James Ewell Brown Stuart was born 6th February 1833 on the Laurel Hill plantation in Patrick County Virginia, the seventh of ten children. He has strong parallels to Prince Rupert of the Rhine of the English Civil War in his character as both were dashing, cavalier and flamboyant cavalry commanders. His operations were audacious and daring and helped raise the morale of the Confederacy but his impact on the war was small in real terms.
James was educated at home and then at Wytheville Virginia and attended Emory and Henry College between 1848 and 1850 entering West Point in 1850 to graduate 4 years later, 13th out of a class of 46. In October 1854 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lt in the US mounted rifles and joined the regiment in Texas in December. The following March he transferred to the 1st Cavalry in Kansas and was promoted to 1st Lt by the end of the year. He then spent the next 5 years doing outpost work on the frontier. In 1859 he went East to sell his patient on a device for attaching sabers to belts to the War Department. While there he met his old superintendent from West Point Col Robert E Lee and became involved in the Southern cause. When Virginia succeeded from the Union in 1861 he resigned his commission and quickly gained a commission as a Captain of Cavalry in the Confederate Army, but as the Confederate army was quickly reorganised he was soon made Colonel of the 1st Virginia Cavalry.
It is generally thought that the Confederates had the better cavalry at the start of the American Civil War. Certainly the Confederate cavalrymen were more likely to have ridden horses before and over the rough terrain over which much of the fighting took place. They were dashing and very skilled at deep raids into Union territory, cutting supply lines and disrupting communications but were more limited on the battlefield. They were neither trained or equipped for the classic European style cavalry battles, never charged formed infantry or harried retreating enemy troops. Preferring to stand and shoot vs. enemy cavalry rather than engage with sabers they were crippled by a shortage of carbines and often used sawn off shotguns which were lethal at close range but outclassed by the Union's breech loading repeating carbines introduced as the war continued.
At the First Battle of Bull Run (21st July 1861) Stuart's Cavalry covered the left flank and made a well-timed charge. This led to his promotion to Brigadier-General in September 1861 with 2,400 men under his command. During the Peninsular Campaign of 1862 he performed well and created havoc with a wide sweep into the rear of the Union lines gaining useful intelligence for General Lee. After fighting in the Seven Days Battle he was promoted again to Major General. At the Second Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Antietam he again proved his worth to the Confederate Army, this time in command of the whole of the Confederate Cavalry. In October 1862 he raided as far as Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and returned with over a thousand captured horses. He fought at Fredericksburg supporting General Jackson and temporally taking command of his corps when Jackson was wounded at Chancellorsville.
The largest pure cavalry battle of the war took place at Brandy's Station on 9th June 1863 when Stuart's lines were attacked by General Pleasonton commanding 12,000 cavalry. Stuart's 10,000 held the line and inflicted more casualties on the Union cavalry. He then led his men on another long raid but did not get back to the main army until the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, which deprived Lee of vital reconnaissance in the prelude to the battle. During the winter of 1863-64 his cavalry carried out several small actions and much riding. In the spring of 1864 General Grant launched his attack into the Wilderness to destroy the Army of Virginia. On 9th May 1864 while General Grant and General Lee battled at Spotsylvania, the Union General Phillip Sheridan led 10,000 Cavalry on a massive raid on Richmond. Stuart faced him with 4,500 cavalry. They clashed on the 11th May at the battle of Yellow Tavern. The Confederates were driven from the field with 1,000 dead. Stuart was mortally wounded by a dismounted Union trooper and died the next day. Lee mourned him as a son and he was buried outside Richmond.
Stuart was the an iconic cavalry commander for the South, young, dashing and much loved by his men, his camp was renown for its high spirits and good morale. General Lee held him in high regard. Although the Cavalry was well regarded by the other arms of the Confederate Army he was popular throughout. Typically of Cavalry commanders he was ostentatious and often wore a red lined cloak with a Peacock plume in his hat. Such an obvious piece of clothing quite probably marked him as a target for the Union marksmen. His exploits did not have a huge affect on the war but his impact on morale was far from insignificant.