General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, heard rumors that the right flank of Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was “up in the air,” or unguarded by natural obstacles at its end and thus vulnerable to attack. Lee called on Brigadier General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart to lead a cavalry reconnaissance mission to verify whether this rumor was true.
Lee directed Stuart “to make a secret movement to the rear of the enemy, now posted on Chickahominy, with a view of gaining intelligence of his operations, communications, &c; of driving in his foraging parties, and securing such grain, cattle, &c, for ourselves as you can make arrangements to have driven in.” Stuart was to return to Confederate lines “as soon as the object of your expedition is accomplished,” making sure “not to hazard unnecessarily your command or to attempt what your judgment may not approve; but be content to accomplish all the good you can without feeling it necessary to obtain all that might be desired.”
After conferring with his scouts, Stuart decided that after reconnoitering the Federal right, he would continue moving around the enemy flank and completely encircle the massive Federal army. Lee had not prohibited Stuart from making such a move, and Stuart guessed that the Federals would not be ready for such bold action.
Stuart’s force consisted of 1,200 picked cavalrymen, headed by Colonels William H.F. “Rooney” Lee (Lee’s second son) and Fitzhugh Lee (Lee’s nephew). Each man received three days’ rations, and only Stuart knew where they were going. At 2 a.m. on the morning of June 12, Stuart issued orders: “Gentlemen, in 10 minutes every man must be in his saddle.”
The troopers assembled at Kilby’s Station and headed out of Richmond in a half-mile-long column, crossing the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. Moving northwest, Stuart wanted Federal scouts to think that they were going to reinforce Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. They rode 22 miles and crossed the Chickahominy River before turning sharply east.
The troopers drove off small Federal patrols along the way; Stuart’s movement was inadvertently aided by the Federal cavalry structure, under which companies and regiments were dispersed throughout the army and could not concentrated in time to oppose such a large enemy force. The Confederates camped for the night at Winston Farm near Hanover Court House and the bridge over the South Anna River.
The next morning, Stuart’s men resumed their ride east toward Hanover Court House, with Federal troopers fleeing at the sight of so many enemy horsemen approaching. The Confederates passed Taliaferro’s Mill, scared Federal pickets at Haw’s Shop, and chased off a cavalry unit. A charge dispersed Federals trying to make a stand near Old Church. Captain William Latane was killed leading the charge and became the only Confederate casualty of the raid. The Confederates took the Federals’ camps and burned hundreds of tents.
Having accomplished his mission of reconnoitering the Federal right, Stuart would now continue on around the Federal army before returning to Lee. He told staff member John E. Cooke, “Tell Fitz Lee to come along, I’m going to move with my column.” Cooke replied, “I think the quicker we move now, the better.” Stuart was confident that he could outrun any infantry in pursuit and outfight any cavalry in his path.
The Confederates moved southeast, passing within a few miles of McClellan’s headquarters and reaching the Richmond & York River Railroad in early evening. By this time, Federals who had encountered Stuart’s men were alarming their comrades; wild rumors spread that 5,000 Confederates were about to attack. Brigadier General Philip St. George Cooke gathered 500 Federal troopers to meet the threat and face Stuart, who happened to be his son-in-law. But Stuart was no longer near where he had been spotted that morning.
A Federal brigade under Colonel Gouverneur K. Warren was posted near Old Church, as Warren figured that Stuart would have to return the way he came. Nobody considered that Stuart might be heading the other way, with no intention of doubling back. The Confederates rode to Tunstall’s Station, where they shot up a supply train and burned several wagons. Aided by a full moon, they rode through the night, stopping briefly at Talleysville to raid a sutler’s store.
Both Warren and Cooke received conflicting reports on Stuart’s whereabouts. Acting on one rumor, they left Old Church around 4 a.m. on the 14th and headed north to New Castle, near the Pamunkey River. They then picked up Stuart’s trail and headed toward Tunstall’s Station, but Cooke’s insistence that his cavalry slow to match the infantry’s pace ensured that they would not catch the Confederates. They reached Tunstall’s Station 15 hours after Stuart had left.
Stuart’s men arrived at the Chickahominy around dawn. They were 35 miles from Richmond and 15 miles behind the main Federal lines. The river was too high to ford, prompting Rooney Lee to remark, “I think we are caught.” Moving downriver, Stuart deployed a rear guard and artillery while his men rebuilt the Forge Bridge using wood from an old barn. Three hours later, the troopers crossed and destroyed the bridge behind them. The Confederates thought they had narrowly escaped, but the Federals were still five or six hours away.
Leaving Fitzhugh Lee in charge, Stuart rode ahead to report his findings to General Lee near Richmond. Fitzhugh led the troopers south, then northwest, around the Federal left flank. They paralleled the James River on their ride back to Richmond.
Stuart arrived at Lee’s headquarters just after dawn on the 15th. His cavalry would arrive that night and early next morning to the cheers of Richmond residents. The troopers rode around an army of 100,000 men, covering over 100 miles and losing just one man and one cannon. They captured 165 Federal soldiers and 260 horses and mules while destroying vital railroad track, communication lines, and supply wagons.
Stuart informed Lee that the Federal troops were being supplied from White House Landing and the Richmond & York River Railroad. He reported that the roads behind the Federal lines were worse than those in the Confederates’ front. He also told Lee that the Federal right flank was indeed “up in the air” at Mechanicsville, vulnerable to an enveloping maneuver.
This information prompted Lee to bring Jackson’s men from the Valley to oppose that flank. If the Confederates could turn the Federal right, they could push them away from their supply base, forcing them to retreat back down the Peninsula. Jackson could move against Beaver Dam Creek without opposition and then easily advance on White House.
Stuart’s daring, sensational ride greatly boosted southern morale and made him a national hero. It also seemed to prove the theory that southern horsemen were superior to northerners. According to Confederate Major General James Longstreet:
“This was one of the most graceful and daring rides known to military history, and revealed valuable facts concerning the situation of the Union forces, their operations, communications, etc. When congratulated upon his success, General Stuart replied, with a lurking twinkle in his eye, that he had left a general behind him. Asked as to the identity of the unfortunate person, he said, with his joyful laugh, ‘General Consternation.’”
The ride embarrassed McClellan and compelled him to be even more cautious, but it also warned him to better guard his supply base in the future. And it prompted the Lincoln administration to devote more resources to training and equipping their cavalry.
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