J.E.B. Stuart and the Question of Corps Command

JEB Stuart

In the days after his victory in the Chancellorsville Campaign, Gen. Robert E. Lee faced a number of critical decisions, among them the reorganization of his Army of Northern Virginia. The death of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on May 10, 1863 had left a void at corps command. There were a number of officers, including Maj. Gens. Richard Ewell, Ambrose Powell Hill and Richard Anderson in the running to replace Jackson. Another name which may have been the most intriguing was the commander of Lee’s cavalry division, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart. Over the course of the last month or so, I’ve been trying to locate primary evidence regarding Stuart’s consideration for corps command. The search is far from over, in fact in may never be over, but I wanted to share what I have found so far and offer my thoughts on the matter. I also invite our readers to share any primary sources on the subject for additional research.

When Jackson fell victim to friendly fire on the night of May 2 at Chancellorsville, command of his Second Corps eventually fell to Stuart. The cavalry chief turned in a splendid performance the following day and his efforts eventually led to a Confederate victory. Stuart returned to command of the mounted division on May 6. Following Jackson’s death on May 10, rumors regarding his replacement began to circulate through the Confederate ranks.

Stuart’s own headquarters was not immune to such innuendo. Captain John Esten Cooke, a relative of Stuart’s wife, Flora, and member of his staff recorded in his journal a brief discussion he had with the gray cavalier. According to Cooke, Stuart related a story told to him by Col. Thomas L. Rosser, the commander of the 5th Virginia Cavalry, “that Jackson on his death bed had expressed a desire that he…should succeed him in the command of his corps.” Stuart then told Cooke that he “would rather know that Jackson said that, than have the appointment.”

Interestingly enough, Rosser  did not visit Jackson during the final six days of his life. Additionally, the statement from Jackson has not been corroborated by those who were with him as he passed away his last hours in Thomas Chandler’s plantation office near Guinea Station. That isn’t to say those that were closest to Jackson were not impressed by Stuart’s performance. Jackson’s cartographer, Jedediah Hotckiss, praised Stuart for his actions at Chancellorsville in a letter to his wife written on May 19. Hotchkiss, however, does not mention the potential of Stuart taking over Jackson’s corps. Stuart also mentioned the camp rumors in a letter to Flora. “There has been a great deal of talk of my succeeding General Jackson,” he wrote, “but I think without foundation in fact.”

On May 20, Lee wrote to President Jefferson Davis to propose a reorganization of his army. This restructure revolved around the creation of a third corps. Stuart’s name is not mentioned either as a replacement for Jackson or as a new corps commander. It does appears from a letter written by Lee to Stuart on May 23 that Stuart offered his thoughts on who should succeed Jackson.

That’s not to say Stuart did not covet a third star and a promotion to Lieutenant General, a grade synonymous with corps command in Lee’s army. Stuart stood fourth on the seniority list of Major Generals behind Ewell (January 24, 1862) Hill (May 26, 1862) and Anderson (July 14, 1862). Such a promotion, vaulting Stuart over three other officers, could create discontent and friction within the army. Lee was in the midst of planning his second Northern invasion where cooperation and cohesion among his subordinates would be critical to the operation’s success.

Still, rumors regarding Stuart’s consideration for command persisted. It appears one of the chief purveyors was Brig. Gen. William Dorsey Pender, a brigade commander in Hill’s division. “I hear that Gen’l Jackson is thought to be in very serious condition”, he wrote to his wife, Fanny, on May 9. “He has pneumonia…he will be a great loss to the country  and it is devoutly hoped that he may be spared to the country. Some think in his absence Stuart will be made Lt. General, but I hope not.” In another letter two weeks later, Pender wrote, “it is rumored that Stuart has tendered his resignation because they will not give him this corps, but I cannot think him so foolish.”

Stuart’s elevation to the corps level had the potential to upset Pender’s own rise within the army. Pender’s direct superior, A.P. Hill, was Jackson’s senior division commander and stood to receive the Second Corps. If Stuart were given Jackson’s corps, Hill would remain at the division level. On the other hand, Hill’s elevation would create a vacancy for his division. Pender stood second on the seniority list among Hill’s brigadiers behind Henry Heth. It should be noted that Pender shared his appointment with fellow brigade head James Archer. Heth, however, presented problems of his own.

“If A.P. Hill is promoted, a major general will be wanted for his division,” Lee wrote  in the aforementioned letter to Davis. “Heth is the senior brigadier in the division. I think him a good officer. He has lately joined this army, was in the last battle, and did well. His nomination having been once declined by the Senate, I do not know whether it would be proper to promote him.” In the subsequent reorganization, both Heth and Pender were promoted to Major General and received a divisional command.

But at end of the day, the discussion may be a moot point. In August, 1863, Lee recommended that Stuart’s cavalry be restructured as a corps. Davis approved the measure and Stuart finally received his corps command in September. It should be noted that Stuart was not promoted to Lieutenant General upon the reorganization, which might be worth looking into at some point as well.

All things considered, there appears to be little evidence that Stuart was a major contender for an infantry corps after Chancellorsville. Still, the search goes on and the process continues.

12 Responses to J.E.B. Stuart and the Question of Corps Command

  1. Good detective work to try and peel away the rumors and legends. The documentary record looks pretty sparse!

  2. I have an original copy of the book written by General Stuart’s Chief of Staff, Hero’s Von Borcke.
    After the victory at Chancellorsville, writing that A.P. Hill had recovered sufficiently from “his slight wound”, resumed command of the Corps. Von Borcke complained that General Stuart “had not received sufficient credit” for the victory. But, at the point in which Major Hero’s Von Borcke would have been able to comment on Stuart’s prospects to become a corp commander, the giant Prussian received a wound that was, at fjrst, pronounced mortal. Thus, no help on this question from a source who, were it not for his falling in battle, could have given us more insight.

    1. That’s really cool. Those feelings were shared by other members of the army, including the artillerist Porter Alexander who witnessed Stuart’s actions first hand and worked closely with Stuart during the early stages of the May 3 fighting. Alexander wrote to Henry McClellan, Stuart’s former Adjutant General in May, 1885 that Stuart should have retained command of the Second Corps following Jackson’s death.

      1. Though biased, for obvious reasons, Heros Von Borcke definitely seemed non-plussed when he reported A.P. Hill recovering enough from his slight wound, to assume command of the Second Corps. Thank you for reporting corroborating sentiment.

  3. OK, this is not based on any documentary sources, but putting Stuart in command of Jackson’s “wing” would require that someone replace Stuart in the cavalry command. Given that Lee trusted Stuart greatly in that role, it seems entirely plausible to me that Lee thought it might be easier to replace Jackson as an infantry corps commander (hearts fail across the South as I type this 🙂 ), than to replace Stuart as his cavalry commander.

    1. James,
      That is a fantastic point and actually a discussion I had a few weeks ago with a fellow historian. Lee does not really have a viable replacement should he transfer Stuart from the cavalry. Wade Hampton is the senior Brigadier and had shown the most initiative during the winter operations. But although Stuart respected Hampton professionally, they did not get along on a personal level. I doubt Stuart would have left the cavalry to Hampton. Fitz Lee had turned in a good performance at Chancellorsville but had struggled in the past. Rooney Lee was dependable but had not yet come into his own.
      At the same time, I would also offer up that Lee did not have a firm grasp of Stuart’s intelligence framework and that he could not afford to transfer Stuart.

  4. There was so much back-biting during the CW on both sides that I wonder if someone might have been ‘playing’ Stuart as to the rumors that Jackson had said he wanted Stuart to replace him? Might it have been an element of ‘sucking up’? Is there any veracity to the ‘rumor’ mentioned in Pender’s letter that Stuart threatened to resign if he didn’t get the command? Rumors can still be bad enough in this day and age of instantaneous conveyance of news. Anyone remember the rumors of the planes hitting the Twin Towers that Anthrax was detected from them? How about Bin Laden getting richer by betting on the financial disruption and chaos his attacks produced? Imagine back then with the limitations to and hindrances of communications how anything could take hold and be accepted as Gospel for some time until the actual truth arrived, if it ever did arrive?.

    The article also says that in AUGUST of 1863 Lee reorganized Stuart’s cavalry as a Corps command. That was after Gettysburg and Lee’s disappointment in Stuart’s activities then. Might he have believed that he would have kept a greater rein on Stuart by making him a Corps commander? But did Lee sense anything about Stuart when Jackson died that precluded him from naming him Jackson’s successor, other than fear of angering more senior officers? Answers to these questions would be instructive.

    1. Hi Doug,
      To my knowledge, Pender is the only officer in the AoNV who mentions the rumored resignation. There could always be additional accounts, however, I just haven’t come across them. I seriously doubt the veracity of the statement. Stuart was wholeheartedly committed to Virginia and the Confederacy. Such a resignation would have also run counter to the image he worked so desperately hard to craft for himself.

      I don’t think the reorganization had anything to do with Lee keeping a tighter rein on Stuart. Its main focus was to give reorganize and give more flexibility to Stuart’s brigades. Despite the Gettysburg Campaign, Stuart still retained Lee’s trust and he continued to perform well throughout the summer and fall of 1863.

      There is, however, an interesting exchange between Lee and Stuart shortly after the end of the Chancellorsville Campaign. On May 11, Lee responds to comments that Stuart made in a letter of May 9 (unfortunately this letter has never been located). We can infer that Stuart discussed his recent performance at Chancellorsville as Lee responds as follows:
      “As regards the closing remarks of your note, I am at a loss to under their reference or to know what has given rise to them. In the management of the difficult operations at Chancellorsville, which you so promptly undertook and creditably performed, I saw no errors to correct nor has there been a fitting opportunity to commend your conduct. I prefer your acts to speak for themselves, no does your character or reputation require bolstering by out of place expressions of my opinions.”
      It is certainly a rebuke by Lee but I don’t think it would be at a level to preclude Stuart for consideration of corps command. Stuart had a very complex and successful intelligence network in place and there was no viable successor to command the cavalry. To a certain degree, I think Lee viewed Stuart more as an intelligence officer than a corps commander and thus, could not be moved to another position.

      1. Hello there Daniel. Thank you for your reply to my post. You (kind of) make my point about the rumor mongering back then with this: “To my knowledge, Pender is the only officer in the AoNV who mentions the rumored resignation.” I reckon he had to get it from somewhere, but seeing how there’s no apparent corroboration from Stuart himself, it remains just another rumor. That missing May 9 letter from Stuart might be able to clear some things up. Maybe if we all live long enough that might turn up somewhere! But again, thanks…

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