Despite James Ewell Brown Stuart’s countless successes in the field,one goal continued to elude the Confederacy’s premier cavalier. It was no secret that Major General Stuart yearned for higher rank.More than once he told his wife,Flora,that he felt it was just a matter of time before he received his promotion to lieutenant general. Unfortunately for him, a Yankee bullet fired at the May 11, 1864, Battle of Yellow Tavern ensured that never happened.
When General Robert E.Lee failed to promote him following the cavalry reorganization of late August 1863, Stuart realized that his best chance for advancement was in the infantry.To that end he enlisted the help of his dear friend George Washington Custis Lee, the commanding general’s eldest son, whose position as aide de camp to President Jefferson Davis gave the young man considerable influence in the Confederate White House.That he even expressed a willingness to leave his beloved Virginia for the distant Trans-Mississippi theater is a clear indication of how deep Stuart’s ambition ran. His mind made up, his next order of business was to leave his old command in good hands.
In Jeb’s opinion,those “good hands”did not belong to his senior division commander,Maj.Gen.Wade Hampton of South Carolina. Hampton had been one of the wealthiest men in the prewar South, and had raised his own legion at the beginning of the conflict. Despite that expression of loyalty to the Confederate cause and Hampton’s generally competent combat record, Stuart preferred that Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee,his close friend and a nephew of the commanding general,succeed him as commander of the cavalry.The younger Lee,however,had two strikes against him— Hampton’s seniority and General Lee’s aversion to nepotism. Stuart knew that Lee’s strict adherence to military protocol and even stricter sense of fair play would never allow the Army of Northern Virginia commander to remove Hampton simply to please his cavalry chieftain. However, there appeared to be a solution,provided by none other than the South Carolinian himself.
In mid-March 1864,Hampton received a mortifying reprimand at the hands of General Lee.The dressing-down stemmed from Hampton’s having sidestepped the chain of command for the second time, in order to have his own way.
In February Hampton had devised a plan to exchange Maj. Gen. M.C. Butler’s depleted brigade for several cavalry regiments then attached to General P.G.T. Beauregard in South Carolina.When Lee didn’t act quickly enough on the proposal to suit him, Hampton wrote to his friend and presidential adviser, James Chesnut, asking his assistance.Previously,at the close of the December 1862 Fredericksburg campaign, Hampton had appealed directly to Jefferson Davis for a transfer to Mississippi.
Hampton compounded his second error when he complained to Lee about one of Stuart’s orders. Lee abhorred any dissension among his subordinates.According to diarist Mary Chesnut, James’ wife, an irate Lee said to Hampton,“I would not care if you went back to South Carolina with your whole division.”Uncharacteristically, Lee turned the whole matter over to Davis,who sought to calm the troubled waters by sending Hampton to South Carolina on a short working furlough.
Stuart saw this rift between Hampton and Lee as an opportunity to rid himself of his troublesome subordinate.Thus, on April 9, 1864, Stuart wrote a letter to Custis Lee outlining a plan to send Hampton packing, but Stuart’s mortal wounding at Yellow Tavern intervened.
Hd Qtrs Cav Corps A.N.Va
April 9, 1864
My Dear Custis:
Many thanks for your very kind letter.It has relieved me entirely on the subject of my letter of (Dec. 31st).
I am very grateful to you for inquiring as to my predilection for the Holmes’ Dept.
With this army, I have been constantly identified without missing a skirmish from the beginning of the war and have gained an intimate topographical knowledge of the country from the James to beyond the Potomac.I have I believe earned the approbation of the successive commanders of the army and it is also particularly gratifying to know through you that the same appreciation has been expressed by his Excellency the President.
You will, I trust, pardon the egotism, when I allude also the confidence my immediate command have in my leadership, and to the greeting with cheers by the Infantry Corps (which I also commanded in battle)—in order to show you how natural it is my preferences should be with these surroundings, on my native hearth. But paramount to every personal consideration or private motive My Sword’s my Country’s. [underlined twice].
If therefore,His Excellency the President occupying as he does a standing point from which he can view the whole country, its wants, necessities, and emergencies, believe that my promotion with the view to assignment to the Trans-Mississippi Dept., would be productive of more good to the interests of the Confederacy at large, than any continuance in this Army; I shall cheerfully accept,and (whatever may be private regrets at severing the connection) I shall bring to the faithful discharge of its difficult duties whatever of energy and ability I possess.
I regret that the Confidential character of your letter prevented my showing it to Gen’l R.E.Lee,but I take it for granted that whatever is done will be done by his advice or concurrence—
Believe me Dear Custis
Your Sincere friend—JEB Stuart
Confidential & Private
PS: As a postscript to the accompanying letter which is of a more formal nature than this, I thought I would enter a little more into details than such a letter permitted.
I allude to the obstacles in the way of my assignment as Lt. Gen’l vice Holmes—
It occurs to me that,there is such a strong popular feeling in favor of [Sterling] Price out there that my appt.might do more harm than good to the Cause—Is there not danger of a repetition of the [Henry] Heth business,and my rejection by the Senate because of Price? Is there any assurance that my appt would be productive of harmony and thorough co-operation? These are serious considerations bearing on the public policy of the measures, but which I take it for granted will duly enter into the Presdt’s view of the Subject.Again,as Gen’l Lee has done me the honor to mention my name favorably in connection with the Command of an Infantry Corps, is it not probable that he has reference to one of the Corps in this Army,where I am no doubt more favorably known than anywhere else—In this connection might not the transfer of one of these Lt. Generals to the command of so important a Dept.,better accommodate discontent and rivalries out there than the appt. of myself (a new appointment) especially to take that Command. Besides according to military usage,it is proper to give a senior an independent Command in preference to a Junior & could therefore give no just cause of offence to either of these Lt. Generals— Now a few words as regards my own Command here—the Cavalry. Hampton is not the man for such a command and I know he will not suit Gen’l Lee, nor the peculiar requisites of such a station.Hampton is a gallant officer,a nice Gentleman,and has done meritorious service,but there you must stop. But he is not the man for such a place—I am satisfied he is not content with his present place,he has frequently expressed to me the desire to serve in the West, and if there is the remotest intention to promote me, it would be a measure highly conducive to the public interest to assign him to the Command of the District of the Mississippi before my promotion, to operate with his Cavalry & Horse Artillery against gun boats….It is a species of warfare which would suit him exactly & for which he has peculiar fitness. He would be flattered by such an assignment, would render good service & would be in a region of country perfectly familiar to him. I feel perfectly confident that he would put a stop to the mercantile navigation of the Mississippi.If necessary bring S.D. Lee—who is his junior to this Army.Fitz Lee is young, active, of a comprehensive grasp, and possesses wonderful faculties for wielding and combining analyses, being specially fitted by education & a large experience for Cavalry Command. He is as it were the genius of Cavalry (we must making stop drinking for the war) and I will guarantee success, wise conceptions and brilliant executions. Your father will never apply for Hampton’s removal or transfer because his son & nephew are immediately affected by it but he told me not long ago that he wishes Hampton would go and stay—very emphatically—He will wear on and let his hair be whitened more;as he once said he owes many of his gray hairs to McLaws—
This matter requires prompt action, I think the present a very favorable opportunity, I desire & have recommended Rooney’s promotion, & to have in his Div. one of Hampton’s old brigades but he (Hampton) will still have 3 but I expect him to complain, it will then be a favorable opportunity to give him the command of the District of the Mississippi.I see by the Yankee papers that steamboats are moving regularly, laden with cotton,on the Mississippi.Don’t neglect this Postscript for it is very important to the Country—I think,certainly as far as it refers to the Cavalry.
I think there is very little room for doubt thatVirginia will again be bathed in blood this spring & summer. God grant us the Victory. Love to all—Has the subject of Rooney’s appt been referred to Bragg? Yours truly & ever
After Stuart’s death on May 12,his adjutant, H.B. McClellan, urged Stuart’s widow to request that Lee return it to her. Custis’ reluctance to do so is indicated in his reply: “I enclose the letter to which I presume Maj.McClellan refers.You will see that one portion of it is marked confidential and private. I almost am afraid to trust such communications to the mail for fear of their getting into the wrong hands;but can not refuse your request notwithstanding the risk.If you see fit,it may be safest to destroy the part of the letter marked confidential and private,as it relates to persons outside of your family; but I leave the whole matter to your discretion and wishes.”
Special thanks to Virginia Historical Society for use of the Stuart/Custis Lee letters.
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.