- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

Books have been written exploring why Robert E. Lee and his legendary Army of Northern Virginia lost what was perhaps their most important battle, at Gettysburg in early July 1863. The question will never be settled to everyone’s satisfaction, but Lee himself noted in his official report that the “army was much embarrassed by the absence of the cavalry.”

J.E.B. Stuart, it will be recalled, had ridden off with the cream of the cavalry on a raid on the rear of the Union Army and was out of touch with the main Confederate army in the opening stages of the campaign. Although Lee stopped short of blaming Stuart for the loss, it seemed clear to most observers at the time that the lack of Stuart’s precise, detailed scouting reports led to an uncharacteristic uncertainty and indecision on Lee’s part.

An unexpected change

Lee did not learn until the night of June 28 that Union Gen. Joseph Hooker and his army had crossed the Potomac and was only a day’s march behind him. Uncertain of the veracity of this report, Lee began concentrating his scattered forces, unsure what would be his next move. This uncertainty led to confused initial dispositions for the battle, which began July 1. Lee was not ready to fight a battle that developed so unexpectedly, and had he known a few days earlier of the Union movements, he likely would have chosen to fight a different battle entirely.

Stuart’s last contact with the main army was on June 24. On the 25th, he rode through Thoroughfare Gap in the Bull Run Mountains expecting to “pass through” the camped units of the Union Army. Instead, he found this army on the move northward toward the Potomac and Maryland, a development Lee obviously needed to know.

Stuart reported after the campaign that he had sent a courier to Lee with a message informing him, and this has remained a puzzling footnote to these events. Presumably the messenger was one of Stuart’s regular dispatch riders. Did he turn up later, and what was his story? By what route was he instructed to travel in search of Lee? Lee’s chief of staff, Col. Charles Marshall, reported in his memoirs that after the battle, Stuart told him the dispatch rider had been sent via Ashby’s Gap in the Blue Ridge.

Clearly, Stuart sent a dispatch rider rather than taking the message to Lee in person because he was planning an independent raid and knew he would not rejoin Lee for some time. (John Mosby, who was to have met Stuart en route and guided him, also discovered the Union movements and, assuming Stuart would turn back, went back over the Bull Run Mountains and looked for Stuart in Western Maryland.)

Most accounts of these events cite the “lost message” as evidence that Stuart acted responsibly as the army’s scout but that he and Lee simply were unlucky, as was the case with the lost order before Antietam the year before.

It is unclear exactly when the message was sent. Stuart’s report mentions the dispatch just after saying that he had found his intended route through Haymarket, Va., blocked by the Federals, but he does not give a date or time to the event. An aide named McClelland stated that he saw Stuart write the dispatch and that it was, indeed, sent, but provided no further particulars.

Perhaps it was not lost after all. Edward G. Longacre’s book on the cavalry in the Gettysburg campaign first called attention to the fact that after the fight near Fairfax Court House, “Stuart sent a message informing General Lee of his victory, one that failed to reach its destination, though a copy somehow reached the War Department in Richmond. Longacre’s source was the diary kept by Richmond War Department clerk John B. Jones. Jones’ entry is worth quoting in its entirety:

“Headquarters Cavalry Division, June 27, 1863. To General R.E. Lee. General: I took possession of Fairfax C.H. this morning at nine o’clock, together with a large quantity of stores. The main body of Hooker’s army has gone toward Leesburg, except for the garrisons of Alexandria and Washington, which have retreated within the fortifications. Yours respectfully, your obedient servant, J.E.B. Stuart, Major-General.”

Missed messages

Stuart made no mention of a second dispatch to Lee in his own report, nor did his aide McClelland. This “second” dispatch is ignored in most accounts of Stuart’s raid, although Stephen Sears’ recent book on the campaign, “Gettysburg,” discusses it and accepts that it was a second message, sent after the first one mentioned by Stuart’s report.

This presents a further puzzle, however. Why would Stuart have bothered sending a report of a minor skirmish to the army commander if he had just written to him two days earlier? Stuart was not in the habit of sending Lee daily updates, and he sent no others on this ride. Even more puzzling is that this message reports that Hooker was moving toward Leesburg because he already had informed Lee in his first message that Hooker was crossing the Potomac on the 25th. Finally, would it not have been remarkably bad luck for two back-to-back dispatches from Stuart both to go astray and not reach Lee? Thinking about these questions suggests an interesting and plausible explanation of the fate of the “missing” message and casts new light on Lee’s information breakdown.

Intent as Stuart was on the raid and frustrated by the hindrances he had encountered, he well may have decided to wait to inform Lee of the new turn of events until he had a triumph to report. Looting the Union depot in Fairfax Court House certainly would qualify as a triumph and help justify his raid. (Similar reasoning led Stuart to insist on bringing back the famous 125 captured wagons as tangible proof of his success.)

The message that survived in the War Department archives probably is the only one Stuart sent informing Lee of anything, and it was not very helpful as a scouting report because it did not definitively tell Lee that Hooker had crossed the Potomac or what his probable intentions were. Indeed, Stuart couldn’t tell Lee much, because when he found Hooker’s army on the move, he did not scout or probe but bounced off the enemy columns and moved around them to continue his move eastward.

Costly delay

Evidently, Stuart’s messenger did not leave Fairfax Court House until the 27th, a day’s ride east of Bull Run Gap. He had to travel back through both the Bull Run and Blue Ridge Mountain passes and then all the way up the Shenandoah and Cumberland valleys to find Lee somewhere around Chambersburg, Pa., nearly 150 miles in all.

He well may not have arrived until after the battle was under way. The message would have been superfluous by that point, and this would explain why no special note was taken of it by Lee or his staff. Lee and Marshall may never have seen the message under the press of other events. Nevertheless, it was sent routinely to the War Department in Richmond.

This interpretation is plausible and explains several minor mysteries, but it does not reflect any new credit on Stuart. He seems to have delayed sending his dispatch for two crucial days and sent it from a point a day’s ride farther from the main army than was necessary. Had the message been sent on the 25th from Bull Run Gap, it could have caught up with Lee by the 27th and well could have made a difference in Lee’s approach to the impending battle. Sent on the 27th from Fairfax, it probably did not arrive until after June 30, and the information it contained had been overtaken by events.

Napoleon said that in war everything was recoverable except the loss of time. Regardless of one’s judgment about whether Lee did or did not authorize Stuart’s raid, Stuart’s preoccupation with his raid and apparent delay in sending a vital scouting report cost Lee three critical days in the preparations for Gettysburg.

This truly was an “embarrassment,” but mostly it was to Stuart.

Warren C. Robinson is a Washington-based researcher and writer.

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