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“Jubal Early is Simply the Incarnation of Imbecility”

 

jubalearly

Few figures of the Civil War era have been as celebrated and as reviled as General Jubal Anderson Early. Some loved him as a patriot and a hero. Others despised his egotism and grotesque personality. Unshakably loyal to his ideas and to his friends, Early earned the trust and support of Robert E. Lee. But as a confirmed bachelor of fixed habits, Early could be repulsive. His alcoholism and coarse language, his caustic “wit,” and his fondness for prostitutes repelled many peers and subordinates. His failure in the Shenandoah Valley in the final months of the war made him an easy scapegoat for Confederates looking for someone to blame, and his abrasive nature and unconventional personal habits gave his critics plenty of ammunition to use against him.

While even his enemies conceded Early’s intelligence and commitment to principle, his many faults made him so objectionable to those around him that many wrote vehement criticisms of his pride, vulgarity, intemperance and irascibility. In many ways he is even more controversial in the 21st century than he was among his contemporaries. While his gifts for sarcasm and mockery make him an icon among unapologetic, unrepentant curmudgeons, Early’s ardent, often vicious, post-war writings and speeches on behalf of Lee and the Confederacy make him a prime target for modern writers who approve of neither his views nor his methods.

Decision at Tom’s Brook discusses one of Early’s many post-war controversies. In 1884, General Thomas Rosser publicly blamed Early for the disastrous defeat at Tom’s Brook, and Early responded in the pages of a Richmond newspaper. Rosser, a controversialist throughout his life, made charges against Early without offering a shred of verifiable evidence. In the absence of proof, Rosser’s attacks seem an attempt to shift responsibility onto an unpopular man whose many enemies would welcome more mud to sling. Rosser did indeed find support and fellowship among some former Confederates who loathed Early. For pure vitriol, few haters of Early could match the articulate and venomous Alexander Hunter of Virginia.

hunter alexander croppedJust 18 when he enlisted in 1861, Hunter served as a Confederate infantryman early in the war and later in the 4th Virginia Cavalry. He was wounded twice, captured thrice and spent months in Federal prisons. He came to loathe Jubal Early with an uncommon vehemence. In mid-1884, two decades after the Valley Campaign, while Rosser and Early were publicly mauling each other in the press, Hunter stepped forward to back Rosser. Though a stranger to Rosser, Hunter sent the general a blistering rebuke of Early and reassured Rosser that he had the support of “every fair minded soldier in the old A.N.Va.” From his home in Washington, D.C. Hunter wrote his letter on the letterhead of the “Washington Aid Association for the Ex-Confederate Soldiers,” on which Hunter was listed as financial secretary. Misspellings, omissions and errors in syntax have been retained.

June 6, 1884

Gen Thos L. Rosser.

My Dear General,

Though personally unknown to you, yet being from the same state and belonging to the same army, I cannot resist the inclination to write to you, and to endorse every word of your communication to Jubal Early, who by the grace of the devil and the temporary aberration of Gen Lee was placed in command of the army in the valley.

The Richmond State of June 4 published your communication of May 30 – without comments – and I know it was endorsed by every fair minded soldier in the old A.N.Va.

I belonged to the Black Horse – 4th Va. Cav. Fitz Lees old Brigade–and being in the valley I know whereof I write; With a good leader, we could have taken Washington + Baltimore for never was there a more splendid set of troops than those given to Early in the Campaign of ‘64. But the rank and file soon lost confidence in him + after awhile this feeling changed into contempt + was then followed by a bitterness of hatred, and lothesome [sic] disgust for the man – that you officers high in rank could never understand. Indeed so bitter is it, that at the summer watering places when the (“) old hero surrounded by a set of self constituted admirers and in his glory (being about three quarters drunk – which is his normal condition) Yet not a single private in his command was ever known to go up to him and give him that affectionate greeting that the Rank + file to loved to [sic] honor their old commanders.

His whole record is blunder after blunder; and after he had utterly ruined the finest army that [illegible] along the Valley Turnpike, [sic] hated and despised by his troops—mocked at by his officers, and removed by his general officer, he sunk into retirement that in all good taste should have been as final as that of Pemberton, Lovell and Huger[1]; but when the war was over, this despicable old man came to the front and commenced to make war against his old foes and set himself up as the Exponent of the Lost Cause, God save the Mark.”[2] We all know that but for that man, we would have been a grand Empire to day. It is Jubal Early that undertakes to make history, to puff up that officer who scratches his back and vilify that officer that disagrees with him. He rushes into print upon every occasion possible, and makes himself the hero of the grand old Army of Northern Virginia. He strikes at Gordon that ideal soldier. He sneers at Mosby[3]. He fercily [sic] assails Longstreet + Mahone[4] and would uncork the vials of wrath upon Gen. R.E. Lee for removing him were he not afraid. And look at the soldiers he compliments. Billy Payne, a roystering fellow like Cassio, but no soldier[5]. Bev Robinson,[6] who can court a pretty girl, tell a good anecdote + always has a flask of whiskey in his haversack. Lomax[7], who – well nobody ever heard of Lomax doing anything good or bad, and a whole hosts of others who form a select coterie.

And to see this old reprobate as I have seen him, dressed in his gray semi uniform, maudlin drunk in the lobby of the Exchange Hotel in Richmond during the last Convention, publically before hundreds of people, embracing every negro chambermaid that passed through the hall, made his degradation complete. It only needs to be told that this grand old Hero has lived since the war by giving his name and fame, for a stated salary, to that swindling concern called the Louisiana Lottery, which annually robs thousands of credulous people of his own state out of their hard earned money.

You may think I write bitterly, and from a personal grievance, but it is not so, I never spoke to Early in my life, but I served under him, and have watched his course since the war, and like any *every Virginia soldier who was commanded by him, I look upon him as the greatest foe the South ever had, and the prayer has often escaped my lips during those dark days of ‘64 when we were racing up the turnpike, or skulking in the bushes, “Good Lord deliver us from our friends.”

Jubal Early is simply the incarnation of imbecility, conceit, envy, and brutal lusts, + so foul mouth and obscene that he resembles a satyr more than a man.

If he strikes with his malign envy at you, deal with him without gloves + every man who ever swung himself in saddle or loped in a dog trot with his musket on his shoulder, will endorse and applaud you.

As far as I am concerned you can use this letter as you wish. My name and standing in Virginia are sufficiently well known. What I write is strictly true, and like old Captain Cuttle[8] “what I says I stands to.”

Yours Very Truly

Alex Hunter

1224 New York Ave, Wash DC

P.S. For an estimate of what our own officers think of Early  I commend Col. R. L. Maury in Southern Historical Society Papers, p. 285, on Early at Williamsburg.: Longstreet in same Magazine, p. 258. Early at Gettysburg, Swinton Campaigns p. 527, Early’s failure to take Washington, all which shows what he really is – a military Charlatan.

Source: Alexander Hunter to Thomas L. Rosser, June 6, 1884, Papers of Thomas L. Rosser and the Rosser, Gordon and Winston Families, Acc. 1171-a, Box 1, Correspondence of Thomas Lafayette Rosser 1884-1904, Special Collections, University of Virginia.

[1] Former Confederate generals John C. Pemberton, Mansfield Lovell and Benjamin Huger

[2] “God save the mark” served as an expression of contempt or derision.

[3] Former Confederate colonel, John S. Mosby

[4] Former Confederate generals James Longstreet and William Mahone

[5] Former Confederate general William H. F. Payne. Cassio was is a character in Shakespeare’s “Tragedy of Othello.”

[6] Former Confederate general Beverly Robertson

[7] Former Confederate general Lunsford L. Lomax

[8] A character in the novel Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens.

For more of Hunter’s judgments on Early, see Alexander Hunter, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank. New York: The Neale Publishing Co, 1905, pp. 649-660.

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Imagining the Worst

News Article Dayton Daily Empire 14 Oct 1864History gains more meaning when coupled with some imagination. For example, consider the effect of a typical news item on its readers in the autumn of 1864. Imagine yourself in a small city, perhaps in Ohio. A son or nephew or friend or brother had months ago “jined the cavalry,” and he wears the Union blue on the frontlines someplace in Virginia. Weeks ago, the last time you heard from him, his health was good, and his regiment was in the Shenandoah Valley. Like everyone in your community, you had scanned the long, long casualty lists printed in the newspapers through the summer and dreaded finding a particular name. The arrival of news from the front, even news of victories by Union troops, inspired feelings of anxiety. That summer and autumn, every day was a dangerous day for a soldier on the front lines. Even in victories on the battlefields alarming numbers of men fell dead or maimed. In the absence of definite news about the safety of your soldier, no news was arguably better than vague news. Vague news only plowed furrows in a fertile imagination and sowed seeds of worry and fear.

Most Americans, North and South, received war news late and in fragments. In the North, the Big City newspapers, particularly those from New York, paid correspondents to follow the armies in the field. The journalists telegraphed their dispatches to the main office and the news reached the crowds on Broadway while the ink on the latest edition was still wet. Readers in far flung destinations had to wait until other newspapers could reprint the stories from the pages of the New York Herald or the Tribune or the Sun or one of the papers from Washington, Philadelphia or Boston. Five days after the battle at Tom’s Brook, word of the affair was still trickling to small town Main Street.

A typical example of the second-hand news story appeared in the October 14 edition of the Dayton Daily Empire in Ohio (above). Cobbled together from two different accounts in two New York newspapers, the apparently heavily edited, error-riddled synopsis of the battle of Tom’s Brook filled about six inches of a single column and offered only a sketch of the fight. The story gave no news of casualties. To modern readers, the bare-bones treatment seems almost cruel in its tantalizing brevity. Ohioans wondering about the safety of some soldier in Custer’s division, in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry for example, could find little comfort in knowing that yet another clash of cavalry had produced more dead, more wounded and more captives, all of them still nameless.

Flattery Gets Us Nowhere

Thomas L. Rosser
Click on the image to read the 1934 Cavalry Journal biography that helped shape early perceptions of T.L. Rosser and his role in the war.

Historian J.M. Hanson did not serve history well with his early writings on Thomas L. Rosser.


For most of the more than 150 years since the end of the Civil War, Major General Thomas L. Rosser’s military reputation languished in obscurity. While many of his peers and even officers who were junior to him in rank, have gained measures of military fame, Rosser has remained enshrouded in a vague murkiness. Such a fate seems odd for a young man who rose faster, further and higher through the ranks than any other Confederate. During and after the war, Rosser pursued fame and power relentlessly, so his subsequent inconspicuousness was not of his own making. The first historian who devoted significant effort to relating details of Rosser’s career, Joseph Mills Hanson, began his work in the early 1930s, about 20 years after the general’s death. Unfortunately for those early efforts not only lacked professional rigor, but in doing so laid a foundation of uncritical praise and a tone of superficiality that has infected views of Rosser ever since.

Read “Thomas Lafayette Rosser” by Joseph Mills Hanson, Cavalry Journal, March-April 1934.

Born in the summer of 1876 into the wild and dangerous Dakota Territory — about a month after the demise of George Custer and much of the 7th U.S. Cavalry gave evidence how wild and dangerous the frontier really was — Hanson was throughout his long life a farmer, a soldier, a poet, a writer and a government administrator. He wrote novels, ballads and history books, including history books for young readers. He loved history, especially Civil War history, and due, in part, to his decades of work on behalf of the preservation of history, he served as the first superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park. Hanson did not rise to lasting prominence as an historian, but his work remains interesting. In 1934, he published a long biographical sketch of Confederate general Thomas Lafayette Rosser in the March-April issue of Cavalry Journal, and while the article is not without virtues, it is noteworthy today many as an illustration of the difficulties and dangers faced by historians seeking to find the truth. Those who knew Rosser claimed he had a magnetic personality, and Hanson seems to verify that claim, for he clearly fell under Rosser’s spell.

The Civil War had ended 69 years earlier, and historiography of the war was transitioning from a period dominated by the last first-person accounts to a period in which secondary sources, especially biographies, would prevail. Virginia’s native son Douglas Southall Freeman would dominate this era with his best-selling studies of Robert E. Lee (R.E. Lee: A Biography, 1934-35) and of Lee’s army (Lee’s Lieutenants, 1942-44). Hanson’s article would mark the earliest attempt to bring General Rosser out of the shadows of history and give him a prominent place among Southern heroes.

While well-read students of the war will today recognize Rosser’s name, in the 1930s, he had drawn little or no interest from historians. Born in Virginia, raised in Texas and educated at West Point, Rosser had served only about 18 months, a bit over one-third of the war, as a general, so he did not stand in the first rank of Confederate commanders. Though Rosser had found success at brigade-level command, he never commanded more than a few thousand men and those were in the tattered remnants of the exhausted cavalry corps in Virginia in the war’s final months. After the war, he had earned some dubious repute as a controversialist, whose speeches and public statements marked him as a rabid, die-hard Confederate — except when he spoke to audiences north of the Mason-Dixon Line, where he preached friendship and reconciliation. Hanson believed he had found an interesting subject, and he set to work in dragging out the truth, as he saw it, about Gen. Rosser.

Like all trailblazers, Hanson had little to work with. He made good use of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, but what else had he to rely upon as raw data about Rosser and his career? Rosser had died in 1910, and those who had served with him had either followed to the great beyond or were rapidly losing their memories and perhaps their objectivity.  Rosser was buried in Charlottesville, Virginia, which remained the base of the family. His letters, speeches and other papers would eventually be collected at the University of Virginia, but in the 1930s, when Hanson was working for the National Park Service in Virginia, the Rosser family controlled access to the general’s treasure trove of primary documents. Evidence within the article reveals that Hanson had access to Rosser’s papers and also to members of his family. Hanson exchanged letters with Thomas L. Rosser, Jr., the general’s son, and other members of the family, and the correspondence rests in the family papers at the university in Charlottesville. Hanson produced another article, “Thomas Lafayette Rosser, Four-square American,” for American Legion Monthly. Both of these articles can be considered as having had the family stamp of approval, and they both certainly cast Rosser in a very favorable light.

Hanson’s is not a “warts and all” portrait. His evaluation of Rosser’s personality is subjective rather than factual. For example, in recounting Rosser’s boast that he would give his friend George Custer a “whipping” at Tom’s Brook on October 9, 1864, Hanson remarks that such braggadocio seems out of character for Rosser, whom the author preferred to view as knightly gentleman of the Southern school — no doubt as Rosser’s family would have liked him to be remembered. In fact, substantial evidence reveals that Rosser was more contentious than courtly and documentation of his boastful manner, and the irritation it caused among those around him, is well ample. Rosser’s own writings reveal a man of overbearing and sometimes duplicitous personality. Hanson the historian failed in his obligation to delve deeply into his subject, and sacrificed too much objectivity in trying to please the Rosser family. His portrayal is too uncritical and too admiring to rise to a high level of scholarship.

In 1983 Millard and Dean Bushong’s Fightin’ Tom Rosser, C.S.A. picked up where Hanson had left off 50 years earlier. Rosser’s bravery and heroism, of which there is much on record and which remains worthy of admiration, stood at the center of the Bushongs’ portrait as it had in Hanson’s. Almost absent in either treatment of Rosser’s career is any kind of impartial perspective that would show Rosser as he appeared to those around him and place the man’s accomplishments in perspective. Recent research suggests that Rosser’s existence in a long, long dusk of obscurity is, perhaps, deserved. Though he showed great courage, enterprise and spirit as a Confederate cavalry commander, and though he was every bit the equal of Stonewall Jackson in demanding from his men almost superhuman feats of endurance, Rosser lacked many of the traits necessary to make a man a great commander.

Flawed as it is, Hanson’s article is not without value. Its publication in a professional journal introduced soldiers to a noteworthy American cavalryman who, from a professional standpoint, remains worthy of attention. The article performs the same service for modern readers unfamiliar with Rosser, and while subsequent research calls into question some of Hanson’s judgments, his presentation of facts serves as a functional outline of Rosser’s war-time service. Perhaps the article is most interesting as an example of early 20-century historiography. In the days before phone cameras, the internet, photocopiers and even interstate highways, historical research was an arduous endeavor in which researchers struggled with time and distance (and funds) to obtain access to libraries and books and manuscripts. The process required the historian to go to the materials whereas now, more and more, the process delivers materials to the historian. Those willing and able to go the distances and invest the hours were able to discover surviving fragments of the past and weave them into versions of the truth. These early renderings of history may, for many reasons, no longer be satisfactory, but upon such early drafts are built fuller, more developed and, it is to be hoped, more realistic representations of the past.

Read “Thomas Lafayette Rosser” by Joseph Mills Hanson, Cavalry Journal, March-April 1934.