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23c. Stuart attacks

Could JEB Stuart have been the CSA hero at Gettysburg? In this ALT Hx scenario I’ll try to describe why he might have changed the course of the battle but not the overall outcome.

As has been discussed at length in earlier sections (Section 6h), Stuart’s absence at Gettysburg was one of the major contributing factors to the ANV loss!  By all military doctrine of the time, he should have been there to repel BG Buford’s Cavalry as they approached on 30 June. But we’ll start this scenario on the afternoon of Day 2. That is when Stuart finally reports in at Lee’s HQ. At the moment of that (frosty) meeting, most of his troops were still en route south from Carlisle. Lee allowed Stuart to bivouac his force a few miles east of Gettysburg near the road to York that Early had used to return and attack the 11th Union Corps on Day 1. Lee then assigned him a mere supporting role to lead an attack on the Union rear near the Baltimore Pike.

The WHATIF of this scenario is why didn’t Lee order him to bring his troops to the west of the city to better support Lee’s Day 3 plan? Three possible routes of march and bivouac locations come immediately to mind. From any or all of these Stuart could have been more fully involved in the Day 3 battle. Stuart had approximately 6600 men and horses under his command. It would not have been too difficult for him to move them into place without being observed by Union spotters. He could easily have followed the approach that MG Rodes took and came onto the city directly from the north. If for some reason they were a bit farther east, he could have used Early’s route. Either way, their approach would almost assuredly have avoided Union detection. As per the map below, he could have bedded them down along McPherson’s Ridge hugging the city line (S1). He might also have continued a bit farther to the west and skirted around behind Heth’s Division and stopped near the Seminary (S2) where his entire division would have been hidden from view. Lastly, all or part of his division could have continued south to the tip of Seminary Ridge (S3).

My ALT Hx scenario for Day 3 begins as did the actual attack with the noon artillery bombardment. At its conclusion, the infantry assigned to the attack force would have emerged from the tree line and formed into their attack formations. Once aligned, they would step off the attack. But upon reaching the sunken roadbed they would halt briefly.

Then Stuart would attack. I could easily envision all but 1 of his 4 Brigades – the largest under BG Fitzhugh Lee of just under 2000 men – attacking from the NW, skirting by the cemetery and hitting the center of Hancock’s line. Remember, it took the infantry less than 20 minutes to cross that mile of terrain. Horses could do it in just a few minutes!

For their part, the Hancock’s line were known to have been almost mesmerized by the sight of 10-12000 ANV infantry advancing under long-range artillery fire. Imagine their shock and awe (to steal a phrase) when 4000 cavalry suddenly appear in their view. Those horses would have been on top of them before they would have had time to react. Certainly, the speed and angle of the attack would have prevented the artillery from changing their angle and targeting them. Meanwhile, the ANV infantry were hunkered down in the sunken road bed at least partially protected from the artillery.

Wave after wave of cavalry, perhaps 100 men each would hit and enter the Union line. Upon arrival at the crest of the ridge, the low stone wall would hardly have presented an obstacle to the cavalry. They would simply have leapt over it at full gallop. Their main target would not even be the Union infantrymen but rather the cannon crews. Silencing them would be a key factor in a successful infantry advance. Simultaneous, with the attack from the north, BG Lee’s Brigade would emerge from behind the orchard knoll and attack east towards the saddle between Cemetery Ridge and LRT. If Stuart was not afraid to split his force just a bit more, BG Chambliss could have led his smallest Brigade of roughly 1100 men to swing east and hit the Union line where the Taneytown Road entered the city near the cemetery. Although they had no way of knowing it, this would have placed Meade’s HQ directly in his path.

Can you imagine the shock of the lightly armed staff officers suddenly having to fight for their own survival as hundreds of sabre-wielding Rebels come screaming into their midst? Chaos would have ensued; at least for a short period. I’d also envision that not having participated in the pre-attack bombardment, the artillery of both Rodes’ and Early’s Divisions could have laid down some highly destructive fire on the cannons in and around the cemetery. Because of the artillery parapets and the tombstones, the cavalry would generally have avoided entering the cemetery proper.

After just a few minutes, while the Union infantry was still absorbing the shock of this assault, the Union artillery could have been all but silenced. Then the ANV infantry would renew their advance. What would ensue would be a four-layered battle line. ANV infantry fighting with bayonets and rifle butts against Union infantry behind the stone wall. Having dispatched the cannon crews, Stuart’s cavalry would turn their attention to those infantry now sandwiched between two AVN forces. The fourth layer would be the Union reserves to the east of this melee battle. Meanwhile, BG Lee’s Brigade would be forming a pincer move by riding up the crest of the ridge from the south; more chaos!

Without the destructive cannon fire and without the Vermont Regiments re-aligning to enfilade Kemper’s Brigade, most of Pickett’s 5400 men would likely have reached (and breeched?) the Union line. Plus the cobbled together forces from Hill’s Corps operating to Pickett’s left would almost certainly have made a much more successful attack than actually occurred on Day 3.

Could a quick thinking BG Chambliss have managed to kill, wound or capture GEN Meade at his farmhouse HQ? What a blow that might have been to the overall effort!

It is here that the potential for an ANV victory at Gettysburg hangs in the balance. Pickett’s infantry and Stuart’s cavalry were all that Lee had to throw against Hancock and Meade that day. There was nothing left to exploit any success they might have had. They would have had to win the battle on their own merits. My late night musings suggest that that was not in the cards for that afternoon. I’d suggest that with or without Meade, Hancock and his nearby commanders would have been able to rally Union reserves and suppress the AVN cavalry. They’d be taking aim at anyone on horseback. Indeed, they would also be firing in the direction of the infantry at the wall who would be caught in a cross-fire as well as being chopped down by Rebel sabres.

There is another factor that might have come into play as the battle on the crest played out. Stuart’s men and horses were spent when they arrived at Gettysburg! He had ridden them hard during his glory-hunt escapade through Maryland and Pennsylvania. They had ridden perhaps 100 miles in 2 weeks, without much in the way of support. The men and horses were hungry. Many of the horses needed to be re-shod. They were probably capable to the short distance cavalry charge across the valley, but that would have sapped their last reserves of energy and stamina. Neither man nor beast could have sustained a prolonged fight after that.

The Union forces had no substantial numbers of cavalry in the immediate area to meet Stuart force on force. I would have fallen to the Union infantry reserves to quell if not repel the attack.

All in, I’d suggest that the utilization of Stuart’s cavalry would have made the day much bloodier for the Union and much less so for the AVN infantry, but by mid-afternoon I’d suggest that the shock of the initial charge would have worn off and the Union forces would carry the day. Hancock’s Corps would likely have been severely depleted; the men behind the wall nearly annihilated by the combined infantry and cavalry assault and the subsequent cross-fire from their own forces. But at some point, in relatively short order, the entire AVN attack would have bogged down under the pressure of the newly arriving reserve troops. The lightly armed (swords and pistols) cavalrymen would soon have expended all of their ammunition and one can only continue to slash and stab with a sword for so long. Some Union officers might also have fallen as a result of friendly fire as the reserve infantry line began to fire volley after volley aimed at those on horseback, but Stuart’s men would certainly have taken a beating at their hands of the Union reserves.  

Many more AVN troops would have lived to retreat back to the safety of the woods they started from, but by nightfall Lee would be faced with the same predicament; could he fight on or would he have to break and run for Virginia?

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