Question of the Week #6

“Which Confederate cavalry commander was more effective during the war, Jeb Stuart of Nathan Bedford Forrest?”

James Ewell Brown Stuart

26 Responses to Question of the Week #6

  1. So many subjects considered at this site (Emerging Civil War) pit the Western theater against the East. This one is no different. Nathan Bedford Forrest was more effective. Not only was he able to conduct his leadership throughout the entire war, but even the military schools of Europe studied his “wizardry” of cavalry tactics.

  2. I believe that Forrest did much better at independent command, but as a leader of cavalry JEB performed better. You cannot analyze their performance without examining the impact it had on the Armies which they served. Stuart’s contribution to the ANV > than Forrest to AoT.

  3. I tend to agree that Forrest was the better commander. However, it is always difficult to compare people since circumstances vary. both had their faults and failures but Forrest had fewer. Seems Stuart’s failures had major consequences.

  4. This is a hard one–my vote is for Jeb Stuart. Nathan Bedford Forrest may have been a natural cavalry genius with many spectacular victories, but one of the primary tasks of cavalry is to support and work for the main army and I believe that he did not do that so well. Of course, this was not entirely his fault, for several reasons. First, his gifts were not fully appreciated because they did not emerge from West Point. Some well-educated and socially-polished generals found his backwoods language and mannerisms repulsive, and looked for opportunities to send him away on independent missions. This turned out well because his proclivities lent themselves to independent command, and he simultaneously raised up thousands of recruits during his forays. Additionally, on occasions when he tried to offer advice, it was not followed even though correct, such as at Fort Donelson and the aftermath of Chickamauga. But some of his inability to “work well with others” was due to his own shortcomings, such as a lack of respect for military protocol and an internal rage which sometimes got the best of him. Also, there were times when he failed to perform the job of cavalry, such as during the battle at Chickamauga when he fought his unit like infantry, resulting in a deficit of scouting and screening on the flank. On the other hand, Jeb Stuart’s great strength was in collaborating, whether with General Lee or with his peers such as Fitzhugh Lee, Mosby, Hampton, etc. He excelled at essential cavalry functions such as gathering intelligence, scouting and screening. He too won spectacular victories, and most of his battles were on a much larger scale than Forrest’s, although I suspect that the latter may have diverted more Union troops away from their normal assignments. There were times when Stuart did not come through as expected, but I believe that he carried far greater responsibility by virtue of his working more symbiotically with the army. Although each was a legendary cavalry general in his own right, I give the edge to Stuart.

  5. Nice reasoning Amanda. However, your plea gives credence that with all that responsibility he failed mightly. Me thinks he was a bit of a ‘glory hound’. As to Forrest not playing well with others, so be it. As Lincoln said of another:’He fights” Stuart did as well but as time wore on his fights were much less succesful or worthy. My biggest complaint is his actions at Gettysburg. He could/should have made a bigger impact. He lost on day 3 to much inferior numbers, etc.

  6. That’s an easy one.

    Only one was a cavalryman, Stuart. The other was, at best, a commander of mounted infantry with absolutely no skill or gift for the traditional roles of cavalry.

    And it’s really easy to run up a gaudy record when you never play anything but the second team, which describes most of Forrest’s career during the Civil War.

      1. I agree with Joe Truglio’s words: ” It is an opinion. This is what makes this blog so great. It is fun to discuss and disagree..”

  7. Joe,

    With all due respect, have you really studied Stuart’s role in the Gettysburg Campaign? Do you have any concept of the condition of his men and horses on July 3? Again, with all due respect, your comment suggests that you have not engaged in any deep study of these events. Perhaps you might consider doing so.

    1. I think Joe is responding as one who has read much on the subject of Gettysburg, for many authors have argued this position. I would have thought this way also–not surprising given the volume of verbiage on the subject. However, an excellent book co-authored by a distinguished contributor to this discussion (Eric Wittenberg’s “Plenty of Blame to Go Around”) puts a whole new light on Jeb Stuart’s pre-Gettysburg mission. This book is definitely recommended!

  8. I have read Wittenburg’s book. I toured with him at Gettysburg and listened to him speak on the subject. True I am not a cavalry expert. However, the question is who is the better commander. Based on that, I think its Forrest. Thats all. It is an opinion. This is what makes this blog so great. It is fun to discuss and disagree. With all due respect, you can agree or disagree, your choice. Thanks to all for taking my mind off all the devastation here on the Jersey shore. One needs diversions to cope.

  9. Although I am the publisher, I would like to suggest you consider reading David Powell’s award-winning “Failure in the Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joseph Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign (2010). His groundbreaking research (and I do not use that adjective lightly) not only demonstrates what General Bragg had to deal with as an army commander, but sets forth convincingly Forrest’s innate genius while exposing his limitations as a traditional cavalry commander–as my friend and SB author Eric Wittenberg alludes to in one of his posts here.

  10. I have no opinion except this one–what a great discussion! I am bookmarking it for the term in which I have to take the class on ACW Cavalry! Wow!

    . . . and of course–prayers are with all of you who have suffered in the storm. Seems there were no hurricanes or such during 1861-65, thank goodness!

  11. To a certain extent this is comparing apples and oranges. As military commander Forrest had the better record, in large part because he more often exercised independent command. Stuart was more closely tethered to Lee’s army and therefore more often exercised the traditional role of cavalry commander; but some of his raids were tatically successful but strategically a failure, as when he famously went “swanning about the blue” when Lee needed him to act as his eyes and ears during the Gettysburg Campaign. I would contest the argument that Forrest fought second rate troops vs Stuart fighting first rate; Forrest used the element of surprise and concentration of force better than most commanders in either theatre, thus achieving victory. As for the “mounted infantry” swipe: yes, the western theatre cavalry more often used firearms than sabers in mounted attacks; but the shock effect thus brought to bear was far more telling. I have read an account by one of Forrrest’s men telling of decimating a Union regiment’s saber charge simply by sitting mounted in a line, taking aim and firing. The saber charge was romantic, but even by the time of the civil war a growing anachronism. Forrest was never part of the Lost Cause pantheon for a variety of reasons: he was not West Point, not a “gentleman,” Fort Pillow, and of course his dubious postwar Klan activities. He remains a controversial figure; but as military commander he was second to none.

    1. Well put, especially the comparison of Stuart tethered to Lee in a traditional role. Few students of the war appreciate that during the Chickamauga Campaign that was precisely Forrest’s role–and he failed miserably in that capacity. That was not his strong suit, but not because he was not capable; it was because he had never really done it, and had never led that many cavalrymen in any capacity. You would especially enjoy Powell’s “Failure in the Saddle.”

  12. Are we ready for a tally? Stuart has 4 votes, including Ryan’s post in which he referenced strengths and weaknesses of both but gave the edge to Stuart as I interpret it. Forrest has 3 votes, assuming Christopher Coleman’s post favors Forrest.

  13. Tough call on this one, but I’d have to pick Forrest. He had his bad days to be sure (Chickamauga Campaign, not to even mention Fort Pillow), but in my mind he did more to disrupt the Union war machine than any other Confederate cavalryman. Stuart was talented, but I’ve always found him a tad overrated as a consistent battle leader.

      1. Tied, you say — I guess I’ll have to get my former co-worker (whose Memorial Day is not even the same as the U.S. holiday) to sign in on “Emerging Civil War”; and get him to comment.

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