Jeb Stuart was an exuberant warrior and a great cavalryman, whose magnificent exploits did much to promote the development of the cavalry’s preeminence among the service branches of the Confederate army. He elevated the cavalry raid to the status of an art, and, at his best, he carried out the more traditional cavalry functions of reconnaissance and force screening more effectively than any other cavalry commander on either side.
But the key phrase is at his best. Image and self-image were important to Stuart—not just personally, but as the cornerstones of his charisma and command presence—and these sometimes got in the way of his mission objectives. At Gettysburg, this had the catastrophic effect of depriving Robert E. Lee of critical reconnaissance and intelligence when they were needed most. Part of the blame belongs to Lee, who wrote Stuart’s orders very poorly; however, Stuart showed poor tactical and strategic judgment at the time of Gettysburg and contributed to the defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia and, ultimately, the demise of the Confederacy.
Among the icons of the Civil War is the warrior on horseback, and no mounted warrior was and remains more gloriously iconic than James Ewell Brown Stuart. He makes a highly appealing picture, arrayed in his trademark scarlet-lined cloak and plumed cavalier hat, a red rose adorning his broad lapel. Yet the reality of Jeb Stuart was far too complex to capture in any iconic image.
Like Stuart, the cavalry itself is for many an emblem of the Civil War. But the reality behind the role of cavalry in that conflict was, like the reality of Stuart, more complex. Even the casual Civil War buff knows that the Confederate cavalry was superior to that of the Union—at least until Philip Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign of August 7 to October 19, 1864—but the truth is that cavalry did not come easily to either side. In both the North and the South, the first top commanders thought almost exclusively in terms of infantry, artillery, and engineering. It was thanks largely to Jeb Stuart that cavalry took root in the Confederate army at all, and its development in that army owes much to the magnificent example he set.
Stuart made cavalry an indispensable branch for the Confederacy. Therein lay his great contribution to the Southern war effort, yet also his greatest failing.
James Ewell Brown Stuart—known by his first three initials, combined phonetically into the familiar “Jeb”—was born on February 6, 1833, at Laurel Hill Farm, his family’s plantation in the Blue Ridge country of Virginia, near the North Carolina line. Though not of the Tidewater, his was nevertheless a distinguished family, his great-grandfather, Major Alexander Stuart, having fought at the Battle of Guilford Court House during the American Revolution and his father, Archibald, having served in the War of 1812. Archibald Stuart went on to become a prominent attorney and politician, who served in the Virginia General Assembly and, briefly, in the U.S. Congress.
Jeb Stuart received his early education from his mother, who also imparted to him a strong belief in God and the Methodist religion. Her lessons were supplemented by those of local tutors until the boy was twelve years old, when he was sent off to school at Wytheville, Virginia, then to Danville, where he was tutored by his paternal aunt. In 1848, at fifteen, he gained admission to Emory & Henry College after being turned down for enlistment in the U.S. Army because he was too young. He did reasonably well in college but acquired a reputation for fighting, always over some issue of honor, whether actual or perceived.
Honor, of course, was not Stuart’s idiosyncrasy. His world revolved around it. When his father failed to win reelection to Congress in 1848, young Stuart assumed that any chance of his getting nominated to West Point—for the fighting lad still wanted to be a soldier—had evaporated. Yet, not entirely to his surprise, the man who had defeated the senior Stuart, Representative Thomas Hamlet Averett, nominated Jeb in 1850. The gesture, gracious as it was, was also simply the honorable thing to do.
Stuart thrived at the academy, where he was very popular. His best friends became Fitzhugh and George Washington Custis Lee, respectively the nephew and son of Robert E. Lee, who was appointed superintendent of West Point in 1852. Soon, Jeb Stuart became an intimate of the entire Lee family. He graduated with the Class of 1854, standing thirteenth out of forty-six. He achieved the rank of second captain of the Corps and was named an honorary cavalry officer because of his easy expertise in the saddle. Legend has it that, as he approached his final year, Stuart felt himself in danger of excelling so highly in academics that he would be pushed into the Corps of Engineers, which he considered a dull assignment. In truth, his grades—especially in engineering—were simply not good enough to have admitted him into the engineers, even if he had wanted such an appointment. Instead, he was commissioned on graduation a brevet second lieutenant in the United States Mounted Rifles, a cavalry unit based in Texas.
Stuart was assigned to Fort Davis in what is today Jeff Davis County, Texas, and from the end of January 1855 through much of April he led scouting missions along the San Antonio–El Paso Road. Late in the spring of 1855, he was transferred to the newly created 1st Cavalry Regiment at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, where he served as regimental quartermaster and commissary officer under Colonel Edwin V. “Bull” Sumner.
Promoted to first lieutenant soon after his transfer to Fort Leavenworth, he also met that year Flora Cooke, whose father, Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, commanded the 2nd U.S. Dragoon Regiment. Within two months of meeting, Stuart and Flora were engaged, and on November 14 they were married.
While stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Stuart saw frequent action pursuing and skirmishing with Indians and policing the guerrilla violence between proslavery and antislavery factions in “Bleeding Kansas.” On July 29, 1857, in a skirmish with Cheyenne raiders at Solomon River, Kansas, Stuart was wounded in a saber charge. Scattering a party of Indians, Stuart chased down one warrior, shooting him in the thigh with his cavalry pistol. The Indian spun around and fired back with his own pistol. Although the round struck Stuart full-on in the chest, the Indian’s weapon was old, and the wound was superficial. Over the years, popular lore, however, inflated this incident, portraying the wound as life-threatening and also suggesting that Stuart was in command of a cavalry unit, which, though gravely injured, he led back to the fort some two hundred miles away. In fact, Stuart was part of a detachment personally led by Colonel Sumner.
Shortly after Flora Stuart gave birth to a daughter—also named Flora—on November 14, 1857, Stuart was transferred to Fort Riley, where he remained until the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1859, he devised a special saber hook for fastening the cavalry saber to one’s belt. He received a patent and secured a government contract to produce the hardware. While he was in Washington, D.C., concluding the purchase agreement and pursuing an application for a position in the army’s quartermaster department, Stuart volunteered to serve as aide-de-camp to Colonel Robert E. Lee, who had just been ordered to command a company of Washington-based marines and four companies of Maryland militia to retake the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, which the militant abolitionist John Brown had seized.
At seven o’clock on the morning of October 18, Lee gave Stuart the hazardous mission of riding to the Engine House, where Brown and his band were holed up with his hostages, to deliver a surrender demand. Lee had instructed Stuart to wave his cavalry hat if Brown (as expected) rejected the demand. That would be the signal for the marines and militia to storm the Engine House. Stuart carried out his assignment with calm deliberation, delivered the message, turned from Brown, casually waved his hat, then deftly stepped out of the line of attack and fire. The operation was over within three minutes, and Brown, wounded by a deep saber blow to the back of his neck, was in custody.
As civil war loomed, First Lieutenant Jeb Stuart had no need to agonize, as many others did, over what side he would take. “I go with Virginia” is how he explained his intentions should his native state secede. The state seceded on April 17, 1861, but Stuart nevertheless accepted his promotion to U.S. Army captain on April 22. It was not until May 3 that he resigned his commission to join the Provisional Army of the Confederate States. That his own father-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, chose to remain loyal to the Union and the U.S. Army although he was likewise a Virginian, gave Stuart no pause. On the subject of loyalty, he was an absolutist, and he insisted on changing the name of his son, who had been born on June 26, 1860, from Philip St. George Cooke Stuart to James Ewell Brown Stuart Jr.
FIRST BATTLE OF BULL RUN, JULY 21, 1861
Commissioned a lieutenant colonel of Virginia Infantry in the Confederate Army on May 10, 1861, Stuart reported to Colonel Thomas J. Jackson, soon to become known as Stonewall Jackson, who was in command at Harpers Ferry of what had been designated the Army of Shenandoah. Stuart persuaded Jackson to overlook his designation as an infantry officer and allow him instead to command the Shenandoah army’s cavalry companies. Jackson agreed, and Stuart quickly consolidated these units into the 1st Virginia Cavalry Regiment. Robert E. Lee approved, and Stuart was promoted to full colonel on July 16, 1861. Thus Stuart had made himself instrumental in the very inception of the Confederate cavalry, which, for most of the war, would prove to be the preeminent mounted force on the continent.
Stuart led his cavalry in a mission to screen the advance of the Army of Shenandoah (now under the command of Joseph E. Johnston) from Winchester to Manassas during the First Battle of Bull Run. Once in the battle, he led a spectacular saber charge against a regiment of New York Zouaves, sending them into a panicked rout. Some witnesses believe that this was the action that precipitated the general Union retreat. Johnston was full of praise for Stuart’s action at First Bull Run, calling him “wonderfully endowed by nature with the qualities necessary for an officer of light cavalry. Calm, firm, active, and enterprising.” Stuart was rewarded with a promotion to brigadier general on September 24, 1861, and given command of the cavalry brigade for what became the Army of Northern Virginia.
THE “RIDE AROUND MCCLELLAN,” JUNE 12–JULY 15, 1862
In the spring of 1862, during Union general George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign targeting Richmond, Stuart led his cavalry in rear-guard actions covering the withdrawal of the Army of Northern Virginia up the peninsula in the face of McClellan’s advance. When Johnston was badly wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines on June 1, Robert E. Lee was given command of the army, which he instantly put on an offensive footing.
Lee tasked Stuart with making an intensive reconnaissance of the right flank of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac to determine its vulnerability to attack. At the head of 1,200 cavalry-men, Stuart rode out on the morning of June 12, quickly concluded that the flank was indeed exposed, then proceeded to “ride around” the entire Union army, a circumnavigation of 150 miles. He returned to Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia on July 15, with 165 Union prisoners of war, 260 horses and mules, and a wealth of supplies in tow. Not only did he deliver to Lee precisely the intelligence he needed, he elevated Confederate morale while lowering that of the Union in inverse proportion. McClellan, the vaunted “Young Napoleon,” was humiliated. Chronically hesitant and unsure of himself, McClellan was even more profoundly shaken by the “ride around.” On a more personal note, Stuart had the pleasure of defeating the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry, which was commanded by none other than his father-in-law, Colonel Cooke.
CATLETT’S STATION RAID, AUGUST 22, 1862
The “Ride around McClellan” earned Stuart promotion to major general on July 25, 1862, his cavalry brigade was expanded to divisional status, and he was personally elevated in the Confederate public eye to a position roughly equal to that of Stonewall Jackson. His triumph, however, was nearly doomed to a very short life.
On August 21, Stuart became the target of a Union raid in retaliation for the “ride around.” Narrowly escaping capture, Stuart fled without his trademark plumed hat and scarlet-lined cloak, which were eagerly appropriated by the Federal raiding party. Not to be trifled with, Stuart mounted a bigger raid the next day against Catlett’s Station, headquarters of the commander of the newly created Army of Virginia, the insufferably pompous Major General John Pope. Stuart purloined the general’s dress uniform, together with a Union payroll, and Pope’s papers, which included intelligence concerning reinforcements for the Army of Virginia. This material would prove invaluable in the coming Second Battle of Bull Run. Always ready to twist the knife, Stuart sent Pope a message: “You have my hat and plume. I have your best coat. I have the honor to propose a cartel for the fair exchange of the prisoners.” Resolutely humorless, Pope did not respond.
SECOND BATTLE OF BULL RUN, AUGUST 28–30, 1862
Stuart’s cavalry played three roles at the Second Battle of Bull Run. It scouted out the route by which James Longstreet’s “wing” of the divided Army of Northern Virginia delivered the smashing twenty-five-thousand-man assault against Pope’s flank while the Union general’s attention-was riveted on Jackson’s “wing.” The second role was acting as a screen for Longstreet’s infantry assault while protecting his flank with artillery batteries. Stuart’s third role in the battle was the pursuit of the retreating Federals after Longstreet’s assault. His men captured three hundred of Brigadier General John Buford’s cavalry brigade troopers. At Second Bull Run, Stuart made more, and more effective, use of cavalry than perhaps in any other battle of the Civil War.
MARYLAND INVASION AND BATTLE OF ANTIETAM, SEPTEMBER 17, 1862
When Lee followed up on his triumph at Second Bull Run by invading Maryland in September 1862, Stuart’s cavalry screened the northward advance of the Army of Northern Virginia. For the first time, however, Stuart was guilty of a lapse in performing reconnaissance. During a full five days of Lee’s invasion, Stuart rested his men and even threw a celebratory party for Confederate sympathizers at Urbana, Maryland. Stuart seems to have lost his “grip” on the strategic situation, which led to a Confederate defeat at the Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862).
Hard on the heels of the South Mountain exchange came the Battle of Antietam, in which Stuart used his horse artillery to attack the Union flank just as McClellan began the opening attack of the battle. Stonewall Jackson directed Stuart to lead his cavalry in a drive to turn the Union right flank and rear, to expose it to a follow-up infantry attack from the West Woods. Stuart launched probing attacks against the Union lines, but this time his artillery barrages were more than answered by Union counterbattery fire. In fact, Stuart’s probing attacks unleashed a massive reply, which actually prevented Jackson from executing the turning movement and follow-up he had planned. It was only McClellan’s inherent reluctance to follow through on his own success that saved the Army of Northern Virginia from something approaching annihilation.
THE CHAMBERSBURG RAID, OCTOBER 10, 1862
On October 10, 1862, Lee, having withdrawn into Virginia, sent Stuart to demolish a railway bridge near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, while also performing reconnaissance on Federal troop dispositions in the area and capturing civilian hostages to be used in exchange for certain Virginians being held by the Union.
Stuart expanded his brief ambitiously, performing another “ride around” of the Army of the Potomac, a cavalry dash of 120 miles performed in less than sixty hours, extending from Leesburg, Virginia, to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and back. Once again, the Union army suffered humiliation but little of strategic advantage was gained by this ride, which brought both rider and beast beyond the edge of exhaustion.
BATTLE OF FREDERICKSBURG, DECEMBER 11–15, 1862
At the end of October, McClellan commenced a desultory pursuit of Lee. Stuart responded by screening the movements of Longstreet’s corps, in the process clashing with Union cavalry as well as infantry in skirmishes near Mountville and Aldie (October 28) and at Upperville (October 29). He was crushed on November 6, not by the forces of McClellan, but by a telegram informing him that his daughter, Flora, had died three days earlier of typhoid. She was not yet five years old.
Suppressing his grief, Stuart next performed extensive reconnaissance that allowed Lee to plan the defense of Fredericksburg from the high ground overlooking the town. This put Longstreet’s corps in a virtually impregnable position when Ambrose Burnside, who had replaced McClellan as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, launched his disastrous frontal assaults on December 13, 1862. During this phase of the battle, Stuart and his cavalry operated to cover Stonewall Jackson’s flank at Hamilton’s Crossing. His horse artillery was especially devastating against Burnside’s hapless charges.
BATTLE OF CHANCELLORSVILLE, APRIL 30–MAY 6, 1863
After Fredericksburg, Stuart conducted a major raid to within a dozen miles of Washington, D.C., capturing a significant number of Union prisoners of war and supplies and destroying railway track and a bridge. Come spring 1863, he and his cavalry division were instrumental in Stonewall Jackson’s great flanking march in the Battle of Chancellorsville. On May 1, Stuart’s reconnaissance discovered that the right flank of the Army of the Potomac (now under the command of Joseph Hooker) was exposed and vulnerable. On May 2, Stuart’s cavalry led Jackson’s II Corps against that flank, thereby routing the entire XI Corps. Stuart was leading the pursuit of the retreating Federals when word caught up with him that Jackson and A. P. Hill, Jackson’s senior division commander, had been seriously wounded and were out of action. Although Brigadier General Robert E. Rodes was next in seniority among infantry commanders, he passed command to Stuart, whose reputation among the soldiers of II Corps was so high that Rodes believed the transition to Stuart at this critical moment would be more successful.
The loss of Jackson and Hill was potentially devastating, but Stuart performed well as an ad hoc infantry corps commander, following through on the flanking attack with another assault against the Union right flank on May 3. When Hill recovered sufficiently to return to duty on May 6, Stuart relinquished command to him. General Lee would have been amply justified in giving Stuart a full corps command, but he believed that his ability with cavalry was too valuable an asset and so retained him in his position.
BATTLE OF BRANDY STATION, JUNE 9, 1863
On June 5, with Lee and a pair of his infantry corps camped near Culpeper, Virginia, Stuart requested that the commanding general witness a grand field review of his troops, some nine thousand cavalrymen and four batteries of horse artillery, near Brandy Station. Lee agreed, but because he was unable to attend the June 5 review, the display was repeated on June 8. When the Southern press published stories decrying this waste of resources on vain demonstrations, Lee ordered Stuart to cross the Rappahannock on June 9 to conduct raids on advanced Union positions.
Taking note of the activity near Culpeper and Brandy Station, Major General Joseph Hooker ordered the Army of the Potomac cavalry commander, Major General Alfred Pleasonton, to attack Stuart’s cavalry. Stuart was caught by surprise, and a spectacular ten-hour cavalry fight, the biggest of the war, ensued. In the end, Pleasonton withdrew, thereby allowing Stuart to declare victory, although he had gained nothing and had allowed himself to be surprised. On balance, the Battle of Brandy Station hinted at Stuart’s vulnerability to the growing spirit and competence of the Union cavalry. The Southern press in particular took note, and Confederate morale suffered accordingly.
STUART’S RIDE AT GETTYSBURG, JUNE 25–JULY 2, 1863
As Lee maneuvered to engage the Army of the Potomac in Pennsylvania, Stuart was eager to repair the damage his reputation had suffered as a result of Brandy Station. Lee ordered Stuart to perform reconnaissance and make raids, judging (Lee wrote) “whether you can pass around [the Army of the Potomac] without hindrance” and, in the process, doing to “them all the damage you can.” He also instructed Stuart to guard the mountain passes and to screen the right flank of Richard S. Ewell’s II Corps. Poorly written and even self-contradictory, the orders left a great deal to Stuart’s interpretation and discretion. He interpreted them to provide the widest latitude possible for a third “ride around” the Army of the Potomac. In this, most military historians fault Stuart for a lapse of judgment motivated by vainglory; others fault Lee’s orders, which were framed more in the nature of suggestions than straightforward directions. In truth, what happened next was a blend of Stuart’s poor judgment and Lee’s command style.
Beginning on June 25, Stuart advanced well east of the Army of the Potomac, doing much damage to railroads and terrorizing citizens in the vicinity of Washington and Baltimore. Along the way, he found himself blocked by Federal infantry columns and was compelled to move ever farther east. Ultimately, he went so far out of his intended way that he not only failed to make contact with Ewell, but he also remained out of communication with Lee during the first two days of what had developed as the Battle of Gettysburg. In the days leading up to the single most consequential battle of the Civil War, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia was effectively blind and deaf while traversing enemy territory. It was a catastrophe of war-losing proportions.
When Stuart arrived at Gettysburg late in the day on July 2, Lee viewed the booty he brought with him—captured Union supply wagons that had served only to slow him down yet more—with disgust. No one overheard what Lee said to Stuart, except for “Well, general, you are here at last,” which Stuart himself took as a sharp rebuke. With the failure of Pickett’s Charge on July 3, all that was left for Stuart to do was to screen Lee’s retreat, which he did with great vigor and heroism. His men were the last to cross the Potomac into Virginia.
In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee was unambiguous in accepting full responsibility for the defeat. Others, however, unwilling to believe in Lee’s fallibility, blamed it all on Stuart—more precisely on Stuart’s absence—and, to a lesser extent, on James Longstreet’s lack of aggression. A balanced analysis requires taking into account Lee’s judgment and his poorly written orders as well as Stuart’s judgment and his interpretation of those orders. Had Lee been more direct in telling Stuart what he wanted or had Stuart more effectively prioritized his objectives—setting reconnaissance above all else—the outcome at Gettysburg (or wherever else in Pennsylvania the showdown battle might have been fought) could well have been very different.
OVERLAND CAMPAIGN, MAY–JUNE 1864
The Battle of Gettysburg marked Lee’s irreversible shift from an offensive posture to a defensive one. Stuart tangled with elements of the Army of the Potomac during Grant’s Overland Campaign, the bloody advance toward Richmond, but was forced to function mostly in bitter—though quite effective—rear-guard actions, as Grant, even after suffering defeat, continued his relentless advance.
At the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5–7, 1864), Stuart suffered significant casualties inflicted by George Armstrong Custer’s Michigan Brigade but was subsequently able to delay the main Federal infantry advance to Spotsylvania Court House, giving Lee critical time to set up strong defensive positions.
Sheridan used superior numbers and repeated assaults to break Stuart’s first line.
Stuart’s wounding precipitated the collapse of the Confederate position around Yellow Tavern.
BATTLE OF YELLOW TAVERN, MAY 11, 1864
Ulysses S. Grant had appointed Major General Philip Sheridan commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, only to find that the army’s commander, George Meade, continually argued with him over just how the cavalry was to be used. Sheridan sought to claim an aggressive strategic role for his command, while Meade wanted cavalry to perform the conventional functions of screening and reconnaissance. When Sheridan impudently defied Meade, asserting that he could concentrate his cavalry and whip Stuart once and for all, the Army of the Potomac commander reported the conversation to General Grant, seeking Grant’s support to threaten Sheridan with a charge of insubordination. Instead, Grant replied that Sheridan “generally knows what he is talking about,” and he instructed Meade to let him launch his operation against Stuart.
Sheridan’s first move was against the Beaver Dam Station of the Virginia Central Railroad. His troopers attacked a train transporting three thousand Union prisoners and liberated them. They then destroyed a huge cargo of rations and medical supplies Lee could ill afford to lose. Stuart, desperate, sent some three thousand of his cavalry to attack Sheridan, who had in his command nearly twelve thousand troopers.
On May 11, the forces clashed near an abandoned inn called Yellow Tavern six miles north of Richmond. Despite Sheridan’s two-to-one advantage over Stuart, it was a very close-run fight. After some three hours of combat, the 1st Virginia Cavalry charged head-on into a Union advance, pushing it back. Positioned on the top of a small hill, Stuart personally led the battle. He could hardly have made himself a more conspicuous figure, and a dismounted 5th Michigan Cavalry private, John A. Huff, a former sharpshooter, saw him, recognized him, leveled his .44-caliber revolver at him, and fired.
The round entered Stuart’s left side, penetrating his stomach before exiting his back. Few survived gut shots in the Civil War. Taken to the home of Dr. Charles Brewer, his brother-in-law, Stuart lingered until 7:38 p.m. on May 12, the day after the battle. He died before his wife could reach his bedside. Notified of Stuart’s death, Lee broke the news to his staff, remarking, as if by way of epitaph, “He never brought me a piece of false information.”