The public debate after Lee’s death was waged with one goal: to exonerate Lee of all guilt in the loss at Gettysburg, now seen, in perfect hindsight, as the high-water mark of the Confederacy. Much of the battle’s historiography published during this time was written by men who quite freely admitted they had an agenda. They desired to deflect blame for the loss away from Lee and unto others. When the finger of blame was pointed at him, Longstreet battled back vigorously. Stuart was unable to defend himself, (55) and until John Mosby returned from Hong Kong, no one else did either.
Mosby’s passionate defense shined the light on the agenda. The question of how Stuart could be on the Potomac and the Susquehanna challenged their revisionist history. In response to Mosby’s challenge, Taylor wrote in 1909, “What I have claimed is simply this: Although certain discretion was allowed General Stuart as to his movements, he was admonished all the while to keep in touch with our main army and to keep General Lee informed as to the movements of the enemy.” (56) No, he was told to communicate with Ewell. The orders are very clear on that matter. Yet, the narration of Lee stumbling blind toward Gettysburg, created and maintained by his aides, has become the accepted narration. Mosby’s influence on the historiography proved inconsequential when compared to the authority of Lee’s aides due to the positions they held during the war and after.
Longstreet, the other scapegoat, suffered as well. He was the war’s forgotten general until the release of Gettysburg when interest in his memoirs and his legacy was revived. Stuart has paid for this Longstreet restoration in dramatic scenes that have Lee scolding him like a naughty schoolboy for joyriding around the Yankees instead of being on the right flank of the army as ordered.
Freeman relied on the memoirs of Lee’s staff when writing his biography, which is considered the definitive work on Lee’s life. He puts his own opinions and judgments in Lee’s voice and then uses them to censure Stuart for disobeying his orders. He also substitutes Taylor’s, Marshall’s, and Long’s opinions of what Stuart was supposed to do instead of relying on what Stuart was ordered to do. He carries this thesis into his other two books as well. These works are heavily referenced in the Gettysburg historiography. Dowdey, another prominent Civil War historian, is equally condemning of Stuart.
Perhaps the final verdict on whether Stuart obeyed his orders should be left to Robert E. Lee. In the years following the surrender, he was loath to talk about the war but his eyes would always light up whenever Stuart was mentioned. He met with General Wade Hampton, who succeeded Stuart as cavalry commander, and left this lasting tribute to Stuart. “General Stuart was my ideal of a solider,” he told Hampton. “He was always cheerful under all circumstances, and always ready for any work, and he was always reliable.” (57)
(55) Stuart was killed in action at Yellow Taverns, Virginia on May 11, 1864.
(56)Walter Taylor, Colonel. “A Review of Stuart’s Cavalry in the Gettysburg Campaign by Colonel John Mosby.” (Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 37, 1909. pages 21-37)
(57)Mark Nesbitt. Saber and Scapegoat., Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books. 1994, 107.