Historians have often cited the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, as the turning point of the Civil War. Historians and history buffs remain perplexed by this question: What if Gen. Robert E. Lee's chief scout, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, and his 4,500 cavalrymen had arrived on time for the first day of battle, rather than tired and on the afternoon of the second day? Would Stuart's presence have assured a Confederate victory?

The story behind his tardy arrival begins at the Fauquier County village of Rector's Crossroads (now Atoka) on June 22, 1863, and ends at the Loudoun County ford across the Potomac River called Rowser's (or Rowzie's) on June 27.

On June 22, Stuart received a directive from Lee, whose more than 80,000 troops were trekking north in the Shenandoah Valley or had already crossed the Potomac River. Lee told Stuart to send three of his five cavalry brigades across the Potomac to guard the right (east) flank of Lee's army. Lee did not suggest a crossing point.

As Union forces were about to traverse the Potomac in central and western Loudoun, Stuart was faced with two options: to cross the river west of the Blue Ridge, a two-day march from Salem (now Marshall), where most of Stuart's cavalrymen rested, or to cross in eastern Loudoun or western Fairfax County.

The latter route was longer and meant that Stuart's forces would risk encountering Union forces that were massing for their Potomac crossings nearly everywhere in Loudoun, northern Prince William County and western Fairfax.

Stuart could not afford a major engagement with them. His forces were far outnumbered, and his horsemen had just fought a four-day cavalry battle from Aldie to Upperville. That had given Lee's forces time to move northward in the Shenandoah Valley without being harassed by Union forces.

On June 23, Lee sent Stuart a second order that was ambiguous. One paragraph stated, "I think you had better withdraw this side [in the Shenandoah Valley] of the mountain [Blue Ridge] to-morrow night, cross at Shepherdstown next day, and move over to Fredericktown," meaning Frederick, Md.

But the last paragraph stated, "You will, however, be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them the damage you can, and cross the river east of the mountains."

Stuart was sleeping under a tree in the pouring rain at Rector's Crossroads, protected by a slicker, when his adjutant, Maj. Henry B. McClellan, woke him and read Lee's second order. In his 1885 book, "I Rode With Jeb Stuart: The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart," McClellan wrote: "The order was committed to my charge for the night and Stuart was soon asleep."

Such inaction on Stuart's part was unlike his take-charge attitude earlier in the war. But during the Aldie-to-Upperville actions, McClellan wrote that Stuart "personally participated in it but little, remaining, however, in close observation of the field. I asked the reason for this unusual proceeding, and he replied that he had given all necessary instructions to his brigade commanders, and he wished them to feel the responsibility resting upon them, and to gain whatever honor the field might bring."

After Stuart awoke June 24, he rode the seven miles from Rector's Crossroads to Salem. Rather than take the more direct 45-mile route to Shepherdstown and Pack Horse Ford, a relatively easy Potomac crossing since Colonial times, Stuart and 4,500 cavalrymen began a circumlocutory 70-mile journey across northern Fauquier, central Prince William and western Fairfax.

Stuart's three brigades -- his finest soldiers -- were commanded by Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton, second in command; Lee's nephew Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee; and Col. John Randolph Chambliss.

On June 25, after passing through Glascock's Gap in the Bull Run Mountains, Stuart sent his scout, Maj. John Singleton Mosby, to reconnoiter the Dranesville area of Loudoun and Fairfax to determine whether the Potomac was fordable. Mosby and his men had previously crossed at Rowser's Ford when they raided Seneca Mills, Md., on June 11.

East of Glascock's Gap and approaching Haymarket, Stuart's artillery bombarded a Federal column, "scattering men, wagons, and horses in wild confusion," Stuart noted in his only surviving report to Lee of nearly a month's events preceding Gettysburg. That report, written after the Gettysburg battle, was dated Aug. 20.

Stuart then entered Haymarket, but to avoid detection by Union scouts, he veered southwest to Buckland. Then, to further evade Federal forces, Stuart cut southeast to Brentsville on June 26 and forded two swollen streams, Cedar Run and Occoquan River at Wolf Run Shoals, in today's Fountainhead Regional Park.

The next day, as Stuart approached Fairfax Station, he clashed with Federal cavalry, "killing, wounding, and capturing" 80, in addition to "horses, arms and equipment," as noted in his report to Lee.

In the three days since Stuart's forces left Salem, they had covered about 50 miles and still were nearly 20 miles from the Potomac.

Hampton's brigade was the first of Stuart's forces to approach the Potomac. On the upper reaches of Seneca Road, in the vicinity of the channel separating Lowes Island from the mainland, Hampton met someone who had just forded the river. The man said that there were no Union pickets on the Maryland side and that the river was two feet higher than usual at Rowser's Ford.

The ford, no longer visible on the Loudoun side, was at the eastern end of Lowes Island. On the Maryland shore, the ford ended at a road to the river. That road ran to the village of Seneca Mills. Hampton's brigade crossed at Rowser's on the evening of June 27, but as the brigades of Fitzhugh Lee and Chambliss approached the ford, nearby residents told them that artillery and vehicles could not cross because of high water.

Stuart then scouted the riverbank, looking for an alternative crossing. He wrote in his report to Lee: "A ford lower down [about one mile, at a series of small islets] was examined, and found quite as impracticable from quicksand, rocks, and ragged banks. I, however, determined not to give up without a trial."

Despite the residents' warnings, Stuart decided to ride his 4,500 men across the nearly 1,800 feet of water at Rowser's.

According to Stuart's report, before midnight on June 27, "indomitable energy and resolute determination triumphed; every piece [of artillery and wagons] was brought safely over, and the entire command in bivouac on Maryland soil."

William Wallis Blackford, who crossed with Stuart, put the final crossing time at 3 a.m. in his autobiography, "War Years With Jeb Stuart."

McClellan detailed some aspects of the crossing in his book about Stuart:

"The caissons and limber-chests [a chest carrying ammunition aboard a gun carriage] were emptied on the Virginia shore, and the ammunitions were carried over by the cavalrymen in their hands. The guns and caissons, although entirely submerged during nearly the whole crossing, were safely dragged through the river and up the steep and slippery bank."

Looking at Rowser's Ford today from the Maryland side at the mouth of Seneca Creek, one sees a wide river that no one would attempt to cross on horseback. On the Virginia side today, the closest one can get to Rowser's is by a trail at the north end of Seneca Road in Great Falls Park. Although the ford was several hundred feet to the west, the river here looks as forebidding.

Stuart's men did not rest long on the Maryland shore. The next day, June 28, near Seneca Mills, they captured about 12 Chesapeake & Ohio Canal boats loaded with troops, helpers and stores. The material was to supply 90,000 Union troops that had crossed nine miles upriver from Rowser's on two pontoon bridges at Edwards Ferry, at today's Lansdowne and River Creek communities.

Stuart's detoured troops journeyed an additional 85 miles, via Rockville, Sykesville and Westminster, Md., and Hanover, Pa., where they defeated another Union force in a severe action and captured 125 wagons before they arrived at Gettysburg late on the second day of battle. Their total 155-mile journey from Salem to Gettysburg took eight days.

Had Stuart chosen the more direct route to Gettysburg from Pack Horse Ford at Shepherdstown, the distance would have been 45 miles, and the total journey of 90 miles might have taken four or five days.

Emory M. Thomas's perceptive essay on the ramifications of the eight-day, 155-mile journey implies that "strain and fatigue" might have "impaired Stuart's judgment" during the Gettysburg campaign. The essay, "Eggs, Aldie, Shepherdstown, and J.E.B. Stuart," appeared in Gabor S. Borrit's 1997 compilation, "The Gettysburg Nobody Knows."

Thomas's essay closes with these words: "He [Stuart] was long-term tired before the campaign even began. Stuart then became exhausted to the point of dysfunction as his exertions and stress only increased during the long march toward battle."

There is no account of what Lee said when he saw Stuart. The words, however, might have been similar to those John W. Thomason Jr. attributed to Lee in his 1929 biography, "Jeb Stuart."

"Well, General Stuart, you are here at last."

Eugene Scheel is a Waterford historian and mapmaker.