Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Bluffing J.E.B. Stuart

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on January 2, 2013



After Christmas 1862, Robert E. Lee ordered his cavalry commander, J. E. B. Stuart, to conduct a large-scale raid north of the Rappahannock River, with the intent that Stuart would both collect as much intelligence as he could, as well as cause as much confusion and destruction as possible behind enemy lines. This was exactly the sort of thing that Stuart excelled at; he took 1,800 troopers and a  battery of horse artillery along. Stuart’s expedition got to within four miles of Fairfax Court House but, upon meeting unexpected resistance, halted his advance and then slipped away toward Confederate lines. In this letter, written 150 years ago today, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Fessenden Morse (1839-1926), an officer in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, offers an explanation that helps explain Stuart’s reluctance to press the attack:


January 2, 1863.
Last Saturday night [December 27] we suddenly received orders to march at a moment’s notice, but we remained undisturbed that night.
Sunday morning, about eight o’clock, we started off; our whole corps was posted in the Dumfries road, our brigade guarding the Wolfrun Shoals on the Occoquan. This was all done on account of a large rebel cavalry force [under J.E.B. Stuart] coming up on our left flank; we were sent out to endeavor to intercept them, but they didn’t come our way; they went around north of Fairfax Court House, having a slight skirmish there. Infantry will never catch cavalry in this country, and I hope they will give up attempting it before long.
We bivouacked that night near the Occoquan, and marched back to camp next afternoon. There was some very pretty manoeuvring, on the telegraph wires, between the two parties on Sunday. The rebels cut the wires at Burke’s Station, and telegraphed to the commander of the post at Fairfax Station to “burn all stores, wagons, etc., and abandon the post.” The officer in command suspected something wrong, and telegraphed back, “I have plenty of force to hold the place, more infantry and a battery of artillery will be here in an hour.” The truth was, there was only one small regiment of infantry, the Third Wisconsin, and two pieces of artillery, and no chance of any more for a considerable time. This [bluff] undoubtedly saved the station. A message was intercepted from the Quartermaster-General at Washington about a lot of mules. Stuart telegraphed back: “That last lot you sent me were not good; be more careful in future,” and signed his own name to it. This raid accomplished nothing in our vicinity, and could be repeated any number of times; they know every road in the country, and every house contains a friend and spy to them. We could do the same thing in Massachusetts, though I hope we shall never have the opportunity.


Morse goes on to disappointment at the lack of commitment and urgency at winning the conflict of his fellow Northerners, compared to the population of the South:


There is considerable fear felt in some quarters that this cavalry is to be followed up by a large force. Isn’t it shameful that, at this late day, anybody should be trembling for the safety of Washington? But so it is! I don’t know but what it would be better for the whole country if Washington was taken and burned. What we need is to feel that we are fighting for our lives and liberties; that is the way the rebels feel: they think that if they don’t win, they will lose every liberty. Our people seem to be in an indifferent state, not caring much about it either way; they would like to see the South conquered, if it could be done by any moderate means; but when it comes to every man and woman making some great sacrifice, they don’t think it worth while, and would rather have a disgraceful peace than a continuance of the war. They don’t seem to see that in case of such a peace, to be a native of the North would be sufficient to disgrace a man, and that we should always be considered a whipped nation. Abroad, a Northern man would be despised, and rightly. I feel much stronger about the war than I ever have before, and certainly hope that I shall never live to acknowledge such a nation as the Southern Confederacy.


Image: “Stuart’s Christmas Raid” by John Paul Strain.

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