N.Y. general among Union casualties

Commander: John Howard Kitching was 26 years old when he was fatally wounded at Cedar Creek.

October 10, 2004|By Katherine Denoyer | Katherine Denoyer,SUN STAFF

The Battle of Cedar Creek was fought on a foggy day. So it is appropriate that some of the details of that day are just as foggy. Brig. Gen. John Howard Kitching was among the Union officers who fought in the battle, and he died from wounds inflicted during the battle.

Although he was a general officer, little is known about his life and even less is noted in most histories of the battle.

John Howard Kitching was named after his father, John Benjamin Kitching, a merchant who was born in Horsforth, England, on April 20, 1818. He came to the United States in 1824, entered the business house of Tomlinson and Booth, and afterward established himself independently.

The elder Kitching rendered the telegraph important pecuniary aid in its early history, and was among those who were interested in the success of the Atlantic cable. Kitching spent a large amount of money in the ship Ericsson, which was intended to demonstrate the superiority of the method of propulsion by air-engines; but on the trial trip an accident occurred, causing the sinking of the vessel.

In 1840 he removed to Brooklyn and was associated in the founding of several banks and in the establishment of the Polytechnic and Packer institutes.

Later John Benjamin Kitching was one of the promoters of the Manhattan market and the Garfield National Bank in New York City. In 1873 he was instrumental in founding St. John's School in New York.

John Benjamin Kitching died in New York City, July 19, 1887.

Born in 1840

John Howard Kitching was born in New York City on July 16, 1840. He was educated in private schools in Brooklyn and New York.

At the beginning of the Civil War he enlisted as a private in the Lincoln Cavalry. Soon afterward he received a captain's commission in the 2nd New York Artillery and participated in all the battles of the Peninsular Campaign.

In the autumn of 1862 he was made lieutenant colonel of the 135th New York Volunteers, which was afterward changed to the 6th Artillery, and in April 1863, he was appointed colonel of his regiment.

Subsequently he was almost constantly in command of a brigade, and on Aug. 1, 1864, received the brevet of brigadier general of volunteers.

During 1863-1864 he was stationed with the artillery reserve at Harpers Ferry, Brandy Station and elsewhere in that vicinity.

In May 1864, he joined the Army of the Potomac, and participated in the Overland Campaign until July 1864, when the 6th Corps was detached from the army and sent to Washington, where Kitching continued to act as a brigade commander in charge of the defenses of the capital. Later he had command of the 6th New York Heavy Artillery in the 8th Corps under Brig. Gen. George Crook.

When Kitching was 26 years old, he was in the process of making arrangements for a leave when Secretary of War Edwin Stanton revoked it and sent him to the Shenandoah Valley. Thoroughly displeased with this assignment, Kitching wrote to his father, "It puts me in the position of a man who tried to get out of the service, but could not."

Reliability `suspect'

Kitching's reliability in combat was "suspect," according to Jeffry D. Wert, author of From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864. In the battle of Cedar Creek, Oct 19, 1864, Kitching had command of the Provisional Division, an amalgam of regiments from the 6th, 8th and 19th Corps, numbering 6,000 men in three brigades. The command had just joined Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah as reinforcements.

Accounts of Kitching's participation in the battle are scarce, probably due in part to the fact that neither Kitching nor any subordinate officer of the unit submitted an after-battle report. It is known, however, that Confederate Maj. Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur's division routed Kitching's command, and, according to one brief description found in a Southern report, the men "fled in great confusion."

"The lack of accounts - contemporary or postwar - suggests that Kitching's untested regiments scattered and ran before the charging rebels," Wert says.

When hundreds of Kitching's frightened men came running across the fields, Brig. Gen. Alfred T. Torbert directed his escort, the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry, and Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt's escort, the 5th United States Cavalry, "to check this stream of stragglers," according to Wert. Merritt also gave Brig. Gen. Thomas C. Devin's brigade the dual duty of moving eastward and assisting in the rallying of the fugitives.

A New Yorker with Devin later reported that for his regiment this task of halting the fleeing soldiers was "the most difficult and most distasteful duty it had ever been called upon to perform, and one almost impossible to accomplish." Many fugitives reportedly darted under the horses of the mounted troops.

Kitching was mortally wounded in the battle of Cedar Creek, but the details are unknown.

Kitching died in Dobb's Ferry, N.Y., Jan. 11, 1865, almost three months after the battle - and most of the details of his life and death died with him.

Katherine Denoyer is a senior majoring in journalism at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of an academic internship with The Sun.

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