Southern vets had long blamed James Longstreet and Jeb Stuart for their loss, but had Lee called a formal inquiry?
On January 20, 1896, the members of the A.P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans gathered in Petersburg, Va., for an evening of food, drink and nostalgia. The occasion was Robert E. Lee’s birthday, considered a national holiday in certain parts of the South. The guest speaker that evening was General Cullen A. Battle of Greensboro, N.C., formerly of the Army of Northern Virginia. After the dishes were cleared away and the gentlemen sat back with their cigars and spirits, Battle was introduced as “one of the most distinguished officers in the [late] Confederate Army.” The 67-year-old general was well known as an “elegant and eloquent” public speaker whose words on more than one occasion had inspired men to heroic actions. His audience that evening consisted of true believers in the Lost Cause who had come to relive the glory days of 1861-65.
The subject of his address was the Army of Northern Virginia’s greatest victory, the Battle of Chancellorsville. As one of a dwindling group of senior officers of the Army of Northern Virginia who could speak of those bygone days from personal experience, he held his elderly audience in the palm of his hand. Mostly his address was a routine recitation of Confederate valor in the face of overwhelming odds, producing a glorious victory for Southern arms.
But things got interesting during the question-answer session afterward. One old gentleman asked about Gettysburg, which had followed so closely on the heels of the great victory at Chancellorsville and was, hands down, the favorite topic of conversation whenever veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia gathered to reminisce.
Battle dropped a bombshell: After the battle, Lee “appointed a court of inquiry to inquire into the conduct of the Gettysburg campaign,” and Battle himself had been the court’s recording secretary. An electric charge ran through the room as the old general extemporaneously shared his recollections of events almost 33 years before. A court of inquiry is the first step in a formal military investigation to determine whether court-martial charges should be filed against an officer for misconduct. The members of the A.P. Hill Camp were fascinated if not stunned by the revelations, which none of them had ever heard before. No one knew anything about a Gettysburg court of inquiry, much less a report on it.
The Gettysburg court was held sometime in early August 1863, at Culpeper Court House, Va., Battle claimed, with Brig. Gen. William “Little Billy” Mahone presiding. Battle could not remember the other members of the court nor give the exact date.
He had no trouble remembering the gist of the court’s proceedings, however. It focused on the conduct of James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart and James Longstreet. No surprises there; most Confederate veterans who had gone on record in recent years placed the blame for Gettysburg squarely on the shoulders of one or both senior officers.
For eight days during the Gettysburg Campaign, Stuart—with the three best brigades of his cavalry division—had been completely out of touch with Lee’s headquarters while “passing around” the Army of the Potomac. Stuart had not violated orders; those had come directly from Lee through his adjutant Charles Marshall, received by Stuart on June 22 or 23. Stuart was gone by June 25 and did not return until July 2, which happened to be the second day of the great battle.
Longstreet had been slow carrying out Lee’s orders at Gettysburg, in particular taking the whole day to launch his attack on the Union left July 2 and not involving himself in Pickett’s Charge on July 3. Worse, after the war, he had the temerity to question the sainted Lee’s battle plans. For many veteran officers, the finger of blame already pointed at Longstreet even without the formality of censure. At the inquiry, Longstreet was not called to testify, according to Battle, probably because he was at that critical juncture preparing his corps, minus Pickett’s Division, to go west and join Braxton Bragg in Tennessee.
Stuart was not so lucky, Battle recalled. He was summoned before the court and “examined” about his absence during the first two days of the battle. The court specifically wanted to know why Stuart had failed to keep Lee informed “on the position of the enemy,” leaving the commander virtually blind on his march into Pennsylvania. Stuart’s defense was in two parts: First, he thought he would be able to strike “a serious blow” when he rode off to get behind the Army of the Potomac. Second, he had left the regiments of Brig. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones and Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson behind to support Lee’s operations (screening, scouting, etc.) It is worth noting that Longstreet had originally suggested Stuart leave Wade Hampton behind, but Stuart was not willing to go into what could be heavy fighting without his best brigade.
Basically, Stuart had taken the vague orders Lee had issued him and exercised his discretion, something Lee always encouraged—but this time it backfired. Stuart complained that the cavalry was being unfairly blamed for the debacle and that the defeat at Gettysburg should be laid at Longstreet’s feet for willfully failing to follow Lee’s wishes on July 2 and 3.
The investigation was “long and careful,” Battle said, and “many officers were examined,” including Jones. After hearing all the testimony, the verdict of the court was to “censure” Stuart and Longstreet and Grumble Jones, although Battle did not detail errors serious enough to merit Jones’ censure. Battle said he wrote up the official report and forwarded it to Lee’s headquarters where the commanding general “suppressed” it, at least in part because it would “have a tendency to discredit General Longstreet” and hurt morale.
Longstreet, Stuart and Jones censured for Gettysburg? It was an incredible story—but nobody in the audience challenged the guest of honor. The members of the A.P. Hill Camp had come to the meeting that night expecting to hear a talk on the Battle of Chancellorsville and enjoy good fellowship. No one came armed with facts to debate the events of the Gettysburg Campaign, and they politely deferred to the gentleman standing before them. The chair thanked him for his “admirable address,” and the crowd departed.
But that was hardly the end of it. Cullen Battle had unwittingly stirred up a tempest. His banquet audience reflected on what they had heard, and others read summaries of his remarks in newspapers as far away as Baltimore. Then the grits hit the fan. Letters flew back and forth among the old-boys’ network of veteran officers of the Army of Northern Virginia. If Battle’s story were true, it was just that much more ammunition for those who wanted to make Longstreet and Stuart the scapegoats for Gettysburg. Walter H. Taylor, Lee’s former adjutant, was the last word on all things related to General Lee by then, so most of the correspondence was addressed to his home in Norfolk, Va. Virtually everyone who put pen to paper had the same basic questions: Was there really a court of inquiry? Why haven’t we heard of it before now?
But Battle himself had already given considerable thought to the matter. On November 21, 1895, he’d written to Taylor, prompted by news that “General Longstreet has written a book in which he indulges in animadversions on the conduct of General Lee at Gettysburg.” Battle claimed he had served on a “Board of Enquiry” that investigated “to some extent the conduct of the Gettysburg campaign,” and “I have been urged to write and publish the facts, but wish to hear from you before doing so.” Taylor reviewed the deliberations described in Battle’s letter with “great interest,” but admitted that he had “not knowledge” of the proceedings. He was not willing to dismiss Battle’s account out of hand, however. He advised Battle to “review your recollections of the events in question,” but concluded, “I see no objection to your publishing the facts as recalled by yourself.”
Taylor was intrigued sufficiently to pass Battle’s letter on to Charles Marshall. Marshall, another member of Lee’s wartime staff, did not recall any such court or report it might have produced. Like Taylor, Marshall had always blamed Stuart for the failure at Gettysburg. It was two months after that Battle-Taylor-Marshall correspondence that the question at the banquet provoked Battle to share his recollections publicly for the first time.
During the week after the banquet, at least three of the army’s Old Guard—Captain George J. Rogers, Colonel Kirkwood Otey and Lt. Col. Osmun Latrobe—fired off letters to Walter Taylor. Latrobe followed up with a letter to James Longstreet. To all the letter writers, Taylor’s response was the same: He did not remember any such court of inquiry and seriously doubted that it had ever existed except in Battle’s imagination because, as he stated, brigadier generals (i.e., Billy Mahone) do not preside over military courts investigating lieutenant generals (Jeb Stuart and James Longstreet). Furthermore, the Army of Northern Virginia was too busy in August 1863 to hold such proceedings. Taylor might also have added that the very idea of such a court went against everything Lee stood for, and the harm it would have done to a wounded army’s morale would have been devastating.
Complicating any effort to refute Cullen Battle’s recollection was the fact that all the principals in the story were either dead or far removed from the scene. Stuart had died in 1864, Lee in 1870 and Mahone in 1895. In fact, some suspicious soul might have wondered at the coincidence that this only came out after Mahone died. Longstreet, the only surviving principal, had retired to Georgia and was alienated from most of his former comrades.
And Cullen Battle could hardly be called an expert on Gettysburg. He had been in the hospital when the campaign began, rejoining the army at Greencastle, Pa., on its march north. His regiment, the 3rd Alabama, had fought on the first day, was inactive July 2 and was part of the sideshow around Culp’s Hill on July 3. Setting aside his claim to have been recording secretary of the purported court of inquiry, he had no firsthand knowledge of either Stuart’s or Longstreet’s actions, nor was he a member of Lee’s inner circle. Battle had been a peripheral player at Gettysburg.
The questions he provoked coupled with the fact that absolutely no one backed him up soon had Battle backpedaling. On January 24 he wrote another letter to Taylor, this time admitting he might have been “rattled” but insisting, “There is nothing in my whole life that I am surer of than I am that Mahone and I sat together on a court of inquiry.” He did, however, ask Taylor to suggest “a way out of this difficulty.”
Taylor replied, “I am so conscious of the fallibility of my own memory that I speak with hesitation and care.” But he took a stronger stand than he had two months before. “I have no recollection,” he wrote, “of any order issued from our army headquarters convening such a court of inquiry…nor of the receipt of any report of the findings of such a court.” Ever diplomatic, Taylor added a caveat: “Still, I will not say that you never sat on a court of inquiry with General Mahone.”
Battle could not tell from Taylor’s carefully chosen words, but the old staff officer actually agreed with Battle’s point that Stuart was largely to blame for Gettysburg. Taylor was on record saying as much 20 years earlier in a piece he did for the Southern Historical Society Papers. His criticisms had been pointed enough to sting one of Stuart’s brigadiers, Rooney Lee, to come to his former commander’s defense. At this late date, however, Taylor refused to pile on poor Stuart, who was not around to defend himself. In all his correspondence on the subject, Taylor maintained a studied agnosticism, saying he did not personally recall such a court but willing to be convinced by supporting evidence. “Of course, I acquit you of any desire or intention to do any one injustice,” he wrote in closing, because to the dwindling members of the Old Guard the guiding principle for all discussions of the Lost Cause was a variation on the Hippocratic Oath: “Above all else, do no harm.”
After February, the debate died a quiet death. Without confirmation by those who were closest to Lee and without official documentation, it all seemed to be “much ado about nothing.” But a perfectly logical explanation for Battle’s story can be constructed from the available evidence.
Much of the initial correspondence flying back and forth focused on James Longstreet and his memoirs, which contained shocking criticisms of Lee. By 1896 there was already a palpable hostility to Longstreet, dating to things he had written for The Annals of the War series (1879) and The Century magazine (1886), but it was nothing like the fury stoked by his memoirs. From Manassas to Appomattox had been floating around in draft form since late 1894, although it was not published until early 1896. Many who had seen copies of the manuscript were offended by Longstreet’s criticisms of “Marse Robert,” particularly at Gettysburg. Longstreet had uttered heresy when he said Lee was “excited and off his balance” during the battle and determined to press the fight “until enough blood was shed to appease him.” That statement alone was enough to paint a big, fat target on the author’s chest. Cullen Battle, like so many other veterans, worshipped Lee, even confessing, “I loved General Lee more than I ever loved any man except my father.” The imminent publication of Longstreet’s memoirs had a lot of old comrades ready to lynch him.
It finally took Walter Taylor to solve the mystery of the phantom court of inquiry, and to prove that it was not just a figment of Cullen Battle’s imagination. There was indeed an inquiry after Gettysburg, but William “Grumble” Jones, not Jeb Stuart or James Longstreet, was the officer on the hot seat.
During the retreat from Gettysburg, Jones’ cavalry had been assigned to guard the passes through South Mountain. Instead, he allowed Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry to capture 45 of the army’s wagons and 1,000 men of Ewell’s Corps. A court of inquiry was held at the Orange County Court House in the second week in September 1863 with Billy Mahone presiding. After hearing testimony, the court did not recommend charges against Jones.
But that was not the end of it; there was bad blood between Jones and Stuart, and Stuart now brought charges against his lieutenant for insubordination. The resulting court-martial was also held in September. The court of inquiry and the court-martial both apparently allowed “a very wide range” in taking testimony relating to the entire Gettysburg Campaign.
It would not be unreasonable to assume Jones blamed Stuart for Gettysburg; he certainly hated his commanding officer that much. But by the time Battle relayed his story to the A.P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans, Grumble Jones was not around to clear up the confusion. He had died at the Battle of the Piedmont on June 5, 1864.
Cullen Battle had actually been the recording secretary at the Jones court of inquiry. Afterward, when he went to his division commander and friend General Robert Rodes for advice about writing up the report of the proceedings, Rodes advised him to “bring out the facts and let Lee sift them.” In Battle’s mind, that was exactly what he was doing 33 years later: stating the “facts” and letting others judge.
Taylor finally cleared up the confusion by locating documentation of the Jones inquiry—a letter from Major Henry B. McClellan, Stuart’s assistant adjutant, to Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson ordering Robertson to appear at the proceedings. This single page is the only evidence that a court of inquiry involving Mahone, Battle and Stuart had ever occurred. The order for the court must have come from Lee’s headquarters, and, Taylor said, “I do [now] recollect that General Jones had some such trouble and sought vindication through an official investigation.”
On February 5, 1896, Battle wrote a final letter to Taylor seeking his advice and approval; the tone was almost desperate. He said he had not foreseen the firestorm his off-the-cuff remarks would bring down on his head; he thought he was simply relating what happened. He even admitted that his vivid memories of being part of a court of inquiry were from the Jones proceeding. Finally, he asked Taylor if he should release all the correspondence he had received on the matter. Taylor’s response is unknown.
The whole episode shows how a minor event could get blown up into a cause célèbre by some innocent remarks. The Jones court of inquiry does not even appear in the Official Records and was forgotten almost as soon as it was over. But transpose it into a Stuart or Longstreet court of inquiry and suddenly the hounds are baying in full throat. That is precisely what happened in 1896.
If the original court did indeed produce negative testimony about Stuart and Longstreet, Lee might well have suppressed it, as he did George Pickett’s after-action report on the events of July 3, in which Pickett lashed out at other senior officers for not supporting his attack properly. Lee had returned the incendiary report with a request that it be rewritten sticking to casualties and events directly observed by its author.
Battle’s faulty recollection underscores the determination of Lee’s former officers to find scapegoats for their failure. But Lee’s move after Gettysburg, including his own after-action report, was aimed at preventing a rash of finger-pointing and back-stabbing that would very likely have finished the job that Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade’s army had started and destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia.
In both versions of Lee’s report (August 1863 and January 1864), he shouldered full responsibility for whatever failures had occurred, magnanimously “covering the omissions” of his subordinates, in the words of aide Charles Marshall, and even offering to take one for the team by resigning command of the army. In short, Lee would brook no airing of the army’s dirty laundry in either after-action reports or court proceedings. The reaction to Cullen Battle’s remarks in 1896 was only a taste of what would have happened had there been a genuine Gettysburg court of inquiry in 1863.
Richard Selcer is a professor of history at Weatherford College in Texas and an author with nine books to his credit—so far.