Sunday, November 03, 2013

Fox: "STUART'S FINEST HOUR: The Ride Around McClellan, June 1862"

[Stuart's Finest Hour: The Ride Around McClellan, June 1862 by John J. Fox (Angle Valley Press, 2013). Hardcover, 7 maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:266/344. ISBN:978-0-9711950-5-9 $31.95]

JEB Stuart's famous June 12-15, 1862 "Ride Around McClellan" has been discussed in book chapters and articles*, but, until now, has escaped the type of modern full length treatment accorded so many other great Civil War mounted raids. More important than its status as a publishing "first", John Fox's Stuart's Finest Hour on many levels meets or exceeds the expectations of a demanding readership. It's not a placeholder until something better comes along.

Those familiar with Fox's earlier works, especially his excellent micro-history of the Confederate defense of Fort Gregg in 1865, will recognize the same level of sound research and serious historical narrative presented in a spirited manner. All aspects of the planning and execution of the raid, as well as the Union response, are meticulously detailed in the text. Rather than mighty clashes with the enemy, the operation's salient features were those of movement and misdirection. With a handful of picket clashes to go along with a battalion-sized skirmish on the afternoon of the 13th near Linney's Corner, fighting was on a decidedly small scale. The descriptive depth of the writing seems to indicate on the part of the author an intimate knowledge of the raid route and surrounding landscape. A good set of maps produced by George Skoch lays out Stuart's marching route, but the book also contains an extensive collection of modern photographs of sites associated with the raid. Unlike those found in many Civil War studies, the images in Stuart's Finest Hour are both professionally composed and crisply reproduced on the page.

Celebrated as it may be, the conduct of Stuart's raid is not without its critics (then and now), and Fox does a fine job of evaluating the validity of the various claims. As one example, the size of the raiding force (estimated at 1,200 riders and 2 cannon) is regarded by some as too large, suggesting that a few scouts could have gained the same amount of information in a much stealthier manner.  In their minds, the unnecessarily large scale operation jolted McClellan to an earlier recognition of the vulnerability of his right flank and logistical network north of the Chickahominy River. While these claims have some merit, Fox is persuasive in arguing that there is too much benefit of hindsight in these complaints.  The weakness, to the point of almost non-existence, of the Union cavalry screen was not known at the time and possible betraying of future plans is an inherent risk of any reconnaissance operation.  Further, the Union commander was already well aware of the exposed nature of his lines of communication and has already taken initial steps to prepare a James River logistical base.

The decision to attempt a ride completely around the Army of the Potomac is perhaps the issue most open to reasoned debate. In his main text as well as in Appendix C, Fox weighs the merits of turning back at Old Church versus continuing forward. The author presents a solid argument that both options were similarly fraught with danger. Turning back at Old Church would force Stuart into a dangerously narrow path closed off closely on the right by the Pamunkey River.  The chosen alternative of continuing forward also involved potentially serious terrain obstacles, with the added risk of requiring a river crossing without the benefit of a bridge or known ford.  Additionally, the deeper the Confederates plunged into the Union rear the easier it became for even slow moving enemy infantry to cut off the Confederate return to Richmond.   The longer ride also greatly increased the amount of time it would take to get the vital intelligence gained in the operation back to Lee, narrowing the window of opportunity to exploit the situation. Fox constructs a reasonable defense of Stuart, but it is difficult to shake the feeling as the reader that the Virginian's decision to ride a complete circuit around the Army of the Potomac was a foolhardy one that had no business succeeding as well as it did. The evidence presented in the book makes it pretty clear that even a minimally competent Union response to the raid almost could not have failed to capture or destroy a significant part of Stuart's command, if not force a complete surrender.

The picture of the opposing commanders presented in the book could not be more different. On the Confederate side, Lee made clear what was expected of Stuart; though, as later in the war during the Gettysburg Campaign, he left important details open to wide interpretation. Stuart himself was an active leader, keeping his command firmly in hand and not panicking in difficult situations. His policy of selecting units containing men familiar with the area to be traversed paid dividends on several occasions. On the other hand, with the exception of brave actions on the company level, the Union effort was bungled from top to bottom. Fox shares the conventional wisdom that McClellan misused his cavalry. In some ways, this judgment is unfair. In the spring of 1862, it was still unclear how to deploy cavalry for best effect and the Cavalry Reserve was at least organized on paper in the manner later employed by both armies. However, there is no doubt that the man selected to command the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was not equal to the task. In addition to neglecting to adequately screen the Union far right, Philip St. George Cooke was paralyzed by indecision when news of the raid reached him. Instead of attempting to rescue the floundering Cooke with transparent expectations, McClellan unhelpfully inserted another command layer, placing Cooke under the direct oversight of unsympathetic V Corps commander Fitz John Porter. When Cooke did move, he moved at a snail's pace, refusing to leave the protection of his supporting infantry. As a result, Stuart was never challenged at any point by Cooke or anyone else for that matter, the Confederate general's most serious opponent not the Union army but the flood stage Chickahominy. Unlike many Civil War figures unfairly scapegoated for failures either real or perceived, the opprobrium heaped upon Cooke by contemporaries and later historians alike appears fully deserved.

One of the most famous events linked to the raid is the death of Confederate Captain William Latane at Linney's Corner. The officer's death inspired a popular poem by John R. Thompson and the painting The Burial of Latane became an iconic image. Curiously, Fox does not reproduce either in the book, but he does author an appendix documenting the transport of Latane's body from the battlefield and his subsequent interment. Other appendices comprise orders of battle, an analysis of the decision to continue the raid beyond Old Church, a reassessment of conflicting accounts of the route used during June 12, and a link to an online driving tour.

Complaints are few and comparatively insignificant. Fox is a fine writer of military history, but some passages speculating on the thoughts and emotions of the historical actors for dramatic effect are a bit much. Also, the modern tour route mentioned above as available online [here] is a bit skeletal in its features compared with similar efforts in other books. At this time, interested parties are best served by consulting the General's Tour feature of the Mewborn article cited below. But these are minor quibbles with what is an excellent account of an event that has been relatively neglected in the literature. Stuart's Finest Hour is highly recommended reading for students of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, the command exploits of JEB Stuart, and Civil War cavalry operations in general.

* - arguably the best is Horace Mewborn's 1998 Blue & Gray Magazine feature article "A Wonderful Exploit: Jeb Stuart's Ride Around the Army of the Potomac."

1 comment:

  1. Drew, Thank you for your time spent reading and then reviewing my newest book Stuarts Finest Hour: The Ride Around McClellan, June 1862. You did a thorough assessment. One of your sentences really summed up several great qualities of Jeb Stuart: “Stuart himself was an active leader, keeping his command firmly in hand and not panicking in difficult situations.” Stuart was loved and respected because he led from the front and would not send his men anywhere that he would not go too. But more importantly, you noted that he did not panic when in a “tight spot.” As a former soldier, I can vouch that you want a commander like that leading you into the unknown.
    I also liked your noting that Stuart’s most serious opponent turned out to be not the Union army but the flooded Chickahominy River. However, what I wanted to convey to the reader was that Stuart’s men had no way to know about the slowness or the ineptitude of the Federal pursuit. When the Southern column pushed beyond Old Church they expected to get hit at any moment and the drama and stress of that fear really played out when Stuart’s tired men found themselves stopped by a swollen Chickahominy River and no easy way across.
    Stuart knew how desperate things might have been. Two years later, just before his mortal wounding at Yellow Tavern, he noted to Captain John Esten Cooke that he considered the 1862 Chickahominy Raid “was the most dangerous of all my expeditions, if I had not succeeded in crossing the Chickahominy, I would have been ruined, as there was no way of getting out.”
    Some consider Stuart’s move irresponsible, and you noted that I outlined both sides of the Old Church argument – whether to retrace his column’s route or do the really unexpected and push deeper behind enemy lines and cross the Chickahominy River and loop around the entire Union army. He of course elected to make the flamboyant move to cross the Chickahominy River, but he would not have done this without reassurances from New Kent County scouts [3rd Va. Cav] that the column could cross at Christian’s Ford or they could rebuild the burned Forge Bridge.
    The editor and I had difficulty deciding what to do with the side-story that surrounded the death and burial of Captain William Latane. We finally elected to pull the chapter on the burial and place it in the appendices. Why? Well, it seemed to stop the drama and the action of the narrative between the Linney’s Corner fight and the subsequent attack on the 5th U. S. Cavalry’s camp at Old Church and the subsequent big decisions that needed to be made by both Jeb Stuart and Philip St. George Cooke.
    You also wondered why I did not put the John Thompson poem or the William Washington painting about “The Burial of Latane.” I decided that I wanted the focus of the book to be the cavalry raid from both Union and Confederate perspectives and the resulting fame that it brought to Jeb Stuart and the demise of his father-in-law’s military career. The Thompson 1862 poem and the 1864 painting by Washington certainly made the world aware of the heroic captain but they did not add anything to the facts of the raid which is why I did not include them in the book.
    Horace Mewborn’s excellent 1998 Blue & Gray article was the blueprint that I used for my book. You are correct that this issue’s General’s Tour is an excellent feature, but my appendix does note that the route of the first day [June 12] I believe is wrong. Horace is not to be faulted as he used the “accepted” route that was established in 1956. My appendix outlines the slight change to that route.
    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to answer some questions about this book.

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