A widow at 28, Flora Stuart had to make a new life for her family—and help justify her husband’s actions at Gettysburg.
In 1864, Flora Stuart was staying with a family 40 miles outside of Richmond when she heard that her husband, J.E.B. Stuart, had been wounded and taken to a doctor in the Confederate capital. Despite her best efforts, she arrived just hours after he died. Now she was a 28-year-old widow—nearly penniless, estranged from her own family, with no home of her own and two children under age 4 to rear. Over the following decades, she fashioned a new life for herself, innovative in some arenas and staunchly traditional in others. She became a prominent educator and never remarried. Devoted to her husband’s memory, in the 1870s she would become embroiled in a bitter post-war controversy when former Confederates, brooding over the staggering losses, were tarnishing her husband’s service at Gettysburg.
Flora Cooke first met 22-year-old Jeb Stuart when she was 19 and fresh out of Detroit finishing school. Her father, Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke, commanded the 2nd Dragoons in Fort Leavenworth where James Ewell Brown Stuart was a 2nd lieutenant. A whirlwind courtship ensued; on November 14, 1855, at Fort Riley, they wed. Over the next five years, the Stuarts had two children: a daughter born on their second anniversary and named for her mother, and a son born June 26, 1860, christened St. George Cooke Stuart. But their bliss was soon interrupted as the Civil War turned the Stuart-Cooke family into a micro-study of what was happening all across the country. Flora’s husband, her brother, John Rogers Cooke, and her sister Maria’s husband, Dr. Charles Brewer, left the U.S. Army to offer their services to the fledgling Confederacy while her father and her sister Julia’s husband, Jacob Sharpe, remained with the Union.
Embittered by his father-in-law’s decision to remain loyal to the Union, Stuart retaliated by changing his son’s name to James Ewell Brown Stuart Jr. He promised Cooke would “regret his decision to remain with the Union but once and that will be continuously.” For his part, Flora’s father refused to have any further contact with her.
Stuart’s star rose quickly in the Confederate constellation. Within 14 months he was promoted to major general, and a month later he was commander of all the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. His cavalry reached superstar status with its celebrated rides around Union armies while on reconnaissance missions for General Robert E. Lee—even out-maneuvering his own father-in-law, who commanded Union cavalry during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862.
His brilliant career was cut short, however, when on May 11, 1864, he was mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern, Va.
Stuart was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery on May 13. Flora donned mourning for her husband’s funeral and wore it for the rest of her life. But with so many immediate decisions to be made, she would have little time to mourn. Paramount was finding a home for herself and her children. They had lost little Flora to typhoid fever in 1862, but she still had 4-year-old Jimmy and 8- month-old Virginia Pelham to consider. One option would come from a surprising source.
After three years of silence, Flora’s father wrote with an offer of safe passage so she could come to him in Washington, D.C. As tempting as the offer might have been, she honored her husband’s wishes that his family remain in the South. In an exchange of letters discussing the fate of their children if either parent died, Stuart had written, “I wish an assurance on your part in the other event of you surviving me that you will make the land for which I have given my life your home, and keep my offspring on Southern soil.” Flora took the advice of her brother-in-law William Alexander Stuart (called Alexander) and moved to Saltville, Va., where for the next 10 years she operated a small school with her sister-in-law Mary Stuart Headen. In 1875, Flora accepted a teaching position at the Carrington School in Richmond.
While on a business trip to Washington in 1877, Alexander Stuart got wind of a letter written to J. William Jones, the secretary of the Southern Historical Society, by former Confederate General Henry Heth. The contents had been discussed at a banquet for veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia, which Stuart had not attended. All he knew was that it pertained to the Gettysburg Campaign and that Heth had laid the blame for its failure squarely at the feet of his brother.
Hesitant to upset his sister-in-law with so little information, Alexander instead consulted Flora’s brother, John Rogers Cooke, who had spoken with Heth. In Cooke’s opinion it was an isolated incident. He could not have been more mistaken. Not only did the accusations refuse to die, they escalated. Men who had served with Stuart, many of whom he had considered close friends, were quick to jump on the “Stuart was late to Gettysburg” bandwagon.
The key player was former Confederate General Jubal Early, head of the Southern Historical Society, an association founded in New Orleans in 1868-69 by former Confederate Maj. Gen. Dabney Herndon Maury. Dedicated to documenting the Civil War from a Southern perspective, the society had foundered until it moved to Richmond in the early 1870s and Early took over. Under Early’s guidance the society’s sole goal was protecting the reputation of Robert E. Lee.
Early, whose irascible demeanor had earned him the affectionate sobriquet “my bad old man” from Lee, couldn’t accept the South’s defeat and was so devoted to his former commander that he made it his life’s mission to see that Lee was held blameless, and the Southern cause portrayed as pure and noble. To that end, he had to find a scapegoat for Lee’s most glaring defeat, Gettysburg.
Long-dead Stuart was perfect—he could neither defend himself nor point a finger at others who knew there was plenty of blame to go around. Even after Early’s death in 1894, the Southern Historical Society insisted the sole reason Lee lost at Gettsyburg was that Stuart had failed to be the “eyes and ears of the army,” and that his absence had allowed the Army of Northern Virginia to literally stumble blindly into Meade’s Army of the Potomac.
The seemingly unwarranted attacks on Jeb’s reputation shocked the Stuart family. From the moment he died, he had become the personification of the Southern ideal of noble sacrifice, a martyr to the cause of Southern independence. Now he was vilified by the very men who once declared him a hero.
Alexander Stuart and his nephew, David Stuart Pierce, son of Jeb’s sister Anne, decided to mount a countercampaign championing Stuart’s contributions. Flora initially resisted. She did not want to dignify criticisms of her husband by offering a defense for a man who, in her opinion, needed no defending. After all, he had given everything to the Confederacy—including his life. But as the attacks grew more vehement, Alexander managed to persuade her to reconsider.
John S. Mosby, a former scout for Stuart, and Henry Brainerd McClellan, Stuart’s assistant adjutant general, were already giving speeches and writing articles in Stuart’s defense. Both had enjoyed a personal relationship with Stuart and were devoted to him. So it seemed either man would have been an acceptable spokesperson on Stuart’s behalf. But a rift developed between Flora and the Stuart men over which they preferred.
At first, McClellan had appeared to be an acceptable choice—until his biography of Stuart was published. In his chapter on the Gettysburg Campaign, McClellan wrote that Stuart made two serious errors in judgment. One was capturing 125 wagons full of supplies in Rockville, Md., on June 28. These wagons slowed him down considerably, and should have been destroyed, McClellan said. He also thought assigning Beverly H. Robertson and William E. “Grumble” Jones to guard the mountain passes in the Shenandoah Valley was a mistake; he thought Stuart should have left either Wade Hampton or Fitz Lee instead, and taken Jones with him. McClellan argued that Hampton or Lee would have kept a close eye on the enemy with or without orders from General Lee, while Robertson was slow to act. Jones was junior to Robertson, and could do only what Robertson ordered.
Although McClellan made it clear he did not believe those mistakes affected the battle’s outcome, both Alexander and David felt betrayed. “His book has been a great disappointment to me [and] to all the officers and men I have talked with,” David wrote his aunt.
Alexander and David found Mosby a suitable replacement, especially when the former partisan ranger publicly announced he had documents that would soon appear in Century magazine proving Stuart had not failed General Lee in any way. To the Stuart men, Mosby’s promises were like an answer to a prayer, but Flora did not share their enthusiasm. She considered McClellan a true friend who would never deliberately damage Stuart’s reputation. What’s more, she was appalled that Mosby’s plans included attacking the character of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and Brig. Gen. Robertson, whom she had known since her youth in Kansas. Mosby asserted that Longstreet, de spite what he now said, had not only known about the route Stuart planned to take into Pennsylvania but had approved it—and that Robertson had willfully disobeyed Stuart’s orders to function as a lookout.
What Flora feared most was retaliation from Longstreet and Robertson that would open a floodgate of recriminations. At McClellan’s suggestion, she asked Mosby to withdraw his article. “The publication of those letters to which you refer, in regard to the disobedience of instructions on the part of one or more of Gen. Lee’s Generals, will do no good in the vindication of my Husband,” she said, “but as I see the whole affair may only serve to stir up strife and bitter feeling….Let me in my own chosen way do what can be done to accomplish the end in view.”
Mosby was bewildered by Flora’s request but even more surprised to learn McClellan, too, opposed the publication of letters exonerating Stuart. Still, he refused to be moved. Not only did he plan to go forward with the article, but the documents would also appear in a book of reminiscences he had written. “I cannot recognize Genl Stuart’s fame as being the exclusive property of any one,” he told Flora. “I am glad Mr. W.A. Stuart differs with you.”
Desperate to persuade his aunt to withdraw her objections, David Pierce wrote to her twice on February 20, 1887. “If you have not already been in communication with him [Mosby], you ought to write him a letter of thanks,” he wrote in the first. “He is the only one of my uncle’s protégés who has ever put himself out of the way to correct the wrong impressions about the battle of Gettysburg which Genl Lee’s toadies have been giving to the public for 20 years.” His second letter was less passionate but still insistent: “His [Mosby’s] work is that of a devoted friend & a labor of love in the interests of truth & your husband’s fame.”
Across the top of the first of these letters, Flora noted the action she now took: “[W]rote to Col. M. withdrawing my objection to publication of letters. Feb. 22.” Even though she had acquiesced to David’s pleas, she made it clear to Mosby that she still had reservations about the wisdom of antagonizing Longstreet and discrediting Robertson. But she told him to use his own judgment in the matter and wished him success in all he planned.
She was not agreeing Mosby was right, only that she would no longer stand in his way.
Mosby wrote prolifically for decades in Stuart’s defense, and as Flora predicted, his strident defense served to continue the argument—which hasn’t completely abated yet.
Historian Tonia J. Smith is founder and past president of the Rufus Barringer Civil War Roundtable in Pinehurst, N.C.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.