Book Review: Chasing Jeb Stuart and John Mosby: The Union Cavalry in Northern Virginia from Second Manassas to Gettysburg

Chasing Jeb Stuart and John Mosby: The Union Cavalry in Northern Virginia from Second Manassas to Gettysburg by Robert F. O’Neill, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, NC, 2012, 316 pages, $42.75.

Cavalry operations in the American Civil War have long been a subject of fascination to diverse readerships. Intermix iconic leadership, dramatic reversals and studious detail, and you have Robert O’Neill’s study on how eastern Union cavalry evolved between late 1862 and mid-1863 as they grappled with highly lethal Confederate mounted formations led by cavaliers like Jeb Stuart and John Mosby.

Arriving as a studious analysis of the cavalry brigades attached to the defenses of Washington that eventually reorganized into the Army of the Potomac on the eve of the seminal clash at Gettysburg, this work manages to provide an instructive, if overtly academic, contribution to lesser-known skirmishing and raiding during a transition period in America’s most destructive conflict. While it falls short of magisterial – which is clearly not the author’s intent – given the book’s relatively narrow scope and moderate length, it nevertheless stands as an important contribution to Civil War historiography.

Chasing Jeb Stuart and John Mosby is a scholarly study that aspires to new depths of historical value within an already well-trodden genre. Capitalizing on durable interest in the legendary and often romanticized Civil War personalities Stuart and George Armstrong Custer, the work is ideally suited for informed readers such as graduate students, amateur historians and military professionals. To that end, the book is replete with footnotes and quotes that inform without distracting, while drawing on an impressive research base.

Given that O’Neill’s stated aim is to save these Union cavalrymen from “history’s dusty attic,” he achieves his purpose (if imperfectly due to an awkwardly structured introduction and conclusion) by detailing mounted operations at the tactical and operational levels during periods generally marked by strategic pauses between more decisive campaigns. Unfortunately, heading each chapter with paired dates and quotes, without any additional context, makes the book difficult to assess at first glance.

The narrative arc of this work is chronological and centers on Union defensive operations in Virginia from early Fall 1862 until June 1863. The first half focuses on Richard Butler Price’s cavalry brigade as it “served as a tripwire along a line of picket posts” to protect Washington, DC, from potential invasion and raiding by the vaunted Army of Northern Virginia. Consisting of the 1st Michigan, 1st Vermont, 1st West Virginia and 5th New York cavalry regiments, they embrace the frustratingly dangerous task of interdicting lighting guerrilla strikes by Confederate raider Mosby’s 43rd Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, and defending against operational-level raids by Stuart’s famed mounted division.

The later chapters of the work explore the incorporation of the brigade, along with its famed Michigan counterpart, into Julius Stahel’s consolidated division in the months before Gettysburg. O’Neill expands the narrative, with admirable discipline, just wide enough to include larger strategic context while maintaining attention at tactical levels.

For readers seeking comprehensive understanding of Union cavalry development in the decisive theater of the Civil War, O’Neill’s book provides an ideal prelude to Eric Wittenberg’s new study, “The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg, while also complementing Robert Trout’s 2011 work, After Gettysburg: Cavalry Operations in the Eastern Theater. With its fixation on the timeless mounted tasks of reconnaissance, counter-reconnaissance and screen operations, modern cavalry officers and enlisted scouts will identify with the work so long as they are prepared to grapple with dense prose. O’Neill’s exploration of how Union cavalrymen negotiated the challenges of simultaneously countering conventional maneuver and “harassing attacks” – potentially similar to hybrid combat environments of the 21st Century – may offer more interest for military professionals. These dynamics, stemming from a well-researched story about American cavalries dueling for dominance across the contested Virginia landscape, establish Chasing Jeb Stuart and John Mosby as a must-read for Civil War enthusiasts.