Gettysburg Cavalry : Civil War Reconnaissance

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Battle of Gettysburg Cavalry History

Captain Samuel R. Johnston:
Battle of Gettysburg Cavalry and Reconnaissance History

Battle of Gettysburg
Civil War Cavalry at Gettysburg.gif
Civil War Cavalry at Gettysburg

Captain Samuel R. Johnston was an engineering officer in the Army of Northern Virginia during the Gettysburg Campaign, and it has long been questioned whether or not he was supposed to be the guide for Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s troops on the afternoon of July 2, 1863. This discussion will focus on Capt. Johnston’s role as a reconnaissance officer and how well he carried out that assignment.

Not much is known concerning Samuel R. Johnston. He may have been a member of the Fairfax Cavalry before transferring to the Engineers. Although attached to Headquarters of the Army of Northern Virginia, he was often on detached service with Longstreet. He conducted reconnaissance at Savage Station and Malvern Hill (both done after the major engagements) and "rendered valuable service" to J. E. B. Stuart. Longstreet was indebted to several of Lee’s staff officers, including Johnston, "for great courtesy and kindness" on the battlefields of Groveton, Manassas and Antietam. During the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville Campaigns, he helped to site artillery positions and conduct a reconnaissance of the enemy’s position. Johnston served on Lee’s staff and on detached service with Longstreet, until the end of the war. By late 1864, Johnston had risen to the rank of lieut. colonel.

In Out-Post, Dennis Hart Mahan, an instructor at West Point, noted that there was no more important duty for an officer than that of "collecting and arranging the information upon which either the general, or daily operations of a campaign must be based." A reconnaissance was necessary because even a detailed map could "never convey all the information that will enable an officer to plan, even an ordinary march, with safety..." Mahan stated that a reconnoitering officer "should be known to be cool-headed and truth-ful; one who sees things as they are, and tells clearly and precisely what he has seen." Based on his previous record, Johnston appeared to be a good officer to conduct a reconnaissance at Gettysburg.

At the end of the fighting on July 1, Gen. Robert E. Lee did not know the location of the bulk of the Army of the Potomac nor how far south along Cemetery Ridge the Union line extended. Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton, Chief of Artillery, conducted a reconnaissance on the evening of July 1, but only to locate artillery positions on the northern part of Seminary Ridge.

At about 4 a.m., July 2, Lee sent for Johnston to make a "reconnaissance of the enemy’s left and report as soon as possible." Johnston later wrote that he was joined by Longstreet’s Chief Engineer, Maj. John C. Clarke. D. H. Mahan wrote that the first duty of a reconnoitering officer was "to ascertain precisely the duty required of him; and what further should be done in case of certain contingencies that may, from the nature of the duty, be naturally looked for." Johnston stated that the only specific order he received from Lee was to "reconnoiter along the enemy’s left and return as soon as possible." Johnston claimed Lee said nothing about finding a concealed route for troops but that it had not been necessary "as that was part of my duty as a reconnoitering Officer, and would be attended to without special instructions, indeed he said nothing about the movement of troops at all, and left me with only that knowledge of what he wanted which I had obtained after long service with him, and that was that he wanted me to consider every contingency, which might arise." It appears from this statement that Johnston did not ask Lee for any clarification as to his precise responsibility on the morning of July 2.

Mahan wrote that a reconnoitering officer should obtain maps, a good telescope, aids for judging distances, writing materials, some good guides and "gain all the knowledge he can, from the local inhabitants at hand,..." Johnston stated that he was accompanied by Maj. Clarke and three or four other men (from what unit he did not say) as an escort. We can not be sure what if any equipment or maps Johnston had with him, but from his writings he does not mention talking with any of the local inhabitants.

Johnston’s was not the only reconnaissance Lee sent out on the morning of July 2. Gen. Pendleton and members of Lee’s staff were also out that morning. These groups probably went no further south along Seminary Ridge than Spangler's Woods, due to the presence of Union skirmishers. This would have prevented them from observing the low ground just north of Little Round Top and given them a distorted image of the Union line. Pendleton wrote that Johnston was with him on the morning of July 2, a claim Johnston denied. If they were together it was only for a short time.

In a post-war letter to Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws, Johnston wrote that his route was about the same as Longstreet’s counter-march. If Johnston’s route led from Lee’s headquarters near the Lutheran Theological Seminary, he could have traveled south down the west slope of Seminary Ridge and into the Willoughby Run valley. This would have taken him past the Samuel Pitzer farm and the Pitzer Schoolhouse after about 3 miles (only partially following Longstreet’s march). He then turned east to ascend the west slope of Warfield Ridge, where McLaws formed his troops later in the afternoon. Then, "following along that ridge in the direction of the round top across the Emmitsburg road and got up on the slope of round top, where I had a commanding view." Johnston seems to be saying that from Warfield Ridge he crossed the Emmitsburg Road and went onto Little Round Top, at about 5:30 a.m. This does not seem possible in view of known Union troop movements.

Brig. Gen. John Buford had bivouacked on the left of the Union line on the evening of July 1 with two brigades (about 2600 men). He was patrolling the Union left on the morning of July 2 and had sent patrols out as far as Fairfield (possibly a portion of the 9 NY CA). Buford’s main line seems to have been located at or near the Peach Orchard with 2 US AR (A) in support. The 6 NY CA had bivouacked in the Peach Orchard on the evening of July 1 and the 3 IN CA had bivouacked for the night in "the woods near Round Top." It is possible that Buford’s cavalry screen was thin enough to have allowed a small group of riders to penetrate.

Brig. Gen. John W. Geary’s division of the Twelfth Corps (3964 men) had taken position of the Union left on the early evening of July 1. His troops were posted between Little Round Top and the George Weikert Farm. Two regiments (5 OH IN and 147 PA IN) were posted on Little Round Top (probably on the north slope) with skirmishers thrown forward. Geary wrote that he was relieved by Third Corps troops at 5 a.m. Maj. Gen. David B. Birney, Third Corps, reported that he relieved Geary at 7 a.m. or later.

The Third Corps (about 7,267 men) had been bivouacking to the north of Little Round Top in the area of the George Weikert Farm (clearly visible from Little Round Top). The Second Corps (about 11,350 men) had bivouacked about 3 miles from town (one mile south of the Round Tops) on the evening of July 1. The corps was up and ready to march by daylight on July 2. Advancing along the Taneytown Road (along the east base of the Round Tops) they first took position east of the Taneytown Road near the intersection of Granite Schoolhouse Lane. The head of the column should have been in this area by about 5:30 a.m.

Along with some stragglers on the Emmitsburg Road, there were at least 18,000 Union troops between the Emmitsburg Road and the Taneytown Road and between Little Round Top and the George Weikert Farm at the time Johnston claimed to have been on Little Round Top. This seems improbable, as according to Captain Lemuel B. Norton, Chief Signal Officer of the Army of the Potomac, a signal station was established on Little Round Top by 11 P.M. July 1, and remained open until July 6. The signalmen surely would have encountered Johnston. It is possible that Johnston, in order to avoid being seen himself, somehow skirted these troops and went to Big Round Top instead. Although offering a "commanding view", the thickness of the woods and Little Round Top itself, would have prevented Johnston from seeing much of anything north of this position. Yet, a Union officer, Captain Francis Donaldson of the 118th Pennsylvania, wrote that his regiment was sent to Big Round the following day (July 3) where they enjoyed, "a commanding view of the whole field." Is it possible that Johnston was able to see the Union line from the summit of Big Round Top if that is actually where he went? Was there a break in the trees that is not visible in period photos of the hill? No one can know for certain, but it may have been possible for Johnston to see what he claimed.

Johnston wrote that after leaving the Round Tops he rode along the base to beyond the area occupied by Hood’s Division and "where there was a cavalry fight (either Farnsworth or Merritt). He spotted three or four Union cavalrymen on the Emmitsburg Road and allowed them to pass before recrossing the road and then took "the most direct route" back to Lee’s headquarters. Johnston admitted that there was "the usual delay in finding headquarters." (Either Lee had moved his headquarters, which seems unlikely, or Johnston is implying, in an off-handed way, that he was lost. Not a good sign for a competent reconnaissance officer in open farm country.)

Johnston reported to Lee at about 7 a.m., having been gone for about 3 hours. (Since he did not have a watch, Johnston was unsure of the time.) Lee was in conference with Longstreet and Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill studying a map. Johnston sketched his route on the map and Lee expressed surprise at his having gotten so far. When Longstreet and Hill moved off Johnston and Lee "talked of the topographical features of the country." Lee then said he wanted Johnston "to join General Longstreet. No other instructions whatever were given me. I fully understood that to mean that I was to go with General Longstreet to aid him in any way that I could."

Johnston’s reconnaissance did not meet all the elements of a good reconnaissance, as outlined by D. H. Mahan. When Longstreet's column was in danger of being spotted, Johnston seems to have been unable to suggest an alternate route. (One of the basic responsibilities of a reconnaissance officer.) He was able to tell Lee where the Union left was not located but he was unable to tell him precisely where it was located. (Two entirely different propositions!) It is also hard to understand how Johnston could have missed seeing and/or hearing almost 18,000 Union troops between the Emmitsburg and Taneytown Roads and between Little Round Top and the George Weikert Farm; especially if he reached the summit of Little Round Top as he claims.

It has been stated that Confederate staff work broke down during the Battle of Gettysburg and Johnston’s reconnaissance on July 2 appears to be the best example. See also Civil War Cavalry and Mounted Forces at Gettysburg: Union and Confederate Weapons, Battles, Uniforms, Roles, Tactics, and Organization.

Little Round Top in 1863
Cavalry at Battle of Gettysburg.jpg
Cavalry at Battle of Gettysburg

Recommended Reading: The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations during the Civil War's Pivotal Campaign, 9 June-14 July 1863. Description: For cavalry and/or Gettysburg enthusiasts, this book is a must; for other Civil War buffs, it possesses the qualities sought by students of the conflict. It bristles with analysis, details, judgements, personality profiles, and evaluations and combat descriptions, even down to the squadron and company levels. The mounted operations of the campaign from organizational, strategic, and tactical viewpoints are examined thoroughly. Continued below...
The author's graphic recountings of the Virginia fights at Brandy Station, Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville, the Pennsylvania encounters at Hanover, Hunterstown, Gettysburg, and Fairfield, and finally the retreat to Virginia, are the finest this reviewer has read under a single cover. For those who enjoy the thunder of hoofbeats, the clang of sabers, and the crack of pistols and carbines, this book has all of it. Generals and privates share the pages, as the mounted opponents parry and thrust across hundreds of miles of territory from June 9 to July 14, 1863.

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Recommended Reading: Lee's Cavalrymen: A History of the Mounted Forces of the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865 (Hardcover). Description: A companion to his previous work, Lincoln's Cavalrymen (see below), this volume focuses on the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia its leadership, the military life of its officers and men as revealed in their diaries and letters, the development of its tactics as the war evolved, and the influence of government policies on its operational abilities. Continued below...
All the major players and battles are involved, including Joseph E. Johnston, P. G. T Beauregard, and J. E. B. Stuart. As evidenced in his previous books, Longacre's painstakingly thorough research will make this volume as indispensable a reference as its predecessor.


Recommended Reading: Lincoln's Cavalrymen: A History of the Mounted Forces of the Army of the Potomac, 1861-1865 (Hardcover). Description: Well known in Civil War circles, author Longacre (The Cavalry at Gettysburg, etc.) has written a major work on the Union cavalry of the North's primary field army in Virginia. Having mined more than 300 manuscript collections as well as numerous primary sources and secondary studies, Longacre has crafted a carefully written, well-researched tome. From the beginning of the war to Appomattox Court House, he examines the Regular Army's prewar mounted troops, then follows the genesis of the volunteer cavalry, a process that was painfully slow, especially given 1861 predictions that put the war's duration at three months. Continued below...

A perceptive chapter on arms, mounts, equipment and drill provides a fresh look at the problems inherent in raising and equipping volunteers on horseback. Included are capsule biographies and critical assessments of the cavalry's leaders, men like George Stoneman, John Buford, Alfred Pleasonton, George A. Custer and Phil Sheridan. Throughout, the author details the skirmishes, battles and raids conducted by Union cavalry without quite resorting to blow-by-blows. The focus is rather on the cavalry's role in the broader context of the war in the east and its many campaigns. Within this framework, Longacre succeeds brilliantly in showing us a crucial, much-tested force and he includes numerous photos and maps.

Recommended Reading: Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart's Controversial Ride to Gettysburg (Hardcover). Description: In June 1863, the Gettysburg Campaign is in its opening hours. Harness jingles and hoofs pound as Confederate cavalryman James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart leads his three brigades of veteran troopers on a ride that triggers one of the Civil War's most bitter and enduring controversies. Instead of finding glory and victory-two objectives with which he was intimately familiar-Stuart reaped stinging criticism and substantial blame for one of the Confederacy's most stunning and unexpected battlefield defeats. In Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart's Controversial Ride to Gettysburg, Eric J. Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi objectively investigate the role Stuart's horsemen played in the disastrous campaign. It is the first book ever written on this important and endlessly fascinating subject. Continued below…

Stuart left Virginia under acting on General Robert E. Lee's discretionary orders to advance into Maryland and Pennsylvania, where he was to screen Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell's marching infantry corps and report on enemy activity. The mission jumped off its tracks from virtually the moment it began when one unexpected event after another unfolded across Stuart's path. For days, neither Lee nor Stuart had any idea where the other was, and the enemy blocked the horseman's direct route back to the Confederate army, which was advancing nearly blind north into Pennsylvania. By the time Stuart reached Lee on the afternoon of July 2, the armies had unexpectedly collided at Gettysburg, the second day's fighting was underway, and one of the campaign's greatest controversies was born. Did the plumed cavalier disobey Lee's orders by stripping the army of its "eyes and ears?" Was Stuart to blame for the unexpected combat the broke out at Gettysburg on July 1? Authors Wittenberg and Petruzzi, widely recognized for their study and expertise of Civil War cavalry operations, have drawn upon a massive array of primary sources, many heretofore untapped, to fully explore Stuart's ride, its consequences, and the intense debate among participants shortly after the battle, through early post-war commentators, and among modern scholars. The result is a richly detailed study jammed with incisive tactical commentary, new perspectives on the strategic role of the Southern cavalry, and fresh insights on every horse engagement, large and small, fought during the campaign. About the author: Eric J. Wittenberg has written widely on Civil War cavalry operations. His books include Glory Enough for All (2002), The Union Cavalry Comes of Age (2003), and The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Final Campaign (2005). He lives in Columbus, Ohio.


Recommended Reading: ONE CONTINUOUS FIGHT: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863 (Hardcover). Description: The titanic three-day battle of Gettysburg left 50,000 casualties in its wake, a battered Southern army far from its base of supplies, and a rich historiographic legacy. Thousands of books and articles cover nearly every aspect of the battle, but not a single volume focuses on the military aspects of the monumentally important movements of the armies to and across the Potomac River. One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863 is the first detailed military history of Lee's retreat and the Union effort to catch and destroy the wounded Army of Northern Virginia. Against steep odds and encumbered with thousands of casualties, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee's post-battle task was to successfully withdraw his army across the Potomac River. Union commander George G. Meade's equally difficult assignment was to intercept the effort and destroy his enemy. The responsibility for defending the exposed Southern columns belonged to cavalry chieftain James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart. If Stuart fumbled his famous ride north to Gettysburg, his generalship during the retreat more than redeemed his flagging reputation. The ten days of retreat triggered nearly two dozen skirmishes and major engagements, including fighting at Granite Hill, Monterey Pass, Hagerstown, Williamsport, Funkstown, Boonsboro, and Falling Waters. Continued below...

President Abraham Lincoln was thankful for the early July battlefield victory, but disappointed that General Meade was unable to surround and crush the Confederates before they found safety on the far side of the Potomac. Exactly what Meade did to try to intercept the fleeing Confederates, and how the Southerners managed to defend their army and ponderous 17-mile long wagon train of wounded until crossing into western Virginia on the early morning of July 14, is the subject of this study. One Continuous Fight draws upon a massive array of documents, letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and published primary and secondary sources. These long-ignored foundational sources allow the authors, each widely known for their expertise in Civil War cavalry operations, to describe carefully each engagement. The result is a rich and comprehensive study loaded with incisive tactical commentary, new perspectives on the strategic role of the Southern and Northern cavalry, and fresh insights on every engagement, large and small, fought during the retreat. The retreat from Gettysburg was so punctuated with fighting that a soldier felt compelled to describe it as "One Continuous Fight." Until now, few students fully realized the accuracy of that description. Complimented with 18 original maps, dozens of photos, and a complete driving tour with GPS coordinates of the entire retreat, One Continuous Fight is an essential book for every student of the American Civil War in general, and for the student of Gettysburg in particular. About the Authors: Eric J. Wittenberg has written widely on Civil War cavalry operations. His books include Glory Enough for All (2002), The Union Cavalry Comes of Age (2003), and The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Final Campaign (2005). He lives in Columbus, Ohio. J. David Petruzzi is the author of several magazine articles on Eastern Theater cavalry operations, conducts tours of cavalry sites of the Gettysburg Campaign, and is the author of the popular "Buford's Boys." A long time student of the Gettysburg Campaign, Michael Nugent is a retired US Army Armored Cavalry Officer and the descendant of a Civil War Cavalry soldier. He has previously written for several military publications. Nugent lives in Wells, Maine.


Recommended Reading: Last Chance For Victory: Robert E. Lee And The Gettysburg Campaign. Description: Long after nearly fifty thousand soldiers shed their blood there, serious misunderstandings persist about Robert E. Lee's generalship at Gettysburg. What were Lee's choices before, during, and after the battle? What did he know that caused him to act as he did? Last Chance for Victory addresses these issues by studying Lee's decisions and the military intelligence he possessed when each was made.

Packed with new information and original research, Last Chance for Victory draws alarming conclusions to complex issues with precision and clarity. Readers will never look at Robert E. Lee and Gettysburg the same way again.

Bibliography: Karlton Smith, Gettysburg National Military Park; D. S. Freeman, Lee’s Lieutenant’s, Vol. III (pp. 755-756 offer an analysis of Confederate reconnaissance by Frederick Tilberg, GNMP Historian); Samuel R. Johnston, Manuscript Collection, Virginia Historical Society; Dennis Hart Mahan, Out-Post (pp. 105-112); H. L. Scott, Military Dictionary (pp. 488-492 outlines a good reconnaissance based on Mahan.); Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 27, Part 2. (See the reports of Lee, Longstreet, and Pendleton.); Harry Pfanz, Gettysburg: The Second Day.

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