A Rebel's Recollections (Part 5)

A confederate soldier from a plantation-owning family offers the Southern point of view on the Civil War
More

"I regard it as a foregone conclusion," said Stuart, "that we shall ultimately whip the Yankees. We are bound to believe that, anyhow; but the war is going to be a long and terrible one, first. We've only just begun it, and very few of us will see the end. All I ask of fate is that I may be killed leading a cavalry charge."

The remark was not a boastful or seemingly insincere one. It was made quietly, cheerfully, almost eagerly, and it impressed me at the time with the feeling that the man's idea of happiness was what the French call glory, and that in his eyes there was no glory like that of dying in one of the tremendous onsets which he knew so well how to make. His wish was granted, as we know. He received his death-wound at the head of his troopers.

With those about him he was as affectionate as a woman, and his little boyish ways are remembered lovingly by those of his military household whom I have met since the war came to an end. On one occasion, just after a battle, he handed his coat to a member of his staff, saying, -

"Try that on, captain, and see how it fits you."

The garment fitted reasonably well, and the general continued, - "Pull off two of the stars, and wear the coat to the war department, and tell the people there to make you a major."

The officer did as his chief bade him. Removing two of the three stars he made the coat a major's uniform, and the captain was promptly promoted in compliance with Stuart's request.

General Stuart was, without doubt, capable of handling an infantry command successfully, as he demonstrated at Chancellorsville, where he took Stonewall Jackson's place and led an army corps in a very severe engagement; but his special fitness was for cavalry service. His tastes were those of a horseman. Perpetual activity was a necessity of his existence, and he enjoyed nothing so much as danger. Audacity, his greatest virtue as a cavalry commander, would have been his besetting sin in any other position. Inasmuch as it is the business of the cavalry to live as constantly as possible within gunshot of the enemy, his recklessness stood him in excellent stead as a general of horse, but it is at least questionable whether his want of caution would not have led to disaster if his command had been of a less mobile sort. His critics say he was vain, and he was so, as a boy is. He liked to win the applause of his friends, and he liked still better to astonish the enemy, glorying in the thought that his foemen must admire his "impudence," as he called it, while they dreaded its manifestation. He was continually doing things of an extravagantly audacious sort, with no other purpose, seemingly, than that of making people stretch their eyes in wonder. He enjoyed the admiration of the enemy far more, I think, than he did that of his friends. This fact was evident in the care he took to make himself a conspicuous personage in every time of danger. He would ride at some distance from his men in a skirmish, and in every possible way attract a dangerous attention to himself. His slouch hat and long plume marked him in every battle, and made him a target for the riflemen to shoot at. In all this there was some vanity, if we choose to call it so, but it was an excellent sort of vanity for a cavalry chief to cultivate. I cannot learn that he ever boasted of any achievement, or that his vanity was ever satisfied with the things already done. His audacity was due, I think, to his sense of humor, not less than to his love of applause. He would laugh uproariously over the astonishment he imagined the Federal officers must feel after one of his peculiarly daring or sublimely impudent performances. When, after capturing a large number of horses and mules on one of his raids, he seized a telegraph station and sent a dispatch to General Meigs, then Quartermaster-General of the United States army, complaining that he could not afford to come after animals of so poor a quality, and urging that officer to provide better ones for capture in future, he enjoyed the joke quite as heartily as he did the success which made it possible.

The boyishness to which I have referred ran through every part of his character and every act of his life. His impetuosity in action, his love of military glory and of the military life, his occasional waywardness with his friends and his generous affection for them, - all these were the traits of a great boy, full, to running over, of impulsive animal life. His audacity, too, which impressed strangers as the most marked feature of his character, was closely akin to that disposition which Dickens assures us is common to all boy-kind, to feel an insane delight in anything which specially imperils their necks. But the peculiarity showed itself most strongly in his love of uproarious fun. Almost at the beginning of the war he managed to surround himself with a number of persons whose principal qualification for membership of his military household was their ability to make fun. One of these was a noted banjo-player and ex-negro minstrel. He played the banjo and sang comic songs to perfection, and therefore Stuart wanted him. I have known him to ride with his banjo, playing and singing, even on a march which might be changed at any moment into a battle; and Stuart's laughter on such occasions was sure to be heard as an accompaniment as far as the minstrel's voice could reach. He had another queer character about him, whose chief recommendation was his grotesque fierceness of appearance. This was Corporal Hagan, a very giant in frame, with an abnormal tendency to develop hair. His face was heavily bearded almost to his eyes, and his voice was as hoarse as distant thunder, which indeed it closely resembled. Stuart, seeing him in the ranks, fell in love with his peculiarities of person at once, and had him detailed for duty at head-quarters, where he made him a corporal, and gave him charge of the stables. Hagan, whose greatness was bodily only, was much elated by the attention shown him, and his person seemed to swell and his voice to grow deeper than ever under the influence of the newly acquired dignity of chevrons. All this was amusing, of course, and Stuart's delight was unbounded. The man remained with him till the time of his death, though not always as a corporal. In a mad freak of fun one day, the chief recommended his corporal for promotion, to see, he said, if the giant was capable of further swelling, and so the corporal became a lieutenant upon the staff.

With all his other boyish traits, Stuart had an almost child-like simplicity of character, and the combination of sturdy manhood with juvenile frankness and womanly tenderness of feeling made him a study to those who knew him best. His religious feeling was of that unquestioning, serene sort which rarely exists apart from the inexperience and the purity of women or children.

While I was serving in South Carolina, I met one evening the general commanding the military district, and he, upon learning that I had served with Stuart, spent the entire evening talking of his friend, for they two had been together in the old army before the war. He told me many anecdotes of the cavalier, nearly all of which turned in some way upon the generous boyishness of his character in some one or other of its phases. He said, among other things, that at one time, in winter-quarters on the plains of the West I think, he, Stuart, and another officer (one of those still living who commanded the army of the Potomac during the war) slept together in one bed, for several months. Stuart and his brother lieutenant, the general said, had a quarrel every night about some trifling thing or other, just as boys will, but when he had made all the petulant speeches he could, Stuart would lie still a while, and then, passing his arm around the neck of his comrade, would draw his head to his own breast and say some affectionate thing which healed all soreness of feeling and effectually restored the peace. During the evening's conversation this general formulated his opinion of Stuart's military character in very striking phrase.

"He is," he said, "the greatest cavalry officer that ever lived. He has all the dash, daring, and audacity of Murat, and a great deal more sense." It was his opinion, however, that there were men in both armies who would come to be known as greater cavalry men than Stuart, for the reason that Stuart used his men strictly as cavalry, while others would make dragoons of them. He believed that the nature of our country was much better adapted to dragoon than to cavalry service, and hence, while he thought Stuart the best of cavalry officers, he doubted his ability to stand against such men as General Sheridan, whose conception of the proper place of the horse in our war was a more correct one, he thought, than Stuart's. "To the popular mind," he went on to say, "every soldier who rides a horse is a cavalry man, and so Stuart will be measured by an incorrect standard. He will be classed with General Sheridan and measured by his success or the want of it. General Sheridan is without doubt the greatest of dragoon commanders, as Stuart is the greatest of cavalry men; but in this country dragoons are worth a good deal more than cavalry, and so General Sheridan will probably win the greater reputation. He will deserve it, too, because behind it is the sound judgment which tells him what use to make of his horsemen."

It is worthy of remark that all this was said before General Sheridan had made his reputation as an officer, and I remember that at the time his name was almost new to me.

From my personal experience and observation of General Stuart, as well as from the testimony of others, I am disposed to think that he attributed to every other man qualities and tastes like his own. Insensible to fatigue himself, he seemed never to understand how a well man could want rest; and as for hardship, there was nothing, in his view, which a man ought to enjoy quite so heartily, except danger. For a period of ten days, beginning before and ending after the first battle of Bull Run, we were not allowed once to take our saddles off. Night and day we were in the immediate presence of the enemy, catching naps when there happened for the moment to be nothing else to do, standing by our horses while they ate from our hands, so that we might slip their bridles on again in an instant in the event of a surprise, and eating such things as chance threw in our way, there being no rations anywhere within reach. After the battle, we were kept scouting almost continually for two days. We then marched to Fairfax Court House, and my company was again sent out in detachments on scouting expeditions in the neighborhood of Vienna and Falls Church. We returned to camp at sunset and were immediately ordered on picket. In the regular course of events we should have been relieved the next morning, but no relief came, and we were wholly without food. Another twenty-four hours passed, and still nobody came to take our place on the picket line. Stuart passed some of our men, however, and one of them asked him if he knew we had been on duty ten days, and on picket thirty-six hours without food.

"Oh nonsense!" he replied. "You don't look starved. There's a cornfield over there; jump the fence and get a good breakfast. You don't want to go back to camp, I know; it's stupid there, and all the fun is out here. I never go to camp if I can help it. Besides, I've kept your company on duty all this time as a compliment. You boys have acquitted yourselves too well to be neglected now, and I mean to give you a chance."

We thought this a jest at the time, but we learned afterwards that Stuart's idea of a supreme compliment to a company was its assignment to extra hazardous or extra fatiguing duty. If he observed specially good conduct on the part of a company, squad, or individual, he was sure to reward it by an immediate order to accompany him upon some unnecessarily perilous expedition.

His men believed in him heartily, and it was a common saying among them that "Jeb never says 'Go, boys,' but always 'Come, boys.'" We felt sure, too, that there was little prospect of excitement on any expedition of which he was not leader. If the scouting was to be merely a matter of form, promising nothing in the way of adventure, he would let us go by ourselves; but if there were prospect of "a fight or a race," as he expressed it, we were sure to see his long plume at the head of the column before we had passed outside our own line of pickets. While we lay in advance of Fairfax Court House, after Bull Run, Stuart spent more than a month around the extreme outposts on Mason's and Munson's hills without once coming to the camp of his command. When he wanted a greater force than he could safely detail from the companies on picket for the day, he would send after it, and with details of this kind he lived nearly all the time between the picket lines of the two armies. The outposts were very far in advance of the place at which we should have met and fought the enemy if an advance had been made, and so there was literally no use whatever in his perpetual scouting, which was kept up merely because the man could not rest. But aside from the fact that the cavalry was made up almost exclusively of the young men whose tastes and habits specially fitted them to enjoy this sort of service, Stuart's was one of those magnetic natures which always impress their own likeness upon others, and so it came to be thought a piece of good luck to be detailed for duty under his personal leadership. The men liked him and his ways, one of which was the pleasant habit he had of remembering our names and faces. I heard him say once that he knew by name not only every man in his old regiment, but every one also in the first brigade, and as I never knew him to hesitate for a name, I am disposed to believe that he did not exaggerate his ability to remember men. This and other like things served to make the men love him personally, and there can be no doubt that his skill in winning the affection of his troopers was one of the elements of his success. Certainly no other man could have got so much hard service out of men of their sort, without breeding discontent among them.

[Go to "A Rebel's Recollections" June 1874, July 1874, August 1874, September 1874, October 1874, November 1874, December 1874]

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In