- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009


By John T. Krepps

Colecraft Industries

$14.95, 167 pages, illus.


Ever since Confederate cavalry commander Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart decided to pass around the Union army that was blocking the path of his three brigades in Northern Virginia on June 25, 1863, historians have questioned his judgment and its impact on the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg one week later.

Stuart’s movement separated him and his men from the main army and left its commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, without vital intelligence about the enemy that the cavalry normally provided.

Stuart could have recovered in time to rejoin the army - except for the misfortune of unexpectedly running into a Union cavalry force at the small town of Hanover, about 14 miles east of Gettysburg. The impact of this incident is the subject of “A Strong and Sudden Onslaught: The Cavalry Action at Hanover, Pennsylvania” by John T. Krepps. Although other accounts of this story have appeared in print, the author has uncovered new source material that considerably fleshes out what is known about these events.

“A Strong and Sudden Onslaught” relates how a youthful and newly minted brigadier general by the name of Hugh Judson Kilpatrick and his cavalry division of about 3,500 became engaged with Stuart’s larger force while on patrol in the vicinity of Hanover. The daylong confrontation that ensued prevented Stuart from reaching his planned rendezvous with Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps of Lee’s army, which was deployed in the area of Carlisle, York and Harrisburg.

Behind schedule in rejoining the army, Stuart was under considerable pressure to make up for lost time when the unanticipated contact with Kilpatrick’s forces occurred. Impulsively, either Stuart or his subordinate brigade commander, Col. John Chambliss Jr., ordered an attack against the rear of Kilpatrick’s column as it passed through Hanover, igniting a bloody battle in the streets and scattering the residents of that small farming community of about 2,500 residents.

As “The Cavalry Action at Hanover” explains, Stuart also was burdened by an extensive train of more than 100 wagons laden with forage and supplies that his men had captured near Rockville on their way north. This “bounty” caused the Confederate cavalrymen to be encumbered and extended over a long distance, with a resultant loss of cohesion.

The author describes how Stuart and his three brigades, totaling nearly 5,000 men, were stymied from midmorning on June 30, when they had to halt and engage in a series of skirmishes for most of the day at Hanover. It was not until around dusk that they were able to withdraw under cover of darkness and continue searching for Ewell’s troops to the north.

By then it was too late. Stuart had missed an opportunity to join Ewell’s corps, which was recalled to Cashtown and Gettysburg. Lee had decided to concentrate his army in preparation for engagement with oncoming Union forces under Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. As a result, Stuart’s brigades wandered in search of the army for another 1 1/2 days before belatedly learning that a battle was under way at Gettysburg.

Human-interest stories involving civilians provide another dimension to “A Strong and Sudden Onslaught.” The Hanover residents welcomed the Union troops with open arms and copiously supplied them with food and refreshments. The residents had to scramble for cover, however, when Confederate cavalry suddenly appeared and attacked the Union horsemen before their eyes. Before long, the people regained their composure sufficiently to provide care and comfort for the wounded lying in the streets.

Mr. Krepps obviously has undertaken a labor of love in researching this project. As a native of the nearby community of McSherrystown, he grew up on land that the Confederates controlled during the Battle of Hanover. In addition, having four ancestors who fought in Pennsylvania units during the Civil War, he has a personal connection that instilled a desire to relate and clarify the significance of the cavalry clashes that occurred in his community.

Though this story is appealing to a general audience, specialists will particularly appreciate the detective work the author performed in digging out details of where specific actions took place and routes employed during the engagements. He uses primary sources for this purpose, such as claims that residents submitted to government authorities to request compensation for property damage and confiscated goods and livestock. These records and others, including citizens’ and cavalrymen’s letters and memoirs, enabled him to debunk myths that arose and were repeated over the years.

As the narrative unfolds, the reader follows the action through a series of maps placed strategically throughout the text. An order of battle identifies the military units and their commanders involved in the confrontation at Hanover.

The writing is crisp, and the facts are presented sequentially. A series of appendices furnish background on individuals, units, properties and communities that played important roles. The endnotes also enhance the text considerably, providing explanations and source material. The bibliography will be useful for those who wish to pursue further investigation. There is a minor issue with some street names mentioned in the text that do not appear on the maps (e.g., Baltimore, Frederick, Chestnut and High streets).

John T. Krepps has put the finishing touches to a long told but not widely known story of events in Hanover that affected the outcome of Lee’s invasion of the North in June and July 1863. His in-depth research has made “A Strong and Sudden Onslaught: The Cavalry Action at Hanover, Pennsylvania” the definitive work on this noteworthy yet somewhat neglected subject.

&#8226 Thomas J. Ryan of Bethany Beach is past president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table.

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