Two Views of J.E.B. Stuart’s Arrival at Gettysburg

Here is Allen Guelzo’s brief commentary on Stuart’s arrival on July 2.

However late Stuart was in arriving, the Army of Northern Virginia was still glad to see him. As he rode along the York Pike in Gettysburg, “such joyful shouts as rent the air I never heard” and  “the cavalry for once was well received.” Lee, however, had grown increasingly “uneasy & irritated by Stuart’s conduct,” recalled George Campbell Brown and “had no objection to [Brown] hearing of it,” which was surprising for “a man of Lee’s habitual reserve.” In time, descriptions of an epic confrontation between Lee and Stuart surfaced, mostly for the purpose of showing that Robert E. Lee himself pointedly held Stuart responsible for the Gettysburg battle. But there is no contemporary description of such a meeting, despite its inflation in subsequent retellings to a level with the return of the Prodigal Son. Although it is safe to say that Stuart may have reported directly to Lee after his arrival in the late afternoon of July 2nd, the few descriptions we have of Stuart that evening place him “at the vidette-post nearest” the “Infantry” or Ewell’s corps, near Rock Creek. As for Henry McClellan, Stuart’s chief of staff, his only comment on Stuart’s arrival in Gettysburg (in his 1893 biography of Stuart) was to describe, laconically, how “for eight days and nights, the troops had been marching incessantly,” on “on the ninth night they rested within the shelter of the army, and with a grateful sense of relief which words cannot express. (pp. 362-63)

The floor is open.

14 comments… add one

  • Brad May 28, 2013

    Guelzo discussed this at length when he was at the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop and his conclusion was that more likely than not this confrontation never took place.

  • Mike Pride May 28, 2013

    I am also reading Guelzo’s “Gettysburg.” In my Civil War research and writing experience, the most difficult challenge has been to sort on-the-ground, near-the-moment accounts from conflicting, purposeful memories long after the fact. It is human nature for memory to embellish, especially to take a popular side in a dispute or to enhance reputation.

    In short, I appreciate Guelzo’s careful reference to his sourcing here. He writes what he thinks happened (a historian’s chief obligation), then presents a popular alternative view alongside his reasons for doubting it.

  • Eric Wittenberg May 28, 2013

    Having studied this for years, I agree with Allen. There are lots of reasons to doubt it.

    First, and foremost, the leading source for the confrontation is an account by Col. Thomas T. Munford of the 2nd Virginia Cavalry. The biggest problem with the Munford account is that he was at least 20 miles away from Gettysburg at the time when Stuart arrived in Gettysburg. Munford was with the main column of Stuart’s cavalry, making his way from Carlisle to Gettysburg. He was not there, meaning that anything he says is hearsay.

    There were four people who know what happened in that room: Lee, Stuart, Charles Marshall and Charles Venable. None of them left an account. That, in and of itself, speaks volumes. After the war, Marshall went so far as to say that he believed that Stuart should have been shot for his conduct in the Gettysburg Campaign. Yet, he never, ever said anything about any confrontation between Lee and Stuart in any of his voluminous writings as one of the leaders of the Lost Cause.

    Venable said nothing either. More importantly, Stuart didn’t say anything. In fact, when he wrote to his wife Flora to tell her about his adventures in Pennsylvania, he proceeded to tell her just what a good time he had there. Knowing what I know of Stuart after all of these years of study, had he been dressed down by Lee, he would have said something to Flora about it, and he certainly would not have gone out of his way to tell her what a delightful time he had.

    In short, there is no credible evidence whatsoever to suggest that Lee dressed down Stuart. None.

    We spent a fair amount of time discussing this in our 2006 book Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg.

    Eric

    • Kevin Levin May 28, 2013

      Thanks for chiming in, Eric. You are the expert on this one.

  • Eric Wittenberg May 28, 2013

    My pleasure, Kevin. This is a topic that has long interested me, and it’s one that we enjoyed tackling when we wrote the book.

  • Dave Stilwell May 29, 2013

    I always liked best Shelby Foote’s description of Stuart’s arrival at camp on July 2nd where he says “he (Stuart) blew it right away by saying ‘General, I bring you 200 Yankee wagons full of supplies’ and Lee said ‘General, they’re an impediment to me now. I asked you to help me whip these people’ — it was a stern admonishment.”

    • Kevin Levin May 29, 2013

      We do hold tight to our Civil War stories.

      • Dave Stilwell May 29, 2013

        Has Foote’s description ever been discussed, i.e. where it may have come from? I never saw a foot-noted (no pun intended) explanation.

        • Eric Wittenberg May 29, 2013

          That’s because there are no footnotes to be found in Foote’s trilogy anywhere. That comes from the Munford account that I discussed above. And it’s unreliable for the reasons discussed above.

          • Dave Stilwell May 31, 2013

            Thanks!

  • Kevin Marshall May 29, 2013

    I believe I’ll stick with Mr. Foote’s description seeing as how he has more credibility and is an actual RESPECTED historian. Kevin, I just finished your book. While not agreeing with your concept of a battle as a slave uprising I enjoyed it very much.

    Greetings to all from Charleston!

    Kevin

    • Kevin Levin May 29, 2013

      Hi Kevin,

      Whether Foote is respected or not the lack of documentation in support of the story should be a concern for anyone interested in the truth.

      Thanks for the kind words re: my book. I would love to hear a bit more about what exactly you disagreed with. Feel free to message me through the Contact Form on the navigation bar.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro May 31, 2013

    Questioning the accuracy if this scene makes me wonder about the accuracy of other parts of the film… like Chamberlain’s speech to the 2nd Maine mutineers (“We are and army out to set other men free”). Great speech and great moment; I just wonder if it happened.

    I liked “Gettysburg” when it came out and I still don’t mind watching it once in a while but now, with better trained ears, I can hear the seeds of the Lost Cause in this movie that were fully raised by the time “Gods & Generals” came out.

    I was listening to Civil War Talk Radio once and heard a historian describe “Gettysburg” as “a terrible movie,” Though he didn’t specify what was so bad about it. If a lack of historical accuracy is the culprit, then I suppose you could say the same thing about “Glory,” too. Now, don’t get me wrong; “Glory” is a much better movie for acting and drama and I think it’s a much more important film, too- it educated many Americans, perhaps even many self-proclaimed Civil War buffs at the time, about African-American Civil War soldiers.

    By the way, I’m currently reading “Voices of the Civil War: Gettysburg” in the Time-Life books series. I haven’t gotten to anything on Stuart’s meeting with Lee yet but I’ve read through the first two days of the battle and there is not much mention of the 20th Maine and their defense of Little Round Top. A very important moment; but it’s kind of nice to read a history of the battle without the “If-we-lose-an-inch-of-this-ground-the-Confederates-will-go-right-over-us-and-we’ll-lose-the-war” thing, as if nothing else in the battle mattered.

  • Dudley Bokoski Jun 1, 2013

    It would be hard to believe something akin to what Munford relates didn’t occur. Put in a different perspective, are we to believe after repeatedly asking he staff where Stuart was that when he appeared Lee slapped him on the back and said something like, “Hello, old fellow, how did you enjoy the Pennsylvania countryside?” This is not to say that then or later Lee believed Stuart cost the Confederates the campaign. But any good general, and Lee was a good general, would have been vexed with Stuart and expressed himself succinctly. I don’t know if the scene in the movie was accurate, but I also doubt it was as far off the mark as others might assert. And it is of a character with Lee’s personality during the war when annoyed, and things he is known to have said to A.P. Hill at Bristoe Station or Ewell at Harris Farm.

    It is easy to place generals on pedestals and ignore their human qualities. Some people cling to their image of Stuart with such tenacity they can not accept the idea of Lee scolding him. But Stuart was both gifted and young and he not only made mistakes but made some because of an usually strong need for approval. It is well to do what Lee apparently did, which was to weigh Stuart’s strengths and weaknesses, and knowing the former outweighed the latter not attached greater significance to this failure than is warranted. For anyone interested in Stuart’s personality (and Lee’s) the letter from Lee to Stuart after Chancellorsville is most instructive.

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