- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2003

Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North in 1863 and the subsequent Battle of Gettysburg might never have found their way into the history books if the Union cavalry had vigorously carried out its reconnaissance responsibilities.

The culpability for that missed opportunity, following the Battle of Brandy Station in June of that year, belonged to the Union cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton.

Graduating high in the West Point class of 1844, Pleasonton fought in the Mexican War and on the American frontier before North-South hostilities began in 1861. He rose steadily during the first two years of the Civil War before taking command of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry corps. He developed a reputation for harboring considerable ambition and embellishing his military accomplishments. Through a combination of political influence and self-promotion in the newspapers, he outmaneuvered his competitors for the top cavalry position.

The previously maligned Union cavalry had gained heightened prestige as a result of the Battle at Brandy Station near Culpeper, Va., on June 9 against Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s formidable Confederate horsemen. After crossing the Rappahannock River with Pleasonton in command, the Yankees took the Confederates by surprise and fought as equals throughout an all-day battle. It was the largest cavalry encounter of the Civil War. Some 18,000 horse soldiers were engaged.

The Union cavalry’s enhanced performance did not last long, however. In the days immediately following the battle, it bungled a critical reconnaissance mission.

The Union attack at Brandy Station prevented Stuart from screening Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the early part of its march to invade the North. The Confederate cavalry needed a few days’ rest and a quick refit. The absence of a cavalry screen left Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps, the Confederate invasion vanguard, vulnerable to observation and attack.

Ewell’s march led from the Culpeper staging area to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley invasion route. Only a cavalry battalion accompanied Ewell at the outset of the march on June 10. This undersized unit, large enough to scout but too small to screen effectively, presented a narrow window of opportunity for the Union Army.

On June 11, with most of his Union cavalry back in their camps near Warrenton Junction north of the Rappahannock, Pleasonton focused on organizational and administrative issues and chose to bask in the afterglow of Brandy Station by conducting a review of his troops. The reinvigorated horsemen partook in songs, speeches and toasts and displayed captured flags.

This distraction, however well earned, prevented Pleasonton from concentrating on the job at hand — that is, pinpointing the location of Lee’s army.

Pleasonton’s slowness in searching for Lee was highlighted earlier when the authorities in Washington notified the cavalry commander for the capital area, Gen. Julius Stahel, to send a detachment of his men into the Shenandoah Valley as far as Front Royal and Winchester. A second detachment searched southward toward Sulphur Springs on the Rappahannock. Both units returned empty-handed. Had they extended their search for a few more days, they would have been hard-pressed not to encounter Ewell’s corps marching on nearby roads.

A factor limiting Pleasonton’s cavalrymen from discovering Ewell’s march to the Valley was their responsibility to help defend against a Confederate attack across the Rappahannock River. This assignment was more to Pleasonton’s liking because it involved the potential for combat and the resultant recognition. His frame of mind was evident when he informed his commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, “Have just reviewed my cavalry. They are in fine spirits and good condition for another fight” — the implication being that the drudgery of reconnaissance was much less desirable.

In an immediate response, Hooker’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, from Union headquarters at Falmouth across the river from Fredericksburg, informed Pleasonton that he should concentrate on the upper sector of the Rappahannock toward the Blue Ridge. Pleasonton answered obscurely, “I have parties now out, gaining information.” However, Maj. Gen. George Meade, Union 5th Corps commander — who would take command of the Army of the Potomac on the eve of Gettysburg — placed the problem in perspective when he said, “It is very difficult to ascertain anything of the enemy’s movements from [the north] side [of the river], as he keeps his forces concealed.” In other words, aggressive reconnaissance was required.

In fact, Ewell’s three divisions were marching westward on two routes, one of which was located just 10 miles south of Sulphur Springs on the north side of the Rappahannock some 27 miles southeast of Chester Gap in the Blue Ridge. Fortuitously for Ewell, Stuart sent John Mosby’s Rangers northward across the Potomac River into Maryland early on June 11 as a diversion, creating consternation in Union ranks. This distraction caused authorities in Washington to divert Stahel’s cavalry to search for Mosby rather than Lee’s army.

The next day, a Union military intelligence agent working in the field alerted Army of the Potomac headquarters that slaves captured during the battle at Brandy Station had provided information that Ewell’s corps had passed through Culpeper heading for the Shenandoah Valley. Butterfield reacted by sending Pleasonton a request that “every possible information” about the enemy’s movements be communicated promptly.

However, while Ewell was marching unmolested through Chester Gap in the Blue Ridge, Pleasonton replied, “There is no news of the enemy’s movements. I have parties out to the right on the lookout.” Because Pleasonton neglected to say how far “to the right,” Butterfield persisted that Gen. Hooker “desires to know how far beyond Sulphur Springs … your scouts have penetrated.”

Pleasonton responded that he had men picketing beyond Waterloo Bridge. This was a few miles above Sulpher Springs but more than 20 miles from Chester Gap. However, they “saw no signs of the enemy.” Pleasonton also claimed that he had “scouts out on the way to Luray and Chester Gaps.” They either never reached Chester Gap or arrived too late, because, for the entire day on June 12, Ewell’s corps was marching through the gap from roads just south of the area the Union scouts presumably were patrolling.

Clearly, Pleasonton was not assigning the desired priority level to his reconnaissance responsibilities. Instead, he engaged in speculation. “I am inclined to believe they will not … make a move until they are satisfied of ours,” he said. It was evident that Hooker was reaching the panic stage. In apparent frustration with Pleasonton’s inability to grasp the enormity of the situation, he alerted 1st Corps and right wing commander Maj. Gen. John Reynolds to the problem:

“In view of … the absence of any specific information as to the objects, movements and purposes of the enemy … Use all possible endeavors to get information … from all sources, and transmit the same.”

The desired information never arrived.

Lee’s bold step of sending Ewell unprotected by cavalry to the mountains was rewarded because Pleasonton proved to be impervious to Hooker’s prodding. The lack of energy exerted by the Union cavalry to reconnoiter as far as the Blue Ridge was as discreditable as it was detrimental.

If Pleasonton’s mission had been carried out properly, it is reasonable to expect that he would have discovered Ewell’s movement into the Valley and notified Hooker. Armed with this information, the Army of the Potomac commander could have ordered Pleasonton to employ his entire cavalry corps to pursue Ewell and cut the roads behind him. This was precisely the strategy Union General in Chief Henry Halleck had advised Hooker to employ:

“In regard to the contingency … of General Lee’s leaving part of his forces in Fredericksburg … [w]hile … the head of his column … moves … toward the Potomac, it seems to me that such an operation would give you great advantages … to cut him in two and fight his divided forces.”

Once isolated, Ewell’s corps would have been vulnerable while sandwiched between elements of Hooker’s army and sizable Union forces at outposts in the Shenandoah Valley. Lee would have been forced to employ the rest of his army located at Culpeper and Fredericksburg to come to Ewell’s rescue. The ensuing battle would have disrupted, if not terminated, Lee’s plans to invade the North.

By conducting a cavalry review after Brandy Station and not urgently pursuing his reconnaissance duties, Pleasonton missed an opportunity to revise history. A conflict recognized as a major turning point of the Civil War might have been fought near some nameless hamlet in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia rather than at an obscure borough in south central Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.

Thomas J. Ryan is a former Department of Defense intelligence officer who lives in Bethany Beach, Del., and the author of the forthcoming series of articles in Gettysburg Magazine titled “A Battle of Wits: Intelligence Operations During the Gettysburg Campaign.”

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