There’s a special place in the Confederate pantheon for J.E.B. Stuart because he personified one of the archetypes of the South—the gay cavalier, who mocked danger, flirted with women, kept prayer book in hand, knew horseflesh, loved racing, and responded to the plink of a banjo. Stuart not only kept a banjo player with him throughout his campaigns, he actually stole the best banjo player in the Confederate army from another unit and claimed him as his own.
Stuart was born James Ewell Brown Stuart in southwestern Virginia, the son of a lawyer and politician (and veteran of the War of 1812), whose father before him had commanded Virginians in the Battle of Guildford Court House during the American War for Independence. The Stuarts were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who had achieved prominence in Virginia. His mother’s family was equally distinguished, well-to-do, and noted for its political connections. His mother was as known for her piety as his father was noted for his charm. Stuart inherited both.
Educated in the usual Virginia fashion—with a smattering of the classics—he won an appointment to West Point, where he earned the mocking nickname “beauty.” But the existing portraits we have of him—before his face was covered in a luxuriant cinnamon-colored beard—show a man of perfectly respectable looks. He had arresting blue eyes, a captivating voice, an easy manner, and a strong, athletic physique. Free spirit that he was, he enjoyed his time at West Point, earned the demerits to prove it, but did well enough to graduate thirteenth in his class academically (allegedly, he intentionally tried to lower his academic scores so that he would be assigned to the cavalry rather than the engineers, for he was already a horseman).
He served in Texas, with a unit of mounted riflemen, and was then one of the officers handpicked by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis for his elite 1st and 2nd Cavalry being organized in St. Louis. From there he was assigned to Fort Leavenworth, in the Kansas Territory, and met the daughter of another cavalry officer and Virginian, Colonel Philip St. George Cooke. Colonel Cooke’s daughter Flora, a rather homely lass but a pious Episcopalian like Stuart’s mother, was swept off her feet by the gallant cavalier. A bit bewildered by the suddenness of the thing, Colonel Cooke nevertheless assented to the couple’s marriage in November 1855. Two years later JEB Stuart became a father, and a little over a year later, he set his little daughter a good example by being confirmed in the Episcopal Church.
In Kansas, then torn by sectional rivalry, Stuart’s cavalry was charged to keep the peace, and the young 1st Lieutenant got his first glimpse of John Brown, the abolitionist terrorist who thought of himself as leading a holy war against slavery. Stuart got his second glimpse three years later, through a crack in the door of the firehouse at Harpers Ferry where John Brown had barricaded himself, his band of would-be insurgents, and his captives. At Harpers Ferry, Stuart acted as an aide to Robert E. Lee, commander of the Marines dispatched to arrest Brown, (Lee had also been JEB Stuart’s superintendent at West Point).
It wasn’t only abolitionist rowdies who occupied Stuart in Kansas. He charged into action against the Cheyenne, one of whom shot Stuart in the chest at near point-blank range. It was a credit to Stuart’s sturdy constitution that he was able to treat the wound as a mere bagatelle.
After the election of Abraham Lincoln, but before South Carolina’s secession, JEB Stuart wrote to Jefferson Davis (then serving as United States Senator from Mississippi) offering his services to any Southern army that might soon be formed. Stuart’s loyalty was to Virginia above all else, but he could not imagine Virginia abandoning her fellow Southern states if secession led to war. Secession was inevitable, and war, he thought, was likely to follow. If it didn’t, and if Virginia had no need for him in her officer corps, well then, he might just have to become a lawyer, a dread prospect.
The Happy Warrior JEB Stuart
Lincoln’s decision to wage war on the South spared JEB Stuart the humiliation of having to trade his cavalry saber for a lawyer’s shingle. He resigned a captain and was commissioned a lieutenant colonel of Virginia infantry, assigned to the command of Stonewall Jackson. Jackson transferred him to the cavalry, where Joseph E. Johnston promoted him to colonel. Stuart’s dash—and efficiency—were apparent from the start. In one early engagement (Stuart was wearing a blue coat and his old U.S. Army cavalry pants), he found himself amidst dozens of Federals, began giving them imperious orders, and then told them to surrender. They did, assuming they were surrounded by unseen Confederates, and he led them away as prisoners of war.
To train his green cavalry, he would keep them in the saddle all hours, ride them into trouble (under fire, surrounded by the enemy), and then laugh and get them out again, always coolly, always daring danger. He looked for men who relished hard-riding, who thought cavalry work was “fun” (“You don’t want to go back to camp, I know; it’s stupid there, and all the fun is out here. I never go to camp if I can help it” ), and who shared his disdain for shell-fire (he even organized a special company, Company Q, eventually abolished, to drain off from his other units the lazy, malingering, cowardly, and dull—and anyone who didn’t enjoy racing past whizzing bullets was certainly dull). As he instructed his troopers: “You are brave fellows, and patriotic ones too, but you are ignorant of this kind of work, and I am teaching you. I want you to observe that a good man on a good horse can never be caught. Another thing: cavalry can trot away from anything, and a gallop is unbecoming a soldier, unless he is going toward the enemy. Remember that. We gallop toward the enemy, and trot away, always.”
JEB Stuart had a habit of finding himself amidst the enemy—and not always by intent. At First Manassas, when his men were ordered onto the field, he called out to the unit of Zouaves before him, “Don’t run, boys. We’re here!” only to realize that the troops bore the stars and stripes of the Union, and what started as a greeting became a cavalry charge. But such was life in the cavalry—though life with Stuart’s cavalry was far different from life with, say, Sheridan’s.
With his plumed hat, scarlet cloak, thigh-high riding boots, courtly manners with women, love of fun, and affection for flowers (both giving them and receiving them as a conqueror’s garlands), he was the Middle Ages come to life, which was no coincidence, as the South was enraptured by the books of Sir Walter Scott. The knightly ideal was not remote from Virginia cavaliers, but few took it as far as JEB Stuart did. He gave his camps names like Qui Vive and Quien Sabe, and surrounded himself with the Southern equivalent of a medieval court that included a minstrel (or in this case a banjo plucker), a “fighting bishop” (the Reverend Major Dabney Ball), relations of the “King” (Robert E. Lee’s son Rooney and nephew Fitzhugh), a foreign mercenary come to join the Round Table (the Prussian Giant, Heros von Borcke, who after the war flew the Confederate battle flag from the ramparts of his ancestral castle), a golden knight errant (John Pelham, an Alabama-born West Pointer, 30 of romantic blond good looks, a bang up reputation as an athlete, and a fearlessness that petrified those it didn’t inspire, earning him the nickname “the Gallant Pelham”), and a fierce pet raccoon for a watchdog.
But all of this should not blind us to how skilled an officer he was. Joseph E. Johnston wrote of him that “He is a rare man, wonderfully endowed by nature with the qualities necessary for an officer of light cavalry. Calm, firm, acute, active, enterprising, I know of no one more competent than he to estimate the occurrences before him at their true value. If you add a real brigade of cavalry to this army, you can find no better brigadier general to command it.” In September 1861, he was duly promoted. In seven years in the regular army he had been promoted from second lieutenant to captain (which was accounted rapid promotion). But from March to September 1861, he had been promoted from first lieutenant in the United States Army to a brigadier general in the forces of the Confederate States of America. No one doubted that his swift elevation was merited. He was twenty-eight years old.
Stuart’s men were with General Joseph E. Johnston on the retreat from the Peninsula and with Lee during the defense of Richmond. It was during this latter service that his men leapt to prominence with their celebrated raid that had them riding round McClellan’s entire army, humiliating the Federal commander and having a daredevil’s good time doing it. (One of the Federal cavalry officers pursuing Stuart was his father-in-law; and there were some who thought General Cooke was more hesitant in the field than usual.)
JEB Stuart for his part, relished the danger (though he was perturbed once when a bullet sliced off half his prized moustache), and it was part of his character that he could perform his duties with the utmost skill, with the soberest estimate of the military realities of his situation, while indulging a rambunctious, fun-loving, cavalier spirit. His personality was such that if he could not entirely win over Wade Hampton (who chafed under the supremacy of the Virginians), he could warm the odd heart of Stonewall Jackson and even wheedle jokes out of him (and present him with a fine new uniform as a gift that left the western Virginian touched, and his staff delighted with amusement as they chided him to try it on). Lee regarded JEB Stuart almost as a son. And Stuart delighted Southern-sympathizing women wherever they could be found.
Nevertheless, he spoke often of the possibility of death—though in no morbid way. When he was chided for exposing himself too often to the enemy, he remarked that he was easily replaceable. He once explained his troop movements to one of his officers so that in case he was killed on the campaign, the officer could explain why Stuart had acted as he did. He was utterly committed to the cause and told his wife Flora that it was his wish that his son should “never do anything his father would be ashamed of” and should “never forget the principles for which his father struggled.”
Those principles were, of course, the defense of his native Southland and of the sovereign rights of the state of Virginia. Slavery he accepted as part and parcel of the South’s way of life, but like most men of his class, station, and background he was sympathetic, in a paternal way, towards blacks, as were many of his men. On one occasion they discovered that Yankees had stopped at a Virginia plantation and made off with a black carriage driver’s watch. The Confederates rode down the blue-bellies, and Confederate Captain William Blackford told them: “Do you see those pine saplings? Well, those ladies back there [at the plantation] tell me you treated them with respect; if you hadn’t, I would be hanging every one of you by your halter straps. Now, one of you took a watch from an old Negro back there. Hand it up to me.” The watch was surrendered and returned to its rightful owner.
JEB Stuart took pride in such knight errantry among his men. Blackford noted that “next to having a staff composed of handsome men about him, he liked to see them mounted on fine horses.” And lest you, as a decadent modern reader, suspect something awry from the mention of “handsome men” I can assure that you’re wrong. For him it was simply a matter of having knights worthy of their calling—handsome, daring, well-bred, on fine horses, laughing at hazards, and dancing and singing the night away. And lest Stuart’s fondness for balls, flirtations, and girls bearing flowers lead your thoughts down another immoral alley, we have it on the good authority of his staff officers that Stuart was utterly innocent in these matters.
Stuart was a man who stood by his vows. He told his mother, at the age of twelve, that he would never drink alcohol—and he never did. He even left orders that if he were wounded he was not to be given medicinal whiskey. He was also a keen supporter of religious revivals among the men, and told one scoffer that he regarded no calling higher than that of a clergyman. It might be hard today to find hearts so pure, but surely it is harder when Virginians, and others, no longer aspire to the spirit of the Virginia cavalier, no longer think of chivalry as an ideal to be pursued, or of knighthood as a practice for the current age. Such ambitions are gone with the wind, ground out, as JEB Stuart eventually was, by the ruthless determination of the likes of Phil Sheridan.
Fighting to the End
But before Sheridan caught up with him, JEB Stuart had his fun, including his celebrated raid on the headquarters of General John Pope. For Stuart it was a matter of settling a score. Pope’s cavalry had ambushed him, and while Stuart had made his escape, he had lost some of his accoutrements, including his famous plumed hat. Stuart’s revenge came in typical Stuart fashion. Riding in search of the enemy, Stuart found a black man on horseback singing “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.” The black Virginian told Stuart he knew exactly where Pope was, and led him there.
The Union troops were bedding down. One Federal officer said to another, “I hope JEB Stuart won’t disturb us tonight.” Then, as if on cue, gunfire, chaos, and the Rebel Yell burst into his ears, “There he is, by God!”
Pope, as it turned out, was not in his camp, but Stuart obtained the general’s coat nevertheless (he offered a prisoner exchange of the coat for his hat), and the Union foe was thrown into confusion. During the raid a buffalo robe remained in Federal hands only because it was guarded by a Newfoundland, and Stuart’s animal-loving cavaliers would never shoot a dog—no matter how prized the booty.
Stuart’s men fought in all of Lee’s campaigns—Second Manassas, Sharpsburg (followed by Stuart’s rollicking Chambersburg raid, his second circumnavigation of McClellan’s army), Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville (where Lee put Stuart in command of the Second Corps after Jackson’s fatal wound), and Gettysburg.
JEB Stuart styled himself “The Knight of the Golden Spurs,” after a female admirer in Baltimore sent him such a pair following his Chambersburg raid. But for some, the sheen wore off those spurs after his performance at Gettysburg, where his men circled round the enemy army, and raided their way through Pennsylvania, but lost track of the Federal Army and lost contact with Lee. Lee, as was his custom, had left JEB Stuart with a great deal of discretion regarding his orders—but he did not expect Stuart to leave him blind to the movements of the Federals.
In fact, the Battle of Brandy Station in June 1863 and the Gettysburg campaign that followed shortly thereafter revealed a problem that would only grow worse. The Confederate cavalry that had benefited greatly by the superiority of Southern horsemanship was getting worn out by casualties, hard campaigning, and a shortage of good replacements in both men and horses. JEB Stuart’s audacity and joyful spirit (even as he endured the loss of his daughter to illness, the gallant Pelham to shrapnel, and other losses that brought him to tears) were beginning to elicit more criticism than kudos. As the tide of war grew grimmer, the gay cavalier seemed out of place. He was accused of being shallow, vain, immature, and self-centered; he was no longer dashing, he was reckless. War had lost its glamour, and too many had died for his critics to accept Stuart as an inspiring or admirable beau ideal.
Nevertheless, he could still cut a dash, he still had the confidence of General Lee, (who always knew when to forgive and forget the inevitable shortcomings of a subordinate), and he still had the confidence of his men. And he remained spirited enough that when he saw Phil Sheridan and a substantial body of cavalry, more than 10,000 troopers, advancing towards Fredericksburg, he pursued to cut them off from what he assumed was to be a raid on Richmond. It was really a baited trap to lure Stuart to his death. JEB Stuart had no more than 4,500 men. Six miles from Richmond, he moved to block Sheridan at Yellow Tavern, where blue and grey met in battle on 11 May 1864. Stuart took his place at the van of his army—where he promised he would always be.
“General, I believe you love bullets,” said his bugler.
“No, Fred, I don’t love ’em any more than you do. I go where they are because it’s my duty. I don’t expect to survive this war.”
Colonel Charles Venable admonished JEB Stuart: “Men behind stumps and fences are being killed, and here you are out in the open.”
His response was to laugh. “I don’t reckon there is any danger.”
When the Federals charged, Stuart was behind a thin grey line of men from Company K. Stuart fired at the bluecoats with his pistol as they galloped past him, and he fired again, when the Federals retreated, repelled by a Confederate countercharge. Amidst this flowing and ebbing tide of blue, a fleeing Federal private suddenly turned and fired a .44 caliber bullet into Stuart. Stuart knew it was a mortal wound. He rallied his men and turned command over to Fitzhugh Lee: “Go ahead Fitz, old fellow. I know you will do what is right.” As he was taken from the field, he urged retreating Confederates to “Go back! Go back! and do your duty as I have done mine, and our country will be safe. Go back! Go back! I had rather die than be whipped!” He died the following night, assuring everyone, for as long as his strength lasted, that he was resigned to death if it was God’s will.
JEB Stuart’s wife grieved forever. She outlived her husband by fifty years, never remarried, and every day wore black as a sign of her mourning. Lee confessed, after Stuart’s death, that he could “scarcely think of him without weeping.” As perhaps we should all weep when we ask if it was really necessary, if it was really just, to kill men such as JEB Stuart for their devotion to their native state and the cause of Southern independence.
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