Great events sometimes turn on comparatively small affairs.
--Colonel William Calvin Oates, 15th Alabama Infantry
One of the great rewards of writing non-fiction is that the process forces a much deeper understanding of the subject at hand than one might otherwise achieve. The absence of JEB Stuart's cavalry as Lee marched into Pennsylvania has always been one of the most debated and contentious subjects of Civil War history. Lee in fact, in a rare post war commentary, stated that Stuart's refusal to obey instructions was the number one reason the Confederacy lost the Gettysburg campaign. Anyone who has studied Robert E. Lee and the facts will know this was not a whitewashing of Lee's own failures. Paramount here is that if Stuart had stayed close to Lee's forces he would have been better informed as to his enemy's movements, but also the nature of the terrain before his own army possibly allowing him to choose the location of the engagement.
Robert E. Lee 1862 photo, illustrated by Ron Cole.
What came to light while researching for my new book was how deeply this failure of Stuart was ingrained on the high command of the Confederate army even before the battle and in the contentious decades that followed. Two interesting quotes found their way into the new book:
The failure to crush the Federal army in Pennsylvania in 1863, in the opinion of almost all of the officers of the Army of Northern Virginia, can be expressed in five words—the absence of the cavalry.
—Major General Henry Heth
Stuart was on a useless, showy parade almost under the guns of the Washington
forts . . .
When he rejoined Lee it was with exhausted horses and half worn-out men in the closing hours of Gettysburg.
Had he been with Lee where would our commander have made his battle? Possibly, not on that unfavorable ground of Gettysburg. Lee with his personally weak opponent, and Stuart by him, could almost have chosen the spot where he would be sure to defeat the Union Army.
—Lieutenant Colonel Moxley Sorrel
General Heth had his own good reasons to assign blame on another officer since it was on his orders on July 1 that recklessly sent two brigades of his division into battle at Gettysburg in spite of Lee's wishes to avoid a fight. Yet it is interesting because it shows that this opinion was widely held among the other officers.
Sorrel's comment is truly inspired. In a few words he captures the strategic situation Lee faced as he entered Pennsylvania. The location of the battlefield was as crucial as knowing the enemy's whereabouts as events surely proved. Sorrel's account is also interesting because he showed what a momentous decision was forced upon Lee a few nights before the battle when word of the Army of the Potomac's movements reached him by word of a spy, a man he had never met, vouched for only by General Longstreet.
Lieutenant Colonel Moxley Sorrel
From Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War:
On Sunday, June 28th Robert E. Lee arrived at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where the corps of Longstreet and A.P. Hill were encamped. He established headquarters in a quite grove called Messersmith’s Woods. Lieutenant William Owen, an artillery officer in Longstreet’s command, described the scene:
The general has little of the pomp and circumstance of war about his person. A Confederate flag marks the whereabouts of his headquarters, which are here in a little enclosure of some couple of acres of timber. There are about half a dozen tents and as many baggage wagons and ambulances. . . Lee was evidently annoyed at the absence of Stuart and the cavalry, and asked several officers, myself among the number, if we knew anything of the whereabouts of Stuart. The eyes and ears of the army are evidently missing and are greatly needed by the commander.
That night a mysterious stranger was brought to Longstreet’s chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Moxley Sorrel:
At night I was roused by a detail of the provost guard bringing up a suspicious prisoner. I knew him instantly; it was Harrison, the scout, filthy and ragged . . . He had come to ‘Report to the General, who was sure to be with the army,’ and truly his report was long and valuable.
The Federal army had crossed the Potomac three days ago and was far into Maryland. Harrison knew the locations of five of the enemy’s seven army corps. Three were already at Frederick with two more marching north from Frederick toward South Mountain. He also brought news that General Meade had taken command of the army. This information was already twenty-four hours old.
Lee had not heard from Stuart for three days now. Stuart had never before failed him. But even now Lee was unaware of Stuart’s location, and he had only the word of a paid spy on which to plan his next move. The time for action had come, though, and Lee did not hesitate. Sorrel noted:
It was on this, the report of a single scout, in the absence of cavalry, that the army moved . . . [Lee] sent orders to bring Ewell immediately back from the North about Harrisburg, and join his left. Then he started A. P. Hill off at sunrise for Gettysburg, followed by Longstreet. The enemy was there, and there our General would strike him.
Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon, BN.com and Indiebound.
Henry T. Harrison in uniform, 1863.
The image of Harrison is sources from the website of his great grandson Bernie Becker: