I read an intriguing article yesterday in this month’s America’s Civil War by Tonia J. Smith. The article discusses a controversial letter written by Stuart in early 1864 about who should succeed him as the leader of the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. I won’t retell the article here, as I couldn’t do it the justice she did, but I was truck by what occurred after the letter was written.
In a letter to George Washington Custis Lee, aide de camp to Jefferson Davis, Stuart expressed specifically who should succeed him as the cavalry’s leader. Before the letter was acted upon, Stuart was killed at Yellow Tavern. What the article does not explore is why the letter then remained confidential. Lee retained the letter briefly before returning it to Flora Stuart.
It seems to me that when he was killed, the letter should have been forwarded to General Lee. This could have helped him make a decision on one leader to succeed Stuart instead of the cumbersome system that actually resulted. Although numbers and resources were clearly on the decline in the Confederate cavalry at this point in the war, centralized leadership could have made them far more effective. Given the proximity of the army to Richmond, such a delivery could have been easily effected.
Then again, it is possible that mention of the letter’s contents was made by Custis Lee to his father and General Lee chose not to act on it. Once General Lee made and announced his decision, knowledge of the letter’s existence would have done more harm the good.