Jubal Early: The Unreconstructed Rebel


Lieutenant General Jubal Early, the Propagandist of the Lost Cause

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

There are some people in history who have a major and sometimes malevolent impact on history who are little known to most people. One of these men is Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early. You may not have ever heard of him but his influence is still strong today in certain parts of the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the Christian Right and neo-Confederate organizations. Early is a complex, brilliant but malevolent character whose post Civil War activities, and writings influenced how generations of Americans embraced the myth of the Lost Cause as historic truth and why so  many people today support an ideology that is little more than a re-baptized Lost Cause in their fight against supposed liberals, progressives, gays, and minority groups. People who they believe threaten their place in society. 

This article is part of one of the chapters of my Gettysburg which I will continue to periodically publish here. Have a great night.


Padre Steve+ 

Jubal Early was an unusual character. He is described similarly by many to Dick Ewell in his gruffness and eccentrics. Unlike his corps commander, Ewell, who was modest and charitable, Early was “ambitious, critical, and outspoken to the point of insubordination. Under certain circumstances he could be devious and malevolent.” [1] James Longstreet’s aide Moxey Sorrel wrote of him: “Jubal Early….was one of the ablest soldiers in the army. Intellectually he was perhaps the peer of the best for strategic combinations, but he lacked the ability to handle troops effectively in the field….His irritable disposition and biting tongue made him anything but popular.” [2] Despite this, Early had proved himself as a brigade commander and acting division commander and Lee referred to him affectionately as “my bad old man.” [3]

Early was the son of a tobacco planter in Franklin County Virginia. He was born in 1816 who had served in the Virginia legislature and was a Colonel of militia. Growing up he had an aptitude for science and mathematics. He was accepted into West Point in 1833 at the age of seventeen. He was a good student, but had poor marks for conduct and graduated in the eighteenth of fifty cadets in the class of 1837. His fellow students included Joe Hooker, John Sedgwick, Braxton Bragg, and John Pemberton, later, the doomed defender of Vicksburg. Also in the class was Lewis Armistead, with whom the young Early had an altercation that led to Armistead breaking a plate over his head in the mess hall. For the offense Armistead was dismissed from the academy.

He was commissioned into the artillery on graduation in 1837. However, after experiencing life in the active duty army, including service in the in the Seminole War, Early left the army and became a highly successful lawyer and active Whig politician. He served in the Mexican war as a Major with Virginia volunteers. Unlike some of his classmates, and later contemporaries in the Civil War, Early, and his men did not see combat, instead, serving on occupation duty. In Mexico Zachary Taylor made Early the “military governor of Monterrey, a post that he relished and filled with distinction.” [4]

After his service in Mexico, Early returned to Virginia where he returned to his legal practice, serving as a prosecuting attorney. He also entered local politics where he served as a Whig in the Virginia legislature.

During his time in Mexico, Early contracted rheumatic fever, which left him with painful rheumatoid arthritis for the rest of his life. Due to it he “stooped badly and seemed so much older than his years that his soldiers promptly dubbed him “Old Jube” or Old Jubilee.” [5]

Jubal Early was “notoriously a bachelor and at heart a lonely man.” Unlike many Confederate officers he had “no powerful family connections, and by a somewhat bitter tongue and rasping wit” isolated himself from his peers.[6]

Likewise, in an army dominated by those with deep religious convictions, Early was avowedly irreligious and profane, though he did understand the importance of “the value of religion in keeping his soldiers’ spirits up” and as commander of the Army of the Valley, issued orders for a stricter keeping of the Sabbath. [7] Lee’s adjutant Walter Taylor wrote of him “I feared our friend Early wd not accomplish much because he is such a Godless man. He is a man who utterly sets at defiance all moral laws & such a one heaven cannot favor.” [8] That being said Porter Alexander praised Early and noted that his “greatest quality perhaps was the fearlessness with which he fought against all odds & discouragements.” [9]

Early was a Whig, and a stalwart Unionist who opposed Virginia’s secession, voting against it because he found it “exceedingly difficult to surrender the attachment of a lifetime to that Union which…I have been accustomed to look upon (in the language of Washington) as the palladium of the political safety and prosperity of the country.” [10] Nonetheless, like so many others he volunteered for service after Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to crush the rebellion.

Robert E. Lee “appreciated Early’s talents as a soldier and displayed personal fondness for his cantankerous and profane Lieutenant …who only Stonewall Jackson received more difficult assignments from Lee.” [11] Early was the most influential of Ewell’s division commanders, and his “record in battle prior to Gettysburg was unsurpassed.” [12]

After Gettysburg Early remained in command of his division and when Dick Ewell was relieved in 1864 assumed command of the Second Corps. With the corps he conducted operations in the Shenandoah Valley as well as a raid which briefly threatened Washington D.C. in 1864. Early became “a much maligned figure in the Confederacy after his army suffered utter defeat against Philip H. Sheridan’s forces in the Shenandoah Valley during the fall and winter of 1864-65.” [13] The clamor for his relief was so great that Lee relieved Early of command on March 30th 1865, “and sent him home to await orders.” [14] However Lee handled the matter with gentleness that made ensured Early’s undying devotion. Lee wrote:

“while my own confidence in your ability, zeal, and devotion to the cause in unimpaired…I nevertheless felt that I could not oppose what seems to be the current opinion, without injustice to your reputation and injury to the service.” [15]

After the war Early went into voluntary exile until 1869, unable to reconcile life in the United States following defeat. Travelling from Cuba to Mexico and on to Canada his bitterness grew, and for the embittered General it was about honor. For Early, who had fought so hard against secession, now took the opposing view. For him, “honor resided intact in the defeated cause of Southern independence. It was now distilled, for him, in the issue of states’ rights and white supremacy.” [16]

In his efforts Early sought to “elevate Lee above any other Civil War chieftains, and to promote the idea that the South had not been defeated, only compelled to surrender against overwhelming odds.” [17] Early’s hatred for anything to do with the North was demonstrated when he “refused even to donate funds to a monument to Robert E. Lee in Richmond when he learned that the pedestal would be carved from Maine granite.” [18]

Early’s hatred a blacks grew as he got older, and “became particularly virulent when they were involved in anything connected to the war on the Confederacy.” [19] While serving as Governor, James Kemper, who was so grievously wounded during Pickett’s Charge found Early’s views so dangerous that he begged Early not to attend the unveiling of a monument to Stonewall Jackson in 1875. He wrote to Early, “for the sake of public peace and harmony, I beg, beseech and implore you, for God’s sake stay at home.” [20]

Upon his return from his voluntary exile he was sought after by Lee to help in preparation of a memoir that would explain his decisions during the war. In addition to championing Lee and writing polemics against any former Confederate officer who dared to criticize his chief. As such those writing their own memoirs were usually careful to avoid anything that might provoke Early’s wrath, or submitted their work for his imprimatur before going to publication. He shameless attacked James Longstreet and William Mahone for their post war reconciliation with the hated Yankees, as well as Longstreet’s criticism of Lee.

Early was very intelligent and he knew that the controversy surrounding his defeat in the Valley did not enhance his own reputation, so instead “It was on Lee’s credibility that Early built his postwar career.” [21] Over the course of:

“the last twenty-five years of his life the bitter General sought to get his impressions of the war on record. He took an active role in publishing the Southern Historical Papers….and achieved as a leading arbiter of questions concerning relating to Confederate military history.” [22]

Early was immensely successful in this long term effort. The results of Early’s efforts was the successful propagation of the myth of the Lost Cause and its prominence throughout many of the books, journals and other publications published after the war, even Winston Churchill’s history of the Civil War is filled with Early like lost cause images and language in his works. Referring to Southern honor, that concept that Early held so dear Churchill, echoing Early wrote “The South knew they had lost the war, and would be conquered and flattened. It is one of the enduring glories of the American nation that this made no difference to the Confederate resistance.” [23] The idea that Churchill espoused, that Confederate “honor” was one of the enduring glories of  the American nation” is nothing more than myth which promotes everything wrong with the Confederacy.

In February 1894 Lee’s “old bad man” took a fall on the way out of the Lynchburg Post Office. He resisted treatment though he appeared to be in shock and was both mentally and physically unwell. He attempted to continue his business but got worse and he died in Lynchburg on March 2nd 1894.

Sadly, Early’s ideas live on in the minds of many Americans, who like him have not reconciled with the results of the war and who are susceptible to his message. Early set the example for them:

“Like an Old testament prophet, Jubal supported the message by his own extreme example – his “constancy” and intransigence, his unremitting hatred for Grant (even after Jefferson Davis had forgiven the Illinoisan), his refusal to be pardoned or reconstructed or to regard the North, at least in the abstract, as anything but an evil empire.” [24]

Jubal Early’s words and actions read almost as if they come out of current Republican and Christian Right talking points. Instead of Lincoln and the Black Republicans, the enemy is Obama and the Black, Gay and Liberal Democrats. I find it chilling to read about Early and his transformation for an anti-secession Whig to an unreconstructed Rebel whose nearly pathological hatred for the Union that he had once served reminds me of people I know.


Padre Steve+


[1] Ibid. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell p.268

[2] Ibid. Girardi. The Civil War Generals p.206

[3] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.155

[4] Ibid. Osborne Jubal p.28

[5] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.83

[6] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.33

[7] Ibid. Osborne Jubal p.385

[8] Ibid. Girardi. The Civil War Generals p.207

[9] Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander edited by Gary Gallagher University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1989 p.397

[10] Ibid. Osborne Jubal p.50

[11] Gallagher, Gary W. Jubal A. Early, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History: A Persistent Legacy; Frank L Klement Lecture, Alternate Views of the Sectional Conflict Marquette University Press Marquette WI 2003 p.11

[12] Ibid. Tagg The Generals of Gettysburg p.256

[13] Ibid. Gallagher Jubal A. Early, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History p.8

[14] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.769

[15] Ibid. Gallagher Jubal A. Early, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History p.11

[16] Ibid. Osborne Jubal p.416

[17] Ibid. Pryor Reading the Man p.469

[18] Guelzo Allen C. Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2012 p.526

[19] Ibid. Osborne Jubal p.418

[20] Ibid. Osborne Jubal p.418

[21] Ibid. Osborne Jubal p.476

[22] Ibid. Gallagher Jubal A. Early, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History p.15

[23] Ibid. Gallagher Jubal A. Early, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History p.15

[24] Ibid. Osborne Jubal p.476

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Filed under civil rights, civil war, Gettysburg, History, Military, Political Commentary

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