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.


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.

11 thoughts on “Jeb Stuart Reconsidered

  1. wgdavis June 24, 2013 / 6:48 pm

    I wonder if he would have been of any value at all. Of all the ANV commanders, he was probably the most talented tactician and leader, yet for all that, and his vaunted rides around the Army of the Potomac, he was of absolutely no value whatsoever to Lee during the entire Gettysburg campaign up until July 4. Indeed, I am of the firm belief that one rather large reason Lee stayed after the end of the fighting on July 1 was not because he had his dander up, but because he found himself in a position where he was physically interposed between the Army of the Potomac and Stuart. He then had Charles Venable send a message to Stuart instructing him which roads to take for his immediate return to the ANV.

    Lee stayed not to rescue Stuart, but to rescue the men under his command. He could do without Stuart but not without those horses and men.

    Three days out of four he kept running into this kid named Custer and getting his Cavalier’s nose bloodied.

    I think that the war had suddenly left Stuart behind.

    That said, then, as far as the counter-factual goes I’d say Stuart’s presence changes only the dynamic of whether Lee attacks on the 2nd, and I think he would not if Stuart were there and actively and efficiently scouting, and would subsequently withdraw to South Mountain the night of the 2nd, if not the night of the 1st.

  2. Michael Confoy June 24, 2013 / 7:00 pm

    Jeb Stuart the IV, V and VI were at the Brandy Station tour on the 150th anniversary. They seemed to really enjoy it.

  3. Al Mackey June 24, 2013 / 7:25 pm

    There were many instances of Federal troops arriving in the nick of time at the right place just as the confederates were about to break through. However, put Stuart’s men on the left flank on July 2 instead of the Stonewall Brigade, then add the Stonewall Brigade to Allegheny Johnson’s attack on Culp’s Hill. Can Greene still hold? I think it’s mighty tough to say that he can. Put the rebels on Culp’s Hill, then Cemetery Hill is threatened, as is the Baltimore Pike.

    • Joshism June 25, 2013 / 7:36 am

      Stuart’s men don’t even need to be there to free up Walker; Jenkins was ordered to take his cavalry brigade there but got wounded by an artillery shell and seems to have neglected to tell his subordinates where they were going beforehand.

      • Al Mackey June 25, 2013 / 5:02 pm

        Both Jenkins and Robertson were of limited usefulness, and Jenkins’ wounding is a major example why. Most commanders (Jackson excluded) would have told their subordinates where they were going and what they were going to do. Stuart would have done that, no? With Stuart present, even if he were the one wounded instead of Jenkins, there would have been cavalry on the confederate left and Walker’s brigade would have been available for Johnson.

  4. TF Smith June 24, 2013 / 7:36 pm

    Meeting engagement between Buford’s division and (presumably) one of Stuart’s south of Gettysburg leads to Meade’s forces coming together at Pipe Creek, facing west (more or less)…and Lee presumably still goes on the offensive, right?

    Except the US forces are already concentrated and so the rebels suffer even heavier losses?

    • Nathan June 25, 2013 / 12:14 pm

      As Shelby Foote said, Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having R.E.Lee.

  5. Joshism June 25, 2013 / 8:02 am

    Why wasn’t Early on the lookout for Stuart when he was at York? (He was within 10 miles of the Battle of Hanover and heard the fighting, but did nothing!)
    Why didn’t Ewell have Jenkins with him to scout ahead on July 1st?
    Why did Robertson fail to alert Lee about AotP’s movements?
    Why did Robertson and Jones take so long to reach Gettysburg once ordered north?
    Why did Lee hold back RH Anderson’s division on July 1?

    On July 1, 2/3s of the ANV was on the field or arriving before dark facing 2 corps (about 1/4 of the AotP?), one of them the same corps Jackson had rolled up at Chancellorsville. Furthermore, the ANV was well positioned to roll back both wings of the Union position onto each other and crush them. Lee repeatedly said he didn’t want a general engagement until the army is concentrated, but if he’d know the whole situation he sends Hill and Ewell forward without hesitation; the opportunity was too good.

    Maybe if Stuart was present the scouting job on the morning of July 2nd to locate the Union left flank wouldn’t have been undertaken by two engineers who delivered a grossly inaccurate report. Where Sam Johnston and John Clarke blind, liars, or did they just get lost and climb the wrong hill?

  6. guitarmandanga June 26, 2013 / 8:57 pm

    It’s worth keeping in mind too what Pickett pointed out: the Yankees had something to do with. So it’s not just the variables related to the Confederate leaders’ decisions.

  7. Charles Lovejoy July 1, 2013 / 3:48 pm

    If the union line had broke during Pickets charge, the whole bunch would be admired but it didn’t. On another day the line could have broken, armies have their off days too. Just so happened pickets charge was on a good day for the union line. Sometimes life is the luck of the draw.

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