22 June 2009 by Published in: Confederate Cavalry 14 comments

Someone asked,

Why didn’t Lee use his other cavalry units to scout out the land to find the location of the Union army? I mean… Stuart disappeared, so why not send your own cavalry to scout ahead. This makes no sense to me.

I couldn’t resist. Here’s my response:

There were seven brigades of cavalry assigned to the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by:

Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee (Robert E. Lee’s nephew)
Brig. Gen. William H. F. “Rooney” Lee (Robert E. Lee’s second son)
Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton
Brig. Gen. Beverly H. Robertson
Brig. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones
Brig. Gen. Albert G. Jenkins
Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden

Imboden’s command had just been converted from partisan rangers that spring, and had had its first action as “regular” cavalry in the Jones-Imboden Raid of April 1863. These men were untried and hence suspect.

Jenkins’ command had also recently joined the “regular” cavalry service, serving mainly as mounted infantry much more so than in the conventional role of cavalry.

Robertson’s brigade was extremely green. It consisted of two very large, but very green regiments of North Carolina cavalry. They had seen their first action at Brandy Station on June 9, and had not done well at all. They basically fired a couple of volleys and then bugged out and were non-factors for the rest of the day, allowing Gregg’s command to march to Fleetwood Hill unmolested and undetected. Plus, Robertson and Stuart didn’t get along. Stuart detested Robertson and did not want to work with him under any circumstances.

Grumble Jones was as good a commander as the Confederates had; he was really outstanding. However, Jones and Stuart absolutely despised each other; their enmity was open and well-known. At the same time, they respected each other a great deal. Stuart quite correctly called Jones the “best outpost officer in the army,” meaning that he recognized Jones’ real talent for operating in a detached fashion. Jones’ brigade consisted of the 6th, 7th, 11th, and 12th regiments of Virginia Cavalry and the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, battle-tested veterans all (the 7th Virginia was Turner Ashby’s own regiment) and was, arguably, the finest combat command assigned to the Army of Northern Virginia’s mounted elements. This is the same brigade that Thomas L. Rosser dubbed the Laurel Brigade in 1864, and this was a very fine combat command. Jones and his brigade bore the brunt of the fighting at Brandy Station and then again at Upperville on June 21, 1863, and again during some of the many cavalry engagements during the retreat from Gettysburg. Even though Jones and Stuart were unable to get along, Stuart knew that Jones and his command were fighters.

Stuart marched on June 25 with three brigades, Hampton, Fitz Lee, and Rooney Lee’s brigade, now commanded by Col. John R. Chambliss, Jr. of the 13th Virginia Cavalry after Rooney’s wounding at Brandy Station. Stuart gave very specific orders to Robertson that his brigade and Jones’ brigade were to guard the mountain passes until the ANV had passed, and that they were then to follow the army north into Pennsylvania. Robertson failed miserably and did not arrive in Gettysburg until the morning of July 3. Had Robertson obeyed his orders, he would have arrived in time to lead the advance of Hill’s and Longstreet’s Corps as they advanced from the direction of Chambersburg. Unfortunately, Robertson ranked Jones, meaning that Robertson ended up in command of the two brigades, and not Jones. I firmly believe that had Jones been in command of this task force–rather than Robertson–things would have been very different indeed, as Jones would have been much more aggressive and much more diligent about seeing that the column moved with alacrity. It’s not a big surprise that Robertson was relieved of command after the Gettysburg Campaign and that he never commanded troops in the field again after his miserable failures during the campaign.

Jenkins’ brigade was actually with Ewell as Ewell made his advance to the Susquehanna River. A regiment and a half–the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry of Jones’ Brigade and about half of the 17th Virginia Cavalry–went to York and then on to Columbia with Early, and the rest of Jenkins’ command went with Rhodes and Pender as they advanced on Harrisburg by way of Carlisle. Those elements of Jenkins’ command that were with Rhodes and Pender had skirmishes in Camp Hill, PA–just across the river from Harrisburg–on June 29 and 30, and then led the advance of the two divisions from Carlisle on July 1. While Lt. Marcellus Jones of the 8th Illinois Cavalry is usually credited with firing the first shots of the Battle of Gettysburg, it’s instead likely that one of Devin’s men actually fired that first shot at one of Jenkins’ guys as they advanced from Heidlersburg. Jenkins’ command actually did rather well. If you hear that there was no Confederate cavalry at Gettysburg on July 1, that is simply not true. Jenkins’ guys were there, and did rather well, particularly considering that this was their first real test and that they were not, by nature, well suited to that sort of work..

That leaves Imboden’s Northwestern Brigade. The simple truth is that they were untried and hence unknown. Consequently, Robert E. Lee didn’t trust them. Instead of being called to operate with the main body of the army, they were sent off on a foraging expedition. As late as July 1, they had a skirmish in the streets of McConnellsburg, PA, sixty miles due west of Gettysburg. Lee did not call Imboden’s command to the main battlefield until the morning of July 3. They then were given the arduous task of escorting the seventeen-mile-long wagon train of wounded to the Potomac River crossings at Williamsport, MD, and then to defend the town against Buford’s attacks on July 6. Imboden was nothing short of spectacular during these four or five days, clearly his greatest contribution to the Confederate war effort.

In short, then, had Robertson obeyed Stuart’s orders, there would have been two full brigades of cavalry with the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia. Jenkins’ brigade was with Ewell and was actively engaged. Imboden’s command was not summoned by Lee, who made a conscious choice not to utilize those men.

I hope that helps. As I said, we addressed this issue at great length in Plenty of Blame to Go Around if this topic is of interest to you and you want more detail than what I have related here.

That’s a summary of a significant portion of the conclusion to Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg, but it certainly puts the situation in its proper context.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. dan
    Tue 23rd Jun 2009 at 11:39 am

    So, what you’re saying here Eric is that Nathan Bedford Forrest was a better commander than Stuart and had Forrest been at Gettysburg, I’d be living in the Confederacy?
    8^>
    Dan

  2. Mark Peters
    Tue 23rd Jun 2009 at 7:27 pm

    No doubt the person posing the question was shell-shocked! He’ll probably stick to mundane infantry issues in the future, as answers tend to be somewhat shorter.

    Best wishes,

    Mark

  3. Wed 24th Jun 2009 at 3:31 am

    Dan, I think the winners and losers were a foregone conclusion. If Forrest had been with Lee, then all the good work he did in The west would not have happened. Both Stuart and Forrest were good commanders. Stuart was “old school” in his approach, i.e. recon and screening. The Union boys took it to another level after the summer of ’63, and Stuart had to change up. It took him a while to do it, and then Yellow Tavern put an end to him. Forrest was self taught, and had no “book learnin'” to un-learn, as it were.
    regards,
    Duke

  4. Jim Morgan
    Wed 24th Jun 2009 at 11:10 am

    Eric,

    I’ve always wondered about this question myself so, having read your explanation here, let me ask a follow up or two as I still don’t understand Lee’s behavior in this situation.

    Even “untried” cavalry would be good enough to send out to scout for the enemy, would it not? All they had to do was ride until they saw men in blue then report back to Lee. Besides, how better to get the men “tried?”

    What Stuart’s orders were don’t really matter if the cavalry commanders had to report directly to Lee in Stuart’s absence. And, trust them or not, those brigades were all Lee had at the time and therefore should have used them. Doesn’t any military commander have to use whatever force he has? Lee had some cavalry available, even if it wasn’t his best, and he failed to use it.

    Moreover, if Lee mistrusted those brigades that much, then why did he let Stuart take away all of the cavalry he DID trust?

    Your thoughts?

    Jim Morgan

  5. Valerie Protopapas
    Wed 24th Jun 2009 at 3:50 pm

    Stuart disliked Jones (and vice versa) but knew him to be a good commander. Robertson, on the other hand, was quite a different matter. Stuart found out the this gentleman had been writing letters or perhaps A letter to Stuart’s wife. Military matters tend to go out the window when that sort of situation raises its ugly head.

    I also believe that Stuart thought very little of Robertson’s military prowess as well. Perhaps he hoped that Jones would make up for Robertson’s deficiencies.

  6. Rebecca Fitzgerald
    Thu 25th Jun 2009 at 11:30 am

    I’d be very interested in your source for the Robertson letter(s). Many thanks.

  7. Jeff Mancini
    Thu 25th Jun 2009 at 9:07 pm

    Yeah whats up with this Robertson romancing Flora Stuart? I mean Robertson looks like an ugly bald dude.

  8. Fri 26th Jun 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Rebecca,

    Unfortunately, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Where did you get the idea that there are Robertson letters? NOTHING that I wrote says or suggests that. Unless you can enlighten me, I fear that there is nothing I can do to assist you.

    Eric

  9. Fri 26th Jun 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Val,

    Do you know something I don’t? Other than pre-war courting, I am unaware of there being any sort of inappropriate contact between Flora Stuart and Beverly Robertson. Trust me, Stuart had plenty of reasons to despise Robertson that had nothing to do with Flora. Stuart called him “the most difficult man in the army” for good reason. He was a sycophant and martinet who was a real stickler for protocol.

    Eric

  10. Rebecca Fitzgerald
    Fri 26th Jun 2009 at 4:43 pm

    “Stuart found out the this gentleman had been writing letters or perhaps A letter to Stuart’s wife”

    Sorry, Eric, this was in reply to Valerie’s post – I’ve paraphrased above.

  11. Rebecca Fitzgerald
    Fri 26th Jun 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Oh, and you are absolutely right imo, there was nothing inappropriate between Mrs. Stuart and Bev Robertson. Another reason I am curious as to Valerie’s potential source.

  12. sean
    Wed 09th Jun 2010 at 6:37 pm

    this was a very informative analysis…thank you for posting learnt a lot of back ground here personally ,i am a keen follower of confederate cavalry being a cavalry reenactor my self.

  13. Mark H. Elzey
    Sun 09th Jun 2013 at 8:21 am

    This report is not entirely accurate. Robertson cleared this issue up in response to comments by Mosby that Robertson disobeyed orders. Mosby’s contention was clearly refuted. What happened was this: When Robertson received his orders on 6/24, the nearest Rebel infantry were located between 40-50 miles north of his position(s) at Ashby’s and Snicker’s Gap. Longstreet’s I corps was at Hagerstown while Hill’s III corps had just crossed the Potomac at Shepardstown and was following Longstreet. In other words, the order to follow the Army of North Virginia was superflous: there was little else Robertson could do. Secondly, Robertson’s orders contained a condition to only leave once his front was cleared. This gave him much leeway and he took the conservative course by staying in place and holding the gaps.

    What should’ve happened is this: On or about 6/21, when the Loudoun cavalry battles died out, the bulk of the confederate cavalry totaling 5 brigades (approximately 8,000 men) were concentrated at Ashby’s pass, Snicker’s pass and Aldie. Meanwhile the Rebel infantry was drawing away to the North. Lee, thru Stuart should’ve issued specific orders for the South Mountain passes to be occupied and used as a base for patrolling to the SE & East in the direction of Middleton and Frederick. This didn’t happen. Instead, the rebel infantry marched away leaving the rebel cavalry far in the rear.

    Clearly, this was a negligent use of Cavalry of which both Lee and Stuart share the blame.

  14. Phil Biggs
    Sat 14th Jun 2014 at 2:39 pm

    Why didn’t Lee “just take Harrisburg!” He had it and it would of embarraced the north and would of played so well in the the news papers. From there he could of moved and picked the area of land that he wanted to fight on and let them north come to him!!!!!!

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