The Battle of Kilpatrick’s Pants

March 10, 1865 (Friday)

Now, these young men ought undoubtedly to have been engaged in saying their prayers and softly humming snatches of hymns recalled from early days, for the purpose of bracing up their nerves for the fight fixed for daylight, but the truth must be told, and the words overheard by the hungry, tired trooper just arrived were:

“It is she! I know it is!”

“By Jove! Certain?”

“Yes! I tracked the wheels for hours today. No chance to mistake the wheel-marks of that victoria among these heavy wagontrains. She is in his camp, and we will be sure to see her in the morning.”

Then they all whispered “By Jove!” with great earnestness.

Hampton, about to get bogged down.
Hampton, about to get bogged down.

The rumor around Wade Hampton’s camp was that General Kilpatrick, sleeping not far away with a small brigade of his own cavalry, was with “an exceedinly pretty young girl” from Columbia. She had been espied by many of the Rebels before they had to leave, and, according to this particular camp gossup, was in the loving embrace of Kilpatrick in the immediate.

In the slightly larger world, the Confederates under Wade Hampton had managed to cut off one of Kilpatrick’s brigades, using the dark of night to establish their lines for a pre-dawn attack. Matthew Butler’s brigade would be leading, but the entire command would join the game. As for Kilpatrick, Butler ordered a detail to rush the cabin in which the lovers lay and capture the general.

The general plan was for a brigade of Butler’s men, under Col. Gilbert Wright, to charge headlong into the camp. They would be followed by Evander Law’s Brigade. When the firing was then heard, Jo Wheeler’s cavalry was to crash through on the flank. “By this it was expected to hem in a large number of prisoners, and hold the position until everything removable could be brought off and the rest burned.”

Into this darkness, Butler unleashed his command, as did others around him.

“As I turned the head of the swamp and struck the camp I witnessed a scene of confusion and disturbance such as I had never seen before,” wrote Butler in his memoirs.

“Kilpatrick did not have a vidette or picket out, or, as far as I could see, not even a camp guard. The result was, we found his men asleep and taken entirely by surprise. I had not advanced far into the camp when I was astonished to meet a hundred and thirty or forty Confederates rushing wildly toward us. At first I thought Wright had been repulsed, but it turned out they were prisoners whom Kilpatrick had taken, and whom Wright’s vigorous and unexpected onslaught had released from their guards, and they were making good their escape. I sent them on to the rear and moved on, passing Kilpatrick’s headquarters, through his artillery, wagon and ambulance train.”

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Another report of the battle read:
Undressed and unarmed, awakened out of a profound sleep to find their camp overrun, they fled in all directions, leaving accouterments behind. It was a wild sight. When the Confederates had charged through the ground they wheeled and came rushing back, scattering and riding down what was left, and making prisoners. Meantime other detachments of the division had struck the position at different points, and were making themselves heard from most effectually.

It was into this confusion that Kilpatrick awoke. As he told Butler after the war, he had “scarcely got out of the house when he hear the ‘Rebel yell.’ He said he thought to himself, ‘Here is four years hard fighting for a Major-General’s commission gone up with a surprise;’ that in a very few minutes a Rebel dashed up to him and asked.”

Standing in his slippers and nightshirt, Kilpatrick was stunned when a Rebel rode up to him, looking down, and asked, “Where is General Kilpatrick?”

With out a beat missing, Kilpatrick answered “There he goes on that black horse,” and gestured yonder. Once free of his new associate, Kilpatrick mounted the nearest horse he could find and rode off to freedom, his night tales flapping in the wind and his cheeks on cold leather.

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“Anticipating that Wright’s command would become scattered, I halted Law near the entrance to the camp to take charge of the prisoners, etc. Wright had gone clear through the camp, and of course his command was much scattered. I therefore halted in the midst of the camp and sent back for Law to move in, complete the capture and take possession. To my dismay, I learned that General Hampton, without my knowledge, had ordered Law to some other point, so that my messenger could not find him. I then hoped for the arrival of Wheeler’s command from the other side.

“He [Wheeler] came through himself with a few of his staff and an escort. He rode up and inquired about my command. I replied, “Scattered like the devil; where is yours?” He said he had encountered a bog through which his division could not pass, and that he had ordered it to make a circuit to the left and come around on my track. This of course took time, and in the mean time Kilpatrick’s 1,500 dismounted men had recovered from the shock of our first attack and gathered themselves behind pine trees, and with this rapid firing Spencer carbines attacked us savagely….”

The general in question, seen here with pants.
The general in question, seen here with pants.

Another report now concludes the action:
Thus a pretty stiff fight of dismounted men was soon under way, and artillery opened on both sides. About this time, at the entrance-door of the headquarter house, a female skirt, a hat and ribbon and other similar accouterments of the fair sex appeared, and were at once spied by some of those young fellows who had been found whispering together the night before. The first duty of the cavalier is to rescue distressed damsels, and so these boys thoroughly believed, and were about delightedly so to do. But, alas! for all human hopes.

On nearer inspection this proved to be the wrong damsel, if damsel she could be termed at all, being old, ugly, and perhaps respectable, and she turned out to be a “school-marm” from Vermont, who had availed herself of the assistance of Sherman’s army to return to her home. However, she was a woman after all, if she was ugly, and one of those same thoughtless youngsters referred to, quietly dismounted, and, hat in hand, approached her, bowing as deferentially as if it indeed had been the hoped-for fair one, and kindly explained the danger from chance bullets and shells against which the thin weather-boarding of the house would be little better protection than pasteboard.

But, woman-like, she could not at first be made to comprehend that the horses could not be attached to her vehicle and she drive quietly away to more congenial scenes. However, at length she took in the situation sensibly, and was conducted to a drainage-ditch, in which she lay and was comparatively safe. Fortunately she was not hurt during the melee, and seemed somewhat appreciative of the kindness done her. But it was all a sad disappointment to those expectant boys.

Without Wheeler’s sweeping assault, and with the Federals now reformed, the Confederates could not hold the camp, and were beaten back with bloody results.

General Kilpatrick, in his own report, concluded, “This battle speaks for itself and needs no comment from me.” He claimed that they had lost 19 killed, 68 wounded and 103 taken as prisoners, though the latter number was probably several times more.

“The enemy left in our camp,” wrote Kilpatrick, “upward of 80 killed, including many officers, and a large number of men wounded. We captured 30 prisoners and 150 horses with their equipments.”

The Rebels made off his Kilpatrick’s hat, coat, pants, sword, pistols and horses – a find bounty, had they not failed to capture the general who would normally have been residing in those items. Neither did they make off with the Federal artillery or wagons. It was a fine raid, which netted some embarrassment for Kilpatrick, which would be carried with him by the naming of the battle – as “The Battle of Kilpatrick’s Pants,” though perhaps because his pants made no appearance in said battle, it would also be recalled as “Kilpatrick’s Shirttail Skedaddle”.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p861; “General Kilpatrick’s Narrow Escape” by Matthew Butler, as printed in Camp Fires of the Confederacy; Wade Hampton: Confederate Warrior to Southern Redeemer by Rod Andrew; Hampton and His Cavalry by Edward Laight Wells. []

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