As Confederate General Robert E Lee prepared his forces to invade Pennsylvania in the sumer of 1863, he had special orders for his chief of cavalry General JEB Stuart. Specifically, Stuart was to keep his cavalry between the advancing Confederate infantry and the Union army to the east.
However Stuart, who was one of the South's most flamboyant generals, had recently suffered a setback when Union forces surprised his troops while they were in their camp. Always mindful of the headlines in the Southern newspapers, Stuart was looking for an opportunity to revive his public image after the beating his men took on 9 June at Brandy Station, Virginia.
So when Lee issued his orders that Stuart screen the advancing infantry, Lee also gave him the discretion to advance into the Union's rear and create havoc if the Federals did not move to follow the Confederates invasion force toward Pennsylvania.
On 25 June, Stuart and three brigades totalling XXXX men headed off on his grand misadventure. Attempting to cross the Potomac River from Virginia into Maryland, Stuart encountered Union troops at several of the fords he had planned to use. The Federals were on the march north and Stuart could not rejoin Lee except by plunging farther to the east to attempt to encircle the Bluecoats.
So as Lee and his entire Confederate army marched north into Pennsylvania, he had no idea that Stuart, who had always been completely reliable in the past, was not in position and unable to get there any time soon. By 28 June the Rebels were in Pennsylvania stretching in a 45-mile arch from Chambersburg in the west through Carlisle and to within four miles of the state capital at Harrisburg. A Confederate spy informed Lee then that the Union forces were massed in nearby Frederick, Maryland - closer to parts of Lee's army that it was to its component parts. Immediately Lee called for his forces to consolidate and many took the local roads which all seemed to lead to the small market town of Gettysburg in Adams County.
Lee was vexed that he had still received no word from Stuart, who was charging northward trying vainly to find a break in the Federal armies for him to slip through and rejoin Lee's forces.
Stuart himself was nearly captured on XX June at a small skirmish at the town of Hanover. Finally, on 1 July he had made it around the Union forces and after shelling the town of Carlisle, headed south toward Gettysburg.
When Stuart arrived at Gettysburg and reported to Lee, the Confederate commander expressed mild disappointment in the cavalry's failure to perform its mission. Embarrassed, Stuart presented the spoils of his long ride - several wagons of supplies and ammunition.
But on the third day of the fighting at Gettysburg, Lee provided Stuart an opportunity to redeem himself.
Cavalry Fight at Gettysburg
As Confederate General George Pickett's men prepared to make their famous charge against the center of the Union line, three miles to the east Stuart's cavalry Stuart was advancing to smash into the rear of the Federal position. Had he been successful, Pickett's Charge might have worked and resulted in a Confederate victory at Gettysburg.
Instead, Stuart's four brigades of 6300 men literally ran into 4500 Union cavalrymen.
Stuart ordered a charge by the 1st Virginia Cavalry and Union General David Gregg counterattacked with a charge by the 7th Michican which halted the Southerners' advance. Stubbornly, Stuart committed to more brigades into the fray in a parade-ground precise charge. However, the length of his charging line of horsemen proved an easy target for Union artillery and Stuart's men began to take heavy losses.
Then Gregg ordered his 1st Michigan to attack the head of the Confederate column. Colonel George Armstrong Custer1 lead the charge shouting 'Come on you Wolverines!' and slammed into the Confederates at a full run. The collision of the two forces was so intense that many horses were flipped end-over-end, killing their riders.
Fierce hand-to-hand fighting then ensued as Federals closed in on Stuart's two flanks. At the same time a squadron of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry attacked from the rear and cut the Confederate column in two.
After three hours of terrible combat, the Confederates were able to withdraw from the field and the fighting ended. The Union troopers lost 254 men and the Confederates losses were at least 1802.
Thus, Stuart's attempt to aid Pickett's men in their grim purpose was thwarted and the Union line only had to face a threat from one front.
Aftermath of the Battle
Stuart's cavalry played a crucial role in the Confederate army's retreat from Gettysburg. As the Rebel wagon train slowly moved west toward Chambersburg, Federal cavalry swarmed after the wagons hauling supplies and wounded men.
After the war, Lee's only reproach for his men's conduct during the battle was in Stuart's performance, saying in his official report to the Confederate War Department that he was 'much embarrassed' by Stuart's absence during their invasion of Pennsylvania.
Lee often remarked after the Civil War that he would not have attacked the Union forces at Gettysburg had his intelligence indicated that he faced the whole Federal army instead of a portion of it as he had assumed.
Of course, gathering intelligence during the Civil War was the role of the cavalry - Stuart's ride around the Federal army had proved costly indeed.