Ulysses S. Grant’s decision to allow Phil Sheridan to take off on his own to seek battle with Jeb Stuart had significant consequences. Gordon Rhea argues that Grant’s planning over the ten days suffered significantly because he lacked the ability to gain information about the terrain and Confederate dispositions and intentions from reconnaissance conducted by cavalry. I agree with Gordon in theory, but I would add that I don’t think reconnaissance was Sheridan’s strong suit (it certainly wasn’t James H. Wilson’s). Besides, in taking off as he did, Sheridan forced Lee to strip away some of his own cavalry under Jeb Stuart, and that had consequences on May 11, when horsemen clashed at Yellow Tavern. A dismounted Yankee trooper shot and mortally wounded Stuart, who died the next day.
Stuart’s loss would be mourned, but it remains unclear as to exactly what was lost. Wade Hampton proved an able replacement, and, for all the talk of how Sheridan turned the Union cavalry into a mobile strike force, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the Confederates more than held their own and even dealt the Yankee horsemen some embarrassing setbacks. If anything Sheridan’s raid accomplished little more than killing Stuart, because Sheridan failed to offer a significant threat to Lee’s rear or his supply link back to Richmond, either of which would have been a more telling result. Rather, by the time Sheridan showed up on the picket line of Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James, it was clear that things were not going as planned for Grant and his overall plan of operations in Virginia.