Stuart’s Ride Confounds the Yankees

June 13, 1862 (Friday)

I'm confounding!

Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry rose in the silent dawn. There were no bugles blown, nor flags raised, but each of the 1,200 mounted up and followed General Stuart east, towards Hanover Court House. The previous day, there was speculation in the ranks that they were riding north from Richmond to join Stonewall Jackson in the Valley, but such chatter dissipated as they moved towards the rising sun.

During the first day of what would later be known as Stuart’s first ride around McClellan, they met no Federal resistance. But on this morning, before they rode more than a handful of miles, Union cavalry was discovered. As Stuart neared Hanover Court House, he dispatched Col. Fitzhugh Lee’s regiment to get behind them to see how large a force occupied the town. Seeing so many Rebels so close, however, the Federals beat a quick retreat.

East from Hanover Court House, Stuart’s troopers rode past Taliafero’s Mill on the road to Old Church, before giving the surprise of their lives to a few Union pickets at Haw’s Shop, who never suspected that a Rebel force this large would be so close to the Federal right.

Col. Fitzhugh Lee

The day was still fresh when the advance guard reported a regiment of Union cavalry ahead. Without a shot being fired, Stuart gave chase for a couple of miles, but couldn’t overtake the feeling foe. The Union regiment crossed Totopotomoy Creek, a fine defensive position, but failed to make a stand. Stuart took this as a sign of weakness, and pressed on.

Before reaching Old Church, he saw that the enemy had been reinforced and had formed a line to put an end to his run. Sending a squadron forward, he hurried along his main body for support. The advance troopers drew their sabers and charged headlong into the enemy. With slashing and gouging, both sides fought a most vicious battle.

Captain William Latane

Captain William Latane, who led the Rebel charge, was shot down, but the force behind him was too much for the Federal cavalry. They fell back, but reformed near their camp at Old Church. As Stuart fed fresh troopers into the pursuit, the Union cavalry broke and fled the field, leaving behind all the luxuries of their camp life. Stuart ordered the camp to be put to the flame and soon hundreds of tents were blackening the sky with their smoke.

After a half hour was spent in destruction, General Stuart was faced with a decision. His plan had been to ride all the way around McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. General Robert E. Lee made no objections, leaving the final decision to the cavalier, himself. He could turn around, head his force back to Hanover Court House and Richmond. His true objective had been attained: he had discovered the Federal right flank. On the other hand, he could continue on, encircling the enemy.

Of course, Stuart did not consider the former for a moment. He was going to continue despite the risks, which were many. But he was fairly certain he could outrun any infantry and outfight any cavalry. The element of surprise was still on his side, but time was slipping quickly away.1

Here's a much better map of Stuart's Ride.

John Esten Cooke, of Stuart’s staff, caught the General floating in reverie. Snapping to, Stuart called to Cooke, “Tell Fitz Lee to come along, I’m going to move with my column.” With a smile, Cooke replied, “I think the quicker we move now, the better.” Stuart agreed, and off they rode as Union camps dotted the far hills. They even passed within two or three miles of McClellan’s tent.2

By the late afternoon, with Stuart nearing the Richmond & York River Railroad, the alarm had been sounded in the Federal camps. The reports from the morning pickets were wildly exaggerated, giving Stuart up to 5,000 men. Union General Philip St. George Cooke, Stuart’s father-in-law, was informed that his kin was closing in on his camp. He gathered 500 or so cavalry and sent word to General George Sykes, the nearest division commander.

The Union cavalry rushed forward in pursuit, but the Rebels were clearly no longer where they were in the morning. An officer had apparently reported that Stuart had infantry with him, perhaps as many as seven regiments. Commanding a Union brigade, Col. Gouverneur K. Warren refused to believe that the Rebels had any infantry at all before them. He sent a regiment down to Old Church, following Stuart’s path. He figured that since Stuart couldn’t cross the Pamunkey River, he would have to turn around at some point and retrace his steps. When he did so, Warren would snag him.

There was not even a sliver of speculation that the Rebels were about to circumnavigate the entire Union Army.3

General Philip St. George Cooke, Stuart's father-in-law.

While the Federals waited for Stuart to return via Old Church, the Rebel cavalry was at Tunstall’s Station on the Richmond & York River Railroad trying to hold up a train. Just as they were about to tear apart the tracks, they heard an oncoming whistle. Stuart threw his force on either side of the tracks with orders to fire if the locomotive did not stop.

As the train neared, it slowed, and Stuart’s troopers caught sight of the freight it carried. Car after car of Union infantry made up the consist. When the engineer saw the Rebels, he threw open the throttle and began to pick up speed. With this, Stuart’s men opened fire. In the first volley, the engineer fell dead, but the train continued faster down the line.

Some of the passengers returned fire, while others flattened themselves against the floor of the open cars. Still others jumped off, hoping to find safety in running into the dusk.4

After burning a captured wagon train, Stuart knew he had to keep moving on through the night. Though it was fully dark, the moon, nearly full, shown brightly over the ground. Going was slow, as the roads were in a wretched state. The artillery had an especially difficult time of it. They made it to Talleysville around 9pm, where they stopped to rest their mounts and perhaps catch a few winks of sleep. But at midnight, they were on the road again.5

Gouverneur Warren

When Col. Warren reached Old Church, around the time that Stuart was leaving Talleysville, he received information that the Rebels were holed up at New Castle, a few miles to the north. He thought the report very plausible and readied his men. Soon, however, other reports filtered in of Rebels near White House (just up the line from where Stuart tried to hold up the train). Just where Stuart was became a mystery and point of contention between Warren and General Cooke. Unable to move, he ordered his men to catch a few hours of rest.6

It was without further incident, and by the first rays of dawn, that Stuart and his 1,200 reached the Chickahominy River. 7

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p1036-1038 (Stuart’s Report). Also, bits are augmented by Memoirs of the Confederate War for Independence, Volume 2 by Heros von Borcke, W. Blackwood and Sons, 1866. []
  2. Wearing of the Gray by John Esten Cooke, E.B. Treat & Co. 1867. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p1011-1013 (Cooke’s Reports), 1029-1030 (Warren’s Report). []
  4. Memoirs of the Confederate War for Independence, Volume 2 by Heros von Borcke, W. Blackwood and Sons, 1866. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p1039 (Stuart’s Report). []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p1030 (Cooke’s Report). []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p1039 (Stuart’s Report). []
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2 thoughts on “Stuart’s Ride Confounds the Yankees

  1. The continuing daring of the Rebels and the painful timidity (and exaggeration of enemy forces) the Federals seem prone to would have a reader believing all was lost for the North were this unfolding in ‘real time’… I keep trying to read you blog in the manner you intended, as if it were a daily dispatch. If I didn’t know the outcome of this war I’d be sad for them poor feds!

    1. If I were better covering the things going on in the West, the opposite would be true. The Rebs pretty well blew it there again and again. The Federals had some pretty bad commanders, true, but Sherman and Grant were both there. Even being sadly under-utilized thus far in the war, the Rebs couldn’t get it together. Just wait till the Kentucky Campaign in Sept/Oct.

      In the east, I’m not sure how the Federals managed so poorly on every front. Mac was a big part of it, but it wasn’t just him. He had nothing to do with the Shenandoah Valley (for the most part) and look how badly that was bungled.

      But then, did the Shenandoah Valley really even matter? Sure, it kept Union troops off the Peninsula, but it wasn’t like Mac was going to actually use them for anything.

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