Daily Archives: February 23, 2014

The Gettysburg Campaign: Lee Moves North, the Battle of Brandy Station, Stuart’s Ride and the Relief of Fighting Joe Hooker


Lee with his Commanders at Williamsport 

Note: This is another of my preparations for for the Gettysburg Staff Ride that I will be conducting with students from the Staff College that I teach. 

On June 3rd 1863 Robert E Lee began to move his units west, away from Fredericksburg to begin his campaign to take the war to the North. He began his exfiltration moving Second Corps under Richard Ewell and First Corps under James Longstreet west. Initially he left A.P. Hill’s Third Corps at Fredericksburg to guard against any sudden advance by Hooker’s Army of the Potomac toward Richmond.

Once it was ascertained that Hooker was not making for Richmond, Hill’s Corps followed and on June 7th all three Corps were reunited at Culpepper. Lee’s movement did not go unnoticed, Hooker’s aerial observers detected the move, but Hooker after throwing pontoon bridges across the river and discovering that Hill’s troops were firmly entrenched made no move to pursue. He asked permission to advance on Richmond but was order not to cross the river, lest his army be exposed and destroyed by a thrust at its rear


General J.E.B. Stuart 

Meanwhile, J.E.B. Stuart and his Cavalry Corps had been at Brandy Station near Culpepper for two weeks. On the 5th Stuart staged a grand review of five of his brigades which included a mock charge against the guns of his horse artillery. According to witnesses it was a spectacular event, so realist that during the final charge some women fainted.

As Lee made his move Hooker attempted to ascertain Lee’s intentions. With Lee moving west he asked Lincoln for permission to advance on Richmond, which was denied. Lincoln did not believe that Hooker could take Richmond and believed that if he did it would leave the logistics train of Army of the Potomac as well as Washington exposed to Lee.


Major General Joseph Hooker 

Hooker believed that Stuart’s intent was to disrupt his logistics and communications. He ordered his Cavalry Corps Commander, Major General Alfred Pleasanton to attack Stuart.  On June 9th Pleasanton’s forces, now reorganized under three aggressive division commanders, John Buford, David Gregg and Judson Kilpatrick and reinforced by two brigades of infantry surprised Stuart at Brandy Station.

Cav Fight at Brandy Station

The resultant action was the largest cavalry engagement of the war. Over 20,000 troopers engaged in an inconclusive see-saw battle that lasted most of the day. Stuart claimed victory as he maintained control of the battlefield and inflicted more casualties than his forces incurred.  But the battle was more significant than the number of casualties inflicted or who controlled the battlefield at the end of the day. For the first time Stuart had been surprised by an aggressively led Union Cavalry force.  The Union troopers fought a stubborn and fierce battle and retired in good order. Stuart did not appreciate it but the battle was a watershed, it ended the previous dominance of the Confederate Cavalry arm. It was something that in less than a years’ time would cost him his life.


The Battle of Brandy Station (Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.posix.com/CW)

However, Stuart’s repulse of Pleasanton’s force did enable Lee’s Army to continue north undetected by Hooker. Ewell’s Corps entered the Shenandoah Valley and defeated a Union force at Winchester on June 14th.  Then with the rest of the Army following he moved to Williamsport Maryland where he called a halt to allow the rest of his corps and the army to come up.


Major General Henry Halleck 

Hooker was slow to appreciate what Lee was doing. Prodded by Lincoln Hooker moved the Army of the Potomac to a position where it could defend Washington in case Lee was to make a thrust at the Federal capitol. In a series of fierce cavalry clashes west of Washington, Stuart successfully kept the Federal cavalry from discerning the movements of Lee’s Army.

Lee’s initial move to break contact with the Federal Army and keep his movements and intentions secret was an excellent example of deception. Stuart’s success at screening Lee’s movements contributed to Federal confusion. Lee’s deception was so successful that Pleasanton believed that Lee’s objective was Pittsburgh, far to the west. Even when Hooker determined that the bulk of Lee’s infantry was in the Shenandoah he was not certain if Lee would move east toward Baltimore and Washington west or would Lee continue up the valley into Pennsylvania.  

But at this point Lee then made the first of a number of mistakes that would characterize his campaign.  The most grievous of these in my view was his inability to get his commanders to understand his intent. The necessity of subordinate commanders understanding the intent of their superior is essential to the success of any military operation. Lee failed to do this a number of times.

After Stuart recovered from the surprise at Brandy Station Lee gave Stuart permission to move the bulk of his cavalry into the Federal rear.  Lee instructed Stuart that once he determined that Hooker was moving to pursue that Stuart must return to guard Ewell’s flank. However, Lee did not insist on this and left the decision in Stuart’s hands.  When Stuart discovered the Army of the Potomac stationary near Manassas he suggested to Lee that he lead his force around the Federal Army to deceive Hooker as to Lee’s intentions. Lee agreed but told Stuart to maintain close observance of the Federal Army.

Unfortunately his orders left Stuart much in the way of interpretation. He wrote:

You will, however be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing all the damage that you can, and cross the river east of the mountains. In either case you must move on and feel the right of Ewell’s troops, collecting information, provisions etc.”  Lee added, “Be watchful and circumspect in all your movements.” 

Lee expected Stuart to do this, but his lack of clarity and vagueness allowed to Stuart interpret the order in a manner that benefited him, as he had been stung by criticism of his conduct of the Battle of Brandy Station in the Southern press. For Stuart this was a chance to regain the limelight and add to his luster. He decided to move independently and continue his ride around the Army of the Potomac. It was the last time that Lee had contact with Stuart until the end of the second day of the battle at Gettysburg. Stuart’s absence was critical for it left Lee blind as to the whereabouts of Hooker’s Army or any other threats.

Historians have long wondered why Lee allowed and why Stuart conducted an operation that left Lee blind and had no obvious advantages. Stephen W Sears notes in his book Gettysburg that: “The very concept of Stuart’s expedition was fueled by overconfidence and misjudgment at the highest command level. As soldier-historian Porter Alexander judged the matter, “We took unnecessary risk, which was bad war, & the only bad war too, I think, in all our tactics.” (i)

Lee also took little notice of the events occurring to the west. The siege of Vicksburg was entering its final weeks and with it the hopes of the Confederacy, but Lee was convinced that the war had to be won in the east and quickly.

Lee had no idea that the man directing the campaign against that city, Ulysses S Grant would become his nemesis in less than a years’ time. While Lee had an understanding of all the men who had commanded the armies that he faced, Grant was a man that he never really understood.

As Vicksburg withered and Stuart dithered Lee continued to move north with his Army, crossing into Maryland. By June 24th Ewell’s lead division was near Chambersburg with orders to advance on the Susquehanna and Harrisburg


The Gettysburg Campaign (Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.posix.com/cw)

As Lee moved north Hooker attempted to convince Lincoln to attack Richmond, but Lincoln did not believe that the Confederate capitol was the key to victory. Lincoln denied Hooker’s request giving the following instruction:

“I think Lee’s army, not Richmond is your true objective point. If he comes toward the Upper Potomac, follow on his flank and on his inside track, shortening your line whilst he lengthens his. Fight him too when the opportunity offers. If he stays where he is, fret him, fret him and fret him.”

Hooker was upset by the constant directives from Lincoln and General Henry Halleck, the General in Chief of the Union Armies. Hooker complained to Lincoln in a letter which seemed to infer that he wanted Lincoln to remove Halleck from his position. On June 15th Lincoln responded:

“To remove all misunderstanding I now place you in the strict military relation to General Halleck of a commander of one of the armies to the general-in-chief of all of the armies. I have not intended differently, but as it seems to be differently understood I shall direct him to give you orders and for you to obey him.”

With that order Lincoln did something that he had not done in relation to the Army of the Potomac since the beginning of the war.  For the first time he enforced unity of command and stopped the commander of that army from directly appealing to him. Lee had tired of commanders such as McClellan and Hooker demanding absolute control of the Army and the war. This time it was Hooker that advocated having “one commander for all the troops whose operations which can have influence on General Lee’s operations.” Lincoln agreed and ensured that Hooker would not be that man.

Neither Lincoln nor Halleck agreed to give Hooker the authority that he demanded.  Lincoln insisted that Hooker obey the orders of Halleck, a man who Hooker despised. The final straw came on June 27th when Hooker demanded that the garrison of Harper’s Ferry be withdrawn and placed under his command. When this was refused he tendered his resignation as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Halleck forwarded that request to Lincoln and promptly sent an order via his Assistant Adjutant General, Colonel James Hardie relieving Hooker of command, simultaneously appointing Major General George Meade, commander of V Corps as the new commander of the army.


By now the movements of Confederate forces deep into Maryland and Pennsylvania gave Lincoln and Halleck the information that they needed about Lee’s movements. Lee’s army was moving toward Harrisburg and the Susquehanna. On the day of Hooker’s relief Lee had no idea that the Union army had already crossed the Potomac, the absence of Stuart had left him blind.


Major General George Meade 

To this point a number of issues important to those involved in planning campaigns became clear: Deception, commander’s intent and unity of command. Lee successfully used deception to prevent the Federals from discerning his purposes. That was balanced by his lack of clarity in communicating his intent to Stuart. Finally there was the principle of unity of command for the Union forces, something that had eluded Lincoln and his lieutenants throughout the first two years of the war.

All that said, I am going to leave you hanging for the night.


Padre Steve+

i. Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 2003. P.106

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