The cavalry was a vital mobile force that gathered information for Civil War commanders and screened the main army from the eyes of the enemy. Cavalry leaders had to be innovative and daring in carrying out their assigned missions.
On the Confederate side, arguably the most successful and admired cavalryman was James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities between the states in 1861, Stuart served in the U.S. cavalry out West, primarily protecting settlements along the frontier.
Stuart demonstrated his durability in 1857 by surviving a point-blank gunshot to the chest in a skirmish with Native Americans in the Kansas Territory. When Civil War came, he resigned his commission and joined the Confederate army as commander of the 1st Virginia Cavalry.
At age 28, Stuart would prove to be an idealistic, heroic and noble loyalist who took pleasure in the excitement of combat. His manner of dress was flamboyant, and his personality fun-loving. He assumed the aura of a romantic cavalier bravely leading his knights against the foe.
Stuart’s uniform typically had gold braid on its sleeves, a tasseled sash around the waist, soft leather gloves, hip boots and a plumed hat. His reddish beard stood out as he rode a well-bred steed.
Exploits on the field of battle earned Stuart promotion to the rank of major-general in command of a cavalry division numbering some 5,000 men. He became famous in the South and notorious in the North for his successful raids around the Union army on the Virginia Peninsula in June 1862, and again in October following the Battle of Antietam.
Stuart was fatalistic about his chances for surviving the war. He normally was in the forefront of his troops during heavy combat.
When Southern fortunes took a turn for the worse in 1864, Stuart was in the midst of a battle at Yellow Tavern a few miles north of Richmond. He suffered a mortal wound while engaged with Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s Union cavalry and died on May 12 at age 31. His brief but courageous career earned him a prominent place in history.
George Armstrong Custer was a Union cavalryman made from the same mold as Stuart. An 1861 graduate of West Point, two years later, in the midst of the Civil War, he received a promotion to the rank of brigadier-general at the tender age of 22.
Flamboyant like Stuart, his Confederate counterpart, Custer wore yellow gloves and a red bandana around his neck to highlight his uniforms. Long curly red hair matched his handlebar mustache.
Custer made his mark early in the war by demonstrating initiative and courage in difficult situations. On July 3, 1863, at Gettysburg, he led a daring cavalry charge against Stuart’s much stronger forces and stopped them in their tracks.
During Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign in Virginia in 1864, Custer commanded a cavalry division and was on hand at Yellow Tavern when Jeb Stuart fought his last battle.
Custer’s division was part of Sheridan’s cavalry force that blocked Gen. Robert E. Lee’s depleted army from retreating at Appomattox Court House on April 8, 1865. The following day, Lee formerly surrendered his army to Grant.
Although he survived the Civil War, George Armstrong Custer died leading a column of the 7th Cavalry against Native American tribes along South Dakota’s Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1874. He packed a lot of living into his 36 years on earth.
The widows of these famous cavalrymen, Flora Cooke Stuart and Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon Custer nurtured their reputations. Libbie Custer, in particular, ensured her beloved husband’s exploits would be ingrained in the national memory.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.