At this time 145 years ago, not only had West Virginia just gained statehood, but the famous Gettysburg campaign was in full swing. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia moved unchecked into the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania, General Meade was about to take command of the Federal Army of the Potomac, and the stage was set for the historic climax of the Civil War in the little town of Gettysburg.
A worthy question
One key factor in the events that led up to this historic battle was that Confederate Cavalry leader Jeb Stuart, the "eyes and ears" of Lee’s army, was off on a wild goose chase during most of the Gettysburg campaign. His dramatic cavalry raid passed around the rear of the Union army. However, it did little to benefit the campaign and left General Lee with a lack of accurate intelligence in the days leading up to Gettysburg and at a significant disadvantage until he returned.
Perhaps the puzzling question of why Stuart undertook this untimely expedition can be answered in part by understanding the Battle of Brandy Station, the first battle of the Gettysburg campaign, which transpired on June 9, 1863. During a recent visit with the Wilkes, our family enjoyed a memorable tour of this important battlefield.
Standing on a hill overlooking the field, I could almost hear the pounding of hooves, rattle of musketry, and yelling of soldiers as I pictured what this place would have been like with thousands of soldiers riding at full speed across it. The Battle of Brandy Station had been the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War, with about 17,000 mounted cavalry involved!
Though I had read about this battle many times before, it was definitely nothing like being there. As our tour guide, Matthew Wilkes, began to explain what had happened, Jeb Stuart’s actions for the rest of the Gettysburg campaign began to make sense.
Pride goes before a fall
General Stuart had been totally surprised
and caught off guard when the Federal cavalry attacked him at Brandy Station. Just the day before he had conducted a grand review for General Robert E. Lee to display the skill of his horseman. It included a huge cavalry charge with the horse artillery firing blanks to repulse an imaginary enemy army. Believe it or not, this was actually the second such exhibition in the matter of just a few days—General Lee had been too busy to attend the first one. With the plume on his
hat flapping in the Virginia breeze, Jeb Stuart proudly galloped at the front of the column, gratefully receiving the South’s admiration.
The very next day was when the Federal cavalry splashed across the Rappahannock and surprised Jeb Stuart’s unsuspecting Confederate Cavalry at Brandy Station. Though Stuart’s troopers gallantly held the field and won the day after intense fighting, Stuart’s pride was hurt. The overwhelming superiority that his cavalry once enjoyed was gone. As one Confederate soldier wrote, the battle of Brandy Station is what "made the Federal cavalry."
Stephen W. Sears, in his book, Gettysburg, reports that the Richmond Enquirer wrote, "Gen. Stuart has suffered no little in public estimation by the late enterprises of the enemy." The Richmond Examiner described Stuart’s command as "puffed up cavalry," that suffered the "consequences of negligence and bad management."
Perhaps it was the sting of words like these that motivated Jeb Stuart to attempt to redeem his reputation with such a huge cavalry raid. But, as noted earlier, that raid proved to be disastrous for the Confederates in the days leading to Gettysburg.
Walking away from the battlefield, I was reminded of the words of Proverbs 16:8:
"Pride goeth before destruction,
and an haughty spirit before a fall."