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The Gettysburg Campaign: Change, Uncertainty, and Prelude to Battle

army of the potomac

The Army of the Potomac on the Move

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

If you were an ordinary soldier in either the Army of the Potomac or Army of Northern Virginia June 28th 1863 would not have been much different than any of the previous days, in fact it was “uneventful for men in the ranks.” [1] Both armies had been on the march for over three weeks, and now both armies were across the Potomac, Lee’s was now mostly in Pennsylvania and Hooker’s following in Maryland. With the exception of the cavalry engagements at Brandy Station, Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville, and Ewell’s easy victory over Milroy at Winchester, the main body of either army had been engaged.

The morale of the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia was high, and reflected by Lee’s own attitude toward the campaign. Colonel Eppa Hunton of the 8th Virginia recalled that Lee told him that “the invasion of Pennsylvania would be a great success, and if so, it would end the war, or we would have rest for some time to come.” Hunton added, “General Lee was so enthusiastic about the movement that I threw away my doubts and became as enthusiastic as he was.”[2] Like its commander the army was superbly confident as it marched north. A Virginian observing the army as it marched through Maryland recalled: “The health of the troops was never better and above all the morale of the army was never more favorable for offensive or defensive operations….Victory will inevitably attend our arms in any collision with the enemy.” [3] Another soldier later recalled “no one ever admitted the possibility of defeat across the Potomac.” [4]

Robert E. Lee

However, Robert E. Lee was uneasy, but not overly concerned. Though he had not heard anything from J.E.B. Stuart since June 23rd, when Stuart had begun his ride, he was still confident. Not knowing the location of the Federal army, Lee met with Major General Isaac Trimble on the evening of June 27th at his headquarters near Chambersburg. Though he had been slated to command to division now commanded by Allegheny Johnson, he had been slow to recover from a leg wound incurred in 1862 and could not take command. Though he did not have a command, Trimble had accompanied the army north, as Lee did not want to lose “the services of so hard a fighter as this veteran of all the Second Corps victories from First through Second Manassas.” [5] Trimble recalled the words of a very confident commander:

“Our army is in good spirits, not overly fatigued, and can be concentrated on any point in twenty-four hours or less. I have not yet heard that the enemy have crossed the Potomac, and I am waiting to hear from General Stuart….They will come up, probably through Frederick, broken down with hunger and hard marching….I shall throw up an overwhelming force on their advance, crush it, follow up the success, [and] drive one corps back on another…create a panic and virtually destroy the enemy.” [6]

Trimble was “stirred” by Lee’s words and told Lee that he did “not doubt of the outcome of such a confrontation, especially because the moral of the Army of Northern Virginia had never been higher than it was now.” [7] Lee agreed and “as Trimble rose to go, Lee laid his hand on the map and pointed to a little town east of the mountains, Gettysburg by name, from which roads radiated like so many spikes. “Hereabout,” he said, “we shall probably meet the army and fight a great battle, and if God gives us the victory, the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence.” [8]

George Gordon Meade

On the night of June 27th Major General George Gordon Meade was simply one of seven Corps Commanders in the Army of the Potomac. As Trimble left and Lee settled in for the night, Meade, Commander of V Corps, was at his new headquarters located at Robert McGill’s farm outside of Frederick. Meade was asleep in his tent, was unaware that Colonel James A. Hardie, Halleck’s Assistant Adjutant General, was on a train from Washington with orders that would change the course of the war. Hardie arrived in Fredericksburg after midnight and instead of remaining for the night rented a carriage and made his way directly to Meade’s headquarters, bearing in his hand “General Orders 194…relieving General Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac and appointing General Meade in his place.” [9]

Meade, desired the appointment as commander of the Army did not expect it. Meade, a career soldier “possessed ambition but had never allowed it to consume him as Joseph Hooker had.” [10] Meade believed that if Hooker was relieved of command that John Reynolds of First Corps or another would receive it. Meade was outranked by his fellow Corps commanders Reynolds and John Sedgwick of VI Corps, and he felt that Reynolds was the ideal man to command the army.

Meade wrote to his wife the reasons he believed that he would not get command a few days before: “because I have no friends, political or others, who press or advance my claims or pretentions.” [11] The latter was not because Meade did not have friends, but because unlike Hooker, Sickles and so many others he stayed out of the various political cabals in the army and their constant intrigues. Meade, though on bad terms with Hooker was not one of the Generals who conspired against Hooker in the weeks following Chancellorsville. He told Governor Andrew Curtain of Pennsylvania that “I should be very sorry to see him removed, unless a decidedly better man is substituted.”[12]

On June 25th Meade had written his wife Margaret, who was uneasy with the rumors that her husband might be named head of the army. Reiterating his belief that he did not have the necessary political connections, and that there were others at least as competent or more to lead the army, he wrote:

“For these reasons I have never indulged in any dreams of ambition, contented to await events, and do my duty in the sphere it pleases God to place me in…and I really think that it would be well for you to take the same philosophical view; but do you know, I think your ambition is being roused and that you are beginning to be bitten with the dazzling prospect of having for a husband a commanding general of an army. How is this?” [13]

At 3:00 A.M. Hardie arrived. “Led to Meade’s tent, Hardie greeted the suddenly awakened general by saying he brought “trouble.” [14]Meade wrote his wife:

“At 3:00 A.M. I was roused from my sleep by an officer from Washington entering my tent…and after waking me up, saying he had come to give me trouble. At first I thought that it was to either relieve or arrest me, and promptly replied to him, that my conscience was clear, void of offense towards any man; I was prepared for his bad news. He then handed me a communication to read: which I found was an order relieving Hooker from the command and assigning me to it.” [15]

Meade stated his objections to Hardie, again reiterating his belief that Reynolds should command the army but Hardie explained that the decision had been made-Meade had no choice but to obey his orders or resign. Hardie provided Meade a letter from Halleck which said “Considering the circumstances…no one ever received a more important command; and I cannot doubt that you will firmly justify the confidence that the Government has reposed in you.” [16]

The order gave Meade command of the troops at Harper’s Ferry which had been denied to Hooker just days before. It also gave him freedom of command. It read: “You will not be hampered by any minute instructions from these headquarters” and “you are free to act as you deem proper under the circumstances as they arise.” [17] Likewise Meade was authorized to take command General Couch’s forces along the Susquehanna. A further power given to Meade which had not been given to previous commanders of the Army of the Potomac was the authority to relieve from command and dismiss officers from the army, or appoint to command officers regardless of seniority as he saw fit. It was a power that during the tumult of battle that he would use well in the coming days.

Meade went by horseback with Hardie and his son Captain George Meade to Hooker’s headquarters at Prospect Hall. The previous night Hooker who after hearing nothing after Halleck’s terse response to his request to be relieved “had convinced himself that the ensuing silence meant that he had beaten Halleck.” [18] But now, Hooker, aware that Hardie was in the camp, and obviously correctly assumed that he was through as the commander of the Army of the Potomac. Hooker greeted his visitors in his dress uniform and with “much effort he tried to hide his feelings and by extreme courtesy to relieve the situation of embarrassment.” [19]

Meade had not seen Hooker in two weeks and had no idea how scattered the army was. When Hooker and Dan Butterfield his Chief of Staff briefed Meade, and Meade learned of the army’s disposition he “unguardedly expressed himself.” Hooker “retorted with feeling. [20] Despite the uncomfortableness of the situation Hooker and Meade were able to successfully pass command of the army and Hooker issued General Order 66 in which “he praised his successor and asked the army to extend the hearty support it had given him. He added: 

“Impressed with the ability that my usefulness as the commander of the Army of the Potomac is impaired I part from it; yet not without the deepest emotion.

The sorrow of parting with comrades of so many battles is relieved by the conviction that the courage and devotion of this army will never cease to fail.” [21]

Meade’s words in his General Order 67 are indicative of his feelings on assuming command of the army:

“By direction of the President of the United States, I hereby assume command of the Army of the Potomac…. As a soldier obeying this order- an order totally unexpected and unsolicited- I have no promises to make.”

‘The country looks to this army to relieve it from the devastation and disgrace of a foreign invasion. Whatever fatigues and sacrifices we may be called to undergo, let us have in view, constantly the magnitude of the interests involved, and let each man determine to do his duty, leaving to an all-controlling Providence the decision of the contest.

“It is with great diffidence that I relieve in the command of this army an eminent and accomplished soldier, whose name must appear conspicuous in the history of its achievements; but I rely on the hearty support of my companions in arms to assist me in the discharge of the duties of the important trust which has been confided to me.” [22]

That afternoon Meade sent a note to Halleck telling him he had received “the order placing me in command of this army” and that “as a soldier, I obey it.” [23] Reynolds was among the first corps commanders to pay his respects to Meade, and Meade “grabbed him by the arm and earnestly told him he wished Reynolds had received the assignment. Reynolds replied that Meade was the right choice and that he would do whatever was necessary to support him.” [24]John Gibbon greeted Meade’s appointment “with a sigh of relief” and Reynold’s artillery commander wrote “For my part, I think that we have got the best man of the two, much as I think of Reynolds….” [25]

Meade had good reason to wish that Reynolds or another had been appointed and certainly welcomed his friend Reynolds’ support. Meade knew that he was not Lincoln’s first choice for the job, partly because of being associated with George McClellan, as well as his own political ties as a Democrat, and the opposition of leading Republicans to his appointment to any command. He had run afoul of the Northern abolitionist “fire eaters” in Detroit when Fort Sumter was fired on, and “while he was a staunch Unionist he was dismayed by the arrogance of the fire-eaters, to whom Southern secession looked like a simple riot which would be suppressed by the mere appearance of Federal troops.” [26] William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator had early on tired Meade and found him to be wanting in abolitionist sentiment: “There seems to be a marked deficiency of benevolence, and a dainty, aristocratic look, which…reveals a character that never efficiently and consistently served a liberal cause.” [27]

Aware of the fate of other officers who had a similar political bent, such as Fitz-John Porter who was “court-martialed, cashiered and disgraced” [28] after being falsely accused of “disobedience of orders during the Second Battle of Bull Run” [29] by John Pope who had brought about the disaster. Thus with that in mind Meade understood the political danger that his appointment entailed. “If he was successful in protecting Washington and Baltimore or if he somehow defeated Lee and drove the Confederates back across the Potomac, he would receive precious little credit from the Lincoln administration; if he failed, even for the most plainly military reasons, he expected to be pilloried without mercy as a halfheart and traitor.” [30]

The appointment of Meade was met with relief by most of his fellow Corps commanders. He was respected by them, despite having “a cold, even irascible, edge to him, particularly when occupied with army business. He was demanding of himself and of aids and subordinates,” [31] but what mattered to them was that Meade “was a thorough soldier, and a “mighty clear headed man”, with “extraordinary courage.” [32] A future staff officer noted that Meade “will pitch himself in a moment, if he thinks he has done wrong; and woe to those, no matter who they are, who do not do right.” [33]

He was viewed as a truthful, honest and caring commander who after a blow- up would do what he could to reconcile. He was passionate about the lives of his troops and whenever possible avoided battles that he believed their sacrifice would be in vain. He knew his trade, paid close attention to detail and knew and understood his troops and commanders. He had earned respect throughout his career and during the battles on the Peninsula, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville proved that he was an excellent leader and commander of troops.

All that being said Meade was virtually “an unknown quantity outside of his corps.” [34] Many in the rank and file wondered about the change of commanders in the middle of the campaign, “What’s Meade ever done?” was a common response among the men- those outside his corps at least- when they heard that he was their new commander. The general himself had few delusions on this score. “I know they call me a damned old snapping turtle….” [35] These soldiers had seen good and bad commanders and seen how Washington had dealt with each one, but by now “their training in the school of hard knocks under fumbling leaders had toughened the soldiers to a flinty self-reliance that left many indifferent to the identity of their commander. [36]On the eve of battle they had a new commanding general and “they were almost within rifleshot of a supremely aggressive enemy…whatever happened during the next week, the one certainty was now that the soldiers themselves would run this next battle. The most that could be expected of Meade was that he would make no ruinous mistakes.” [37]It not only was an army with a new leader, but in its soul, the Army of the Potomac was a different army than Lee had ever faced. In fact, though Lee won the Battle Of Chancellorsville, with the possible exception of some units of Howard’s XI Corps, the rank and file and many leaders of the Army Of the Potomac did not accept the defeat and wanted another chance at Lee.

Meade had an immense task to accomplish. When he went to bed on the night of the 27th he was unaware of the locations of the bulk of the Federal Army and knew that Lee was already deep in Pennsylvania. Meade was determined to bring Lee to battle was cautious as he did not want to take a chance of his forces being split up and defeated in detail.

With his assumption of command Meade had to make some organizational changes. Against the advice of some Meade kept General Daniel Butterfield as his Chief of Staff despite Butterfield’s close association with Hooker and his political cabal.  He appointed Major General George Sykes to command his old V Corps and wired Halleck with an “unheard of request: to promote in one jump three brilliant young officers from the rank of captain to that of brigadier general. They were Elon J. Farnsworth of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, George A Custer of the 5th United States Cavalry and Wesley Merritt of the 2nd United States Cavalry.” [38] Each was appointed to command brigades in Pleasanton’s Cavalry Corps which was being reorganized that day.

Meade had a great advantage over Lee in that Colonel George Sharpe of the Bureau of Military Information had provided him with the information that “the enemy force does not exceed 80,000 men and 275 guns,” as well as “a remarkably accurate outline of Lee’s movements.” [39] The information allowed Meade to begin his pursuit of Lee in earnest the following morning.

Meade knew that if he was to defeat Lee he had to concentrate his combat power. He wired Halleck that he would “move toward the Susquehanna keeping Baltimore and Washington well covered, and if the enemy is checked in his attempt to cross the Susquehanna or if he turns toward Baltimore, to give him battle.” [40] He prepared a fallback position along Pipe Creek and gave his Corps commanders permission to withdraw back to the Pipe Creek line outside Taneytown Maryland if they felt threatened by a larger Confederate force, and on the morning of June 29th the Army of the Potomac began to march north where it was fated to do battle with its old nemesis.

Any commander that embarks on a high risk offensive operation in enemy territory must do so with great care, especially in regard to command and control of his forces. This is especially true regarding reconnaissance, and intelligence. Lee had been operating blind for well over a week and this was his fault. Because Lee had issued such vague orders to his Cavalry Corps Commander, J.E.B. Stuart, Stuart was well to the east conducting a ride around the Federal army. Stuart was now completely useless to Lee, who needed the intelligence alone Stuart could provide, and without a Cavalry screen on his right flank. Now Lee was reaping the results of his carelessness in planning, order writing, and overconfidence. 

Though Lee still had three brigades of Stuart’s Cavalry Division available, none were in a position to assist his reconnaissance needs. Again blame for this has to be laid at the feet of Lee. Robertson’s and Jones’ brigades were still deep in Virginia guarding Snicker’s and Ashby’s Gap. Iboden’s Brigade was to the west at Hancock Maryland. Jenkins’ brigade, which was not a part of Stuart’s division, was far to the front with Ewell’s Corps. Had Robertson followed Stuart’s orders “Lee would not have felt the want of adequate cavalry support” [41] but since Robertson had remained stationary Lee had nothing available when he needed it.

In the case of the selection of Jones’ and Robertson’s brigades for the mission of screening Lee, Stuart made a critical mistake. Jones and Robertson both had serious deficiencies as leaders and proved that neither had Lee’s “confidence or understood his expectations…and Stuart badly misread the amount of personal connection his superior required.” [42] While Lee’s orders to Stuart allowed him to go off on his mission, Lee had plenty of cavalry available. However, he employed it in a woeful manner and did not take the steps necessary to ensure that the commanders assigned understood his expectations. This was another critical mistake made by Lee and as Alan T. Nolan wrote: “There seems to be no excuse for Lee’s finding himself at Chambersburg on the 28th without a single regiment of cavalry” [43] The tragic thing for the Confederacy was that Lee would make this same mistake in failing to communicate his intent with other subordinates throughout the campaign.

James Longstreet

Late on the night of June 28th Lieutenant General James Longstreet “was woken by someone banging on his tent pole.” [44] It was the assistant Inspector General, Major John W. Fairfax who had with him a man claiming to have information on the movement and location of the Army of the Potomac. The man’s name was Harrison and he was an actor, employed by Longstreet as a “scout.” Harrison was one of those mysterious figures that occasionally show up in the context of a historical event and make it even more interesting.

Harrison brought word to Longstreet the news Hooker’s relief and replacement by Meade as well as the location of Federal Cavalry as well as the location of five of the Army of the Potomac’s seven army corps, all too close for comfort. Questioned about the location and activities of Stuart, Harrison could give no information. The news was electrifying and Longstreet immediately sent Fairfax with Harrison to Lee’s headquarters. Lee distrusted spies and was “very reluctant to make a move without confirmation of his cavalry.” [45] Lee was skeptical of the news and told Fairfax “I do not know what to do….I cannot hear from General Stuart, the eye of the army. What do you think of Harrison? I have no confidence in any scout, but General Longstreet thinks a good deal of Harrison.” [46]

Lee’s puzzlement at finding the federal army across the Potomac is curious as he had known as early as June 23rd of the pontoon bridge being built over the Potomac, but he seemed paralyzed by the absence of Stuart. The surprise of the Union Army being concentrated so near him took away Lee’s ability to retain the initiative of a campaign of maneuver. Because his army was so scattered he was now in danger of being hit and defeated in detail by the Federal army, “Meade, in short, might be able to do what he had planned to do to Hooker- defeat him in detail.” [47]It was a dangerous position for him to be in and he knew it. In a sense he was fortunate that on June 28th  the Army of the Potomac was changing command and unable to strike while he was so vulnerable.

With the knowledge that the Federal army was near Lee acted with alacrity to concentrate his army in the Cashtown and Gettysburg area. “Within eight hours of Harrison’s report to Lee” [48] Lee had set in motion orders to all commands of his scattered army.  Lee still had “no idea of the whereabouts of the enemy’s forces beyond what Longstreet’s spy had just told him- information that was already twenty-four hours old,” and did have “any idea of how to remedy this intelligence gathering void.” [49] He knew precious little other than the fact that “Hooker’s army, now under Meade, was across the mountain from him and that it was Stuart who was still in Virginia,” [50] a fact he had learned from Captain James Power Smith who informed Lee that he had met two troopers of Stuart’s division who “casually told him that on the preceding day (Saturday the 27th) that they had left the main body of cavalry under Stuart in Prince William County back in northern Virginia. When Smith passed on this information, General Lee, he said, “was evidently surprised and disturbed.” [51]

Another consequence of his lack of available cavalry was that he had to leave Pickett’s division to guard the rear until Imboden’s cavalry could arrive to take up the task. The detention of Pickett’s division would be another unfortunate consequence of Stuart’s absence that would plague Lee during the battle, especially on July 2nd when Longstreet’s corps would be without Pickett’s troops as they assaulted the Federal left.

On the afternoon of June 29th Lee met with a number of officers and his outward calm was still present. He told them “Tomorrow, gentlemen, we will not move to Harrisburg, as we expected, but will go over to Gettysburg and see what General Meade is after.” [52] When questioned by his subordinates about the relief of Hooker, and by his replacement by Lee’s former subordinate, Meade, Lee noted “General Meade will commit no blunder in my front, and if I make one he will make haste to take advantage of it.” [53]

John Buford

Meade too had recognized the importance of Gettysburg and began to move his forces toward the town even as Lee gathered his army. He sent the evening of the 30th the 1st Cavalry Division under the command of Brigadier General John Buford, a seasoned Indian fighter and brigade commander conducting his first battle commanding a division ahead to Gettysburg. Meade then  “redirected the 1st, 3rd and 11th Corps north toward Emmitsburg and the Pennsylvania state line, and the 2nd, 5th, 6th, and 12th Corps to the northeast toward Pipe Creek and Taneytown.” [54]

On the morning of June 30th, Buford detected Confederate infantry to the west of the town. Buford had a keen eye for terrain and instantly recognized that the area around Gettysburg was favorable ground. He knew that the battle was to be there and sent word back to John Reynolds, commander of I Corps:

“Have Occupied Gettysburg. Contacted large force of Reb infantry. I think they are coming this way. Expect they will be here in force in the morning.”[55]

[1] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command A Touchstone Book, Simon and Shuster New York 1968 p. 180

[2] Wert, Jeffry D. A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph 1862-1863 Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2011 p.226

[3] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.67

[4] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.455

[5] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.445

[6] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His Critics Brassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.140

[7] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.446

[8] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee an abridgment by Richard Harwell, Touchstone Books, New York 1997 p.320

[9] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.123

[10] Wert, Jeffry D. The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2005 p.267

[11] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.446

[12] Huntington, Tom Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 2013 p.145

[13] Ibid. Huntington Searching for George Gordon Meade p.147

[14] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.266

[15] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg, A Testing of Courage Harper Collins, New York, 2003. p.102

[16] Ibid. Huntington Searching for George Gordon Meade p.148

[17] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.451

[18] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.89

[19] Hebert, Walter H. Fighting Joe Hooker University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1999. Originally published by Bobbs-Merrill, New York 1944 p. 24

[20] Ibid. Huntington Searching for George Gordon Meade p.149

[21] Ibid. Hebert Fighting Joe Hooker p.246

[22] Ibid. Huntington Searching for George Gordon Meade p.150

[23] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.89

[24] Ibid. Huntington Searching for George Gordon Meade p.149

[25] Ibid. Huntington Searching for George Gordon Meade p.150

[26] Catton, Bruce The Army of the Potomac: Glory RoadDoubleday and Company, Garden City New York, 1952 p.257

[27] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.88

[28] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.90

[29] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.185

[30] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.90

[31] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.267

[32] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.268

[33] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.267

[34] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.652

[35] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.454

[36] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.652

[37] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac p.259

[38] Ibid. Coddington p.220

[39] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, A Testing of Courage p.106

[40] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command pp. 219-220

[41] Ibid. The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p.184

[42] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, A Testing of Courage. p.69

[43] Nolan, Alan T. R.E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in The First Day at Gettysburg, Gallagher, Gary W. Editor, Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p. 20

[44] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.542

[45] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.231

[46] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.320

[47] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two pp.462-463

[48] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p. 463

[49] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.124

[50] 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.49

[51] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.48

[52] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.321

[53] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.321

[54] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion pp.115-116

[55] Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels. Ballantine Books, New York. 1974 p.4

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The Gettysburg Campaign: Lee’s Advance and the Relief Of “Fighting Joe” Hooker

rebel-potomac

Ewell’s Corps crossing the Potomac

This is a continuation of the article that I posted last night. It is a continuation of my Gettysburg series. Tomorrow I will finish the chapter on Lee’s movement north by talking about Stuart’s Ride and the Confederate operations in Pennsylvania and Union pursuit up to June 30th. On footnotes please refer to part one because I did not want to go back and re-type each note.

The action at Brandy Station delayed Lee’s movement by a day. However, Stuart’s repulse of Pleasanton’s force did enable Lee’s Army to make its northward movement undetected by Hooker who was still trying to divine what Lee was up to and was “slow, even reluctant, to react to Lee’s advance.” (1) Lee’s initial move to break contact with the Federal Army and keep his movements and intentions secret was an excellent example of deception.

ewell

Lieutenant General Richard Ewell

Ewell’s Corps led the march of the army north on the morning of June 10th and joined by Jenkins’ cavalry brigade entered the Shenandoah Valley by way of the Chester Gap on June 12th. In two days of marching his “columns covered over forty-five miles.” (2) On the 13th Ewell was near Winchester where 6,000 soldiers under the command of Major General Robert Milroy were garrisoned. Ewell’s advanced troops skirmished with them on the 13th and on the 14th Ewell concentrated his corps to attack. As he did so Lincoln and Halleck attempted to get Hooker to do something to relieve Milroy. Hooker was “troubled by indecision” (3) and did nothing. The attack commenced at about 5:00 PM. The battle, now known as the Second Battle of Winchester the battle was a complete rout. Hit by Ewell’s forces “which swiftly and effectively broke through his outer lines,” (4) That evening Milroy attempted to retreat “northwestward in the darkness, only to be intercepted at dawn by Johnson.” (5) The Second Corps captured “captured 23 cannon, 300 wagons loaded with supplies and ammunition, and nearly 4,000 prisoners.” (6) Milroy and his survivors retreated to Harper’s Ferry where he was “presently removed from command by Lincoln, but that was a superfluous gesture, since practically all of his command had been removed from him by Ewell.” (7) Ewell’s forces lost just 50 killed and 236 wounded.

Ewell’s decisive victory at Winchester “was one of the most swift, total, and bloodless Confederate victories of the war.” (8) The victory “cleared the lower Shenandoah Valley of most Federal forces and paved the way for Lee’s army to march north into Maryland and then into Pennsylvania.” (9) Ewell had been brilliant to this point, the victory at Second Winchester and the skill with which he had conducted his operations “removed lingering doubts about his ability to carry on the tradition of “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as about his physical capacity, after the loss of a leg, to endure the rigors of campaigning.” (10) The Richmond Daily Dispatch that Ewell “has indeed caught the mantle of the ascended Jackson. Brilliantly has he re-enacted the scenes of the spring of ’62, on the same theatre.” (11)

Ewell did not waste time lingering at Winchester. The next day he sent Jenkins across the Potomac to Chambersburg Pennsylvania. Rodes division crossed the Potomac on the 16th “for a crossing at Williamsport where a halt was called to allow the other two divisions to catch up for a combined advance into Pennsylvania.” (12)

Longstreet’s First Corps moved next and advanced east of the Blue Ridge in conjunction with Stuart’s cavalry division screening the rest of the army from Hooker. Longstreet “set out for Ashby’s and Snicker’s Gaps with the bulk of Stuart’s cavalry covering his right flank.” (13) By the 17th of June Longstreet’s and Stuart’s troops had cleared the Blue Ridge. “Lee’s army was now stretched out from Hagerstown to Culpepper, a distance of seventy-five miles; yet Hooker did nothing.”(14) Lincoln realized that the dispersed Confederate army was vulnerable and telegraphed Hooker “if the head of Lee’s army is at Martinsburg and the tail of it on the Plank road between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the animal must be very slim somewhere. Could you not break him?”(15)

hooker

Major General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker

Hooker was slow to appreciate what Lee was doing and the “concealing topography of the region greatly favored Lee’s offensive operations…and Lee was planning on using both the Shenandoah and Loudoun valleys to conceal his forces and confuse his enemies.” (16) In this Lee had succeeded admirably. Finally on June 13th Hooker prodded by Lincoln and Halleck finally moved the Army of the Potomac to a position “near the Orange and Alexandria Railroad near Washington” (17) where it could defend Washington in case Lee was to make a thrust at the Federal capitol. The march from Fredericksburg was ordeal for his soldiers. “It had not rained for more than a month, thick clouds of dust enveloped the columns as the sun burned the air. Men drained their canteens, and water was scarce. Hundreds collapsed from sunstroke.” (18)

Hooker now informed Lincoln and Halleck that from now on his operations “would be governed by the movements of the enemy.” In doing so he “admitted his loss of initiative to Lee and his reluctance or inability to suggest any effective countermoves to the enemy’s plan.” (19)

As the army gathered near Dumfries on June 17th, Hooker who was completely lost as to Lee’s intentions and completely clearly out of his league was also engaged in a personal battle with Halleck and Lincoln. His Chief of Staff, General Dan Butterfield, a staunch supporter, remarked “We cannot go boggling around until we know what we are going after.” (20) The Provost Marshall of the Army of the Potomac Brigadier General Marsena Patrick was quite critical of his chief, noting that “Hancock is running the Marching and Hooker has the role of a subordinate- He acts like a man without a plan and is entirely at loss at what to do, or how to match the enemy, or counteract his movements.” (21)

Henry_Halleck_by_Scholten,_c1865

Major General Henry Halleck

During the march Hooker continued his feud with Halleck and Lincoln, oblivious to the fact that “his contretemps with Washington was costing him respect and credibility.” (22) Navy Secretary Gideon Welles after talking with Lincoln wrote in his diary, “I came away from the War Department painfully impressed. After recent events, Hooker cannot have the confidence which is essential to success, and which is all-important to the commander in the field.” (23) Hooker however, continued to make matters worse for himself and wrote to Lincoln, a thinly veiled attempt to have Halleck relieved, on June 16th :

“You have been aware, Mr. President” he telegraphed, “that I have not enjoyed the confidence of the major-general commanding the army, and I can assure you so long as this continues we may look in vain for success, especially as future operations will require our relations to be more dependent on each other than heretofore.” (24)

Lincoln was not to be trifled with by his demanding yet befuddled subordinate. He sent a telegraph to Hooker at 10:00 PM on the 16th which rankled Hooker even the more:

“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.” (25)

While the drama between Hooker, Halleck and Lincoln played on there were a series of fierce cavalry clashes west of Washington between June 17th and June 21st as Pleasanton’s troops kept assailing the Confederate flank in order to ascertain what Lee’s army was doing. As they probed the gaps in the Blue Ridge they confronted Stuart’s cavalry. At Aldie on June 17th, Middleburg on June 19th and Upperville on June 21st Stuart’s and Pleasanton’s troopers engaged “in a series of mounted charges and dismounted fighting. The Yankees showed the same grit and valor as they had at Brandy Station, pressing their attacks against the Rebels.” (26)

custer@aldieAt Upperville Pleasanton’s troopers “pressed Stuart’s cavalry so hard that Lee ordered McLaws’ division of Longstreet’s Corps to hold Ashby’s Gap, and he momentarily halted Major General Richard Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps on its way to Shepherdstown.” (27) Stuart’s men were successful in protecting the gaps and ensuring that the Federal troopers did not penetrate them, but “Pleasanton learned, however, from prisoners and local citizens, “The main body of the rebel infantry is in the Shenandoah Valley.” (28)

Pleasanton for some unexplained reason thought that this meant that the Confederates were heading toward Pittsburgh. Hooker “viewed it as a raid” and again proposed an overland advance against Richmond, which was once again rejected by Lincoln. The President ordered  Hooker: “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.” (29)

As the series of clashes occurred on the Confederate flank Ewell’s Second Corps, followed by Hill’s Third Corps advanced into Pennsylvania. A general panic ensued in many places with cries going out for Lincoln to call up militia to defend the state. The panic was fueled by Confederate actions. Jenkins’ troops in occupied Chambersburg they rounded up any blacks that remained in the city, and “Some fifty blacks were formed into a coffle and marched south to be sold into bondage.” (30)

By June 23rd the head of the Bureau of Military Information Colonel George Sharpe had deduced that all of Ewell’s corps was in Pennsylvania marching north and that Hill’s corps was across the Potomac, and “in one of those sudden moments of brutal clarity, George Sharpe realized that everything pointed to the conclusion that Lee’s entire army, or most of it, was north of the Potomac.” (31) Now Sharpe did not realize that Longstreet’s corps was still helping to hold and scree the gaps, but he had correctly deduced Lee’s intentions.

It took time but Hooker belatedly on June 24th Hooker began to move his army to Frederick. As the Army of the Potomac crossed its namesake river between June 25th and 27th over a vast pontoon bridge, Hooker made one last attempt to salvage his reputation. He had already been successful in getting Halleck to give him nearly 15,000 troops as reinforcements drawn from the District of Washington, drawing the ire of its commander Major General Samuel Heintzelman, but that was not enough for Hooker.

Hooker also demanded that he be given command and control over the garrison at Harper’s Ferry, allegedly to use in an operation to cut off Lee’s line of supply and communication in Western Maryland. This was refused by Halleck who had seen the request coming. Halleck told Hooker “that the fortified heights at Harper’s Ferry…”have always been regarded as an important point by to be held by us…I cannot approve their abandonment, except in the case of absolute necessity”(32) and directed the Major General William H. French, the commanding officer of the Harper’s Ferry garrison “Pay no attention to Hooker’s orders.” (33)

The highly volatile Hooker was furious and in his anger Hooker “told Herman Haupt during the railroad coordinator’s visit that he would do nothing to oppose Lee’s invasion without specific orders. He also continued to tell Halleck, Stanton, and Lincoln that he wanted Lee to go north so he could go after Richmond.” (34)

The order to French was Halleck’s way of bating Hooker figuring that Hooker would consider it the last straw, which the impulsive Hooker did. Hooker then played his last card and wired Halleck an ultimatum:

“My original instructions require me to cover Harper’s Ferry and Washington. I have now imposed on me, in addition to an enemy in my front more than my number. I beg to be understood, respectfully, but firmly that I am unable to comply with this condition with the means at my disposal, and earnestly request that I be relieved from the position I occupy.” (35)

Halleck replied to Hooker  with a brief message; simply stating “Your dispatch has been duly referred to the executive for action.” (36) Halleck then took the letter to Stanton and Lincoln and Lincoln wasted little time in relieving Hooker, though he was not happy about having to do so in the middle of a campaign. Lincoln had two choices, “he could send him into battle with his self-doubts and suspicions intact, or he could accept it and risk the political and military consequences that would accompany an abrupt change in leadership.” (37)

In the end, late in the night on June 27th 1863 Lincoln chose the latter, relieved Hooker and appointed Major General George Gordon Meade, commanding officer of V Corps as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Notes

1 Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.251
2 Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.73
3 Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.81
4 Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.88
5 Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.440
6 Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.222
7 Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.440
8 Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.62
9 Ibid. Petruzzi and Stanley The Gettysburg Campaign in Numbers and Losses p.20
10 Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.89
11 Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.62
12 Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.440
13 Ibid. Fuller Decisive Battles of the U.S.A. 1776-1918 p.224
14 Ibid. Fuller Decisive Battles of the U.S.A. 1776-1918 p.224
15 Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion pp.64-65
16 Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.85
17 Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.71
18 Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.263
19 Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.71
20 Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.264
21 Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg a Testing of Courage pp. 53-54
22 Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg a Testing of Courage p.53
23 Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.88
24 Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.88
25 Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg a Testing of Courage p.54
26 Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.264
27 Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.79
28 Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.224
29 Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.224
30 Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.82
31 Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg a Testing of Courage p.66
32 Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg a Testing of Courage p.93
33 Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.84
34 Marszalek, John F. Commander of All of Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 2004 p.175
35 Ibid. Marsalek Commander of All of Lincoln’s Armies p.175
36 Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.1233
37 Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg a Testing of Courage p.98

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Vague Orders, Vanity, and the Need for Redemption: JEB 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, CliffordLee 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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The Development of Cavalry in the American Civil War

gallonbuyingtime

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today, since I am tired and it looks like I am not get a chance to write anything new before we begin our trip to Germany I am going to  I am post a revised part of one of my Civil War texts.  This one deals with the organization, use, and development of cavalry during the war in the United States Army and the Army of the Confederate States Army.  

Peace

Padre Steve+

Cavalry in the United States in the ante-bellum period and during the war differed from the massive cavalry arms of European armies. In Europe the major armies had two types of cavalry units, light cavalry which was used for scouting, reconnaissance and screening, and heavy cavalry which was designed to be employed at the decisive moment of the battle in order to break enemy infantry formations through the shock of the massed charge. Napoleon always had a number of reserve cavalry corps to fulfill this mission.

The United States had little in the way of a cavalry tradition. Cavalry was considered by many American political leaders to be too aristocratic for America and as a result this arm of service suffered. In its early years the U.S. Army did not have any sizable mounted formations to call upon.

There were a number of other reasons for the cultural and institutional resistance to a strong were trained and armed cavalry service in the United States Army.

First, the nation as a whole distrusted large standing armies and viewed them as a source of potential tyranny and traditional cavalry was the most aristocratic part of European armies. The struggle between Federalists who desired a standing army and a militia that could be organized under central control and Republicans who wanted nothing of the sort was a constant source of friction in the new republic. Anti-Federalists saw standing armies as despotic, as one anti-federalist publication noted “In despotic governments, as well as in all the monarchies of Europe, standing armies are kept to execute the commands of the prince or magistrate…. By establishing an armed force to execute the laws at the point of the bayonet – a government of all others is the most to be dreaded.” [1]

As such, much of the nation’s military spending was focused on the Navy, which was deemed as less of a domestic threat, and even then the limited budgets meant that many times significant numbers of ships were laid up in ordinary. The Regular Army struggled to maintain its existence from 1787 until the War of 1812 in the face of Republican opposition led by Thomas Jefferson. After the War of 1812 the nation soon lost interest in paying for a standing army and in 1821 against the wishes of Secretary of War John C. Calhoun slashed “the Army’s strength by eliminating regiments and reducing the number of officers.” [2] With appropriations cut to the bone there was no effort to create a cavalry arm for the service as cavalry formations were much more expensive to equip and maintain than infantry.

Even though the Regular Army survived, it was tiny in. Its strength ranged from 3,000 to 6,000 men, the bulk were infantry who for the most part formed a frontier constabulary or manned coastal fortifications. However, in 1796 two companies of Dragoons were authorized, but even so the mounted arm remained a poor stepchild. Likewise, “Doctrinal resistance to battle cavalry was also very strong. The ‘American’ tradition had no place for such an animal….” [3]

Finally as the nation expanded westward the army formed the First Dragoon Regiment in 1833. In 1836 the Second Dragoons were organized. The Dragoons were basically mounted infantry formations and these units were scattered about the expanding western frontiers of the nation were employed “guarding the routes of expansion as far west as the Rocky Mountains and as far south as the Red River.” The army also formed Mounted Infantry units, which like the Dragoons were hybrid formations. Though many thought that such units promised “a double return on the government’s investment, but which did not manage to provide either an efficient force of infantry or an efficient battle force of cavalry.” [4]

The First Dragoons would serve with “distinction in numerous engagements in what was to become California and New Mexico.”[5] The regiment fought well in the War with Mexico but suffered heavy casualties in the process. When the war ended it was again dispersed on the frontier when it was used to protect settlers and fight Native American tribes that resisted the advance of the flood of white settlers.

One of the reasons for the heavy losses sustained by the First Dragoons in Mexico was because “West Point cavalry doctrine was based upon a Napoleonic mania for the massed saber charge.” [6] However, one problem with this was that the United States Army never had sufficient numbers of cavalry, not to mention a death of heavy cavalry needed to make such attacks successful, but in Mexico the limited number of cavalry troops available made such tactics untenable. The tactic had often worked well for Napoleon and massed cavalry charges were used to sweep the field of broken enemy infantry formation. However, the suicidal charge of Marshal Ney’s vaunted Cuirassiers against the Duke of Wellington’s highly disciplined infantry squares at Waterloo had shown that such tactics were destined for extinction unless they were part of an all arms assault. Marshal Ney failed because he used his cavalry in unsupported attacks against the allied infantry squares rather advancing artillery to support the attack or bringing infantry up to force the defenders out of their squares.

It was not until the 1850s that the army organized its first two Cavalry regiments for duty on the frontier. The new cavalry regiments were the equivalent of European light cavalry and during the war primarily served in that role, conducting reconnaissance, raids, and screening the army. Even so the tactical doctrine taught at West Point focused continued to “support the continuing predominance of the offense over the defense, of shock over firepower” [7] which was at odds with the cavalry’s actual capabilities.

Cavalry regiments were usually composed of four to six squadrons, each squadron having two companies. Cavalry regiments could range in size from 660 to nearly 1,200 troopers. Both the Union and the Confederacy grouped their cavalry into brigades and later divisions, but the Confederates were first to establish cavalry brigades and divisions. By 1863 both the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac each formed cavalry corps. Cavalry tactics “complemented conventional infantry assault tactics, emphasizing shock and the role of the saber”; unfortunately both the infantry and the cavalry developed their doctrine independently. U.S. Army Cavalry doctrine was prescribed in Philip St. George Cooke’s Cavalry Tactics which was published in 1861 while a corresponding Confederate manual, Joseph Wheeler’s A Revised System of Cavalry Tactics appeared in 1863.

Before the war American cavalry units tended to operate in small numbers with regiments seldom sending into action more than a few companies at once. At the beginning of the war the Federal government decided to form just five mounted regiments, including two of Dragoons and one of Mounted Infantry. It soon decided to add a sixth but the units were hindered by the fact that many of their officers had gone to the Confederacy, and some of those remaining “would jump to volunteer units to secure higher rank, pay, and prestige.”[8] The result was defeat after defeat at the hands of J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry.

Eventually large scale programs to train and equip large numbers of volunteers and the Regulars combined with wartime reorganizations and solid leadership would make the Federal cavalry a force that was able to hold its own and then to sweep Confederate cavalry from the field. But it took time to train cavalry, and early Union commanders like McClellan refused to take that time and a “whole year was lost as a result, during which the cavalry was allowed to indoctrinate itself in the notion that it could never make use of European standards.” [9] While McClellan may have done well in organizing and training the infantry and artillery of the Army of the Potomac, he did little in the way of providing the mounted arm with leaders, training or missions that would increase their effectiveness. Unlike Stuart who combined his troopers with effective horse artillery, McClellan “failed to appreciate the advantage of coordinating the tactical strengths of cavalry with those of infantry and artillery.” [10]

CWP015

J.E.B. Stuart

While the South did struggle at times with its cavalry arm but did have an advantage in that the vast majority of their cavalry troopers owned their mounts and were experienced horsemen, something that could not be said of the many city dwellers who volunteered for duty in the Union cavalry. But the initial Southern superiority in cavalry was also due to the fact that “the principal of massing regiments into brigades and divisions was pursued earlier than by the Federal.” [11] In contrast McClellan “followed the evil course of reducing mounted regiments to their smallest components for operational use.” Likewise, he “wasted cavalry’s potential and depressed its morale by employing it as couriers, bodyguards for his subordinates, pickets for his encampments, and wagon train escorts, instead of as combat troops.” [12] The result as one would expect was that for the first two years of the war “J.E.B. Stuart and his horsemen were able, literally, to run rings around their opponents.” [13]

One Union writer compared the development of the Confederate and Union cavalry arms during the war:

“The habits of the Southern people facilitated the formation of cavalry corps which were comparatively efficient even without instruction; and accordingly we see Stuart, John Morgan, and Forrest riding around with impunity around the Union armies, and destroying or harassing their communications. Late in the war that agency was reversed. The South was exhausted of horses, while the Northern cavalry increased in numbers and efficiency, and acquired the audacity which had characterized the Southern.” [14]

buford

John Buford

As such much of the initial improvement in the Union cavalry arm were due to solid commanders like Brigadier General John Buford to teach new recruits as well as discouraged veterans to become effective cavalrymen.

Cavalry remained a fairly small in comparison to the infantry and artillery branches of service. Even during the wartime expansion the amount of cavalry available was miniscule compared to European armies. On the average only about 8% of the Army of the Potomac was composed of cavalry, compared to Napoleon’s 20 to 25%. [15] Part of this was due to the perceived cost of the cavalry arm which many believed was too expensive to maintain on a large scale: “estimates held that every twelve companies mounted and outfitted at public expense would rob the Treasury of over $300,000 a year merely to cover upkeep on animals, remounts, weapons, and equipment….” [16]

The cost of equipping cavalry was high enough that in the South that troopers had to procure their own mounts. Edwin Coddington noted that the Confederate policy “was a wonderful arrangement for keeping the strength of the cavalry below par, much more than enemy bullets, for it encouraged absenteeism.” [17] The Confederate government paid the own for the use of the horse, and a cash reimbursement if it was lost in combat, but if it was lost in any other manner the soldier had to get another horse if he wanted to remain in the service. Since the Confederates never set up a “centralized replacement service” troopers who lost their mount “had to go home to procure a new horse. If he were a Virginian he needed from thirty to sixty days to accomplish his purpose, and a much longer time should he have to come deeper south.” [18]

Despite the doctrinal predilection to the offense and using the cavalry as a shock unit, the U.S. Army formed no heavy cavalry formations on the order of the famous French Cuirassiers, named after their armored breastplates and metal helmets which were the primary type of cavalry used in Europe for such tactics. As such, during the Civil War both Union and Confederate cavalry formations were primarily assigned to reconnaissance and screening missions normally conducted by light cavalry units in Europe. These larger formations began to be used en masse for the purpose of raiding by both sides “but in the hands of J.E.B Stuart and his friends it became little more than a license to roam off into the enemy’s rear areas looking for plunder and glory.”[19] The cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac was used in a similar manner to raid enemy rear areas with often dreadful results which contributed nothing to the overall goal of defeating Lee’s army. A prime example was when Joseph Hooker detached his newly formed Cavalry Corps under George Stoneman to raid Richmond leaving the flank of the army uncovered at Chancellorsville.

Quite often the soldiers assigned to the infantry and artillery had little use for the cavalry who they saw as pampered and contributing little to the war. Many infantrymen held the “cavalry in open contempt. “These cavalry are a positive nuisance,” an officer in the 123rd Illinois wrote. “They won’t fight, and whenever they are around they are always in the way of those who will fight.” [20] Disdainful Confederate infantrymen “greeted their cavaliers with “Here’s your mule!” and “their Federal counterparts would exclaim: “There’d going to be a fight, boy; the cavalry’s running back!” and “Whoever saw a dead cavalryman.”[21]

The lethality of the rifled musket also made the classic Napoleonic cavalry charge against enemy infantry a costly and dangerous enterprise if the enemy infantry still had the means to make organized resistance, and if the cavalry assault was not supported by infantry and cavalry.. An example of this was the ill-fated cavalry attack ordered by Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick against the men of Lafayette McLaws’s well prepared division on the Confederate right after the failure of Pickett’s Change at Gettysburg.

Cavalry tactics began to change during the war. Both sides used their cavalry for raids, sometimes very large ones, and operations against enemy partisans in their rear areas. In each case the cavalry was typically deployed by itself and even when it accompanied the armies into battle cavalry units were typically employed on the periphery of the battle. As such as Griffith wrote, “Civil War doctrine of raiding… was not only a deliberate turn away from the hope of victory on the battlefield, but it actually removed the means by which victory might have been won at the very moment when those means were at last starting to be properly efficient.” [22] The lack of heavy cavalry of the European model sometimes kept commanders from completing victories, one can only imagine what would have happened had George Meade had a division of heavy cavalry at hand to sweep the Confederates from the battlefield after Pickett’s Charge.

sheridanphiliphbio

Philip Sheridan

Tactics only began to change when General Philip Sheridan took command of Grant’s cavalry. Sheridan kept the cavalry close to the main body of the arm. Sheridan had replaced Major General Alfred Pleasanton as commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac in early 1864. It is quite possible had he not died in December 1863 that the post would have gone to John Buford, but Sheridan had a vision for the cavalry that foreshadowed modern operational art. Sheridan wanted to organize the Cavalry Corps by concentrating it “into a powerful striking arm. He desired to do this, first, to deal with the Confederate cavalry, on the theory that “with a mass of ten thousand mounted men… I could make it so lively for the enemy’s cavalry that… the flanks and rear of the Army of the Potomac would require little or no defense.” [23] Sheridan was making no idle boast as by now his troops “were not only more numerous, but they had better leaders, tactics, and equipment than before,” [24] especially when it came to the Spencer repeating rifle which was now standard issue for the cavalrymen, and which gave them a tremendous advantage in firepower over Stuart’s now ill-equipped troops.

Sheridan first did this at the beginning of the Wilderness campaign when he took his 10,000 strong corps around the Confederate flank. Sheridan had been quarreling with Meade about the latter’s insistence that Sheridan’s horsemen were clogging the roads that his infantry needed to advance upon. In the heated discussion Sheridan came very close to being insubordinate with Meade. Meade reportedly told Sheridan that “Stuart “will do about how he pleases anyhow” to which Sheridan supposedly replied “Damn Stuart, I can trash hell out of him any day.” [25] Furious, Meade went and reported the matter to Grant. Grant listened and replied “Did Sheridan say that?… He usually knows what he is talking about. Let him go ahead and do it.” [26] At Grant’s request Meade provided Sheridan with new orders to concentrate his cavalry, march south and engage Stuart’s cavalry. Unlike previous raids which sought to avoid battle with Stuart’s troops in order to hit prescribed objectives, above all Sheridan wanted to engage and defeat the legendary Confederate cavalier. He “defined the raid as “a challenge to Stuart for a cavalry duel behind Lee’s lines in his own country.” And the more there were of the gray riders when the showdown was at hand, the better he would like it, since that would mean there were more to be smashed up.” [27]

Sheridan’s column totaled nearly 13,000 men and was nearly 13 miles long as he proceeded at a slow pace around Lee’s army and south towards Richmond. In addition to his horsemen he brought all of his horse artillery batteries. He was well around Lee’s flank before he was discovered and during the march his troops burned a depot and over one hundred railroad cars containing “close to a million rations of meat and better than a half million of bread, along with Lee’s entire reserve of medical stores.” [28]

On May 11th Stuart managed to intercept Sheridan’s column at a place called Yellow Tavern, just south of Ashland and the Ana River, but his corps was outnumbered by at least three to one. Three well trained, experienced, equipped, and superbly led Federal cavalry divisions confronted Stuart. With no hopes of fighting an offensive action, Stuart’s troops fought dismounted and were routed by the superior Bluecoats who continued on to cut the railroad between Lee’s army and Richmond. During the battle Stuart, who had cheated death on a number of occasions was mortally wounded. The Confederate cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia would never recover, and to Southerners Stuart’s death was a profound psychological blow, only slightly worse than that of Stonewall Jackson a year before. Robert E. Lee, to who Stuart was like a son took the loss harder than he had taken Jackson’s. “I can scarcely think of him without weeping,” he told one of Stuart’s officers.” [29]

As the armies in the East and West dueled throughout 1864, Sheridan and other Federal cavalry officers transformed the Union cavalry into a striking force which could be the spearhead of the army and use new tactics to overcome the problem of combining fire with rapid maneuver which had never been satisfactory applied by the infantry. There were four components in the new tactical mix: “fast operational mobility on horseback out of contact with the enemy; a willingness to take cover and fight on foot when the enemy was close; new repeating carbines to give enhanced firepower; and a mounted reserve to make the sabre charge when the moment was ripe.” [30] Sheridan would apply these tactics in his later campaigns against Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley and during the Appomattox campaign and his cavalry, working with infantry and artillery smashed the beleaguered Confederate armies which tried to oppose them. The reorganized cavalry was not the answer to all of the battlefield problems faced by Civil War commanders but it gave Union commanders an impressive weapon in which the speed and firepower of the cavalry could be readily combined with artillery and infantry to achieve decisive results. On the Confederate side, General Joseph Wheeler who commanded the cavalry in the west, Wheeler usually fought dismounted in “skirmish order using field fortification, whether skirmishing independently or in the line…. In the last major action of the war, he dramatically displayed how cavalry had become tactically integrated with infantry. At Bentonville, while fighting his cavalry dismounted, first on the right, then moving around to the left flank, Wheeler constructed a line of breastworks 1,200 yards long.” [31]

European cavalry officers found little to admire in American use of cavalry. Few paid attention to the importance of fighting dismounted and working as part of a combined arms team. In August 1914 their cavalry formations paid severe price for ignoring the realities of modern war, realities which the Americans, both Union and Confederate learned during the Civil War.

Notes

[1] ____________ Anti-Federalists Fear a Large Military “Brutus I.” “To the Citizens of the State of New York” 1787 in Major Problems in American Military History edited by John Whiteclay Chambers II and G. Kurt Piehler, Houghton-Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York 1999 p. 103

[2] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States p.122

[3] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.181

[4] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.181

[5] Longacre, Edward G. John Buford: A Military Biography Da Capo Press, Perseus Book Group, Cambridge MA p.33

[6] Thomas, Emory M. Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK 1986 and 1999 p.30

[7] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.21

[8] Longacre, Edward G. The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations, during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June- 14 July 1863. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1986 p.44

[9] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.182

[10] Ibid. Longacre The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations, during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June- 14 July 1863 p.45

[11] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.181

[12] Ibid. Longacre The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations, during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June- 14 July 1863 p.45

[13] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.183

[14] Buell, Don Carlos. East Tennessee and the Campaign of Perryville in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume III, The Tide Shifts. Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel Castle, Secaucus NJ p.51

[15] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.181

[16] Ibid. Longacre The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations, during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June- 14 July 1863 p.43

[17] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.17

[18] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.17

[19] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.183

[20] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.20

[21] Ibid. Longacre The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations, during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June- 14 July 1863 p.45

[22] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War pp.183-184

[23] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History 1861-1865 p.369

[24] Ibid. Whelan Bloody Spring: Forty Days that Sealed the Confederacy’s Fate p.181

[25] Ibid. Thomas Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart p.288

[26] Catton, Bruce Grant Takes Command Little, Brown, and Company, New York, Toronto, London 1968 and 1969 p.216

[27]Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Three Red River to Appomattox p.564 p.224

[28] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Three Red River to Appomattox p.564 p.225

[29] Ibid. Korda, Clouds of Glory p.626

[30] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.184

[31] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.298

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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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The Battle of Brandy Station

Cav Fight at Brandy Station

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I take a look back at the battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle every fought on the North American continent. This is a section of my draft Gettysburg campaign text.

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Movement to attain operational reach and maneuver are two critical factors in joint operations. In the time since the American Civil War the distances that forces move to engage the enemy, or maneuver to employ fires to destroy his forces have greatly increased. Movement may be part of an existing Campaign Plan or Contingency Plan developed at Phase 0; it also may be part of a crisis action plan developed in the midst of a campaign. Lee’s movement to get to Gettysburg serves as an example of the former, however, since his forces were already in contact with the Army of the Potomac along the Rappahannock and he was reacting to what he felt was a strategic situation that could not be changed but by going on the offensive that it has the feel of a Crisis Action Plan. Within either context other factors come into play: clarity of communications and orders, security, intelligence, logistics and even more importantly the connection between operational movement and maneuver; the Center of Gravity of the enemy, and national strategy. Since we have already discussed how Lee and the national command authority of the Confederacy got to this point we will now discuss the how that decision played in the operational and tactical decisions of Lee and his commanders as the Army of Northern Virginia began the summer campaign and the corresponding actions of Joseph Hooker and the his superiors in Washington.

“One of the fine arts of the military craft is disengaging one’s army from a guarding army without striking sparks and igniting battle.” [1] 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 “up the south bank of the Rappahannock to Culpepper, near which Hood and Pickett had been halted on their return from Suffolk.” [2] Rodes’ division of Second Corps followed on June 4th with Anderson and Early on June 5th. Lee left the three divisions of A.P. Hill’s Third Corps at Fredericksburg to guard against any sudden advance by Hooker’s Army of the Potomac toward Richmond. Lee instructed Hill to “do everything possible “to deceive the enemy, and keep him in ignorance of any change in the disposition of the army.” [3]

The army was tremendously confident as it marched away from the war ravaged, dreary and desolate battlefields along the Rappahannock “A Captain in the 1st Virginia averred, “Never before has the army been in such a fine condition, so well disciplined and under such complete control.” [4] Porter Alexander wrote that he felt “pride and confidence…in my splendid battalion, as it filed out of the field into the road, with every chest & and ammunition wagon filled, & and every horse in fair order, & every detail fit for a campaign.” [5] Another officer wrote to his father, “I believe there is a general feeling of gratification in the army at the prospect of active operations.” [6]

Lee’s plan was to “shift two-thirds of his army to the northwest and past Hooker’s flank, while A.P. Hill’s Third Corps remained entrenched at Fredericksburg to observe Hooker and perhaps fix him in place long enough for the army to gain several marches on the Federals.” [7] In an organizational and operational sense that Lee’s army after as major of battle as Chancellorsville “was able to embark on such an ambitious flanking march to the west and north around the right of the army of the Potomac….” [8]

However, Lee’s movement did not go unnoticed; Hooker’s aerial observers in their hot air balloons “were up and apparently spotted the movement.” [9] But Hooker was unsure what it meant. He initially suspected that “Lee intended to turn the right flank of the Union army as he had done in the Second Bull Run Campaign, either by interposing his army between Washington and the Federals or by crossing the Potomac River.” [10] Lee halted at Culpepper from which he “could either march westward over the Blue Ridge or, if Hooker moved, recontract at the Rappahannock River.” [11]

Hooker telegraphed Lincoln and Halleck on June 5th and requested permission to advance cross the river and told Lincoln that “I am of opinion that it is my duty to pitch into his rear” [12] possibly threatening Richmond. Lincoln ordered Hooker to put the matter to Halleck, with whom Hooker was on the worst possible terms. Hooker “pressed Halleck to allow him to cross the Rappahannock in force, overwhelming whatever rebel force had been left at Fredericksburg, and then lunging down the line of the Virginia Central toward an almost undefended Richmond.” [13] On the morning of June 6th Hooker ordered pontoon bridges thrown across the river and sent a division of Sedgwick’s VI Corps to conduct a reconnaissance in force against Hill.

Lincoln and Halleck immediately rejected Hooker’s request. Lincoln “saw the flaw in Hooker’s plan at once” [14] and replied in a very blunt manner: “In one word,” he wrote “I would not take any risk of being entangled upon the river, like an ox jumped half over a fence and liable to be torn by dogs front and rear, without a fair chance to gore one way or kick another.” [15] Halleck replied to Hooker shortly after Lincoln that it would “seem perilous to permit Lee’s main force to move upon the Potomac [River] while your army is attacking an intrenched position on the other side of the Rappahannock.” [16] Lincoln, demonstrating a keen regard for the actual center of gravity of the campaign, told Hooker plainly that “I think Lee’s army and not Richmond, is your objective point.” [17]

The fears of Lincoln and Halleck were well founded. In stopping at Culpepper Lee retained the option of continuing his march to the Shenandoah and the Potomac, or he could rapidly “recall his advanced columns, hammer at Hooker’s right flank, and very possibly administer another defeat even more demoralizing than the one he suffered at Chancellorsville.” [18] Hooker heeded the order and while Hooker maintained his bridgehead over the Rappahannock he made no further move against Hill’s well dug in divisions.

Meanwhile, J.E.B. Stuart and his Cavalry Corps had been at Brandy Station near Culpepper for two weeks. Culpepper in June was a paradise for the cavalry, and with nearly 10,000 troopers gathered Stuart ordered a celebration, many dignitaries were invited and on June 4th Stuart hosted a grand ball in the county courthouse. On the 5th Stuart staged a grand review of five of his brigades. Bands played as each regiment passed in review and one soldier wrote that it was “One grand magnificent pageant, inspiring enough to make even an old woman feel fightish.” [19] The review ended with a mock charge by the cavalry against the guns of the horse artillery which were firing blank rounds. According to witnesses it was a spectacular event, so realistic and grand that during the final charge that “several ladies fainted, or pretended to faint, in the grandstand which Jeb Stuart had had set up for them along one side of the field.” [20] That was followed by an outdoor ball “lit by soft moonlight and bright bonfires.” [21] Stuart gave an encore performance when Lee arrived on June 8th, minus the grand finale and afterward Lee wrote to his wife that “Stuart was in all his glory.” [22]

Hooker received word from the always vigilant John Buford, of the First Cavalry Division on the night of June 6th that “Lee’s “movable column” was located near Culpepper Court House and that it consisted of Stuart’s three brigades heavily reinforced by Robertson’s, “Grumble” Jones’s, and Jenkins’ brigades.” [23] Hooker digested the information and believed that Stuart’s intent was to raid his own rear areas to disrupt the Army of the Potomac’s logistics and communications. The next day Hooker ordered his newly appointed Cavalry Corps Commander, Major General Alfred Pleasanton to attack Stuart.

After Chancellorsville, Hooker had reorganized the Union cavalry under Pleasanton into three divisions and under three aggressive division commanders, all West Pointers, Brigadier General John Buford, Brigadier General David Gregg and Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick. While Stuart conducted his second grand review for Lee Pleasanton quietly massed his cavalry “opposite Beverly Ford and Kelly’s Ford so as to cross the river in the early morning hours of June 9th and carry out Hooker’s crisp orders “to disperse and destroy” the rebel cavalry reported to be “assembled in the vicinity of Culpepper….” [24] Pleasanton’s cavalry was joined by two mixed brigades of infantry “who had the reputation of being among the best marchers and fighters in the army.” [25] One brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Adelbert Ames consisted of five regiments drawn from XI Corps, XII Corps, and III Corps was attached to Buford’s division. The other brigade, under the command of Brigadier General David Russell was composed of seven regiments drawn from I Corps, II Corps and VI Corps. [26]

Stuart’s orders for June 9th were to “lead his cavalry division across the Rappahannock to screen the northward march of the infantry.” [27] The last thing that Stuart expected was to be surprised by the Federal cavalry which he had grown to treat with distain. Stuart who was at his headquarters “woke to the sound of fighting” [28] as Pleasanton’s divisions crossed the river and moved against the unsuspecting Confederate cavalry brigades.

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. Though a draw “the rebels might have been swept from the field had Colonel Alfred N. Duffie, at the head of the Second Division acted aggressively and moved to the sounds of battle.” [29] The “Yankees came with a newfound grit and gave as good as they took.” [30] Porter Alexander wrote that Pleasanton’s troopers “but for bad luck in the killing of Col. Davis, leading the advance, would have probably surprised and captured most of Stuart’s artillery.” [31] Stuart had lost “over 500 men, including two colonels dead,” [32] and a brigade commander, Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee, General Lee’s son, badly wounded. While recuperating at his wife’s home a few weeks later Lee “was captured by the enemy.” [33] Stuart claimed victory as he lost fewer troops and had taken close to 500 prisoners and maintained control of the battlefield.

But even Confederate officers were critical. Lafayette McLaws of First Corps wrote “our cavalry were surprised yesterday by the enemy and had to do some desperate fighting to retrieve the day… As you will perceive from General Lee’s dispatch that the enemy were driven across the river again. All this is not true because the enemy retired at their leisure, having accomplished what I suppose what they intended.” [34] Captain Charles Blackford of Longtreet’s staff wrote: “The fight at Brandy Station can hardly be called a victory. Stuart was certainly surprised, but for the supreme gallantry of his subordinate officers and men… it would have been a day of disaster and disgrace….” The Chief of the Bureau of War in Richmond, Robert H.G. Kean wrote “Stuart is so conceited that he got careless- his officers were having a frolic…” [35] Brigadier General Wade Hampton had the never to criticize his chief in his after action report and after the war recalled “Stuart managed badly that day, but I would not say so publicly.” [36]

The Confederate press was even more damning in its criticism of Stuart papers called it “a disastrous fight,” a “needless slaughter,” [37]and the Richmond Examiner scolded Stuart in words that cut deeply into Stuart’s pride and vanity:

The more the circumstances of the late affair at Brandy Station are considered, the less pleasant do they appear. If this was an isolated case, it might be excused under the convenient head of accident or chance. But the puffed up cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia has twice, if not three times, surprised since the battles of December, and such repeated accidents can be regarded as nothing but the necessary consequences of negligence and bad management. If the war was a tournament, invented and supported for the pleasure of a few vain and weak-headed officers, these disasters might be dismissed with compassion, But the country pays dearly for the blunders which encourage the enemy to overrun and devastate the land, with a cavalry which is daily learning to despise the mounted troops of the Confederacy…” [38]

But the battle was more significant than the number of casualties inflicted or who controlled the battlefield at the end of the day. 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.

Notes

[1] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 2003 p.59

[2] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.436

[3] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.25

[4] Wert, Jeffry D. A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph 1862-1863 Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2011 p.218

[5] Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander edited by Gary Gallagher University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1989 p.221

[6] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.219

[7] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.60

[8] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.530

[9] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.436

[10] Wert, Jeffry D. The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2005 p.260

[11] 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.37

[12] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.61

[13] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.50

[14] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.260

[15] 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.223

[16] Ibid Trudeau Gettysburg a Testing of Courage p.26

[17] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.50

[18] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.53

[19] Davis, Burke J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier Random House, New York 1957 p.304

[20] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.437

[21] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.63

[22] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.221

[23] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.54

[24] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.64

[25] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.54

[26] 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.7

[27] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.64

[28] Ibid. Davis JEB Stuart p.306

[29] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.261

[30] Wert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p. 251

[31] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy p.223

[32] Ibid. Davis JEB Stuart p.310

[33] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.221

[34] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.59

[35] Ibid. Davis JEB Stuart p.310

[36] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.60

[37] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.57

[38] Ibid. Davis JEB Stuart p.311-312

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Cavalry in the American Civil War

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am posting a revised part of one of my Civil War texts, this one dealing with the organization, use, and development of cavalry during the war. It’s kind of a history geek thing, I’m re-working on the section on artillery. I hope that you enjoy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Cavalry in the United States in the ante-bellum period and during the war differed from the massive cavalry arms of European armies. In Europe the major armies had two types of cavalry units, light cavalry which was used for scouting, reconnaissance and screening, and heavy cavalry which was designed to be employed at the decisive moment of the battle in order to break enemy infantry formations through the shock of the massed charge. Napoleon always had a number of reserve cavalry corps to fulfill this mission.

The United States had little in the way of a cavalry tradition. Cavalry was considered by many American political leaders to be too aristocratic for America and as a result this arm of service suffered. In its early years the U.S. Army did not have any sizable mounted formations to call upon.

There were a number of other reasons for the cultural and institutional resistance to a strong were trained and armed cavalry service in the United States Army.

First, the nation as a whole distrusted large standing armies and viewed them as a source of potential tyranny and traditional cavalry was the most aristocratic part of European armies. The struggle between Federalists who desired a standing army and a militia that could be organized under central control and Republicans who wanted nothing of the sort was a constant source of friction in the new republic. Anti-Federalists saw standing armies as despotic, as one anti-federalist publication noted “In despotic governments, as well as in all the monarchies of Europe, standing armies are kept to execute the commands of the prince or magistrate…. By establishing an armed force to execute the laws at the point of the bayonet – a government of all others is the most to be dreaded.” [1]

As such, much of the nation’s military spending was focused on the Navy, which was deemed as less of a domestic threat, and even then the limited budgets meant that many times significant numbers of ships were laid up in ordinary. The Regular Army struggled to maintain its existence from 1787 until the War of 1812 in the face of Republican opposition led by Thomas Jefferson. After the War of 1812 the nation soon lost interest in paying for a standing army and in 1821 against the wishes of Secretary of War John C. Calhoun slashed “the Army’s strength by eliminating regiments and reducing the number of officers.” [2] With appropriations cut to the bone there was no effort to create a cavalry arm for the service as cavalry formations were much more expensive to equip and maintain than infantry.

Even though the Regular Army survived, it was tiny in. Its strength ranged from 3,000 to 6,000 men, the bulk were infantry who for the most part formed a frontier constabulary or manned coastal fortifications. However, in 1796 two companies of Dragoons were authorized, but even so the mounted arm remained a poor stepchild. Likewise, “Doctrinal resistance to battle cavalry was also very strong. The ‘American’ tradition had no place for such an animal….” [3]

Finally as the nation expanded westward the army formed the First Dragoon Regiment in 1833. In 1836 the Second Dragoons were organized. The Dragoons were basically mounted infantry formations and these units were scattered about the expanding western frontiers of the nation were employed “guarding the routes of expansion as far west as the Rocky Mountains and as far south as the Red River.” The army also formed Mounted Infantry units, which like the Dragoons were hybrid formations. Though many thought that such units promised “a double return on the government’s investment, but which did not manage to provide either an efficient force of infantry or an efficient battle force of cavalry.” [4]

The First Dragoons would serve with “distinction in numerous engagements in what was to become California and New Mexico.” [5] The regiment fought well in the War with Mexico but suffered heavy casualties in the process. When the war ended it was again dispersed on the frontier when it was used to protect settlers and fight Native American tribes that resisted the advance of the flood of white settlers.

One of the reasons for the heavy losses sustained by the First Dragoons in Mexico was because “West Point cavalry doctrine was based upon a Napoleonic mania for the massed saber charge.” [6] However, one problem with this was that the United States Army never had sufficient numbers of cavalry, not to mention a death of heavy cavalry needed to make such attacks successful, but in Mexico the limited number of cavalry troops available made such tactics untenable. The tactic had often worked well for Napoleon and massed cavalry charges were used to sweep the field of broken enemy infantry formation. However, the suicidal charge of Marshal Ney’s vaunted Cuirassiers against the Duke of Wellington’s highly disciplined infantry squares at Waterloo had shown that such tactics were destined for extinction unless they were part of an all arms assault. Marshal Ney failed because he used his cavalry in unsupported attacks against the allied infantry squares rather advancing artillery to support the attack or bringing infantry up to force the defenders out of their squares.

It was not until the 1850s that the army organized its first two Cavalry regiments for duty on the frontier. The new cavalry regiments were the equivalent of European light cavalry and during the war primarily served in that role, conducting reconnaissance, raids, and screening the army. Even so the tactical doctrine taught at West Point focused continued to “support the continuing predominance of the offense over the defense, of shock over firepower” [7] which was at odds with the cavalry’s actual capabilities.

Cavalry regiments were usually composed of four to six squadrons, each squadron having two companies. Cavalry regiments could range in size from 660 to nearly 1,200 troopers. Both the Union and the Confederacy grouped their cavalry into brigades and later divisions, but the Confederates were first to establish cavalry brigades and divisions. By 1863 both the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac each formed cavalry corps. Cavalry tactics “complemented conventional infantry assault tactics, emphasizing shock and the role of the saber”; unfortunately both the infantry and the cavalry developed their doctrine independently. U.S. Army Cavalry doctrine was prescribed in Philip St. George Cooke’s Cavalry Tactics which was published in 1861 while a corresponding Confederate manual, Joseph Wheeler’s A Revised System of Cavalry Tactics appeared in 1863.

Before the war American cavalry units tended to operate in small numbers with regiments seldom sending into action more than a few companies at once. At the beginning of the war the Federal government decided to form just five mounted regiments, including two of Dragoons and one of Mounted Infantry. It soon decided to add a sixth but the units were hindered by the fact that many of their officers had gone to the Confederacy, and some of those remaining “would jump to volunteer units to secure higher rank, pay, and prestige.” [8] The result was defeat after defeat at the hands of J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry.

Eventually large scale programs to train and equip large numbers of volunteers and the Regulars combined with wartime reorganizations and solid leadership would make the Federal cavalry a force that was able to hold its own and then to sweep Confederate cavalry from the field. But it took time to train cavalry, and early Union commanders like McClellan refused to take that time and a “whole year was lost as a result, during which the cavalry was allowed to indoctrinate itself in the notion that it could never make use of European standards.” [9] While McClellan may have done well in organizing and training the infantry and artillery of the Army of the Potomac, he did little in the way of providing the mounted arm with leaders, training or missions that would increase their effectiveness. Unlike Stuart who combined his troopers with effective horse artillery, McClellan “failed to appreciate the advantage of coordinating the tactical strengths of cavalry with those of infantry and artillery.” [10]

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J.E.B. Stuart

While the South did struggle at times with its cavalry arm but did have an advantage in that the vast majority of their cavalry troopers owned their mounts and were experienced horsemen, something that could not be said of the many city dwellers who volunteered for duty in the Union cavalry. But the initial Southern superiority in cavalry was also due to the fact that “the principal of massing regiments into brigades and divisions was pursued earlier than by the Federal.” [11] In contrast McClellan “followed the evil course of reducing mounted regiments to their smallest components for operational use.” Likewise, he “wasted cavalry’s potential and depressed its morale by employing it as couriers, bodyguards for his subordinates, pickets for his encampments, and wagon train escorts, instead of as combat troops.” [12] The result as one would expect was that for the first two years of the war “J.E.B. Stuart and his horsemen were able, literally, to run rings around their opponents.” [13]

One Union writer compared the development of the Confederate and Union cavalry arms during the war:

“The habits of the Southern people facilitated the formation of cavalry corps which were comparatively efficient even without instruction; and accordingly we see Stuart, John Morgan, and Forrest riding around with impunity around the Union armies, and destroying or harassing their communications. Late in the war that agency was reversed. The South was exhausted of horses, while the Northern cavalry increased in numbers and efficiency, and acquired the audacity which had characterized the Southern.” [14]

buford

John Buford

As such much of the initial improvement in the Union cavalry arm were due to solid commanders like Brigadier General John Buford to teach new recruits as well as discouraged veterans to become effective cavalrymen.

Cavalry remained a fairly small in comparison to the infantry and artillery branches of service. Even during the wartime expansion the amount of cavalry available was miniscule compared to European armies. On the average only about 8% of the Army of the Potomac was composed of cavalry, compared to Napoleon’s 20 to 25%. [15] Part of this was due to the perceived cost of the cavalry arm which many believed was too expensive to maintain on a large scale: “estimates held that every twelve companies mounted and outfitted at public expense would rob the Treasury of over $300,000 a year merely to cover upkeep on animals, remounts, weapons, and equipment….” [16]

The cost of equipping cavalry was high enough that in the South that troopers had to procure their own mounts. Edwin Coddington noted that the Confederate policy “was a wonderful arrangement for keeping the strength of the cavalry below par, much more than enemy bullets, for it encouraged absenteeism.” [17] The Confederate government paid the own for the use of the horse, and a cash reimbursement if it was lost in combat, but if it was lost in any other manner the soldier had to get another horse if he wanted to remain in the service. Since the Confederates never set up a “centralized replacement service” troopers who lost their mount “had to go home to procure a new horse. If he were a Virginian he needed from thirty to sixty days to accomplish his purpose, and a much longer time should he have to come deeper south.” [18]

Despite the doctrinal predilection to the offense and using the cavalry as a shock unit, the U.S. Army formed no heavy cavalry formations on the order of the famous French Cuirassiers, named after their armored breastplates and metal helmets which were the primary type of cavalry used in Europe for such tactics. As such, during the Civil War both Union and Confederate cavalry formations were primarily assigned to reconnaissance and screening missions normally conducted by light cavalry units in Europe. These larger formations began to be used en masse for the purpose of raiding by both sides “but in the hands of J.E.B Stuart and his friends it became little more than a license to roam off into the enemy’s rear areas looking for plunder and glory.” [19] The cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac was used in a similar manner to raid enemy rear areas with often dreadful results which contributed nothing to the overall goal of defeating Lee’s army. A prime example was when Joseph Hooker detached his newly formed Cavalry Corps under George Stoneman to raid Richmond leaving the flank of the army uncovered at Chancellorsville.

Quite often the soldiers assigned to the infantry and artillery had little use for the cavalry who they saw as pampered and contributing little to the war. Many infantrymen held the “cavalry in open contempt. “These cavalry are a positive nuisance,” an officer in the 123rd Illinois wrote. “They won’t fight, and whenever they are around they are always in the way of those who will fight.” [20] Disdainful Confederate infantrymen “greeted their cavaliers with “Here’s your mule!” and “their Federal counterparts would exclaim: “There’d going to be a fight, boy; the cavalry’s running back!” and “Whoever saw a dead cavalryman.” [21]

The lethality of the rifled musket also made the classic Napoleonic cavalry charge against enemy infantry a costly and dangerous enterprise if the enemy infantry still had the means to make organized resistance, and if the cavalry assault was not supported by infantry and cavalry.. An example of this was the ill-fated cavalry attack ordered by Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick against the men of Lafayette McLaws’s well prepared division on the Confederate right after the failure of Pickett’s Change at Gettysburg.

Cavalry tactics began to change during the war. Both sides used their cavalry for raids, sometimes very large ones, and operations against enemy partisans in their rear areas. In each case the cavalry was typically deployed by itself and even when it accompanied the armies into battle cavalry units were typically employed on the periphery of the battle. As such as Griffith wrote, “Civil War doctrine of raiding… was not only a deliberate turn away from the hope of victory on the battlefield, but it actually removed the means by which victory might have been won at the very moment when those means were at last starting to be properly efficient.” [22] The lack of heavy cavalry of the European model sometimes kept commanders from completing victories, one can only imagine what would have happened had George Meade had a division of heavy cavalry at hand to sweep the Confederates from the battlefield after Pickett’s Charge.

sheridanphiliphbio

Philip Sheridan

Tactics only began to change when General Philip Sheridan took command of Grant’s cavalry. Sheridan kept the cavalry close to the main body of the arm. Sheridan had replaced Major General Alfred Pleasanton as commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac in early 1864. It is quite possible had he not died in December 1863 that the post would have gone to John Buford, but Sheridan had a vision for the cavalry that foreshadowed modern operational art. Sheridan wanted to organize the Cavalry Corps by concentrating it “into a powerful striking arm. He desired to do this, first, to deal with the Confederate cavalry, on the theory that “with a mass of ten thousand mounted men… I could make it so lively for the enemy’s cavalry that… the flanks and rear of the Army of the Potomac would require little or no defense.” [23] Sheridan was making no idle boast as by now his troops “were not only more numerous, but they had better leaders, tactics, and equipment than before,” [24] especially when it came to the Spencer repeating rifle which was now standard issue for the cavalrymen, and which gave them a tremendous advantage in firepower over Stuart’s now ill-equipped troops.

Sheridan first did this at the beginning of the Wilderness campaign when he took his 10,000 strong corps around the Confederate flank. Sheridan had been quarreling with Meade about the latter’s insistence that Sheridan’s horsemen were clogging the roads that his infantry needed to advance upon. In the heated discussion Sheridan came very close to being insubordinate with Meade. Meade reportedly told Sheridan that “Stuart “will do about how he pleases anyhow” to which Sheridan supposedly replied “Damn Stuart, I can trash hell out of him any day.” [25] Furious, Meade went and reported the matter to Grant. Grant listened and replied “Did Sheridan say that?… He usually knows what he is talking about. Let him go ahead and do it.” [26] At Grant’s request Meade provided Sheridan with new orders to concentrate his cavalry, march south and engage Stuart’s cavalry. Unlike previous raids which sought to avoid battle with Stuart’s troops in order to hit prescribed objectives, above all Sheridan wanted to engage and defeat the legendary Confederate cavalier. He “defined the raid as “a challenge to Stuart for a cavalry duel behind Lee’s lines in his own country.” And the more there were of the gray riders when the showdown was at hand, the better he would like it, since that would mean there were more to be smashed up.” [27]

Sheridan’s column totaled nearly 13,000 men and was nearly 13 miles long as he proceeded at a slow pace around Lee’s army and south towards Richmond. In addition to his horsemen he brought all of his horse artillery batteries. He was well around Lee’s flank before he was discovered and during the march his troops burned a depot and over one hundred railroad cars containing “close to a million rations of meat and better than a half million of bread, along with Lee’s entire reserve of medical stores.” [28]

On May 11th Stuart managed to intercept Sheridan’s column at a place called Yellow Tavern, just south of Ashland and the Ana River, but his corps was outnumbered by at least three to one. Three well trained, experienced, equipped, and superbly led Federal cavalry divisions confronted Stuart. With no hopes of fighting an offensive action, Stuart’s troops fought dismounted and were routed by the superior Bluecoats who continued on to cut the railroad between Lee’s army and Richmond. During the battle Stuart, who had cheated death on a number of occasions was mortally wounded. The Confederate cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia would never recover, and to Southerners Stuart’s death was a profound psychological blow, only slightly worse than that of Stonewall Jackson a year before. Robert E. Lee, to who Stuart was like a son took the loss harder than he had taken Jackson’s. “I can scarcely think of him without weeping,” he told one of Stuart’s officers.” [29]

As the armies in the East and West dueled throughout 1864, Sheridan and other Federal cavalry officers transformed the Union cavalry into a striking force which could be the spearhead of the army and use new tactics to overcome the problem of combining fire with rapid maneuver which had never been satisfactory applied by the infantry. There were four components in the new tactical mix: “fast operational mobility on horseback out of contact with the enemy; a willingness to take cover and fight on foot when the enemy was close; new repeating carbines to give enhanced firepower; and a mounted reserve to make the sabre charge when the moment was ripe.” [30] Sheridan would apply these tactics in his later campaigns against Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley and during the Appomattox campaign and his cavalry, working with infantry and artillery smashed the beleaguered Confederate armies which tried to oppose them. The reorganized cavalry was not the answer to all of the battlefield problems faced by Civil War commanders but it gave Union commanders an impressive weapon in which the speed and firepower of the cavalry could be readily combined with artillery and infantry to achieve decisive results. On the Confederate side, General Joseph Wheeler who commanded the cavalry in the west, Wheeler usually fought dismounted in “skirmish order using field fortification, whether skirmishing independently or in the line…. In the last major action of the war, he dramatically displayed how cavalry had become tactically integrated with infantry. At Bentonville, while fighting his cavalry dismounted, first on the right, then moving around to the left flank, Wheeler constructed a line of breastworks 1,200 yards long.” [31]

European cavalry officers found little to admire in American use of cavalry. Few paid attention to the importance of fighting dismounted and working as part of a combined arms team. In August 1914 their cavalry formations paid severe price for ignoring the realities of modern war, realities which the Americans, both Union and Confederate learned during the Civil War.

Notes

[1] ____________ Anti-Federalists Fear a Large Military “Brutus I.” “To the Citizens of the State of New York” 1787 in Major Problems in American Military History edited by John Whiteclay Chambers II and G. Kurt Piehler, Houghton-Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York 1999 p. 103

[2] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States p.122

[3] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.181

[4] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.181

[5] Longacre, Edward G. John Buford: A Military Biography Da Capo Press, Perseus Book Group, Cambridge MA p.33

[6] Thomas, Emory M. Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK 1986 and 1999 p.30

[7] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.21

[8] Longacre, Edward G. The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations, during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June- 14 July 1863. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1986 p.44

[9] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.182

[10] Ibid. Longacre The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations, during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June- 14 July 1863 p.45

[11] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.181

[12] Ibid. Longacre The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations, during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June- 14 July 1863 p.45

[13] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.183

[14] Buell, Don Carlos. East Tennessee and the Campaign of Perryville in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume III, The Tide Shifts. Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel Castle, Secaucus NJ p.51

[15] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.181

[16] Ibid. Longacre The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations, during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June- 14 July 1863 p.43

[17] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.17

[18] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.17

[19] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.183

[20] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.20

[21] Ibid. Longacre The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations, during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June- 14 July 1863 p.45

[22] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War pp.183-184

[23] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History 1861-1865 p.369

[24] Ibid. Whelan Bloody Spring: Forty Days that Sealed the Confederacy’s Fate p.181

[25] Ibid. Thomas Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart p.288

[26] Catton, Bruce Grant Takes Command Little, Brown, and Company, New York, Toronto, London 1968 and 1969 p.216

[27]Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Three Red River to Appomattox p.564 p.224

[28] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Three Red River to Appomattox p.564 p.225

[29] Ibid. Korda, Clouds of Glory p.626

[30] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.184

[31] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.298

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