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From Strategic Incompetence to Negligence in Conducting a do or Die Offensive: Robert E. Lee’s Lazy and Disastrous Discretionary Orders at Gettysburg, 1 July 1863

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night I posted an article about Robert E. Lee’s inability to understand the connection between national strategy and operational level command in regard to engaging in offensive operations that did nothing to help his rebellion. In fact his opposition to sending large forces to defeat Grant and relieve Vicksburg, combined with the incompetence he displayed during the Gettysburg Campaign ensured the defeat of the Confederacy, for which I am grateful, despite my ancestors fighting for the Confederacy and against the Union for their land and human property.

This article, like last night’s article demonstrates Lee’s unfitness as a senior commander, who despite serving as the Commandant of West Point and student of Henri Jomini’s understanding of Napoleon, whose two major offensive operations into Union territory ended in failure and the irreplaceable loss of soldiers in 1862 at Antietam and 1863 at Gettysburg. Lee’s strategic incompetence allowed the Confederacy to be cut in half, lose control of the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers, and the conquest of most of Tennessee, putting Union Armies under the command of William Tecumseh Sherman on the frontier of Georgia with Atlanta dangling as a prize.

Lee’s hubris in the Gettysburg Campaign showed the limitations of a man who despite every opportunity never grasped the consequences of treason and sedition. Nor a man who,fully appreciated, until it was too late the Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic aspects of modern war. Lee was still fighting Napoleonic warfare, without the benefit of Clausewitz and the Enlightenment. Likewise, he made decisions about who would command his Corps, and Divisions based on expediency and a preference for Virginians, regardless of better choices. That is where our story begins.


Discretionary orders are important to the success of commanders who desire that their subordinates have the necessary freedom to exploit opportunities within the broader operational context. They are a key element of what we now define as Mission Command and thus expressed clearly in the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Desired Leader Attributes the ability to operate on intent through trust, empowerment and understanding. In this chapter we will look at how Lee conducted war and how his decision process and communications, particularly the use of discretionary orders influenced the outcome of the battle and how important the issuance of clear orders is to a successful campaign.

To be effective such orders need to be clear and concise and they must be employed in a manner that are within the capabilities of one’s subordinate commanders to both understand them and carry them out. Thus a commander must always be ready to adjust his method when his command goes through a major turnover of personnel. After the loss of Thomas ”Stonewall”Jackson at Chancellorsville and the subsequent reorganization of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee continued to operate as if nothing had changed, despite his own recognition that the army suffered from a want of qualified senior officers.

Robert E. Lee habitually issued discretionary orders with varying degrees of effectiveness. With Jackson, a man of ruthless battlefield instincts, Lee was able to do this, even when Lee’s intent was less than clear and even with Jackson such orders occasionally went awry as was the case during the Seven Days. Lee’s aide Walter Taylor noted that Jackson “took the suggestion of General Lee into immediate consideration, and proceeded to carry it into effect.” [1] This was not to be the case with those that followed Jackson, something that Lee failed to adjust to that would doom his army at Gettysburg.

Part of this is attributable to Lee’s distaste for administrative routine. Taylor noted how Lee’s “correspondence…was constantly a source of worry to him. He did not enjoy writing; indeed he wrote with labor, and nothing seemed to tax his amiability as the necessity for writing a lengthy official communication.” [2] But more importantly in the matter of communicating orders and following up, much of the issue came down to Lee’s near fatalistic understanding of faith and life in regard to the providence of God. For Lee victory and defeat came down to God’s will, as he wrote his wife after his ill-fated 1861 campaign in western Virginia “But the Ruler of the Universe willed otherwise and sent a storm to discontent a well laid plan and to destroy my hopes.” [3] But for Lee, the concept of “duty” became a secular manifestation of his religion.” [4]

J. F. C. Fuller attributes much of the manner in how Lee conducted battle to this sense of duty as well as belief in providence. Fuller notes that it “controlled the whole of his generalship.” [5] Lee explained his concept of command to the Prussian observer, Captain Justus Scheibert:

“You must know our circumstances, and see in battle that my leading would do more harm than good. It would be a bad thing if I could not then rely on my brigade and divisional commanders. I plan and work with all my might to bring my troops to the right place at the right time; with that I have done my duty. As soon as I order the troops forward into battle, I lay the fate of my army in the hands of God.” [6]

That firm belief in providence and the hand of God was evident in Lee’s comments to Major General Isaac Trimble as the army advanced into Pennsylvania. “We have again outmaneuvered the enemy, who even now does not know where we are or what our designs are. Our whole army will be in Pennsylvania day after tomorrow, leaving the enemy far behind and obliged to follow by forced marches. I hope with these advantages to accomplish some single result and to end the war, if Providence favors us.” [7] Lee’s belief in Divine providence was little different than every religious fundamentalist who believed that faith would result in victory without reason.

Fuller is one of the harshest critics of Lee bluntly notes that “this lack of appreciation that administration is the foundation for strategy; this lack of interest in routine, and his abhorrence to exert his authority…” [8] were key factors in many of his army’s problems, from command and control, discipline and the material and logistics aspects of war. Likewise his absolute reliance on his subordinates to carry out his orders, and unwillingness to interfere once the battle was joined was a major factor in his failure at Gettysburg, where Russell Weigley noted in a rather kind and subdued way that “Lee…was sometimes served less than well by his corps, division and brigade commanders.” [9]

Throughout the Gettysburg campaign Lee issued vague orders that his subordinates either failed to understand or willingly interpret in a manner that Lee did not intend. Lee’s biographer Michael Korda notes that “the phrase if practicable…led to many unfortunate consequences, since it provided subordinate commanders a kind of escape clause, allowing them to argue after the event that what they had been order to do was not, in their view “practicable.” [10]

From the time that Robert E Lee learned that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the Potomac into Maryland on June 28th, he attempted to adjust his campaign plan and concentrate his army in preparation for battle. At that point his army was scattered and he did not want to provoke an engagement until he could concentrate his forces. Stuart’s cavalry, the absence of which was a matter of great consternation to Lee was chief among his concerns. Lee had hoped that Hooker would pursue him north, but finding the information out from Longsteet’s spy Harrison disturbed Lee greatly. [11]

Lee expected to know about Hooker’s movements from Stuart. However, Stuart was nowhere to be found; operating nearly fifty miles away separated from Lee’s main body much of the Army of the Potomac. Lee’s aide Walter Taylor wrote: “No tidings had been received from or of our cavalry under General Stuart since crossing the river; and General Lee was consequently without accurate of the movements or position of the main Federal Army.” [12] However, while Stuart certainly can be blamed for taking his best cavalry off on a ride around the Federal army, he acted in accordance with how he interpreted Lee’s orders, as Douglas Southall Freeman wrote: “What was possible was permissible. That, as Stuart saw it, was the substance of his orders.” [13]

This was especially true after Stuart had been surprised at Brandy Station by the Federal cavalry and pilloried in the Confederate press, the Richmond Sentinel saying Stuart had been “outgeneraled” and the Richmond Whig predicting that “We shall not be surprised if the gallant Stuart does not, before many days, make the enemy repent sorely the temerity that led them to undertake this bold and insulting feat….” [14] Lee’s orders provided just enough ambiguity and wiggle room for the wounded Stuart to do precisely what he did.

Lee’s orders gave Stuart the options of moving back to screen the army or passing around the Federal army, leaving the decision to Stuart’s discretion. “You will, however, be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them all the damage you can…” [15] Major Henry McClellan, Stuart’s aide recorded that he also received a “lengthy communication from General Lee…” which “discussed at considerable length the plan of passing around the enemy’s rear….” [16] Stuart in his official report wrote: “The commanding General wrote me, authorizing this move if I deemed it practical.” [17]

That being said Lee was clear enough that he expected Stuart to “lose no time in placing his command on the right of our column as soon as he should perceive the enemy moving northward.” [18] Though Stuart had detected Hancock’s II Corps moving north near Manassas he elected to make his movement around the Federal Army. Stuart’s biographer Burke Davis noted that Stuart “sought no advice on the all-important detour of June twenty-sixth, which changed his direct. He did not so much consult his brigadiers as he swung his column southward to pass around the enemy.” [19] Though Lee at a number of points during lead up to Gettysburg signaled his frustration with Stuart’s absence and its effect on his abilities, he failed to draw the appropriate conclusions that a prudent commander, operating deep in enemy territory would assume from the lack of contact. Lee should have assumed that Stuart was because of his move “become temporarily incommunicado” but instead, “inferred from Stuart’s silence that Hooker had not crossed the Potomac.” [20]

Lee’s vague order was the first in a series of command and control issues that plagued him during the campaign and combined with Stuart’s vanity and need to redeem his reputation, Lee’s ill use of the cavalry he did have under his control were all contributing factors leading to the disastrous encounter at Gettysburg, but there was more to come.

Now that Lee knew that the Army of the Potomac had crossed into Maryland and was now under the command of George Meade he began to take action to reassemble his widely scattered army in the vicinity of Chambersburg and Cashtown. A.P. Hill’s Third Corps was already near Cashtown, and Longstreet’s First Corps was on its way up. The most important issue Lee had was to get Ewell’s Second Corps, then near Carlisle preparing to attack Harrisburg, back in contact with the rest of the Army.

Lee sent two sets of orders to Ewell on the night of the 28th, after getting Harrison’s intelligence, but they did not reach Ewell until the morning of the 29th. The first orders were for Ewell to move to Chambersburg, and the second, to concentrate at Heidlersburg where he could either continue to Cashtown or turn south to Gettysburg. [21] The intent was good, Lee appears to have desired to minimize congestion on the turnpike in order to more rapidly assemble his army, however the orders caused much discontent at the Second Corps headquarters and “made Old Bald Head most unhappy.” [22] Many of his soldiers with Harrisburg in plain sight were likewise upset the “disappointment and chagrin were extreme” [23] while a soldier in “Maryland Steuart’s brigade recalled the “ill-concealed dissatisfaction” of the men, who “found the movement to be as they supposed “one of retreat.” [24] A staff officer noted that Ewell was “quite testy and hard to please” at the news and “became disappointed, and had everyone flying around.” [25]

Despite his displeasure Ewell did move promptly to comply with Lee’s orders “Lee had not communicated any particular sense of crisis to the case, and the Second Corps’ march proceeded at the usual pace.” [26] Likewise the fact that there were two orders caused several problems that would manifest themselves on July 1st all of which would affect the outcome of the battle.

The first regarded the movement of Second Corps. On receipt of the first order to proceed to Chambersburg Ewell promptly started Allegany Johnson’s division as well as the Second Corps Wagon Train and two battalions of its Corps Artillery Reserve down the turnpike. [27] When they arrived near Cashtown on the first they would become entangled with Anderson’s division of Hill’s Third Corps, slowing that unit’s attempt to move to battle. This massive traffic jam also delayed two of Longstreet’s divisions which were moving to link up with Hill’s Corps. [28]

Ewell was able to direct Rodes and Early’s divisions toward Heildlersburg, but the vagueness of Lee’s changing the objective of the march “to Cashtown or Gettysburg and leaving it up to the commander to choose between the two”[29]caused Ewell problems. Had Johnson’s division and the rest of the corps been available early on the afternoon of July 1st at Heildlersburg with Rodes and Early’s divisions it might have completely changed the outcome of the battle. Ewell had been very successful under Jackson, whose orders “were precise and positive” where Lee had not only revered the course of Ewell’s advance on Harrisburg back to Chambersburg, but then modified with the order to proceed to either Cashtown or Gettysburg. [30]

Lee’s order again contained a discretionary clause, to advance to Cashtown or Gettysburg “as circumstances dictate.” [31] Ewell was upset not knowing what “circumstances” Lee had in mind.” [32] On the night of the 30th he discussed the order with Rodes and Early as well as Major General Isaac Trimble, and complained of the order’s “indefinite phraseology” and made the comment “Why can’t a commanding General have someone on his staff who can write an intelligible order.” [33] Ewell’s acerbic comment could easily be applied to many of Lee’s orders issued during the next few days, but in spite of it Ewell did handle his “first discretionary order very well indeed” [34] as he issued his movement orders for July 1st in a manner that would allow his divisions to move on either location should the situation dictate.

As Ewell attempted to comply with Lee’s orders on the 29th and 30th to rejoin the army his other two corps were resting. Third Corps under A.P. Hill was at and around Cashtown west of Gettysburg. On the 30th Hill allowed Harry Heth to advance Johnston Pettigrew’s brigade to Gettysburg. When Pettigrew discovered Buford’s cavalry division there he withdrew and reported to incident to Hill and Heth who refused to believe it. Hill did pass on that news to Lee and alerted Lee that “that he intended to march there in the morning” but the “announcement seemed not to have disturbed the commanding general, since he expected to move his headquarters only as far as Cashtown the next day.” [35] This lack of reaction was to have enormous consequences for Lee.

On the morning of July 1st, Hill ordered Harry Heth to advance his division to Gettysburg without the benefit of cavalry support or reconnaissance and backing them up with Pender’s division. As they advanced the leading brigades under Brigadier General James Archer and Joseph Davis met Federal forces. Heth became embroiled in a fight with Buford’s cavalry, which developed into a fight with Reynolds’s I Corps, a fight that resulted in Heth’s division being mauled and helping to bring a general engagement. That engagement drew in Ewell’s corps as well before Lee knew what was happening.

Lee had a number of chances to prevent the meeting engagement that developed on July 1st 1863. Lee noted in his after action report that “It had not been intended to deliver a general battle so far from our base unless attacked…” [36] but there are no records of him giving such instructions prior to the battle. There are no reports indicating that he urged caution on his commanders not to bring on a general engagement before July 1st, when the battle was already underway, nor are there records of any warning orders to his corps commanders upon learning of the presence of the Federal army north of the Potomac.

In the end of the day it was Lee’s “laxness with respect to reconnaissance and his lack of control of Hill’s movements caused him to stumble into battle.” [37] The battle began without him knowing it; his subordinate commanders committed nearly half of his army into battle before he issued an order, Lee wrote “A battle had, therefore, become in a measure unavoidable….” [38] But such is not the case. Lee had the ability and command authority to break off the engagement before it took on a life of its own, but he did not do so.

(Gburg day one)

Lee arrived early enough in the battle to make his influence known. He was told of Ewell’s movements by Major G. Campbell Brown of Ewell’s staff and instructed Brown in very strong terms to tell Ewell “that a general engagement was to be avoided until the arrival of the rest of the army.” [39] Ewell, did not get that message until after his forces were heavily committed noting in his report “that By the time this message reached me….It was too late to avoid an engagement without abandoning the position already taken up.” [40]

Lee was not happy that battle had been joined by Heth and Taylor observed that “on arriving at the scene of the battle, General Lee ascertained that the enemy’s infantry and artillery were present in considerable force” [41] and when Lee arrived on Herr Ridge, Heth asked permission to renew his attack when Rodes entered the fight. Lee’s initial response was negative “No, I am not prepared to bring on a general engagement today. Longstreet is not up.” [42]

After observing the battle for a time it became evident that Ewell’s corps was also heavily engaged and Lee began to change his mind. Heth reported that the Federal troops in front of him were withdrawing and Lee sensed an opportunity to strike a blow that might bring the climactic victory that he sought. Lee analyzed the situation and with Heth back at his division Heth wrote that “very soon an aide came to me with the orders to attack.” [43]

The order was given in the heat of the moment, and Lee always aggressive responded, but it was a bad decision. “It committed him to a major confrontation on this ground…without sufficient troops on hand and without knowledge of the whereabouts of the rest of the Federal army,” [44] and Lee knew this. He told Anderson at Cashtown not long before- meeting Heth: “I am in ignorance of what we have in front of us here. It may be the whole Federal army, or it may be only a detachment. If it is the whole Federal force we must fight a battle here.” But he was worried, telling Anderson “If we do not gain a victory, those defiles and gorges which we passed through this morning will shelter us from disaster.” [45]

Despite the success that his soldiers we now enjoying as they drove the I Corps and XI Corps back through the town Lee gave yet another vague order. This one to Ewell, who having already committed his corps to battle in the full knowledge that Lee did not desire a general engagement was confronted with another discretionary order, Lee said “General Ewell was…instructed to carry the hill occupied by the enemy, if he found it practicable, but to avoid a general engagement until the arrival of the other divisions of the army.” [46]

The Army of Northern Virginia came very close to sweeping Federal forces from the field on July 1st in spite of Lee’s lack of planning and clear commanders’ intent. But close was not enough. His forces which were committed in a piecemeal manner were unable to follow up their initial success. The situation faced by Ewell in Gettysburg was chaotic; his units were badly disorganized, and burdened by thousands of prisoners on the confided streets of the town. Rodes’ division had sustained frightful losses and he had no assurance of support from Hill. [47]Rodes’ after battle report supported Ewell’s decision. He wrote that before “the completion of his defeat before the town the enemy had begun to establish a line of battle on the heights back of the town, and by the time my line was in condition to renew the attack, he displayed quite a formidable line of infantry and artillery immediately in my front, extending smartly to my right, and as far as I could see to my left in front of Early.”[48]

Lee’s orders to Ewell, to take the high ground “if practicable” were correctly interpreted by Ewell despite his critics; he nature of the terrain, the number and condition of the troops that he had available for an attack, and the nature of the orders given by Lee late in the day was strong factors for Ewell to not attack. [49]Coddington noted that these problems “upset Ewell, for he was faced with the prospect of organizing a new attack with tired men even while he felt constrained by Lee’s injunction not to open a full-fledged battle. No wonder he was uncertain!”[50]The fact that Lee was not far away and did not issue a “peremptory order to Ewell” to attack also has to be noted. [51] If Lee had sensed that Ewell was not going to attack and really wanted him to he could have issued a direct order which Ewell, would have surely obeyed. “Lee realized that Ewell was not Jackson…and should have modified his method of command accordingly.” [52]

That evening Lee rode to Ewell’s headquarters and met with Ewell, Early and Rodes. “No reference was made to the possibility of an attack that evening on Cemetery Hill.” The question was put to them about what to do the next day. Lee asked “Can’t you with your corps attack on this flank tomorrow?” Jubal Early answered for Ewell saying “flatly that he did not believe an attack should be made from Gettysburg against Cemetery Hill the next day.” [53] Early added, “even if such an action were to succeed… it would be at a very great cost.” [54] Lee suggested to Ewell and his commanders that Second Corps around to the right along Seminary Ridge “where it might be better put to use, and twice he gave in to Ewell’s pleadings to remain where he was.” [55] This was yet another mistake that would haunt Lee during the rest of the battle, but the “notion of imposing his will on a subordinate was simply too alien to Lee’s nature for him to even to admit as a possibility.” [56] Fuller wrote “it was Lee’s inexhaustible tact that ruined his army.” [57]

Whether Lee intended to engage the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg so early in the campaign is debated. His multiple and contradictory strategic aims left his commanders acting much on their own. Lee’s lack of clear commander’s intent to his subordinate commanders created confusion on the battlefield. They also paved the way to many controversies in the years following the war as Southerners sought to explain the failure of the Lost Cause, for which Lee could not be blamed.

Much of the controversy comes from Lee’s own correspondence which indicates that he might have not fully understood his own intentions. Some correspondence indicates that Lee desired to avoid a general engagement as long as possible while other accounts indicate that he wanted an early and decisive engagement. The controversy was stoked after the war by Lee’s supporters, particular his aides Taylor and Marshall and generals Early, Gordon and Trimble. Men like Longstreet and were castigated by Lee’s defenders for suggesting that Lee made mistakes on the battlefield.

The vagueness of Lee’s instructions to his commanders led to many mistakes and much confusion during the battle. Many of these men were occupying command positions under him for the first time and were unfamiliar with his command style. Where Stonewall Jackson might have understood Lee’s intent, even where Lee issued vague or contradictory orders, many others including Hill and Ewell did not. Lee did not change his command style to accommodate his new commanders.

That lack of flexibility and inability to clearly communicate Lee’s intent to his commanders and failure to exercise control over them proved fatal to his aims in the campaign. Stephen Sears’ scathing analysis of Lee’s command at Gettysburg perhaps says it the best. In the final analysis, it was Robert E. Lee’s inability to manage his generals that went to the heart of the failed campaign.” [58]

The vagueness of Lee’s intent was demonstrated throughout the campaign and was made worse by the fog of war. Day one ended with a significant tactical victory for Lee’s army but without a decisive result which would be compounded into a strategic defeat by Lee’s subsequent decisions on the 2nd and 3rd of July.


[1] Taylor, Walter. General Lee: His campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 With Personal Reminiscences University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska and London, 1994 previously published 1906 p.45

[2] Ibid. Taylor General Lee: His campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 With Personal Reminiscences p.25

[3] Lee, Robert Edward. Recollections and Letters of General Robert E Lee A Public Domain book, Amazon Kindle edition location 548

[4] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His CriticsBrassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.35

[5] Fuller, J.F.C. Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN 1957 p.112

[6] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.348

[7]Tucker, Glenn. High Tide at Gettysburg, The Bobbs Merrill Co. Indianapolis Indiana 1958 p.24

[8] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship p.125

[9] Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military History and Policy University of Indiana Press, Bloomington IN, 1973 p.116

[10] Ibid. Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee p.446

[11] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p. 139

[12] Taylor, Walter Four Years with General Lee Original published 1877. Heraklion Press Kindle Edition 2013 location 1199

[13] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgement by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 pp.554-555

[14] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, p.552

[15] Nolan, Alan TR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.16

[16] 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 6123 unfortunately this letter cannot be verified as no copy exists, McClellan presuming that it was destroyed sometime during the march.

[17] 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.60

[18] 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 503

[19] Davis, Burke JEB Stuart: The Last Cavalier Random House, New York 1957 p. 325

[20] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.183

[21] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.189

[22] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p. 134

[23] Tredeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.124

[24] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p. 134

[25] Ibid. Tredeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, p.124

[26] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p. 134

[27] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command pp.189-190

[28] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.99

[29] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to MeridianRandom House, New York 1963 p. 464

[30] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.464

[31] Pfanz Harry W. Gettysburg: The First Day University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 2001 p.148

[32] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.192

[33] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.149

[34] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p. 160

[35] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.264

[36] Ibid. Lee Reports of Robert E Lee, C.S. Army, Commanding Army of Northern Virginia Campaign Report Dated January 20th 1864 location 552

[37]Ibid. Nolan R. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg p.24

[38] Ibid. Lee Reports of Robert E Lee, C.S. Army, Commanding Army of Northern Virginia Campaign Report Dated January 20th 1864 location 552

[39] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.150

[40] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg p.22

[41] Ibid. Taylor General Lee: His campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 With Personal Reminiscences p.188

[42] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.475

[43] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p. 203

[44] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg p.24

[45] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.474

[46] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgement by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 p.571

[47] Gallagher, Gary. Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg: A.P. Hill and Richard S. Ewell in a Difficult Debut in The First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 pp.54-55

[48] Ibid. Nolan p.26

[49] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.28

[50] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.319

[51] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.28

[52] Ibid Gallagher Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg p.56

[53] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.572

[54] Ibid. Tredeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, p.261

[55] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York p.504

[56] Ibid. Tredeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, p.262

[57] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship p.119

[58]Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York p.504


Filed under civil war, History, leadership, Military, Religion, slavery

John Brown: Fanatical Idealist and “Warrior for God”


                                                        John Brown

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

October 16th is the anniversary of John Brown’s attempted seizure of the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry. He was executed after trial on December 2nd 1859. Brown was  a man who had a righteous cause, but surrendered the moral high ground because of his fanaticism. Justice Robert Jackson wrote:“[I]n our country are evangelists and zealots of many different political, economic and religious persuasions whose fanatical conviction is that all thought is divinely classified into two kinds — that which is their own and that which is false and dangerous.” John Brown was a fanatic who in his desire to achieve his goal was not above committing murder as he did in Kansas, and insurrection as he did at Harper’s Ferry. There are many people in this country who harbor similar beliefs. John Brown serves as a warning to all of us. Violent means in service of a honorable or righteous cause often make things far worse.

This article is part of my draft book Mine Eyes have Seen the Glory: Race, Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Civil War Era. 


Padre Steve+

In the North there too existed an element of religious fanaticism. While “the restraining hand of churches, political parties and familial concerns bounded other antislavery warriors,” [1] and while most abolitionists tried to remain in the mainstream and work through legislation and moral persuasion to halt the expansion of slavery with the ultimate goal of emancipation; there were fanatical abolitionists that were willing to attempt to ignite the spark which would cause the powder keg of raw hatred and emotion to explode.

Most prominent among these men was John Brown. Brown was a “Connecticut-born abolitionist…a man with the selfless benevolence of the evangelicals wrought into a fiery determination to crush slavery.” [2] His father was an early abolitionist who helped later found Oberlin College. In his early years Brown “formulated a certitude about divine intervention against sinners, starring himself as God’s warrior against slaveholders.” [3] As early as 1834 John Brown was “an ardent sympathizer the Negroes,” desiring to raise a black child in his own home and to “offering guidance to a colony of Negroes on the farm of the wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith at North Elba New York.” [4]Brown regarded moderate free Staters with distain and though he was a fanatical Christian he never joined any church, and “obeyed only his conception of God’s unbounded command.” [5]

Brown “ridiculed Republican’s mainstream tactics. He disparaged even Yankee extremists for deploying too non-violent a strategy.” [6] After a series of failed business ventures the militant Brown went to Kansas and set about to change the equation through the use of terror. After the sack of Lawrence, Brown and a company of his marauders set upon and slaughtered the family of a pro-slavery settler at Pottawatomie Creek. [7] Brown and his son’s entered the house of one family, “dragged three men outside, shot the father through the head, and hacked and mutilated his two sons with broadswords.”[8] Two years later Brown went to Missouri where he “murdered a slaveholder, seized eleven slaves, and led the new freedmen 1100 miles to Canadian sanctuary.” [9]

The example of John Brown provides us with a good example to understand religious extremism, especially when it becomes violent. The counterinsurgency field manual notes in words that are certainly as applicable to Brown as they are to current religiously motivated terrorists, that “Religious extremist insurgents….frequently hold an all-encompassing worldview; they are ideologically rigid and uncompromising….  believing themselves to be ideologically pure, violent religious extremists brand those they consider insufficiently orthodox as enemies.”[10] 

Brown was certainly “a religious zealot…but was nevertheless every much the product of his time and place….” [11] Brown was a veteran of the violent battles in Kansas where he had earned the reputation as “the apostle of the sword of Gideon” as he and his men battled pro-slavery settlers. Brown was possessed by a zealous belief that God had appointed him as God’s warrior against slaveholders. He despised the peaceful abolitionists and demanded action. “Brave, unshaken by doubt, willing to shed blood unflinchingly and to die for his cause if necessary, Brown was the perfect man to light the tinder of civil war in America, which was what he intended to do.” [12]

Brown attempted to gain financing from wealthy abolitionists for a new expedition to seize the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry Virginia, and most would have nothing to do with his scheme. When they “touted their pacific antislavery societies, Brown responded that “your methods are perfectly futile; you would not release five slaves in a century; peaceful emancipation is impossible.” [13] After hearing William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionist leaders plead for peaceful abolition he remarked: “We’ve reached a point,” I said, “where nothing but war can get rid of slavery in this guilty nation. It’s better that a whole generation of men, women, and children should pass away by a violent death than that slavery should continue to exist.” I meant that literally, every word of it.” [14]

Following that meeting, as well as a meeting with Frederick Douglass who rejected Brown’s planned violent action, Brown went about collecting recruits for his cause and set out to seize 10,000 muskets at the Federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in order to ignite a slave revolt. Brown and twenty-one followers, sixteen whites and five blacks moved on the arsenal. As they went, Brown:

“believed that we would probably fail at the Ferry, would probably die. But I believed that all we had to do was make the attempt, and Jehovah would do the rest: the Heavens would turn black, the thunder would rend the sky, and a mighty storm would uproot this guilty land, washing its sins away with blood. With God’s help, I, John Brown, would effect a mighty conquest even though it was like the last victory of Samson.” [15] 

After initial success in capturing the armory, Brown’s plan was frustrated and Brown captured by a force of U.S. Marines, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart. Brown was tried and hanged, but his raid “effectively severed the country into two opposing parts, making it clear to moderates there who were searching for compromise, that northerner’s tolerance for slavery was wearing thin.” [16]

It now did not matter that Brown was captured, tried, convicted and executed for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Brown to be sure was “a half-pathetic, half-mad failure, his raid a crazy, senseless exploit to which only his quiet eloquence during trial and execution lent dignity” [17] but his act was the watershed from which the two sides would not be able to recover; the population on both sides having gone too far down the road to disunion to turn back.

Brown had tremendous support among the New England elites, the “names of Howe, Parker, Emerson and Thoreau among his supporters.” [18] To abolitionists he had become a martyr “but to Frederick Douglass and the negroes of Chatham, Ontario, nearly every one of whom had learned something from personal experience on how to gain freedom, Brown was a man of words trying to be a man of deeds, and they would not follow him. They understood him, as Thoreau and Emerson and Parker never did.” [19]

But to Southerners Brown was the symbol of an existential threat to their way of life. In the North there was a nearly religious wave of sympathy for Brown, and the “spectacle of devout Yankee women actually praying for John Brown, not as a sinner but as saint, of respectable thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson and Longfellow glorifying his martyrdom in Biblical language” [20] horrified Southerners, and drove pro-Union Southern moderates into the secession camp. The Richmond Enquirer wrote in its editorial, “The Harper’s Ferry invasion has advanced the cause of Disunion, more than any other event that has happened since the foundation of the Government; it has rallied to that standard men who formerly looked on it with horror; it has revived, with ten fold strength the desire of a Southern Confederacy…” [21]

The day that Brown went to his hanging he wrote his final missive. This was written once more in apocalyptic language, but also in which he portrayed himself as a Christ figure going to his cross on the behalf of a guilty people, but a people whom his blood would not atone:

“It’s now December second – the day of my hanging, the day the gallows become my cross. I’m approaching those gallows while sitting on my coffin in the bed of a military wagon. O dear God, my eyes see the glory in every step of the divine journey that brought me here, to stand on that platform, in that field, before all those soldiers of Virginia. Thank you, Father, for allowing an old man like me such might and soul satisfying rewards. I am ready to join thee now in Paradise…

They can put the halter around my neck, pull the hood over my head. Hanging me won’t save them from God’s wrath! I warned the entire country: I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” [22]

Brown’s composure and dignity during trial impressed Governor Henry Wise of Virginia who signed Brown’s death warrant as well as that of fire-eater Edmund Ruffin. In his diary Ruffin “praised Brown’s “animal courage” and “complete fearlessness & insensibility to danger and death.” [23]

UBrown’s death was marked with signs of mourning throughout the North, for Brown was now a martyr. Henry David Thoreau “pronounced Brown “a crucified hero,” [24] while through the North, Brown’s death was treated as a martyr’s death. Even abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison who had condemned violence in the quest of emancipation praised Brown’s actions, while throughout the North:

“Church bells tolled, black bunting was hung out, minute guns were fired, prayer meetings assembled, and memorial resolutions adopted. In the weeks following, the emotional outpouring continued: lithographs of Brown circulated in vast numbers, subscriptions were organized for the support of his family, immense memorial meetings took place in New York, Boston and Philadelphia…” [25]

Future Confederate General Lafayette McLaws spoke for many Southerners in the army when he wrote: His diary entry for February 27th 1860 noted:

“Debates in congress show no mitigation of sec. feeling…. I think it would be better not to be so fanatical on any subject, the extreme pro-slavery man is as bad as that type as that type of anti-slavery, John Brown. I do not consider slavery an evil by any means, but I certainly do not think it the greatest blessing.” [26]

But in the South there was a different understanding of Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry. Despite official denunciations of Brown by Abraham Lincoln and other Republican leaders, the message proclaimed by Southern newspapermen, ministers and politicians was that the North could not be trusted.  Brown’s raid, and the reaction of Northerners to it “was seized upon as argument-clinching proof that the North was only awaiting its opportunity to destroy the South by force….” [27]

Of course that was not the feeling in much of the North, but Brown’s actions and words were seized upon by the Southern versions of Brown to make Civil War inevitable once the political balance changed, and they neither controlled the Presidency, House, or Senate.


[1] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.81

[3] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[4] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.211

[5] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[6] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.206

[7] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis pp.211-212

[8] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.118

[9] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.208

[10] Ibid. U.S. Army/ Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual p.27

[11] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.197

[12] Ibid. Korda, Clouds of Glory p.xviii

[13] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.208

[14] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.203

[15] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.284

[16] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory p.xxxix

[17] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.18

[18] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.381

[19] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.375

[20] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.187

[21] ___________ The Harper’s Ferry Invasion as Party Capital The Richmond Enquirer, 23 October 1859 in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 p.54

[22] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.290

[23] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.3

[24] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.210

[25] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.378

[26] Oefinger, John C. Editor A Soldier’s General: The Civil War Letters of Major General Lafayette McLaws University of North Carolina Press, Charlotte and London 2002 p.18

[27] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.119


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The Largest Cavalry Battle in North America: The Battle Of Brandy Station

Cav Fight at Brandy Station

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I continue my rest so I can read and relax. 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,


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.


[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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The Glory of Fighting The Anticlimactic Cavalry Clashes at Gettysburg

4 R

Custer leads his Michigan Cavalry Brigade on July 3rd

On the evening of July 2nd 1863 with the attacks of Longstreet now finished and Ewell’s abortive battle for Culp’s Hill reaching its bloody climax, Major General J.E.B. Stuart finally arrived at Robert E Lee’s headquarters on Seminary Ridge. Stuart and his troopers had been missing from Lee’s army since the evening of June 23rd, causing Lee no end of anxiety as well as depriving Lee of his most trusted source of information regarding enemy movements and intentions.

Stuart’s tired and hungry brigades were at Carlisle where he was endeavoring to take that town from local militia when Stuart leaned the location of Lee’s army. He was directed to “move to Gettysburg. Jeb did not delay compliance. Exhausted troopers mounted their staggering horses,” [1] and began the ride to Gettysburg where much of the army greeted with “joyful shouts” [2] which was a relief to his exhausted troopers. Stuart’s chief of staff Major Henry McClellan wrote: “For eight days and nights the troops had been marching incessantly. On the ninth night they rested within the shelter of the army, and with a grateful sense of relief which words cannot express.” [3]

Stuart rode ahead to Lee’s headquarters where unlike the “joyful” greeting his troops were accorded, he was met with a frosty reception by his beloved commander. Over the eight days of his absence Lee Apparently the meeting between Lee and his Cavalry division commander was short “abrupt and frosty. As soldier-historian Porter Alexander put it, “although Lee said only, ‘Well, General, you are here at last,’ his manner implied rebuke, and it was understood by Stuart.” [4] One account noted that “Lee reddened at the sight of Stuart and raised his arm as if he would strike him.” [5] Lee’s cold greeting stunned Stuart, who “may have been disappointed that no applause greeted his return from his longest raid, which he was to persuade himself was his greatest.” [6] Henry McClellan reported that Stuart “regarded the incident as painful beyond description.” [7]

In his official report of the battle “Lee would allude to Stuart with but a single pejorative sentence: “The movements of the Army preceding the Battle of Gettysburg had been much embarrassed by the absence of the cavalry.” [8]

Stuart left as quickly as he arrived and in his official report he noted that his new orders were to take up a position “on the left wing of the Army of Northern Virginia.” [9] For a man like Stuart whose soldierly skills as a cavalry commander and leader were only matched by his vanity the incident was humiliating, he had failed Robert E Lee.

Stuart devised a plan to put his strong>“entire cavalry force in a position from which he could separate the Union cavalry from the main body of the army and at proper moment swoop down on its rear.” [10] However, there is no supporting evidence to indicate that Lee ever ordered Stuart to conduct an attack, and the suggestion runs counter to how Lee employed his cavalry throughout the war. The idea that Lee intended Stuart “to commit his small cavalry force to an attack on infantry belies every tactical lesson the Civil War afforded.” [11] It was a bad plan and it was now beyond the capabilities of Stuart’s troopers exhausted troopers and their broken mounts, who would face similar numbers of relatively fresh Federal cavalry; which as noted before was now their equal in leadership, training, organization and equipment.

Stuart moved four of his brigades the following morning to the north and east. He hoped to cover his movement from Federal observation but he was discovered by “watchful Union signal officers” who reported “large columns of cavalry moving toward the right of the Union line” [12] The message was relayed by Howard to Brigadier General David Gregg of the Second Cavalry Division who quickly deployed his troopers to meet the emerging threat. Stuart unjustly blamed the discovery of his force on brigades of Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee who he said had “debouched onto open ground and disclosed his presence.” But Stuart himself was also to blame for the discovery as he announced his force’s presence by bringing one cannon from Griffin’s battery of his artillery “to the edge of the woods and fired a number of random shots in different directions, himself giving orders to the gun.” [13] For a veteran officer such as Stuart that decision is inexplicable.


Brigadier General David Gregg

When Gregg received word of Stuart’s approach from Alfred Pleasanton, he was ordered to intercept him and in the process relieve the Michigan Brigade of the newly minted Brigadier General George Custer, which was deployed there so it could rejoin Judson Kilpatrick’s Third Cavalry Division on the extreme Federal left.

However, upon his arrival Gregg realized that he would be outnumbered and that Stuart posed “a serious threat to the Union rear.” [14] Custer indicated that he thought Gregg would soon have a battle and Gregg replied “in that case he would like to have the assistance of his Michigan brigade.” Custer agreed with Gregg and said that he would be “only too happy” to stay.” [15] Without bothering to consult his Cavalry Corps Commander, Major General Pleasanton, Gregg ordered Custer to remain with him and “willingly risked his military career and reputation in his anxiety to protect the Federal rear.” [16]


Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer

Gregg’s action was yet another of the superior judgments executed by a Federal commander during the battle. It was an outstanding example of how Federal commanders on the whole recognized the overall tactical situation and used their judgment to take action when waiting for a superior could prove fatal to the army. In our modern understanding it would be an example of how Mission Command is to work.

The main battle took place after Three P.M. when Pickett and Pettigrew’s divisions were battling for their lives in their ill-fated assault on Cemetery Hill. “For almost an hour, from 12:300 to 1:30, both sides jockeyed for advantage in a long range duel of cavalry, fighting with carbines and artillery.” [17] were a number of charges and counter charges, culminating in a “furious saber-swinging mounted counterattack by Custer and his Michigan cavalry, Custer at their head crying, “Come on, you Wolverines!” [18] As the clash continued “Stuart saw that General Gregg did not intend to allow an assault on Meade’s rear. The enemy was as stoutly determined as they had been at Brandy Station or in the passes in Northern Virginia.” [19] The battle evolved into a “smaller-scale version of the cavalry scrum at Brandy Station a month before.[20]

Though the battle was tactically a draw, Gregg and Custer’s troopers had prevailed, casualties on both sides were well under ten percent, 254 Union and 181 Confederate. But it was a victory for Gregg who had forced Stuart to enter a battle “in which the Confederates gained nothing except the “glory of fighting” [21] and had stopped Stuart from his objective of disrupting the Federal rear and aiding Pickett’s assault. Stuart wrote: “Had the enemy’s main body been dislodged, as was confidently hoped and expected, I was in precisely the right position….” [22]

As the battle to the east of town wound down Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick ordered a “poorly calculated mounted attack on some of John Bell Hood’s men down by Big Round Top.” [23] Kilpatrick ordered Brigadier General Elon Farnsworth to attack the dug in Confederates. Farnsworth was incredulous and objected saying “No successful charge can be made against the enemy in my front.” [24] When Kilpatrick questioned his courage Farnsworth said “if you order the charge I will lead it, but you must take the responsibility.” [25] Farnsworth told one of his officers “My God Hammond, Kil is going to have a cavalry charge. It is too awful to think of….” [26] Farnsworth’s troopers struck Law’s brigade and the Alabama troops of Colonel William Oates who had been repulsed the day before at Little Round Top. Defending rugged ground and backed by artillery it was Oates’ soldiers turn to enact slaughter on the charging Federals.


Elon Farnsworth

It was a hopeless charge. Farnsworth’s units were surrounded and while many men were able to ride to safety Farnsworth and ten or so of his men were cut off,
and he was wounded at least three times and knocked from his horse. Offered the opportunity to surrender by a Confederate officer he refused and “with an oath he swore he would not do it, and placing his pistol to his own body shot himself through the heart.” [27] Though the assault was going nowhere the now frantic Kilpatrick hurled the last regiment available into the fight screaming at its commander “Why in hell and damnation don’t you move those troops out,” The troopers of the 18th Pennsylvania “went forward and were stopped in their tracks.” [28]

During the battle with Gregg and Custer’s troopers, Stuart displayed little of his normally sharp tactical leadership and took little part in the battle leaving the conduct of it to his subordinates. Though the Federal Horse Artillery was outnumbered Gregg used the two batteries he had far more effectively than Stuart used his. Additionally Gregg had two brigade commanders willing to take the fight to the Confederates, something that had not been common before the Gettysburg campaign. Stuart again claimed victory as he had at Brandy Station, but once more his words were deceptively inaccurate, he had been bested by the Federals once again.

Stuart’s aid Major Henry McClellan wrote of the battle on the Cavalry Field:

“The result of this battle shows that there is no possibility that Stuart could successfully have carried out his intention of attacking the rear of the Federal right flank, for it was sufficiently protected by Gregg’s command. As soon as General Gregg was aware of Stuart’s presence he wisely assumed the aggressive and forced upon Stuart a battle…while Gregg himself performed the paramount flank of protecting the right flank of the Federal Army.” [29]

McClellan’s analysis is both succinct and accurate. As Stuart’s forces retired and Pickett’s shattered command withdrew the Battle of Gettysburg was effectively over.


Padre Steve+


[1] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgement by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 p.586

[2] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.362

[3] 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 6373 of 12283

[4] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg A Mariner Book, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York 2003. pp.257-258

[5] Davis, Burke J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier Random House, New York 1957 p.334

[6] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.586

[7] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.258

[8] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and his Critics Brassey’s Dulles VA 1999 p.150

[9] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Books New York 2001 p.316

[10] Coddington, Edwin B. Gettysburg: A Study in Command. A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York 1968 p.520

[11] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg the Last Invasion p.429

[12] Ibid. Coddington pp.520-521

[13] Ibid. McClellan The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart location 6486 of 12283

[14] Ibid. Coddington p. 521

[15] Ibid. Coddington p. 521

[16] Ibid. Coddington p. 521

[17] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg the Last Invasion p.430

[18] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg the Last Invasion p.430

[19] Ibid. Davis. J.E.B. Stuart p.338

[20] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg the Last Invasion p.430

[21] Ibid. Coddington p. 523

[22] Wert, Jeffry D. A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph 1862-1863 Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2011 p.271

[23] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg the Last Invasion p.430

[24] Wert, Jeffery D. Gettysburg Day Three A Touchstone Book, New York 2001 p.277

[25] Ibid. Wert Gettysburg Day Three p.277

[26] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.463

[27] 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.122

[28] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.463

[29] Ibid. McClellan The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart location 6516 of 12283

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