Friday, June 27, 2008

General Orders Twenty

Upon arriving back in the States after two years overseas earning a master's degree (pending thesis) in history (Middle East), I was happily reunited with all the books on Jeb Stuart that I had ordered in preparation for my biography on the good and gallant cavalry leader.

This announcement that I was commencing on Stuart's biography was greeted by the same question: Does the world really need another biography on Stuart? I asked one of my professors that question. His answer was encouraging. Yes it does. Why? Because new eyes means a fresh perspective and a new analysis on the life of the South's Beau Saber.

Now, many may disagree with me (but historians are not supposed to care if people disagree with them), but I think two Stuarts exist in the war's literature. Those biographies written by those who knew and fought with him present a different Stuart than those later biographers, who seem to present rather a shallow man, vain, easily offended, seeking glory, unfaithful to his wife, etc. A caricature really. A stereotype that has passed through the historiography until the real Stuart has been lost and only the vain, shallow, glory-hound remains.

So, I am after the real Stuart. Now, that is not to say that all those who have written about Stuart were not after the real Stuart too, but the modus operandi of history has changed in recent years. No longer are we to have heroes. Now, historians are to deconstruct their "subject" and expose the dark underbelly of the man, so we will know that he was less than those who wrote glowingly about him. (Meaning those who knew and fought with him) Those who penned early biographies are revealed to be the ones with the agenda: to cover-up, to protect, to distort. It is later historians who have come with the light of truth to expose and reveal.

In his book, Wearing of the Gray, John Esten Cooke, staff officer and cousin-in-law to Stuart, writes this warning... "The august muse of history will make her partial and passionate, or fair and dignified, summary of the events of the late war; will discuss the causas resum with learned philosophy; and mete out in rounded periods what she thinks the due amount of glory and shame to the actors, in gray and blue. But meanwhile the real personages disappear, and the colours fade, figures become historical personages, not men. And events, too, "suffer change." They are fused in the mass; generalization replaces the particular incident as it does the impressive trait; - the terrible dust of "official documents" obscures personages, characters and events... the real men, with faults and virtues, grand traits and foibles, become mere lay figures to hang uniforms upon."

My introduction to Stuart was in the movie Gettysburg, where he is taken to task by Lee for "joy-riding" around the Yankees. As I read biographies about Jackson (mostly) and the battles Jackson fought (mostly), a different Stuart emerged. One that both Lee and Jackson trusted implicitly. One, who would be the last person to go "joy-riding" around the Yankees because his pride was hurt. In the historiography, I found both portraits of Stuart, but the vain cavalier was the pre-dominant one. I could not reconcile the two. I became convinced that the caricature of Stuart had won out in history. I want to correct this with a biography that will reveal the man in both virtue and fault. That is why I want to write this biography. I know it is a grand plan... but it is the plan that I have, so I will pursue it.

It is not something that I will finish within a year, or even within a decade. I have much work to do. But, I have taken the first tentative steps in discovering Stuart. I can't wait to find out more.