Times Past, Pausing to Remember


The battle of Gettysburg was not James Ewell Brown Stuart's finest hour. Many Civil War historians believe it was his most dismal. For the first two of the three days' battle, he simply wasn't there, and his whereabouts were unknown to his Commander, General Lee. Writers argue at length about who should shoulder the blame for that, the highly popular J.E.B. Stuart, or the even more popular Robert Edward Lee. It is true that Stuart's usual role was to use his cavalry to scout the enemy position and report it to Lee. He didn't do that during the Gettysburg campaign. Some say that Lee's orders to Stuart were ambiguous, leaving too much to Stuart's discretion, and not making clear what Lee desired. Others say that, by June/July 1863, Stuart well-knew what was expected of him. In looking for a goat, it is well to find an unpopular one, but in this debacle, there was none.

Stuart was the epitome of dashing cavalry officer. Dramatic in his appearance, Stuart always rode a grand horse, lined his gray coat with red material, wore his hat cocked to one side with a peacock's plume splaying from it, and always had a red flower or ribbon love-knot in the lapel of his jacket. He may have been vain and arrogant, but no Confederate supporter would be inclined to hold such things against him.

Stuart had a long record of remarkable achievement, a few failures, and the complete devotion of Southern citizenry. For the first half of the Civil War, Confederate cavalry was far superior to its Union counterpart. It took the Federal command structure a very long time to figure out how best to use its horse soldiers, and while they were muddling around that question, Stuart was riding around the entire Union Army. He did that more than once.

J.E.B. Stuart came close to being captured at 2nd Bull Run, so close in fact he left behind his beautiful plumed hat. The story of how he received a replacement concerns one of those lulls in the fighting, when both sides were able to sit down and act as if it was all just a game, or a movie where the actors were taking a break from battlefield scenes.

A battlefield was a strange place for the reunion of old friends. The contorted bodies of men who had fallen in combat two days earlier littered the ground around the small group of picnickers who, being soldiers, were able to enjoy their outing despite its macabre setting. The last time any of the men in the circle of friends had seen each other in peacetime, they had all been obscure, middling officers in the U.S. Army. Now, all wore stars--some on gray uniforms, others on blue. The most famous among them by far was James Ewell Brown Stuart, who little more than a year earlier had been a U.S. Army lieutenant. By the time of the meeting he was a Confederate major general and the most renowned cavalryman on American soil.

With Stuart that blistering afternoon were three Union brigadier generals: George Hartsuff, George Bayard, and Samuel Crawford. Availing themselves of the burial truce after the August 9, 1862, Battle of Cedar Mountain, they had crossed the battlefield to seek out their old army chum. Crawford and Bayard brought a basketful of lunch, a surgeon offered a bottle, and all the officers offered exaggerated descriptions of their wartime exploits (which for Stuart had been considerable, for the Yankees decidedly slim). Stuart proposed a toast to Hartsuff: "Here's hoping you may fall into our hands; we'll treat you well at Richmond!" Hartsuff laughed, "The same to you."

Inevitably talk turned to the late battle, in which the Federals had suffered a bloody defeat. Stuart suggested the incorrigible Northern press would find a way to contort Union defeat into glorious victory. Crawford exclaimed that not even the reckless New York Herald could find a way to construe this battle as a victory. Stuart offered a bet: Crawford would owe him a new hat if the Northern press proclaimed the Battle of Cedar Mountain a Union triumph.

A few days later a parcel arrived in Stuart's camp. It was from Crawford. In it were a copy of the New York Herald and a new plumed hat.

Cousins in the Civil War