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

by Eric J. Wittenberg and J. Daniel Petruzzi, Savas Beatie, 2006, 428 pages, $32.95.

Terms such as “exhaustively researched” or “the definitive analysis” and “surely the last word” are often cavalierly bandied about on the dust jackets of historical monographs. But when used to describe Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg, the accolades are well earned, thanks to the scrupulous research and sturdy writing of Eric Wittenberg and J. Daniel Petruzzi.

Wittenberg and Petruzzi are both veteran chroniclers of cavalry operations, and they have put their spurs into one of the most hotly debated and closely analyzed operations of the war, Jeb Stuart’s ride around the Union Army of the Potomac on the eve of the Battle of Gettysburg. With so much material already in print, one wonders if there could be anything new to say about this ofttold tale.

Nevertheless, Wittenberg and Petruzzi plunge into the fray, bringing fresh and experienced eyes to the famous ride. They examine every phase of the operation from the principals involved to the planning and intent of the operation, its flawed execution and the consequences it brought—both for the Battle of Gettysburg and the reputations of men who carried it out. Finally the authors offer their own evaluation and compelling argument that there was “plenty of blame to go around.”

The story of Stuart’s fabled ride has been summarized countless times. The daring cavalier and his veteran horse soldiers had, for the first time, been surprised and nearly beaten by Union horsemen on June 9, 1863, at Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle in American history. Perhaps to restore his tarnished reputation, perhaps to recapture past glories gained in two previous circumnavigations of the Army of the Potomac, Stuart submitted a proposal to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, General Robert E. Lee’s senior corps commander, whereby he would leave “a brigade or so in my present front, and passing through Hopewell or some other gap in Bull Run Mountains, attain the enemy’s rear, passing between his main body and Washington, and cross into Maryland joining our army north of the Potomac.”

The authors conclusively argue that Lee both knew of Stuart’s plan and authorized it. Their analysis of Lee’s campaign report and a close reading of the text of the orders penned by his personal secretary, Colonel Charles Marshall, indicate that Stuart was given broad discretion to ride around the Army of the Potomac and cause as much mischief in the Union rear as he could. In memoirs written after the war, Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, Lee’s acting chief of artillery and one of the conflict’s keenest observers, concluded, “Stuart made to Lee a very unwise proposition, which Lee more unwisely entertained.”

On the night of June 24, as the Army of Northern Virginia prepared to bring the war to Union soil, Stuart gathered three of his best brigades under favorite subordinate commanders Wade Hampton, Fitzhugh Lee and W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee near Salem Depot, Va. He ordered three days’ rations cooked and all wagons except artillery, caissons and ambulances left behind. The men slept in the field, their saddled horses in hand. Most of the troopers would not set foot on solid ground again for eight days. About 1 a.m. the following day, Stuart and his long column of gray horsemen quietly rode out along the Upperville-Middleburg road and into, the authors maintain, “one of the most virulent of all controversies associated with the Gettysburg Campaign.”

From almost the very beginning of the raid, Stuart and his troopers were behind schedule, partly due to an unexpected skirmish at Fairfax, Va., a delay in finding a suitable ford at the Potomac and the capture of a 125-wagon Union supply train near Rockville, Md. Slowed by wagons and hundreds of captured mules but unwilling to relinquish his prizes, Stuart and his ever-lengthening column crawled into Westminster, Md., only to be rudely greeted by a small contingent of the 150th New York Infantry and the understrength 1st Delaware Cavalry. Fitz Lee’s troopers made quick work of the green defenders, but Stuart’s increasingly tired and hungry cavalrymen were showing signs of strain from the demanding march.

Wittenberg and Petruzzi take the reader into the realities of a cavalry campaign as only experts can. Forage for the horses was scarce, and shoes needed to be replaced about every 100 miles. Hunger and the blacksmith’s hammer weighed heavily on Stuart as he moved ever deeper into enemy territory.

News of the marauding Rebel horde was spreading, and by June 30, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick and 3,500 Union troopers stood squarely in Stuart’s line of march through the town of Hanover, Pa. The campaign’s largest engagement is described with blow-by-blow precision. Wittenberg and Petruzzi seem to have read the reports, letters and diaries of nearly everyone who was there. Kilpatrick and his men held Stuart in a deadly embrace for an entire day. Mistakenly, the Union general allowed the gray horsemen to break away as darkness fell, perhaps fearing there might be Rebel reinforcements nearby. Weak, tired, hungry, isolated and more behind schedule than ever, Stuart’s battered column continued to limp north.

Stuart would encounter Union cavalry twice more in Pennsylvania: a skirmish at Carlisle and a sharp and bloody battle at Hunterstown with Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s Michigan brigade. When he finally joined Lee’s bleeding army on the night of July 2, Stuart’s sore and weary troopers had been in the saddle for eight days, covered nearly 200 miles and fought six engagements. The recriminations, charges and countercharges began almost before Stuart’s men dismounted.

Wittenberg and Petruzzi devote the second half of their book to the controversy that has swirled around Stuart’s ride. They examine both contemporary accounts by veterans and journalists and the myriad books written by modern-day historians specifically about the operation or that include it as part of a larger analysis of the Gettysburg campaign.

The authors conclude and persuasively argue that no single individual caused Lee’s devastating defeat at Gettysburg and that the Army of Northern Virginia would have been defeated even if Stuart’s cavalry had arrived earlier. Many of the participants shoulder some of the blame, the authors conclude, and they suggest that much of the credit for Stuart’s tardy arrival should be given to the plucky Union horsemen who dogged the Confederate column almost from the very outset of the operation.

In addition to giving an energetic description of the ride itself, Wittenberg and Petruzzi skillfully interweave capsule biographies of most of the subordinate but crucial players in the saga. The exploits of men too often lost in the forgotten footnotes of history, like Captain Charles Corbit of the 1st Delaware Cavalry, Major John Hammond of the 5th New York Cavalry and Lt. Col. William G. Delong, commander of the Cobb Legion of Wade Hampton’s Brigade, are brought to light here.

Maps and illustrations throughout the text help readers orient themselves, and an appendix that provides modern-day enthusiasts with a driving tour of Stuart’s ride to Gettysburg adds to the overall enjoyment of the book.

Serious historians, reenactors and readers just looking for a fast-paced, well-told yarn about stout-hearted men riding hard into harm’s way will come away from this book satisfied and perhaps a bit in awe of the legion of gray horsemen who boldly followed the Confederacy’s noblest mounted chevalier deep into enemy territory—and into legend.


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.