Part one in a series
James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart was one of the Confederacy’s emerging stars in the summer of 1862. A Major General at 29, Stuart headed the cavalry division in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Over the course of several days in August, Stuart was involved in two separate events in the central part of the Old Dominion. Although these affairs were small in nature, one would set the stage for the other and ultimately brought on another clash between Union and Confederate armies near Manassas.
A member of the West Point Class of 1854, Stuart served briefly in the Regiment of Mounted Rifles before he was transferred to the 1st U.S. Cavalry. While on duty in Kansas, Stuart became embroiled in the conflict with free soil and pro-slavery elements and participated in expeditions against the various American Indian tribes in the region. In October 1859, he served as Col. Robert E. Lee’s aide at Harper’s Ferry and assisted in the capture of abolitionist John Brown. When his home state of Virginia seceded, Stuart resigned from the army. He soon received a Colonel’s commission and command of the 1st Virginia Cavalry which he skillfully led at First Manassas. That fall, he was promoted to Brigadier General and placed at the head of a cavalry brigade.
Stuart’s rise to prominence began in the early summer of 1862. Following the wounding of Gen. Joseph Johnston at the Battle of Seven Pines, President Jefferson Davis assigned Lee to command of the Confederate forces defending Richmond. In need of reliable information regarding the disposition of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, Lee dispatched Stuart on a reconnaissance mission. From June 12 to June 15 , Stuart rode around McClellan’s entire army. He returned triumphantly with the intelligence Lee required to formulate a plan to attack the Federals. In a series of engagements known as the Seven Days’ battles, Lee pushed McClellan from the doorstep of the Confederate capital to his base on the James River.
The “Ride Around McClellan” brought Stuart an elevation to Major General. On July 28, Lee assigned Stuart to lead his cavalry division which consisted of the brigades of Brig. Gens. Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee. Stuart’s new found fame also helped to cultivate his image of a rollicking cavalier. He wore high topped boots, dark blue trousers and a short jacket. Stuart’s trademark was an ostrich plumed hat with an upturned brim. Interestingly enough, this hat would soon become a major point of contention in the weeks ahead.
Although Lee had managed to defeat McClellan, a new threat soon materialized in the form Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia. Pope set his sights on the critical railroad junction at Gordonsville. In response, Lee sent Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson north. Jackson tangled with one of Pope’s corps outside Culpeper at Cedar Mountain on August 9. With things quiet on the Richmond front, Lee began to shift the rest of his army to reinforce Jackson. On August 17, Stuart reported to Lee at his headquarters near Orange Court House to prepare for operations against Pope.