Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of J.E.B. Stuart, by Jeffry D. Wert

Confederate cavalryman Jeb Stuart is easily one of the most recognized and fascinating figures of the American Civil War. Indeed, Stuart seems to rank only behind Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in the pantheon of Confederate heroes.

Yet I have always had a tough time truly understanding Stuart.

Was he the exceedingly brilliant commander he is most commonly portrayed as being? Or did his (well-cultivated) image as a dashing cavalier--the beau-ideal of a soldier--help to mask his shortcomings as an officer? Stuart turned in a number of incredible battlefield and campaign performances; take, for example, his command of the Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, after Jackson fell mortally wounded at Chancellorsville, and his famed rides around George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac. Yet at the same time, his reputation remains mired in controversy as he is often blamed for failing the Confederate army during the Gettysburg campaign by conducting a fruitless raid and leaving Lee “blind.” His performance during the Maryland Campaign of September 1862, during which he repeatedly provided bad intelligence and left South Mountain largely undefended by cavalrymen, also left much to be desired.

Thus conflicted in my estimation of this legendary cavalryman, when asked whether I would be interested in reading and reviewing Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of Jeb Stuart, by esteemed Civil War historian Jeffry Wert, I agreed.
Cavalryman of the Lost Cause is the first full-length study of Stuart to appear in more than two decades. Previous works largely lavished praise on Stuart with little in the way of criticism or critique. Wert's masterful biography is much welcomed because it instead paints a balanced portrait of Lee's greatest horseman. Through an extensive examination of primary source materials, including many of Stuart's own letters, particularly to his beloved wife, Flora, Wert presents Stuart as a gifted military strategist and tactician, much admired and respected by superiors and subordinates alike. He was strict disciplinarian and a fearless battlefield commander. He won many friends, while at the same time, made a few enemies. Henry Kyd Douglas, for example, a member of Stonewall Jackson's staff, famously wrote: "Personally, I never liked or admired Stuart & still believe he was vain & pretentious & greatly overrated as a solider." Most who knew Stuart would have disagreed with Douglas's assessment. Still, that Stuart was vain almost goes without saying. As Wert demonstrates, Stuart was incredibly ambitious and was a glory seeker. He carefully constructed his image as a dashing, almost flamboyant cavalier. And for all of his brilliance in the saddle, Stuart was certainly not flawless. He found it difficult to accept responsibility and would sometimes pass the blame for failures on to his fellow officers. At times, Stuart seemed to be somewhat delusional, claiming that he and his men were by no means taken by surprise at Brandy Station and, after the criticisms surfaced about his absence from the Gettysburg campaign, claimed that the months of June and July 1863 were the finest in the annals of the Confederate cavalry.
In analyzing his controversial ride around the Army of the Potomac during the Gettysburg Campaign, Wert, rightly, places the lion share of blame on Stuart himself, arguing that the horseman, whose reputation was damaged after Brandy Station, viewed it as an opportunity to reclaim his glory and esteem. As Wert writes: "Another successful expedition, like those of the previous year, could restore his reputation and might further enhance his fame, precious commodities that he coveted. After Brandy Station, the prospects must have glimmered to him. His devotion to the Confederate cause was undeniable. Now, however, devotion to his reputation and stature as a Confederate hero overrode his better judgment." At the same time, however, Wert also, again rightly, places some of the blame on Lee for issuing rather vague and seemingly conflicting orders.
What emerges from the pages of Cavalryman of the Lost Cause is an entirely human portrait of a larger-than-life personality. Stuart showed signs of incredible brilliance, while at the same time made consequential errors. What kept leaping out at me from the text was just how young Stuart was. When the war broke out, he was but 28 years of age and only 31 at the time of his death following a mortal wound at Yellow Tavern in May 1864. Stuart was also very much a Virginian first, firmly devoted to the Confederate cause. In summing up Stuart and his place in both Confederate and American history, Wert writes: "Stuart had been the Confederacy's knight-errant, the bold and dashing cavalier, attired in a resplendent uniform, plumed hat, and cape. Amid a slaugtherhouse, he had embodied chivalry, clinging to the pageantry of a long-gone warrior. He crafted the image carefully, and the image benefited him. He saw himself as the Southern people envisaged him. They needed a knight; he needed to be that knight. Since his youth, Stuart had seized life, draining it of sustenance, craved attention and approval, and fueled an intense flame of ambition. He chose a soldier's trade because it fulfilled all of those desires." Yet, as Wert also maintains, "Beneath the veneer of a cavalier was a student of warfare, a firm disciplinarian, a realist who schooled his officers and men in drills and tactics." In the end, asserts Wert, "Jeb Stuart was one of the finest light cavalrymen in American history."
My only criticism of this entirely enjoyable work is that there is little about Stuart's childhood and formative years, especially those as a young army officer on the frontier, serving under the likes of Colonel Edwin Sumner and Major John Sedgwick. Indeed, only 45 of the book's 372 pages deal with the pre-war years. In the end, however, this drawback pales when compared with the overall outstanding quality of this book. Wert is a first-class historian and a gifted writer, able to masterfully weave narrative with analysis. Cavalryman of the Lost Cause is a must for any student of the American Civil War and a most welcome addition to the war's vast historiography. In my estimation, Wert's book is now the biography of one of the Civil War's most fascinating and important figures, Major General Jeb Stuart.
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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

John, please read some books that you don't like. You are costing me too much money!

John C. Nicholas

Eric Wittenberg said...

John,

That's a very fair review that pretty much tracks my own thoughts about the book.

There are aspects of Jeff's analysis with which I disagree, particularly his take on the role of Stuart in the Gettysburg Campaign. He and I have argued about it face-to-face, and we just disagree. However, that's what makes this fun.

Nice review.

Eric

Anonymous said...

How 'bout them Rays!