Skip to main content

The Two Horsemen

ISSUE:  Winter 1931

Jeb Stuart. By Captain John W. Thomason, Jr. New York: Charles Scrib-ner’s Sons. $5.00. Bedford Forrest. By Captain Eric William Sheppard. New York: Lincoln MacVeagh, The Dial Press. $5.00.

It is a rare, perhaps a unique opportunity, but it would take an entire number of this estimable journal and more enterprise than our reviewing habits will allow us, to argue the matter out. A life of Stuart and a life of Forrest do not regularly appear in the same season: we may never again have the chance to draw out their differences and their likenesses—if indeed they were at all alike—to compare their merits, and to decide who was the better for the cause. It is a temptation, but it must be put down. And in this exercise of restraint we follow the unequivocal lead of our authors. Captain Sheppard does not, I believe, in his three hundred and twenty pages, mention Stuart at all. Captain Thomason puts Forrest in a catalogue of “able men” developed in the West. No more than this. But there is good reason for it. It is legitimate biographical procedure not to go too far afield for comparisons that are not forced to the surface by the proper demands of the subject. At no point did the careers of the two horsemen cross. Both were great leaders, but leaders of different sorts. Yet we can only regret, without seeming to make it their obligation, that our authors, being military experts, have not given us some of that gratuitous and futile comparison which we, along with Uncle Toby, particularly delight in when the discourse is of literature or arms.

Perhaps the layman alone is morally eager for this kind of historical speculation. To the professional mind, war is war, and when a war is over, there is mostly the military lesson of that war to be learned. Both of these books suffer a little, I think, by not taking the military lesson quite seriously enough; or rather they suffer from a decline in the heroic conduct of war. For there is not much that a modern soldier can learn from either of our cavalrymen, cavalry now being, like Little Sorrel in Richmond, stuffed in a museum, and fit for the same wonder as the crossbow. Lee, Jackson, and Joseph E. Johnston may, still, as General Maurice has told us, have something to say to the modern soldier. Neither of the great cavalrymen has that value. Neither was high enough in rank to plan the grand strategy —what little there was on the Confederate side—and Forrest alone, of his own initiative, affected large campaigns to the advantage of the South. There remains, obviously, in these mounted careers, a good story to tell of daring exploits, and probably some pleasant Southerr feeling to be indulged to the limit of sentiment; but no further. For our authors are soldiers—one of them, Captain Sheppard, is English—and war is war. There is left, in short, excitement, in an atmosphere that is, after sixty-five years, sealed up and labelled, like the age of Pope or the decadent Latins; meaningless and dead.

It 2.9 legitimate criticism to ask why a book came to be written. There is a question as to the motive for writing, when it is not in some sense philosophical, as the motive of even poetry and fiction is. Neither of our biographers is concerned with the significance of the War between the States, prior to that event or afterwards, and they offer us only the stock exposition of the period. Captain Thomason’s briefly sketched in background of the war is well-written, but it is perfunctory, and it issues in the respectful sentiment that after all the Confederates believed they were right.

The motive for “Jeb Stuart” is immediate: Captain Thomason wished to write a book. The book that he has given us is the most distinguished in style, the most skilfully ordered, the most masterly in its exposition of military events, ever written about the Army of Northern Virginia. One will pause before this statement; the reviewer has hesitated before writing it. Yet we must remember that, although the war generation wrote notable books, there was not possible to an eye-witness that peculiar union of passionate interest in details with detachment enough from their personal meaning, to permit much concern with literary form. We must have, of course, the eye-witness testimony; but the gift of the military biographer or historian should be the gift of the novelist Stephen Crane. William Allan’s history of Lee’s army is, beyond any dispute, masterly, but it is a masterly document. There are few Southern biographies and histories of that time which will survive as literature. The memoirs are better: E. P. Alexander and John B. Gordon were good writers, and excellent military critics, but they, are very thin by the side of John S. Wise, the young Virginian (he was a school-boy when the war began), whose “The End of an Era” comes nearer being a masterpiece than anything written by a man of his time. But even he pales before the ladies—Mrs. Burton Harrison, a skilful and persuasive writer, in spite of being the perfect snob; Mrs. Chesnut, whose diary will last as long as men read; and Mrs. Pryor, whose “Reminiscences of Peace and War” is the finest specimen of Civil War literature, North or South.

Captain Thomason begins, we hope, a new era. By about 1905 most of the authoritative eye-witnesses were dying off; from then to the end of the recent Armageddon there was a lull of interest in the War between the States. Interest has now revived; but it is a different sort of interest. Being far removed from the times, writers are conscious that, not being able to decide questions of fact, they must write the known facts into literature. Our books on the war are likely to be better written than ever before.

It is not the least of Captain Thomason’s merits that, without dwarfing his hero, he does full justice to the great events of which he was, after all, a minor part. Besides being a biography, the book is a full narrative of Lee’s campaigns, up through the Wilderness, and never were these complex events told so simply, with so little violence to the vast complexity of the reality. If there is any criticism of this phase of the work, it is the failure to give enough emphasis to Lee’s profound insight into Lincoln’s fear for the safety, of Washington—an insight that motivated the campaign of ‘62, which was Lee’s great year.

No summary of Stuart’s career is necessary. He was a simple man; but he is a most difficult biographical subject. Thomason has handled him perfectly, with extreme tact. He will always be the Southern beau sabreur, and if there were no such wicked practice as military criticism, Stuart would be one of the greatest of heroes. Each of his exploits was heroism and dash in petto. By and large, he was not so successful. His exploits, when they broke the letter of Lee’s orders, or took advantage of Lee’s unwillingness to make his orders peremptory, had a way of compromising the Confederate cause. Stuart’s conduct in the Gettysburg campaign is an instance of this: and yet Captain Thomason justly argues that in the end it was nobody’s fault. The fact remains, however, that Stuart failed. As a routine cavalryman, as a scout, as a tactician, he had no superior; and it is doubtful if he was inferior even to Forrest as a leader of men.

There is much to be said of “old Bedford,” the most striking figure in the war. Captain Sheppard’s book is hard reading: it is hard to get interested in a subject that the author is not interested in himself. There is the romantic figure of the plain Tennessee backwoodsman, who by a natural genius for leadership and for war rose from private to lieutenant-general. But he rose too late, after the Confederacy had utterly lost the West. Captain Sheppard does not make good reading of this dramatic career: he gives us, for example, a straight narrative of the capture of Streight, but just those qualities of Forrest’s character that made the campaign successful he is not able to relate to the scene of action. Forrest and his background are immensely difficult for a foreigner; for Forrest was a pioneer rural type whose flavor is hard to reproduce in our time, even though the feat should be attempted by an American. Captain Sheppard constantly shocks the reader with Bowery slang—supposing it to be the way Forrest talked. The military treatment is competent, but uninspired. On the whole one must decline to believe that the modern biography of Forrest has been written. Wyeth remains the best.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading