Fateful Stuart Gettysburg Ride Carefully Probed

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 7, 2006 | Go to article overview

Fateful Stuart Gettysburg Ride Carefully Probed


Byline: Thomas J. Ryan, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The critical military campaign that culminated in a battle at the crossroads community of Gettysburg, Pa., in July 1863 has spawned much debate and acrimony through the decades.

Whose fault was it that the previously hapless Union Army of the Potomac had defeated the best field army in the Southern Confederacy, one that had been consistently victorious in the past? After Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia lost the Battle of Gettysburg, charges and recriminations regarding the causes began immediately.

Was Gen. James Longstreet too slow in implementing Lee's orders? Did Gen. Richard Ewell waste opportunities to capture Cemetery Hill and occupy Culp's Hill? While these issues and others have received considerable attention, none compares with the heat generated by Gen. J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart's decision to ride around the Union army prior to the battle.

Stuart was an easy target for culpability. The cavalry commander's separation from the main army subsequently led to complaints that Lee was unable to formulate effective strategy and tactics without the cavalry that served as his "eyes and ears." The essence of these charges was that the "vainglorious" Stuart left Lee in the lurch by going off on a headline-producing joy ride to restore his image after being surprised and embarrassed by Yankee cavalry at Brandy Station early in the campaign.

While a lot of ink has been spilled over this question through the years, few commentaries have attempted an in-depth examination of all the ramifications involved. Now, 143 years after the fact, Eric J. Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi have collaborated to write "Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart's Controversial Ride to Gettysburg."

This is an intensely researched analysis of "Stuart's Ride," employing existing evidence and previously unavailable or overlooked documentation. It details the complexity and difficulty of moving almost 5,000 troopers through country devoid of forage for horses and filled with dangers at nearly every turn. The result was frequent delays for Stuart in fulfilling orders to move from his base at Rector's Crossroads, Va., north to Pennsylvania in support of Gen. Ewell's corps that was marching toward Harrisburg.

Stuart has not been without his supporters in this controversy. In the years immediately after the Civil War, John Mosby, one of his subordinates and a lawyer by training, wrote what amounted to legal briefs for public consumption to defend Stuart against all detractors. A modern historian, Mark Nesbitt, took up the cudgel and argued before the bar of public opinion in his treatise "Saber and Scapegoat: J.E.B. Stuart and the Gettysburg Controversy" that Stuart was falsely accused, and concluded that what went wrong at Gettysburg "was Lee's fault."

Despite Stuart's partisans, many historians have written that Stuart bears a heavy burden for Lee's defeat at Gettysburg. Much criticism has appeared in the form of cursory indictments with scant evidence to support the charges. In contrast, Mr. Wittenberg and Mr. Petruzzi delve deeply into the factors that drove the decisions made during the campaign.

"Plenty of Blame to Go Around" takes the reader step-by-step through the stages of Stuart's ride around the Union army after his path was blocked as the Yankees unexpectedly marched northward toward a Potomac River crossing. The early chapters detail time-consuming skirmishes with enemy cavalry at Fairfax Court House, Va.; Westminster, Md.; as well as Hanover and Hunterstown, Pa.; and a confrontation with militia forces at Carlisle, Pa. Further delays resulted from the need to rest, feed and graze the horses that were breaking down from traveling long distances. …

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