This essay postulates what the engagement may have looked like if Stuart’s Cavalry had been performing its assigned duties.
Cavalry troops of this era performed two essential functions: they screened the flanks of the larger formations of Infantry and they scouted the terrain and position of the enemy forces. On occasion, they would make lightening raids on enemy units / facilities. At the outset of the intrusion into the North, Stuart’s Cavalry Division crossed the Potomac to the east of the main force. While Lee was using the South Mountain to mask his movements, J.E.B. Stuart was operating on the east side of that mountain. From there, he could adequately screen the right flank of the main force and block the mountain passes that may have allowed a Union flanking attack. History records that rather than maintain his right flank position, Stuart wandered off far to the east. His apparent intention was to harass the Union Army. In doing so, however, he lost touch with his commander for more than a week. He provided no information as to the movements and positions of the enemy forces.
As first Hooker, then Meade, moved the Army of the Potomac north toward Emmittsburg and Taneytown, Stuart was far to the east near York, PA. Some of Lee’s trusted staff actually suggested that he court-martial Stuart for conducting a personal campaign and failing in his duties to inform Lee of the movements of the Union forces.
The WHATIF of this essay explores how the battle might have progressed if JEB Stuart had done the job that he was expected to do. Had he stayed just on the east side of the South Mountain and paralleled the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia, he would have moved through Emmittsburg before the Union Corps arrived there. He could easily have deployed troops to guard the few passes that Union troops might have used to attack the main force as it moved north on the west side of the mountain.
We know that Early’s Division separated from Ewell’s Corps on 28 or 29 June and moved through Gettysburg en route towards York. Ideally, Stuart’s main cavalry force should have been present to meet them and to ensure that no significant Union formations were there to oppose them. Since the many roadways of the Gettysburg road hub led from Maryland, Stuart should have formed a screening line south of the town in an effort to protect against any Union forces approaching the town. He would not so much have occupied the city as sealed it off.
As such, he would have been present with a significant cavalry force as BG Buford approached on the morning of 30 June. If he had been performing his duties as assigned, Stuart’s scouts would have detected Buford’s approach and likely Stuart could have massed his forces to interdict this movement. It should have been obvious to him that Buford’s intent was to determine the position of Lee’s main force which, at that moment, lay to the west near Cashtown and continued back to the top edge of South Mtn.
On the morning of 30 June 1863, we should have seen a clash of cavalry units somewhere to the south of Gettysburg. Regardless of the actual outcome of that clash, Buford would likely have withdrawn to report to his commander, LTG Reynolds, back at Emmittsburg. Knowing that Stuart’s role was to protect the flank of the force, Buford would have generally determined that Lee’s Army was in the vicinity of Gettysburg, but without knowing their precise location.
Once discovered, Lee would likely have rushed forces into the area, either by pushing Hill’s Corps forward or recalling Early to Gettysburg – if not both. For him, the simple presence of Union cavalry in the area would have been a harbinger of the presence of a larger Union force nearby. Assuming that Stuart was able to identify the Union cavalry as belonging to Buford’s division – either by prisoners or by items recovered from dead soldiers – Lee would then be aware that the Union First Corps was within striking distance of Gettysburg. He could only assume that they were not alone.
One of the most vital points of Buford’s 30 June foray into Gettysburg was his recognition of the importance of the terrain in the configuration of hills south of the city. In reality, Lee did not even get a glimpse of this terrain until late on 1 July as the Union troops began to occupy and fortify it. Surely, a cavalry officer as good as Stuart – at least as good and likely better than Buford – would have seen value of this terrain. Prior to Buford’s foray north, Stuart should have informed Lee of this formation of contiguous hills. IOW, Lee should have rushed Hill’s Corps to Gettysburg to occupy the Cemetery on 29 or 30 June.
One of the biggest and most long-lasting debates about the actual battle was the failure of Early to occupy Culp’s Hill on the evening of 1 July. Had he done so – as Lee had wished – the entire Union position would have been threatened. Culp’s Hill dominated both the Cemetery and the main roads that the Union Army used to converge on the battle site.
Simply stated, Lee’s Army — at least Stuart’s Cavalry — should have been occupying the Cemetery and adjacent hills by 30 June, prior to Buford’s arrival on the scene! Granted, it was somewhat easier for the (actual) Union forces to defend facing west and north using the inverted-J formation with the logistics elements protected in the encompassed valley, but Lee would have had only a slightly more difficult task to defend facing east and south with his support troops encamped between Cemetery and Seminary Ridges. He would only have had to strongly defend the open end of that valley in and around the wheat field and Devil’s Den.
The next question in this scenario is what would have been Meade’s reaction to the cavalry clash on 30 June. His forces were firmly in place at Emmittsburg and Taneytown. There was nothing to force (induce?) him to move north to attack near Gettysburg. On the CSA side, LTG Longstreet is remembered for his progressive stance concerning defensive warfare. In all likelihood, he would have advised Lee to stay put on those easily defensible hills and await Meade’s reaction. Hence, these two massive armies could have sat in place for days, each waiting for the other to make the first move.
Meade thought that he had a good defensive position astride Pipe’s Creek with multiple corps at Emmittsburg well within striking distance. He might have felt fairly confident in awaiting Lee to make the next move. As the invader, operating in a ‘foreign’ land, Lee was at a disadvantage concerning supplies and replacements. He had what he had brought north and there was little hope of re-supply. Could Lee afford to sit and wait or was he obliged to move south to find and attack the Union Army?