Who is JEB Stuart Anyway?

Image by J Gurney & Son from the Library of Congress
Image by J Gurney & Son from the Library of Congress

Written by Virginia Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax).  Reposted here with permission.

It’s been a tough summer for Confederate generals. First they lose the Civil War. Then they are dead for 150 years. Then they carry blame for all sorts of social ills in 21st century America.

So let it be with JEB Stuart, the target of an on-line petition to change the name of the Fairfax County high school. But who is he anyway?

To explain JEB Stuart, you have to understand antebellum Virginia and all its faults. After a glorious and historic generation of revolutionary leaders, the Commonwealth fell on hard times after 1820. Soil exhaustion pushed most farms into bankruptcy. The population moved west. The intellectual life was dulled by a defense of slavery, an indefensible institution in a free country.

There really wasn’t much to recommend that era in Virginia. Except for one thing: out of this intellectual and moral lethargy, Virginia spawned the most remarkable group of military leaders in American history. Their success and, yes, bravery made them legends in their time.

You cannot describe that cohort without mentioning James Ewell Brown (“JEB”) Stuart. Born in Patrick County, Virginia, JEB Stuart grew up riding horses. In the 1850’s, he attended West Point and took a commission in the U.S. Army. Once the War began, he resigned his commission and headed south. In 1861, at the tender age of 27, the Confederacy commissioned him a general at Munson Hill, just a mile from the high school that today bears his name.

Unlike the taciturn Stonewall Jackson or the aristocratic Robert E. Lee, Stuart had a flair for the dramatic. He dressed like a 17th century cavalier and endlessly promoted himself in the media, north and south. He also loved to taunt his opponents. During an 1863 raid on a Union telegraph office in Fairfax County, he captured a dozen horses — then sent a wire to the Union War Office in D.C. complaining about their poor quality.

Stuart had some significant triumphs, especially early in the War when his cavalry corps literally rode rings around the Union Army. Besides excellent leadership, his troopers had the advantage of owning their own horses and being familiar with the rolling terrain of the Virginia Piedmont. (ed. note: my great-grandfather’s four older brothers rode with Stuart in the 4th VA Cavalry. None of them survived the war but we still have their letters back home).

However, Stuart failed Lee during the 1863 Gettysburg campaign, when his troops went missing during the critical days of the battle. Meanwhile, the Union Army got stronger and more confident in its own cavalry corps, led by Gen. George Custer (who has his own legacy issues). A year later, Stuart was dead — killed by Union troopers at the battle of Yellow Tavern in Henrico.

After the War, Stuart ascended the pantheon of Confederate heroes, helped by the fact that his widow lived in Richmond (and his death removed him from the taint of post-War politics). Despite a mixed record of battlefield success, Stuart’s youth and daring made him a popular figure in American military history on both sides of the Mason-Dixon. In fact, the U.S. Army named its “Stuart” armored carrier after the young cavalry general. (Is that the next petition?)

Every generation has its heroes. In an earlier era, JEB Stuart was a hero to many Virginians, but certainly not all. He had a great run of positive publicity; maybe it’s only fitting he gets some negative.

I have no idea whether Stuart or anyone else “deserves” to have a school named in their honor. Maybe not. Perhaps his traits of brashness and boldness are no longer desirable in the classroom or on the athletic field. (Where did you go Johnny Football?)

But nobody needs to “apologize” for being associated with JEB Stuart.

2 Replies to “Who is JEB Stuart Anyway?”

  1. Thank you Senator for your well reasoned and tempered comments. I am a 1970 Stuart grad. I pray JEB can win one more victory for those of us who love history and our Virginia heritage.

  2. I was a Thomas Jefferson High grad in ’72. Stuart High was not far away, nor was Lee or Stonewall Jackson Middle School. Since “everybody” (actually just a noisy few) wants to erase names and history these days, I guess those are the next to get the axe. All over a nutcase who wrongly used the Battle Flag as an excuse for his racism and insanity. Then we get a gay black man who does the exact same thing a few weeks later but no one is calling for removal of the Rainbow Flag in public places, or say anything about HIS open racism in a 31 page suicide manifesto, calling for a race war. This whole “I’m offended” thing is out of control, and the crazies are ruling the streets. This is not the United States I grew up in.

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