28 July 2007 by Published in: Union Cavalry 1 comment

Now that we’re working on wrapping up our retreat manuscript for publication (we’ve been adding some incredibly good new material to it), I’m once again focused on the issue of decision-making by the Union high command during the latter phases of the Gettysburg Campaign.

Let’s assume for a moment that Jeb Stuart, in fact, did something inappropriate during the early stages of the Gettysburg Campaign, although I don’t believe he did. If Stuart somehow disappointed Lee during the days just before the battle, Stuart’s performance during the retreat was nothing short of spectacular. His horsemen pretty much kept the Army of the Potomac at bay with almost no help from the infantry until Lee’s defensive line was ready and Lee was prepared to receive an attack by Meade. To borrow a line from old pal Ted Alexander, the retreat was Stuart’s redemption. Nobody could ever say that Lee’s cavalry let him down during the retreat from Gettysburg.

The same certainly cannot be said of the Union cavalry during the retreat. Buford’s and Kilpatrick’s divisions fought well and effectively, but their fundamental usages were wrong. Gregg’s division was a complete non-factor for the entire retreat. Gregg’s troopers did not participate in any of the significant combat during the retreat.

Why?

Because Alfred Pleasonton, the Union cavalry chieftain, made terrible decisions about the use of his horse soldiers. Instead of massing his cavalry to try to block Lee’s route of march to the banks of the Potomac River somewhere in the vicinity of Hagerstown, Maryland–which would have forced Lee to fight his way through–Pleasonton instead scattered his three divisions across the countryside. There was virtually no coordination between the three commands, and Gregg’s men were almost totally a non-factor. By being reactive and by scattering his command, Pleasonton ceded the initiative to Lee and gave Lee the opportunity to assume the strong defensive positions on the north bank of the Potomac River that he took up around Williamsport, Maryland.

An ideal opportunity was lost to interdict Lee’s line of retreat, which cost the Union an opportunity to bring Lee’s army to bay before it slipped across the Potomac to the safety of Virginia. The blame for that must lay with Alf Pleasonton and not with Abraham Lincoln.

In addition, the scattering of the cavalry forces also meant that they were not used efficiently for gathering intelligence. Other than Buford, whose skills as a gatherer of intelligence were unequaled in the Union cavalry, very little intelligence of any value was brought in by the Federal cavalry. Instead, the northern horsemen were scattered across the countryside performing uncertain duties. If they weren’t going to be used as a blocking force to prevent Lee from reaching the banks of the Potomac River, then they should have been put to good use gathering intelligence.

Instead, they did neither. For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Don
    Mon 30th Jul 2007 at 7:05 am

    Eric,

    It makes for an interesting comparison with the use of Union cavalry during Lee’s retreat from Petersburg. I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison, given the state of Lee’s army coming out of the siege lines and the strength and equipment of his cavalry at that point.

    Was it much different than cavalry pursuit of Lee after Antietam, though? Funny, McClellan always seems to get the blame there, though.

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