Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of J.E.B. Stuart by Jeffry Wert

The last book in my recent stint of reviews on the American Civil War is a good one – Jeffry D. Wert’s Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of J.E.B. Stuart. Kevin asked me if I wanted to read and review this book and I hesitated because I normally do not like to read biographies (many of them are boring). I am glad I made an exception for this book.

J.E.B. Stuart is one of those Civil War figures everyone has an opinion of. Some love him and think he was the greatest cavalryman in the war and others loath him and think that he cost the South a victory at Gettysburg (and possibly for the war). I have to admit that I was part of the latter group. However, since reading this book, I have changed my tune and lean more toward the former camp.

Wert captures Stuart’s character perfectly – with all of Stuart’s strengths and weaknesses. Wert strikes a beautiful balance between admiration and condemnation.  Wert appropriately points out that Stuart was an excellent trainer of cavalrymen and motivator of those cavalrymen. In addition, he was fearless in battle and a great fighter. More than once, he turned around a battle by force of character alone.

Wert balances the positive attributes of Stuart with negative ones.   Wert describes how Stuart loved attention and how he sometimes shamelessly promoted himself. This was the case when he tried to get his promotion to lieutenant general (he lobbied hard for it through back channels after Robert E. Lee did not promote Stuart – not because he did not earn it, but because the numbers of cavalrymen he commanded, as compared to the number of infantrymen that lieutenant generals commanded, was lower).

Another negative attribute that Wert so aptly points out is that Stuart promoted his favorites and tried to derail his detractors. Stuart was not one to cross. He crossed swords (figuratively) with one of his brigade commander – William “Grumble” Jones – early in the war.  Jones was court- martialed (mostly exonerated) and moved to another theater of the war.

Any book on Stuart is not worth anything unless it discusses Stuart’s most famous or infamous episode of the war – Gettysburg. Much ink has been spilled either attacking or defending Stuart’s conduct during this fateful campaign. However, Wert takes the middle road and doles out blame to all equally – to Lee for his discretionary command and to Stuart for his choices to ride around the Army of the Potomac and capture (rather than destroy) a Union wagon train. I think Wert’s analysis of the Confederate campaign from a cavalry perspective is balanced and fair.

Wert’s portrayal of Stuart is an objective portrayal of one of the war’s most colorful figures.

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