Stuart a Vital Force as Rebel Leader; Scouting Helps Lee in Battles

Article excerpt

Byline: Thomas J. Ryan, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

One of the most colorful and controversial characters in the Civil War was James Ewell Brown Stuart, otherwise known as Jeb, who developed a powerful cavalry force that served as the eyes and ears of Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Stuart was a natural-born cavalry leader who was loyal to his commander, demanding of himself and his men, dedicated to his cause, and flamboyant in style.

From the outset of the war, Stuart performed vital scouting and screening activities for his commanders, initially Gen. Joseph Johnston and later Gen. Lee. Born and raised in southwest Virginia, Stuart graduated in 1854 from West Point, where he learned the fundamentals of reconnaissance and outpost duty.

Stuart sharpened some of these skills during assignments on the Texas frontier and in Kansas Territory. Much like his future commander and mentor, Robert E. Lee, Stuart encountered difficulty out West in tracking elusive Indian bands that roamed the countryside and ravaged vulnerable settlements.

Rather than complain about these isolated assignments, Stuart made the best of the situation. He realized early on that to reach the position in life to which he aspired would require hard work, determination and personal integrity.

This philosophy translated into a high-spirited cavalryman who gained recognition through his accomplishments and by assertively promoting his military career.

Out West

Stuart benefited from assignment in 1855 to the newly established 1st Cavalry, a unit specifically trained for scouting and outpost duty. Scouts explored surrounding roads and terrain and were reconnoiterers of enemy positions.

Outpost detachments protected against surprise by observing enemy movements and prevented them from pinpointing the army's location. They gave early warning and hindered attacks, allowing the main force to prepare for action. Stuart would later show he had learned his lessons well.

Stuart's service in Texas and on the plains also taught him valuable campaigning skills. He realized what it took to survive in a hostile atmosphere while on patrol in unfamiliar territory.

He also learned the hard lesson of recruiting reliable scouts after Pawnee Indian guides had abandoned his unit in a remote area. Stuart demonstrated leadership in this situation by volunteering to go find help and was responsible for the eventual rescue of his comrades.

Good fortune was with Stuart while serving out West when, in a skirmish with Indians, he somehow survived a point-blank gunshot wound to the chest that ordinarily would have been disabling if not fatal.

Lessons learned

Stuart was not one to leave things to chance, especially with regard to his career. He assertively pursued promotion through personal and political friends back East, writing letters to influential people and making contact in person when the opportunity availed itself.

The wounding incident and lobbying for promotion were reflections of his daring that was, at times, impetuous, and unabashed ambition that would frequently be on display during the upcoming struggle.

By the time the Civil War began, Stuart had gained a thorough introduction to the complexities and difficulties of military life, including command experience. Exposure to the fundamentals of information gathering was a key ingredient.

During his prewar assignments, he learned to maneuver during lengthy expeditions and survive in a harsh, unexplored environment with an unpredictable climate.

Under these circumstances, he saw how valuable scouts with special skills and familiarity with the operational area could be knowledge he would later apply with considerable success.

As a result, Stuart had gained at least a rudimentary understanding of the essential intelligence and counterintelligence roles of cavalry in a combat situation. …