This Is the Civil War Photograph that Inspired a 10 Year Old to Study History – And Eventually to Become a Historian

tags: Civil War, photography

Gary W. Gallagher, a Professor of History at the University of Virginia, is the co-author of  "Lens of War: Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War" (2015), from which this article is drawn. 

Jeb Stuart in Full Finery

The Civil War beckons to modern Americans in many ways. Most important is the mass of information in letters, diaries, memoirs, and other literary sources that allows us to reconstruct the world and experiences of the wartime generation. Often just as compelling is the immense photographic record of the conflict, which preserves the likenesses of participants, takes us onto battlefields, into military camps, aboard naval vessels, through ruined cities, and behind the lines in both the United States and the Confederacy. Some iconic examples come readily to mind—U. S. Grant leaning against a spindly tree outside his tent during the Overland campaign, three Confederate prisoners assuming casually defiant poses on Seminary Ridge just after Gettysburg, Alexander Gardner’s staged dead “sharpshooter” in Devil’s Den, black refugees crossing the Rappahannock River into Union lines in August 1862, and George Barnard’s view of ruins in Columbia, South Carolina. Despite repeated close viewings, these kinds of photographs never lose their descriptive power and analytical potential.

I first glimpsed the most important photograph in my long relationship with the war when I purchased a copy of The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War shortly after its publication in 1960. As a ten-year-old living in southern Colorado, I found the illustrations in the book captivating—none more so than the full-page reproduction, situated at the beginning of the section on the 1862 Peninsula campaign, of a portrait of James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart. I never had seen anything quite like this. The youthful general, seated with his legs crossed, gazes directly out from the page with eyes that have a startling clarity. Polished boots reach above his knees, the tasseled ends of a sash hang under his left elbow, a gauntleted left hand grips the hilt of his saber, and a plume adorns his hat at the far left of the photograph. I could imagine many of the figures represented in the book in modern dress, but Stuart seemed incontrovertibly anchored in another time and place.

The image prompted me to look him up in my family’s copy of the Columbia Encyclopedia. That bulky one-volume reference work included suggested readings at the end of articles, which led me to Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command. My grandmother purchased the 3-volume set for my next birthday, and I was delighted to find that Stuart, as painted by the French muralist Charles Hoffbauer, adorned the dust jacket of volume three. Freeman’s initial description of Stuart seemed perfectly compatible with the photograph, noting that the cavalryman possessed an “exhibitionist manner, a fondness for spectacular uniforms and theatrical appearance and a vast love of praise”—while also demonstrating attributes that soon would make him one of the Confederacy’s military idols. 

Freeman’s footnotes helped open up the world of literature on Stuart, as it existed in the early 1960s, and I quickly collected a small shelf of books. Within a year, I worked my way through John W. Thomason’s Jeb Stuart, Henry B. McClellan’s The Life and Campaigns of Major-General J. E. B. Stuart (in a re-titled reprint from Indiana University Press), William Willis Blackford’s War Years with Jeb Stuart, Burke Davis’s Jeb Stuart: The Last Cavalier, John Esten Cooke’s Wearing of the Gray, and George Cary Eggleston’s A Rebel’s Recollections (the last two also in Indiana reprints).

The compelling photograph often came to mind as I read about Stuart. Thomason seemingly catalogued elements of the image as I first observed it: Stuart “wore gauntlets of white buckskin, and rode in a gray shell jacket, double-breasted, buttoned back to show a close gray vest. His sword . . . was belted over a cavalry sash of golden silk with tasselled ends. . . . His soft, fawn-colored hat was looped up on the right with a gold star, and adorned with a curling ostrich feather.” A combination of showman and gifted soldier, concluded Thomason, Stuart’s “type, the general, charging with his sword out, in the front of battle, is gone from the world. His kind of war has given over to a drab affair of chemistry, propaganda, and mathematics. Never, anywhere, will there be his like again.”

Many passages in the books by former Confederates buttressed this view. Blackford, Cooke, and McClellan all served on Stuart’s staff, and while their books left no doubt that Stuart excelled at the hard work of commanding cavalry, they also evoked the cavalier trappings so apparent in the photograph. A novelist, Cooke directly tied Stuart to a chivalric past. “There was about the man a flavor of chivalry and adventure,” wrote Cooke in his book first published in 1867, “which made him more like a knight of the middle ages than a soldier of the prosaic nineteenth century . . . .” I had thought no one who looked like Stuart’s photograph belonged in the twentieth century—Cooke thought him an anachronism even in the nineteenth. More subdued in his prose than Cooke, Blackford wrote: “General Stuart always dressed well and was well mounted, and he liked his staff to do the same. In our gray uniforms, cocked felt hats, long black plumes, top boots and polished accoutrements, mounted on superb horses, the General and his staff certainly presented a dashing appearance.” 

I soon expanded my range of interests beyond Stuart, and over time I realized that much of what I had read about him in my youth fit snugly within the Lost Cause tradition. But I never think of Stuart without having that photograph come instantly to mind. It brings back, however fleetingly, the sense of discovery and satisfaction that fueled my early explorations of the Civil War. That single arresting image served as a point of departure that led me to books, to historic sites, and, eventually, to a career as a historian of the conflict that created Stuart’s fame and, just more than three months after his thirty-first birthday, took his life.

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