Portrait of J.E.B. Stuart Removed From Courtroom in Virginia

On August 19 Judge Martin Clark removed Stuart’s portrait from Patrick County, Virginia’s Circuit Court courtroom. Yesterday he offered a lengthy explanation for his actions and is well worth reading. On a side note, if I were teaching my Civil War memory class this year my students would be reading and discussing this document. It raises a number of relevant questions about the intersection of history, public memory and justice. Continue reading “Portrait of J.E.B. Stuart Removed From Courtroom in Virginia”

Phi Delta Theta’s Confederate Heritage

Phi Delta ThetaI pledged a fraternity in college and did a number of stupid things that to this day surprise me as to the level of irresponsibility achieved. Such occurrences are inevitable when you put a bunch of young men together in a house away from home. But this story out of the University of Pennsylvania ought not to be brushed off as simply one of those moments of youthful exuberance and irresponsibility. Continue reading “Phi Delta Theta’s Confederate Heritage”

Two Views of J.E.B. Stuart’s Arrival at Gettysburg

Here is Allen Guelzo’s brief commentary on Stuart’s arrival on July 2.

However late Stuart was in arriving, the Army of Northern Virginia was still glad to see him. As he rode along the York Pike in Gettysburg, “such joyful shouts as rent the air I never heard” and  “the cavalry for once was well received.” Lee, however, had grown increasingly “uneasy & irritated by Stuart’s conduct,” recalled George Campbell Brown and “had no objection to [Brown] hearing of it,” which was surprising for “a man of Lee’s habitual reserve.” In time, descriptions of an epic confrontation between Lee and Stuart surfaced, mostly for the purpose of showing that Robert E. Lee himself pointedly held Stuart responsible for the Gettysburg battle. But there is no contemporary description of such a meeting, despite its inflation in subsequent retellings to a level with the return of the Prodigal Son. Although it is safe to say that Stuart may have reported directly to Lee after his arrival in the late afternoon of July 2nd, the few descriptions we have of Stuart that evening place him “at the vidette-post nearest” the “Infantry” or Ewell’s corps, near Rock Creek. As for Henry McClellan, Stuart’s chief of staff, his only comment on Stuart’s arrival in Gettysburg (in his 1893 biography of Stuart) was to describe, laconically, how “for eight days and nights, the troops had been marching incessantly,” on “on the ninth night they rested within the shelter of the army, and with a grateful sense of relief which words cannot express. (pp. 362-63)

The floor is open.

Jeffry D. Wert’s Stuart

bc_0743278194The latest issue of Civil War Book Review includes my review of Jeffry D. Wert’s recent biography of J.E.B. Stuart.

Civil War enthusiasts have come to expect a certain quality of research and writing from Jeffry D. Wert. Since the publication of his first book in 1987, Wert has tackled a wide range of subjects including biographies of John S. Mosby, James Longstreet, George A. Custer, a comparative study of the Iron and Stonewall Brigades, and a history of the Army of the Potomac. His most recent offering is the first full biography of Major General J.E.B. Stuart in twenty years. Despite his prominent place in the Confederate pantheon right behind Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, readers may be surprised to learn that only three biographies have been written about Stuart. Major Henry B. McClellan’s 1885 book, The Life and Campaigns of Major-General J.E.B., is still worth reading for its exhaustive coverage of his military exploits. John W. Thomason Jr.’s 1930 biography, Jeb Stuart is beautifully written, though it is seriously outdated owing to the lack of primary sources. Emory Thomas’s Bold Dragoon (1986) can claim the title of the only serious scholarly study of Stuart, but that in and of itself may have kept it from being read by a more general audience.

Most students of the Civil War want their biographies to be long on battle and campaign coverage and short on interpretation as well as the subject’s pre- and post-war experiences. In the case of Stuart we have only the former to deal with. The vast majority of Wert’s study does indeed focus on the war years and he does so with a firm grasp of the relevant secondary literature as well as an impressive collection of archival material with which to catalog both his performance on the battlefield as well as relations with fellow officers. Wert provides an even-handed assessment of Stuart on the battlefield. While Wert finds Stuart’s “efforts wanting” on the battlefield at Sharpsburg he received high marks for his performance at Chancellorsville in the wake of Jackson’s fatal wounding. As for his exploits around the Army of the Potomac and various raids in the summer and fall of 1862 Wert writes that while they garnered some intelligence these risky expeditions wore out valuable Rebel horseflesh.

No doubt, many will look with interest to the chapters on the Gettysburg campaign and the question of Stuart’s culpability for his decision on June 25, 1863, to conduct a raid around the Army of the Potomac as it marched north in pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia. There are no drawn out descriptions of the meeting between Lee and Stuart at Gettysburg or any serious attempt to answer once and for all whether Stuart’s decision constituted a fatal mistake. According to Wert, “Stuart failed Lee and the army in the reckoning at Gettysburg” though he goes on to note that Lee was “not blameless” (302). Much of the assessment of Stuart’s performance is to be found in the many references to Richmond newspapers as well as the official reports by Lee and other high-ranking commanders. Finally, the decision to deal with this in a concise manner leaves Wert with sufficient space to highlight Stuart’s work in protecting Lee’s army as it retreated back to Virginia and over a swollen Potomac River – an aspect of the campaign that is often overlooked. For this reviewer the obsession with Stuart’s culpability in the Gettysburg campaign is primarily a function of its place in our popular imagination and our never-ending obsession with trying to pinpoint that one factor that held the outcome of the battle in the balance.

In contrast to his military exploits, Stuart’s life beyond the battlefield leaves the reader with more questions than answers. While Wert’s attention to archival sources is admirable they fail to shed any new light into Stuart’s life before the war, including his marriage to Flora Cooke. While Stuart is situated squarely within a generation that was reared on the sectional conflicts of the 1850s, Wert has little to say about his political and racial outlook even though he was involved in suppressing John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry Raid, which set the tone for Lincoln’s election in 1860 followed by the secession of states in the Deep South. More importantly, the author missed an opportunity to explore how the secession of Virginia permanently damaged relations between Stuart and his father-in-law, Philip St. George Cooke. Wert simply notes that Stuart “never forgave his father-in-law for forsaking Virginia” (44).

Such minor criticisms should in no way detract from Wert’s accomplishment. He has managed to strip the many layers of myth from his subject without losing the color that makes Stuart so attractive to students of the Civil War.

What’s Wrong With J.E.B. Stuart?

On Friday I am heading down to South Boston, Virginia to lead a TAH Grant seminar of 28 high school history teachers.  Our topic is Civil War Memory.  I am going to take care of the morning session, including an overview of the topic as well as interpretive case studies with documents, film, and monuments.  In the afternoon Professor Robert Kenzer is going to talk about how to use Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary in the classroom.  I am really looking forward to this session given my passion for teaching as well as the subject.  

In preparation for the seminar I was allowed to suggest one book that would be made available to all participants and which they would be expected to read beforehand.  I selected Gary Gallagher’s recent study of the Civil War in popular culture because I thought it would both introduce the teachers to the subject of memory and give them a sense of how they can talk about the subject in the classroom.  My favorite chapter is the one on Civil War “art”, which has been a regular topic on this blog from the beginning.  I guess you could say I have a love-hate relationship with it.  On the one hand the range of images provide the perfect gauge through which to measure our collective memory of the war.  At the same time much of this art is just downright horrific.  Anyway, I am going to include a few of my favorite prints in the visual portion of my presentation.  As I was putting this part of the presentation together I came across this hilarious painting of J.E.B. Stuart by John Paul Strain titled “Bold Cavalier.”    I apologize for the quality of the Strain print, but if you click here it will take you to Strain’s own gallery thumbnail.

It looks to me like Strain took the famous photograph of Stuart on the right and just transferred his head to the body on horseback.  The effect is simply hilarious.  Stuart looks completely detached from the people around him and looks to be preparing to be photographed.  Or perhaps he just wants to get away from his adoring fans.  Either way it makes for a good laugh.