Cavalryman of the Lost Cause
by Jeffry D. Wert, Simon & Schuster
Not long after the Civil War, Confederate Brigadier General William H.F. Payne mused on the complex legacy of J.E.B. Stuart, his former commander in the 4th Virginia Cavalry. He was “quick in conception & execution…brave as his sword,” Payne wrote, adding that Stuart was both inspiring and a “superb outpost commander” blessed with “superhuman” endurance. On the other hand, Payne marveled, “mingled with these noble gifts,” the legendary cavalryman often acted “frivolous to the verge of ridicule, almost childish at times. His conversations gave no indication of capacity…one always left him with a painful doubt as to his ability.”
The J.E.B. Stuart conundrum has fascinated generations of readers and received considerable attention in studies of the war’s leaders. Surprisingly, although Stuart looms high in the Confederate pantheon behind only Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson, a new book by Jeffry Wert, Cavalryman of the Lost Cause, is only the third serious Stuart biography ever—and the first to be generated by a lengthy, comprehensive research effort.
Major Henry B. McClellan’s 1885 book The Life and Campaigns of Major-General J.E.B. Stuart richly deserves designation as a contemporary classic. But since it focuses more on his campaigns than his life, it really cannot be classified as a biography.
John W. Thomason Jr. wrote the first true Stuart biography, Jeb Stuart, published in 1930. His rich prose and wonderful sketches make it well worth reading, but the lack of detailed research in primary sources neutralizes its long-term value.
In Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart (1986), Emory M. Thomas for the first time examined the cavalry legend on the basis of research in primary sources. For some reason, however, Thomas did not visit the National Archives—first on most research agendas. His study is long on interpretation, even ethereal psychoanalysis, as has become the norm in academic writing. An opening section, “Man as Metaphor,” sets the tone.
In Cavalryman of the Lost Cause, Wert’s use of a full range of original material allows us to finally look at the totality of Stuart’s life and career. Aided by the incomparable scholar and researcher Michael P. Musick at the National Archives, Wert has compiled a bibliography that includes more than 275 manuscript collections.
Wert’s Stuart emerges in distinct hues, drawn in wide dimensions, but without any dramatic departures from the prevalent view of his record. The evidence that he has adduced supports that profile, so there’s no reason to fabricate new interpretations, notwithstanding the modern tendency. Extensive experience in the biographical vine yards (i.e., Longstreet, Custer and Mosby) has given Wert a steady hand, which shows: This is clearly the best of the Stuart biographies.
Although the book’s dimensions are substantial, the vast majority of the narrative reports Stuart’s Confederate experiences, leaving little space for the prewar years. His formative West Point experiences occupy fewer than 10 pages, buttressed by relatively few manuscript sources; and his considerable frontier service in the Old Army consumes little more than that.
On the Stuart question that always looms largest—What happened to the horseman during the Gettysburg Campaign?—Wert concludes simply that “Stuart acted injudiciously” and “failed Lee and the army in the reckoning at Gettysburg.”
Stuart was indeed, as Wert ably shows, “a complex and fascinating man,”as well as a consummate horseman. In his conclusion, Wert fittingly quotes John Sedgwick, an admiring enemy who died within days of Stuart. Sedgewick declared that Stuart was “the greatest cavalry officer ever foaled in America.”
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.