- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2008


Simon & Schuster

$32, 496 pages


Although devotees of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest will argue the point, countless Civil War enthusiasts think Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart’s many celebrated exploits rank him as the South’s premier cavalry officer.

In his new book, “Cavalryman of the Lost Cause,” historian Jeffrey Wert thoroughly examines the life of the flamboyant Rebel cavalier whose devoted men were the eyes and ears of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army.

Stuart was born Feb. 6, 1833, at Laurel Hill, the family home in Patrick County, Va. There he enjoyed an idyllic childhood. A playmate remembered him as “a fearless rider” who “could undergo any amount of bodily strain and fatigue.”

Desiring a military life, Stuart received an appointment to West Point in the summer of 1850. The author points out that at that time, the teenager had “endearing qualities of a generous nature and compelling personality. But ambition burned within him.”

His ambition served him in good stead. When he graduated in 1854, Stuart ranked 13th in his class.

Mr. Wert chronicles Stuart’s assignment to “the Regiment of Mounted Rifles in Texas” and subsequent 1855 transfer to the 1st U.S. Cavalry, stationed at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Over the next five years, Stuart honed his martial skills fighting against the Indians — one Cheyenne brave even shot him the chest — and helped the regiment quell disturbances in the Kansas-Missouri border war. A comrade recalled that Stuart was “worth a dozen ordinary men.”

On Nov. 14, 1855, Stuart married Flora Cooke, the daughter of Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke. Their union was a happy one, and the author uses excerpts from many of their letters to give the reader deep insight into Stuart’s personal and professional life.

At the start of the war, the young lieutenant resigned his commission and quickly returned home. Soon he was commanding the 1st Virginia Cavalry and guarding a line that stretched from Harpers Ferry westward along the Potomac River.

During this time, Mr. Wert points out, Stuart developed a close friendship with Col. Thomas J. Jackson — later “Stonewall.” He adds that even though the men had completely different personalities — Stuart was playful and outgoing while Jackson was reserved — both had an “unshakable Christian faith, fierce attachment to Virginia, and steadfast devotion to the Confederate cause.”

Over the following months, Stuart’s intense training regimen molded the 1st Virginia into a crack fighting outfit. His handpicked staff consisted of highly qualified men who, like their boisterous leader, relished adventure and a good time.

Mr. Wert traces Stuart’s subsequent rise to brigade and divisional command, minutely describing his specialty: daring raids around the Union Army. In three forays in the summer and fall of 1862, Stuart’s troopers slipped behind the Union Army, gaining needed intelligence and causing great havoc in rear areas. The Oct. 9 through 12 Chambersburg Raid even led a frustrated President Lincoln to sack Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Although these successes brought Stuart the laurels he craved, Mr. Wert writes that these risky expeditions wore out valuable Rebel horseflesh. Of the Chambersburg Raid, he comments, “Hundreds of men’s horses had broken down and were left behind.” Mr. Wert notes that Stuart’s reports always lavished praise on his Virginians - a sore point with his officers from other states.

Ironically, Stuart’s greatest victory came when he took command of Jackson’s II Corps shortly after Stonewall’s mortal wounding on the night of May 2, 1863, during the Battle of Chancellorsville.

The next morning, an animated Stuart led the attack on the well-entrenched foe, urging on his foot soldiers and merrily singing “Old Joe Hooker, won’t you come out’ the Wilderness,” as he rode just behind the firing line. Artillerist Porter Alexander later wrote, “There can be no doubt that his personal conduct had great influence in sustaining the courage of the men.”

In June, however, Stuart’s star flickered. On June 9, a force of Union cavalry and infantry surprised and almost defeated his men at Brandy Station. A fortnight later, during the opening stages of the invasion of Pennsylvania, he lead three brigades off on a still-controversial raid, leaving Lee with scant knowledge of his or the enemy’s whereabouts.

After eight days in the saddle, Stuart finally arrived at Gettysburg on July 2 with his men and horses played out. An irritated Lee opened their meeting with the caustic comment, “Well, General Stuart, you are here at last.”

Despite the fact that Stuart’s horsemen performed exceptionally well in the almost nonstop skirmishing during the army’s subsequent retreat to the Potomac, he later came under severe criticism in Richmond. For a time, rumors swirled that Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood might replace him.

That September, Lee reorganized the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia into a corps of two divisions. Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee, the commanders of the new divisions, were both promoted to major general. Although placed Stuart in corps command, he did not promote him to lieutenant general.

Mr. Wert rejects the notion that Lee took this action to punish Stuart for his failures during the Gettysburg Campaign, and speculates, “Lee thought that the responsibilities in a cavalry corps did not equal those of an infantry corps.”

On May 11, 1864, during the Battle of Yellow Tavern, a dismounted Federal soldier shot and mortally wounded Stuart. While he was in an ambulance, though, his ever-combative spirit led him to shout at some fleeing Rebels, “Go back! Go back! I’d rather die than be whipped.”

Stuart died the next evening in Richmond at the home of Dr. Charles Brewer, his brother-in-law. Those at his bedside had just finished singing “Rock of Ages.”

Mr. Wert´s well-researched and skillfully written book is an exceptional account of one of the Old Dominion’s most beloved and heroic sons.

• Steve French is the author of “Imboden´s Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign.” He can be contacted at [email protected]

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