General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, expected his cavalry, led by Major-General Jeb Stuart, to screen the army’s right flank as it moved north into Maryland and Pennsylvania. However, Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, commanding the First Corps, suggested to Lee that it might be better if Stuart rode around the Federal Army of the Potomac in an attempt to divert Federal attention from the northern invasion.
Stuart had gained fame in the South by riding around the Federal army twice before, and having been surprised and nearly defeated at Brandy Station, he was eager to atone by circling the Federals a third time. Lee consented to the move on June 22 but made it clear that if the Federals started crossing the Potomac River in force, then Stuart “must immediately cross himself and take his place on our right flank” to keep between the Federals and the Confederate right, which consisted of Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps.
When Lee learned that Federal forces had reached Edwards’s Ferry on the Potomac, it became clear that the Potomac army, commanded by Major-General Joseph Hooker, was moving out of Fredericksburg in pursuit of the Confederates. Lee therefore sent Stuart a second set of orders on the 23rd:
“If General Hooker’s army remains inactive, you can leave two brigades to watch him, and withdraw with the three others, but should he not appear to be moving northward, I think you had better withdraw this side of the mountain tomorrow night, cross at Shepherdstown the next day, and move over to Fredericktown. You will, however, be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them all the damage you can, and cross the river east of the mountains. In either case, after crossing the river, you must move on and feel the right of Ewell’s troops, collecting information, provisions, etc. Be watchful and circumspect in all your movements.”
Stuart interpreted these vague orders as permission for him to ride around the Federal army before crossing the Potomac east of Edwards’s Ferry and rejoining Ewell’s troops as they entered Pennsylvania. In the coming days, he would take little heed of Lee’s warning to immediately rejoin the army if he encountered any hindrance or delay.
The next morning, Stuart directed two brigades under Brigadier-Generals William “Grumble” Jones (whom Stuart called “the best outpost officer in the cavalry”) and Beverly Robertson to guard Lee’s supply train as it passed through Ashby’s and Snickers’s gaps in the Blue Ridge. The troopers were to stay behind “as long as the enemy remains in your front.”
Stuart’s three remaining brigades under Brigadier-Generals Wade Hampton, Fitzhugh Lee, and W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee were to assemble at Salem Depot, Virginia, and prepare to ride east, between the Federals and Washington, in a ride around Hooker’s army. Stuart believed that the Federal army was facing west behind the Bull Run Mountains and in no hurry to get into motion. He therefore planned to move east around the Federal right flank, then turn north, ride past the Federal rear, and then cross the Potomac at Dranesville. Stuart hoped to disrupt Federal communications with Washington and divert Federal attention from the main movements of Lee’s army.
Stuart received vital intelligence from partisan leader John S. Mosby that the Federal army was spread out and therefore vulnerable to an enemy cavalry raid. However, the improved Federal cavalry did a better job of masking the Federals’ exact location. Also, Hooker had an idea that Stuart might try such a move. He knew the southern press had harshly criticized Stuart for being surprised at Brandy Station, and Major-General Daniel Butterfield, Hooker’s chief of staff, predicted that the flamboyant cavalry commander might “do something to retrieve his reputation.”
Stuart and his three brigades rode out at 1 a.m. on the 25th, heading east toward the Bull Run Mountains. That night, the Confederates unexpectedly found Major-General Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps blocking their path. Rather than return west as Lee had advised if he met with any “hindrance,” Stuart turned southeast, putting the Bull Run Mountains, the Blue Ridge, and the Federal army between his horsemen and the rest of Lee’s army. Underestimating the improved Federal cavalry, Stuart was determined to push through.
The troopers continued southeast on the 26th until they found a path to Fairfax Court House. The Confederates had covered just 35 miles in two days. Stuart tried to keep Lee apprised of his movements, but none of his couriers made it past the Federal lines to deliver the messages.
Stuart’s horsemen clashed with Federal cavalry units at Fairfax Court House the next day, sending them fleeing and taking some prisoners before seizing a large amount of supplies. After resting a few hours, the Confederates began crossing the Potomac into Maryland that night. By this time, Stuart was several hours behind schedule and cut off from the right flank that he was supposed to protect.
Stuart’s troopers completed a rough crossing of the Potomac at Rowser’s Ford in the early morning hours of the 28th and entered Rockville, Maryland. It took them over three full days to get to this point, but they were still some 70 miles south of Ewell’s corps. At Rockville, the Confederates captured 900 mules, 400 men, and 125 wagons filled with food for man and beast. But this slowed the troopers’ pace from 40 to 25 miles per day.
Stuart opted not to try closing the distance between his force and Ewell’s, figuring he could catch up with them later. Stuart was completely unaware that the nature of this campaign had changed dramatically since he had started his raid just three days prior. Stuart’s men left Rockville and rode all night into Pennsylvania, cutting telegraph lines and wrecking railroad tracks along the way.
The Confederates destroyed tracks on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at Hood’s Mill, Maryland, and cut more telegraph lines on the 29th. By this time, they had ranged far and wide to the right of the Federal army. Stuart moved on to Westminster around 12 p.m., where his troopers fought off a surprise Federal cavalry attack from the 1st Delaware. The Confederates then fed their horses and rested.
Stuart rode north on the 30th and finally entered Pennsylvania, reaching Hanover around 10 a.m. By this time, the entire Army of the Potomac was between his cavalry and the rest of Lee’s army. Stuart had no idea where Lee or Ewell even were.
When Stuart’s Confederates rode into Hanover, a Federal cavalry division under Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick was already there, and Stuart’s troopers attacked one of Kilpatrick’s brigades under Brigadier-General Elon Farnsworth. The fierce fighting included hand-to-hand combat in the town streets. The Federals nearly captured Stuart before he raced off and jumped a 15-foot-wide gully to escape.
The Federals sustained 215 casualties (19 killed, 73 wounded, and 123 missing), while the Confederates lost 117 (nine killed, 50 wounded, and 58 missing). This engagement pushed Stuart farther east, thereby delaying him from rejoining Lee’s army even further. Stuart tried to turn west to rejoin Lee, but the growing Federal presence in Pennsylvania prevented him. He was also slowed by the long line of captured wagons and prisoners.
Stuart hoped to link with Ewell at York, but when he arrived that night, he learned that Ewell had hurriedly moved to Gettysburg. The exhausted Confederate cavalry embarked on a grueling all-night ride before stopping at Dover. Meanwhile, Lee’s army continued marching blindly through enemy territory.
- Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1952.
- Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Kallmann, John D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- Sears, Stephen W., Gettysburg. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company (Kindle Edition), 2003.
- Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.
- Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.