June 23, 1863 (Tuesday)
General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia inched its way northward. Most of General Ewell’s Corps had crossed into Pennsylvania, while A.P. Hill’s Corps had overtaken James Longstreet’s Corps, still guarding the passes across the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Lee’s invasion of the north relied fully upon what his Federal adversary, Joe Hooker did with his Army of the Potomac.
Lee needed Hooker to follow him, otherwise, there was little point in going anywhere. However, Hooker couldn’t be allowed to follow too closely or, even worse, cross into Pennsylvania before Lee. The commander of the Confederate Cavalry, Jeb Stuart, had been tasked with screening the army once it was in Pennsylvania. Those were simple enough orders, but how to get there was another matter – one that also depended upon Hooker.
The previous day, Lee had instructed Stuart to follow Ewell’s path north, using the Shenandoah Valley. General Longstreet, however, wasn’t so convinced that the suggested route was the best route. He had a talk with Lee and was of the opinion that riding around the Army of the Potomac was preferred. If Stuart went north, following Ewell, thought Longstreet, the entire plan of the campaign could easily be deduced.
That was a shaky argument at best, but Stuart’s ears certainly must have pricked up when he was unofficially offered the chance to ride around the Union Army for a third time. Through the morning and afternoon, Stuart waited for further orders from Lee. At 5pm, they arrived, and they were very discretionary.
If General Hooker’s army remains inactive, you can leave two brigades to watch him, and withdraw with the three others, but should he not appear to be moving northward, I think you had better withdraw this side of the mountain tomorrow night, cross at Shepherdstown the next day, and move over to Fredericktown.
This first part seemed to make little sense. If Hooker remained inactive, Stuart was to withdraw (it was implied that this meant ride around the Union Army). But if Hooker did not appear to be moving northward, Stuart was to follow Ewell via the Shenandoah Valley.
The difference between “remains inactive” and “does not appear to be moving northward” is really anybody’s guess. Perhaps Lee was worried that Hooker might move south towards Richmond, and if he did, he wanted Stuart close at hand. As for Stuart, he had probably already made up his mind to ride around the enemy, and so ignored it, jumping straight to this bit:
You will, however, be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them all the damage you can, and cross the [Potomac] river east of the mountains. In either case, after crossing the river, you must feel the right of Ewell’s troops, collection information, provisions, &c.
Now that was simple! Stuart was to pass around the enemy, do some damage, collect information, and gather supplies. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, he’d have to find Ewell or something, but that hardly mattered now.
But a problem still remained. He wasn’t exactly sure where Hooker’s army was located. Sure, one could say that it was over the Bull Run Mountains, but if he was supposed to encircle it, he had to know its precise location. To gather this information, he sent noted Rebel cavalier John Singleton Mosby well behind enemy lines (where Mosby felt most comfortable) to suss it out. He would not return until the following day.
In the meantime, Stuart waited and the rain fell. That night, he elected to sleep under a tree. If his men had to endure the weather, so would he. Late that night, however, after he had somehow fallen to sleep, another letter arrived from General Lee.
It was delivered to Stuart’s adjutant, Major Henry McClellan, and though it was marked “confidential,” he opened and read it. It was a good thing he did, as the letter did not survive the war. McClellan remembered that it went on for quite awhile, discussing the plan for “passing around the enemy’s rear.”
General Lee via Major McClellan’s memory, suggested that since the roads north “were already encumbered by the infantry, the artillery, and the transportation of the army, the delay which would necessarily occur in passing by these would, perhaps, be greater than would ensue if General Stuart passed around the enemy’s rear.”
Lee (again, according to Major McClellan’s memory), figured that Stuart would find General Jubal Early’s Division of Ewell’s Corps around York. That was where Lee wished to concentrat his army.
If Major McClellan’s recollections were true, Lee left the decision up to Stuart, who had, of course, already made up his mind. He would take three of his brigades. Those under Fitz Lee, Wade Hampton, and John Chambliss were to meet at Salem, Virginia the next day. Stuart expected Mosby to return by then, hopefully with good news of a clear path.1
- Sources: Plenty of Blame to Go Around by Eric Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi; Mosby’s Rangers by Jeffry D. Wert; Stuart’s Cavalry in the Gettysburg Campaign by John Singleton Mosby; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; Gettysburg by Noah Andrew Trudeau; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss. [↩]