Stuart’ Finest Hour
By John J. Fox III, Angle Valley Press 2013, $31.95
James Ewell Brown Stuart resonates across the decades with as much cachet as any of the horsemen who galloped through Civil War scenes. But in late spring 1862, he projected only a modest profile, not much differentiated among several cavalrymen learning how to manage troopers in an era of changing weaponry and warfare.
Jeb Stuart became a household name by leading a few more than 1,000 mounted men on a three-day ride in June 1862. Stuart’s column covered more than 100 miles and entirely circumnavigated the Federal army under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan as it threatened Richmond.
Family matters leavened the dramatic story. Much of the Northern cavalry that vainly pursued the raiders fell under the command of General Philip St. George Cooke, whose daughter Flora was Mrs. Jeb Stuart. That made little military difference, if indeed any at all, but it appealed to a public imagination already whetted by everything about what they perceived as Southern dash that bewildered stolid Yankees.
John Fox‘s narrative tracks the hoofprints of the Confederate cavalry through the swamps and thickets around Richmond, and around the enemy host, in minuscule detail— crossroad by crossroad, across each ford, to every nightly bivouac and along the detours made by small detachments. That makes this book the first thorough monograph on its topic.
The title, Stuart’s Finest Hour, makes abundantly clear where this book stands on the impact of the ride. Fox reports the opposing view that the ride merely alerted McClellan to his flank’s vulnerability, as expressed by such incisive contemporary pundits as E. Porter Alexander, but comes down squarely on Stuart’s side. This new book will not be the definitive answer to that question. There never will be absolute answers to many of the much-mooted questions that keep fascinated Americans riveted on the vast national drama of the 1860s. Stuart’s Finest Hour, though, surely contributes fundamental background to this familiar debate.
An appendix examines the ride’s most famous human episode, the death and burial of Capt. William Latane of the 9th Virginia Cavalry, which generated renowned poetry and a familiar painting. Fox’s bibliography lists more than 200 references, two score of them manuscripts. Few refer to unfamiliar sources, which probably results from the relatively modest number of men engaged in making and resisting the ride. Seven maps illuminate the text— an absolutely necessary adjunct to a story involving so much movement. Dozens of photographs add appreciable value. Modern views enable readers to establish context, and will delight interested historians decades hence. The “then-and-now” photos in juxtaposition work especially well: Hanover Tavern in the 19th century and today; St. Peter’s Church in two war-era photos and St. Peter’s Church today.
Dust jackets usually are not writ large among a reviewer’s topics; I cannot remember having mentioned one myself in hundreds of reviews. The old rubric about not being able to tell a book by its cover remains irrefragable; but Fox’s jacket deserves mention as a striking bit of art.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.