After his stunning victory at Chancellorsville, General Lee invaded the North. He hoped to seize badly needed food and supplies and create a surge of antiwar sentiment in the North. Lee knew that President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865; see entry) would not be able to continue the war against the South if he did not have the support of the Northern people.
As Lee's Confederate Army pushed through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley into Northern territory, Stuart's cavalry troops worked to screen their movements from a large Union army in the area. On June 23, Lee ordered Stuart to take his cavalry on a scouting and raiding mission around the Union forces. Over the next several days, Stuart's efforts to maneuver his cavalry past the Union Army undetected were repeatedly delayed by enemy troop movements. Once he reached the lightly defended area behind the advancing Union forces, he captured more than one hundred supply wagons. But his decision to return to Lee with the supply wagons greatly slowed his progress.
In the meantime, Lee struggled to keep track of the approaching Union Army. The general had always relied heavily on Stuart's cavalrymen to scout out enemy locations and movements. Their absence made it difficult for Lee to determine the strength and whereabouts of Union forces in the region. Lee's knowledge of enemy movements grew shakier with each passing day, and the Confederate general became anxious for Stuart's return. He admitted that without Stuart's cavalry reports, "I am in ignorance as to what we have in front of us here."
In the final days of June, Lee suddenly learned that the Union Army, which was led by General George Meade (1815-1872; see entry), had drawn dangerously close. The Confederate general hastily gathered his army together at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to prepare for battle. A few days later, the famous Battle of Gettysburg began. From July 1 to July 3, Meade's Army of the Potomac and Lee's Army of Northern Virginia fought for control of the Pennsylvania countryside. For the first day and a half of the battle, Lee fought without the use of Stuart's cavalry. Stuart and his men finally returned from their mission on the evening of July 2, but their arrival was not enough to bring victory to the Confederacy. After one final day of warfare, Lee's battered rebel army retreated back to the South in defeat.
Stuart's extended absence from Lee's side has been cited by many historians as a major factor in the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. Some people argue that Stuart's long absence was Lee's fault. They argue that Lee's orders to Stuart were too confusing, and that he never should have ordered his scouts so far away. Many other historians, though, contend that Stuart was far too slow in returning from his mission. In any case, Lee badly missed Stuart's cavalry.
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