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Stuart's Ride Around McClellan
On June 10, 1862, Robert E. Lee told Jeb Stuart to assemble his men and reconnoiter the right flank of the Army of the Potomac under the command of George McClellan. Although General Lee had just assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he had a lot of faith in his fellow Virginia - Lee was Superintendent at West Point when Stuart was a cadet and it was Stuart who accompanied Lee to Harper's Ferry to deal with abolitionist John Brown.
The flamboyant cavalryman didn't take much time in proposing a complete circuit around the Union Army, heading to the north end of the lower peninsula (near the York River) and returning to Richmond along the James. The following day Lee gave him an unspecific order, telling him to exercise "due caution." Both Lee and Stuart interpreted that to mean "go ahead, but be careful."
At 2:00am on the morning of June 12 1,000 men from Stuart's cavalry mounted their horses and headed north from Richmond for the Union right flank, at that time slightly west of Mechanicsville. Stuart picked up an additional 200 men just outside the outer defenses of Richmond. Among the men were Colonel Fitz Lee (Robert E. Lee's nephew) and Lt. Colonel Rooney Lee (his son). The first day the men rode north on the Brooke Turnpike before turning north at Turner's Tavern in hopes of giving the Yanks the impression he was off to support Stonewall Jackson's approach to Richmond. They passed west of Ashland Station (Ashland) and quietly bivouacked without fires near Winston's Farm on the south bank of the South Anna River. Stuart and Rooney Lee continued on to Hickory Hill, the home of Lee's father-in-law.
Early on the morning of June 13, 1862, Jeb Stuart revealed his orders to Fitz and Rooney Lee and the other commanders as they rode east towards Hanover Court House. Just west of the Hanover CH Stuart's advance guard ran into elements of the 6th Cavalry, the first encounter with the enemy. Hoping to envelop the Yankees, Stuart ordered Fitz Lee to strike the Union cavalry while Rooney Lee tried to flank the unit. The Union commander in Hanover, Lt. Edward Leib, realized the threat and withdrew down the Richmond Stage Road (today's US 301).
Reports came back that the federal cavalry was prepared to fight in a ravine near Totopotomoy Creek. The Union commander, Edward Leib, wired his commander that the "two squadrons" of Rebel soldiers were "nothing to worry about" at 11:30am.
A good defensive position, the ford was unguarded, indicting that the Union Army's right wing was "hanging." As Lieb fell back toward Old Church Union reinforcements began arriving. Lieb formed a line along a ridge that Stuart's cavalry stuck hard, driving the Yankee's off in disarray. It was the nearby ford of the Totopotomoy Creek that gave Stuart the information General Lee wanted. As the Yankees withdrew south towards Cold Harbor Stuart did not pursue them. Having reconnoitered the area of interest to Lee, Stuart decided to continue his ride.
Just before 3:00pm Union Brigadier General Philip St. George Cooke, now aware that the Confederates were in force behind Union lines, ordered support for the cavalry that had been attacked. Cooke, who was Stuart's father-in-law, felt the Rebels might threaten his camp and began forming a strong line. He also brought up a brigade of infantry under G. K. Warren to assist in repelling an attack. Unfortunately, corps commander Fitz-John Porter ordered Cooke not to attack a superior force.
West of White House, the massive Union supply depot, Stuart capture Tunstall's Station and tried, unsuccessfully to stop a train on the York River Railroad. With the first whistle, Stuart's men hastily constructed a barricade across the track. When he saw the obstacles on the track, rather than slow down the engineer poured on speed and smashed through the wood. A cavalryman killed the engineer with his pistol, but the fireman took over, guiding the train towards White House. The train getting through put an end to the hope of raiding McClellan's main supply depot.
Just as it had with McClellan, the Chickahominy River posed the greatest problem for Stuart. Still running high from spring rains, the Confederates had problems fording it. Stuart decided to rebuild the bridge at Forge Site which Joe Johnston had burned as he retreated up the peninsula. Using spare wood from a nearby barn, they strengthened the structure and planked its top only to set fire to it when they had crossed. The fire attracted some nearby Yankee cavalry, who skirmished with Stuart's rear guard.
Jeb Stuart left the cavalry in the able hands of Fitzhugh Lee and continued to Richmond to report to Robert E. Lee late on June 14th. Fitz Lee camped behind Confederate lines on June 15th and the column returned to Richmond the following day. Stuart had ridden ahead to inform General Lee of his success. Confederate papers had a heyday with the expedition.
About the time Stuart was leaving to report to Lee, McClellan made his first report to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:
A rebel force of cavalry and artillery, variously estimated at from 1,000 to 5,000, came around our right flank last evening, attacked and drove in a picket guard...at Old Church; they proceeded to a landing 3 miles above White House, where they burned two forage schooners and destroyed some wagons. Then they struck the railroad at Tunstall’s Station, fired into a train of cars, killing some 5 or 6. Here they met a force of infantry which I sent down to meet them, when they ran off. I have several cavalry detachments out after them and hope to punish them. No damage has been done to the railroad.
Three separate dates are sometimes given for the end of the expedition, June 14th (when Stuart arrived at Lee's command center), June 15th (when a majority of troops crossed into Confederate territory) and June 16th, when Fitz Lee reached Richmond.
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Stuart's Ride Around McClellan was last changed on - June 14, 2009
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