by Andy Mateja

After a serious wound hospitalized Gen. Joseph Johnston in mid-1862, command of the Confederate army defending Richmond against a massive onslaught by Union Gen. George B McClellan was bestowed onto Robert E. Lee. At this time, Lee was a military advisor to President Jefferson Davis and itching for a battlefield command. On June 1st Lee got his wish.
One of the first command orders Lee initiated was for his cavalry chief, Gen. JEB Stuart to provide reconnaissance information about the position and strength of the Union army, currently occupying a position only six miles outside Richmond. However this was not going to be a standard reconnaissance – it would require Stuart and his troopers to ride completely around McClellan’s entire army !
Lee had known JEB Stuart in the past, both at West Point when Lee was superintendent and later as an aide in Lee’s capture of John Brown at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Stuart, like Lee, preferred offensive military tactics to defensive ones and three days after Lee took command, Stuart proposed a plan to attack the Union left. Lee was also developing an attack plan of his own and needed Stuart to locate weaknesses in the Union position.
Lee met with Stuart on June 10th and, after reviewing additional field intelligence provided by Stuart’s scouts, ordered him to make the reconnaissance in force to the north and east of the McClellan’s position. However, rather than returning with his troopers by the same route they came, Stuart proposed the continue riding completely around the Union army. He felt his men would be safer and something his Union pursuers would not expect. Lee could not formally condone Stuarts request, but allowed Stuart enough latitude to undertake his mission in the manner that would guarantee the intelligence information Lee was seeking….
Stuart headed out on June 12th with 1200 hand-picked troopers. Rumors circulated within the ranks that Stuart was heading to the Shenandoah Valley to assist Gen. Stonewall Jackson, who was already confounding and defeating scores of Union forces sent out to destroy him. Stuarts own men did not know where they were headed, as Stuart first headed north and then east and then south and east again where he ran into a company of Union cavalry. Stuart’s men charged and scattered the Federal cavalrymen while incurring their only casualty of the entire expedition – Capt. William Latane.
Continuing on, one of Stuart’s aides believed they were close enough to see McClellan’s headquarters surrounded by white tents only a few miles away. More important, Stuart had ascertained the information that Lee was seeking – the Union right flank as exposed and separated from the rest of the Union army by the Chickahominy River. Rather than returning the way he came, Stuart continued on so as to not alert the Union forces, already aware of his presence, of his real mission. As Stuart predicted, his forward advance caught the enemy of guard. It was also the most dangerous part of his ride.
Stuart’s troopers wreaked havoc on Union supplies, including burning two supply ships and almost captured a supply train. Without their horse artillery, it was impossible and had to settle with killing the engineer and watching the train speeding away toward McClellan’s main supply depot at White House on the Pamunkey River.
Stuart’s men headed for the Chickahominy River and found a local native in the ranks to advise the best place to cross. The river was raging and flooding over the ford, which made it impossible to cross there. They even cut down trees to use to ford the river without luck, as the river was wider than the tallest tree.
Fearing for the first time the real possibility of capture, Stuart sent a rider to Lee to inform him of the intelligence he had gathered on the Union right flank, and pondered where else his men might be able to cross the river before being captured by the pursuing Union cavalry. He headed downstream for about a mile a found a spot that his men could modify with nearby planks and timber. They constructed an improvised plank bridge and were able to cross single-file within a few hours. Afterwards they burned their hastily constructed bridge just as the pursuing Union cavalry arrived – too late to put out the fire and cross.
Stuart personally reported to Lee and received his hearty thanks and congratulations for his “brilliant exploit”. More important, Lee put the vital intelligence provided by Stuart to immediate use in a bold counteroffensive to push McClellan back from the gates of Richmond and free up Lee’s newly named “Army of Northern Virginia” for maneuver in Northern Virginia, outside of Washington DC and ultimately on Northern soil in Maryland………