I would not blame Major General James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart (above) if he fell asleep in the saddle during the 35 mile night march from Hanover to Dover, Pennsylvania. Stuart was only 30 years old and in pretty good physical shape, a man his commander, General Robert E. Lee described as "second to none in valor, in zeal, in unflinching devotion to his country…To military capacity of a high order." But the last week had been exhausting, even for the younger troopers in his ranks. One North Carolina boy confessed, “I thought I knew some thing of the hardships of a soldier’s life but...I did not.” As a writer noted, “...many of Stuart's troopers were now riding two to a horse because so many horses had broken down during the march...” But there was always worry to keep the normally jaunty Southern Cavalier awake.
Stuart had expected to find General Ewell's Second Corps somewhere around Hanover, Pennsylvania on Monday, 30 June, 1863. Instead he ran into a big chunk of Yankee cavalry, and had to detour around it. Local newspapers reported General Jubal Early's division was at York, 7 miles east of the column's line of march. But Stuart couldn't find Lee's army anywhere - and hadn't heard from him in eight days, unable to even warn him that the Federal army was north of the Potomac.
The best account of that night march comes from 23 year old staff officer Major Henry Brainerd McClellan, tasked with guarding the 125 captured wagons, who reported, “The mules were starving for food and water, and often became unmanageable. Not infrequently a large part of the (wagon)train would halt in the road because a driver... had fallen asleep and allowed his team to stop. The train guard became careless through excessive fatigue, and it required the utmost exertions of every officer on Stuart’s staff to keep the train in motion.” Another member of Stuart's staff reported the horses in all 3 brigades were “broken down and in no condition to fight.” Stuart needed fresh horses and fresh men. To achieve either of those objectives would take time, which Stuart no longer had.
Just as the first shots were being fired 40 miles to the west on the McPherson farm outside of Gettysburg, Stuart's weary troopers finally struck the York Pike. Stuart immediately dispatched scouts in search of Lee's Army. Around 7:00am, Tuesday, 1 July, 1863, Stuart's 4,500 men rode into the sleepy village of Dover, Pennsylvania – population about 2,000. Stuart gave most of his men 4 hours of rest, and the men dropped prostrate where they were, many sleeping in the streets.
Brigadier General Wade Hampton had stay awake, setting up in Dr. Ahl's 2 story brick office and home on North Main Street, where he administered and signed paroles for the 200 Federal soldiers captured since crossing the Potomac. Weary troopers swept the town, looking for horses, food and whatever else the fatigued rebels had the energy to take. They got very little liquor, as both of the town's hotels, the Dover and the North, had hidden their stocks in the basement of the church on Carlisle Road. And the exhausted rebels could not work up the energy to look there.
Meanwhile Stuart, his brigade commanders and their staffs had breakfast at the Dover Hotel (above), where they discussed what to do next. The scouts could find no Confederate troops anywhere, but it seemed everywhere they encountered blue clad cavalry. The most reliable news Stuart could obtain was in the Pennsylvania newspapers, which said General Ewell had moved from York to Carlisle. That made sense if Lee was still hoping to capture Harrisburg. And as General Lee himself had said of his cavalry commander, "It was not in Stuart's nature to abandon an attempt until it had been proven to be beyond his powers...." So exhausted and saddle sore himself, Stuart decided the best chance of contacting Lee's army was to move 40 miles to the northwest, to Carlisle. In fact he was moving in an arc around the growing battle of Gettysburg.
The 3 rebel brigades set out again just before 11:00am, on the Carlisle road. The rest in Dover had done little to reinvigorate the command. Horses were shuffling as they walked, and drained troopers were dropping from their saddles. But they kept moving. At one point their route dipped south, passing through the tiny hamlet of Dillsburg, only 23 miles from Gettysburg. In the stillness of 19th century rural Pennsylvania the troopers should have been able to hear the dull thunder of hundreds of cannons that were already firing on Cemetery ridge. But perhaps their senses were too dulled by exhaustion to notice.
Late in the afternoon of Tuesday, 1 July, 1863, Stuart's cavalry finally approached the town of Carlisle, only to find it filled with blue clad infantry. They were 2 infantry brigades, a battery of artillery and a 120 man company of cavalry, under command of Colonel William Brisbane. These troops had marched into Carlisle just hours ago, following Ewel's infantry and Jenkin's cavalry's withdrawal.
Stuart desperately needed the town. The problem was, his men were in no condition to launch an assault. Virginia Lieutenant George Beale wrote his wife that the troopers were “Weak and helpless... we began to consider how we ourselves might escape... Most of us were kept in our saddles to fight till (midnight) - though neither the prospect of a melee, nor the thunder of artillery, nor the bright red glare of a burning town kept me awake that night.”
The artillery was Stuart's own. After a bluff failed to make Colonel Brisbane surrender, General Stuart threw almost 200 artillery shells into the dark – killing 1 Federal soldier, wounding 12 but doing very little damage. The town's gasworks and a barracks were set ablaze. But to a 15 year old boy in Carlisle , “The term 'damage' might suggest exaggeration.” There was a pause in the firing, while Stuart tried another bluff. But Colonel Brisbane had already sent for reinforcements, and he was determined to hold out at least until daylight. So the shelling resumed.
Sometime after 3:00am. - now Wednesday, 2 July - one of Stuart's scouts returned with word from Gettysburg with Lee's orders to concentrate at once. And at last the 3 most important brigades in the entire rebel army set out to rejoin the army.
Stuart would report personally to Lee after midnight, 3 July, 1863. One thing the witnesses all agree is that at their first meeting in over a week, Lee flushed and came very close to striking his cavalry commander. Only after he restrained himself, did General Lee ask, “"General Stuart, where have you been? I have not heard a word from you for days and you are the eyes and ears of my army." When the muddy, exhausted Stuart attempted to defend himself. Lee waived him off. Stuart stammered that he had brought in 125 wagons filled with provisions. Lee responded, “They are an impediment to me now.” And before Stuart could respond to that rebuke, Lee ended the discussion by saying, “We will speak no more of this.” And this being Lee, that ended the matter – for the time being.
Nothing was said publicly about Lee's vague orders of 23 June, or his passive endorsement of Stuart's plan of 24 June to ride through the Federal army rather than to screen it. Instead they made yet another all night 30 mile march. A private in the 4th Virginia Cavalry noted in his diary, “This makes the fifth night without sleep...Only some 20 men with Company "D" out of 56 who started.” Those men were lost not to combat but to excessive demands placed upon them by their officers. The three brigades did not arrive with the Army of Northern Virginia until well after dawn, on 3 July. Horse artillery gunner Henry Matthews said the all 3 brigades felt a sense of relief “...which words cannot express.” They could not know that by late afternoon Lee and Stuart would be calling on them to meet the Federal cavalry on the open fields outside of Gettysburg, in a clash of sabers that offered the Army of Northern Virginia a lost chance to turn the tide of the war.
But on day 3 of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Federal Cavalry would be outnumbered and out-maneuvered and still fight the exhausted rebel troopers to a stand still.