The anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg recently passed. One of the most notable of the many controversies and historical debates surrounding the battle concerns the role of the Army of Northern Virginia’s cavalry commander, J. E. B. Stuart. Famously, before the battle, Stuart took the army’s cavalry for a raid into Union territory that would involve him passing around the Union Army of the Potomac. According to his detractors, this took him out of contact with Lee, and his failure to provide intelligence to the Army of Northern Virginia would prove costly to Lee at Gettysburg. He is further accused of having violated his orders in this venture.
However, the criticism of Stuart tends to ignore some critical factors. Most notably, he did not take all of the army’s cavalry with him on his ride around the Army of the Potomac. He departed with three of the army’s seven cavalry brigades, leaving Lee with four. The brigades of Jones and Robertson, under the command of the latter, were left to watch the army’s rear and then rejoin Lee. According to the orders Stuart left for the inexperienced Beverly Robertson, he should have been with Lee by July 1st, the first day of battle. However, Robertson failed to execute his orders in a timely fashion and rejoin Lee, in spite of Stuart’s quite specific orders. If Stuart can be faulted here, it’s only that the units and officers he chose to take on his ride resulted in a command situation that left Robertson with significant responsibility; he was known not to be very reliable. Jones was a superb, if ill-tempered officer, known by the nickname “Grumble,” and he commanded a fine brigade of cavalry that would later become known as the Laurel Brigade, under the command of the more charismatic but less able Thomas Rosser. Jones however, was junior to Robertson in rank. With the power of hindsight, Stuart likely should have left Wade Hampton, who ranked Robertson, and his brigade, and taken Jones with him; the reason he did not do so was that Stuart and Jones intently disliked each other.
The other units Stuart left with Lee were the brigades of Imboden and Jenkins. Jenkins’ brigade was attached to the Confederate Second Corps, which was the lead element of Lee’s advance into Pennsylvania, and performed their task of screening for Ewell ably. Imboden’s brigade was sent raiding into western Pennsylvania. Any fault for the usage of these four brigades must fall on Beverly Robertson and Robert E. Lee himself.
As for Stuart himself, during the course of the ride, he attempted to send intelligence to Lee. None of his couriers made it through, due to the movement of the Federal army. Stuart also sent copies of the same messages, particularly one about the fact that the Federal army was now moving northward, to Richmond. While none of this made it to Lee, it’s not entirely fair to fault Stuart for this when he made every reasonable effort to keep Lee informed, and additionally, had left Lee plenty of cavalry for intelligence-gathering purposes.
As for the authorization of his mission and the nature of it, Lee’s orders should speak for themselves. To me, they read as an authorization for a cavalry raid, certain conditions provided; none of those conditions, particularly about the activity of the the Union army, were not met as far as both Lee and Stuart knew when Stuart set out.
“HEADQUARTERS, June 22, 1863.
Major General J. E. B. STUART,
GENERAL: I have just received your note of 7, 45 this morning to General Longstreet. I judge the efforts of the enemy yesterday were to arrest our progress and ascertain our whereabouts. Perhaps he is satisfied. Do you know where he is and what he is doing? I fear he will steal a march on us, and get across the Potomac before we are aware. If you find that he is moving northward, and that two brigades can guard the Blue Ridge and take care of your rear, you can move with the other three into Maryland, and take position on General Ewell`s right, place yourself in communication with him, guard his flank, keep him informed of the enemy`s movements, and collect all the supplies you can for the use of the army. One column of General Ewell`s army will probably move toward the Susquehanna by the Emmitsburg route; another by Chambersburg. Accounts from him last night state that there was no enemy west of Frederick. A cavalry force (about 100) guarded the Monocacy Bridge, which was barricaded. You will, of course, take charge of [A. G.] Jenkins` brigade, and give him necessary instructions. All supplies taken in Maryland must be by authorized staff officers for their respective departments-by no one else. They will be paid for, or receipts for the same given to the owners. I will send you a general order on this subject, which I wish you to see is strictly complied with.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
R. E. LEE,
“HEADQUARTERS, Millwood, June 22, 1863-7 p. m.
Major General J. E. B. STUART,
GENERAL: General Lee has inclosed to me this letter for you, * to be forwarded to you, provided you can be spared from my front, and provided I think that you can move across the Potomac without disclosing our plans. He speaks of your leaving, via Hopewell Gap, and passing by the rear of the enemy. If you can get through by that route, I think that you will be less likely to indicate what our plans are than if you should cross by passing to our rear. I forward the letter of instructions with these suggestions.
Please advise me of the condition of affairs before you leave, and order General Hampton-whom I suppose you will leave here in command-to report to me at Millwood, either by letter or in person, as may be most agreeable to him.
N. B. -I think that your passage of the Potomac by our rear at the present moment will, in a measure, disclose our plans. You had better not leave us, therefore, unless you can take the proposed route in rear of the enemy. ”
“23, 1863-5 p. m.
Major General J. E. B. STUART,
GENERAL: Your notes of 9 and 10. 30 a. m. to-day have just been received. As regards the purchase of tobacco for your men, supposing that Confederate money will not be taken, I am willing for your commissaries or quartermasters to purchase this tobacco and let the men get it from them, but I can have nothing seized by the men.
If General Hooker`s army remains inactive, you can leave two brigades to watch him, and withdraw with the three others, but should he not appear to be moving northward, I think you had better withdraw this side of the mountain to-morrow night, cross at Shepherdstown next day, and move over to Fredericktown.
You will, however, be able to judge whether you can pass around their army, without hinderance, doing them all the damage you can, and cross the river east of the mountains. In either case, after crossing the river, you must move on and feel the right of Ewell`s troops, collecting information, provisions, &c.
Give instructions to the commander of the brigades left behind, to watch the flank and rear of the army, and (in the event of the enemy leaving their front) retire from the mountains west of the Shenandoah, leaving sufficient pickets to guard the passes, and bringing everything clean along the Valley, Closing upon the rear of the army. As regards the movements of the two brigades of the enemy moving toward Warrenton, the commander of the brigades to be left in the mountains must do what he can to counteract them, but I think the sooner you cross into Maryland, after to-morrow, the better.
The movements of Ewell`s corps are as stated in my former letter. Hill`s first division will reach the Potomac to-day, and Longstreet will follow to-morrow.
Be watchful and circumspect in all your movements.
I am, very respectfully and truly, yours,
R. E. LEE,
For further reading, the comprehensive work specifically on the ride is Eric J. Wittenberg and J. D. Petruzzi’s Plenty of Blame to Go Around.