I suppose the young troopers deserved at least one moment of exhilaration. It came just after dawn, about 6:00 am. on Thursday, 25 June, 1863. After the dark, hushed and nervous passage through the Bull Run Mountains, the gray morning light had revealed, in the distance, the canvas tops of a line of Federal supply wagons, white pearls on a string, sparkling in the myriad prisms left by the overnight rain - like presents just waiting to be opened. Stuart unlimbered some artillery and sent a few shells whistling toward the tempting prizes. But within a few moments, federal artillery arrived and began to lob shells at the rebel artillery. And worse, the growing light revealed the dark threatening blue of massed Federal infantry. The brief flicker of rebel hope faded into shadow.
Major General James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart was leading 3 brigades of the best light cavalry in the world. First in line were the 1,300 troopers of Lieutenant General John Randolf Chambliss, then the 1,900 men of Lt. General Wade Hampton, with Fitzhugh Lee's 2,000 men bringing up the rear.
The goal was for these 5,000 men - 4,500 effective s - to make an easy 28 miles a day, covering 110 miles over 4 days to arrive no latter than 29 June, at Hanover Pennsylvania. There Stuart expected to redirect his command to join Brigadier General Richard Ewell's 2nd Corps, which was supposed to be in Carlise, Pennsylvania on that date. As historian Scott Nesbit has written, “Realistically, Lee could not have expected to hear from Stuart until the 28th and quite possibly the 29th...”.
The 40 mile first day's route had been scouted in advance by the diminutive General John S. Mosby. Once through the mountains Stuart had already passed through New Baltimore and Buckland, Virginia. From here he planned to slip between the units of the somnambulist Joe Hooker's army to reach Haymarket, and then to cross the Potomac River at Seneca Ford. From there the cavalry corps would pass west of Washington, D.C., and on to Hanover. There would be plenty of time to destroy railroad bridges, burn supply stores and spar with Federal cavalry. Stuart had already done raids like this twice the year before. And there was no reason not to assume he could do it again. Except...
Except there had been Brandy Station the month before – where union cavalry had come with a hair of capturing “Jeb” Stuart. And just 10 days ago a Rhode Island regiment had surprised Stuart again in Middleburg, Virginia. And now, setting out on a maneuver that required stealth and speed, Stuart found himself, within 15 miles of his starting point at Salem, Virginia, blocked by an entire Federal infantry division and supply trains – on the move. They were not supposed to be there, and they were not supposed to be moving. Mosby had discovered as much the day before, but trapped behind shifting Federal lines, he had been unable to warn Stuart.
Military Historian David Powell described Stuart's options as either a “detour to the southeast in hopes of getting around the Union army; or returning to...fall in behind the Confederate infantry...(at) Williamsport. Either choice would necessitate a delay...”. Being who he was, Stuart chose to double back to Buckland, and wait for Mosby to point a way east, through the Federal army. He waited all day, but Mosby never appeared. That officer assumed Stuart would head west, to join Lee's main body at Williamsport. But whichever choice Stuart made, he was already a day behind schedule.
Before dawn on Friday, 26 June, Stuart led his troopers south and then 20 miles eastward, to the ford over the Occoquan River at Wolf Run Shoals, barely avoiding the Federal Second Corp, which had finished crossing just the day before. Realizing now that the entire Federal army was marching north, Stuart sent a warning to Lee, who was still at Williamsport. But the message never arrived. And because of the Federal cavalry screening the rear of Hanncock's corps, Stuart was forced to inch his way forward, making just 20 miles this day. He was now 2 days behind schedule, and further from the Potomac River than ever. Growing desperate to make up lost time, on Saturday, 27 June, Stuart pushed his men and horses 60 miles to the Potomac – his first troopers crossing the river at 3:00 am. on Sunday, 28 June at Rockville, Maryland. The “Southern Cavalier” was forced to spend the rest of the day letting his men and horses recover from that forced march.
But now their luck changed, or so it seemed. They captured an entire Federal supply train of 125 “best United States model wagons” - pulled by mules, in the words of 54 year old Colonel Richard Lee Tuberville Beal, “..fat and sleek and harness in use for the first time.” The wagons were so desperately needed by the Confederacy, and their cargo of oats so valuable to Stuart's own horses, that Stuart didn't burn them, but took them with him, when he headed north the next morning, Monday, 29 June, 1863.
Having been forced to finally give up his dreams of capturing Richmond – and avoiding a rematch with Robert E, Lee - General Joseph Hooker had, on Wednesday, 24 June, finally begun shifting his Army of the Potomac north. These were the movements which had so disrupted Stuart’s own intentions. But at last Hooker was moving. He was moving slowly, in part, because of the troops lost when their enlistments expired. had convinced Hooker that Lee now outnumbered him. In desperation, Hooker dispatched his Chief-of-Staff, Major-General Crawford, to Washington to collect 15,000 men from the forts surrounding the capital. General Slough, military governor of Alexandria, ordered his men to ignore the orders. On 25 June, Hooker demanded that Slough be arrested. Slough was not, and Halleck informed Hooker, “No other troops can be withdrawn from the Defenses of Washington.” In his growing frustration, Hooker admitted “I don't know whether I am standing on my head or feet.”
On Friday, 26 June, Hooker had finally moved his headquarters north across the Potomac, but over half of his army was still in Virginia. And so was his mind. That evening he telegraphed Halleck, “Is there any reason why Maryland Heights should not be abandoned...?” Saturday morning he arrived in Harper's Ferry (above) himself, and informed Halleck, “I find 10,000 men here, in condition to take the field.” Hooker wanted Harper's Ferry and the heights abandoned, and those 10,000 men in his army. And he didn't trust Halleck to make the decision. “I beg that this may be presented to the Secretary of War and His Excellency the President.” In response Halleck dispatched a telegram to the new commander at Harper's Ferry, ordering him to ignore any instructions from Hooker. The telegram was opened and read right in front of "Fighting Joe". And that was the final insult to Hooker's fragile ego.
At 1:00 pm. on Friday, 27 June, Hooker telegraphed Washington, “My original instructions require me to cover Harper's Ferry and Washington...I am unable to comply with this condition with the means at my disposal, and earnestly request that I may at once be relieved from the position I occupy.” To which Halleck replied, “As you were appointed to this command by the President, I have no power to relieve you. Your dispatch has been duly referred for executive action.”
The Hooker had finally hit the fan.
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