- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2006

PLENTY OF BLAME TO GO AROUND: JEB STUART’S CONTROVERSIAL RIDE TO GETTYSBURG

By Eric J. Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi, Savas Beattie LLC, 428 pages, $32.95

REVIEWED BY THOMAS J. RYAN

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.

The authors specify the accusations against Stuart made originally by fellow soldiers and journalists, and later by scholars who substantiated their judgment against Stuart by sheer weight of numbers. Lee’s military secretary, Col. Charles Marshall, was so incensed at Stuart that he attempted to have him court-martialed. Lt. Col. Walter Taylor, Lee’s adjutant, also questioned the wisdom of Stuart’s decisions during his ride. Another Stuart opponent was Longstreet, even though his written guidance encouraged the infamous expedition around the Union army. These men wrote extensively for publication after the war, documenting their claims of Stuart’s malfeasance.

Mr. Wittenberg and Mr. Petruzzi continue with a discussion of the historiography of Stuart’s ride, including an analysis of how his few supporters and multitude of critics presented their cases. While Stuart biographer John Thomason viewed the cavalryman’s actions as “within the discretion extended by his instructions,” Douglas Southall Freeman, a Lee devotee, wrote that Stuart “violated orders and deprived Lee of his services when most needed.” Historian Wilbur Sturtevant Nye took a middle ground when he said that Lee and Stuart share “the blame for not using the cavalry in its vital role of reconnaissance.”

Latter-day historians Edwin Coddington, Emory Thomas, Edward Longacre, Noah Andre Trudeau, and Stephen Sears all weigh in against Stuart’s decision making during this critical period. Mr. Wittenberg and Mr. Petruzzi also present their findings of the guilt or innocence of Stuart’s fellow officers of the Army of Northern Virginia. As the title implies, they argue that several of these men must bear responsibility for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. The authors identify the guilty parties and explain their reasoning for these conclusions.

Mr. Wittenberg and Mr. Petruzzi give credit to the Union troops whose gallant performance during the Gettysburg Campaign led to a well-earned Northern victory and a devastating defeat for the invading army from the South. They make no mention, however, of John Babcock, a civilian intelligence agent whose early warning about the movements of Lee’s army motivated the Union commander’s decision to start his army on its way northward across the Potomac. It was this piece of intelligence that led directly to Stuart’s troubles, and, therefore, had a key bearing on the outcome of the battle.

Maps placed throughout the text orient the reader to routes taken and clashes encountered along the way. Photographs of key participants are also included. Useful appendices address Stuart’s command during the ride, orders of battle of both armies at Gettysburg, Stuart’s official campaign report and, as a special bonus, a driving tour of Stuart’s Ride to Gettysburg complete with illustrations of strategic points.

In the interest of full disclosure, at the authors’ request this reviewer read and commented on a draft version. My opinion then as now is that “Plenty of Blame to Go Around” is a long-awaited and most comprehensive account of Stuart’s ride around the Union army during the Gettysburg Campaign. This work undoubtedly will re-energize debate about one of the Civil War’s most enduring controversies.

Thomas J. Ryan is president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table.

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