In 1865 the Army and Navy Journal, the nation's leading military journal, examined the phenomenon of cavalry leadership and concluded that "the nature of cavalry service makes their commanders' presence a necessity, as in all formations for attack they lead their columns. They are supposed to possess those rare personal qualities that impart inspiration of invincibility to the squadrons they lead, and magnetize with individual daring each trooper." The South, where the mounted arm was best understood, found such a man early on, the most famous cavalryman of the Civil War--"Jeb" Stuart.
By mid-1863, Stuart was only thirty years old, and he had already performed two years of heroics with the spirit of a character out of a Sir Walter Scott novel. For him more than any Confederate general, notions of knight-errantry and chivalry informed his approach to leadership. His eagerness to project himself as a sort of plumed Knight of the Round Table, which went beyond the typical mid-nineteenth century Southern infatuation with such images, might have been fueled by Stuart's belief that he was descended from the warlike Stuart kings of Scotland.
The "Beau Sabreur of the Confederacy," as he was called, was square-built and of average height, with a natural athlete's vigorous aggressiveness. He had china-blue eyes, and rough-hewn features which prompted his West Point classmates to jokingly call him "Beauty." He attempted to hide his receding chin with a bushy cinnamon-covered beard. He dressed flamboyantly, even garishly--he wore a scarlet-lined cape that covered his tunic, a soft hat with the brim pinned up on one side by a gold star supporting a foot-long ostrich plume, elbow-length gauntlets and thigh-high boots, flowers and ribbons in his lapels, yellow sash, and golden spurs. Along with the banjoists and fiddlers which provided his headquarters music, Stuart's affectations incurred ridicule from some (mostly infantrymen), while others wrote them off as tasteless frivolities.
The same cavalier spirit that informed his taste in apparel applied to his combat style--he was a reckless adventurist, a grandstander who played up shamelessly to the newsmen and imagemakers. There was a shrewd rationale behind the whole business: "If," he observed, "we oppose force to force we cannot win, for their resources are greater than ours. We must substitute esprit for numbers. Therefore I strive to inculcate in my men the spirit of the chase." Beyond the elaborate rationale, however, remained the simple fact that "Jeb" was a noisy, ostentatious man who loved attention, and was at his best where he was liked.
Friendly and approachable, Stuart's hearty good nature made men follow him gladly. One trooper remarked that "a franker, more transparent nature, it is impossible to conceive." Artillerist James Dearing regarded Stuart as "decidedly one of the very best officers we have . . . and is generally looked upon with much confidence." As to Stuart's personal habits, Dearing observed: "he neither drinks nor smokes and is the plainest, most straightforward, best humoured man in the world." Stuart's aide John Cooke wrote that he was "ardent, impetuous, brimming over with the wine of life and of rippling flags, of martial music, and the clash of sabres." Another described Stuart as "a remarkable mixture of a green, boyish, undeveloped man, and a shrewd man of business and a strong leader."
Son of a prominent Virginia politician who had been an officer in the War of 1812, Stuart inherited his love of the limelight from his father. His mother's most obvious legacy was his lifelong religious devoutness; when he attended West Point, he was known as a "Bible class man." After graduating in the top third of the Academy's Class of 1854, he campaigned against the Comanches (where he survived an Indian bullet fired into his chest at point blank range), served in Bloody Kansas, then in 1859 accompanied the force (led by Robert E. Lee) which crushed the John Brown Raid at Harper's Ferry. In 1855 he wed the daughter of prominent cavalryman Philip St. George Cooke, but in April 1861 he resigned to join the Confederacy while his father-in-law stayed with the Union.
Stuart's early service in the first months of the Civil War with the 1st Virginia Cavalry--containing the advance of a Union army in the lower Shenandoah Valley and then pursuing and panicking the Union army after the Battle of First Manassas--led to his promotion to brigadier general in September 1861. He received command of the army's Cavalry Brigade the next month. During the winter of 1861-62 he acquired a reputation as the finest reconnaissance leader in the Virginia theater, where he did most of his scouting either alone or in a small group. By mid-June 1862, with the Confederates scrambling to protect Richmond against McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, Stuart set out from the army's lines with 1,000 cavalrymen and for the next three days made a complete circuit of the Army of the Potomac, gathering facts about Union dispositions, especially along the Chickahominy River. McClellan took such stringent measures against the repetition of the embarrassing raid that it altered his whole offensive plan and contributed, finally, to its failure. More than any other exploit, this "Chickahominy Raid" made Stuart's reputation. Even in the North it was wondered at, the New York Times observing that it "excites as much admiration in the Union army as it does in Richmond. . . . we regard it as a feather of the very tallest sort in the rebel cap." Stuart was quickly promoted to major general and given command of the newly formed Cavalry Division of two brigades.
Less than two months later, in the Second Manassas Campaign, Stuart sneaked around Maj. Gen. John Pope's northern flank and struck his supply base at Catlett's Station, capturing 300 men and such rare booty as Pope's dress uniform. In the September Maryland Campaign, he rode around McClellan a second time and sacked Chambersburg. After the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, he raided within a few miles of Washington, and tweaked the nose of Union Quartermaster Montgomery Meigs, wiring him on his own telegraph to complain about the "bad quality of the mules lately furnished, which interfered seriously with our moving the captured wagons."
At Chancellorsville in May 1863, Stuart's stealthy reconnaissance located the exposed Union flank, then screened "Stonewall" Jackson's attacking column from enemy eyes while the infantry marched into position to crush it. When Jackson was mortally wounded in the attack, Stuart stepped in and directed the entire wing of infantry competently, consolidating Jackson's gains, ensuring the victory, and receiving elaborate praise from Lee and Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill. By the summer of 1863, Stuart had earned a reputation built not only on extravagance but on effective leadership. The myths that had grown up around him by that time were helping him by placing Union cavalrymen at a psychological disadvantage, increasing the odds in his favor.
A blot was placed on Stuart's record, however, on June 9 at the battle of Brandy Station. Although the battle--the largest cavalry fight on the American continent--was a draw, the fight signaled the rise of the Union cavalry, who audaciously launch a surprise attack. Stuart was derided in all the Richmond papers. The story went around that the surprise had occurred because Stuart and his officers were "rollicking, frolicking and running after girls" at a ball the night before. Thus, at the start of the Gettysburg Campaign, Stuart, overly sensitive about his reputation, was personally mortified and resolved to vindicate himself--circumstances which multiplied his natural impetuousity. When he received discretionary orders from Lee during the march north, he took off on another grand raid around the Union army, hoping to restore his name.
| After crossing the Potomac on June 28, Stuart's division's column
headed northward, keeping to the east of the Army of the Potomac. Early on
July 1, they crawled north into Dover, about 23 airline miles northeast of
Gettysburg. There, about the time Heth's men were pushing back Buford's
cavalrymen at the start of the battle, Stuart let his men climb off their
horses and get some sleep, their first rest since the Potomac crossing. While
the men slept, scouts fanned out in the hope that one would locate the Army of
Northern Virginia. After about four hours' sleep, Stuart roused his men and
headed northwest toward Carlisle, where he expected to find provisions. After
an exhausting march, Stuart's men found the town occupied by stubborn
Pennsylvania militia. Stuart stood by all the rest of that day while Fitz
Lee's artillery vainly tried to shell the garrison into submission. Then,
about 1 o'clock in the morning of July 2, Stuart received one of the messengers
he had dispatched at Dover. The rider had found the army at Gettysburg, 25
miles to the south. Stuart gave the command, and the cavalry--Fitz Lee's, then
Chambliss's, then Hampton's brigade--headed toward the battle.|
About noon on July 2, Stuart finally found Lee's headquarters on the Chambersburg Pike about a mile west of town. He dismounted, saluted his commander and reported the arrival of his raiding party--over sixty hours late. Lee almost never criticized his subordinates, and when he did he needed few words to produce stinging shame. With Stuart standing in front of him, Lee at first rebuked him with a cold silence. He then greeted him with a question, "General Stuart, where have you been?" When Stuart attempted a reply, Lee cut him short: "I have not heard a word from you for days, and you the eyes and ears of my army!" The officers present averted their eyes at the sight of Lee scolding the proud cavalry chieftain, who looked like he had just taken a blow to the face. The interview was over.
Hampton that morning had driven off Kilpatrick's cavalry at Hunterstown, five miles northeast of Gettysburg, and Stuart saw an opportunity in that direction. Later on July 2, he and Lee worked out a plan to move out northeast of town and swoop down on the rear of the Union army. On the morning of July 3, Stuart rode quietly out the York Pike with his three brigades, plus Brig. Gen. A..G. Jenkins's. At about 10:00 A.M., the column reached a point on the Pike 2_ miles northeast of Gettysburg, then turned south onto a farm road. Their stealthy progress had been spotted by Yankee scouts, and two brigades of blue troopers were marched out the Hanover Road to block any attempts on the Union army's rear. Another setback occurred when it was found that Jenkins's brigade had not brought enough ammunition--it was forced to retire from the field.
At about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, the cavalry action began. There were charges and countercharges, after which both sides claimed they had driven the other back on their starting positions. One Confederate sergeant probably came closest to the truth when he declared it a "draw."
Stuart wrote the longest report of the Gettysburg Campaign published in the official records, arguing that the havoc caused to enemy communications and supply by his raid in the Union army's rear was worth the delay in joining Lee--but no one ever believed it. Stuart further argued pointlessly (and gracelessly) that Lee's army, in particular Early's division, was not where it was supposed to be. He pointed disingenuously to the fact that Lee had Jenkins's brigade on hand for reconnaissance, but everyone was aware of Jenkins's shortcomings. Over the years Stuart's late arrival became one of the generally accepted explanations for Lee's defeat in Pennsylvania. With Stuart on hand, his critics said, Heth would have known the composition of the Federal force in his path on the morning of July 1, and pushed boldly into the town; or, Lee would have known of the enemy's concentration and been less eager to attack frontally and more disposed to slip nimbly around the Union left. One thing seems clear: Lee gave discretion to Stuart at the beginning of the campaign and Stuart used it injudiciously.
Stuart's status at the head of Confederate cavalry was never threatened, however. He supervised a reorganization of the cavalry into a corps in September 1863 (though he was never promoted to lieutenant general, the rank appropriate to a corps commander). The next spring, as Stuart halted Federal cavalry at Yellow Tavern outside Richmond, he mortally wounded by a pistol shot in the abdomen. He died twenty-seven hours later, on May 12, 1864.
For further reading:
Blackford, William W. War Years With Jeb Stuart. New York, 1945
Burke, Davis. Jeb Stuart, the Last Cavalier. New York, 1957
Gorman, Paul R. "J.E.B. Stuart and Gettysburg." Gettysburg Magazine 1, Jul 1989
McClellan, H.B. The Life and Campaigns of Major-General J.E.B. Stuart. Boston and New York, 1885. Reprint, Little Rock, 1987
Thomas, Emory. Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart. New York 1986
_____. "The Real J.E.B. Stuart." Civil War Times Illustrated 28, Nov/Dec 1989
Trout, Robert J. They Followed the Plume: The Story of J.E.B. Stuart and his Staff. Harrisburg, PA, 1993
Wellman, Manly W. Gray Riders: Jeb Stuart and his Men. New York, 1954