General “Jeb” Stuart

J. E. B. Stuart

The Confederate Cavalier

General “Jeb” Stuart, arguably the most famous cavalry commander during the War Between the States, cut a dashing figure in his red-lined grey cape, yellow sash, red boutineer, and ostrich-plumed hat. However dressed, his Union adversaries found out on more than one occasion that he meant serious business on the battlefield. Although his forté was long range reconnaissance and offensive cavalry operations, he also distinguished himself as temporary commander of General Stonewall Jackson’s infantry corps and performed a brilliant defensive strategy at the Battle of Fredericksburg. He played such a key role in the success of the Army of Northern Virginia that General Lee described him as his “eyes and ears.” He died of wounds received during the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 12, 1864 at the young age of 31.

Early Years 

James Ewell Brown Stuart was born to Archibald and Elizabeth (neé Pannill) Stuart on February 6, 1833, in Patrick County, Virginia on the family farm, Laurel Hill. His family had a strong military heritage, with a grandfather, Major Alexander Stuart, who commanded a regiment in the Revolutionary War, and his father, Archibald Stuart, who fought in the War of 1812 before serving as a Commonwealth and U.S. Representative. His was a happy childhood of a prominent, though not wealthy, family, the seventh of twelve children and the youngest boy. He developed a love of God and nature from the example of his mother.

At fourteen, young James was sent off to school at Wyethville and subsequently to Emory and Henry College (1848–50). On July 1, 1850, James became Cadet Stuart with his appointment to West Point, noteably during Colonel Robert E. Lee’s tenure as Superintendent. He applied himself diligently and graduated 13th in a class of 46 in 1854 with the highest rank attainable, that of Cavalry Sergeant.

A Battlefield Leader

Commissioned into the U.S. Army, young Stuart was sent west and served in Texas and Kansas. He won a promotion to First Lieutenant and was transferred to the newly formed First Cavalry Regiment under Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, who was regarded as the most capable cavalry officer in the United States service. This was an occasion of great import, preparing the up-and-coming officer for the role he would soon play. Stuart fought in the war against the Apache, where he was seriously wounded in the chest, and was on hand to quell the violence of Bleeding Kansas. His commanders noted early on that he possessed a striking ability to lead men in battle.

Later, while in Washington, D.C., he was tasked with delivering orders to Lt.Col. Robert E. Lee to take a contingent of Marines and put down John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, he volunteered to serve as the Colonel’s aide-de-camp. During that operation he read the ultimatum to Brown and signaled the assault that overturned the abolitionists. He was promoted to Captain on May 14, 1861, but, with the secession of his home state of Virginia, resigned from the U.S. Army, despite his father-in-law, Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, choosing to remain in the U.S. Army for the pending conflict.

The Irrepressible Cavalier

Stuart’s consummate mastery of mounted operations would move him quickly up the ranks. He was promoted every six to eleven months with ever increasing responsibilities, finally to Major General in command of the Cavalry Corps.

Initially assigned as a Captain of Cavalry under General Johnson’s command in the Shennandoah, Stuart later led his regiment in the Battle of First Manasas and participated in the pursuit of the routed Federals. He then directed the army’s outposts until given command of the cavalry brigade. Besides leading the cavalry in the Army of Northern Virginia’s fights at the Seven Days Battle, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Stuart was also a raider. Twice he led his command around McClellan’s army, once in the Peninsula Campaign and once after the battle of Antietam.

The Tide Turns

General Stuart gained a lot of detractors for his performance leading up to and during the Battle of Gettysburg. Perhaps it was as much due with his previous brilliance as to his actual performance, but many felt severely let down. At the Battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry engagement in North America, a Federal cavalry that was showing rising competency caught Stuart by surprise. The Confederates held the field at the end of the day but the heretofore invincible Southern mounted arm was only able eke out a draw.

Then, as the Confederates marched toward Gettysburg, Stuart separated himself from the Lee’s lead element in another encircling maneuver, leaving his commanding officer deep in enemy territory and blind as to the terrain, roads, and Union troop disposition, thus causing him to commit his troops before he had planned.

Finally, on the last day of the battle, Union cavalry under Generals Gregg and Custer checked Stuart’s end run into the Federal rear, stymieing his attempt to disrupt their lines of communication.

The End of Stuart’s War

In May of 1864 newly appointed supreme commander of all Union forces, Lieutenant General Grant, pushed southward in the Wilderness Campaign. As the armies faced off at Spotsylvania, one of his commanders, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, persuaded him that his cavalry corps could disrupt Lee’s lines of communication and, perhaps, crush Stuart. Stuart met Sheridan at Yellow Tavern, six miles north of Richmond, and, although outnumbered two-to-one, repulsed the Union horsemen. However, in the battle’s closing action Stuart was mortally wounded. He died the next day in Richmond at the home of his brother-in-law, Dr. Charles Brewer. His wife, Flora Stuart, missed being at his bedside by three hours.

All I ask of fate is that I may be killed leading a cavalry charge.

— General J. E. B. Stuart

John Esten Cooke, his wife’s first cousin and one of Gen. Stuart’s staff officers, described his final moments:

As his life had been one of earnest devotion to the cause in which he believed, so his last hours were tranquil, his confidence in the mercy of heaven unfailing. When he was asked how he felt, he said, “Easy, but willing to die, if God and my country think I have done my duty." His last words were: “I am going fast now; I am resigned. God’s will be done."



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