Unwritten History: Who Shot J.E.B. Stuart?

J.E.B. Stuart

Yellow Tavern is an engagement that continues to interest me. Although much of the battlefield has been obliterated by modern development, traces of it still remain and like many other battles, so do unanswered questions. The regimental alignment of Brig. Gen. Williams C. Wickham’s brigade on the final Confederate line is still open for debate. Correspondingly, the identity of the Union cavalryman who fired the fatal shot that wounded Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart also remains a mystery.



Stuart’s mortal wounding is fascinating for a number reasons. First, Stuart was the second corps commander lost to Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in less than a week. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet had been wounded by friendly fire on May 6 in the Wilderness. Stuart’s loss deprived Lee of perhaps his most reliable subordinate at a critical time in the Overland Campaign. It was not until August that Lee formally named a successor, Wade Hampton. Hampton, however, would go on to become just as much as a scourge to his enemies as his predecessor had been. Also, Stuart was not the only corps commander who was killed or wounded in the history of Lee’s army.

After pursuing Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s cavalry corps south from Spotsylvania for two days, Stuart planned to intercept the Federals near the convergence of the Mountain Road, Brook Turnpike and Telegraph Road above Richmond. The battle began around mid-morning on May 11, 1864 when the brigades of Cols. Thomas Devin, Alfred Gibbs and Brig. Gen. George A. Custer attacked Brig. Gen. Lunsford Lomax along the Telegraph Road. Heavily outnumbered, Lomax’s line soon folded, his three regiments retreating to a ridge to the north. There, Stuart reformed Lomax to the left of Brig. Gen. Williams C. Wickham’s brigade.

Following a brief lull, Sheridan attacked the ridge.  While elements of Col. George Chapman’s brigade along with the 5th and 6th Michigan occupied Wickham’s right and center, the main assault took place at the juncture of the two Confederate brigades. Under the direction of George Custer, the 1st Michigan, 7th Michigan and 1st Vermont launched a mounted charge up the Telegraph Road. The Union troopers crashed into the Confederate line between Wickham’s left and Lomax’s right near the position of the Baltimore Light Artillery. Although the Federals initially gained a toe hold on the ridge, reserve companies from the 1st Virginia counterattacked and pressed the blue troopers back. It was during the brief aftermath of this counterattack that Stuart received his wound.

“As they retired, one man who had been dismounted in the charge, and was running out on foot, turned as he passed the general, and discharging his pistol inflicted the fatal wound” wrote Maj. Henry McClellan of Stuart’s staff. Stuart was evacuated from the ridge shortly before the weight Custer’s attack broke the Confederate line, leaving the Federals in control of the field.  The Confederate cavalier died the following evening in Richmond.

Nearly two months later when Col. Russell Alger, the commander of the 5th Michigan penned his official report, he claimed his very own John Huff was the man who shot Stuart. Alger stated Huff opened fire on  an officer “accompanied by a large staff and escort, carrying a battle flag.” George Custer took his subordinate at his word and repeated the claim in his own report of the campaign. Further credence was given to these claims since Huff was a former member of “Berdan’s Sharpshooters” and considered a crack shot. Such assertions, however, pose problems.

First, Stuart was alone when he was shot. His staff was off performing other duties along the battle line. Further, the 5th Michigan was not one of the units employed by Custer to spearhead the main attack. The regiment launched their attack to the right of Stuart’s location and outside of the general vicinity where he received his wound. Stuart was struck in his left side, the bullet passing through his stomach before exiting his back. Unfortunately, Huff did not provide any clarity to the contentions made by his superiors. He died of wounds received a little over two weeks later at the Battle of Haw’s Shop.

Based on the location of Custer’s regiments on the field, it is more likely that a trooper from the 1st Michigan rather than the 5th Michigan inflicted the wound. Additionally, it may also be fair to conclude that the unknown Wolverine did not know who he was aiming at when he pulled the trigger. Perhaps we will never know the identity of the soldier who brought down Stuart. After the war, a trooper from the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry who fought at Yellow Tavern best summed up the circumstances surrounding the event: “It seems rather strange to me that so important an occurrence, if the facts were definitely known, should have remained unwritten history all these years.”



15 Responses to Unwritten History: Who Shot J.E.B. Stuart?

    1. Huff died after returning to his home in Michigan. Perhaps someone should have asked him about it during the long train ride home. Maybe they did and we’ll read the reply someday. Interesting stuff about the Civil War keeps popping up. Until then, I’ll go with the words of the people who were there, including Stuart’s staff. Surprised the pompous Cuter didn’t claim he fired the shot! Huff was a sharpshooter with a rifle. Stuart was killed with a pistol.

      1. Oh so sorry you can’t enslave people anymore. Doing your own work is tough and raping black women was such fun!

  1. La Salle-“Any hussar who is not dead by the age of thirty is a blackguard.” Stuart died at age 31, La Salle at 34.

  2. It is well confirmed our great great grand father john A. huff did shoot and kill ..jeb stuart.its not only family history but u.s.army records.. And fact Huff was best sharpshooter around fact he grew up as a hunter trained at age 5 yrs old .. By his grand father…family history. .and our family was orginialy from south born and raised .. And one oldest familys in america ..francis huff came over on the swan ..and lenoard huff ..made gun powder for washington and american patriots..l.facts of history..and family records.huff

    1. Hi Johnny!
      Thank you for reaching out and sharing your insight. It is very much appreciated. Do you or your family have any other information or accounts that could shed additional light on Stuart’s death. It would be incredibly helpful.

      Thanks for reading and all the best!

    2. It was well documented in military records at the time that Pvt. John A. Huff, dismounted calvary, and a re-enlisted sharpshooter shot Stuart. Huff was in retreat with other troopers on foot when he saw a CSA officer with a plume on his hat, amidst other staff. He was proactive, took his best shot and it was one of the most important shots of the civil war. Before he could be officially awarded in the battlefield, he was killed at Haws Tavern.

    3. I thought Huff was born in Canada? A student of mine did a little research on him because he is buried in our towns cemetery and his home is still standing .

  3. Can an editor can clear this up for me.

    From the article…
    “As they retired, one man who had been dismounted in the charge, and was running out on foot, turned as he passed the general, and discharging his pistol inflicted the fatal wound” wrote Maj. Henry McClellan of Stuart’s staff.
    The author writes…
    “First, Stuart was alone when he was shot. His staff was off performing other duties along the battle line.”

    So my first question is, if Stuart were alone, McClellan is or is not writing an eye-witness account, or is McClellan with Stuart at the time of the event?

    Thx in advance, and retreat 😉

    1. A belated reply. McClellan wrote in his book “The Campaigns of Stuart’s Calvary” (Blue & Gray Press 1993), p. 413, that he was not with Stuart when he was shot. McClellan said that Captain G.W. Dorsey, of Company K, 1st Virginia, described the event for him that he (McClellan) then used in his book.

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