- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

During the Civil War, battles frequently were won or lost over which side had the best intelligence about enemy plans and movements. Armies relied on their limited information-gathering resources to supply critical data.

Before the Battle of Gettysburg, a struggle for information about the opposition took place between Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, the head of the Union Army of the Potomac (replaced three days before the battle by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade).

This battle of wits to obtain information and deceive the opponent for strategic and tactical advantage was exemplified by three separate but related incidents while the armies were marching north from Virginia. The results of these actions played a role in the outcome of the momentous conflict that would soon take place at a small town in south-central Pennsylvania.

Plan of deception

In May 1862, Lee, then military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, devised a plan to deceive Union authorities into believing that the Shenandoah Valley forces under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson posed a threat to the capital at Washington.

Jackson’s tactics led President Lincoln to withhold reinforcements designated for Union commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. The deception was a key element in Lee’s victory in the Seven Days’ Campaign in June and July 1862, after he replaced Gen. Joseph E. Johnston as commander of Confederate forces defending Richmond.

The result of this maneuver likely led Lee to believe that deception would be equally effective during his invasion of the North in June 1863. The Army of Northern Virginia commander recommended to Davis that selected forces along the southeastern coast be redeployed to pose a threat against the Federal capital. Lee’s objective was to compel Union authorities to detach units from Hooker’s Army of the Potomac to defend Washington.

The two situations were not analogous, however.

In 1862, Lee had the opportunity to influence events in the Valley directly because Davis and Jackson’s commander at the time, Johnston, were preoccupied with McClellan on the peninsula east of Richmond. In 1863, Lee had little sway over the units he wanted to use as a threat to the Union capital, even though the forces in the southern Virginia and North Carolina coastal areas fell directly under his command. Because of local military and political considerations, he was unable to gain cooperation from area commanders.

In frustration, Lee requested that the president relieve him from control of the department that ran from the James River in Virginia to the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. He anticipated that this action would motivate Davis to direct the movement of troops to within threatening distance of the Union capital.

Davis reluctantly declined to support the plan to pressure Union authorities into taking measures that would be detrimental to the Army of the Potomac — and potentially beneficial to Lee’s objectives in the Northern campaign. He notified Lee that scouts reported that the enemy intended to attack Richmond and that there were not enough spare troops to form an army to threaten Washington.

Part of the onus for this decision falls on Lee, however, because he did not anticipate the need for such a plan of deception before the invasion got under way. Therefore, there was no established commitment from the president on the idea. In proposing the plan, Lee was reacting to information, learned during the march north, that the Army of the Potomac was being reinforced from other sectors.

Based on the successful deception strategy employed in 1862, it is reasonable to suggest that Lee’s inability to carry out a similar plan during the Gettysburg campaign was a key factor in the Confederate defeat during the three-day battle.

Students of war

Students of a small Episcopal boys’ school in the village of St. James near Hagerstown, Md., played an unlikely yet important role in Hooker’s search for the invading Army of Northern Virginia in June 1863. At the time, Hooker was uncertain where Lee’s army was because it was marching north behind the shield of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

These students, refugees from the College of St. James, located along the Confederate invasion route, provided timely information to John Babcock, a civilian agent for the Bureau of Military Information, the Army of the Potomac’s intelligence organization, about the movements of Lee’s Confederate forces.

The war had left the school in turmoil, causing the normal enrollment of more than 100 to be reduced by half. Though the faculty was mainly Unionist, most students came from the South and exhibited secessionist sentiments.

In mid-June, when Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps — the vanguard of Lee’s army — crossed the Potomac River into Maryland, some units marched past the campus. This prompted several students to rush out to cheer them, and others offered to join the Confederate army. When the situation at the school became tenuous because of divided student loyalties and the nearby presence of Confederate troops, the rector, the Rev. John B. Kerfoot, decided to evacuate Northern students to Frederick, Md., where they could safely return to their homes.

Despite learning that additional Confederate forces were marching toward Hagerstown, on the morning of June 24, Kerfoot escorted 20 students from the campus in two omnibuses. Confederate pickets stopped the group for questioning but, inexplicably, allowed it to continue. They did this notwithstanding Lee’s previous admonition to limit movement of civilians between the lines during the invasion for fear of information getting to the Union Army. Kerfoot must have had a convincing story.

This proved to be a mistake on the part of the pickets. Once the party arrived in Frederick, it immediately entrained for Baltimore. BMI agent Babcock, operating in Maryland on a special mission for Hooker, learned of the students’ arrival and interrogated them. Satisfied with their information, he immediately wired his boss, intelligence chief Col. George H. Sharpe, at Union headquarters near Fairfax Court House in Virginia.

Citing the students, Babcock assured Sharpe and Hooker that there were no Confederate troops between Hagerstown and Frederick on the Boonsboro Road and none at South Mountain, a few miles west of Frederick. In addition, the students provided information “from reliable sources” that Lee’s other two corps, under Gens. James Longstreet and A.P. Hill, were rapidly crossing the Potomac into Maryland.

Because a Union observation station at Maryland Heights, near Harpers Ferry, had reported the previous day that Rebel cavalry at Sharpsburg had left for Frederick, the contrary information from the students served as a balm for Hooker’s fears that Lee planned to attack Washington. The next day, Hooker ordered his army to cross the Potomac in pursuit of Lee’s forces marching through Maryland into Pennsylvania.

The students of the College of St. James had provided timely information that helped fill an intelligence void for the Union commander. This seemingly insignificant event involving a few students from an obscure school was one more contributing factor to the Confederate defeat when the armies clashed at Gettysburg.

Mosby’s plan

Maj. John Mosby, leader of a group of Rebel partisan rangers, generated a plan that inadvertently led to the separation of Confederate cavalry commander Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, Lee’s primary information provider, from the main army in June 1863. In addition, Stuart lost contact with Mosby and his rangers. This was a setback to Stuart and Lee; Mosby had been providing a constant stream of information about the Union Army.

Mosby’s plan was for Stuart and three of his cavalry brigades to pass near the Union Army, which was believed to be spread out in a stationary position protecting Washington. In this way, Stuart would be able to reach Pennsylvania in a timely manner to make contact with the vanguard of Lee’s army. In other words, Stuart, whose cavalry had been screening Lee’s infantry during their march, would take an eastern route while the rest of the army marched to the west of the Blue Ridge.

Before leading his brigades through Glasscock Gap in the Bull Run Mountains (18 miles east of the Blue Ridge) in the early hours of June 25, Stuart sent Mosby ahead toward Dranesville to reconnoiter a safe location to cross the Potomac. Mosby was to meet Stuart near Gum Springs (Arcola) the same day.

At 7 a.m., however, Hooker sent a message to Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the Union 2nd Corps: “On the receipt of this order, take up your line of march to Edwards Ferry [on the Potomac]. Your best line will be via Sudley Springs and Gum Springs. The last place you should reach tonight.”

The planned rendezvous between Mosby and Stuart never took place because Stuart ran into Hancock’s corps and temporarily halted before deciding to take a longer, southern route to go around the Union Army. This delayed his rejoining Lee’s army in Pennsylvania until the battle was well under way at Gettysburg.

When Mosby arrived at the meeting place at Gum Springs, he found that Hancock was on the move toward the Potomac. Hearing artillery fire to the south, he surmised that Stuart had run into enemy forces and had retreated toward the Blue Ridge Mountains to take another route north.

Mosby returned to his normal area of operations in the Loudoun Valley of Virginia to find that Stuart had not turned back. Unsure of his next course of action, he dispersed his rangers and waited. Not until noon on June 28, three days later, did Mosby gather about 30 men and proceed northward in an attempt to join Lee and his forces. By then, word must have filtered back to him that Stuart had decided to go around the advancing Union Army.

According to one of Mosby’s men, Pvt. James J. Williamson: “[Mosby’s rangers] crossed the Blue Ridge at Snicker’s Gap and thence to the Potomac River, near Hancock, where we crossed on the morning of July 1st, passing through Maryland into Franklin county, Pennsylvania.”

Although he operated independently, Mosby received his orders from Stuart. It is unclear whether Stuart had planned to take Mosby and his rangers north into Pennsylvania with him. Nonetheless, given the circumstances, Mosby made the decision to head north June 28. He failed to make contact with Lee’s forces, however, and eventually returned to Virginia.

In the meantime, Lee became engaged in the momentous battle at Gettysburg without his most reliable intelligence resources, Stuart’s cavalry and Mosby’s rangers. This placed Lee at a distinct disadvantage in maneuvering his troops and reconnoitering the enemy and was a key factor in the Confederate defeat after three days of bloody combat.

The conventional perception of what led to the Union victory and Confederate loss at Gettysburg is the fighting at places named Little Round Top and Culp’s Hill on July 2 and during the legendary Pickett’s Charge on July 3. As in all battles, however, an accumulation of factors, some significant and others less so, such as the intelligence-related activities described above, played important but less heralded roles in the outcome.

Thomas J. Ryan is a former Defense Department intelligence officer who lives in Bethany Beach, Del. This is based in part on the author’s article in the July 2004 issue of Gettysburg magazine.

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