The mention of Confederate cavalry leader James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart along with the Battle of Gettysburg normally equates to controversy. Historians point to the separation of Stuart from Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as central to the Confederate defeat in July 1863 because it denied Lee the intelligence he needed to maneuver successfully against the Union Army of the Potomac.
There is a body of work detailing the pros and cons of Stuart’s actions during this period. The predominant judgment weighs against the cavalry commander, and a new book by Warren C. Robinson is no exception. “Jeb Stuart and the Confederate Defeat at Gettysburg” examines Stuart’s performance before the battle and concludes that he was derelict in his duty.
The author, a professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University, addresses the subject methodically. He reviews the background of the Gettysburg Campaign and initial movements of the opposing armies. A discussion of Lee’s orders to Stuart follows as well as the cavalry leader’s interpretation of them. A chapter is devoted to the historiography of the Jeb Stuart-Gettysburg controversy and another to Stuart’s options during this campaign. The author then discusses Stuart’s actions during his ride northward, the battle at Gettysburg and the consequences of the cavalry leader’s decisions.
Mr. Robinson begins his account with the premise that Lee invaded the North “to win the war in a single smashing campaign,” despite the fact that Lee reportedly said after the war that he never intended to give battle if he could avoid it.
The author concludes that Stuart undermined Lee’s objectives by creatively interpreting his orders so that he could go off on his own “to strike a blow.” The reason for this, he implies, was for Stuart to recoup his “loss of face” during the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9. This rendition coincides with interpretations by other historians dating back to the Civil War itself. Fact, opinion and some speculation are included in these conclusions.
Mr. Robinson points out that Lee depended heavily on Stuart to keep him informed about the enemy and to screen the Rebel army from observation. The author, however, like historical commentators before him, also labels Stuart a “raider,” implying that he often led his cavalry into enemy territory on his own initiative for self-aggrandizement. This ignores the fact that Stuart’s expeditions behind enemy lines normally were under orders from Lee to accomplish specific objectives. What Mr. Robinson calls “flamboyant touches” on these expeditions often were Stuart’s employment of deception and disinformation to enhance the safety of his cavalry during these hazardous assignments.
In a chapter devoted to Stuart’s options during his ride northward, the author suggests that Stuart, after being blocked by the Union Army, could have reversed his course and crossed the Potomac in the narrow valley area east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and west of the Bull Run Mountains. Mr. Robinson also argues that Stuart could have returned to the Blue Ridge, crossed, moved north through the Shenandoah Valley and forded the Potomac at Shepherdstown or Williamsport.
Stuart’s failure to choose either of these routes, the author maintains, led to his delayed arrival in Pennsylvania to rejoin the Confederate army, which prevented him from providing the intelligence Lee needed to fight a successful battle at Gettysburg. The author makes his case against Stuart point by point in the concluding chapter. Unlike other recent studies that have spread the blame among several Army of Northern Virginia commanders, Mr. Robinson leaves little doubt that most of the responsibility for the Confederate defeat rests with Stuart.
Though the author consults certain primary sources, there is considerable reliance on secondary works. This is problematic because the latter sources are at times subjective regarding Stuart’s actions. In addition, a number of factual errors detract from the credibility of the material.
For example, Martinsburg, which is not on the river, is cited as the Confederates’ Potomac River crossing point rather than Williamsport and Falling Waters; the South Mountain gap near Burkittsville, Md., is identified as Turner’s rather than Crampton’s; and the June 30 cavalry clash at Hanover, where Stuart’s brigades ran into Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s division, is given as occurring on June 29 with Wade Hampton initiating the fighting rather than John R. Chambliss Jr.’s brigade.
Other inaccuracies are that Stuart is said to have raided Chambersburg, Pa., before rather than after the Battle of Antietam; the Federal 6th Corps is misidentified as the 7th Corps; and Maj. Gen. John Reynolds’ wing of the Union Army is said to have included the 12th Corps rather than the 3rd Corps.
Despite these limitations, Mr. Robinson has examined a considerable amount of data and presents well-argued and at times provocative conclusions about one of the Civil War’s most controversial events. When read with considerable caution, “Jeb Stuart and the Confederate Defeat at Gettysburg” is a useful contribution to our understanding of this complex issue.
is president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table.