General J. E. B. Stuart

AMONG the valuable works which the South has contributed to the history of the late war, the Life and Campaigns of General J. E. B. Stuart1 will take a high place. The book is by no means a mere biography of Stuart himself ; it is a history, as the inscription on the side of the cover aptly puts it, of " the Campaigns of Stuart’s Cavalry.” We are prepared, therefore, to find a full and minute account of all the principal and of many of the subsidiary operations of that force. The account, indeed, is so full and so minute that it will tax the patience of the ordinary reader to master the descriptions of skirmishes and ambushes which, unimportant, perhaps, in their bearing on the great events of the war, were yet worthy of being carefully narrated in a work claiming to give a complete history of the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. To any student of the military art, however, these literal and exact accounts of the mode of cavalry-fighting in our civil war cannot but be of very great and permanent interest ; while any reader who is willing to give the time required for following out the descriptions with the aid of the excellent maps which accompany the volume will find himself well repaid in the peculiar attraction always attendant on watching the varying fortunes of a fight.

Major McClellan was Stuart’s chief of staff, and he is, as he should be, loyal to his general. But, so far as we can discover, he is actuated by an impartial spirit. Neither in his treatment of the Federal narratives, nor in his accounts of Confederate operations, do we find any evidence of partisanship. At the same time, allowance must be made for the fact that he writes from the standpoint of Stuart himself.

The function of cavalry in warfare has changed very much in the last thirty years. For hundreds — nay, thousands — of years it remained substantially the same; the Numidian horse of Hannibal fought very much in the same way as did the cuirassiers of Napoleon. But with the introduction of improved firearms a change has gradually come about. We saw one of the last examples of the old method in the famous charge at Balaklava, thirty odd years ago ; but that was condemned at the time as not being, strictly speaking, “ war.” In our great struggle, it seems to have been recognized from the first that the rôle of the cavalry was to be auxiliary only. They were employed—often most unjustifiably — to do the picket duty for the whole army ; they were sent off on expeditions to cut telegraph wires, destroy railroads, capture depots of supplies, and generally to break up the enemy’s communications. Columns of cavalry always preceded and covered the march of an army, and were expected to ascertain the position and intentions of the enemy. In these operations it of course often happened that severe fighting had to be done; but when infantry were encountered, the cavalry usually dismounted and fought as infantry. In fact, up to the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864, it was only when cavalry were opposed to cavalry that the hostile squadrons charged in the old style, using the sabre. Whether this mode of fighting would ever be resorted to now is certainly very questionable. With the repeating small arms of to-day in the hands of the troopers, such splendid attacks as were made by both the Federal and Confederate cavalry at Brandy Station (or Fleetwood) would, we apprehend, never be attempted. It is the characteristic feature of the book before us that it gives all the necessary facts of a transitory yet very interesting phase in the history of the employment of cavalry in modern warfare. We have minute narratives of those daring raids in the rear of our armies, of which Stuart made at least three which were successful and famous. We have the details of the services performed by him when accompanying a column of infantry. We have careful and impartial, though naturally not always correct, descriptions of those obstinate and spirited handto-hand encounters between cavalry and cavalry which followed immediately on the reorganization of the Federal horse in the spring of 1863, and which will carry down to posterity the names of Buford and Gregg and Custer and Sheridan. The actions at Kelly’s Ford, Brandy Station. Aldie Gap, Middleburg, Gettysburg, Yellow Tavern, are all described at length ; and though there is a great deal that might be written to fill out, or to correct, or even in some cases to reverse, the conclusions of Major McClellan, the Federal historian must acknowledge his indebtedness to him as a fair and honest writer on his own side.

In Stuart the Confederacy had a natural leader of cavalry. Daring, cool, eminently a man of resources in an emergency, full of the spirit of adventure, young, gay, handsome, a fine horseman, he carried into the somewhat prosaic operations of our civil war not a little of the chivalrous spirit of former times. Belonging to one of the distinguished families of Virginia, and possessed of so many undoubted qualifications for his task, his position was an assured one from the very first. He took an active part in the first battle of Bull Run, winning the high commendation of Generals Johnston and Jackson. He commanded the entire cavalry of the Confederate army on the Peninsula. It was here that he first acquired general reputation by his daring raid around our army, about the middle of June, 1862. Being the first performance of the kind, the effect it produced upon the not very experienced soldiers of McClellan’s army was considerable, and the expedition, rash and perilous as it certainly was, may fairly be said to have been justified under the circumstances of the case. In August of that year Stuart tried the same manœuvre again, getting in the rear of the army of General Pope, and capturing some of that officer’s headquarter-baggage. But though this was also a very daring and skillfully conducted affair, it did not strike either army as possessing the importance of the former raid. Stuart, however, who evidently enjoyed these expeditions, the management of which was peculiarly suited to his character and talents, undertook, not long after the battle of Antietam, still another, and perhaps more venturesome, incursion. In October, 1862, when Lee’s army was in Virginia, Stuart crossed the Potomac at McCoy’s Ferry, a short distance above Williamsport ; proceeded rapidly to Chambersburg, where he obtained supplies of all kinds ; then taking the Gettysburg road as far as Cashtown, he returned by way of Emmitsburg to White’s Ferry, just above Conrad’s Ferry, where he crossed the Potomac, eluding with great skill and good fortune the Federal troops, by whom his little force seemed to be wellnigh surrounded. What the object of this performance was, beyond exhibiting to the men of both armies what a fine set of fellows Stuart’s cavalry were, what risks they were ready to take, and with what audacity and coolness they could escape from the snares laid for them by their foes, we are at a loss to know. But the importance of distributing information of this kind is hardly to be weighed against the danger of losing such an auxiliary to an army as Stuart and his command. As it was, everything turned out well enough ; the Federal generals were annoyed, and the Northern public was irritated. But suppose that Pleasanton had not been misled by false reports, and that Stuart and his raiders had been taken: any one can see what effect that news would have had upon both armies. It would have been a serious blow to the confidence reposed by the South in their generals, and it could not have failed greatly to encourage the North.

General Stuart was now to have a rare opportunity for distinction. In the campaign of Chancellorsville, as hitherto, he commanded the cavalry. On the evening of the 2d of May, after the crushing assault on the eleventh corps, the great Confederate leader, Stonewall Jackson, was mortally wounded, and his place was filled by A. P. Hill, who, while exerting himself to repair the disorder into which the troops had necessarily fallen in their onward and successful movement, and to resist the counter-attacks which Sickles, at the head of the undismayed veterans of the third corps, was fiercely making to recover the lost ground, was wounded himself. Then Lee sent for Stuart, and put him in command of Jackson’s corps. It was a proud moment in Stuart’s life, and a great honor for so young an officer, for he was but just thirty years old. The task before him was, fortunately, neither an ambiguous nor a complicated task. There was but one thing to do, and that was to fight. Of the battle which raged so fiercely on Sunday morning ; of the repeated, desperate, persistent assaults which Stuart directed against our position ; of the energy and enthusiasm which he inspired ; and of the gallantry with which from time to time he led the troops himself, we have not time to speak. Fierce and determined as were those repeated attacks, however, nothing but the gross mismanagement of Hooker can account for their having overcome the steady and obstinate resistance of the troops of Sickles and Slocum. But we need not dwell on this ever painful episode in the war. Suffice it to say that Stuart acquitted himself admirably.

His services were, however, more needed in the cavalry. In the severe actions which occurred in the spring and early summer of 1863, Brandy Station, Aldie Gap, Middleburg, and Gettysburg, cavalry met cavalry, and, as has been before said, the fighting was of the most approved old style, horse to horse, and sabre to sabre. In these engagements the Federals displayed a confidence and courage which had rarely been observed before, and which was the result of the thorough reorganization of our cavalry, for which the army was indebted to General Hooker probably more than to any one else.

Stuart’s course in the campaign of Gettysburg has been severely criticised as well by Confederate as by Federal authorities. When Lee determined on the invasion of the North, he left a large force of cavalry to guard the passes of the Blue Ridge, He took a very small force to cover the march of the army. The remainder he entrusted to Stuart, and practically gave him carte blanche as to the route he should take to compass the two objects of ascertaining the movements of the enemy and communicating his information to General Lee. Stuart, instead of keeping on the right flank of the Confederate columns, between them and our army, chose the devious and complicated course of passing to the south of our corps while they were marching north, thus getting between them and Washington, and then crossing the Potomac near Washington at Rowser’s Ford. He expected to make a complete circuit around our army, as he had twice done before, and to bring seasonable information of Hooker’s whereabouts and operations to his commanding officer. Looked at from any point of view, this plan was bad. It necessarily involved the separation of the cavalry from the rest of the army for a period, the duration of which no one could guess, and it exposed it, moreover, to be cut off and captured. The only recommendations of the project were its adventurousness, which we suspect was a pretty strong recommendation in the eyes of General Stuart, and the possibility of doing some damage to the communications of the Army of the Potomac by operating between it and Washington. With such a small force as accompanied Stuart, however, no great successes in this direction were to be looked for, while the danger of utter failure from the discovery of his exposed position by the Federal army — which, contrary to his expectation, was not resting near Washington, but was marching north — daily increased. Not only was Stuart thus made aware of a concentration of the Federal army in Pennsylvania, a fact of the utmost importance to General Lee, but the very movements of the Federal corps by which this concentration was effected prevented Stuart from sending his information to the headquarters of his commander. It must also be admitted that Stuart was far from showing that clear, strong sense which a man like Stonewall Jackson would have shown in a like situation. Having early made a trumpery capture of a lot of wagons and prisoners, he persisted in carrying them along with him, in spite of the delay they were manifestly causing. He never seems to have realized that so long as he was unable to communicate with Lee he was in a false position, from which he ought to make every effort to escape. As for the claim put forward by Major McClellan, that Stuart hindered the movements of the Federal army, that, with all submission, is an entire mistake. “ My main point,” wrote Meade to Halleck, “ being to find out and fight the enemy, I shall have to submit. to the cavalry raids around me in some measure.”Stuart reached Gettysburg on the afternoon of the 2d of July. But by that time the mischief had been done. General Lee, deprived of his cavalry, had been concentrating his army on Gettysburg, in ignorance of General Meade’s movements. His leading divisions had, on the day before, encountered the first and eleventh corps of the Federal army near Gettysburg, and had beaten them after an obstinate struggle. The Federal general had, nevertheless, decided to concentrate his whole army here and await an attack. On the 2d of July Lee followed up his first success by driving the third Federal corps from an untenable position. Unable now to resist the influences of the hour, he was about to essay the hazardous task of assaulting the steady infantry of the Northern army, thinned but not a whit daunted by their ill luck on the past two days, and holding a strong, well-defined position. In truth, Lee’s only chance, humanly speaking, lay in compelling the Federal army to attack him; but, owing to his ignorance of our designs and movements, his troops struck their enemy unexpectedly, and having been thus far — owing in part, at least, to adventitious circumstances — successful, Lee, on the 3d of July, made that gallant, but rash, assault on our left centre, the utter repulse of which left Meade the victor of the three days’ fight. Whether, if Stuart’s cavalry had been with the main army, Lee would or could have so managed that Meade would have been induced to assault him in position, no one, of course, can say; all we know is that the battle, as it was fought, was unpremeditated by General Lee, — that it was not the kind of battle which he had intended to deliver.

General Stuart’s services in the Wilderness campaign were very brief. In the winter of 1863—4 our cavalry, then under Sheridan, had vastly improved; the cavalry of the Confederates, on the other hand, was weak in numbers and poorly equipped. Early in the campaign, Sheridan, with some twelve thousand horse, moved in rear of the army of Lee and threatened Richmond. In a severe action at Yellow Tavern, Stuart was mortally wounded. He met his fate like a brave and good man, as he was. Major McClellan’s narrative here is simple and very touching.

We have extended this review to a greater length than we originally intended. But among the heroic figures of the war, the gallant leader of the Confederate cavalry is certainly one of the most attractive.

  1. 2The Life and Campaigns of Major-General J. E. B. Stuart, Commander of the Cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. By H. B. MCCLELLAN, A. M., late Major, Assistant Adjutant- General, and Chief of Staff of the Cavalry Corps, Army of Northern Virginia. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. Richmond, Va.: J. W. Randolph & English. 1885.