Thursday, May 16, 2024

Review - "J.E.B. Stuart: The Soldier and the Man" by Edward Longacre

[J.E.B. Stuart: The Soldier and the Man by Edward G. Longacre (Savas Beatie, 2024). Hardcover, 12 maps, photos, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xii,392/442. ISBN:978-1-61121-680-6. $34.95]

Inevitably, the big four of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia—commanding general Robert E. Lee, wing/corps commanders James Longstreet and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, and cavalry leader James Ewell Brown Stuart—have each drawn the interest of multiple biographers over the decades. Just within the past few years we've had a major new Lee biography published as well as two full-length reexaminations of Longstreet's military career. Yet another current title reappraises Longstreet's post-war activities. Next up is a new full biography of the "Beau Sabreur of the Confederacy."

The first major twentieth-century biography, John William Thomason Jr.'s Jeb Stuart, was first published in 1930. That was followed in 1957 by Burke Davis's Jeb Stuart: The Last Cavalier. Nearly thirty years would pass until the next full-length treatment, Emory Thomas's Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart (1986), set the standard. More recently, Jeffry Wert, also a Longstreet biographer, was the next to contribute with his well-received 2008 study Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of J.E.B. Stuart. Also striving toward a more balanced assessment of Stuart's military successes and failures along with his leadership and character strengths and flaws is Civil War cavalry historian Edward Longacre's J.E.B. Stuart: The Soldier and the Man. Longacre's study is primarily a Civil War military biography but it does also offer solid coverage of Stuart's early life, West Point educational experience, and antebellum Regular Army service.

Generally speaking, Longacre joins most current historians in charting the course of Stuart's Civil War career as a tale of two halves. Between the beginning of the conflict and the middle of 1863, Stuart outclassed opposing cavalry formations inferior in leadership and organization. In the process he famously ran rings around the Army of the Potomac and seriously embarrassed the fledgling Army of Virginia. Additionally, in the performance of his duties as the eyes and ears of Lee's army, Stuart left little room for serious complaint. As 1863 progressed, however, the Army of the Potomac's cavalry branch finally came into its own in terms of leadership, training, and organization while at the same time surpassing Stuart's command in both individual trooper firepower and overall quantity and quality of horseflesh. In the views of Longacre and other eastern theater cavalry experts, Stuart from 1863 onward still largely excelled in the standard roles assigned to mid-19th century cavalry—from outpost operations when the armies were seasonally static to intelligence gathering, advance guard, screening front and flanks, rear guard, and direct attack actions—but his vastly improved opponents proved more capable of exposing Stuart's missteps and shortcomings.

Stuart scored high in artillery tactics at West Point, and the author credits him throughout the book with exceptional skill in the use of that support arm. How Stuart's tactical thinking may have evolved over the course of the war is mostly tangentially addressed. Longacre brings up Stuart's late-war attempt to create a tactical manual (through which he hoped to foster more standardized practices among his subordinates), and one might appropriately wonder why the general waited so long to do so. In the main, Longacre concludes that Stuart, though he displayed strong skills at managing combined arms, had an overall mixed record in terms of leadership judgment and performance (who among Civil War generals of Stuart's breadth of responsibility and length of service didn't?). On those occasions when Longacre feels Stuart's actions most deserving of censure he is very upfront about it, but one is hard pressed to discern a persistent pattern indicative of any fatal flaws in the flamboyant general's operational or tactical thinking (though the author is of the opinion that Stuart failed to adapt as readily as others did to the benefits of employing mixed—mounted and dismounted—cavalry formations in combat).

Stuart's Civil War military career has been exhaustively recounted in the pages of innumerable articles, biographies, battle/raid studies, and campaign histories, so there's no reason to list them again here. Suffice it to say that Longacre's coverage is fully comprehensive and his summaries of events more than suitable in depth. In well-rounded fashion, the author blends his own measured assessments of Stuart's leadership and actions with accounts judiciously representative of both contemporary and historiographical criticism and praise. The most controversial aspects of Stuart's military career, including his widely condemned decision-making during the march to Gettysburg, are addressed from multiple angles and points of view, leaving open-minded readers with much to consider. Critics then and now cast a judgmental eye toward Stuart's alleged surfeit of vanity, excessive love for the pageantry aspects of war (in dress, behavior, conducting military reviews, camp entertainment, etc.), and his enjoyment of the adulation and company of young women not his wife, but it's difficult to argue that those personal traits (and gossipy complaints attached to them) were of any great consequence when it came to Stuart's performance of his professional duties.

In most ways, Stuart was a genial and nurturing boss. Though he could be thin-skinned in response to public and professional barbs, in his reports Stuart routinely and generously shared credit for his command's successes and, when they deserved it, cast his own personal differences aside and praised officers with whom he did not get along (prominent examples being Grumble Jones and Beverly Robertson). Even when doing so helped take them away from his command, he also heartily supported the promotions of cherished subordinates. In the book Longacre documents numerous examples of the types of professional bickering and jealousies common to the hierarchies of Civil War military formations. Even though Stuart was one of his chief sponsors, Tom Rosser constantly sniped at him. Just as often, Wade Hampton moaned about Stuart's alleged favoritism toward any units but Hampton's own to anyone who would listen, but that did not stop Stuart from consistently affirming Hampton's value to his command. On a side note, Longacre suggests that Hampton might have been better suited than Stuart to lead the army's cavalry corps during the late-war phase of the arm's operational and tactical evolution. He is not alone in suggesting that.

Even for achievements that might seem largely critic-proof, Longacre reserves plenty of room for dissenting opinion. For example, Stuart's raids behind enemy lines were celebrated accomplishments inside and outside the army but more than a few serving in his ranks believed the wear and tear produced on man, beast, and equipment all too often not worth the result. With many of the factors that progressively hampered the efficiency of Stuart's command being structural (one being the Confederacy's lack of a central horse remount/rehabilitation system similar to what the U.S. Army created for its cavalry arm), the author does not note any particular administrative deficiencies in Stuart's leadership.

One of the most tantalizing what-ifs of Stuart's Civil War career surrounds the question of his retaining command of Stonewall Jackson's infantry corps after Chancellorsville. By most accounts, including Lee's, the poise with which Stuart assumed his mid-battle service branch transition and his seamless handling of Jackson's large command after it was abruptly thrust upon him were impressive. Wert's biography also awarded Stuart will similar plaudits. Given Stuart's history and personality, one might have expected him to be eager to return to the cavalry, but Longacre finds some reason to believe that Stuart was honestly disappointed when he wasn't offered the infantry corps leadership position, which would also have come with a much cherished promotion to lieutenant general, on a permanent basis. According to Longacre, Stuart also floated the idea in 1864 of leaving Lee's army if it meant a bump up in grade, though he does question the seriousness of the thought. Even though he led a corps-level command, Stuart never received that much hoped for promotion, dying a major general. The book does consider whether Lee lost confidence in Stuart from mid-war (post-Gettysburg) onward, but there's really not enough clear information available to arrive at a strong conclusion on that matter.

Combining the author's own extensive archival research with a strong engagement with the published literature, Edward Longacre's J.E.B. Stuart: The Soldier and the Man clearly and convincingly explains what made his subject such an effective cavalry commander. On the other side of the equation, the book vigorously but fairly articulates and explores the general's shortcomings and their consequences during specific campaigns and actions. The result is a comprehensive portrait of the military career of the Civil War's most iconic cavalryman, one that healthily rejects both hagiography and unwarranted fixation on critical assumptions regarding Stuart's character and motivations.


  1. Thank you for the very informative review. Longacre's bio sounds like a good one to own. As an aside, Stuart's performance during the 1862 Maryland Campaign has also come under growing scrutiny in recent years, with many experts questioning if he had almost as poor a campaign then as he did nine months later. In my own Calamity at Frederick, for example, I've presented evidence pointing to the possibility that Stuart may have been the man who lost Lee's orders outside of Frederick. He may have then covered it up to deflect suspicion from himself onto D.H. Hill. The search for evidence goes on.

    1. Longacre doesn't dive into Lost Order weeds, but he does explore the criticisms of Stuart's actions during the Maryland Campaign.

    2. Drew: As usual, thanks for a thorough, insightful review. I'm not big in acquiring biographies of figures who have already been the subject of others, but this one appears to be worth getting. The issue of Stuart continuing in corps command after "pinch-hitting" at Chancellorsville is one of those rare hypotheticals I've always found interesting (unlike, for example, the tired and inapt "Stonewall at Cemetery Hill Instead of Ewell" ). In his brief assignment to infantry command Stuart demonstrated tactical skill - an area in which Jackson was consistently mediocre. He almost certainly would have had better relations with subordinates. Whether he could have matched Jackson's talent for operational maneuver of a large infantry unit at that level is a complete unknown. Then there are the questions that arise directly from his judgment/decisions that you and Alex allude to.

  2. Thanks for the thorough review, Drew. We are very pleased to have published this book. --Ted Savas

  3. Excellent review. I have all the other Stuart bios from McClellan to Wert so I will eventually have to pick it up. Still love Thomason's bio with its excellent look at the man, wonderful sketches by the author and truly moving account of Stuart's wounding then death. He seems to be one of those personages that bring out the best in a biographer.

    1. Thanks, Chris.

      In all my used bookstore visits over the years, I have never seen a copy of Thomason's book. I've only read the three from Bold Dragoon onward, which in itself is unusual for me as I am not a regular consumer of biography!

    2. A good reprint was done of Thomason's in 1994 for the Bison books line of wonderful reprints. Gary Gallagher did a very good introduction and it contains all the sketches done by Thomason. Hope you can find a copy to enjoy.


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