Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 03/April/Cavalry Operations in May, 1863—Report of General J. E. B. Stuart

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Cavalry Operations in May, 1863— Report of General J. E. B. Stuart.

Headquarters Cavalry Division,
Army Northern Virginia,

May 8th, 1863.

General—In anticipation of the detailed reports, I have the honor to submit the following sketch of the operations of the cavalry immediately preceding and during the battles of the Wilderness and Chancellorsville.

The enemy had more than a week previously concentrated a large body, two or three divisions of cavalry, along the bank of the upper Rappahannock, whose efforts to hold a footing on the south bank had been repulsed with loss by the two brigades with me, commanded respectively by Brigadier-Generals Fitzhugh and W. H. F. Lee. Finally, infantry appeared at Kelly's and Rappahannock bridge, but were so inactive that there was nothing inconsistent in the supposition that their appearance was a feint. About dark, however, on Tuesday night (28th), the enemy crossed below the "bend of the river at Kelly's, in boats, opposite our videttes, and before the force posted to defend the ford could be sent to the point, had crossed in such numbers as to make an attempt at resistance futile. The party crossing at once threw over a pontoon bridge, and moved directly up the river, compelling our forces to abandon the ford at Kelly's and separating our communication with the lower pickets. General W. H. F. Lee, near Brandy, on receiving this intelligence, sent a regiment (Thirteenth Virginia cavalry) at once to meet the advance of infantry, which was checked a mile above Kelly's. I received information of this move about 9 P. M. at Culpeper, and made arrangements to have the entire cavalry and artillery force in Culpeper on the ground at daylight—directing, in the meantime, the enemy to be so enveloped with pickets as to see what route he took from Kelly's and keep him in check. General W. H. F. Lee selected a fine position between Brandy and Kelly's and awaited the advance; General Fitz. Lee being held in reserve at Brandy, with a regiment at Stevensburg. The enemy did not advance that way seriously, though Chambliss, with the Thirteenth Virginia, was skirmishing all the forenoon with the enemy's infantry.

A Prussian officer of General Carl Schurz's staff was captured, who reported that two corps of the enemy were certainly across the river: how many more were to follow, he did dot know. He estimated the force in this column at 20,000 men. He seemed frank and candid, as well as communicative.

About 1 P. M., I received a report from the pickets towards Madden's that the enemy was moving a large infantry force in that direction. Leaving Chambliss in front of the enemy where I was, I marched the remainder of the command, Fitz. Lee in advance, directly to Madden's, where we pierced the enemy's column while it was marching, and scattered it, taking possession of the road and capturing a number of prisoners, which enabled us to develope their strength and designs, as we captured prisoners from three army corps—Eleventh (Howard's), Twelfth (Slocum's), Fifth (Meade's); and soon after learned that the column had marched direct for Germana ford.

These items were telegraphed to the Commanding General. Colonel J. Lucius Davis, near Beaver Dam, had been telegraphed early that day to move his force at once to occupy and hold the Rapidan fords, but I had no assurance that the order would be obeyed with sufficient promptness to accomplish the object; and as there was no cavalry on the left flank of the main army, it was indispensably necessary to move around, get in front of the enemy moving down upon Fredericksburg, delay him as much as possible, and protect our left flank. Besides, while in the execution of this design, I received instructions from the Commanding General to give necessary orders about public property along the railroad, and swing round to join his left wing, delaying the enemy as much as possible in his march.

The brigade of General Fitz. Lee was put en route, in a jaded and hungry condition, to Raccoon ford, to cross and move round to the enemy's front. General W. H. F. Lee, with the two regiments—Ninth and Thirteenth—under his command, was directed to move by way of Culpeper, to take up the line of the upper Rapidan, and lookout for Gordonsville and the railroad. Couriers had been by directions sent to Eley's and Germana to notify our parties there of the enemy's advance, but were captured and consequently the parties there received no notice; but by the good management of Captain Collins, however, now Major of Fifteenth Virginia cavalry, the enemy was checked for some time at Germana, and his wagons and implements saved, though some of his men were captured. A strong party of sharpshooters was left to hold the road of the enemy's march as long as possible, and then follow us, which was done till the enemy advanced about eleven at night and compelled them to retire. Dispatches captured showed that trains of wagons and beef cattle accompanied the expedition, and the men were already supplied with five days' rations in haversacks. These items placed it beyond doubt that the enemy were making a real movement to turn Fredericksburg.

Crossing the Rapidan that night, the main body of cavalry was halted for rest a few hours, having marched more than half the night; and one regiment (Colonel Owen's) was sent on to get between the enemy and Fredericksburg and impede his progress. Early next day (Thursday, 30th), Owen, having reached the Germana road on the Fredericksburg side, kept in the enemy's front, while the remainder kept on the enemy's right flank, and opened on his column en route at Wilderness tavern, delaying his march till 12 M., and pausing several regiments of infantry to deploy in line of battle to meet us. Hearing that the enemy had already reached Chancellorsville by the Eley's Ford road, I directed my march by Todd's tavern for Spotsylvania Courthouse. Night overtook us at Todd's tavern, and being anxious to know what the Commanding General desired me to do further, I left the command to bivouac here, and proceeded with my staff towards his headquarters near Fredericksburg; but had not proceeded a mile before we found ourselves confronted by a party of the enemy double our own, directly in our path. I sent back hastily for a regiment, which, coming up (Fifth Virginia cavalry, Colonel Tyler), attacked and routed the party. But in the meantime another body of the enemy's cavalry came in rear of the Fifth. Receiving notice of this, I gave orders to withdraw the Fifth from the road, and sent for the brigade to push on at once. This was done, and by the bright moonlight a series of charges routed and scattered this expedition, which had penetrated to within a mile or two of Spotsylvania.

It has been since ascertained that this expedition was by no means an insignificant affair, and, but for the timely arrival of this cavalry on the spot and its prompt and vigorous action, might have resulted disastrously. Artillery as well as trains were passing Spotsylvania, unprotected, at the time. With very little rest, and without waiting for rations or forage, this noble little brigade, under its incomparable leader, was in the saddle early next morning, and moving on Jackson's left flank during the entire day (May 1st), swinging around to the left to threaten the enemy's rear. On the morning of May 2d, the cavalry of this brigade was disposed so as to clear Jackson's way in turning the enemy's right flank; this was done in the most successful manner, driving off the enemy's cavalry wherever it appeared, and enabled Jackson to suprise the enemy.

In the subsequent operations attending the battle and glorious victory, the cavalry did most essential service in watching our flanks and holding the Eley's Ford road in the enemy's rear, Wickham and Owen being on the extreme right. The horse artillery kept pace, and in the battle of the Wilderness led the attack of artillery.

Too much praise cannot be awarded the brave men who thus bore fatigue, hunger, loss of sleep, and danger without a murmur.

The operations of Brigadier-General W. H. F. Lee, with his handful of men, are embraced in the memoranda furnished by him. His report is not only satisfactory, but gives evidence of sagacity and good conduct throughout, and of great efficiency on the part of his command.

The result shows that the disposition made of these two commands was absolutely necessary. Jones' brigade was entirely out of reach, and Hampton was south of James river recruiting.

That Stoneman with a large cavalry force was allowed to penetrate into the heart of the State, though comparatively harmless in results, is due to the entire inadequacy in numbers of the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. The enemy has confronted us with at least three divisions of cavalry, more or less concentrated, which we opposed with one division, spread from the Chesapeake to the Alleghany, yet had not the approach of a battle below made it necessary to divide the force of the two Lee's, I feel very confident it would have been prevented, though with great sacrifice of life owing to disparity of numbers.

With the Commanding General, who is aware of all the facts, we are content to rest our vindication, if the pursuit of the plain path of duty needs vindication.

Most respectfully, your obedient servant,


J. E. B. Stuart,

Brigadier-General R. H. Chilton,
A. A. and I. General, Army of Northern Virginia.


Memoranda of the operations of Brigadier-General W. H. F. Lee's command during General Stoneman's raid into Virginia.

Wednesday, April 29th, 1863—Chambliss' Thirteenth Virginia cavalry, with one piece of artillery, was left at Kelly's; Payne, with one hundred men of Second North Carolina cavalry, had gone to Germana; I, with the Ninth, went to Willis Madden's with General Stuart; left him that night and went to Culpeper Courthouse with the Ninth Virginia cavalry; Chambliss joined me there that night.

Thursday, 30th—Marched from Culpeper to Rapidan station, with Ninth and Thirteenth Virginia cavalry, and one piece of artillery; left one squadron in Culpeper, which fell back before the enemy and joined me at Rapidan; enemy appeared that evening.

Friday, May 1st—Engaged all day with one or two brigades of cavalry; one charge made by Colonel Beale, with one squadron to draw them out; took 30 prisoners, but could not bring them off—was pressed very hard; had orders from General Lee to burn the bridge, and fall back to Gordonsville; burnt the bridge, but held my position all day; enemy commenced moving towards night in force on my left; withdrew at night and marched towards Gordonsville.

Saturday, 2d—Reached Gordonsville at 11 A. M.; heard on my arrival that a large body of the enemy was at Trevilian's depot and Louisa Courthouse; sent the Ninth Virginia in that direction; their videttes were driven in by the enemy; they charged and drove them three miles, killing and wounding a number, and took thirty-two prisoners, one lieutenant; my loss was three or four wounded; four prisoners taken represented three different regiments; went to their assistance with Thirteenth Virginia and two pieces artillery; met Colonel Beale falling back; took a position and waited their approach; they did not advance; learned that General Stoneman with his whole corps was at Louisa Courthouse, moving towards James river; supposed his object was to tear up railroad; they not comming on, my men and horses being worried out by four days' fighting and marching, left out my pickets and withdrew to Gordonsville.

Sunday, 3d-Received information from my scouts that the enemy were leaving Louisa and moving in direction of Columbia; knowing their object was to destroy the aqueduct, I started after them; arrived there at night; heard they had left in a great hurry, pursued all night; at day-break, having traveled sixty or seventy miles, and the enemy being three hours ahead of me, halted: my videttes reported enemy about one mile in advance; had exchanged words, and they said they belonged to Fifth regulars; knew the party I was pursuing was Wyndham's.

Monday, 4th—Started forward and came upon him drawn up in road; one squadron of Ninth cavalry was ahead, a few hundred yards; charged; enemy charged at same time; fought hand to hand four or five minutes; routed the party; killed six; wounded a number; took thirty-three prisoners, among them Captain Owens and Lieutenant Buford. Captain Owens reported that his regiment was not all present, but that he was on picket; that General Buford was only three miles distant. My horses and men being jaded, and having only about eigth hundred men, I determined not to pursue; continued back to Gordonsville, having traveled seventy or eighty miles.

Tuesday, 5th—Rested, having sent out scouting parties; heard by telegram from Richmond that the enemy were everywhere.

Wednesday, 6th—Having received information that the enemy were recrossing the railroad, moved down upon his left flank; came upon his rear at North Anna river; took seventeen or eighteen prisoners; their rear guard had crossed the river and torn up the bridge. It had been raining all day and river was past fording. Hearing that this was only one party, and that another column was moving lower down, went in that direction; found they had all crossed North Anna river and destroyed bridges behind them. Moved that night in direction of Louisa Courthouse, bivouacked within three miles of Courthouse.

Thursday, 7th—Went to Trevilian's depot; moved at 3 P.M. for Orange Courthouse; scouts reported that enemy had crossed Rapidan.


W. H. F. Lee, Brigadier-General.