Updated: May 11
Often we talk of the Civil War as a war where brothers fought brothers. For Flora Cooke Stuart, it was a war between the two most important men in her life.
Flora's father, General Phillip St. George Cooke was the "Father of the United States Cavalry," was a lifetime military man, and his loyalty remained with his country and his Army when his native state of Virginia seceded from the Union in April of 1861. Flora's husband, also a Virginia native, said of his father-in-law, "He will regret it only once, and that will be continually."
The husband was James Ewell Brown Stuart, known as JEB to his friends, and he was perhaps the greatest cavalry commander of the Civil War. A disciple of Robert E. Lee at West Point, Stuart was a master of reconnaissance, relying on his scouts and their unerring knowledge and understanding of the Virginia countryside to put his soldiers at a constant advantage against their Yankee adversaries.
Flora and JEB's only son, a boy named Philip St. George Cooke Stuart after her father, soon was renamed James Ewell Brown Stuart Junior.
During the Peninsula Campaign of the Battle of Seven Pines, Stuart Sr. made a daring move to encircle the entire Union force with his cavalry, finding a weak spot in the Union Army's flank. The subsequent humiliation lead Cooke to withdraw from field service, and he spent the remainder of the war serving in various commands and on court-martial boards.
Robert E. Lee depended on Stuart's reconnaissance abilities, and when Stuart failed to reconnect with Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, the results proved devastating for the Confederate Army. Without Stuart's intel, Lee was surprised by Union forces and very nearly captured. Many military historians view Lee's subsequent appointments as a rebuke for Stuart's failings. JEB returned to Virginia to command cavalry units during the Overland campaign where he accepted as a scout and spy a young teenaged Virginian name John Omohundro.
As the younger man demonstrated his horsemanship, unerring aim, and coolness under fire, the senior officer came to trust him more and more. Omohundro was tasked with monitoring enemy troop positions, carrying dispatches to General Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee, and infiltrating Union camps to ascertain enemy numbers and future plans. It is not hard to image Stuart regaling his young scout with tales of his encounters with Cheyenne warriors on Kansas' Solomon River. It's clear the dashing soldier made an impact on the younger Omohundro, who would adopt the long ostrich feathers Stuart tucked into his hat band as a part of his stage costume years later.
On May 12th 1864, Stuart's cavalry forces fought against those of Union Major General Philip Sheridan at Yellow Tavern. Here, Omohundro delivered to Stuart a battlefield dispatch, as he had countless times before. Stuart determined that his scout's information was reliable, and wheeled his war horse Skylark around to lead a countercharge against advancing Union forces. As General George Armstrong Custer's 5th Michigan Cavalry retreated in the face of Stuart's men, a Union private turned and fired a parting shot with his revolver that struck Stuart in his left side. As an ambulance wagon carried him from the battlefield, Stuart called to his men, "Go back, go back, and do your duty, as I have done mine, and our country will be safe. Go back, go back! I had rather die than be whipped." He died that night before his wife Flora could reach him. She wore black for the rest of her long life. Upon learning of Stuart's death, Robert E. Lee is reported to have said that he could hardly keep from weeping at the mere mention of Stuart's name and that Stuart had never given him a bad piece of information.
After the war, Omohundro headed west towards to lands that Stuart described, creating his own legend. Life would bring him into close proximity to General Custer—whose troops had killed JEB Stuart and whose own death Texas Jack would fight to avenge in Montana in 1876—and Phil Sheridan—who commanded the opposing cavalry forces at Yellow Tavern and who recommended Omohundro for appointment as trail agent with the Pawnee Indians and to lead the Earl of Dunraven's buffalo hunt. The west and its opportunities and conflicts erased the conflicts of north and south, bringing these men together and allowing them to become something more than their history. Fighting for the North and the South, they had been soldiers. In the West they would become legends.