant and Meritorious Services” at the Battle of Aldie.
When Major General George G. Meade assumed command of the Army of the Potomac on June 28, 1863, he reorganized the Cavalry Corps, promoting Kilpatrick to command of the 3rd Division. During the Battle of Gettysburg, Kilpatrick earned the nickname of “Kill-cavalry” when he ordered Elon J. Farnsworth to lead his brigade in an ill-advised charge against heavily entrenched Confederate infantry, over Farnsworth’s objections, on July 3. Rebels cut the Union brigade to shreds and killed Farnsworth during the assault.
Despite the disaster, officials brevetted Kilpatrick to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the regular army, effective July 3, 1863, for “Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Gettysburg.”
Following the Battle of Gettysburg, Kilpatrick’s cavalry harassed Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s retreating Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Williamsport (July 6–16, 1863) and the Battle of Boonsboro (July 8, 1863). Kilpatrick spent the rest of the summer engaged in various skirmishes with Stuart’s cavalry in Virginia.
Raid on Richmond
During the winter of 1863 – 64, Kilpatrick hatched a scheme to lead a cavalry raid on Richmond, Virginia. He planned to redeem his damaged reputation by freeing thousands of Federal soldiers held captive at Belle Isle and Libby Prison near the Confederate capital. When President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton caught word of Kilpatrick’s plan, they invited him to meet with them in Washington to discuss his proposal. Desperate to end the war before the upcoming 1864 presidential election, Lincoln and Stanton approved the plan over the objections of Kilpatrick’s commanding officer, Major General Alfred Pleasonton.
On February 28, Kilpatrick and Colonel Ulric Dahlgren led roughly 4,000 troopers out of Stevensburg, Virginia toward Richmond. By March 1, Kilpatrick had reached the capital’s inner defenses, but the combined forces of the Richmond home guard and Confederate General Wade Hampton’s cavalry turned them back.
The next day, Rebel troopers surprised Dahlgren’s detachment, killing the Union commander. Lacking Dahlgren’s support, Kilpatrick retreated from Richmond with Hampton in pursuit.
Kilpatrick returned to Union lines on March 4, having accomplished little other than destroying some Confederate property and losing Union soldiers. Following the failed raid, Union General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant demoted Kilpatrick from divisional to brigade command and he replaced Pleasonton as leader of the Cavalry Corps with Major General Philip Sheridan.
During his tenure as a cavalry commander in the East, Kilpatrick developed an unsavory reputation as a braggart, womanizer, and reckless leader who tolerated lax discipline amongst his troops. By 1864, his fall from grace was complete. On April 26, army officials sent Kilpatrick west and placed him in charge of the 3rd Division of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Cumberland.
Wounded During the Atlanta Campaign
On May 13, 1864, Kilpatrick suffered a severe bullet wound to the thigh fighting in the Battle of Resaca during Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. Officials later brevetted him to colonel in the regular army for “Gallant and Meritorious Services” during that engagement. Kilpatrick recovered from his injury and returned to active duty on July 22, in time to assist in the capture of Atlanta.
March to the Sea
On November 30, 1864, officials promoted Kilpatrick to the rank of captain in the regular army. As Sherman made plans for his March to the Sea that month, he reportedly 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.
During the March, Kilpatrick left a swath of destruction in his wake, destroying anything his troopers could not use.
In the spring of 1865, Kilpatrick accompanied Sherman during the Carolinas Campaign skirmishing with Confederate cavalry frequently. On March 10, he barely avoided being captured by his old nemesis, Wade Hampton, at the Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads, also known as Kilpatrick’s Shirttail Skedaddle.
Three days later, Kilpatrick took part in the capture of Fayetteville, North Carolina, for which the army brevetted him to brigadier general in the regular army. Effective the same date (March 13, 1865), officials brevetted Kilpatrick to major general in the regular army “for Gallant and Meritorious Services during the Campaign.”
Later that month, Kilpatrick led his cavalry at the Battle of Bentonville (March 19–21, 1865) the largest Civil War engagement fought in North Carolina and the final battle of the Carolinas Campaign. In early April, Kilpatrick’s cavalry served as Sherman’s escort when Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered his troops at Bennett Place.
After Johnston’s surrender, Kilpatrick served as commander of the 3rd Division of the Cavalry Corps of the Military Division of the Mississippi from April 26 to June 13, 1865. He then went on a leave of absence awaiting orders. While on leave, army officials promoted Kilpatrick to the rank of major general of volunteers on June 18, 1865. On December 1, 1865, Kilpatrick resigned his regular army commission to accept an appointment from President Andrew Johnson as U. S. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Chile. He mustered out of the volunteer army a month later on January 1, 1866.
While living in Chile, Kilpatrick married Luisa Fernandez de Valdivieso, a member of a wealthy family of Spanish origin and the niece of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Santiago. Their marriage produced two daughters.
Minister to Chile
Kilpatrick served as minister to Chile until being recalled by President Ulysses S. Grant on August 22, 1868. After his recall, Kilpatrick gained some notoriety on the lecture circuit, and he briefly served as director of the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1872, he actively campaigned against Grant’s reelection. In 1880, Kilpatrick made an unsuccessful bid for election to Congress from New Jersey. The next year, newly elected President James A. Garfield reappointed Kilpatrick as Minister to Chile.
Upon his return to Chile, Kilpatrick contracted Bright’s disease and died at Santiago on December 2, 1881, at the relatively young age of forty-six. Kilpatrick was buried at West Point Cemetery, West Point, New York.