Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Last Cavalier - J.E.B. Stuart (1864)

As the “eyes and ears” of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Jeb Stuart deserves much credit for its victories, and much of the blame for its worst setback, the Battle of Gettysburg. In spite of that defeat, Lee retained confidence in Stuart, remarking of him that, “he never brought me a piece of false information.” The physical embodiment of the dashing officer, personally brave and daring, he rode into battle clothed in a flamboyant uniform topped by a plumed hat. His West Point classmates nicknamed him “beauty,” but he was no mere dandy or peacock. Married to the daughter of his commander, James Ewell Brown Stuart (1833-1864) saw his family torn apart by the war. When his Virginia-born father-in-law Phillip St. George Cooke remained loyal to the union, Stuart declared, “It is a decision he shall repent, daily.” His bold exploits and successful campaigns helped establish the standard for modern armored reconnaissance doctrine. The first American light tank used in WWII (M5) was named the “Stuart" in his honor.

Stuart’s greatest fame resulted from his “raiding” operations. Twice in 1862, he led his troopers completely around the Union army. During his first foray, Cooke was assigned to intercept him! While unimportant militarily, these spectacular raids provided much needed boosts to Southern morale. In his most publicized adventure, he retaliated for the loss of his famed plumed hat and cloak to Federal cavalry by overrunning the Union army commander’s headquarters and capturing his dress uniform, as well as valuable intelligence.

In early July 1863, Stuart, acting under ambiguous orders, again circled the Union army, but this time the results were disastrous. Deprived of information on the strength and disposition of the enemy, Lee engaged at Gettysburg without intelligence on the enemy forces. When he arrived late on the second day of battle, Stuart faced a severe dressing down from Lee. The disaster was compounded the next day when Stuart’s cavalry failed to penetrate the enemy's line, meeting defeat at the hands of Union Generals Gregg and Custer.
A year later, on May 11, 1864 at Yellow Tavern, VA, Stuart was shot in the stomach by dismounted troopers of George Custer’s division and mortally wounded, barely escaping capture. Taken to Richmond, he died the next day, surrounded by family and friends. His last words were, “I am going fast now; I am resigned. God's will be done.” He became a beloved hero of the “Lost Cause”, largely due to the efforts of Flora, who nurtured his image as the “Last Cavalier.” Ranking as one of the greatest cavalry commanders in history, Stuart’s death marked the high point of the South’s mounted service. Almost immediately after Phil Sheridan’s Yankee horsemen reigned supreme on the battlefield.

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