Jeb Stuart

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Jeb Stuart

Born February 6, 1833
Patrick County, Virginia
Died May 12, 1864
Richmond, Virginia

Legendary general of the cavalry corps of the
Confederate Army of Northern Virginia

Jeb Stuart ranks as one of the great military heroes of the Confederacy. He led the cavalry corps of the South's Army of Northern Virginia in many of the Civil War's greatest campaigns, including First Bull Run (July 1861), Antietam (September 1862), Chancellorsville (May 1863), Gettysburg (July 1863), and the Wilderness (May 1864). The scouting and fighting exploits of his cavalry in these campaigns account for much of Stuart's fame. But he is also well known for leading daring raids on Union positions and supply lines during the war. In fact, Southern newspaper coverage of these raids transformed Stuart into one of the Confederacy's most respected and beloved soldiers.

Trained at West Point

James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart was born in 1833 in Virginia. One of ten children, he was an outgoing boy who was close to both his gentle, poetry-reading mother and his father, who was a prominent lawyer. Stuart enrolled in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1850, where he became one of the school's top students. In 1853, Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry) accepted a position at West Point as the school's superintendent. During the next two years, Stuart established a close relationship with Lee and the rest of his family.

After graduating from West Point in 1854, Stuart was made a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and assigned to a military post at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. During his time at Fort Leavenworth he married Flora Cooke, who was the daughter of post commander Colonel Phillip St. George Cooke. Stuart and his wife quickly started a family, producing three children over the next few years.

While stationed in Kansas, Stuart took part in many patrols against Indian raiding parties. He and his fellow soldiers also tried to put a halt to the violence that battered the Kansas Territory in the mid-1850s, when differences between proslavery and antislavery settlers erupted into an epidemic of murder and arson. In 1859, Stuart helped Robert E. Lee capture John Brown (1800–1859; see entry) at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, after Brown's violent attempt to start a mass slave uprising failed.

Stuart sides with the Confederacy

In early 1861, tensions between the Northern United States and the Southern United States led Stuart to resign from the U.S. military. For years, the North and the South had been arguing over several issues. The most important issue dividing them was slavery. Many Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played a vital role in the Southern economy and culture, and Southerners resented Northern efforts to halt or contain the practice. They argued that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. By early 1861, this ongoing dispute had convinced several Southern states to secede from (leave) the United States and attempt to form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But Northern political leaders refused to stand idly by as the United States was torn in two. They announced that they were willing to go to war to keep the Union together.

In April 1861, the war between the two sides finally began. Thousands of soldiers who had been born and raised in the South resigned from the United States military in order to join the Confederate Army. Many of the soldiers who resigned from the Federal Army left with a heavy heart. After all, they had sworn allegiance to the United States when they joined the army. But these Southerners believed that they owed an even greater allegiance to their home state, where their friends and families lived. In May 1861, Stuart joined the ranks of Southern-born Federal soldiers who decided to serve the Confederacy. He resigned from the U.S. Army and accepted a position as commander of a regiment of cavalry in the Army of Northern Virginia. This army was the largest one in the entire Confederate military.

Stuart's reputation grows

During the first year of the Civil War, Stuart became known to friend and enemy alike as one of the South's top cavalry commanders. Most of the cavalrymen under his command had grown up in rural areas, where they had learned to ride horses and shoot rifles at an early age. But few of them had any military training or background, so Stuart spent a great deal of time training them to operate together as a unit. "I regard it as a foregone [unavoidable] conclusion that we should ultimately whip the Yankees," Stuart stated around this time. "We are bound to believe that anyhow, but the war is going to be a long and terrible one first. We've only just begun it and very few of us will see the end. All I ask of fate is that I may be killed leading a cavalry charge."

By the summer of 1861, Stuart's cavalry was ready for war. In mid-July, large Union and Confederate armies confronted each other outside Manassas, Virginia, in the First Battle of Bull Run. Following the orders of Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard (1818–1893; see entry), Stuart fooled one Union army into staying away from the battlefield. He then rushed his cavalry into the thick of the battle, where they helped push the Union Army into panicked retreat. Stuart's cavalry thus proved vital in delivering a big Confederate victory in the first significant battle of the Civil War.

Over the next several months, the reputation of Stuart and his cavalry continued to grow. They showed that they had a talent for conducting raids on Union railroads and supply centers. In addition, Stuart's cavalrymen proved to be very good spies. They tracked Union Army movements with such great skill that rebel (Confederate) military leaders were able to avoid many surprise attacks from the North. Stuart's reports also helped Confederate leaders plan effective attacks on Union military positions.

Earning Lee's trust

In June 1862, General Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Stuart was delighted to hear about the promotion of his old West Point superintendent, and over the next several months he became one of Lee's most trusted officers. In fact, Stuart proved how valuable he and his cavalry could be almost immediately. In mid-June, Lee sent Stuart and his cavalry on a reconnaissance (exploration and spying) mission into southeastern Virginia, where a large Union force commanded by General George B. McClellan (1826–1885; see entry) had moved. Over the course of four days, Stuart's cavalry gathered a great deal of valuable information about the Union Army's size and movements, while at the same time avoiding all Federal attempts to catch them. One of the many Union commanders who chased Stuart was his father-in-law, General Phillip St. George Cooke. The information that Stuart gathered helped Lee develop a winning strategy to stop the invasion. "History cannot show such another exploit as this of Stuart's!" exclaimed the Richmond Daily Dispatch. "The whole country is astonished and applauds. McClellan is disgraced. Stuart and his troopers are now forever in history."

In July 1862, Lee promoted Stuart to major general and placed him in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia's entire calvary corps. Lee's decision was a good one. As historian Gary W. Gallagher noted in Civil War Journal, Stuart was "a hard-headed professional soldier who knew exactly what cavalry should do and who was as good at those tasks as anybody on either side. When it came to screening his own army, gathering information about the opposing army, and controlling the middle ground between the two armies, Stuart was unexcelled [unequalled]."

Over the next several months, Stuart's bold raids and clever scouting methods increased his fame throughout the South and his fearsome reputation across the North. During this time, however, he became almost as well known for his colorful taste in clothing as for his military abilities. Unlike other military leaders who preferred to wear regular army uniforms, Stuart wore clothing that reinforced his image as a dashing cavalryman. His garments—which often included a cape lined with red cloth and a fancy hat with a big plume (a large feather) in the band—made him instantly recognizable to Southerners everywhere and contributed to the widespread popularity of the Confederate cavalryman.

Tragedy and triumph

In late 1862 and early 1863, Stuart and his cavalry suffered a number of serious setbacks. First, in November 1862, Stuart learned that one of his young daughters had died of a fever. Then, in the first months of 1863, several of his most trusted lieutenants were killed in battle. Finally, the improved performance of Union cavalry forces around this time made scouting missions much more dangerous for Stuart and his men.

Nonetheless, Stuart's cavalry forces continued to serve the South with great effectiveness. At the end of 1862, for instance, Stuart led a successful raid deep into Northern territory. And in May 1863, the magnificent performance of Stuart and his cavalry helped the Confederacy win the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia. First, Stuart's cavalry tricked a large Union army into stopping in a poor defensive position. Then, Stuart took command of a corps of Confederate infantrymen after their leader, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (1824–1863; see entry), was wounded in battle. The actions of Stuart and his men helped Lee defeat a much bigger army and secure his greatest victory of the entire war.

Jeb Stuart and the Battle of Gettysburg

After his stunning victory at Chancellorsville, General Lee invaded the North. He hoped to seize badly needed food and supplies and create a surge of antiwar sentiment in the North. Lee knew that President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) would not be able to continue the war against the South if he did not have the support of the Northern people.

As Lee's Confederate Army pushed through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley into Northern territory, Stuart's cavalry troops worked to screen their movements from a large Union army in the area. On June 23, Lee ordered Stuart to take his cavalry on a scouting and raiding mission around the Union forces. Over the next several days, Stuart's efforts to maneuver his cavalry past the Union Army undetected were repeatedly delayed by enemy troop movements. Once he reached the lightly defended area behind the advancing Union forces, he captured more than one hundred supply wagons. But his decision to return to Lee with the supply wagons greatly slowed his progress.

In the meantime, Lee struggled to keep track of the approaching Union Army. The general had always relied heavily on Stuart's cavalrymen to scout out enemy locations and movements. Their absence made it difficult for Lee to determine the strength and whereabouts of Union forces in the region. Lee's knowledge of enemy movements grew shakier with each passing day, and the Confederate general became anxious for Stuart's return. He admitted that without Stuart's cavalry reports, "I am in ignorance as to what we have in front of us here."

In the final days of June, Lee suddenly learned that the Union Army, which was led by General George Meade (1815–1872; see entry), had drawn dangerously close. The Confederate general hastily gathered his army together at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to prepare for battle. A few days later, the famous Battle of Gettysburg began. From July 1 to July 3, Meade's Army of the Potomac and Lee's Army of Northern Virginia fought for control of the Pennsylvania countryside. For the first day and a half of the battle, Lee fought without the use of Stuart's cavalry. Stuart and his men finally returned from their mission on the evening of July 2, but their arrival was not enough to bring victory to the Confederacy. After one final day of warfare, Lee's battered rebel army retreated back to the South in defeat.

Stuart's extended absence from Lee's side has been cited by many historians as a major factor in the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. Some people argue that Stuart's long absence was Lee's fault. They argue that Lee's orders to Stuart were too confusing, and that he never should have ordered his scouts so far away. Many other historians, though, contend that Stuart was far too slow in returning from his mission. In any case, Lee badly missed Stuart's cavalry.

Stuart's death at Yellow Tavern

The controversy over Stuart's performance during the Gettysburg campaign tarnished the cavalryman's previously spotless reputation. But the dashing cavalryman did his best to ignore his critics. Instead, he became even more determined to whip his foes from the North.

In the months following the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, Stuart and his cavalry continued to strike against Union positions. But by early 1864, Union armies were marching all across the South. One of these armies was a force of ten thousand cavalrymen under the command of General Philip Sheridan (1831–1888; see entry). Sheridan wanted to stop Stuart once and for all. He immediately advanced on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, confident that General Lee would send Stuart's cavalry to stop him.

Sheridan's prediction proved to be accurate. As his Union troops made their way toward Richmond, more than forty thousand Confederate cavalry under the command of Stuart tried to halt their advance. The two cavalry corps met in full battle on May 11, 1864, at Yellow Tavern, only six miles north of Richmond. As the battle wore on, a series of charges led by Union general George A. Custer threatened to collapse Stuart's defensive position. Stuart rode over to help hold the position, only to be shot in the stomach by a Union soldier. Stuart's cavalry quickly retreated from Yellow Tavern and carried their commander into Richmond, where he died the next day.

Stuart's stand at Yellow Tavern had stopped Sheridan's advance on Richmond. But his death was a serious blow to the Confederate Army, as Lee himself admitted. "The commanding general announces to the army with heartfelt sorrow the death of Major General J. E. B. Stuart," proclaimed Lee on May 20. "The mysterious hand of an all-wise God has removed him from the scene of his usefulness and fame. To his comrades in arms, he has left the proud recollection of his deeds and the inspiring influence of his example."

Where to Learn More

Blackford, William Willis. War Years with Jeb Stuart. New York: Scribner, 1945. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.

Carter, Samuel. The Last Cavaliers: Confederate and Union Cavalry in the Civil War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.

Davis, Burke. Jeb Stuart, the Last Cavalier. New York: Rinehart & Co., 1957. Reprint, New York: Fairfax Press, 1988.

Laurel Hill. Welcome to Laurel Hill: Birthplace of General J. E. B. Stuart, CSA. [Online] (accessed on October 15, 1999).

Longacre, Edward C. Mounted Raids of the Civil War. South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1975. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

McClellan, Henry B. I Rode with Jeb Stuart: The Life and Campaigns ofMajor General J.E.B. Stuart. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.

Nesbitt, Mark. Saber and Scapegoat: J. E. B. Stuart and the Gettysburg Controversy. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994.

Pflueger, Lynda. Jeb Stuart: Confederate Cavalry General. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1998.

Thomas, Emory M. Bold Dragoon: The Life of J. E. B. Stuart. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. Reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Thomason, John W., Jr. Jeb Stuart. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1930. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Yates, Bernice-Marie. Jeb Stuart Speaks: An Interview with Lee's Cavalryman. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Pub. Co., 1997.