Robert E. Lee’s prodigal son had finally returned. On the evening of July 2nd 1863 with the attacks of Longstreet now finished and Ewell’s abortive battle for Culp’s Hill reaching its bloody Lieutenant General J.E.B. Stuart finally arrived at Robert E Lee’s headquarters on Seminary Ridge. The meeting was brief and unwitnessed by anyone but the participants.
Apparently the meeting between Lee and his Cavalry division commander was short “abrupt and frosty.” Porter Alexander noted that Lee only said “Well General, you are here at last” and Stuart’s aide Major Henry McClellan reported that Stuart “regarded the incident as painful beyond description.” (1) In his official report of the battle “Lee would allude to Stuart with but a single pejorative sentence: “The movements of the Army preceding the Battle of Gettysburg had been much embarrassed by the absence of the cavalry.” (2) In Stuart’s defense it needs to be re-emphasized that Lee had four brigades of cavalry at his disposal but did not use them effectively.
Stuart left as quickly as he arrived and in his official report he noted that his new orders were to take up a position “on the left wing of the Army of Northern Virginia.” (3) For a man like Stuart whose soldierly skills as a cavalry commander and leader were only matched by his vanity the incident was humiliating, he had failed Robert E Lee.
Lee’s plan for Stuart the next day was that Stuart Stuart moved four of his brigades the following morning to the north and east. The plan was for his forces to be in position to assist the exploitation of any breakthrough made by Pickett’s attack. Stuart hoped to cover his movement from Federal observation but he was discovered and his movement reported back to Meade. Stuart blamed the discovery on the trail brigades of Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee who had “debouched onto open ground and disclosed his presence.” (4)
Brigadier General David Gregg commanding the Second Cavalry Division received word of Stuart’s approach and prepared to intercept him and in the process relieve the Michigan Brigade of the newly minted Brigadier General George Custer so it could rejoin Jusdon Kilpatrick’s division.
Upon his arrival Gregg realized that he would be outnumbered and that Stuart posed “a serious threat to the Federal rear.”(5) Custer indicated that he thought Gregg would soon have a battle and Gregg replied “in that case he would like to have the assistance of his Michigan brigade.” (6) Custer indicated his agreement and without bothering to consult the Cavalry Corps Commander Alfred Pleasanton Gregg ordered Custer to remain with him and “willingly risked his military career and reputation in his anxiety to protect the Federal rear.” (7)
Gregg’s action was yet another of the superior judgements executed by a Federal commander during the battle. It was an outstanding example of how Federal commanders on the whole recognized the overall tactical situation and used their judgement to take action when waiting for a superior could prove fatal to the army. In our modern understanding it would be an example of how Mission Command is to work.
During the battle Stuart displayed little of his normally sharp tactical leadership and took little part in the battle leaving the conduct of it to his subordinates. Though the Federal Horse Artillery was outnumbered Gregg used the two batteries he had far more effectively than Stuart used his. Additionally Gregg had two brigade commanders willing to take the fight to the Confederates.
The main battle took place after Three PM when Pickett’s attack was battling for its life during its assault on Cemetery Hill. There were a number of charges and counter charges and the battle was tactically a draw but a victory for Gregg who had forced Stuart to enter a battle “in which the Confederates gained nothing except the “glory of fighting” (8) and had stopped Stuart from his objective of disrupting the Federal rear and aiding Pickett’s assault.
Stuart’s aid Major Henry McClellan wrote of the battle:
“The result of this battle shows that there is no possibility that Stuart could successfully have carried out his intention of attacking the rear of the Federal right flank, for it was sufficiently protected by Gregg’s command. As soon as General Gregg was aware of Stuart’s presence he wisely assumed the aggressive and forced upon Stuart a battle…while Gregg himself performed the paramount flank of protecting the right flank of the Federal Army.” (9)
McClellan’s analysis is both succinct and accurate. As Stuart’s forces retired and Pickett’s shattered command withdrew the Battle of Gettysburg was effectively over.
1. Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg A Mariner Book, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York 2003. pp.257-258
2. Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and his Critics Brassey’s Dulles VA 1999 p.150
3 Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Books New York 2001 p.316
4 Coddinton, Edwin B. Gettysburg: A Study in Command. A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York 1968 pp.520-521
5. Ibid. p.521
7. Ibid. p.522
8. Ibid. p.523
9. McClellan, Henry Brainerd The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart Commander of the Cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia 1885. Digital edition copyright 2011 Strait Gate Publications, Charlotte NC location 6516 of 12283