Jubal Early was a senior Confederate general during the American Civil War. Early is most probably famous for his daring raid on Washington DC towards the end of the war that caused panic in the capital and resulted in President Lincoln ordering General Grant to send Union troops to the city to defeat Early.
Jubal Early was born on November 3rd 1816 in Franklin County, Virginia. He was accepted into the US Military Academy at West Point in 1833 and graduated in 1837. After his graduation, Early joined the 3rd US Artillery Regiment. Early resigned his commission in 1838 and took up law where he made a name for himself as a prosecutor. Early returned to the military from 1846 to 1848 when he fought in the Mexican-American War, before continuing with his law career.
With his southern background, it would be expected that Early supported the idea of secession once all the various issues that culminated in the outbreak of the American Civil War came to the surface. This is, in fact, not the case. By April 1861, it became clear that America was heading towards a civil war. However, when Virginia held a convention to discuss the state’s position regarding on whose side it was on, Early spoke out against leaving the Union. What sparked his change of mind was Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers from the North to suppress the rebellious element in the South. This Early could not accept and he joined the Virginia Militia with the rank of Brigadier General. His task was to raise three regiments to defend the state. Early was given command of the 24th Virginia Infantry and the rank of Colonel in the Confederate Army.
During the American Civil War, Early primarily fought in what was known as the Eastern Theatre. His first major campaign was the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. It is generally accepted that Early fought well at this battle. Early also commanded men at the largest and most famous battles of the American Civil War – Antietam, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg etc. – and men commanded by Early captured York in Pennsylvania, the largest Union town captured by the Confederacy throughout the American Civil War. Men under his command also reached the Susquehanna River – the furthest east in Pennsylvania any Confederate troops got during the war.
Early’s reputation for bravery in the field and determined approach won him the affection and admiration of the soldiers he commanded. He was nicknamed ‘Old Jube’. Senior commanders such as Robert E Lee and ‘Stonewall’ Jackson also respected his fighting enthusiasm. However, Early was less popular with junior officers under his command as he was short tempered and frequently blamed them for decisions he had made that had not succeeded. While Early was brave in the field of battle – he was wounded in 1862 at Williamsburg leading his men into battle – he had his military failings elsewhere. Early never mastered the art of moving large numbers of men accurately during a battle as his battlefield navigation skills were poor. But it was as an aggressive attacking commander that he found fame. This Early displayed at Antietam, Cedar Mountain and Fredericksburg. His leadership skills and general popularity among his men also brought promotion and by January 1863, Early held the rank of Major General.
In 1864, Lee ordered Early to clear Union forces from the Shenandoah Valley in preparation for an attack on Washington DC. Lee hoped that with the Union’s capital threatened, Lincoln would order Grant to pull back thousands of Union troops to defend the capital and thus relieve the constant pressure on Confederate forces – especially from men under the command of William Sherman and Grant himself. Early’s ‘Valley Campaign’ started well but he then made one fundamental error. Instead of urgently pushing his men forward towards Washington, Early gave them two days rest from July 4th to July 6th. While this allowed his men to rest and recuperate, it gave Grant time to move men to Washington. Early was further delayed at the Battle of Monocacy and he was only able to get to the outskirts of the city. However, the very presence of his army near to the city caused panic. By July 12th it became clear to Early that he did not have sufficient men to take the city that was now defended by thousands of Union troops and he withdrew into Virginia. Grant and Lincoln, however, still believed that Early’s force represented a danger to Washington and an order was given to Major General Philip Sheridan that Early had to be defeated. What ensued in the Shenandoah Valley was a mini-version of Sherman’s ‘Total War’ in Georgia. Sheridan destroyed many farms and farming equipment so that they had no way of supplying Early’s constantly moving army. One soldier who saw the results wrote that much of the valley “had been laid to waste”.
The attack against Early culminated in the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19th 1864. Early’s army did well at the morning start of the battle. What happened next is not totally known. Early later informed Lee that his men were hungry and exhausted and that they had broken ranks, gone into the former quarters of the Union army they had pushed back and ransacked it for whatever food and drink they could find. Therefore, they were totally unprepared for an offensive by Sheridan’s men later in the afternoon and lost the battle. However, a subordinate officer of Early’s, John Gordon, later wrote that it was Early himself who had ordered his men to stand down for six hours during which time they found food and other much needed supplies. Early claimed that his men lost discipline and broke their own ranks. Gordon claimed it was Early who ordered them to stand down. Either way, they were unprepared for the afternoon attack and lost the battle.
Most of Early’s men withdrew to join Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Early and some of his men remained in the Valley to hinder the Union forces there. In March 1865, Early suffered defeat at Waynesboro and Lee reluctantly relieved Early of his command as he believed that Early could no longer provide inspirational leadership.
Early did not accept the surrender on April 9th 1865 and fled to Texas where he wanted to continue the fight. When it became clear that the forces of the South had been severely weakened he went to Mexico, Cuba and then Canada. While in Toronto, Early wrote his memoirs, which concentrated on the Valley Campaign: “A Memoir of the Last Year of the War of Independence, in the Confederate States of America”. Rather than see the war as a civil war, Early viewed it as a war of southern independence from the north.
Jubal Early received a presidential pardon in 1868 and returned to Virginia in 1869 where he resumed his career in law. Those who still believed in what the South had fought for rallied around him and he became a proponent of the ‘Lost Cause’ movement. While it was clear that the South had no way of militarily taking on the North post-1865, Early and his many supporters believed that they had a duty to tell the world about the American Civil War from their point of view.
Jubal Early died on March 2nd 1894 at the age of 77.