Gettysburg: What If Gen. Stuart, Lee's Scout, Had Arrived in Time for the First Day of Battle?Roundup: Talking About History
Historians have often cited the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, as the turning point of the Civil War. Historians and history buffs remain perplexed by this question: What if Gen. Robert E. Lee's chief scout, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, and his 4,500 cavalrymen had arrived on time for the first day of battle, rather than tired and on the afternoon of the second day? Would Stuart's presence have assured a Confederate victory?
The story behind his tardy arrival begins at the Fauquier County village of Rector's Crossroads (now Atoka) on June 22, 1863, and ends at the Loudoun County ford across the Potomac River called Rowser's (or Rowzie's) on June 27.
On June 22, Stuart received a directive from Lee, whose more than 80,000 troops were trekking north in the Shenandoah Valley or had already crossed the Potomac River. Lee told Stuart to send three of his five cavalry brigades across the Potomac to guard the right (east) flank of Lee's army. Lee did not suggest a crossing point.
As Union forces were about to traverse the Potomac in central and western Loudoun, Stuart was faced with two options: to cross the river west of the Blue Ridge, a two-day march from Salem (now Marshall), where most of Stuart's cavalrymen rested, or to cross in eastern Loudoun or western Fairfax County.
The latter route was longer and meant that Stuart's forces would risk encountering Union forces that were massing for their Potomac crossings nearly everywhere in Loudoun, northern Prince William County and western Fairfax.
Stuart could not afford a major engagement with them. His forces were far outnumbered, and his horsemen had just fought a four-day cavalry battle from Aldie to Upperville. That had given Lee's forces time to move northward in the Shenandoah Valley without being harassed by Union forces.
On June 23, Lee sent Stuart a second order that was ambiguous. One paragraph stated,"I think you had better withdraw this side [in the Shenandoah Valley] of the mountain [Blue Ridge] to-morrow night, cross at Shepherdstown next day, and move over to Fredericktown," meaning Frederick, Md.
But the last paragraph stated,"You will, however, be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them the damage you can, and cross the river east of the mountains."
Stuart was sleeping under a tree in the pouring rain at Rector's Crossroads, protected by a slicker, when his adjutant, Maj. Henry B. McClellan, woke him and read Lee's second order. In his 1885 book,"I Rode With Jeb Stuart: The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart," McClellan wrote:"The order was committed to my charge for the night and Stuart was soon asleep."
Such inaction on Stuart's part was unlike his take-charge attitude earlier in the war. But during the Aldie-to-Upperville actions, McClellan wrote that Stuart"personally participated in it but little, remaining, however, in close observation of the field. I asked the reason for this unusual proceeding, and he replied that he had given all necessary instructions to his brigade commanders, and he wished them to feel the responsibility resting upon them, and to gain whatever honor the field might bring...."
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