The Knight-Errant of Virginia: J.E.B. Stuart

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Major General J.E.B. Stuart C.S.A.

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am continuing to periodically intersperse and publish short articles about various commanders at Gettysburg on the site. These all are drawn from my student text and may become a book in their own right.  The reason is I am going to do this is because I have found that readers are often more drawn to the lives of people than they are events. As I have noted before that people matter, even deeply flawed people, and we can learn from them.

Today’s article is about one of the most famous leaders of the Civil War, Confederate Cavalry commander James Ewell Brown “JEB” Stuart. He too is a complex character; exceptionally vain and self-seeking, capable of being a loyal friend or an implacable foe who confused fame with greatness because he did not have the depth of character to tell them apart. He led his troopers with great abandon to many victories but had little ability to reflect on his own actions which hurt the Confederate cause.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Major General James Ewell Brown Stuart was the son of a former congressman whose family went back five generations in Virginia. Like so many officers, his life is marked by contradictions. Eminently genial and fun-loving, he had a dark side of unbridled ambition and a willingness to use his rank, power and position to crush anyone who got in his way.

He graduated thirteenth in a class of forty-six at West Point in 1854. His classmates and friends included Dorsey Pender and Oliver O. Howard. A fellow cadet, as well as lifelong friend, who would serve under Stuart during the war, Fitzhugh Lee wrote of him:

“His distinguishing characteristics were a strict attention to his military duties, an erect, soldierly bearing, an immediate and almost thankful acceptance of a challenge from any cadet to fight, who might in any way feel himself aggrieved, and a clear, metallic, ringing voice.” [1]

At West Point Stuart was noted for his “lifelong religious devoutness. When he was at West Point he was known as a “Bible Class Man,” [2] and his faith would serve to define his life as much as his well-known vanity. As such, he was a close friend of Oliver O. Howard. The two were poles apart ideologically. Howard was already an abolitionist and opponent of state supremacy and states’ rights; Stuart on the other hand, was a proponent of all. When other Southern cadets “ostracized Howard, Stuart sided with the Maine Yankee. It was a courageous act in that closed society, rooted in his sense of justice and honor.” [3]

That sense of justice and honor carried with it a dark side. While he was genial and warm, he was intensely ambitious, and did not take criticism well. That would come out in his treatment of men like “Grumble” Jones and later Wade Hampton as well as other officers during his service to the Confederacy. One of his officers noted: “Stuart is an ambitious man – he wants those about him who are his friends. This is his first consideration – talent is next….A little flattery & a daring spirit will bring promotion.” [4]

Stuart was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and assigned to the Mounted Rifles, which Stuart noted was “a corps which my taste, fondness for riding, and my desire to serve my country in some acceptable manner led me to select above all the rest.” [5] Stuart would serve with the Mounted Rifles for about a year before being selected to serve in one of the first Cavalry regiments formed, the First Cavalry at Jefferson Barracks Missouri.

In the pre-war years the young officer developed a solid reputation in the army where he served on the frontier and in “Bleeding Kansas.” In those years Stuart “was already a young officer of great promise, a natural horseman with a reputation for dash and bravery gained in countless clashes with Indians throughout the West, and for steady competence in the pro- and antislavery warfare of Kansas.” [6] However, Stuart was not a political person, while he certainly understood and kept himself apprised of developments he did not appreciate the magnitude of the events. Stuart was consumed with his advancing career and his personal life and “like most Americans, had neither the time nor inclination to understand the magnitude of the sectional conflict that produced civil war.” [7]

In 1859 Stuart was on leave, visiting Washington D.C. and staying with the Lees at Arlington. He was visiting the War Department when news came of John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. He was given a letter to take to Lee which ordered Lee to take command of troops to suppress the rebellion. Stuart accompanied Lee on the mission and was sent by Lee to present terms of surrender to the raiders, who at the time were still nameless to the Federal authorities. Stuart entered the building and was confronted by Brown whom he had previously met in Kansas. After some fruitless negotiation, Stuart realized that Brown was not about to surrender. At some point, Stuart broke away and motioned for the Marines to move in. “Three minutes after Stuart had given his signal, the affair was over.” [8]

In spite of having seen first-hand the effects of the violence in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry, when secession came “Stuart was essentially unprepared.” [9] All he could do was to almost liturgically repeat “I go with Virginia” almost as an article of faith. As such, Stuart resigned his commission when Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, while his father-in-law, Colonel Philip St. George Cooke remained in Union service. Stuart could be unforgiving and such was the case now. Stuart hated his father-in-law’s decision, so much so that he re-named his son, who had been named for the elder Cooke, “James Ewell Brown Stuart,” which became “J.E.B. Stuart Jr. – Jimmy.” [10]

He commanded the 1st Virginia Cavalry in the Valley and at First Manassas and was promoted to Brigadier General in September 1861. The following month, he was given command of the army’s cavalry brigade and distinguished himself in the eyes of both General Joseph Johnston and Robert E. Lee. Johnston wrote to President Jefferson Davis praising the young brigadier “He is a rare man…wonderfully endowed by nature with the qualities necessary for an officer of light cavalry….If you add to this army a real brigade of cavalry, you can find no better brigadier-general to command it.” [11]

Lee came to share Johnston’s opinion and over the course of his service, Stuart had come to:

“demonstrate a real talent for the most mundane and most essential role cavalry played in this war – reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. No intelligence source surpassed his eye for seeing and evaluating a military landscape or an enemy’s strengths and dispositions.” [12]

This would be something that Lee came to rely and which he would dearly miss at Gettysburg.

Despite his excellence in this “most mundane” task, Stuart developed a flair and passion for the spectacular, which was first demonstrated during the Seven Days, where he took his cavalry on a circuit of McClellan’s army, which not only gathered a significant amount of intelligence, but also unnerved the Army of the Potomac. His raid was “flawlessly executed….” And Stuart “became a hero to his troopers and one of the idols of the public.” [13] Lee wrote that Stuart’s operation “was executed with great address and daring by accomplished officer.” [14] The raid did have its detractors, especially among the infantry and it also revealed something to Stuart that appealed to his own vanity, “that raiding would easily garner headlines in the Richmond papers.” [15]

Stuart Lee’s staff secretary, Colonel Robert Taylor noted that Stuart was “possessing of great powers of endurance, courageous to an exalted degree, of sanguine temperament, prompt to act, always ready for fight – he was the ideal cavalryman.” [16] Stuart also kept a lively headquarters. Taylor remarked “How genial he was! There was no room for “the blues” around his headquarters; the hesitating and desponding found no congenial atmosphere at his camp; good will, jollity, and even hilarity, reigned there.” [17]

Stuart always had his African-American banjo player with him and frequently sang around camp and on campaign. That was not always appreciated by some other officers. Wade Hampton, who in time became Stuart’s right-hand man was not impressed with the atmosphere at Stuart’s headquarters and “was not certain that he could flourish, or even survive, among such people….” [18] Lafayette McLaws wrote home complaining not only about Stuart but others:

“Stuart carries around with him a banjo player and special correspondent. This claptrap is noticed and lauded as a peculiarity of genius, when, in fact, it is nothing more but the act of a buffoon to get attention.” [19]

But Stuart was always aware of his own mortality and there was a serious side to him, often expressed in his faith, which impressed those around him. His West Point classmate and friend, Oliver O. Howard wrote:

“J.E.B. Stuart was cut out for a cavalry leader. In perfect health, but thirty-two years of age, full of vigor and enterprise, with the usual ideas imbibed in Virginia concerning State Supremacy, Christian thought and temperate by habit, no man could ride faster, endure more hardships, make a livelier charge, or be more hearty and cheerful while so engaged. A touch of vanity, which invited the smiles and applause of the fair maidens of Virginia, but added to the zest and ardor of Stuart’s parades and achievements.” [20]

At Chancellorsville Stuart assumed acting command of Jackson’s Second Corps which he led well during the battle, even impressing the infantry, who had long derided Stuart and his cavalry. Leading by example “seemed on fire.” Stuart sang as he led the Stonewall Brigade into action and “the troops joined him, singing while they loaded and fired.” One officer stated “Jeb impressed himself on the infantry.” [21]

Some believed that Stuart should have been appointed to command Second Corps after Jackson’s death, but evidently Lee valued Stuart’s role as a cavalry commander more and despite his accomplishments refused to proffer the command to Stuart. Colonel Rosser told Stuart, who was grieving the loss of his friend Jackson: “On his death bed Jackson said that you should succeed him, and command his corps.” Stuart responded “I would rather know that Jackson said that, than to have the appointment.” [22] One wonders what might have occurred during the Gettysburg campaign if Stuart had commanded Second Corps and left the cavalry to someone like the accomplished and level headed Wade Hampton.

Stuart, is another tragic figure, and that irony was that his tragedy was rooted in his success:

“He eventually became so absorbed in posturing and playing his role that he could not leave the stage or remove his mask….. He confused fame with greatness because he lacked the depth and experience to experience the difference. So consumed was he by his vision of what he ought to be that he never quite came to terms with his humanity – until he lay dying.” [23]

The knight errant of Virginia was mortally wounded less than a year after Gettysburg at the Battle of Yellow Tavern. He died twenty-seven hours after being wounded in the abdomen, suffering for most of it and unable to see his wife Flora one more time as she arrived hours after he died. Upon his death, Hampton was promoted to command what was left of the Cavalry Corps. He was mourned throughout the Confederacy. Even Grumble Jones, who had an acrimonious relationship with Stuart told his adjutant on hearing the news of Stuart’s death “You know I had little love for Stuart, and he had just as little for me; but that is the greatest loss that army has ever sustained except the death of Jackson.” [24]

Notes

[1] Davis, Burke J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier Random House, New York 1957 p.20

[2] Ibid. Tagg The Generals of Gettysburg p.356

[3] Wert, Jeffry D. Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of J.E.B. Stuart Simon and Schuster, New York 2008 p.178

[4] Ibid. Wert Cavalryman of the Lost Cause p.116

[5] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart p.27

[6] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory p.xxv

[7] Thomas, Emory M. Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK 1986 and 1999 p.61

[8] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee an abridgment by Richard Harwell, Touchstone Books, New York 1997 p.101

[9] Ibid. Thomas Bold Dragoonp.61

[10] Ibid. Thomas Bold Dragoonp.95

[11] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.149

[12] Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1992 p.167

[13] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.158

[14] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.26

[15] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.54

[16] Taylor, Walter. General Lee: His campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 With Personal Reminiscences University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska and London, 1994 previously published 1906 p.92

[17] Ibid. Taylor General Lee p.92

[18] Longacre, Edward G. Gentleman and Soldier: The Extraordinary Life of General Wade Hampton Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville TN 2003 p.83

[19] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart p.264

[20] Ibid. Girardi. The Civil War Generals p.255

[21] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.198

[22] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart p.299

[23] Ibid. Thomas Bold Dragoon pp.299-300

[24] Ibid. Wert Cavalryman of the Lost Cause p.366

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Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, leadership, Military

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