Please welcome guest author Thomas D. Perry. Tom Perry was born in Mount Airy, NC, Andy Griffith’s home town, and grew up in Ararat, VA, J. E. B. Stuart’s hometown. After attending Virginia Tech and studying under historian James I. Robertson, Jr., Perry started the J. E. B. Stuart Birthplace, a non-profit organization that has preserved 75 acres of Stuart’s Birthplace, the Laurel Hill Farm. Perry has written, edited or published over 30 books on regional history. We’re pleased to present this excerpt from his recently published The Dear Old Hills of Patrick — J.E.B. Stuart and Patrick County, Virginia:
Born in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Appalachian Range, “Jeb” Stuart continues to be in the shadow of his image in the American psyche. The man in the plumed hat who rode around like a knight from the age of chivalry was an image he cultivated, but James Ewell Brown Stuart was a human being. He deserves more than to be the man in the plumed hat. He came from the Patrick County community of Ararat in real life and from the age of romanticism in his flair in dress and manner.
Stuart exhibited admirable traits such as courage and leadership. He was at his best as a reconnaissance officer providing information to one of the most successful armies in history, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
His life began on February 6, 1833, at 11:30 a.m. in his parent’s home, Laurel Hill, within sight of the boundary line between North Carolina and Virginia. He spent the first twelve years of his life in Patrick County and always thought of Ararat sitting in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains as home. Twenty-five miles away from the town known to him as Patrick Court House or Taylorsville, but now the town of Stuart, he grew up on a fifteen hundred acre farm in the isolated area known as The Hollow. This region bounded on the east by the Dan River, the Appalachian Mountains to the north and west and the boundary with North Carolina to the south forms a bowl shaped region surrounded by mountains.
As a boy, he never backed down from a fight and, indeed, often searched for a reason to start one. The most famous story of James Stuart’s boyhood involved his attack on a nest of hornets. When he was nine years old, he and his older brother, William Alexander Stuart, were rambling through the pastures and woods surrounding their home when they came across a large nest. The two boys felt compelled to investigate the nest. When the hornets began to swarm, William, being a careful fourteen year old believing that discretion was the better part of valor retreated from the stinging army, while young James in his first search for glory on the battlefield attacked the nest of intruders. For his trouble, James Stuart received many painful wounds, but he accomplished his mission and brought the nest to the ground with a stick.
Young Stuart inherited his father’s strong physical frame and zest for life. It is not hard to imagine him fishing in the Ararat or Dan rivers, hunting in the local forests or spending many hours in the saddle, developing the skills that would someday make him the South’s preeminent cavalryman.
His mother gave him graces of the spirit. Elizabeth Letcher Pannill Stuart taught her son to have high standards along with self-discipline and a strong religious faith. She referred to him in her letters as James. She imparted sensitivity and a love of nature. Her flower garden fascinated him. Throughout his life, he loved animals, particularly dogs and horses. At the age of twelve, James promised her that he would never take a drink of alcohol. He kept that vow until receiving his mortal wound. Stuart took it a little further than just being a teetotaler. He gave temperance speeches throughout his life. Stuart did not need artificial stimulus. He was high on life.
In 1845, James Stuart crossed the Blue Ridge to begin his formal education. Stuart attended a boys’ school run by attorney Peregrine Buckingham in Wytheville, Virginia. Buckingham, the son of Reverend Richard Buckingham, was born in 1822 and practiced law when not running the small school for boys. James Stuart also attended the music school operated by J.B. Wise and took voice lessons. There is evidence that William Alexander Stuart was present in Wythe County beginning his career that would make him the largest landowner in southwest Virginia.
The three years spent by Stuart in Wythe County included a sojourn in the Pulaski County community of Draper’s Valley, where Stuart lived and studied at the Reverend George Whitfield Painter’s home, Hillcrest. In a letter dated January 7, 1847, from Draper’s Valley, Stuart said that Painter’s place was “first rate” and that he “jogging away at old Caesar,” but he would rather go to Mr. Buchannan’s, another teacher in Wytheville. He commented that he wanted to go to “Patrick County in spring.”
Stuart became sick with the measles or some ailment causing his hair to fall out. He recounts that all the girls found it very amusing. Stuart recuperated by going home to Patrick County. While James was visiting Laurel Hill in the winter of 1847-1848, the house burned down. Stuart wrote to his cousin Alexander Stuart Brown of the “sad disaster.” He noted that his father and brother, John, were living in the kitchen, an outbuilding separate from the main house. In 1996, an archaeological excavation located the sites of the house and the kitchen.
The year 1848 was momentous for young James Stuart. He, being the youngest son, had little prospect for inheritance and was bound for the military, the law or education. He wrote that, “I expect to teach school some when I leave here.” Stuart worked with his brother William Alexander “Alick” for a time early in the year. He later claimed that he volunteered for service in the Mexican War, but he wrote authorities turned him down due to his youth. This is the first evidence that he was interested in a military career.
At age fifteen, James Stuart entered Emory and Henry College, where his cousin Alexander Stuart Brown and brother John Dabney Stuart attended from 1845 until 1847. Despite the heavy load of coursework, academics were not his only interest there. The best story of his time at Emory and Henry comes from Stuart himself and explains why he was not good on the lecture circuit. When he returned in 1859, he recounted that he gave a speech during his time on “Emory’s college green.” There was a young lady in the audience that he wished to impress so much that he lost his bearings on the stage and fell face first off the stage. Much to Stuart’s “ever lasting mortification” he rose into a “storm of laughter” and much to his chagrin, the person laughing the hardest was the “sweetheart” he wished to impress.
Stuart joined the Methodist Church while at Emory and Henry and spent the rest of his life trying to live a Christian’s life. His father, Archibald Stuart, came from a long line of Presbyterians. His mother, Elizabeth Letcher Pannill Stuart was a strict, religious and disciplined woman with a love of nature. You can see many of these traits in her most famous offspring. Elizabeth was Episcopalian and local tradition holds that she attended services on Lebanon Hill in Mount Airy, North Carolina. This congregation would form Trinity Episcopal located on Main Street today.
Often overlooked is the spiritual of side of Stuart’s life. In coming years, he founded a church in Kansas, bought his men copies of the scriptures from his own pocket, joined the Temperance Movement and gave speeches about the temptation of alcohol. He never forgot where he came from as he sent his mother one hundred dollars and asked her to match it in order to start a church near Laurel Hill.