Stuart’s Tarheels: James B. Gordon and His North Carolina Cavalry, by Chris J. Hartley, Butternut and Blue Press, Baltimore, Md., $35.
The image that immediately leaps to mind when someone says “Civil War cavalryman” is that of a dashing young man charging an enemy line on a beautiful, full-blooded stallion. Even after one learns that the cavalry was a branch of service that promised endless hours in the saddle doing nothing more exciting than letting the infantry know where the next fork in the road led, Hollywood has permanently ingrained the image of the beau sabreur in our memories. The idea of a cavalryman who was quiet, thoughtful and went about his work in an unassuming manner takes some getting used to.
Yet that is exactly the type of cavalryman Chris Hartley presents in his new biography. Part of Butternut and Blue’s excellent Army of Northern Virginia series, Stuart’s Tarheels: James B. Gordon and His North Carolina Cavalry introduces us to Brig. Gen. James B. Gordon, a man who is said to have been one of J.E.B. Stuart’s personal favorites, yet who is unremembered by all but the most hard-core cavalry enthusiasts. Hartley also gives insight into the cavalrymen from the “Old North State,” men who filled more slots in Stuart’s ranks than those from any other state besides Virginia but whose roles in the war have been all but forgotten.
In Gordon, one finds an example of the typical Confederate citizen-soldier. Born in 1822, the grandson of a man who had served in the Revolutionary War, Gordon had all the traits of a proper Southern gentleman: well-schooled, fine mannered, interested in politics, a successful businessman and civic leader. And like many cut from the same cloth, he was quick to answer the call when war came.
Hartley is obviously a fan of Gordon and readily admits that this volume is a labor of love. Still, like a good biographer should, the author does not shrink from presenting his subject with warts and all. For instance, Gordon was an unabashed and unapologetic slave-owner, advising those who were looking after his interests back home to invest heavily in slaves almost to the moment of his death in 1864. We also see the ambitious Gordon use his political savvy to secure promotion to the rank of general. But this is balanced by the portrait of a man devoted to his country, cause and, most important, to the men who served with and under him.
Hartley also does a good job of presenting the story of the North Carolina cavalrymen and the important role they played in the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. Hartley thoroughly explains and documents a great many actions that are merely footnotes in most general histories. After reading this book, readers will have gained a much greater understanding and appreciation of the significance of these cavalry battles and skirmishes.
All in all, there is little to complain about in Stuart’s Tarheels. Whether readers are interested in things related to North Carolina in particular or to the cavalry in general, Hartley’s book is well-researched and enjoyable and deserves a spot on any Civil War enthusiast’s bookshelf.
B. Keith Toney