Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Letter Home by Jeb Stuart

I read this letter, written by Stuart during his West Point days, and laughed until tears came to my eyes. So I thought I would share it with all of you. To me this letter reveals much about Stuart's character, sense of humor, and his very charming ways. I hope you enjoy it also.

U.S. Military Academy
West Point, New York
December 23rd, 1853

Dear Pa,

I received your welcome letter today, and hasten to express my appreciation of your promptitude by an interesting account of a calamity that has recently befallen me. I am now in the hospital, the result of another black eye. As I have no desire to conceal anything from you even though it be disreputable to myself I will give you a full statement of the facts connected with the fight. I have often told you that I had no fears of difficulties resulting from private differences but that the prominence of my official position (Captain of a Company) would, in the numerous unpleasant duties incumbent upon me to perform as such, render me constantly liable to collisions and difficulties with my associates who may be of an uncompromising disposition and an inclination to demur at every act of a superior that does not conform to their gratification and ease however such act may accord with the duties enjoined upon the officer.

I have determined from the outset to do my duty to the letter, and such I have done, as has been more than once attested by the authorities. I have fully calculated upon the above difficulties, and have regarded them as some of the necessary misfortunes of my office, and whenever they arose I determined to “acquiesce in the necessity” which would lead to a personal encounter. Knowing the penalty of the offence I have consequently always regarded my stay here as precarious. But I am digressing.

The other evening at parade, it being unusually cold for dress parade, the Corps were evidently verging on insubordination. Of course this was none of my business, as my post was several paces in front of the line with my back to it except so far as I was the subject to the orders which the officer (Army) in charge might give in the case. In dismissing the parade, that officer gave orders to us cadet officers that in case of any “loud shouting” after dismissal from the ranks he would require us to report the offender. Accordingly due notice was given to the men that if they shouted they would be reported; notwithstanding this, there was shouting, and acting in obedience to the above order, I was standing outside the barracks looking on the only person whom I could identify in the act [which] was a strapping big Mississippian [Sanders], a private in my company, who just as he entered the door gave one tremendous yell.

Of course I reported him, for whenever I have received a positive order, however I may question its propriety, to report for any particular offense I have done it regardless of the consequences. When the report was published on the following evening, Sanders considered himself very much outraged; and though we had previously been good friends as far as I knew, I suppose he considered this sufficient ground to declare war. Accordingly after supper a classmate of his came to me and said he had been requested by Sanders to say in effect that I had on the previous evening treated him in a manner which required satisfaction and that it would gratify him if at any time I would repair with him to Kosciusko’s Garden (a romantic spot by the way, which I have often visited in a very different capacity). I told him I would do so as desired, and would send a friend to him next morning to appoint the time.

As soon as circumstances admitted I went to Rogers, acquainted him with the facts and desired him as my friend to see Sanders’ friend in the morning and tell him to meet us at the above place immediately after breakfast. All the preliminaries being arranged, the hour arrived and off we stalked towards the scene of action, Rogers and I leading the way and Sanders and his friend a few paces behind. We had no fears of being caught for it was a colder morning than you ever felt in Virginia and it was too early for officers to frequent such a secluded spot.

Arriving there we lost no time in getting to work. Being just about half his size and strength I calculated upon getting whipped and so determined to take it coolly. So great was our disparity in size that Rogers wanted me to insist upon taking a club, which I persisted in refusing. I told him it was a matter of little consequence whether I whipped or was whipped, and I would not have the appearance of seeking an advantage for the sake of a victory.

At first to my great surprise I was whipping him fast and the seconds say that as long as I had any strength left I had decidedly the best of the fight, but being a shorter, lighter man than Sanders he outwinded me and although I warded off nearly every blow at first my arms soon became perfectly powerless from exertion. Then he left me have a few left-handed licks (for he was a left-handed man), but he too was so much exhausted that he could not strike any longer. It was then proposed by him that we rest awhile, to which I assented. On coming to the contest again we were both pretty badly bruised—my eye had completely closed up and my arms were weak as water. Finding myself completely “hors de combat,” as “discretion is the better part of valor,” I acknowledged myself whipped. This ended the fight.

Upon Rogers’ suggestion I came immediately here, and reported to the surgeon, and have been ever since. The doctor laughed, and not long after Sanders came. He did not remain but was excused by the doctor from recitation. The affair will not reach the authorities through the surgeon for surgeons regard such things as professional secrets. My eye being so much more swollen than Sanders is accounted for from the fact that my flesh puffs up like a bladder from the slightest bruise which is not the case with his. As regards public opinion in the Corps it is said to be in my favor, but the majority condemn my consenting to fight him even-handed.

Thus you have a detailed account of the whole transaction which I hope will be the last of the kind. But I have not told you the best part of the joke. Tomorrow being Christmas Eve, Mrs. Lee [Mary Custis Lee] gives a large party to which I am invited but this black eye forces me to send a regret as a substitute. I assure you never to me was disappointment more bitter than the present, especially as “Christmas comes but once a year,” but such is the fortune of war, so I must content myself with a Christmas gift to Miss Mary Lee [Robert E. Lee’s oldest daughter].

I will not report to duty till next week for although I am in other respects perfectly well I consider it improper for me to be parading around with a bandaged eye for the remark and idle curiosity of all.

I received Cousin Fontaine’s letter which contained all the desired information. He reports rather unfavorably. Please present in my name my profound acknowledgement for the favor. Can Charles Lee be anything like his brother? Regards to Ed Parker and other friends. I sent you last Monday a speech of mine which I suppose ere this you have received. I consider the subject a difficult one and you will see from my manner of treating it that I was far from being its master. Please attend to the Visitorship. Though I doubt the expediency of John’s course in his circumstance, I think the business of farming suits him far better than medicine. Please write soon. Colonel Fontaine’s is the only letter I have received since my last letter. If you see Mr. Lee a short time previous to writing it will always be gratifying to his relatives here to hear from him through us.

I remain yours affectionately,
J.E.B. Stuart