In 1993, writer/director Ron Maxwell released Gettysburg, a movie depicting the famous battle between North and South in July, 1863. Maxwell’s movie was the screen adaptation of Michael Shaara’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels. Both the novel and movie assert that Confederate Cavalry Commander Major General James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart disobeyed his orders. Instead of placing his cavalry on the right flank of the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) as it invaded Pennsylvania, Stuart conducted an unauthorized raid around the Union Army of the Potomac (AOP). This put him out of contact with General Robert E. Lee, who, in the absence of reports by Stuart, believed the AOP remained in Virginia. Surprised by the news that the AOP was rapidly descending upon his position, Lee was forced to consolidate his army and fight at Gettysburg before he was ready.
To show just how angry Lee was over Stuart’s insubordination, Maxwell filmed the following confrontation:
“Lee: Your mission was to free this army from the enemy’s cavalry and to report any movement by the enemy’s main body. That mission was not fulfilled. You left here with no word of your movement or movement of the enemy for days. In the meantime, we were drawn into battle without adequate knowledge of the enemy’s strength or position. Without knowledge of the ground.
“Stuart: There were reasons, General Lee.
“Lee: Perhaps you misunderstood your orders? Perhaps I did not make myself clear? Well, sir, this must be very clear! You, sir, with your cavalry, are the eyes of this army. Without your cavalry, we are made blind. That has already happened once. It must never happen again.” (1)
If a person never reads another account of the battle, they are left with the clear impression that the South was defeated because Jeb Stuart was more concerned with “getting his name in the papers” (2) than in obeying his orders.
After Lee’s death in 1870, the senior officers of the ANV waged a very public campaign to assign blame for the loss at Gettysburg. It was fought in a series of public addresses, newspaper articles, other periodicals, and in a series of memoirs by Lee’s senior staff and other participants of the battle. During this heated debate, Stuart’s critics charged him with flouting his orders causing Lee “to gallop toward Gettysburg like a blinded giant.” (3)
Did Stuart disobey his orders? According to the battle’s literature, the answer is a resounding yes. But could the historiography be wrong? In order to answer these questions, this paper will analyze Stuart’s orders as they appear in The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. This paper will then critique the charges leveled at Stuart by his two main accusers, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Commander First Corps, ANV and Colonel Charles Marshall, Lee’s military secretary, and the defense mounted by Colonel John Mosby, partisan guerilla attached to Stuart’s command. This paper will then examine the seminal works used in the battle’s literature to show how Stuart’s insubordination became part of the historiography until it was cemented in the movie Gettysburg.
(1) Ronald F. Maxwell. Gettysburg. Turner Home Entertainment. 1993.
(3) Douglas Southall Freeman. R.E. Lee, Volume III. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1934), 68.