Jubal Early: Lee’s Bad Old Man

By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved

Edward H. Bonekemper III, our September 2017 speaker on “The Myth of the Lost Cause,” writes of Jubal Early in his 2015 book:

Early, who faltered at Gettysburg, lost the Shenandoah Valley and his corps, been relieved of his command by Lee, and fled the country for a few years after the war, was an early critic of Longstreet and others who could be blamed for Lee’s shortcomings. Early was a better propagandist than general. As an author and president of the Lee Monument Association, the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia, and the Southern Historical Society, he acted as Lee’s chief votary for three decades.

Called by Robert E. Lee his “Bad Old Man”, who was Jubal Early and what was his record during and after the Civil War? Early was one of ten children born in 1816 to a slave-holding family owning a tobacco plantation in southwestern Virginia. The owner of a single slave himself, Early was a strong supporter of slavery and a believer in white supremacy. He entered West Point in the class of 1837 with many Civil War officers on both sides (e.g., Braxton Bragg, John Pemberton, Joseph Hooker and John Sedgwick). A mess hall altercation with Lewis Armistead led to the latter’s dismissal from West Point. After graduation, he served briefly in the Seminole war in Florida before resigning and practicing law in Virginia. He served a term in the Virginia legislature. He volunteered during the Mexican war but didn’t see combat.

In the 1861 secession convention Early was a Unionist in the majority initially opposed to secession. However, once Virginia did vote for secession following Lincoln’s call for volunteers after the assault on Fort Sumter, Early volunteered to defend his state and organized Confederate volunteers in Lynchburg and became commander of the 24th Virginia. His early combat service in 1961-1862 enhanced his reputation – at First Bull’s Run, Williamsburg (where he was wounded), Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, Antietam (Sharpsburg), and Fredericksburg, rising to command of a division under Stonewall Jackson. “Old Jube” developed a pugnacious reputation. At Chancellorsville, Lee had Early defending the heights at Fredericksburg against John Sedgwick. Early’s outnumbered force had to retreat in the face of Sedgwick’s advance.

With Jackson’s death, Early’s division was now in the new Second Corps commanded by Richard Ewell. They would be the source of great controversy at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. Returning from York, Early’s division routed Barlow’s division of the Union XI Corps. But later that day Early supported Ewell’s decision not to attempt an assault on Cemetery Hill. Early’s division would attack Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill later in the battle but failed to dislodge the Yankees from their position.

1864 would see Early play a prominent role in the Army of Northern Virginia’s defense against U.S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. He would occasionally become acting commander of the Second and Third Corps due to the illness of Ewell and A. P. Hill, fighting at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor.

Promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General, on June 12, 1864 Lee sent Early and the Second Corps from the defense of besieged Petersburg to the Shenandoah Valley to drive the Union army away and to relieve pressure on Lee’s remaining army. Early’s military reputation would largely rest on this campaign. First, Early joined John C. Breckinridge and saved Lynchburg which was threatened by David Hunter. Then with Lee’s support, Early and his small force headed for the Lower Valley and a possible strike north of the Potomac. After failing to drive Franz Sigel from Harper’s Ferry at Maryland Heights, Early crossed into Maryland and captured Frederick. While Early haggled with the city fathers for a ransom and supplies, his army then met Lew Wallace’s hastily assembled force at the Monocacy River on July 9 and were delayed for a critical day before Wallace withdrew and the road to Washington City was open.

On July 11, Early and his vanguard arrived before the city’s formidable string of fortifications which at that point were undermanned. However, Early hesitated while waiting for the rest of his army to arrive on a hot summer day. By the next day, elements of the VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac sent by Grant were arriving to thwart any Confederate attack. Best remembered was the presence of President Abraham Lincoln at Fort Stevens to observe the skirmishing. Early’s raid ended with his escape back across the Potomac to the Shenandoah Valley as the Federals did not immediately pursue him.

This soon led to Grant’s appointment of Phil Sheridan, commander of his Cavalry Corps, to head a consolidated command (the VI and XIX Corps and the Kanawha Corps from West Virginia) to drive the Confederates from the Valley and destroy the breadbasket of Lee’s army. This would lead to the destruction of Early and his reputation as a commander. However, first Early routed the Federals at Second Kernstown on July 24. He then ordered cavalry under John McCausland to ransom Chambersburg, Maryland. When this demand was refused, the town was burned down. The justification was retaliation for David Hunter’s earlier devastation of Lexington and other locations in the Valley on Grant’s order.

On September 19, Sheridan moved against Early in the Battle of Third Winchester. After troubles in the beginning, a sweeping attack by Sheridan’s cavalry finally led to Early’s defeat. Retreating south to Fisher’s Hill, Early’s army was again routed on September 22 by a flanking attack led by George Crook’s troops. Seemingly no longer able to hold back Sheridan, Early nevertheless struck back in a surprise attack orchestrated by John B. Gordon at Cedar Creek on October 19. With Sheridan away, his army was initially scattered in an early morning attack in the fog. Then, with Gordon urging further assaults, Early demurred. Inspired by Sheridan’s return after his famous ride from Winchester, a reconstituted Union army counterattacked and again routed Early’s army. Early would claim that his halt and defeat was caused by many of his soldiers looting the captured Union camps. Sheridan’s victory was seen as sealing Lincoln’s election in November, 1864.

Most of the remnants of Early’s Valley army were returned to Lee at Petersburg. Early remained with a skeleton observation force as Sheridan continued to burn the Valley’s farms to deny supplies to Lee’s army. Finally, on March 2, 1865, Early’s tiny force at Waynesboro at a Blue Ridge mountain gap was virtually destroyed with Early barely escaping. Thus ended Early’s Valley Campaign and military career. His eventual loss of the Valley would be unfavorably compared to Stonewall Jackson’s acclaimed 1862 Valley Campaign.

Early sought another command but on March 30, shortly before the fall of Petersburg and Lee’s retreat, Early was dismissed from the army by Lee. While thanking Early for his service to the Confederacy, Lee said that he could no longer command the support of the people and the confidence of the soldiers.
With Lee’s surrender. Early refused to follow his example. Instead, he headed on horseback to join Kirby Smith’s Trans-Mississippi army which surrendered before Early’s arrival in Texas. He then went into exile in Mexico, then Havana, Cuba, and then in Toronto, Canada, where he wrote his memoir, mostly about his Valley Campaign.

Pardoned in 1868 by President Andrew Johnson, Early returned to Virginia in 1869. For the rest of his life before he died in 1894, Early was one of the most prominent proponents of the “Lost Cause”. He notably criticized James Longstreet, blaming him for Lee’s Gettysburg defeat. He also became embroiled in disputes with several other Confederate generals including Gordon, John Mosby, and William Mahone.

Related link:
The Battle of Cedar Creek


Benjamin Franklin Cooling III. Jubal Early: Robert E. Lee’s “Bad Old Man” (2014)

Gary Gallagher, ed. Struggle for the Shenandoah Valley: Essays on the 1864 Campaign (Kent State University Press, 1991)

Marc Leepson. Desperate Engagement: How a Little-Known Civil War Battle Saved Washington, D.C., and Changed the Course of American History (2008)

Charles Osborne. Jubal: The Life and Times of General Jubal A. Early, CSA, Defender of the Lost Cause (1992)

Jeffrey D. Wert. From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864 (1987)

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