Friday, October 10, 2008

Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: JEB Stuart by Jeffry Wert

Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of JEB Stuart by Jeffry Wert

This is a very good book. I think this is one of the better biographies I've read recently. I think Wert does a very good job of being even-handed with his praise and criticism of Stuart. Usually biographies are written by people who hate or love their subject. But Wert is very even. He doesn't lavish the praise nor does he heavily criticise Stuart. When there is praise to be given Wert also explains the things that went wrong in the operation. And when he criticises Stuart he also will pick out the things that Stuart did well in that action, and how it could have been worse. I think this will now rank as the premier Stuart biography.

Another thing I liked about the book is that it was very readable. I do most of my reading at the end of my day and I'm usually very tired, chasing a 5 year old will do that to you. If a book is a tough read I'll soon find myself having to reread paragraphs as my tired eyes and mind are making their slow march towards sleep. But with Wert's book I had no problem avoiding sleep, I even stayed up late a few nights to finish chapters.

I thought Wert did a good job of mixing in Stuart's personal life as well. I mainly read biographies to better understand what the man did during the war. I don't like biographies that then treat those 4 years as only 10% of the man's life. Those 4 years were probably the most important years of his life, I want that to be the focus. I do want some insight into his personal life and Wert provides this. There is a significant portion on Stuart's life before the war, but not so great that you get impatient waiting for the war to begin. Then throughout the book Wert provides other details of his personal life. The estrangement between his wife and her father (who stayed in the Union army) is covered in some detail. When Wert deals with the personal side of Stuart it is normally in how he interacted with his children and the grief he felt over the loss of his daughter during the war.

One thing Wert brought to my mind was that Stuart is often blamed for Brandy Station. He was then and continues to be today. While Wert does lay some blame for this at Stuart's feet he also does a good job of explaining that this is when the Union cavalry has finally caught up. That their success in surprising Stuart at Brandy Station, plus the good fight they put up there, can also be attributed to the fact that they have now become a good fighting force. Wert also points out that had Stuart lived he probably would have had the same amount of success against the Union as his successors did, that there is only so much one man could have accomplished and that the two cavalry forces were on even footing by then. In fact by 1864-65 the Union cavalry will be superior as Confederate horseflesh dwindles. That the late war success of the Union cavalry can be attributed to their improvement from training as well as a superiority of equipment (guns and horses) as the Confederate infrastructure crumbles.

No comments: