By Brent L. Vosburg
Southern beau sabreur J.E.B. Stuart hardly expected to run head-on into enemy cavalry on his second ride around the Union Army. But a trio of ‘boy generals’ would soon give the famed Confederate horseman all the action he could handle.
In mid-June 1863, General Robert E. Lee, with his Army of Northern Virginia, decided to bring the Civil War into the Northern states for the second time in less than a year. By doing so, Lee hoped to divert the Union Army from war-torn Virginia and also draw some of Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s men away from the besieged city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. After marching into Pennsylvania, Lee intended to capture the railroad center at Harrisburg and, if possible, threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. He also hoped to get supplies for his soldiers and convince Great Britain and France to recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation.
While Lee proceeded northward on his ambitious task, his cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, took a parallel course some distance to the east, on the right of Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s II Corps. Major General Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac was also moving north, approximately two days’ march behind the Confederate army but carefully keeping itself between Lee’s army and Washington, the Federal capital.
The Union cavalry was led by Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, who had taken over command from Brig. Gen. George Stoneman in May 1863. Pleasonton’s biggest claim to fame was his cavalry clash with Stuart at Brandy Station, Va., on June 9–a tactical draw that nevertheless showed the Union horsemen to be the equals of the much-vaunted Confederates. Pleasonton, a graduate of West Point, had served in the Mexican War and had most recently commanded a cavalry division at Antietam and Chancellorsville. Some considered him competent and confident; others believed him to be a self-centered, overly ambitious liar. He was also a bigot who despised all foreigners and believed them to be totally inept in military matters.
Attached to the defense of Washington was a cavalry division of 3,600 troopers commanded by Brig. Gen. Julius Stahel. Stahel was Hungarian, and Pleasonton wanted Stahel’s division to become a part of his own cavalry corps. Through constant correspondence with a good friend, Republican Congressman John Farnsworth of Illinois (who also happened to be a good friend of President Abraham Lincoln’s), Pleasonton attained his goal. On June 27, Hooker transferred Stahel’s division to Pleasonton, giving him more than 12,000 men. The following day, Stahel was relieved of command.
Ironically, on June 28, Hooker was also replaced as commanding general of the Army of the Potomac. Considering his constant feud with the War Department and the Federal fiasco at Chancellorsville (the battle that became known as “Lee’s masterpiece”), it was not really a surprise. The original offer to replace Hooker was made to Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, a Pennsylvanian who commanded the I Corps. Reynolds turned down the offer, and the generalship was given instead to Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, who accepted it as God’s will. Meade, a hot-tempered individual when provoked, had led the V Corps under Hooker at Chancellorsville back in May.
The leadership of the cavalry was immediately reorganized as well. Brigadier Generals John Buford and David Gregg retained command of the 1st and 2nd divisions respectively. Stahel’s former division was consolidated into two brigades, forming the 3rd Division of the cavalry corps. Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick was given command of the division. In this new arrangement, the 5th New York, 1st Vermont, 1st West Virginia and the untested 18th Pennsylvania constituted the 1st Brigade, led by Elon J. Farnsworth. Farnsworth was a nephew of Congressman Farnsworth who recently had been promoted to brigadier general. He had fought against Indians during the Utah Expedition in 1857-58 and was currently Pleasonton’s aide-de-camp. The 2nd Brigade, made up of four Michigan regiments, was led by Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer, also newly promoted. Needless to say, Farnsworth’s and Custer’s promotions rankled other higher-ranking officers, although Meade accepted Pleasonton’s recommendations.
Kilpatrick, the division commander, had graduated from West Point in 1861. He had earned the unflattering nickname “Kill-Cavalry” by driving his men and especially his horses with reckless abandon. He had begun his military career with the 5th New York Infantry (Duryee’s Zouaves) and was wounded on May 9, 1861, at Big Bethel, Va.–the first Regular officer to be wounded in the Civil War. With a commander as restless and aggressive as Kilpatrick, the 3rd would undoubtedly be a fighting division.
J.E.B. Stuart was already a proven cavalry commander, the “eyes and ears” of Lee’s army. Like Kilpatrick, he was a graduate of West Point. After the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River and stepped onto Northern soil, Lee left decisions about routes and raiding largely to Stuart’s discretion, although he did state in two separate dispatches that Stuart was to “feel the right of Ewell’s troops” and “collect all the supplies you can for the use of the army.” Stuart used his discretion and decided to ride around the Federal army, a plan similar to his famous “Ride Around McClellan” during the Peninsula campaign the year before.
Stuart began his march from Salem, Va., located on the Manassas Gap Railroad eight miles west of Thoroughfare Gap, at 1 a.m. on June 24. With him were three brigades, commanded by Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton, Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh (“Fitz”) Lee and Colonel John Chambliss, along with six pieces of artillery. Chambliss was in temporary command of Brig. Gen. W.H.F. (“Rooney”) Lee’s brigade because Lee had received a serious wound at Brandy Station. Problems arose almost immediately for Stuart. The Federal army was spread out from Harpers Ferry to the mouth of the Monocacy River, and from Middletown, Md., to Frederick, Md. John Mosby, the legendary partisan ranger, had reported to Stuart that the Union Army “was inactive and at ease in their camps.” But how accurate Mosby’s information may or may not have been was academic now. The whole Union army was on the move, making it almost impossible for Stuart’s own movements to go undetected. Stuart almost ran smack into Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps of the Army of the Potomac near Haymarket. Stuart lobbed a few artillery shells toward Hancock’s men, who returned the favor. That encounter prompted Stuart to turn his forces southeast toward Bristoe Station and proceed to Wolf Run Shoals on June 26.
On the 27th, Stuart’s troopers proceeded north through Fairfax Court House, Dranesville and on to Rowser’s Ford, where they crossed the Potomac River less than 20 miles west of Washington. By 3 a.m. on the 28th, the entire Army of Northern Virginia, save two brigades of cavalry under Brig. Gens. Beverly Robertson and William Jones, had crossed the Potomac. Although he had crossed the river first, Stuart was nevertheless far behind schedule. But he was not idle. He ordered his troopers to destroy a portion of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, rendering it useless for a while. Hampton’s men also cut several miles of telegraph lines running into the Union capital.
At Rockville, Md., a mere 13 miles northwest of the Federal capital, detachments from Hampton’s and Chambliss’ brigades came across a huge, eight-mile-long Union wagon train. After a wild chase, Chambliss’ men captured 125 wagons, 900 mules and 400 prisoners. The wagons were loaded with oats, whiskey, bacon, hams and sugar. Damaged wagons, along with supplies that could not be carried, were burned. Stuart now had a multitude of problems. He had been on the road for more than 72 hours, but he had only been on Maryland soil a few hours. He had no idea where Lee was, and he was unsure of Ewell’s location. Now he was also encumbered by a long and slow-moving wagon train.
Stuart and his men marched all night. On the morning of the 29th, they crossed the tracks of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, stopping long enough to tear up a stretch of track and cut some telegraph wires. At Westminster, they had a small skirmish with two companies of the 1st Delaware Cavalry but quickly drove off the heavily outnumbered Federals. The Confederate cavalrymen spent the night at Union Mills, less than 10 miles from the Maryland Pennsylvania line. It was at Westminister that Stuart first learned that the entire Union Army was on the move toward Frederick.
Unlike Stuart, Pleasonton’s contact with his cavalry was through staff members delivering dispatches between himself and division commanders. As the campaign progressed, Pleasonton’s orders from Meade directed him “to protect well the front and flanks of this army with your cavalry.” Meade’s idea of a cavalry commander differed from Pleasonton’s. Meade viewed him as a staff officer rather than a field leader, and he used the cavalry primarily as a messenger service, for patrols and as guards for wagon trains. Fighting battles was secondary, as far as Meade was concerned. Still, the Union cavalry would serve Meade well in the developing campaign.
The orders the Union division commanders received from Pleasonton on the 29th directed Buford to advance toward Emmitsburg, Md. Gregg was to split up his brigades, with two of them riding to Westminster and the third to New Windsor, Md. Kilpatrick was to move toward Littlestown, Pa.; his duty was to cover the center and front of the advance of Meade’s army.
The Union cavalry was happy to be crossing the Potomac into Maryland and leaving war-torn Virginia behind. One Union trooper said, “Getting out of Virginia was like getting out of a graveyard.” As the soldiers passed through Frederick, the civilians gave them fresh milk and water, along with plenty of food. The Federal cavalry was spread out over a wide area as it moved closer to Pennsylvania, and the march soon turned into a nightmare. One member of the 3rd Pennsylvania wrote in his diary that he spent 20 straight hours in the saddle. Others told of seeing horses dying along the roadside from pure exhaustion caused by the intense heat and choking dust.
Although the Federals had fanned out to cover more territory, Kilpatrick was completely unaware that Stuart’s men were only a few miles away near Union Mills. Apparently, Kilpatrick was more intent on finding Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s division, which had been spotted on the 28th near York, Pa. Kilpatrick’s men spent the night just inside the Pennsylvania line at Littlestown, about 10 miles southeast of Gettysburg and seven miles from Hanover. While at Littlestown, the Yankee troopers were treated like deliverers by the local citizens.
In the early morning hours of June 30, Kilpatrick led his cavalry out of Littlestown and headed northeast
toward Hanover. Stuart’s men were advancing toward Hanover as well, with Chambliss’ brigade in the lead, Hampton’s brigade in the rear with the captured wagon train, and Fitz Lee’s brigade moving on the left flank near Baltimore Pike. Stuart, guided by a 16-year-old civilian volunteer, hoped to detour around the Union troops at Littlestown and link up with Ewell’s men at York. The last thing “Jeb” wanted was another firefight with Yankee cavalry.
Kilpatrick and his staff led the division in the direction of Hanover, followed by Custer and his Michigan regiments of the 2nd Brigade. Leading the 1st Brigade were the 1st Vermont, 1st West Virginia, 5th New York, 18th Pennsylvania and Battery E of the 4th U.S. Horse Artillery. The 18th had been in service for only a few weeks and had yet to see any fighting.
Around 8 a.m., Kilpatrick entered Hanover at the head of Custer’s 1st and 7th Michigan regiments. Custer’s brigade rested a short time, then resumed its march toward Abbottstown. Kilpatrick spent some time talking with local citizens, who filled him in about Elijah White’s 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, which had ridden through Hanover three days earlier. At about 9 a.m., Kilpatrick left town with his staff to catch up with Custer’s column. Meanwhile, Farnsworth’s men arrived in Hanover and also rested briefly. By 10 a.m. the 1st Vermont and 1st West Virginia had departed. Only the 5th New York remained in town; the 18th Pennsylvania had not yet arrived.
On the road leading into Hanover, Pennsylvania Captain Henry C. Potter and 40 men from Companies L and M of the 18th formed the rear guard, about a mile behind their regiment. They suddenly ran into about 60 Southern troopers from Chambliss’ brigade, who ordered Potter’s men to surrender. A wild chase ensued, with the Rebel cavalrymen right on their heels, until the rear guard met up with dismounted members of the regiment, who opened fire and temporarily stopped the Confederates. More Rebels soon arrived, however, and the battle began in earnest.
The men of the 5th New York had paused along Frederick Street and were resting when they heard shots. Major John Hammond immediately ordered the local citizens to clear the streets. Chambliss’ brigade of gray-clad horsemen entered the town from the south. Led by Lt. Col. William H. Payne, who was temporarily in command of the 2nd North Carolina, the Confederates attacked the 18th Pennsylvania in flank and rear, cutting the regiment in two.
Hanover was in mass confusion. Stuart’s men had pushed the rear of the 18th Pennsylvania into town, causing the regiment to become mixed with runaway wagons, ambulances and panicky citizens. Soldiers and civilians alike were running into alleys and side streets. The Confederate forces now had control of Hanover.
The majority of the Union cavalry was on its way out of town, nearing New Baltimore, about a mile above Hanover. Farnsworth was unsure about what was taking place, but he quickly ordered the 1st West Virginia and 1st Vermont back toward Hanover, in the direction of the shooting. Hearing that Stuart was in Hanover, Kilpatrick rode at breakneck speed back to town. When he arrived, his horse collapsed and died.
Meanwhile, Major Hammond and the 5th New York made a spirited countercharge against Payne’s 2nd North Carolina, temporarily stopping their drive. In the charge, Adjutant Alexander Gall of the 5th New York was shot in the left eye; the ball passed completely through his head and killed him instantly. Farnsworth arrived and found Hammond’s men dueling with the Rebels. With the general in the lead, the troopers proceeded to drive the advancing Southerners toward Littlestown Pike near Buttstown. The Federals had regained control of the town.
During all the confusion, Stuart remained personally involved in the battle. The fighting became severe near the Forney farm between Littlestown Pike and Westminster Road. Sending in units to assist Chambliss whenever possible, Stuart suddenly realized that he was directly in front of the charging blue cavalry. Finding himself trapped, he headed his horse directly toward his artillery line near Westminster Road. While riding away from Federal pursuers, Stuart and his adjutant, Captain William W. Blackford, had to jump across a 15-foot-wide gully to escape.
Colonel Payne did not fare quite so well. Payne, who had commanded the famed “Black Horse Cavalry” earlier in the war, found himself caught up in the melee near the Winebrenner tannery. He was captured by Abram Folger of Company H, 5th New York Cavalry, in a most unusual way. “While charging at the edge of town and getting separated from our regiment, I was made prisoner by Colonel Payne and was being taken to the rear on the main road,” Folger recalled. “Just outside the town was situated a tannery, the vats of which were not covered and very close to the street. I was walking along beside the colonel’s orderly, and as we came near these tannery vats, I saw a carbine lying on the ground. When I came up to it, I quickly took it, and seeing it was loaded I fired and killed Payne’s horse, which in its death struggle fell over towards the vats, throwing Payne head first into one of them completely under the tanning liquid. Seeing the colonel was safe enough for the moment, I turned my attention to the orderly, who…was about to jump his horse over the fence to the right and escape that way if he could, but not being able to do so, concluded he had better surrender….I took him in and disarmed him, and made him help to get the colonel out of the tanning liquid. His gray uniform with its velvet facing and white gauntlet gloves, his face and hair had all been completely stained, so that he presented a most laughable sight.”
After the capture of their commander, the 2nd North Carolina retreated. But resistance by the 9th and 10th Virginia was strong enough to drive Farnsworth’s men back toward Hanover. Stuart now faced multiple problems. Hampton, encumbered with 125 captured wagons, would not arrive until the middle of the afternoon, and Fitz Lee was busy with the 5th and 6th Michigan of Custer’s brigade. Stuart did manage to get four cannons emplaced on an elevated field south of town. A two-hour artillery duel followed as Lieutenant Alexander Pennington’s 2nd and Lieutenant Samuel Elder’s 4th U.S. Artillery opened up from a rise known locally as Bunker Hill. There was some damage to the town; no civilians were injured, although a number of Union troopers were.
In the meantime, Custer was ordered to hold the right flank of the Union line, while Farnsworth held the center and left flank. After a lull in the action, Hampton finally arrived around 2 p.m. and positioned himself to the right of Chambliss, near the Mount Olivet Cemetery. His artillery opened up and managed to keep Farnsworth in the town. Custer, who was extremely eager in his first fight as a brigadier general, moved his 6th Michigan troopers to within 300 yards of the Confederate artillery, and they opened up with their seven-shot Spencer repeaters. That shooting rattled the Confederate gunners, who broke for the rear, leaving behind several wounded and all their artillery. Lee managed to send up reinforcements, however, and forced the Wolverines back to their original line.
Kilpatrick, meanwhile, was busy sending a message to Pleasonton, who was at Taneytown, 10 miles away in Maryland. It was apparent that Kilpatrick knew nothing of the captured wagon train. Had the Union commander known and tried to recapture it, Stuart certainly would have put the torch to the wagons. As it was, Stuart feared that Kilpatrick had gained the edge on him. He spent the rest of the afternoon listening for the arrival of Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum’s XII Corps, which was back at Littlestown. Believing that parts of Slocum’s force might be moving toward his rear, and unsure about the location of other Union corps, Stuart had no choice but to withdraw. At nightfall, he began to send his tired troopers in the direction of York.
The Battle of Hanover was over. Kilpatrick let Stuart go, choosing not to pursue him. He should have attempted to keep in close contact with the Rebels–the patrols he did send out learned nothing. For some strange reason, Kilpatrick felt that a large part of Lee’s army was only about 10 miles away, near East Berlin. Stuart’s raid was nearly over–but the controversy surrounding it was about to begin.
Casualty figures for the engagement listed the Union losses at more than 200. The 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry, in its first encounter, suffered 86 casualties–the most suffered by any regiment in the confrontation. This figure was followed closely by Hammond’s 5th New York, which reported 42 casualties. Stuart, in his report to Lee, never mentioned his losses at Hanover. The 2nd North Carolina Cavalry suffered the heaviest loss of any Confederate regiment in the campaign, a total of 55.
After a long all-night ride, Stuart arrived in Dover, where he paroled a few hundred prisoners and sent the wagon train south. He then went to Carlisle, where he burned some barracks belonging to the U.S. Army’s cavalry school and fired a few artillery rounds into the town. It was at Carlisle that Stuart finally learned that Lee and his army were at Gettysburg. He left immediately to join Lee, arriving late in the day on July 2. When Stuart called on Lee at his headquarters, Lee said coldly, “Well, General Stuart, here you are at last.” (Another version has Lee saying, even more coldly, “General Stuart, where have you been?”) It was clear that Lee felt his young protégé had let him down.
There is no question that Stuart’s absence during the Confederate approach to Gettysburg lessened Lee’s chances of success. Without his “eyes and ears,” Lee was advancing blindly into enemy territory. Mosby’s outdated information about the Army of the Potomac’s being inactive certainly did not help Stuart, but the captured wagon train proved to be his Achilles’ heel. In his official report, Stuart admitted that the wagon train “was now a subject of serious embarrassment.” Some of Stuart’s own men condemned the entire expedition as a misguided attempt to “do some great thing.”
But all the blame cannot be placed on Stuart alone. Early’s men had been as close as five miles from Hanover and even heard the guns, but they apparently did not realize that Stuart was involved. Since Early was supposed to rendezvous with Stuart at York, he should have left some scouts near the area to let Stuart know his whereabouts. Also, some blame has to be put on the commanding general himself. It could be argued that Stuart was just following orders. In two separate dispatches to Stuart on June 22 and 23, Lee had told him to “collect information, provisions, etc.” Well, Stuart had captured a wagon train full of supplies and provisions.
Some credit for Stuart’s embarrassment must be given to the Union cavalry itself. Custer and Farnsworth both fought well in their first engagement as brigadier generals, particularly against a legendary figure such as Stuart. Hammond also fought well, and even Judson Kilpatrick deserves credit. By arriving in Hanover before Stuart, Kilpatrick kept him from finding Early and thus prevented him from being of service to Lee at Gettysburg until late on the second day of the battle. The Union horsemen showed a vastly improved ability to fight mounted and dismounted. Their valor and aggressiveness had a great deal to do with the tactical victory at Hanover, which in turn kept Robert E. Lee’s “eyes and ears” closed for another vital 24 hours–and contributed greatly to the momentous Federal triumph at Gettysburg.
Brent Vosburg writes from Elizabethtown, N.Y. His great-grandfather served in the 5th New York Cavalry at Hanover, and Vosburg is in the process of writing a book about the regiment. For further reading, see: The Cavalry at Gettysburg, by Edward G. Longacre; or The Union Cavalry in the Civil War, Vol. I, by Stephen Starrs.[ Top | Cover Page ]