Friday, July 11, 2014

Bullets, bluster and arrogance: the ambitious Hugh Judson Kilpatrick

The 210th anniversary of the Alexander Hamilton/Aaron Burr duel on July 11 got me thinking about other controversial and politically ambitious figures in New Jersey history, which led me to Hugh Judson Kilpatrick.

You might remember him. A few years ago we stumbled on a sign marking his old Sussex County farm, the site of the first Civil War reenactment. Well, he didn’t see it quite that way. For him, it was the big party he held pretty much to burnish his reputation.

In the time since we ran a brief story on the reenactment, I’ve done more reading on Kilpatrick and the event, and what I’ve learned only makes him more interesting. He didn't shoot the Secretary of the Treasury as Burr did, or allegedly plot to take over the western territory of the U.S. (yup, Burr again), but he was a, well, interesting guy.

The Deckertown-native Kilpatrick seems to have been born with political motivations already intact. After successfully lobbying his district’s Congressional representative for an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy, he entered West Point as the first step on a planned path to the presidency, with interim stops at the governorship of New Jersey and both houses of Congress. But rather than channeling his energy toward achievements that would benefit his future constituents, he chose to maneuver his way up via the proverbial smoke-filled room.

Hugh Judson Kilpatrick Hidden New Jersey
The ever ambitious Hugh Judson Kilpatrick.
His timing couldn’t have been better. Graduating from West Point just after the start of the Civil War, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant but was quickly promoted to captain in the 5th New York Infantry. He somehow managed to become the first United States Army officer to be wounded in the war, getting hit in the leg during the Battle of Big Bethel. As the war continued, he continued to maneuver up the ranks, becoming lieutenant colonel of the 2nd New York Cavalry and eventually rising to major general.

He might have had friends in the right places looking out for him, but he neglected to earn much respect from his colleagues or subordinates. In fact, many historians note that his ambition severely outweighed his skill and good sense. He was widely reviled for his role in a botched raid on Confederate prisons in which Union prisoners of war were being held; as a result General Ulysses Grant relieved him of a portion of his command duties, leading to a long-term grudge. His men called him “Kill Cavalry” for the recklessness in which he led them into near-suicidal battle maneuvers, leading to unnecessarily high casualty counts.

Strategy and tactical deployment were one thing. Personal conduct was another, and Kilpatrick distinguished himself there, too. He was actually tossed into jail a couple of times during the war for soliciting bribes and illegally selling confiscated property. And his poorly-run camps attracted prostitutes whom Kilpatrick himself was reported to have visited with some regularity. He’s described by Civil War historians as egocentric, arrogant, untruthful, unreliable, disloyal to presumed friends – all in the service of ambition. Shakespeare couldn’t have written a better villain.

Required military service in hand, Kilpatrick returned to New Jersey after the war, unsuccessfully ran for governor and maneuvered the loss into an ambassadorship to Chile under President Andrew Johnson. He was recalled five years later under President Grant and, on his return to the U.S. took to the lecture circuit to defame Grant as an alcoholic and worse. Rumors to that effect had long been swirling around Grant, but you have to wonder if anyone but the most ardent supporter of the president gave much credence to Kilpatrick’s gripes, given his own rather sullied reputation.

Political ambitions still burning, Kilpatrick dreamed up a grand scheme to raise a groundswell of support while surrounding himself with adoring luminaries. What better way than with patriotic fervor? In June 1878 he announced that he’d invited 40 New Jersey posts of the Grand Army of the Republic to his Sussex County farm for a three day celebration of veterans’ service to the nation. The GAR was the American Legion of its day for Union veterans of the Civil War and a powerful force in national politics.

The announcement in the New York Times said the event would include an encampment with strict military discipline and sham battles, with visits from luminaries including President Rutherford B. Hayes, New Jersey Governor (and former Union General) George McClellan, and Generals William T. Sherman and Phil Sheridan. Veterans’ family members would be entertained with games of chance, fireworks and a play written by Kilpatrick himself. He strongly emphasized that he was charging no admission fee and that he was building an aqueduct system to provide an ample supply of water to a camp area where visitors could pitch their own tents at no charge.

And to quell the fears of anyone who might be concerned about crime, Kilpatrick promised that sheriff’s deputies and detectives would patrol the camp to ensure that pickpockets and ‘base women’ would be discouraged from plying their respective trades.

While some sources state that Kilpatrick “treated” his guests to a grand event, the opposite is true. Despite being one of the wealthiest men in the area, he sought and got the support of his neighbors in running the event, even soliciting donations as he arranged for New York vendors to sell food (negotiating a cut of the profits for himself).

From an attendance perspective, the event was a great success from the moment it began on August 25, 1878. Five trains a day brought 400 passengers each to Deckertown, and many more came by foot or on horse. An estimated 4000 were actual veterans, with the remaining 36,000 visitors being a combination of family members, curiosity seekers and, despite Kilpatrick’s assertions, the criminal element. On the positive side, they got the fireworks, sham battles, food vendors and games of chance they’d been promised. On the other hand, carpenters were still working on the grandstands when the guests arrived, and the promised water supply broke down early in the encampment, forcing thirsty vets to purchase beer from the 10,000 kegs on hand. And despite the promise of a family environment, a tent pitched in a distant yet accessible area was reportedly doing a fair amount of business as a brothel.

Kilpatrick had overpromised on the dignitaries, too. President Hayes skipped the event, as did General Sherman, though Major General Dan Sickles, a colorful personality in his own right, came to show his support.

Did the campaign stunt work for Kilpatrick? Folks might have had a great time, but it didn’t help their host’s political standing. He took his name out of consideration for the Republican nomination for the district’s House seat in 1878 and subsequently lost his bid for the seat in the 1880 election. As consolation, President James Garfield reappointed him envoy to Chile, where Kilpatrick died of nephritis in 1881. His remains were returned to the United States six years later for reinterment at West Point.

Arrogant, overconfident and blindly ambitious as he was, Kilpatrick inadvertently introduced New Jersey and perhaps the nation to a new tradition that persists today. The military re-enactment has evolved from a political stunt and carnival to an opportunity for those with no war experience to get a firsthand view into the lives of everyday foot soldiers in the field (sometimes incredibly accurate, sometimes not so much). Does that make up for his litany of shortcomings, blunders and unnecessary sacrifice of subordinates? No, but as they say, it’s a truly ill wind that blows no good.

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