October 9, 2008

"Jeb" Stuart

The mail recently brought a copy of the just-published Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of J.E.B. Stuart (Simon & Schuster, 512 pp.) by Jeffrey D. Wert. Its appearance reaffirms what appears to be an important and ongoing trend in contemporary Civil War scholarship; that being the thorough reexamining by today’s historians of important, though previously well-traveled Civil War subjects. Not that that’s a bad thing. The advent of the internet, email, and other technological advances within the past twenty years or so have unearthed scores of archival and primary sources that may have been previously unknown to researchers of earlier generations. This previously untapped material now allows for (hopefully) fresh insights into core Civil War campaigns and personalities. This year alone has seen new books by well-known authors on such topics as Sherman’s March, the Valley Campaign of 1862, and now a new bio of “Jeb” Stuart.

According to the jacket flap, it represents the first scholarly biography of Stuart in decades and draws upon such primary sources as those described above. The advance comments are what you would expect for an important, new work by a brand-name author in Civil War history. For instance, one jacket blurb notes that by “scrupulously avoiding the pitfalls of either blind worship or reckless iconoclasm, Jeffry Wert recounts the successes and failures of this remarkable soldier in a masterful study that combines diligent research and fresh analysis with the prose of a gripping novel. A must for any bookshelf.” I’d like to assume that’s true and I hope to give a more detailed commentary down the road.

Though I’ve not read the entire book, I immediately looked up one event as soon as it arrived. Having recently completed a biography of Orlando M. Poe, I wanted to see how Wert described the September 11, 1861 affair at Lewinsville, Va. Stuart and Poe had been West Point classmates and this minor engagement marked the only time they were directly engaged with each other on the field of battle. After the skirmish was over, Poe left a hastily-written letter on the field for Stuart “in care of whoever finds it.” What Poe wrote, who else he referenced in the letter, how Stuart responded and what Jeb then did with the letter are all well documented. Yet, in this instance, the author completely whiffed as to who wrote or said what, and to whom. Hopefully, this will end up being an inconsequential quibble on my end.

As for previous Stuart biographies, three come readily to mind. The first two are somewhat collectible, especially if the dust jacket is present. The first was authored by John A. Thomason and published by Scribners in 1930. It is simply titled Jeb Stuart. According to historian Allan Nevins, the book is “strongly sympathetic in tone” and is “fairly successful at capturing Stuart’s personality,” however “it includes little on the larger struggle in which Stuart was engaged.” First editions tend to be offered in the $50 range. If the rare jacket is present, it would probably command well over $100. Pictured copy offered here.

Burke Davis’ Jeb Stuart: The Last Cavalier followed twenty-seven years later in 1957. It was published by Rinehart and is still in print. Like Thomason’s earlier work, it is considered a “sympathetic and personal” look at Stuart that tends to focus on the man rather than cavalry ops. Reading copies of this work are everywhere though true first editions in jacket are priced similar to Thomason’s earlier bio.

The most recent of the three Stuart bios prior to Wert’s is Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart by Emory Thomas, which was published by Harper & Row in 1986. Like Davis’ work, it is still in print. It is also the only one of the three to be included in David Eicher’s Civil War in Books: An Analytical Bibliography. According to Eicher, thirty percent of the book focuses on Stuart’s pre-war years on the frontier, which helps make it a true biography rather than a mere record of Civil War service. Like the other two, it also presents a sympathetic portrait of Stuart.

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