11 May 2007 by Published in: Confederate Cavalry 9 comments

143 years ago today, the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps clashed with Fitzhugh Lee’s division of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry Corps a few miles north of Richmond at a place called Yellow Tavern at the intersection of the Telegraph and Mountain Roads.  After a long, hard fight, the men of Brig. Gen. Williams C. Wickham’s brigade began giving way in the face of a determined attack by George Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade.  Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, the Confederate cavalry chief, dashed forward to try to rally his troopers and received a mortal wound to the abdomen from one of the Wolverines.  Stuart died in Richmond the next day after a long night of suffering.  When Robert E. Lee heard of Stuart’s death, he wept and was heard to say, “He never brought me a wrong piece of information,” which was, perhaps, the ultimate compliment Lee could have paid the fallen cavalier.

Jeb Stuart was perhaps the finest all-around cavalryman ever produced by the United States Army.  Stuart had a real gift for the traditional roles of cavalry, scouting, screening, and reconnaissance, and did it better than anyone has before or since.  He was quite literally the eyes and ears of the army, and Robert E. Lee leaned harder on Stuart than on any other subordinate except perhaps James Longstreet.  I genuinely believe that this explains Lee’s being so disconcerted at Gettysburg–not because the cavalry wasn’t there, but rather because the man he depended upon most heavily for accurate information about the enemy was not there.  In May 1864, Stuart was 31, at the height of his fame and glory, and was known as the laughing cavalier.  He had a real zest for life, and he loved to sing, flirt with the ladies, and always had a good time.  His personal theme song, “If you want to have some fun, jine the cav’ry” certainly sums up his philosophy of life–fun.

At the same time, Stuart could be serious as a heart attack when he needed to be.  He was capable on the battlefield, and did a magnificent job handling a huge infantry corps at Chancellorsville after Jackson received his mortal wound.  In short, this man was flat out competent at virtually everything he did.

That’s not to say he was without flaws.  Prideful, ambitious, and always looking for an opportunity for personal glory, I tend to think that Stuart fell at just the right moment.  He tended to be prone to clash with subordinates who did not appreciate his personality (see Grumble Jones, Beverly Robertson, and even Wade Hampton for good examples of what I mean here), and was very sensitive to slights, both imagined and real. 

Because of what happened at Yellow Tavern that warm May day, Stuart will be forever the gallant young hero, struck down at the height of his fame, a symbol of the Confederacy.  I suspect that had he lived, Stuart would have had a difficult time adapting to the changing and evolving role of horse soldiers.  By the spring of 1864, with its men armed with repeating carbines that laid down a great deal of fire power, and with new commanders, the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps was becoming a potent offensive weapon and de-emphasizing the traditional roles of the cavalry, scouting, screening, and reconnaissance.  I don’t know that Stuart would have been able to adapt to these changes and maintain his luster.  Stuart symbolized the early days of the war–chivalry, fun, decorum–in other words, war as a grand adventure to be enjoyed.  Wade Hampton, a solid fighting man, adapted well to dismounted fighting that closely resembled infantry tactics, but I rather doubt that Stuart would have been able to make that transition cleanly or easily.  I suspect that, had he lived, much of the luster would have rubbed off.

When Stuart fell, some of the spirit left the Army of Northern Virginia forever.  Its Cavalry Corps would never be the same again.  Fortunately, Hampton was extremely competent in his own right, and he earned permanent command of the Cavalry Corps through his superb battlefield performance.  Make no mistake, though: it was no longer jine the cav’ry if you want to have some fun.  Hampton was a grim, serious warrior, and he had none of the sense of fun possessed by Stuart.   Hampton’s serious, hard-hitting style was a stark contrast to Stuart’s lightheartedness, but it was just what was needed at the time.  By May 1864, the war had become a stark war of attrition, and it was a very serious business.  It needed a serious response, and Wade Hampton was just the sort of hard fighter to give that serious response.  Like Stuart, Hampton was the right man at the right time.

Here’s to Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown Stuart, the legendary Virginia cavalier who redefined mounted operations, who received a mortal wound at the Battle of Yellow Tavern 143 years ago today.  

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Michael Aubrecht
    Fri 11th May 2007 at 2:06 pm

    Well said friend – well said.

  2. Teej Smith
    Fri 11th May 2007 at 2:13 pm

    I posted this excerpt from a September 24, 1864 letter from H.B. McClellan to Flora Cooke Stuart on the CWDG so I apologize if some of you are seeing this for the second time. I thought it an appropriate addition to the fine things Eric wrote:

    “All of the members of our old staff, except Von Borcke, Garnett,
    and Goldsborough, are again on duty at the Cavalry Hdqtrs. under
    Genl Hampton. Our reunion after our scattered condition for so long
    a time, has been pleasant, and we are, I presume, as happily
    situated as we would be under any other influence than that which
    first drew us together & united us, a happy family. But every day we
    miss our chief–our friend–our brother; for he was to us a brother.-
    - Every day the contrast between the present and the past returns to
    us, and time does not seem to soften that contrast. Oh! Mrs. Stuart,
    we did love him, how much, I knew not until he was taken from us–to
    me he was the kindest friend I’ve ever known.”

  3. Michael Aubrecht
    Fri 11th May 2007 at 2:29 pm

    Thanks for reposting that Teej. I remember that (I think from your article in ACW or maybe CW times?) and enjoyed it very much. I used this quote (below) over on my blog that also fits. Eric already did all the hard work with his post and I’m glad he did.

    “In this short period of thirty-one years, four months and twelve days, he won a glorious and imperishable name, and one that posterity will delight to cherish and honor.” – Captain R. E. Frayser, General JEB Stuart’s staff

  4. David Corbett
    Fri 11th May 2007 at 10:43 pm

    As Lee said ” He never brought me q false piece of information . Seddwick said of him ” The greatest cavalryman ever foaled on the continent .”
    allfor the old flag ,
    David Corbett

  5. Sat 12th May 2007 at 11:39 pm

    Well said, Eric, and the past few days I’ve been flying the Confederate battle flag in front of our home in Jeb’s honor. I look forward to another trip to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond one day to visit his gravesite again.

    When I stand there, I can always hear the sound of hoofbeats, no matter how quiet it otherwise is…

    J.D.

  6. Matt Soule
    Mon 14th May 2007 at 2:40 am

    Great story and certainly great leaders. When you say “Fortunately, Hampton was extremely competent in his own right . . .”, you must certainly mean “fortunately for the Confederates”. In other words, did his competence save or cost more American lives? If he had helped lead the South to victory, and the obvious consequenses, would you still use this word? Lincoln would probably use the term “unfortunately”.

  7. Mon 14th May 2007 at 3:55 pm

    WOW. Eric is really drinking the Jeb koolade these days!

    Well said.

    Here is a link about Stuart’s influence at Virginia Tech

    http://spec.lib.vt.edu/archives/125th/confeds/confeds.htm

  8. Mark Peters
    Mon 14th May 2007 at 5:53 pm

    Eric,

    A touching and balanced tribute to, in my opinion, America’s finest cavalry commander. Thanks …

    Best wishes,

    Mark

  9. Mon 14th May 2007 at 7:45 pm

    Thanks, Mark. I appreciate that.

    Hokie Tom, I’ve spent too much time around you, dude. It’s rubbing off……

    Eric

Add comment

*

Copyright © Eric Wittenberg 2011, All Rights Reserved
Powered by WordPress