Jeb Stuart Reconsidered

JEB StuartWhen it comes to Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, lots of people point lots of fingers (it is rumored that Jubal Early also pointed toes). If so-and-so had done his job, so the reasoning goes, the Confederacy would have won.

Maybe.

Take the case of Jeb Stuart. We all know the story of Stuart taking a ride around the Army of the Potomac based on a broad reading of his orders … and how he found it so difficult to get back to Lee, leaving his chief blind in enemy territory. Yet Lee learned soon enough about the Army of the Potomac crossing its river namesake, and one can argue that it was simply Lee’s overconfidence in his foe’s propensity to stumble that led him to believe otherwise. Besides, Lee’s use of the cavalry left under his supervision shows that it was not the absence of the horsemen but of a single horseman–Stuart–that was important. Still, I’m not sure all that much changes through June 29.

A better case can be made that Stuart’s absence proved most trying to Lee on June 30 and July 1, when it was left to infantry to find out who was at Gettysburg. Had Stuart’s horsemen screened the Confederate advance, as Allen Guelzo suggests, the initial engagement, if any, would have unfolded differently (although my guess is that light contact would have led Meade to think more about Pipe Creek and less about going into Pennsylvania). The clash around Gettysburg would have unfolded differently if indeed it happened at all.

Stuart would have been of some use had he arrived early on July 2, whether it would have been scouting the Union left or (in a more daring use) threatening the Baltimore Pike. By the time he came, however, it’s not clear what Lee could have done with him … and I don’t think he was used well at all on July 3.

Counterfactuals abound, of course, but perhaps they are not quite as drastic as one may surmise. My own thinking suggests that if Stuart was around on June 30 or July 1, we have an engagement at Gettysburg, but not the full-blown battle that followed.

Surely some of you have your own opinions.