The 150th anniversary of Jeb Stuart’s famous Chickahominy Raid began two days ago. Stuart departed the Richmond area at 2 a.m. on June 12, 1862 and rode with 1,200 troopers north. Probably only Stuart and John Mosby knew the real destination as rumors floated up and down the column that they were headed to the Shenandoah Valley to help Stonewall Jackson who was fresh off big victories at Port Republic and Cross Keys.
By mid-afternoon the greens and yellows of distant trees and fields shimmered as the temperature passed eighty degrees and climbed higher. The mixed sounds of cicadas and grasshoppers hammered the ears and drowned out all else. Soldiers scanned the rare blue sky for rain clouds but the sunshine beat down on the backs of the animals and the men as the column turned in a northerly direction toward Ashland. The dust rose caking eyes and mouths making the ride especially difficult for Lieutenant Colonel Will Martin’s Mississippi horsemen and Lieutenant James Breathed’s artillerists who carried the tail of the expedition.
As the sun approached the western horizon the column stopped for the night on Winston’s farm, just north of Ashland next to the RF&P Railroad. Corn dodgers and dried bacon, scraped out of haversacks, served as a cold supper since Stuart had ordered no fires and no noise. The men fed their horses and unhitched their bedrolls. The unfortunate ones who did not have picket or guard duty soon hit the ground fast asleep.
A few hours later, the pale outline of a new day, Friday the 13th of June, began to grow in the eastern sky as the gray troopers rolled up their blankets, fed their horses and themselves. The men mounted their steeds without a bugle call. A small detachment of 9th Virginia cavalrymen led by Adjutant William Todd Robins formed the advance guard and they entered the road and turned east toward Hanover Court House. A squadron of companies B and C led by Captain Samuel A. Swan followed. Two more companies, E and F, under Captain William Latane moved forward. The enthusiasm grew for most of the men as they realized the direction of march would take them not to the Shenandoah Valley, but toward the enemy’s right flank.
Sergeant George W. Beale rode next to Latane for several miles and later noted that the twenty-nine-year-old Essex County physician “seemed serious and reflective.” As Latane looked back over his shoulder at his younger brother, John, and at the faces of the men in his squadron, perhaps the gravity of his responsibility affected him. William Latane had received a promotion from lieutenant to captain a month before. He now had only a few hours left to live.
Major General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had threatened to unleash his 110,000 men on Richmond for almost a month. The approach of the Federal army had caused several panics amongst the Richmond citizenry during May. Yet McClellan’s army slowed the closer it came to Richmond. Several fights had already taken place highlighted by the stalemate of May 31 – June 1 at the Battle of Seven Pines/Fair Oaks. When General Joseph E. Johnston fell wounded from his horse on June 1, with a bullet in his shoulder and a shell fragment that broke ribs, few people could have foreseen the strategic impact that his replacement would have. General Robert E. Lee’s move from military advisor for Jefferson Davis to command of the Confederate army defending Richmond did not elicit unanimous cheers from Confederate soldiers or military officials.
Lee planned to deepen and strengthen the interior Richmond defense lines. This move would allow him to free more troops to aid in a lightning strike somewhere against McClellan’s line. He believed the best spot to attack would be the enemy right flank in Hanover County near the Pamunkey River, but he needed to be sure before committing troops there. Information gleaned by John Mosby who led three 1st Virginia Cavalry friends on a June 9 reconnaissance to the area seemed to confirm that, yes, the Union right flank might be open.
Stuart carried this compelling information to General Lee and what the army commander heard dovetailed with his idea to attack there. However, before moving forward with his plans Lee wanted additional confirmation. Stuart’s mind churned at the possibilities when Lee said that he wanted a cavalry expedition to further investigate the Federal right flank and create some havoc in the rear. This mission stirred Stuart, for it was what every lead actor craved – a starring role in a dangerous drama.
TO BE CONTINUED Sorry but ran out of time tonight so I hope to post the loss of Captain Latane and his famous place in Confederate lore tomorrow. Thanks for your patience!
Portions excerpted from Stuart’s Finest Hour: The Ride Around McClellan, June 1862.©2013 by Angle Valley Press www.AngleValleyPress.com