I was about ten years old when I first read a reference to the Civil War song “Jine the Cavalry” in a kid’s biography book about J.E.B. Stuart. Curious, I wrote a friend, asking if he knew the lyrics and would share them with him; it really irked me for a long time that he never sent them. Years later, I wonder if this older history buff knew I wouldn’t understand the words and all the context at that young age and wanted me to find them when I was a little older and a little farther in my war studies.
The song came to mind on my recent trip during the day I attempted to trace Stuart’s 1862 Chambersburg Raid on a drive that took me into four states and got me lost on backroads. (It was a perfect day!) I was trailing the Confederate cavalry route, and a day or two later as I combed archives in two different states I realized that I have “jined the cavalry” – maybe not forever, but at least for this particular research project.
However, I’m still not sure I’ve “jined” the cavalry. Most of the time, I feel more like I’m chasing them, searching for the truth, and trying to separate it from legends. I can say I’ve trailed them across the Potomac to Mechanicsburg town square and Chambersburg’s center, through Pennsylvania fields and over Maryland roads, at multiple river fords, to The Bower, and into Loudoun County. They have “led” me on mysterious jaunts into local libraries and archives to find their words and the accounts of civilian witnesses. The need to know the details about these men has propelled me up the granite steps of Library of Congress to spend (wonderful) hours in the manuscript division and prints and photograph rooms.
So it begs the question, can I really “jine the cavalry”? Of course not, the Confederate cavalry is all dead. And they wouldn’t let me in anyway – I’m a girl. Although I might have gotten an invitation to a dance, but that type of event will have to be a discussion for a different day.
I’m not the ten-year-old with a starry-eyed dream about Stuart and his cavalry. The Confederate cavalry projected a romantic image, and Stuart carefully built that public image, but does that actually hold up with historical facts? Gallantry existed, but so did the dirt and grime of the march. In wonderful confusion, the legends have factual basis and the darker sides of war exist too – the challenge comes to figure out where to separate the two and where reality holds them together. And where post-war stories grew out of proportion…
Searching for the facts, approaching with context, and interpreting with honest respect have always been my goals, and they are good guiding points in this project too. Each day I’m collecting primary sources and tracking down the backgrounds of secondary or third sources, testing their interpretation against the original primary sources. I’ve “jined” up to find the truth for myself and clear some questions I have had for a while. I’ve already been pleasantly surprised at the puzzle pieces I’ve pulled together and am confident that the picture I’m piecing together with old and new factual research will both uphold the traditional interpretation in all the best ways and add new information that has been missing for a long time.
Can I “jine the cavalry”? All I know is that I need to continue following and I am excited to see where their words lead. I want to understand the military tactics and culture that Stuart reshaped and and how it affected the lives and memory of his officers, men, and the civilians they encountered.
Here is Bobby Horton’s version of the Confederate cavalry song: