FEW CONFEDERATE GENERALS earned a more enviable wartime reputation than Major General James Ewell Brown Stuart. His singular personal appearance, bold conduct, and participation in all the major campaigns in the Virginia theater between 1861 and early 1864 invited the adulation of Confederate citizens as well as grudging respect from Federal opponents. Favored with a memorable nickname inspired by his initials, “Jeb” Stuart immediately ascended to an honored place in the Confederate pantheon after his mortal wounding at the Battle of Yellow Tavern.
In the 140 years since his death, only a handful of Confederate generals have received as much attention in the literature devoted to Civil War military operations. Soldiers who served with Stuart lauded his exploits in their reminiscences, biographers explored his life, and historians writing about the Army of Northern Virginia accorded considerable attention to his part in General Robert E. Lee’s operations. Former Confederates writing in the Lost Cause tradition, who emphasized Southern gallantry and insisted that the United States had possessed overwhelming advantages of manpower and materiel, found in Jeb Stuart an especially appealing hero, who fell while leading an outnumbered force in defense of his national capital, Richmond, during the Civil War’s grim final year.
His type, the general, charging with his sword out, in the front of battle, is gone from the world. His kind of war has given over to a drab affair of chemistry, propaganda, and mathematics. Never, anywhere, will there be his like again
An aura of romanticism always has surrounded Stuart. One of the more flamboyant commanders in either army, he cut a striking figure when fully decked out. A scarlet-lined cape covered his shoulders, golden spurs set off boots that reached his thighs, a bright yellow sash and gauntlets of white buckskin added contrast to his gray uniform, and a hat crowned with a long plume completed a memorable ensemble. His retinue, surely one of the noisiest and most picturesque of any Civil War general, radiated energy and eccentricity. Banjoist Samuel Sweeney provided music on the march and in camp. The convivial Prussian Heros von Borcke, British soldier of fortune George St. Leger Ommanney Grenfell, and Irish-born Redmond Burke—all of whom served as staff officers—added an element of Old World professionalism and dash. John Pelham’s boyish good looks and hard fighting as the cavalry’s ranking artillerist enchanted Southern women and won encomiums from Lee and others. Daring raids around the Army of the Potomac, elaborately staged reviews, and impromptu balls in the midst of campaigning contributed to Stuart’s reputation as a knightly character. A section of Stephen Vincent Benét’s epic poem John Brown’s Body captures Stuart’s cavalier persona:
Tall the first rider, tall with a laughing mouth,
His long black beard is combed like a beauty’s hair,
His slouch hat plumed with a curled black ostrich-feather,
He wears gold spurs and sits his horse with the seat
Of a horseman born.
It is Stuart of Laurel Hill,
“Beauty” Stuart, the genius of cavalry,
Reckless, merry, religious, theatrical,
Lover of gesture, lover of panache,
With all the actor’s grace and the quick, light charm
That makes the women adore him—a wild cavalier
Who worships as sober a God as Stonewall Jackson,
A Rupert who seldom drinks, very often prays,
Loves his children, singing, fighting, spurs, and his wife.
Stuart’s position in the front rank of Confederate icons is exemplified by Charles Hoffbauer’s mural titled Autumn. A French artist working just after World War I, Hoffbauer painted four heroic-scale works representing the seasons of the Confederacy. In Autumn, Stuart gallops at the head of a body of troopers, their sabers and pistols in hand, ascending a hill to confront an unseen foe. Trees ablaze with autumnal yellows and oranges help frame Stuart, who with plumed hat held aloft and flowing red-lined cape sits his horse in a strikingly gallant pose. Apparently fearless in urging his men forward, Hoffbauer’s Stuart distills the Lost Cause vision of purposeful Confederate struggle against long odds into one vivid image.
Both Lost Cause writings and romantic images have much to do with Jeb Stuart’s enduring appeal. But before expanding on that point, it is necessary to emphasize that Stuart’s enormous ability and solid accomplishments as a cavalry officer were the most important factors in explaining his reputation and the amount of writing he has inspired. These accomplishments grew out of Stuart’s mastery of the tedious but vital tasks of screening his army’s movements and gathering intelligence about the enemy. By the time of the Civil War, rifled shoulder weapons and artillery had rendered cavalry charges a tactical relic. Cavalry seldom played an important role in battle once large numbers of infantry had become engaged. Prior to that engagement, however, the cavalry could help set up the tactical circumstances conducive to victory, a not insignificant dimension of Civil War military campaigning.
STUART ENTERED CONFEDERATE SERVICE with solid credentials. Born at Laurel Hill in southwestern Virginia’s Patrick County on February 6, 1833, the seventh of Archibald and Elizabeth Letcher Pannill Stuart’s ten children, he was reared in a family with excellent political and social connections but relatively modest financial means. After attending Emory and Henry College in 1848-50, he entered the United States Military Academy. Under the eye of Robert E. Lee, the academy’s superintendent, he graduated thirteenth of forty-six members in the class of 1854. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the mounted rifles in October that year, he later was assigned to the 1st United States Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth. While serving with that unit on the frontier, Stuart saw action against the Cheyenne at Solomon’s Fork in 1857, receiving a severe wound, and participated in peacekeeping duty in Kansas Territory, where proslavery forces contended with abolitionists and Free-Soilers. He also took part, as a subordinate to Lee, in the capture of John Brown at Harpers Ferry in October 1859. Stuart resigned his commission in May 1861 (he had been promoted to captain in April) and soon held the rank of colonel in the Confederate cavalry.
His Confederate service may be sketched quickly. As colonel of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, he led a dramatic charge at the First Battle of Manassas. Promoted to brigadier general on September 26, 1861, he performed mundane duties until mid-June 1862, when he carried out an audacious reconnaissance that included a ride around Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s entire Army of the Potomac. He was promoted to major general on July 25, 1862, and given command of all the cavalry in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, a post he held for the remainder of his Confederate career. He played key roles in the campaigns of Second Manassas and Antietam, screening Lee’s movements, gathering intelligence about the Federals, and riding around McClellan’s army again in October 1862. At the Battle of Chancellorsville, he temporarily replaced the wounded Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson at the head of the Second Corps, acquitting himself well in the brutal offensive fighting on May 3, 1863.
His most controversial moments came in June and July 1863. Surprised at Brandy Station on June 9, he barely managed to hold off aggressive Union troopers led by Brig. Gens. Alfred A. Pleasonton and John Buford. During the ensuing Gettysburg campaign, he failed Lee badly, losing touch with the Army of Northern Virginia at a critical moment and leaving his commander to move blindly into Pennsylvania. Stuart rebounded after Gettysburg, rendering solid work against the vastly improved U.S. cavalry during the autumn of 1863 and into the spring of 1864. His troopers fought well in the opening scenes of the Overland campaign of May 1864. As Lee and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant fought near Spotsylvania Court House, Stuart rode to block a Union cavalry raid against Richmond. The climactic action and Stuart’s fatal wound came at Yellow Tavern on May 11. The next day, having been carried into Richmond, Stuart died after enduring terrible pain.
When told of Stuart’s fate, Robert E. Lee remarked to a group of officers: “Gentlemen, we have very bad news. General Stuart has been mortally wounded.” Pausing to gain control of his emotions, Lee added, with emphasis, “He never brought me a piece of false information.” Subsequently, Lee’s official notice of Stuart’s death observed that “His achievements form a conspicuous part of the history of this army, with which his name and services will be forever associated.” The commanding general’s statements, both private and public, attested to Stuart’s inestimable value and must be reckoned the ultimate tribute to a cavalryman whose principal duty was to gather intelligence.
SENTIMENT WITHIN THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC bespoke an almost equally high opinion of Stuart. In his official report of the Overland campaign, for example, Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson, who led a division in Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps, described one of the Federal attacks at Yellow Tavern: “It was in this charge and the mêlée which followed that the rebel cavalry leader, J.E.B. Stuart, was killed, and from it may be dated the permanent superiority of the national cavalry over that of the rebels.” Federal corps commander Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, who died in action at Spotsylvania just two days before Yellow Tavern, had famously labeled Stuart “the greatest cavalry officer ever foaled in America.”
Although the foundation of Stuart’s celebrity rests on a bedrock of hard and successful cavalry work, other factors helped burnish his reputation during the war and enhance his seemingly imperishable image as the Confederacy’s most romantic cavalier. Four of these factors stand out as particularly important: first, the timing of both his successes and his failures; second, the influence of books written by men who fought with him; third, the work of his twentieth-century biographers; and fourth, a strong yearning on the part of many readers to see the Civil War as a romantic conflict between courageous Americans.
None of these factors figured more prominently than timing. Both Stuart’s most famous exploits and his weaker performances came at opportune moments, in terms of their impact on his reputation. Three examples illustrate the positive side of this phenomenon. Stuart’s first ride around McClellan could not have come at a time better calculated to catapult him to national prominence. By the second week of June 1862, Confederate prospects for success seemed dismal. United States forces in the Western theater had won a series of battles that included Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, and Pea Ridge and had captured such important Confederate cities as New Orleans, Nashville, and Corinth. Kentucky and much of Tennessee lay firmly under Federal control, and a large Union army stood poised to strike into northern Mississippi. In Virginia, McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had reached the outskirts of Richmond. The mighty ironclad CSS Virginia, which had fought USS Monitor to a standstill in March 1862 and from which the Confederate people had expected much, lay burned in the James River, and Lee had yet to emerge as a successful field commander. Only Stonewall Jackson’s little victories in the Shenandoah Valley, won between May 8 and June 9, had broken the spell of Federal success.
Stuart’s ride, carried out between June 12 and 16, yielded important military information for Lee but accomplished even more good in terms of civilian morale. Confederates hungry for good news from the battlefield celebrated Stuart’s brazen success, savoring the image of twelve hundred troopers encircling a host of more than one hundred thousand U.S. soldiers. Sallie Brock Putnam, a resident of Richmond who published her observations shortly after the war, noted that “This expedition…gave a fresh impetus to the cavalry service, and the brilliant, dashing exploits of General ‘Jeb’ Stuart and his gallant horsemen, became, from that time, famous in the annals of the war.” Heros von Borcke, writing in 1866, recalled that the “Richmond press teemed with praises of General Stuart and his followers, and even the journals of New York did not fail to render homage to the conception and execution of this bold enterprise.” From eastern North Carolina, diarist Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston reacted similarly. “A brilliant exploit has enlivened our Army before Richmond,” she wrote on June 16, 1862. “Gen Stuart with a strong force of Cavalry left Richmond on a reconnaissance and made a circuit of the entire lines of the enemy….They entered Richmond in triumph! Truly a brilliant episode.” Thomas J. Goree of James Longstreet’s staff, writing immediately after Stuart’s return, said simply, “It was the most daring feat of the war.”
Stuart’s second ride around McClellan similarly occurred at a propitious moment. Executed on October 10-11, 1862, it served as a triumphant coda for the sprawling campaign that opened with the Seven Days’ battles in late June, continued through Second Manassas during the last week of August, and crested at the Battle of Antietam in mid-September. Stuart’s eighteen hundred troopers rode more than one hundred miles in two days, destroying Federal supplies, capturing horses, and utterly frustrating their Union opponents. The Chambersburg Raid, as it came to be called, took some of the sting out of Lee’s retreat across the Potomac after Antietam. It also reinforced the perception that McClellan was a timid commander and inspirited Confederate citizens who hoped for offensive action from their armies. In Richmond, where he documented reaction to the war in his famous diary, Confederate War Department clerk John B. Jones observed: “Gen. Stuart has made another circle round the enemy’s army; and hitherto, every time he has done so, a grand battle followed. Let McClellan beware!” Jones termed the raid “a most brilliant affair” that yielded “much public property” captured or destroyed. “The Abolitionists,” he added with obvious satisfaction, “are much mortified, and were greatly frightened.” William M. Blackford of Lynchburg, Virginia, whose son William Willis served on Stuart’s staff, also compared the raid to the first ride around McClellan, calling it “not less brilliant than the grand round in June” and pointing out that, “This was in the enemy’s country.” From army headquarters, staff officer Walter H. Taylor likely reflected Robert E. Lee’s opinion when he pronounced Stuart’s raid “an entirely successful expedition and executed in Jeb’s usual & unequalled style.”
The timing and circumstances of Stuart’s death further conspired to promote his status as a Confederate icon. Pushing part of his command very hard in a march south from Spotsylvania to head off Sheridan’s twelve thousand–trooper raiding column, he deflected the Federals from Richmond without depriving Lee of adequate cavalry support (Sheridan, in contrast, had left Union commanders with relatively little cavalry at Spotsylvania). He exhibited great courage during the fight at Yellow Tavern and received his mortal wound while within pistol range of the enemy. As if scripted by a Victorian librettist, Stuart’s final scenes included memorable statements and a strong affirmation of his religious beliefs. “Go back! Go back!” he shouted to wavering Southern troopers as he was carried from the field on May 11. “I had rather die than be whipped!” The following evening, near the end, he asked that attending clergymen sing “Rock of Ages,” and then, in a weak voice, said: “I am going fast now. I am resigned. God’s will be done.”
The timing of Stuart’s death certainly affected how he would be remembered. He departed from the military stage before it was obvious that the Confederacy would fail. In many ways, his death recalled that of his friend Stonewall Jackson. Untainted by humiliating capitulation at Appomattox, both men functioned as ideal subjects for speculation about what their continued contributions might have meant for the Confederate war effort, as well as for endless embellishment of every detail of their storied lives.
Timing also helped lessen the sting of Stuart’s two worst performances as chief of Lee’s mounted arm. On June 9, 1863, Federal cavalry crossed the Rappahannock River, surprising Southern troopers and advancing toward Brandy Station.The surprise stung all the more because Stuart recently had staged a series of reviews to show off the power of his cavalry, which numbered roughly ten thousand as Lee prepared to march northward into Pennsylvania. Hard fighting by his troopers and effective leadership by Brig. Gens. William E. “Grumble” Jones, W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee (the commanding general’s second son, who was badly wounded in the fighting), and Wade Hampton retrieved the day, but Stuart suffered a good deal of censure. Several newspapers, most notably the Richmond Examiner, leveled heavy criticism. Without calling Stuart by name, the Examiner condemned the “puffed up cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia” and observed that the war was not “a tournament, invented and supported for the pleasure of a few vain and weak-headed officers.” Firebrand and Southern-rights advocate Edmund Ruffin voiced common sentiments in his diary, concluding that Stuart’s troopers “were surprised by the enemy, severely punished in the beginning, & drove back the assailants after long & hard fighting, & suffering heavy loss….Our victory was near akin to a defeat—,” thought Ruffin, “& but for the desperate bravery of our troops, the result would have been a most disastrous defeat.”
Luckily for Stuart, Brandy Station quickly receded in the public’s mind as the Army of Northern Virginia marched northward. Soon Lee was in Pennsylvania, and news from Gettysburg dwarfed in importance the earlier cavalry clash. By any measure, Brandy Station had been a surprise of the sort calculated to diminish the reputation of a cavalry leader whose principal duties included shielding the army against probing enemy cavalry. Indeed, there scarcely could be a greater failure of the mounted arm. But the Confederate people and newspapers had so little time to dwell on Brandy Station that Stuart suffered no permanent loss of reputation.
THE MARCH TOWARD PENNSYLVANIA that erased Brandy Station from the headlines also resulted in Stuart’s best-known failure. Students of Gettysburg have debated Stuart’s conduct endlessly, beginning with Lost Cause warriors who expended enormous amounts of ink and energy arguing about the campaign in the 1870s and ’80s. What seems beyond question is that Stuart, who almost certainly sought a third ride around the Federal army to atone for Brandy Station, failed to keep Lee apprised of the position and movements of the Army of the Potomac. Whatever friendly comrades or subsequent historians might believe, that was an inexcusable failure for a cavalry commander. Lee and other key figures in the Army of Northern Virginia judged Stuart harshly. In postwar conversations with William Allan, one of Stonewall Jackson’s former staff officers, Lee stated that he had maneuvered blindly in Pennsylvania. “He did not know the Federal army was at Gettysburg, could not believe it,” recorded Allan on April 15, 1868, following a talk with Lee, “as Stuart had been specially ordered to cover his (Lee’s) movement & keep him informed of the position of the enemy, & he (Stuart) had sent no word. He found himself engaged with the Federal army therefore, unexpectedly, and had to fight.” Lee stated unequivocally to Allan that “Stuart’s failure to carry out his instructions forced the battle of Gettysburg….”
As with Brandy Station, Stuart’s failures in Pennsylvania did not provoke extended comment at the time. Information about enormous Southern casualties, about the ebb and flow of the action at Gettysburg, and about Lee’s retreat back to Virginia dominated the headlines. During the postwar era, a focus by Lost Cause writers on James Longstreet’s alleged transgressions at Gettysburg similarly diverted attention from Stuart.
Clearly fortunate in terms of timing, Stuart also benefited from the remarkably influential writings of men who had fought under him. John Esten Cooke, George Cary Eggleston, Heros von Borcke, William Willis Blackford, and Henry B. McClellan—all members of Stuart’s staff except Eggleston—stand out among former Confederates whose treatment of Stuart influenced generations of readers. A successful novelist before the war and a cousin of Stuart’s wife, Flora, Cooke published in 1867 Wearing of the Gray; Being Personal Portraits, Scenes, and Adventures of the War, the dedication page of which captures the tenor of its contents: “To the Illustrious Memory of Major-General J.E.B. Stuart, ‘Flower of Cavaliers,’ This Book is Dedicated by an Old Member of His Staff Who Loved Him Living, and Mourns Him Dead.”
Part reminiscence and part fiction, Cooke’s volume devoted more pages to Stuart than to any other person or aspect of the war. Cooke characterized Stuart’s career as “rather a page from romance than a chapter of history. Everything stirring, brilliant, and picturesque, seemed to centre in him. There was about the man a flavour of chivalry and adventure which made him more like a knight of the middle age than a soldier of the prosaic nineteenth century, and it was less the science than the poetry of war which he summed up and illustrated in his character and career.” Cooke served up a vision of Stuart that has proved irresistible to many writers and readers. The literary equivalent of the most famous photographic portrait of Stuart, which captures its subject in full cavalier regalia, Wearing of the Gray has gone through numerous editions. It remains in print, adorned with a blurb from the New York Times Book Review that suggests it “belongs in every good Civil War library.”
Eggleston, von Borcke, and to a lesser extent Blackford followed Cooke’s lead in portraying Stuart as a gallant and thoroughly attractive figure. A native of Indiana who developed a fierce loyalty to Virginia after moving there in 1857, Eggleston served briefly with Stuart early in the war and forged a successful postwar career as a publisher and author in New York City. In A Rebel’s Recollections, first published in 1875 and reprinted several times, he titled a chapter devoted to Stuart “The Chevalier of the Lost Cause.” Eggleston celebrated Stuart’s tenderness of feeling, skill as a soldier, and audacity calculated to help make up for inferior Confederate numbers and resources.
Eggleston also highlighted Stuart’s almost casual bravery, offering this quotation from the general in 1861: “[T]he war is going to be a long and terrible one….We’ve only just begun it, and very few of us will see the end. All I ask of fate is that I may be killed leading a cavalry charge.” In 1866 Heros von Borcke published his two-volume Memoirs of the Confederate War for Independence. Never shunning hyperbole in telling a good story, the Prussian lavished attention on the colorful, free-spirited dimensions of Stuart’s service and personality, all the while praising his abilities and gallantry as a soldier and his contributions to the Confederate war effort. “I myself mourned my chief as deeply as if I had lost a beloved brother,” wrote von Borcke of Stuart’s death. “I really felt possessed with a longing that I might die myself.”
BLACKFORD HEWED MORE CLOSELY TO THE FACTS in his memoir, written in the nineteenth century but not published until 1945. Yet he also created an atmosphere of chivalric endeavor among Stuart and his troopers. “[M]y memory recalled all the stirring events we had passed through, and so many gay ones too, in all of which he stood the prominent figure,” wrote Blackford on his learning about Stuart’s death. “General Stuart had his weaknesses—who has not?—but a braver, truer, or purer man than he never lived.” Douglas Southall Freeman, the most influential of all those who have written about Lee’s army, penned an introduction to Blackford’s memoir in which he assured readers that “Every line of this narrative…has the ‘feel’ of the cavalry Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Authenticity is stamped on each paragraph.”
Henry B. McClellan took a somewhat scholarly approach in The Life and Campaigns of Major-General J.E.B. Stuart, published in 1885 and twice reprinted under the title I Rode with Jeb Stuart. A combination of personal observations and biographical narrative constructed from oral and published sources, McClellan’s book has been cited by innumerable historians over the years. Although more evenhanded than many works by former Confederates, McClellan’s book understandably adopts a laudatory stance toward its subject. “I believe myself to have been actuated by a sincere desire to tell the truth,” stated McClellan in his preface, “and to do simple justice to the memory of one under whom I feel it an honor to have served.” Regarding Gettysburg, which he treated in some detail, McClellan stated forcefully, “We may dismiss at once the inconsiderate charge that Stuart disobeyed or exceeded the orders given to him by General Lee….” As with Blackford’s memoir, Douglas Southall Freeman threw his ample critical weight behind McClellan’s book: “[It] was based on so much sound study and was buttressed by so sure a memory that, forty-five years later, the brilliant John W. Thomason could rely on it in the preparation of his dazzling Jeb Stuart….”
Freeman’s yoking of Thomason to McClellan provides a convenient bridge to the topic of how well Stuart’s reputation has been served by his twentieth-century biographers. Thomason’s Jeb Stuart (1930), Burke Davis’ Jeb Stuart: The Last Cavalier (1957), and Emory M. Thomas’s Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart (1987) each, in different ways, invites readers to form a sympathetic impression of Stuart. Thomason’s book has been continuously in print for seventy-five years, Davis’ for nearly fifty, and Thomas’ for eighteen; as a trio, they have reached a very wide audience.
Thomason probably has been the most influential of the three. A career U.S. Marine officer whose forebears included Thomas J. Goree of Longstreet’s staff, Thomason strongly identified with his subject, a fact underscored by his handling of different episodes in Stuart’s career. Most interested in the first two years of the conflict, when Stuart faced indifferent Federal opponents and moved from triumph to triumph, he lavished attention on the rides around McClellan, First and Second Manassas, the 1862 Maryland campaign, and Chancellorsville. In contrast, just one-fifth of the narrative treated the period after June 1863, which witnessed Stuart’s near-defeat at Brandy Station and problematic actions during the Gettysburg campaign. The Battle of Brandy Station, by far the largest mounted action of the war and an event of inarguable consequence in Stuart’s military career, received less than two-thirds the attention given the Chambersburg raid of October 1862. Thomason’s choices concerning coverage yielded a powerful impression of Jeb Stuart’s successes but only a murky understanding of his weaknesses and failures.
John Esten Cooke would have approved of Thomason’s admiring description of Stuart as “a symbol, a gonfalon that went before the swift, lean columns of the Confederacy.” “He served as the eyes and ears of Lee: his hands touched the springs of vast events,” continued Thomason in language that placed Stuart in a premodern tradition of warfare. The author’s conclusion could serve as accompanying text for Hoffbauer’s Autumn mural: “His type, the general, charging with his sword out, in the front of battle, is gone from the world. His kind of war has given over to a drab affair of chemistry, propaganda, and mathematics. Never, anywhere, will there be his like again.”
Burke Davis likely would agree. His book’s subtitle, which on the dust jacket appeared just above a modern copy of Hoffbauer’s heroic figure of Stuart from Autumn, left little doubt as to the overall interpretation. Neither did the jacket blurb, which promised readers that Davis’ narrative “revealed Stuart as one of the most gallant examples of the Southern gentleman fighting and dying for his beliefs.” In terms of coverage, Davis took a cue from Thomason, devoting more pages to Stuart’s post–Yellow Tavern suffering than to the Battle of Brandy Station.
EMORY M. THOMAS’S BIOGRAPHY, the only life of Stuart by an academic historian, departed radically from earlier romantic models but nonetheless reached generally positive conclusions about Stuart as a soldier and man. “Stuart deserves better than to be a lifeless symbol, however heroic, standing in fiction and fact for antique, and thus irrelevant, values and virtues,” asserted Thomas. Seeking to know Stuart “alive and whole,” Thomas found him to be “a fascinating human being” who lived a life “more intriguing, and in some ways more heroic, than his legend.” Stuart himself, argued Thomas, provided grist for the mills of those who turned him into a metaphor for a gallant, doomed Confederacy. By the way he dressed and acted, Stuart created an ideal vision of a chivalric hero that obscured very human doubts and failings: “He became the cavalier-knight cum warrior he wanted to be. He was a legend even while he lived.”
The self-created knightly Stuart described by Thomas remains powerfully attractive, especially to Americans who yearn for a Civil War dominated by uncomplicated valor and leavened with a romantic dimension absent from wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This Stuart can be found in paintings by Mort Künstler, John Paul Strain, Don Troiani, and other contemporary artists whose work evokes many of the incidents and images in the writings of Cooke, von Borcke, Blackford, and Thomason. It can be found in a 2002 “limited edition” artwork from the Bradford Exchange, the advertising text for which assures prospective purchasers that “Stuart’s soldierly genius made him a hero—and his dashing character made him a legend.” In what seems to be an ungainly homage to Hoffbauer’s Autumn, this colorful sculpture, meant to be displayed against a painted background of trailing Confederate troopers, depicts Stuart galloping forward with his saber held high and his red-lined cape flowing behind.
Much like Americans North and South who embraced the reconciliation movement in the late nineteenth century, a significant number of modern readers enjoy retellings of the military side of the Civil War that celebrate famous commanders and resolute soldiers on both sides. Again like the original reconciliationists, these readers find on Civil War battlefields the American virtues of bravery and steadfastness amid stern circumstances. They often shun examinations of the far messier political narrative of the conflict. For them, the redoubtable Stuart—a combination of flash, chivalric posture, and incontestable ability who has no modern counterpart—can be examined and appreciated in isolation from the enormously complicated and troubling web of mid-nineteenth-century issues related to slavery and race, as well as from the evidence of desertion, disaffection, and unbridled cruelty that also make up part of the conflict’s mosaic.
Jeb Stuart has endured in print and on canvas as a daring cavalier. Dead of wounds at the age of thirty-one, he remains eternally youthful, laughing in camp and confounding his enemies in the field. Americans never seem to tire of this Stuart, and there is little to suggest that he will ever be assigned a different role on the grand stage of the Civil War.
Gary W. Gallagher is the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia. His many books include Lee and His Generals in War and Memory (Louisiana State University Press, 1998).
Originally published in the Spring 2005 issue of MHQ.