- "Kill-Cavalry" Makes His Reputation
After the surprise attack at Brandy Station, Virginia, criticism of Confederate Major General J.E.B. Stuart escalated, with The Richmond Examiner calling his men the "puffed up cavalry." "The more the circumstances of the late affair at Brandy Station are considered, the less pleasant do they appear... If the war was a tournament, invented and supported for the pleasure of a few vain and weak-headed officers, these disasters might be dismissed with compassion... .The surprise on this occasion was the most complete that has occurred," the paper said. "The Confederate cavalry was carelessly strewn over the country...."
The criticism must have stung a man so eager for and accustomed to adulation. And disapproval of the cavalry chief wasn't confined to the press. The Confederate Army was awash with rumors about how Stuart had failed his soldiers. One officer wrote, "The fight at Brandy Station can hardly be called a victory. Stuart was certainly surprised, and but for the supreme gallantry of his subordinate officers and men…it would have been a day of disaster and disgrace...Stuart is blamed very much, but whether or not fairly I am not sufficiently well informed to say."
Various officials in Richmond, the Confederate capital, were also highly critical. "Stuart is so conceited that he got careless - his officers were having a frolic [the night before]," wrote one.
Unquestioning exuberance and approval for the cavalry commander's exploits were clearly over. Stuart soon launched a dramatic enterprise that he must have hoped would quash the criticism and restore his reputation. But for the time being, in late June 1863, the immediate task required the cavalry to shield General Robert E. Lee's infantry on a march north for another invasion.
Lee's infantry moved through the Shenandoah Valley, west of the rugged Blue Ridge and Bull Run Mountains which formed long, high barriers separating the Confederates from the Union Army on the other side. As the Confederates traveled north, Union cavalry tried to penetrate mountain passes to edge close enough to assess Lee's direction and intent. Stuart's cavalry, operating not as a single unit but as separate brigades, deliberately obstructed the way.
Confederate Brigadier General Wade Hampton, commanding one of Stuart's brigades, distinguished himself again near Upperville, Virginia, on June 21, 1863. Union forces were routing a Confederate cavalry unit when Hampton arrived and charged, halting further damage. But then the Union cavalry fought back, mounting another attack, and Hampton, his forces widely scattered after his initial charge, had only a small contingent of North Carolina troops to command. Turning to them, he raised his saber, stood in his stirrups, and yelled, "First North Carolina, follow me!" The soldiers, vastly outnumbered, nonetheless obeyed, confronting oncoming Federal troops. After fighting for a time, they disengaged to regroup for another charge and were joined by other Confederates, evening the odds. Their next assault forced Union soldiers to retreat, pushing them back more than a half mile. Finally, both sides retired.
The skirmish illustrated Hampton's powerful magnetism. As a member of Stuart's staff wrote, "This success was mainly due to the personal influence which...has marked Hampton as a leader of men." For his part, Stuart called Hampton's actions "brilliant."
Nevertheless, the sharpened skills of Union cavalry, evident in their surprise attack at Brandy Station, were again apparent. Improved leadership was especially obvious. Newly appointed Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick was among Union officers gaining renown. His soldiers, including units from New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Maine, fought like demons, according to Civil War historian Burke Davis.
Kilpatrick was born to a farm family in Deckertown, New Jersey, in January 1836, and like many rural children of the era quit school after the primary grades. Yet in 1856, he managed to gain admittance to the United States Military Academy where he dropped his first name. Graduating in 1861, the year the nation plunged into civil war, Kilpatrick volunteered for the United States infantry at the rank of captain. Early on, at Big Bethel, Virginia, he gained notice as the first regular Union officer wounded in the war. Recovering quickly, he joined the 2nd New York Cavalry in September 1861 and quickly rose in rank amid frequent displays of valor.
In June 1863, as Lee moved north to invade Federal territory, he authorized Stuart to conduct raids, mainly to gain intelligence on the Union Army's movements. Because he was leaving Virginia, Lee needed to know exactly how close the Federals, still on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, were following.
Stuart's cavalry was free to create havoc if opportunity arose, and the troops were authorized to capitalize on any chance to slow a Union advance. But Stuart's primary objective was to collect information, then hurry back to the Confederate infantry to protect them.
What followed differed disastrously from Lee's expectations. The misunderstandings began when Lee and Lieutenant General James Longstreet sent somewhat ambiguous instructions to Stuart outlining various tactical options.
Stuart gathered three cavalry brigades for the raid, about 4,000 men, with Hampton commanding one brigade. Other cavalry stayed to protect Lee's army, but because of mismanagement and flawed communications played virtually no role in the climactic events that unfolded.
Stuart's cavalrymen were told to take rations for only three days because they would live off the land whenever possible. They set out around midnight June 25, 1863, using cover of darkness to evade nearby Union troops. Stuart's brigades traveled east of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Virginia, while most of Lee's force, west of the mountains, crossed into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Stuart also planned to head toward Maryland, but the Union Second Corps almost immediately blocked the way. Thinking he had Lee's permission to improvise and to operate behind the Union Army, Stuart changed course, swinging in a wide arc east toward Washington, D.C.
Trouble plagued Stuart's mission from the outset. Men and horses, worn from recent skirmishing, moved slowly, and the Confederates found living off the land difficult because armies from both sides had repeatedly trampled through the region, leaving little that was edible or useful. The cavalry halted frequently to let the horses graze and men rest. They encountered few Union troops, although Hampton's brigade did charge and scatter a small cavalry force and capture prisoners. These captives proved to be yokes around the cavalry's neck, slowing them even more. Finally, they reached Fairfax Court House, Virginia, on June 27, where the hungry soldiers looted stores, searching for food. The cavalry had covered only 34 miles in a little more than two days, keeping a pace more typical of the infantry than mounted soldiers.
Hampton's troopers led the column as they neared the Potomac River. It was night time and because Union units held most fords across the river Hampton rode in the dark toward a little known and treacherous crossing, Rowser's Ford.
By now, Stuart realized that much of the Union Army was marching north, rapidly pursuing Lee. Stuart sent a dispatch to Lee to alert him, but the courier failed to reach him. The massive Union Army was now squarely between Lee's infantry and Stuart's cavalry. Lee groped forward, unaware of the location of the Union forces and wondering what had happened to Stuart's cavalry. Stuart was also in a quandary. He was unsure of Lee's whereabouts, but under orders to return to him quickly.
The Confederate cavalry seemed to inch forward. Hampton and his soldiers plunged into the mile-wide Potomac about midnight on Sunday, June 28. The water was deep and swift, hazardous for fresh horses, but particularly treacherous for the weary beasts the soldiers rode. Hampton and his troopers took nearly an hour to cross. The rest of the column followed, but difficulties mounted. Especially troublesome were the four cannons and ambulances. The cannons slipped beneath the water several times as the horses strained to pull them across. Water damaged shells and powder, forcing soldiers to carry remaining dry bags of gunpowder on horseback.
Finally, by 3:00 a.m., the last of the force reached the other side. Exhausted horses and men rested until late morning before the caravan continued.
They stopped about 15 miles from Washington, D.C., at Rockville, Maryland, where the Confederates, riding into town around noon on Sunday, found townspeople strolling about in their church finery. There was an air of celebration in the town as the cavalry appeared. Sympathizers cheered from their windows and waved Confederate flags, while school girls crowded into the street to throng around the soldiers and snip off their uniform buttons as souvenirs.
Some distance away to the northwest, Lee learned on the night of June 28 that the Union Army, now commanded by Major General George Meade, had crossed the Potomac and was closing in on him. Lee began consolidating his forces at Cashtown Gap, seven miles west of the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, still with no idea what had happened to his cavalry, which he now desperately needed.
In fact, the Confederate cavalry was enjoying what seemed to be a bonanza of good luck, encountering a long wagon train loaded with supplies lumbering toward Rockville, Maryland, and bound for Union forces trailing Lee's army. When Federal guards riding some distance ahead of the wagons spotted the Confederates, they spun their horses around, shouting alarm. Wagon drivers cursed, lashed their mule teams, and turned the wagons, furiously trying to escape. For the Confederates, this was too good an opportunity to miss. Hampton and his men led the chase. In the wild pursuit, at least one wagon flipped over, spilling its contents onto the road. Other wagons smashed into the toppled wagon. Mules lay on the ground, hooves flailing the air.
The Confederates rounded up or plundered every wagon. Returning to Rockville, they proudly displayed their trophies - 125 wagons brimming with sacks of grain, an important find for the hungry horses. There was also a bounty of other staples, including bread, bacon, hams, sugar, and many liquor bottles, which soon vanished. The cavalry lost precious time organizing the wagons for travel, collecting Confederates dispersed during the chase, and writing paroles for many of the 400 prisoners recently captured. The freed parolees weren't supposed to fight for the Union Army again, a requirement many soon ignored.
After losing much of the day in Rockville, the cavalry headed north, markedly slowed by the heavy wagons, which Hampton's brigade guarded, riding at the rear of the column. The cavalry traveled about 20 miles that night. The next day, June 29, part of the column stopped to destroy Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks running west from Baltimore. The railroad provided a vital supply route for the Union Army converging on Gettysburg.
Ripping up the tracks proved arduous and time-consuming. The tired Confederates didn't have many tools, and the heat was oppressive. When they heard a train approaching, the cavalrymen ran for their horses, hoping to capture the engine and wreck it, but the engineer spotted the mangled tracks and hit the brakes. The train squealed to a stop, then reversed direction and disappeared. Several other trains followed, but their alert engineers spotted danger and escaped. In the end, the Confederates had little to show for their efforts. They did manage to pull up the tracks, but the rails were soon repaired by Union crews.
Later in the day, Stuart's force fought several skirmishes, capturing more prisoners, then at nightfall reached the small town of Westminster, Maryland, 25 miles from Gettysburg. Stuart never realized that Lee's army was so close. For his part, Lee continued to grope forward, asking repeatedly for news about the cavalry.
Stuart had other concerns. A large Union cavalry force, commanded by Kilpatrick, was at Littletown, ten miles away, he learned, midway between Stuart's soldiers and Gettysburg. Even though speed and mobility would now be essential if he and his men were to survive, Stuart apparently didn't consider destroying the wagons that had become such a hindrance. As an aide wrote, "It was not in Stuart's nature to abandon an attempt until it had been proven to be beyond his powers...."
Some of the Confederate cavalrymen spent the night in Westminster, while others stopped in Union Mills. While some soldiers slept, others stayed awake much of the night tending the horses. The next day, they rode a short distance north into Pennsylvania. The rear guard, commanded by Hampton, lagged dangerously behind because of the wagon train.