May 11, 1864: Jeb Stuart Goes Down

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.

5 thoughts on “May 11, 1864: Jeb Stuart Goes Down

  1. jfepperson May 17, 2014 / 11:01 am

    I have a very contrarian view of the raid.

    1. When did the AotP ever use cavalry to screen/scout the enemy position *during* an engagement? (I can’t think of a single instance.)

    2. Grant did not tell Meade to let Sheridan take all the cavalry; Meade did that, for he wrote the order to Sheridan w/o saying anything about leaving a brigade or two behind.

    3. Ninth Corps had an organic cavalry brigade which did not go with Sheridan. I am unaware of any effort to make use of this brigade to scout/screen enemy positions.

    So my conclusion is that the argument against the raid is based on an ideal use of cavalry that was not part of the AotP’s DNA. It would have been better, perhaps, for the cavalry to have stayed behind and been used to scout and screen, but I am not convinced they would have been used that way. The raid was a way to get the cavalry into a position where they could contribute to the course of the campaign. The fact that Hampton turned out to be better commander in many ways than Stuart was unforseeable.

    • pedrog May 19, 2014 / 5:46 am

      #1 point, the lead-up to Gettysburg might be the best AOP example of attempting to scout the enemy by the cavalry. There was a little bit too at the opening stages of the Wilderness although with mixed results.

      • jfepperson May 19, 2014 / 8:47 am

        I agree, but that was not *during* an engagement—it was on the march to a collision.

  2. John Foskett May 18, 2014 / 8:19 am

    People tend to forget that Sheridan was an amateur in spring, 1864 when it came to commanding cavalry (including its use for reconnaissance/screening). I subscribe to Eric Wittenberg’s well-argued analysis of Little Phil’s deficits. Sheridan’s biggest accomplishments were his eventual demolition of a weaker force in the Valley (but not before almost getting inexcusably skinned at Cedar Creek) and his participation in chasing down wounded prey during the Appomattox Campaign. I think you have nicely assessed the ultimate impacts of the raid, such as they were.

    • jfepperson May 18, 2014 / 3:29 pm

      I think the raid could have been more of a success if it had been based on a plan, rather than an impulse.

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