Question of the Week for June 2, 2014: “J.E.B” Stuart, Second Corps Commander?

“We have very bad news. General Stuart is mortally wounded”—that’s how Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s commander, reported to staff and fellow officers the news of the death of his cavalry chief, James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” Stuart.

Stuart Monument, Yellow Tavern,
Stuart Monument, Yellow Tavern,

With emotion dripping from his voice, Lee’s voice cracked as he stated simply: “He never brought me a piece of false information.”

Lee would take time to name a successor to command of the cavalry corps, even though he had two able subordinates waiting in the wings in Major Generals Fitzhugh Lee and Wade Hampton.

A little over a year before, though, after the mortal wounding of another highly respected subordinate, a replacement was found quickly. When “Stonewall” Jackson went down with his mortal wound and Major General A.P. Hill was also wounded, staff officers of the Confederate Second Corps quickly found J.E.B. Stuart, who stepped in to command when it was felt that Robert Rodes, next in line, was not the best fit.

Afterward the Chancellorsville Campaign, there was talk about Stuart retaining command of the Second Corps. Lee thought he was too valuable in his current position; but what if Stuart would have spoken up for command of the infantry corps?

He had proven his mettle in the woods around Hazel Grove and the Chancellor’s Inn clearing on May 3, 1863. His presence had inspired confidence, and his jovial demeanor—whistling “Ol’ Joe Hooker, won’t you come out the Wilderness” during the heat of the action—was mentioned by Second Corps soldiers as relieving some of the high tension and stress of one of the bloodiest days in the entire American Civil War.

Yes, this is alternative history. We all know that Stuart did not take command of the infantry. Lee thought he was too valuable heading the cavalry. But, let’s take a minute and just lay out what might have happened if Stuart had gained command.

The cavalry division / corps would have been placed in the command of a senior brigadier, either Fitzhugh Lee or the returning Wade Hampton—the exact two options a year later when Stuart died on May 12th.

In the infantry, Lee had to shuffle commands, which he outlined in Special Orders 146. Two corps were broken into three, and he gave two of the new corps—the Second and Third—to unproven commanders in Richard Ewell, returning from the loss of a leg, and A.P. Hill, who was wounded. Their commands at corps level saw few bright spots. Both floundered under the added pressure.

Both were great as division commanders, so can it be safe to say, both would have remained great division commanders?

Three options for corps command in 1863
Three options for corps command in 1863

Stuart in command might not have been any different. But, he was closer in temperament to the late Jackson in his philosophy of offensive warfare.

The cavalry would have been relegated to more business-like, strictly cavalry operations under the stable, effective, yet not-flashy Hampton or might have continued to be the “devil-may-care” expression that Fitz Lee strove toward.

And Gettysburg might have looked different…

And in May 1864, Stuart would have been in Spotsylvania instead of Yellow Tavern…

And “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

We may will never know, but it is interesting to ponder…. I mean, it wouldn’t be a topic touching Gettysburg if there was not a “what-if” question attached, right?

2 Responses to Question of the Week for June 2, 2014: “J.E.B” Stuart, Second Corps Commander?

  1. It seems making Stuart a corps commander would have been beneficial but then the cavalry would have undoubtedly been commanded by Fitz Lee not Hampton. -The Virginia connection.

  2. I agree. Virginia connection may have been detrimental. I would prefer Hampton. but, as usual, we are benefitted by hindsight. However, it is fun to speculate.

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