How a Victorian notion of chivalry led to the Civil War’s most consequential raid.
James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart (1833-1864) was an audacious Confederate commander who rose rapidly through the ranks from lieutenant colonel to major general. He emerged as one of the most legendary and well-known cavalry commanders of the Civil War, especially for the South. Wearing a dashing uniform complete with cape and plumed hat, he imagined himself as a chivalric knight adhering to a code of honor. It was his code of honor that led to his famous raid on Catlett Station.
Early in the morning on August 18, 1862, near Verdiersville, Virginia, Union cavalry caught Stuart and his aides off guard. Stuart rode off so quickly that he left behind a hat and cloak sent to him days earlier by Union Brig. Gen. Samuel Crawford. During a parley after the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Stuart bet Crawford that Northern newspapers would portray the Union defeat as a victory. Crawford, true to his word, sent a copy of the New York Herald along with the plumed hat.
Stuart’s ego was stung by the ‘loss’ at Verdiersville. “I intend to make the Yankees pay for that hat,” he promised his wife, Flora. On August 21st, after Union Maj. Gen. John Pope moved his army north behind the Rappahannock River, Stuart proposed to General Robert E. Lee an ambitious plan to ride around Pope’s flank and cut his supply line along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. The next morning, Stuart rode off with 1,500 troopers.
In Warrenton, he met a young woman named Miss Lucas, who had become acquaintances with a Union quartermaster, Maj. Charles N. Goulding. Goulding boastfully wagered her a bottle of wine that he would be in Richmond within 30 days. Miss Lucas told Stuart that was a bet she was happy to lose, if Goulding could be captured and sent south.
Later that evening, as a thunderstorm rolled in, Stuart headed to Catlett’s Station to destroy the railroad bridge over Cedar Run. His men surprised a small garrison consisting mainly of quartermasters and rear-duty troops, including Maj. Goulding. The next morning, Stuart presented Goulding to Miss Lucas, who handed him a bottle of wine and waved goodbye as he was sent to Richmond as a prisoner of war.
Though unable to burn the bridge because of the rain, Stuart’s men captured Pope’s headquarters train with his personal baggage and papers and cut telegraph lines. The victorious horsemen returned to Confederate lines with 300 prisoners, horses and mules, $200,000 in gold, and John Pope’s dress uniform.
“You have my hat and plume,” Stuart wrote Maj. Gen. Pope. “I have your best coat. I have the honor to propose a cartel for the fair exchange of the prisoners.” No response came, so Stuart sent the uniform to Richmond where Virginia Governor John Letcher displayed it in the state library.
Though touched by frivolity and roguish humor, Stuart’s Catlett’s Station raid had deadly consequences. The information his troopers captured from Pope’s headquarters train allowed General Lee to march around Pope’s flank and smash his army at the Second Battle of Bull Run one week later.