People like to write about the past, because it’s interesting. But it’s also fun to make up what happened as if it were true. The truth is that the Civil War was a confusing and complicated war, full of heroes and villains, good and evil, and the truth is out there—but we still don’t know the last things about it. And that in itself is interesting.
On July 2, 1862, the Army of the Potomac — commanded by General George McClellan — clashed with the Confederate army of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, at the Battle of Gainesville, Virginia. After a series of brutal battles lasting nearly a month, the two armies finally met in a series of pitched battles near Warrenton, Virginia. The Confederate army was able to sustain heavy losses at Gainesville, and by July 16th, General Johnston withdrew his army to the defenses of Richmond. By July 18th, McClellan was in possession of the battlefield.
After a bold showing during the Union Army defeat at First Bull Run in August of 1861, General J.E.B. Stuart, at the time a young Confederate cavalry officer, was promoted to brigadier general and given command of the Army of Northern Virginia. A brilliant tactician and a fearless leader, Stuart led his men into battle at Gaines’s Mill, South Mountain, and Antietam. These were battles that no trained soldier faced with the army of General George McClellan.. Read more about jeb stuart and let us know what you think.
The second “Ride Around McClellan” by J.E.B. Stuart was equally as important as the first.
The 1862 Maryland Campaign had left the Army of Northern Virginia badly damaged. Now with thousands of stragglers, wounded, and sick scattered across the lower end of the Shenandoah Valley, General Robert E. Lee needed time to restructure his army. He had to absorb newly arriving conscripts and recovered sick and wounded from the Peninsula Campaign; collect his stragglers; evacuate his sick and wounded; and gather supplies. It was a tall order, and to achieve it Lee needed the Union Army of the Potomac to leave him alone. A conventional commander would have withdrawn closer to his army’s rail communications at Staunton, Va., some 90 miles to the south, but that would have entailed abandoning many of his stragglers, sick, and wounded to the enemy, which Lee refused to do. Instead, he chose to reorganize the army near Winchester, which placed him close to the Union forces in Maryland. It was a bold and risky decision because of the condition of his army, but Lee knew he faced a cautious commander in Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. Because an aggressive posture might keep McClellan thinking defensively, Lee had his cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, push his pickets up to the Potomac to suggest strength and prevent enemy patrols and scouts from getting close to the main body of the army to ascertain its true condition.
Stuart’s flexibility to change his approach worked well for him throughout his 130-mile journey. (Alamy Stock Photo/DL Archive)
Lee’s plan paid well. McClellan underestimated the Confederates’ strength and condition, and instead of pushing and penetrating the enemy, he concentrated on defending the Potomac line. However, Lee believed that a cavalry assault into the Federal rear would assist him figure out what McClellan was up to. Was he planning a fresh expedition into the Shenandoah Valley, or had he sent a portion of his force to a separate front to threaten the Confederates? Union cavalry were keeping an eye on all fordable locations on the Potomac, so on October 4, Lee planned for a raid in the direction of Cumberland, Maryland, led by Colonel John D. Imboden. The attack, as Lee had anticipated, lured away some of the Union’s mounted forces. McClellan opened the door for Lee to attack by sending one of his prized cavalry brigades after Imboden. On October 8, he gave Stuart orders to organize a force of 1,200–1,500 soldiers, cross the Potomac above Williamsport, ride to Chambersburg, demolish the Conococheague Creek bridge, and destroy any additional military equipment and facilities in the region. He was also told to “gather all the information you can on the enemy’s position, force, and likely intentions.” Aside from that, Lee gave Stuart broad leeway in how the operation was carried out, writing, “reliance is placed upon your skill and judgment in the successful execution of this plan, and it is not intended or desired that you should jeopardize the safety of your command, or go further than your good judgment and prudence may dictate.” To put it another way, no needless risks.
Stuart marched from Darkesville, Virginia, to Hedgesville, two miles below the Potomac, on the 9th, with 1,800 soldiers and four pieces of field artillery, and tented for the night out of sight of enemy scouts. The Southern cavalry crossed the river at McCoy’s Ferry at dawn on the 10th and proceeded quickly, barely avoiding a confrontation with Maj. Gen. Jacob D. Cox’s Union division, which had been sent to the Kanawha Valley. They had traveled almost 26 miles by midday, arriving in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. When Stuart heard that German troops were on the lookout in Hagerstown, a major Union supply center, he changed his plans and instead marched on Chambersburg. He came in the dark, unexpectedly, after a journey of more than 50 kilometers.
The graycoats seized control of the city without incident once all traces of Union authority had vanished. Cut telegraph lines, paroled ill and injured Union troops in city hospitals, stole almost 300 horses from civilians, and damaged railroad infrastructure, as well as a significant amount of equipment, clothes, guns, and ammunition.
Stuart chose to go to Leesburg, Virginia, after giving it some thought. He marched toward Gettysburg, however, knowing that he needed to mislead the enemy as to his real objective. However, after crossing South Mountain, he headed south, skirting Hagerstown before reversing course and surfacing at Emmitsburg, Md., 12 miles south of Gettysburg. He continued on toward Frederick, evading Union detachments who were desperately attempting to find him, but he again diverted from the enemy’s expected path, cutting southeast via Liberty and New Market. He had traveled 70 kilometers by daylight when he arrived at Hyattstown.
Stuart used deceit once again to keep the enemy guessing after learning that 4,000–5,000 Union troops had gathered at Poolesville, near where he intended to cross the Potomac, and that all local fords were guarded. On the morning of the 12th, he marched straight towards Poolesville to create the appearance that he was after that town before cutting west to the Potomac River’s mouth. He scattered the resistance in his path using excellent combined arms tactics including mounted and dismounted troops, as well as his artillery, and crossed at White’s Ford, the same place where most of Lee’s army had entered Maryland earlier in September.
Stuart had fled to Virginia after losing just a handful of men with minor wounds in two days. He had rode around the whole Force of the Potomac, traveling almost 130 miles and verifying for Lee that the entire Federal army remained in position, as he had famously done at Richmond in the spring. “The moral and political consequences of this mission are difficult to estimate,” Stuart said. That, too, was not bombast. In those areas, it had outperformed Lee’s and Stuart’s wildest dreams. The bumbling, haphazard Union attempt to capture Stuart embarrassed McClellan and damaged his already shaky relationship with the Lincoln administration, which he never fully recovered from. The Union army’s faith in its cavalry was also undermined.
Colonel Charles Wainwright of the 1st Corps unjustly remarked, “I believe our cavalry is a terrible botch,” when it was McClellan’s defensive stance that had kept his cavalry irregularly scattered. Stuart’s brilliant raid management had really made the Federals seem stupid. He had taken the initiative, moved quicker than predicted, never followed the path they had planned, was well-informed about enemy movements, and behaved aggressively yet wisely.
Scott Hartwig is writing from Gettysburg’s crossroads.