September 13, 1862: A Foreshadowing of J.E.B. Stuart’s Gettysburg Failure?

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome guest author Alexander B. Rossino

Maj. Gen. JEB Stuart
Maj. Gen. JEB Stuart

Major General James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart has been justly criticized for his role in allowing the fateful clash at Gettysburg to occur when neither General Robert E. Lee nor the Army of Northern Virginia were properly prepared. Students of the American Civil War know the story well. While conducting yet another glorious ride around the Federal army, Stuart strayed far from Lee, leaving him blind to the enemy’s movements. Elements of the Army of Northern Virginia seeking a supply of shoes then stumbled into the Federals at Gettysburg, initiating a battle that Lee had not planned to fight. Afterward, Stuart arrived on the field so late that his troopers could not significantly contribute to the outcome of the battle.

These events are well known. Less well known is the fact that Stuart’s botched mission in Pennsylvania was not the first time he had been found wanting during a large-scale operation. The first time Stuart manifestly failed to alert Lee to approaching danger actually occurred in Maryland nine months earlier when on Saturday, September 13, 1862, Stuart’s command abandoned its defensive line on the Catoctin Mountains near Frederick and fell back to South Mountain. The fighting erupted that morning when Federal cavalry engaged Stuart’s troopers at Hagan’s Gap. For eight hours, Stuart’s command fought a valiant defensive action against growing numbers of Federal troops, including elements of Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps, thereby fulfilling a wish expressed by Lee on the 12th that the cavalry “not retire too fast before the enemy.”[1] Despite the period of prolonged combat, however, Stuart claimed in his after-action report to have remained ignorant of the enemy’s strength, saying he wrote to Lee around 2:00 p.m. that, “the enemy was held in check until he had marched up to the attack two brigades of infantry, which was the only force we were yet able to discover, so well did he keep his troops concealed.”[2]

The claim that his command faced only a minor force of infantry and cavalry would be a consistent element of Stuart’s reports to Lee that day and a misleading fact that would lull Lee into thinking McClellan’s army posed no immediate danger. Stuart’s sloppy intelligence gathering along these lines had actually begun days earlier. Per historian Joseph Harsh, “nothing indicates Stuart on [September] 9th perceived the Army of the Potomac to be pressing in a menacing way,” leading Lee to believe his command had plenty of time to carry out Special Orders No. 191 to capture Harpers Ferry.[3] Similarly, after the Union army entered Frederick on September 12th, Stuart informed Lee that the town had fallen, but he did not report the enemy’s strength, writing, “Every means was taken to ascertain … the nature of the enemy’s movement … whether a reconnaissance … or an aggressive movement of the army. The enemy studiously avoided displaying any force, except a part of Burnside’s corps, and built no camp-fires in their halt at Frederick that night.”[4]

Compare Stuart’s claim to the recollection of his staff officer, Major Heros von Borcke, who wrote after the war: “[On the 13th] it was evident that our small body of men would be soon obliged to give way before overwhelming odds [as] the valley beneath [Hagan’s Gap] … was literally blue with the Yankees. All at once their long columns of infantry with a waving glitter of bayonets, their numerous bodies of cavalry with many a flirt and flutter of gay flags and pennons, their imposing artillery-trains with the sunlight reflected from the polished brass pieces, and their interminable lines of wagons.”[5] If von Borcke is to be believed, Stuart’s command faced more than a smattering of Federal cavalry and infantry, yet the dashing cavalier failed to report this to Lee. What accounts for Stuart’s lack of information? John Michael Priest suggests the cause was carelessness, explaining that during the fight at Hagan’s Gap, “Stuart never rode beyond the wooded crest of the mountain” to see the enemy for himself.[6]

The 1st Virginia Cavalry at a halt, September 1862. (LOC)
The 1st Virginia Cavalry at a halt, September 1862. (LOC)

Priest may be correct about the action at Hagan’s Gap, but that episode of negligence was only one of Stuart’s missteps. After falling back from the Catoctins, his troopers assumed a new defensive position in front of Middletown. Federal troops took up the pursuit, with Pleasonton’s cavalry in the van and General Issac P. Rodman’s two-brigade infantry division bringing up the rear. Again, Southern defenders were soon overmatched and forced to fall back behind Catoctin Creek. Stuart reported neither this retrograde movement nor the loss of Catoctin Mountain to headquarters despite the fact that giving up Middletown placed Federal troops at the doorstep of General Daniel Harvey Hill’s rearguard at Turner’s Gap.

Why did Stuart not report the looming threat in the east? It appears he labored under the misperception that only cavalry and two brigades of infantry pursued him, not the entire Ninth Corps of McClellan’s army. As George Grattan, a former lieutenant on Colonel Alfred Colquitt’s staff, and one of the first people to meet Stuart atop South Mountain late in the day on September 13th wrote after the war, “General Stuart reported that there were no troops following him but cavalry and that Colonel Colquitt would have no difficulty in holding the pass with his brigade.”[7] D.H. Hill wrote similarly, “Major-General Stuart reported to me … two brigades only of the Yankees were pursuing us, and that one brigade would be sufficient to hold the pass.”[8]

Was Stuart’s misperception warranted? Did Burnside somehow hide the advance of his corps from Confederate eyes? Not according to the evidence. Stuart wrote after the campaign that upon falling back to Middletown, “the enemy soon appeared in force crossing the mountain.” The phrase “in force” is ambiguous, but it suggests Stuart’s reports to Lee ought to have contained a sense of urgency that they did not. Again, compare what Stuart wrote to what Heros von Borcke says he witnessed: “Near Middletown we took up a new position. … General Stuart and myself rode forward a short distance in the direction of the enemy, whom we saw winding down from the mountain and stretching out over the plain in a mighty moving mass of blue” (My emphasis – ABR). Von Borcke places Stuart by his side witnessing the Federal advance. Was von Borcke’s recollection simple hyperbole? Perhaps, but it is difficult to conclude this given the other reports that a vast number of campfires appeared below South Mountain as night fell.

Based on the evidence, the inescapable conclusion is this. The advance of McClellan’s army to Middletown on September 13th posed a mortal threat to the Army of Northern Virginia for which Lee was ill-prepared. Had Jeb Stuart reported to Lee earlier in the day that his command faced a large enemy force and not just cavalry and two brigades of infantry, Lee would have had time to move Longstreet’s command back to Boonsboro before the outbreak of fighting on September 14th. One source tells us that members of Stuart’s staff, accompanied by the general himself, witnessed the movement of a powerful Federal force toward South Mountain. Stuart failed to report this movement to Lee, ensuring that his commander would be caught by surprise when news of the enemy threat finally did reach him late in the evening on September 13th. Thus, Lee’s surprise had far more to do with the failure of his cavalry commander to keep him properly informed than it did with McClellan’s discovery of the Lost Orders. It was an operational failure that foreshadowed equally damaging missteps Jeb Stuart would make in Pennsylvania in 1863 with correspondingly dire consequences for Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

Alexander B. Rossino is an independent historian living in Boonsboro, Maryland. His forthcoming foray into historical fiction, entitled “Six Days in September: A Novel of Lee’s Army in Maryland” will be published by Savas Beatie in Spring 2017.

[1] Lee to Stuart, September 12, 1862 in Joseph L. Harsh, Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862 (Kent, OH; The Kent State University Press, 1999), p. 197.

[2] Report of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, C.S.A. Army, commanding cavalry of operations September 2-20, February 23, 1864 in U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, DC: GPO, 1880-1901), Series 1, Volume 19, Part I, p. 816. Cited hereafter as OR.

[3] Harsh, Flood, p. 166.

[4] Report of J.E.B. Stuart in OR, vol. 19, 1:816.

[5] Heros von Borcke, Memoirs of the Confederate War for Independence, Vol. I (London: Wm. Blackwood & Sons, 1866), p. 206.

[6] John Michael Priest, Before Antietam: The Battle for South Mountain (Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishing, 1992), p. 107.

[7] George G. Grattan, “Boonsboro Gap, or South Mountain,” in Southern Historical Society Papers, No. 1, Volume XXXIX, p. 34.

[8] Daniel H. Hill, “The Battle of South Mountain, or Boonsboro. Fighting for Time at Turner’s and Fox’s Gaps,” in Robert U. Johnson & Clarence C. Buel (eds.), Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 2 (New York, NY: The Century Company, 1887), p. 560.

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