19 November 2008 by Published in: Confederate Cavalry 3 comments

An active duty Army officer named Doug Davids left an interesting comment on my very early post on Tom Carhart’s crappy book. The comment left was good enough that I decided to pull it forward and feature in an actual blog post. Here’s the comment that Doug left earlier today:

Sorry for the late reply. I’m at a busy time. Also, I’ll heed the warning on the language. I forget that civilians are not used to the sometimes overly blunt and colorful language we use in the military. I’ll tone it down. BTW: I appreciate you having a web site that opens up dialogue such as this discussion. I think it makes for great debate of an obviously very controversial topic.

I must say I’m first very interested in who at the time said that Stuart was on the flank? That is a mystery to me, and I’d like to see how he stated it and in what context. Was it the report of Stuart’s aide…McClellan?

If I were to develop a MCOO (Modified Combined Obstacle Overlay) and a mobility overlay, Stuart would not end up on a flank, but clearly behind my lines. First, I recommend to try not to think of a units location based on latitude/longitude (as I know he is pretty much straight east of Ewell), but think of “effects” (a term we commonly use in our current combat zones). If Stuart’s intent was to somehow have an effect on the flank, he is much too far east to be doing a screening operation (i.e. on the defense), and if he is on the offense to effect the flank, he is pretty far away. I even had one of my armor NCOs state that if Stuart was trying to affect the Meade’s flank, he appears to be lost. I’ll talk McClellan’s comments later on.

If I were to make the overlays mentioned above, I would probably draw my lines to show anything that could possibly have an effect on my rear as anything east of Rock Creek and White Run Creek (I’m looking at a map which shows the battlefield din 1863), as I have Union cavalry screening just northwest of the White Creek area. On a modern map, Highway 15 is well behind my lines, and Stuart is well east of that. If I were the Operations Officer of an army, and I told my commander that Stuart was not in my rear, but on the flank, and he then saw Stuart’s position, I’d be on a quick airplane home with a recommendation on my officer evaluation report saying “do not promote” (as a minimum). From that position, Stuart is not in a good position to roll my flank, but he can have a devastating effect on my rear operations, regardless of his being about a mile or two north of my exact center rear. His position would be frightful in regards to what he could do to my rear area. If Carhart’s map is correct, all Stuart needs to do is take the Bonaughton and Baltimore roads, and my army will be experiencing a very significant emotional event in the worst way in a very short time. Stuart would not be in a good position to role my flank because he would run into the cavalry screening my flank. But he is in a great position to wreak havoc on my rear.

I doubt the theory some have used that Stuart was going to just harass the lines of communication (LOCs). Attacking LOCs can have varying effects depending on how far to my rear they are attacked. However, there is nothing Stuart can do to my LOCs which could affect my ability to hold off Picket in an attack which is about to take place. Also, rear areas in armies during those days were not like rear armies of today which practically have cities of headquarters and logistics behind them. Meade was up near the front lines, and any weapons and munitions which would be used in the attack were either near the line, or too late in coming to have an effect on the battle. Had Stuart attacked any logistical wagons along the road 12-24 hours earlier, it might have had an impact. But Lee was already out numbered in the battle. Therefore, the principle of war “Mass” and “Economy of Force” were of utmost importance to Lee, just as they had been in all Lee’s previously battles. He could not attack the full Union line, he had too few forces, but he had to use “economy of force” and concentrate his “mass” at the key location (something he was remarkably effective at during the 7 Days Battle). If Lee was sending the large groups of troops away from the battlefield to attack LOCs, I would need to take Lee of the list of great tacticians, and put him down with the three Bs (Burnside, Butler, and Banks). Napoleon’s Les Manoeuvre Sur Les Derrieres (or “Strategic Envelopment” as David Chandler translates it) had been an effective technique Lee had employed earlier, and with Stuart’s previously knowledge of the enemy rear area from his earlier venture, using the Les Manoeuvre Sur Les Derrieres was a very good idea on Lee’s part.

As far as an historical sense, I do know that Stuart’s aide, H.B. McClellan stated that “At about noon Stuart, with Jenkins’ and Chambliss’ brigades, moved out on the York turnpike, to take position on the left of the Confederate line of battle.” It’s an interesting comment and I wonder if that is the one you are refereeing to. The route does take Stuart to the Northeast, and then his move south obviously puts him in geographically east of Ewell, but I would never call Stuart on the “Line of battle”. In 1863 warfare, Stuart would need to be almost touching to be on the “line of battle.” In modern warfare I could see the term used, but not in 1863. If that was truly Stuart’s intent to be on the line of battle, then I think my armor NCO is correct in stating that Stuart “was lost.” However, I cannot image Stuart moving several miles up the York Road and thinking he was still on the “line of battle.” He is anything but. If that is McClellan’s true intent, he is either mistaken, or intentionally trying to cover things up. I don’t know a military mind today who would call Stuart “on the line of battle” when he met the Union cavalry.

McClellan also states that “Stuart’s object was to gain position where he would protect the left of Ewell’s corps, and would also be able to observe the enemy’s rear and attack it in case the Confederate assault on the Federal lines were successful.” “Protect the left of Ewell’s corps? !!!!“ This leaves me seriously in question of McClellan’s motives about writing this. A proper screening operation to protect Ewell’s flank and rear would have been to have positioned his troops generally along creek that goes from behinds Ewell’s lines (Stuart would have needed to connect to the east flank of Ewell, of course), and generally hold the line along that creek as it goes between Benner’s and Wolf’s Hill (I don’t see a name on the creek on the old 1863 map I am looking at). Whether Stuart screened along the creek or on the hill would depend on the terrain on the ground, but based on a map recon, I’d initially look at putting my cavalry along the northwest side of the creek, and position my artillery on Benner’s Hill (vegetation and visibility from Benner’s Hill would obviously effect my decision). I would then ensure that I had proper surveillance on both Hanover and York Pike roads.

But as it was, Ewell’s rear and flank were very much vulnerable to Gregg’s cavalry had Meade and the Army of the Potomac had any sense of offensive operations in mind. Ewell’s rear was so exposed that I’m surprise that Gregg didn’t request an attack. There was nothing stopping it. Again, if McClellan really calls Stuarts position near the Low Dutch Road as ‘protecting Ewell’s corps,’ I need to put both Stuart and Lee on the list of the three Bs. Most offensive-minded commanders would dream of such an enemy “flank protection” position. I have great difficulty believing that McClellan really thought he could be taken seriously by professional military officers in saying that the two mile gap between Stuart and Ewell was ‘protecting Ewell.’ The position of the cavalry battle field leaves both the Hanover and York Pike roads complete exposed. Stuart is not protecting the Confederate rear!!! Perhaps had McClellan known the battle would be studied so much, he might have found a different excuse. Not to be rude, but I question McClellan’s sanity with the comment. No military mind would ever call Stuart’s position “flank protection“ or “rear protection” of any confederate force that day.

The final point would come to “hearsay, I suppose. As Fitzhugh Lee wrote: “The position held by my cavalry at Gettysburg on the morning of the 3d was held by them at dark. They never left it except to go to the front in a charge. Such a condition of things could not have existed had other portions of the line been abandoned.”

That seems to indicate that Stuart stayed on the defensive the whole time. Yet, as Carhart quotes William Brooke-Rawle of the 3rd Penn, “In close columns of squadrons, advancing as if in review, with sabers drawn and glistening like silver in the bright sunlight, the spectacle called forth a murmur of admiration. It was, indeed, a memorable one.” There does seem to be room for Carhart’s comments that 4,000 confederates were on the move. Being so close to Meade’s rear, it would be a mystery of all times if Stuart had not made an attempt to strike Meade in the rear.

I think to sum it up I really have to question McClellan’s motives in why he said Stuart was in a position to protect Ewell. If the man were here today and told me that, I’d have no trouble telling him he were either completely ignorant or stupid, or a very bad liar. Stuart was in NO position to protect any part of the Confederate army, but he is in a dandy position to attack Meade’s rear!

V/R Doug

I appreciate the input and the dialogue.

The answer, of course, comes at least in part from Stuart’s own report. Here’s what Stuart said in his own report:

During this day’s operations, I held such a position as not only to render Ewell’s left entirely secure, where the firing of my command, mistaken for that of the enemy, caused some apprehension, but commanded a view of the routes leading to the enemy’s rear. Had the enemy’s main body been dislodged, as was confidently hoped and expected, I was in precisely the right position to discover it and improve the opportunity. I watched keenly and anxiously the indications in his rear for that purpose, while in the attack which I intended (which was forestalled by our troops being exposed to view), his cavalry would have separated from the main body, and gave promise of solid results and advantages.

Stuart does not say anything about having been ordered to launch an attack that was coordinated with the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge. Rather, it’s quite clear that what he had in mind was to exploit an opportunity if it presented itself. I have no reason to believe that Stuart’s intentions were anything but what precisely what he said in his report.

His report is entirely consistent with Robert E. Lee’s words. Here’s what Lee said in his report:

The ranks of the cavalry were much reduced by its long and arduous march, repeated conflicts, and insufficient supplies of food and forage, but the day after its arrival at Gettysburg, it engaged the enemy’s cavalry with unabated spirit, and effectually protected our left.

NOWHERE does Lee say anything about Stuart’s operations having been intended to be coordinated with the infantry assault. His report states clearly that Stuart’s operations “effectually protected our left.” In other words, Stuart operated on the flank, just as he reported that his mission was intended to be.

It seems to me that if the intention had been to coordinate something with the infantry assault, surely either Lee or Stuart, or more likely both, would have said something about it. Neither did. I think that we’re entitled to accept their reports at their face value. While I very much appreciate Doug’s analysis, the historical evidence simply doesn’t support the conclusion.

Doug, thanks for writing, and please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments to this post.

Scridb filter


  1. Thu 20th Nov 2008 at 12:45 am

    Setting aside any dispute about the “mission,” we still would have the question, “was Stuart out of place standing that far out on a flank and rear guarding mission?”

    By comparison, on May 2 at Chancellorsville Stuart was about two miles north of Jackson’s main body, near Ely’s Ford, when the later was mortally wounded. But that example is a bit skewed, as Stuart was arguably directly pressing toward the Federal rear.

    At both Fredericksburg and Antietam, elements of Stuart’s command were charged with flank protection. However terrain (major rivers) compacted the flank somewhat. Still Stuart was a good quarter mile from Early’s left flank at dawn of September 17, 1862. I’d submit that a quarter mile at Antietam would be like leaving a gap of a half mile on any other field.

    At Second Manassas, the cavalry guarding the Confederate right before Longstreet’s arrival were more than a mile off Taliaferro’s flank. A few days later, while the battle of Chantilly climaxed in the rain, Stuart was about a 1 1/2 to 2 miles east in the Flint Hill area.

    Now I haven’t measured said distances with a laser theodolite, but I’d say the referenced gap in the lines was not outside the norm. A sampling of Federal cavalry in the same theater and time frame would probably yield similar examples. I would submit, while it sounds alarming when mentioned alone, when placed in context of the tactical situation those two miles distance were not that far out of alignment.

  2. Stan O'Donnell
    Thu 20th Nov 2008 at 3:49 pm

    >>>>>A proper screening operation to protect Ewell’s flank and rear would have been to have positioned his troops generally along creek that goes from behinds Ewell’s lines (Stuart would have needed to connect to the east flank of Ewell, of course), and generally hold the line along that creek as it goes between Benner’s and Wolf’s Hill (I don’t see a name on the creek on the old 1863 map I am looking at).<<<<<<

    That position would not only invite an attack by Neill’s infantry it would also be disadvantagous to defend since Wolf’s Hill rises above it.. JI Gregg was also already……please correct me if I’m wrong,…. posted just a few hundred yards to the east of that very swampy low lying area. (I was just back there and I don’t know that name of that little creek either. 😕 If it even has one?)

    Stuart was familiar with that immediate area as a result of the Brinkerhoff Ridge fight the evening before.
    I think Stuart knew exactly where he wanted to positon his four BDE’s. He wanted open fields suitable for a mounted Cav fight and an artillery platform in his rear.
    Cress’ ridge provided the arty platform and the Rummel & Lott farms provided the manuevering area neede for mounted operations.

    Plus there’s that very important mattress button of an intersection that was the key to the rear of the Union life line. If you take the Hanover/Low Dutch Road intersection then you don’t have to worry about screening the York Pike because your possesion of that vital intersection is sure to create havoc and alarm even with a dolt like Pleasonton in charge.

    From the Town square to the ECF entrance near the Jos. Spangler via the Hanover Road is exactly 3.3 miles.
    From the Town Square to the Fitz Lee BDE marker on Confederate Cavalry Avenue via the York Pike, making a right at the Harley Dealer and continuing on ” East Cavalry Feld Road” is exactly 3.9 miles.
    Of course, those measurements are from the Square and not Ewell’s infantry positions.

    Thank you for your thoughts, Don.
    It was very refreshing to read an obviously well thought out modern perspective of why Stuart did what he did.


  3. Thu 20th Nov 2008 at 6:55 pm

    All excellent points, Stan. You’re absolutely right about JI Gregg’s brigade.


Comments are closed.

Copyright © Eric Wittenberg 2011, All Rights Reserved
Powered by WordPress