General Thomas L. Kane: the Soldier


“… for thou art called to do a great work on earth. …”

The date: July 3, 1863. The place: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The last smoke of one of the world’s most famous battles still swirled around the oak trees on Culp’s Hill, northern anchor of the Union line. For three unbearably humid days, the hitherto undefeated Confederate forces of General Robert E. Lee had tried in vain to carry their northern invasion through the stubborn Union line. Now, with the failure of General George E. Pickett’s desperate charge, the soldiers in gray were being forced to withdraw to the Seminary Ridge battle line. There General Lee, astride his horse, solemn but solicitous, grimly watched his troops pass southwesterly as ordered, leaving the green Gettysburg Valley and heading south into nearby Maryland and across the Potomac River into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, which was their refuge.

Left on the field of battle were 51,000 casualties from the two armies, which had numbered 172,000 men before their date with destiny.

Probably no Union officer on the historic field of battle that day had a more vital role in the day’s action or a better appreciation of its significance than the forty-one-year-old black-bearded brigadier general who surveyed the scene of carnage about him from his couch at the command post on Culp’s Hill. Only a week out of the hospital at Baltimore, too ill and exhausted to sit on his horse, General Thomas Leiper Kane shook hands with members of his Allegheny Highland Bucktail Brigade. They deserved commendation. They had held fast to the strategic hill despite the incessant attacks by the elite of the Confederate Army—the troops of the late Stonewall Jackson.

It was one of those rare days when a man has the opportunity to stand at the crossroads of history and wonder how he has survived to see the results.

“… He hath given His angels charge over thee, to guard thee in times of danger, to deliver thee out of all thy troubles and to defend thee from all thine enemies; not a hair of thy head shall ever fall by the hands of an enemy for thou art called to do a great work on the earth and thou shalt be blessed in all thine understanding. …”

So read the words of General Kane’s patriarchal blessing, given to him under the hands of Elder John Smith, the third Patriarch of the Church. The blessing had been given to him seventeen years before, on September 8, 1845, in Iowa, after young Tom Kane had fallen seriously ill while visiting and counseling the Saints forced out of Nauvoo by mobs. He credited a priesthood administration by the elders with saving his life there, the first of several such instances. He received a patriarchal blessing even though he was not a member of the Church.

During these past few years those words of his blessing had come to have a special meaning to him. Thrice he had been seriously injured in battle. The exposure of two winters in the field and resultant illnesses had aggravated his chronic lung trouble and more than once nearly claimed his life. But now finally the Union was emerging out of the dark days of defeat and frustration that had characterized 1861 and 1862.

From his couch, General Kane looked south along the Cemetery Ridge battle line; he could see the grotesque heaps of dead, both Blue and Gray, that marked the farthest advance of Pickett’s infantry into the center of the Union line. The thicket of oak trees, only a few yards from the crest of the ridge that Pickett’s brave men had reached, stood riddled and shredded, marking for history the high-water mark of the Confederacy’s major invasion of the north.

All along the battle line, running south to Little Round Top, Union details stumbled wearily in the sultry heat to aid the wounded and dying, Gray as well as Blue. Other soldiers picked up the bodies of the dead, moving in endless relays back to Culp’s Hill and the adjacent cemetery (later to become the National Soldiers’ Cemetery, where President Abraham Lincoln gave his immortal Gettysburg Address). The weather necessitated immediate burials after the necessary identification.

The Union forces were too exhausted to pursue the withdrawing Confederate forces in the humid heat, and their commanding officers did not order them to do so, even though the missed opportunity to drastically shorten the war caused President Lincoln to replace the Union commander, General George Gordon Meade, a few days later.

The Confederates were heartsick enough as it was, not only because of the failure of their all-important northern invasion, but also because of the knowledge that their legend of invincibility had been shattered. From July 3, 1863, onward, Union soldiers everywhere knew that the Grays and General Lee could be beaten.

General Lee’s battle strategy had been obvious—to break through the Union defense line, to rout and destroy the Army of the Potomac. Then he could have continued northward through Pennsylvania to Harrisburg and vital Union arteries with no opposition. His goal was to sever the vital lifelines linking the Union with the West, particularly the Susquehanna River and its railroad bridge. Split squarely in two, southern strategists reasoned, the Union would then have had no recourse but to negotiate for a peaceful settlement of the war and northern acceptance of an independent Confederate States of America. Britain and other potential Confederate allies stood by, expectant and hopeful, awaiting the opportunity to jump on the winner’s bandwagon and recognize the new nation, a prime cotton source that would fit so well into her trade picture.

Where would the nation or the world be today if the Gray instead of the Blue had carried that day at Gettysburg? If General Kane and his “Bucktails” hadn’t held Culp’s Hill?

Fortunately, the South’s major thrust had been met and successfully parried. Even though it would take almost two more years of hard fighting to achieve it, the Union could begin to see ultimate victory and an even greater Union.

If it hadn’t been for his fighting spirit and dedication to duty, General Kane might have missed the decisive action at Gettysburg and his date with destiny. At the battle of Chancellorsville in May, where his old foe Stonewall Jackson had been killed accidentally by his own troops, General Kane had contracted pneumonia. After the battle he had been hospitalized in Baltimore.

When he heard in late June that General Lee was moving north in a probable invasion of his home state of Pennsylvania, General Kane used his influence to secure his prompt release from the hospital. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton called him to Washington and entrusted to him a top secret message for General Meade, warning him that the Confederates were in possession of the Union cipher. Despite the activities of Rebel General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry scouts along the way, General Kane successfully delivered the vital dispatch “under considerable difficulty” to General Meade at Gettysburg, resuming command of his Bucktail brigade on the second day of the battle, July 2.

General Kane, who as Colonel Kane is better known in Utah and the West for his many benefactions to the Mormons between 1846 and 1858, did not have the physical appearance of a battlefield hero. He was not robust nor physically commanding in size. His height was five feet six inches and his weight 130 pounds. All his days he struggled with respiratory problems, a physical handicap that eventually claimed his life.

He made up for his lack of physical brawn with intense desire, burning idealism, gallantry, fearlessness, and sheer courage, especially in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. All his life he was quick to battle for the underdog and the victims of injustice. This humanitarian quality came to the fore in 1857 when he received the distressing news that a 2,500-man federal army under Colonel Albert S. Johnston had been sent west by President James Buchanan to subdue the Mormons, who the President had wrongly been led to believe were in a state of rebellion against federal authority. The Mormons, keenly remembering past injustices in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, were determined to defend their mountain homes with their lives, if necessary. Had the transcontinental telegraph been in existence, it could have done much with its instant communication between peoples to prevent such a crisis from developing.

Thomas L. Kane had to begin his winter journey by taking a ship to Panama, crossing that isthmus on a newly completed railroad, taking another ship to San Francisco, and traveling south to Southern California. He finally came to Salt Lake City by way of San Bernardino. Then, by working patiently with both sides, he was able to resolve the situation peaceably. He personally escorted the new governor, Alfred Cumming, to Salt Lake City from the temporary camps in present-day Wyoming, while the army, by agreement, bypassed the capital and established Camp Floyd, west of Utah Lake.

Ironically, Colonel Johnston left the Mormon country in 1860 and, with the outbreak of the Civil War, resigned his U.S. commission and joined the Confederate Army. Johnston, who was later promoted to the rank of general, was killed in the Battle of Shiloh.

For his work in mediating the Utah crisis in 1858, Colonel Kane was hailed as a peacemaker in President Buchanan’s annual message to Congress. More significantly, his aid cemented for him his place in the hearts of the Saints—a place created years before upon the plains of Iowa. Twelve years after Colonel Kane’s leaving Utah, Brigham Young wrote to him: “There is no feeling more general among our people than the good will toward yourself.”

But the successful mediation of “Buchanan’s Blunder,” or the “Utah War,” carried a personal note of sadness for the little colonel. While he was about to enter his negotiations in Utah, his father, Judge John K. Kane, died at the family home in Philadelphia. His last word from his father was a note that had been hidden in Colonel Kane’s trunk as he was leaving for his mediation mission:

“I have been a strenuous opponent of your whole project,” the federal judge had penned, “and have said so many things against it which may come back hereafter unpleasantly to your memory, that I think I ought to say to you once and for all at the moment of our parting, that you carry with you all the blessings that a father’s prayer can evoke.”

At the time of the firing on Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861, which ignited the long-smoldering conflict into the Civil War, Colonel Kane had spent two years exploring the Pennsylvania frontier, the forested plateau country that gives birth to the headwaters of the Allegheny River and the western branch of the Susquehanna. He immediately offered his services to the Union—the first Pennsylvanian to do so—and was commissioned by Governor A. G. Curtin to recruit a regiment of riflemen among the Pennsylvania Highlands mountain men.

These mountaineers adopted the deer tail as their symbol and became known as the Bucktails, eventually becoming one of the most distinguished units in the Union Army. After the regiment was formed, Colonel Kane trained his men, equipped them, and then directed the building of rafts so they could float down the west branch of the Susquehanna River to Harrisburg with their gear. They reported for army duty there, 315 strong, in May 1861. They were commissioned June 12 and immediately went into action.

Colonel Kane suffered his first wound at the Battle of Dranesville, Virginia, the following January. It was a painful wound, inflicted by a rifle ball that struck him in the face, passed through his left cheek, and crushed the roof of his mouth. The rest of his life he wore a full beard to cover the scar.

He suffered additional wounds while his regiment was fighting Stonewall Jackson’s forces in the Shenandoah Valley. In action near Harrisonburg, Virginia, he suffered a severe wound to his left leg. While lying helpless on the ground, he received a brutal crushing blow in the chest from a sharp rifle butt, breaking several ribs and aggravating his chronically precarious lung condition. His regiment, which usually was found in the thick of things, suffered fifty percent casualties in that single action.

Colonel Kane was taken prisoner along with a devoted aide, Captain Charles Taylor, who refused to leave him. Shortly afterwards, Colonel Kane was included in a prisoner exchange and returned to his regiment, even though he was still on crutches. (His gallant aide, Captain Taylor, was later killed while fighting by his side at Gettysburg.)

Resuming the campaign, Colonel Kane participated in other vital actions. For his gallantry in action at the battle of Catlett’s Station and the Second Battle of Bull Run, he was rewarded with promotion to the rank of brigadier general. He was given a brigade to command in his next action, the battles of Spottsylvania and Chancellorsville. He distinguished himself despite the Union defeat at Spottsylvania, “covering the rear in a most masterly manner,” according to his commander, General John W. Geary. As the rebels prevailed at Chancellorsville, General Kane was placed in command of Geary’s elite troops to cover the army’s rear while it crossed the Rappahannock River. Kane survived the action, only to fall victim to pneumonia brought on by fatigue and exposure. He was then hospitalized in June, securing his release immediately prior to the battle of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg and Culp’s Hill marked the end of the Civil War battle trail for General Kane. The leg wound suffered at Harrisonburg left him lame for life; the rifle ball that crashed through his cheek and the roof of his mouth left him tormented by neuralgia, headaches, and weakened eyesight; and his weakened lungs made him subject to recurrent respiratory illnesses.

He was retired from the army because of his wounds and ill health on November 7, 1863, four months after the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1865, the army honored him for his heroic service at Gettysburg with promotion to the rank of major general.

Leaving the army, he bade a sad farewell to his beloved Bucktails: “The hard fighting is over. If there is to be more of it soon I will be with you. If not, farewell, and may God bless you and reward you for your noble conduct, but for which neither I nor any of the thousands of this army would have home, country, pride or honor to return to. If you should not see me again in the brigade, I hope you will remember long and affectionately your friend and commander.” With that, at age forty-one, he limped home to his wife and three children, who were waiting in his native city of Philadelphia; he returned home broken in purse as well as health, but with honor and spirit that were to make his last twenty years the most successful of his life.

Art by Richard Hull

While serving as president of the Eastern Atlantic Stakes Mission, Brother Bowen assisted in obtaining for the Church the old Presbyterian Church at Kane, Pennsylvania. The building is expected to be used as a ward chapel and a visitor’s center.

For his master’s thesis in history, Brother Zobell wrote a biography of Thomas L. Kane. His material has been published in book form.