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Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg

By Eric J.Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi (Savas Beatie LLC, New York, 2006, $32.95)

Controversy abounds regarding the Gettysburg campaign and its momentous three-day battle. Operations had barely ended when newspapers, particularly in the South, offered explanations for the Confederate defeat. In time, veterans of both armies entered the debate, assigning blame and/or fashioning defenses of individual or unit performance. Since the Confederates lost the critical engagement, most of the controversies centered on the Army of Northern Virginia.

Few if any of the controversies have been more heated and enduring than that surrounding the performance of J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee’s cavalry commander. For eight days, as the opposing armies marched toward their clash at Gettysburg, Stuart and three mounted brigades were out of contact with the main body of Lee’s army. In turn, Confederate veterans and future historians assigned primary blame for the Southern defeat to Stuart.

Eric J.Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi reexamine Stuart’s operations and the subsequent controversy in Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg. The authors present a day-by-day account of the ride and follow it with a recounting of the historiography of the controversy. The book is almost evenly divided between the contemporary events and history’s judgment on them. Wittenberg and Petruzzi have written one of the fullest treatments of the subject to date.

Central to Stuart’s performance and the debate are the orders he received from Lee on June 22 and 23, 1863. Written by Lee’s aide, Charles Marshall, the instructions were vague, if not confusing and contradictory. The two orders assigned various tasks to Stuart as he advanced north. He could cross the Potomac River either east or west of the Blue Ridge, collect supplies for the army, interrupt enemy communications, and, once in Pennsylvania, contact Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps, guard its flank and relay information about Federal movements.While Stuart took with him three brigades, he was directed to leave behind two brigades to guard the gaps of the Blue Ridge.

Lee forwarded the orders to Stuart through James Longstreet, commander of the army’s First Corps. Longstreet suggested to Stuart that if he passed “by the rear of the enemy,” the movement would be less likely to disclose the main army’s operations. Longstreet also proposed that Stuart leave Wade Hampton, his most able subordinate, in command of the two brigades along the Blue Ridge. Instead,Stuart chose Beverly Robertson, whose performance at Brandy Station had been dismal. With Lee’s orders and Longstreet’s endorsement, Stuart had the discretion to “pass around”the Union army “without hindrance.”

Stuart started before daylight on June 25, passing through the Bull Run Mountains via Glasscock’s Gap, as suggested by John S. Mosby, rather than Hopewell Gap, lengthening the route to be traveled. At Haymarket the cavalry encountered the Union II Corps on the march north.Stuart fired on the column with artillery and then retired to Buckland, halting until the next morning. Faced with the choice of either turning back and following Lee’s army down the Shenandoah Valley or resuming the movement around the Federals, Stuart decided on the latter.With this decision, Stuart undertook an ordeal that exhausted his men and horses and placed them beyond contact with Lee’s army.

The Confederate horsemen clashed with a handful of Federals at Fairfax Court House, Va., before making a difficult passage of the Potomac River at Rowser’s Ford on the night of June 27-28. The next day, at Rockville, Md., the Rebels captured a wagon train loaded with forage and other supplies. For a brief time, Stuart considered a foray into Washington, D.C., but wisely dismissed it. Burdened with 125 wagons, the Confederate horsemen angled through Maryland, cutting telegraph lines and damaging railroad tracks. An engagement at Westminster with the 1st Delaware Cavalry on June 29 further slowed their march.

Stuart’s column entered Pennsylvania on June 30. At Hanover the Confederates stumbled on the rear guard of Judson Kilpatrick’s Union cavalry division, igniting a daylong engagement. With Yankees holding the town at nightfall, Stuart detoured further eastward, finally arriving at Carlisle on the afternoon of July 1. Earlier, Stuart had dispatched aides to locate Lee’s army, which he found at Gettysburg, embroiled in a battle with the Federals. After shelling the town and its defenders and burning Carlisle Barracks, Stuart headed south to Gettysburg. The rear of his column clashed again with Kilpatrick’s troopers at Hunterstown, a few miles northeast of Gettysburg. On July 2, the controversial ride ended.

Wittenberg and Petruzzi have written a detailed account of the days between June 25 and July 2. They describe the combat at each place, follow the horsemen along the route, recount stories of civilians caught in the path of the Confederates, and provide balance to the narrative with the movements and actions of Union commands.The authors used many unpublished and published accounts by the participants and secondary sources.The book is well-written and includes a helpful driving tour of the ride.

Wittenberg and Petruzzi devote the final section of the book to a summary of the controversy. They quote extensively from Stuart’s fellow officers, who either attacked or defended his performance.Wittenberg and Petruzzi also address the judgments of historians, from Douglas Southall Freeman to Edwin Coddington to Mark Nesbitt. By summarizing the historiography of the controversy, the authors provide readers with a useful and condensed analysis of numerous works.

In the final chapter,Wittenberg and Petruzzi offer their own assessment of Stuart’s ride. As the book’s title indicates, they parcel out responsibility for the operation, offering criticisms of Lee, Longstreet, Marshall, Robertson, Ewell and Jubal Early among others. Stuart is not spared, but the authors render a rather favorable judgment of his conduct. Some of their conclusions will undoubtedly fuel this enduring controversy.


Originally published in the March 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.