J.E.B. Stuart’s Ride Around Gettysburg

This was Jeffry Wert’s presentation at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg this past Saturday, April 13.


He started off by saying he regarded JEB Stuart as the finest light cavalryman America ever produced.  May 3, 1863, according to Jeff, was arguably Stuart’s best day.  He took over command of the Second Corps for the wounded Stonewall Jackson, never having led infantry before, and did a very creditable job.

Stuart loved to be loved, and he was fun-loving and enjoyed being surrounded by pretty girls, but this was a veneer.  He was in fact, first and foremost, a professional soldier.  In the spring of 1863 he ranked just below Lee and Jackson in the pantheon of confederate heroes.  By June of 1863 he commanded a division of cavalry in the Army of Northern Virginia.

Stuart was surprised at the Battle of Brandy Station.

Ed Longacre has written of Brandy Station, “The legacy of Brandy Station–its significance to the cavalry forces of the opposing armies–was difficult to assess.  Tactically a draw, it ended with the Confederates holding the field and an edge in statistics.  Of the almost 8,000 troopers (and 3,000 infantry) led into battle by Alfred Pleasonton, 866 had become casualties–a great many of them listed as missing, only to rejoin their outfits in subsequent days.  In contrast, Stuart had suffered fewer than 500 casualties out of approximately 9,500 effectives on hand.  The Rebels had also seized 3 cannon, 142 carbines, 223 pistols, and over 150 sabers left behind by their enemy.

“In two of the three major sectors, Stuart’s men had given somewhat better than they got; only at Stevensburg had the Federals emerged victorious–mainly through Alfred Duffié’s numerical superiority–and even then they had gained no strategic advantage.  Moreover, Stuart’s legions had prevailed despite being forced on the defensive, despite lacking active infantry support, and despite having to fight dismounted almost as often as in the saddle.  Most important, Stuart’s stubborn opposition had prevented Pleasonton from fulfilling what Hooker considered to be his main objective.  Having suffered 5 percent casualties, the Confederates were neither crippled nor scattered, Pleasonton’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

“Perhaps the most enduring result of the twelve-hour contest was the revelation that the Union cavalry was coming of age, was becoming capable of standing  up to its vaunted opponent.  It had made Stuart’s cavaliers, and the Beau Sabreur himself, look bad more than a few times on 9 June.”  [Edward G. Longacre, The Cavalry at Gettysburg:  A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations during the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, 9 June-14 July 1863, p. 87]

According to Jeff Wert, Stuart’s brigades were spread out in Culpepper County.  During the Brandy Station battle, Stuart was all over the place, and Wert says the confederates won the battle tactically, but the Richmond newspapers criticized him for being surprised.  Ed Longacre addresses this as well:  “In its 12 June edition, the Richmond Examiner alluded not only to Brandy Station but to Kelly’s Ford, claiming that ‘this puffed up cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia has been twice, if not three times, surprised. . . . such repeated accidents can be regarded as nothing but the necessary consequences of negligence and bad management. . . . the country pays dearly for the blunders which encourage the enemy to overrun and devastate the land.’  [One can find an extended excerpt in Emory M. Thomas, Bold Dragoon:  the Life of J.E.B. Stuart, pp. 228-229]  Even the Richmond Whig, one of Stuart’s most consistent supporters, blamed him for laxity and overconfidence and suggested that he recoup lost prestige by renewing combat with Pleasonton as quickly as possible.”  [Ibid., p. 88]  He saw this criticism because his faithful wife, Flora, sent him copies, and he was furious.  Stuart coveted his reputation.  There was criticism of him within the Army as well, as can be seen in Wert’s own biography of Stuart.

Joe Hooker created the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac.  Jeff called this Hooker’s greatest legacy.

Stuart had dominated the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac for the first two years of the war.  He can’t dominate anymore because now it’s come down to arms and horse flesh.

In the Gettysburg campaign, Stuart’s job is to screen the army.  There are fights at Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville, and Stuart is almost captured at Middleburg.

On the night of 21-22 June, Stuart met with Lee and Longstreet, and it’s at this meeting that Stuart broached the idea of a ride around the Federal army.

At this point, two orders become important, one on 22 June and the other on 23 June,.

The 22 June orders said:

HEADQUARTERS, June 22, 1863.

Maj. Gen. J. E. B. STUART, Commanding Cavalry:

GENERAL: I have just received your note of 7.45 this morning to General Longstreet. 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 for the use of the army. One column of General Ewell’s army will probably move toward the Susquehanna by the Emmitsburg route; another by Chambersburg. Accounts from him last night state that there was no enemy west of Frederick. A cavalry force (about 100) guarded the Monocacy Bridge, which was barricaded. You will, of course, take charge of [A. G.] Jenkins’ brigade, and give him necessary instructions. All supplies taken in Maryland must be by authorized staff officers for their respective departments–by no one else. They will be paid for, or receipts for the same given to the owners. I will send you a general order on this subject, which I wish you to see is strictly complied with.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R. E. LEE, General.

[OR Series I, Vol 27, Part 3, p. 913]

The next day, the more critical orders arrived:

June 23, 1863–5 p.m.

Maj. Gen. J. E. B. STUART, Commanding Cavalry:

GENERAL: Your notes of 9 and 10.30 a.m. to-day have just been received. As regards the purchase of tobacco for your men, supposing that Confederate money will not be taken, I am willing for your commissaries or quartermasters to purchase this tobacco and let the men get it from them, but I can have nothing seized by the men.

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

You will, however, be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hinderance, 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, &c.

Give instructions to the commander of the brigades left behind, to watch the flank and rear of the army, and (in the event of the enemy leaving their front) retire from the mountains west of the Shenandoah, leaving sufficient pickets to guard the passes, and bringing everything clean along the Valley, closing upon the rear of the army.

As regards the movements of the two brigades of the enemy moving toward Warrenton, the commander of the brigades to be left in the mountains must do what he can to counteract them, but I think the sooner you cross into Maryland, after to-morrow, the better.

The movements of Ewell’s corps are as stated in my former letter. Hill’s first division will reach the Potomac to-day, and Longstreet will follow to-morrow.

Be watchful and circumspect in all your movements.

I am, very respectfully and truly, yours,

R. E. LEE, General

[OR Series I, Vol 27, Part 3, p. 923]

Stuart was to march with the cavalry into the Shenandoah Valley, cross the Potomac in the Shepherdstown area, and then he could choose to move east and do all the damage he can and gather supplies and intelligence, and be in Maryland not later than the “day after tomorrow,” i.e., 25 June.  John S. Mosby came to Stuart, telling him he had found a corridor where Stuart could move and cross the Potomac.  At midnight that night, according to Major Henry B. McClellan, a third set of orders arrived.  According to McClellan, “The letter discussed at considerable length the  plan of passing around the enemy’s rear. It informed General Stuart that General Early  would move upon York, Pa., and that he was desired to place his cavalry as speedily as  possible with that, the advance division of Lee’s right wing. The letter suggested that,  as the roads leading northward from Shepherdstown and Williamsport were already encumbered  by the infantry, the artillery, and the transportation of the army, the delay which would  necessarily occur in passing by these would, perhaps, be greater than would ensue if  General Stuart passed around the enemy’s rear. The letter further informed him that, if he  chose the latter route, General Early would receive instructions to look out for him and  endeavor to communicate with him; and York, Pa., was designated as the point in the  vicinity of which he was to expect to hear from Early, and as the possible (if not the  probable) point of concentration of the army. The whole tenor of the letter gave evidence  that the commanding general approved the proposed movement, and thought that it might be  productive of the best results, while the responsibility of the decision was placed upon  General Stuart himself.”  McClellan is the sole source for the existence of this letter.  Jeff doesn’t believe this letter ever existed.  Lee’s letter book contains the 22 and 23 June orders in it, but they don’t contain this alleged order.  It sounds to Wert as though McClellan copied the letter from Stuart’s official report.  Wert writes in his biography of Stuart, “McClellan’s contention that Stuart should join Early at York is dubious.  At the time, neither Lee nor Ewell had mentioned York in their correspondence or that Early’s division had been assigned to that destination.  In fact, it was not until June 25 that Ewell ordered Early to march to the south-central Pennsylvania city.  Although the wording cited by McClellan varies considerably, he might have been referring to the documented June 23 orders.  If not, the loyal chief of staff invented a second letter, which presented a reasonable defense for the course Stuart chose.  The latter appears more likely to be the case.”  Jeffry D. Wert, Cavalryman of the Lost Cause:  A Biography of J. E. B. Stuart, p. 263]

According to Wert in his presentation, “Lee went into Pennsylvania to settle this.”  He wanted the Union army to follow him.  The problem he had on July 1, though, was that his army was spread out.  He already knew the Federals were coming into Maryland and Pennsylvania, but he trusted Stuart and gave Stuart discretion.  On 24 June, Stuart gathered his brigades together.  At midnight on 25 June Stuart heads west and goes through Glascock’s Gap in the Bull Run Mountains.  By dawn on 25 June he’s approaching Haymarket, Virginia.  He sees artillery, infantry and wagons of the II Corps marching north.  Stuart doesn’t seem to be able to ever resist firing artillery at Yankees, and here he fired two cannon at the Federal troops, sparking a short artillery duel.  Stuart then pulls back to Buckland.  He has three brigades of cavalry–Wade Hampton’s brigade, Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade, and W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee’s brigade.  He left behind brigades under Beverly Robertson and William E. “Grumble” Jones, in addition to Albert G. Jenkins’ brigade that was with Ewell’s corps.  Robertson and Stuart could not be in the same room together.  They absolutely hated each other.  Jones’ nickname, “Grumble,” testifies to his ability to get along with others.

Jones had been the colonel of the 1st Virginia Cavalry.  The 16 April 1862 legislation that authorized the confederate conscription also provided enlisted men the ability to elect their officers at the company and regimental levels.  Stuart arranged to have Fitzhugh Lee elected over Jones.  Jones submitted his resignation, but Stuart considered him to be too good to lose.  Jones was eventually elected colonel of the 11th Virginia Cavalry, but there was a wall between the two men.

Between Jones and Robertson, Robertson is the senior, but he is essentially worthless, and Stuart knows this.  Robertson and Jones won’t arrive in Gettysburg until July 3.

To Stuart, the road ahead offered more than the road behind.  The Army of the Potomac moving north, though, is a “hindrance,” as outlined in Lee’s orders to him.  Mosby said the only way the planned ride would work is if the status quo remained the same, but it didn’t.  John Scott of the 10th Virginia Cavalry, writing in his memoirs, located in the Virginia Historical Society, said he was sent to Thoroughfare Gap because Stuart wanted to know if the Union army was moving through the gap.  On June 26 he headed back but the cavalry was already gone, so he rode west.  He arrived in Chambersburg while A. P. Hill was still there, which is approximately June 28.

Stuart moves to Fairfax Courthouse and crosses the river.  At Rockville, Maryland they attack a wagon train.  There were mules with the wagons, and the confederates had a hard time with the Yankee mules.  They had a hard time getting the mules going.

In his report, Stuart makes a great deal about the damage he did in Maryland, but the work order for bridge repair shows that it cost $20.56 and took about 20 minutes to repair the damage.  He’s in Hanover on June 30 and fights a small battle with Federal cavalry.  This slows Stuart and forces him further to the east.  He goes to York Springs, then to Dillsburg, and finally to Carlisle, where he burns Carlisle Barracks and shells the town.

Stuart had tried to keep Lee informed.  For example, there was a message dated June 27, 1863 he sent to Lee but for unknown reasons was never delivered.  We know about the message because a copy made it to Richmond.  John B. Jones, a clerk in the confederate war department, reproduced it in his diary.

Stuart’s report covered 24 pages.  It’s in the OR, Series I, Volume 27, part 2.  In it, he says part of the problem was Jubal Early’s.  Stuart says he was supposed to unite with Early at York, but Early had left.  Remember what McClellan had written in his memoirs.

When Stuart left on his ride, though, Lee had not yet given orders sending Early to York.

Stuart arrived at Gettysburg around noon on July 2.  According to Wert, Lee was not happy, and though no other officer was close enough to hear what was said, Wert believes McClellan’s description that the meeting was “painful beyond description.”

Stuart is ordered to protect the army’s left flank.

Wert then considers whether Stuart had orders to attack the Union rear on July 3.  There is no written correspondence about it.  Wert doesn’t believe the theory posed by Tom Carhart that Stuart was to attack the Union rear in coordination with the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge.  Stuart knew about the attack, but the plan was for an earlier attack.  Where Stuart was on July 3, though, he could move against the Baltimore Pike, which was the main Union supply route.

During the retreat, Stuart redeemed himself.

Lee stated in his report that the absence of cavalry “embarrassed” his army.  Charles Marshall wanted Stuart court-martialed.  Stuart wanted to redeem his reputation because of Brandy Station.  He ran into a hindrance, though, in the form of the Army of the Potomac moving north.  He should have turned around and gotten into Maryland as quickly as possible.

This was a very good presentation.  I really enjoyed hearing it.  I asked Jeff whether or not Lee knew about Robertson’s shortcomings, and if he did and still approved Stuart’s plan to leave Robertson in charge of the cavalry left behind, wouldn’t Lee share any culpability for the army’s being “embarrassed” by the absence of Stuart and his three brigades?  Unfortunately, Jeff didn’t have a good answer, but he did refer me to Eric Wittenberg’s and J. D. Petruzzi’s excellent book, Plenty of Blame to Go Around:  Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg.  I also recommend that book.


Jeff’s presentation was recorded by PCN, the Pennsylvania Cable Network.  I’m looking forward to seeing it again.


  1. […] plans that it needed. The very next day, General Stuart got permission from General Lee to take off on another of his “Wild Rides”. Not to spoil the ending, but this one won’t end so well for […]

  2. […] plans that it needed. The very next day, General Stuart got permission from General Lee to take off on another of his “Wild Rides”. Not to spoil the ending, but this one won’t end so well for […]

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