Vague Orders, Hubris, and the Need for Redemption: J.E.B. Stuart’s Ride at Gettysburg

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today I am going back to the archives and re-posting an edited version of something that is part of my unpublished Gettysburg Campaign text. James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart is legendary in American military history. A young cavalry officer from Virginia he was like a son to Robert E. Lee and was a man whose military accomplishments were matched by his unbridled vanity, which during the most critical moment in the history of the Confederacy led him to embark on an operation that left his commander in the lurch and helped doom the Confederacy. The story picks up following Stuart being surprised by Federal Cavalry at the Battle of Brandy Station in June of 1863 as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was moving north in an attempt to bring the Army of the Potomac to Battle, destroy it, and end the war. Both Stuart and Lee had much to do with the failure of this plan, but I hope that you enjoy this account.

Peace

Padre Steve+

While the embattled “Fighting Joe” Hooker slowly pursued Lee with the Army of the Potomac, a drama of major significance to the battle Robert E. Lee’s own making was beginning to engulf his operations and leave him blind to the movements of the Federal Army. It involved Lee and his Cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart and would be the first of a number of mistakes that would characterize Lee’s campaign. All of these failures dealt with Lee’s singular inability to get his commanders to understand his intent for the campaign and his inability to clearly communicate his wishes.

The necessity of subordinate commanders understanding the intent of their superior is essential to the success of any military operation. During the Gettysburg campaign Lee failed miserably to communicate his operational plan and desire to his commanders. The episode with Stuart was one of several that paint a portrait of Lee not being as good of General as the myth surrounding him.

After the surprise at Brandy Station Stuart’s troopers screened the right flank of the army as it moved north, defending the gaps in the Blue Ridge to keep Alfred Pleasanton’s Federal Cavalry Corps from interdicting the march of the Army of Northern Virginia, or discovering the location of Lee’s three infantry corps which were moving north behind the cover of the Blue Ridge.

In this Stuart was successful, but frustrated. Between June 17th and June 21st his troopers fought a series of engagements against the aggressive Federal Cavalry at Ashby’s Gap, Middleburg and Upperville in Northern Virginia. While Stuart’s troopers had held off Pleasanton’s confident troopers the “running combats were taking a toll on the Southern mounted arm, however. Stuart had already suffered several hundred casualties defending gaps and passes.” [1] Much to their dismay the Confederates noted the improvements in the Federal cavalry during these battles. Captain William Blackford, who served as an engineer on Stuart’s staff noted:

“the improvement of enemy cavalry was enormous, mainly in the heavy fire from long range carbines, and horse artillery that was a match for Stuart’s own These cavalrymen fought as if they had been taken from infantry regiments, for they knew how to fight with horses left behind.” [2]

Unlike the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia that was marching like victors into Pennsylvania and Maryland, Stuart’s Cavalry Division had little cause to rejoice. They had been surprised at Brandy Station and Stuart had been humiliated in the Southern press. The Federal cavalry under Pleasanton gave him no opportunity to redeem himself. While Pleasanton’s troopers never broke through Stuart’s screen, they had pressed him hard, and his division was “really fought out during those two weeks from June 9 until the misty morning of June 22…. Not only had Stuart’s cavalry been pressed on the defensive as never before, but also they had not been able to gain a spot of information about the enemy.” [3] Pleasanton’s troopers and proven that the days of “easy Confederate cavalry triumphs were gone,” [4] and Stuart, now “smarting over the cuts to his ego, refused to read the portents” [5] of future disaster.

Stuart had been fighting defensively the entire campaign, but desperately wanted to go on the offensive. As his troops battled at Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville, Stuart formulated a plan that he submitted to Lee. Stuart reasoned since now that “all the infantry were west of the Blue Ridge…that it would be possible to leave one or two brigades of cavalry to defend the gaps and with the remaining three to descend on the enemy and harass Hooker in any advance into Pennsylvania.” [6] For him the plan was designed for personal glory and redemption after the embarrassment at Brandy Station.

On the morning of the 22nd of June Stuart noticed that the Federal cavalry that had engaged him at Upperville the previous day was no longer present. That morning he also received an order from Lee ; an order that was the first of a series of vague, poorly written and contradictory orders that was to plague Lee throughout the campaign.

Unlike his new infantry corps commanders, Ewell and Hill, Stuart was very familiar with Robert E. Lee’s method of command, and Lee had “so much faith in Stuart’s judgment and ability to make the right moves that after indicating his wishes he gave him considerable latitude in carrying them out. His orders were more suggestions than commands….” [7] However well that may have worked for Lee in the past with Jackson and Stuart, the nature of Lee’s orders to Stuart, being conditional, needed to clearly address “the conditions upon which they are based.” [8] This Lee did not do. His order read:

“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….” [9]

James Longstreet, commander of the Confederate First Corps who Stuart was cooperating with on the northward march, added his own comments to Lee’s instructions which even further clouded the order:

General Lee has enclosed 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 the 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 be 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 will leave here in command, to report to me at Millwood, either by letter or in person, as may be most agreeable to him.” [10]  

But even without an order from Lee, Stuart was already planning his offensive that he believed would restore his glory. He had sent Major John Mosby with a small detachment of troops to reconnoiter behind the Union lines. Mosby reported the location of all the infantry corps of the Army of the Potomac. Mosby reported to Stuart on June 23rd that the Federal corps were stationary and “were so widely separated…that a column of cavalry could easily get between them.” [11] It was news that Stuart was delighted to hear. Mosby painted a glowing picture of how an operation using the Hopewell Gap could create havoc in the Federal rear and cause panic in Washington as he could “severe communications between Hooker and Pleasanton, destroy a “large portion” of Hooker’s transportation, and take some of the pressure off Lee by creating a diversion for the Union cavalry.” [12]

The inactivity of the Federal army reported by Mosby was exactly the news Stuart wanted to hear, and he asked Lee for permission to plunge into the Federal rear, and in his after action report wrote:

“I submitted to the commanding general the plan of leaving a brigade or so in my present front, and passing through Hopewell, or some other gap in Bull Run Mountain, attaining the enemy’s rear, and passing between his main body and Washington, to cross into Maryland and joining our army north of the Potomac.” [13]

Lee was rather cryptic in his after action report and wrote “Upon the suggestion of the former officer (General Stuart) that he could damage the enemy and delay his passage of the river by getting to his rear, he was authorized to do so.” [14] In that same report of the campaign Lee wrote:

“General Stuart was left to guard the passes of the mountains and observe the movements of the enemy, whom he was instructed to impede and harass as much as possible, should he attempt to cross the Potomac. In that event, General Stuart was directed to move into Maryland, crossing the Potomac east or west of the Blue Ridge, as, in his judgment, should be best, and take position on the right of our column as it advanced.” [15]

That night, during a heavy rainstorm Stuart’s chief of staff Major McClellan received Lee’s reply to his superior’s request. When he received it he immediately delivered to Stuart. Lee’s instruction stated:

“If General Hooker’s army remains inactive, you can leave two brigades to watch him, and withdraw with three others, but should he not appear to be moving northward, I think you had better withdraw this side of the mountains tomorrow night, cross as Shepherdstown next day, and move over to Frederickstown.

You will, however, be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, 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, etc.” [16]

However, Stuart does not deserve the entirety of the blame for what happened. The orders or suggestions that he received from Lee and Longstreet gave Stuart were “so badly worded that it is difficult to make sense of them.” [17] Lee implicitly trusted Stuart but he was wrong in assuming that the young officer should be able to divine his intent after Brandy Station without taking into account the effect the negative press of that battle had on his subordinate. Lee should have “established that Stuart’s most important task was to guard Ewell’s right and report on the direction of Hooker’s advance once Lee crossed the Potomac.” [18] This he did not do. Instead, Stuart was given several conflicting instructions. Lee directed that Stuart maintain contact with Ewell, screen the Blue Ridge gaps, collect information, “raiding around the rear of Hooker’s forces” [19] damaging the enemy and collecting supplies. Stuart could have done any of these tasks, but not all of them, and the smorgasbord offered by Lee played directly into Stuart’s need to redeem himself after the beating that he took in the Confederate Press after Brandy Station.

Specifically, Lee’s lack of clarity and vagueness allowed to Stuart interpret the order in a manner that benefited him. The order could easily be interpreted as getting Stuart and his men into Pennsylvania as quickly as possible to guard Ewell’s flank and discern the intentions of the enemy, which in hindsight appears to be Lee’s intent, or as permission to conduct a raid “roam in the enemy’s rear for an unpredictable period of time, raising havoc with his communications, supplies, and isolated commands” and then “seek out Ewell’s corps and use it as a place of refuge from an aroused enemy.” [20]

The fact is that as they are today that different standards apply to each course of action laid out by a commander and that orders must be clear, otherwise subordinates may interpret them in a far different manner that intended. Such vague orders can have far reaching effects, often contrary to the intent of the commander who issued them; this was the case here.

By giving Stuart the latitude to go around the Federal army Lee undercut his own preference that Stuart cross into Maryland via Shepherdstown and Frederick on June 24th. Lee had provided Stuart an opportunity for something that “Longstreet half-apologetically called “something better than the drudgery of a march around our flank.” [21] It was a critical mistake, which was then further compounded by Stuart and the movement of the Army of the Potomac.

Stung by the criticism of his conduct of the Battle of Brandy Station in the Southern press and frustrated by Pleasanton’s constant thrusts at his troopers screening Lee’s flank on the Blue Ridge Stuart interpreted the orders in the manner that appealed to Stuart’s sense of glory. He would repeat his triumph of the previous year when he rode around the Army of the Potomac. For Stuart this was a chance to regain the limelight and add to his luster. Stuart “summed up his interpretation of his orders when he said later: …it was deemed practicable to move entirely in the enemy’s rear, intercepting his communications with his base (Washington), and, inflicting damage upon his rear, to rejoin the army in Pennsylvania in time to participate in its actual conflicts.”[22]

Historians have long wondered why Lee was not more explicit in his orders to Stuart and why Stuart conducted an operation that left Lee blind and had no obvious advantages, except to allow Stuart to recover his tarnished reputation. Stephen Sears noted in his book Gettysburg that: “The very concept of Stuart’s expedition was fueled by overconfidence and misjudgment at the highest command level.” [23] In a sense the decision harkens back to the hubris of Lee and others about the superiority of his army, and Lee’s distain for the capabilities of Army of the Potomac and Federal troops in general.

In organizing his movement around the Army of the Potomac, Stuart decided to take his three best cavalry brigades with him, and leave the brigades of “Grumble” Jones and Beverly Robertson to defend gaps and screen the rear of the army. The choice was unfortunate; Robertson was unpredictable but was “senior to the dependable Jones” [24] who was considered the “best outpost officer in his command.” [25] The choice ridded Stuart of Robertson, who he did not trust in battle and Jones “whose antipathy for Stuart at least equaled Stuart’s for him.” [26] The intent was that Robertson would screen the army and follow it into Maryland, in fact Stuart gave Robertson “explicit instructions” [27] to do so, but instead “the two brigades would remain fixed, as if planted there, in an inanition of command which immobilized the men for whom Lee in Pennsylvania was anxiously watching.” [28] Longstreet had requested the industrious and dependable Hampton command the remainder of the cavalry, but Stuart disregarded his counsel and took Hampton with him.

Stuart set off with his three best brigades, Wade Hampton’s, Fitzhugh Lee’s, and Rooney Lee’s, the latter now with Rooney Lee having been wounded was under the command of Colonel John R. Chambliss. Chambliss was another former West Pointer who had retired from the old army but had responded to the call to secession.

Almost immediately after setting off Stuart and his brigades encountered a situation that should have immediately stopped movement to the Federal rear and instead brought Stuart to move back to the west of the Blue Ridge. Moving through Glasscock’s Gap Stuart’s troopers  “bumped unexpectedly into “an immense wagon train,” which happened to be the tail end of Winfield Hancock’s 2nd Corps, blocking the road in exactly the fashion Lee had described as a hindrance.” [29] Instead of going back when he had the chance Stuart elected to continue with his “plan to go around the Federal army. It was a crucial decision, for he still could have turned back without losing any more time.” [30] Even so, Stuart had to spend a day grazing his horses since he had no grain with him, delaying his advance north and east, placing him a day behind schedule. Though Stuart and his brigades made better time on the 26th, advancing twenty-five miles, he had to again stop to graze his horses at the Occoquan River. It had “taken forty-eight hours to march thirty-five miles.” [31]

Stuart continued on past the outskirts of Washington on June 27th and was again delayed when attempting to cross the Potomac at Rowser’s Ford where the “water level was two feet higher than normal.” [32] Upon crossing the river he then encountered a large Federal wagon train not far from Washington capturing over 100 wagons and 600 mules. He reveled in that feat and boasted that “he had taken more than one hundred and twenty-five best United States model wagons and splendid teams and gay caparisons,” containing “foodstuffs, oats, hay…bacon, ham, crackers and bread” but his progress was slowed by his enormous wagon train of captured supplies…” [33] He and briefly wondered “whether it might be worth “our entering Washington City” [34] before determining that the effort might be too costly.

On June 28th Stuart received word that Joe Hooker and the Army of the Potomac were across the Potomac. Likewise, Stuart “knew nothing of Lee’s position,” [35] and instead of abandoning the wagon train he sacrificed the speed and mobility of his brigades to keep it. This was a direct consequence of how badly Lee had written his order to Stuart. Now, “far from guarding Ewell’s right, he was now moving away from Ewell, with no idea where Hooker’s army might be and no communication with Lee, who frequently inquiring of his aides, “Can you tell me where General Stuart is?” [36]

On the wrong side of the federal army, encumbered by the captured wagon train, “Stuart would have to make a half circle of more than fifty miles around Gettysburg before arriving there about noon on the second day of battle with most of his troopers, his artillery, and his wagon train lumbering far behind him.” [37] On June 30th his men were engaged by Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal near cavalry division near Hanover, and “his men never fought more poorly…and General Stuart and his staff were nearly captured.” [38] By the time Stuart’s troopers arrived in Gettysburg, the once proud outfit was “exhausted and too late to be of any service.” [39] His arrival at Gettysburg was not a moment of triumph, but was humiliating. Instead of reporting to his commander with information that Lee needed, it was Lee who informed him of the position of his own army and the Army of the Potomac. Lee’s words to his much beloved subordinate were painful. He asked him “General Stuart, where have you been?” [40] Stuart seemed to wilt at his mentor’s words, and attempted to put the best face forward, and told Lee “I have brought you 125 wagons and their teams, General,” to which Lee replied “Yes, General, but they are an impediment to me now.” [41]

Stuart’s raid was disastrous for Lee. Until July 2nd, Lee was blind and had no idea where the Federal army was. He learned some when he told of the location of the Army of the Potomac by Longstreet’s scout Harrison on June 28th but even then he had no clear idea of the Federal Army’s location, strength, or intentions until the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Stuart’s ride was “an act of folly – ill-planned, badly conducted, and (until the very end) executed with an almost total disregard for anything for any interest other than the self-promotion of J.E.B. Stuart.” [42]

To be clear, a number of important military factors important to those involved in planning campaigns are clear: Deception, commander’s intent, and unity of command. Lee successfully used deception to prevent the Federals from discerning his purposes, but that initial success was compromised by his lack of clarity in communicating his intent for the campaign to Stuart, and by Stuart’s careless disregard of any other consideration but his own reputation and vanity.

Both Stuart and Lee share culpability for the failure of the Confederate campaign at the operational and tactical level. Of course they were not the only ones, Longstreet, Ewell, A.P. Hill, Harry Heth, and Jubal Early and many others had a share in the defeat, but Lee in his orders, and his protégé Stuart in trying to redeem his reputation were most culpable in the defeat at Gettysburg.

Notes

[1] Petruzzi, J. David and Stanley, Steven The Gettysburg Campaign in Numbers and Losses: Synopses, Orders of Battle, Strengths, Casualties and Maps, June 9 – July 1, 1863 Savas Beatie LLC, El Dorado Hills CA 2012 p.41

[2] Davis, Burke J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier Random House, New York 1957 pp.319-320

[3] Dowdy, Clifford. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing, New York 1986, originally published as Death of a Nation Knopf, New York 1958 p.57

[4] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgement by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 p.553

[5] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.57

[6] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.553

[7] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.108

[8] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.108

[9] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.321

[10] Oates, Willam C. and Haskell, Frank A. Gettysburg: The Confederate and Union Views of the Most Decisive Battle of the War in One Volume Bantam Books edition, New York 1992, originally published in 1905 p.61

[11] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.109

[12] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.109

[13] 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 6087

[14] Ibid. McClellan The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart location 6106

[15] Lee, Robert E. Reports of Robert E Lee, C.S. Army, Commanding Army of Northern Virginia Campaign Report Dated January 20th 1864. Amazon Kindle Edition location 285

[16] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.324

[17] Fuller, J.F.C. Decisive Battles of the U.S.A. 1776-1918 University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 2007 copyright 1942 The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals p.226

[18] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.540

[19] Ibid Korda Clouds of Glory p.540

[20] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.110

[21] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.96

[22] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.555

[23] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 2003 p.106

[24] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.63

[25] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.324

[26] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.63

[27] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.112

[28] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.63

[29] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.96

[30] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.112

[31] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.325

[32] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.112

[33] Ibid Korda Clouds of Glory p.541

[34] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.98

[35] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.325

[36] Ibid Korda Clouds of Glory p.541

[37] Ibid Korda Clouds of Glory p.541

[38] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.73

[39] Ibid. Fuller Decisive Battles of the U.S.A. 1776-1918 p.227

[40] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.334

[41] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.334

[42] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.98

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2 Comments

Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, leadership, Military

2 responses to “Vague Orders, Hubris, and the Need for Redemption: J.E.B. Stuart’s Ride at Gettysburg

  1. Pingback: Vague Orders, Hubris, and the Need for Redemption: J.E.B. Stuart’s Ride at Gettysburg — Padre Steve’s World…Musings of a Progressive Realist in Wonderland @padresteve | Talmidimblogging

  2. Randy Gee

    Steve, my USC guitar teacher/mentor, Jimmy Stewart, is the great, great, great grandson of J.E.B. Stuart. Here’s the link that mentions the relationship: http://jimmystewartthecompletemusician.com/?page_id=196

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