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The Romantic Outlook

March 2023
3min read

It may be that we would all be better off if we could rid history of some of the romantic haze which keeps blurring the outlines. This (it is only fair to add) is a responsibility of the citizen at large as well as of the historian. The romance is there, all right, and there is no way to avoid seeing it; the trick is to keep that fact from distorting our scale of values.

The romantic outlook does no particular harm if it is confined to the past. The trouble is that it won’t stay there. It gets into the present as well, and then it represents a flight from reality. It embodies an attitude toward life—an attempt to perpetuate an impossible dream-image of bygone times—which makes it impossible to cope with today’s problems. When that happens the future is apt to become rather difficult.

As a case in point, consider the American Civil War.

Whatever values we may see when we look back on that war—and both the romanticist and the cold realist can find plenty to look at—what stays with one the longest is the realization that the whole tragic business represented a national inability to face up to the future. The future was arriving, in the iSGo’s—what we live with now was struggling then to be born—and the need to study it and make the inevitable adjustments was simply too much for everybody. The war was an attempt to escape, with men on both sides imagining that they would preserve (each section in its own way) a cherished version of the past. The romantic outlook could hardly be followed with greater te- nacity, nor could it easily lead to a greater disaster.

The one Civil War figure who, more than any other, draws the attention of the romanticist is that famous leader of Robert E. Lee’s cavalry, Major General James Ewell Brown Stuart. You have to adopt the romantic outlook in looking at Stuart because there is no other way to see him. He wore a gray cape lined with scarlet, he kept a plume in his hat, when he rode off on some perilous expedition he went gaily, with a banjo player twanging a lively tune and the whole staff, as likely as not, joining in song; and he could posture for his own eyes and the eyes of posterity at the same time that he was most efficiently leading a hard-hitting group of fighting horsemen. He is presented now in a good new biography by Burke Davis— Jeb Stuart, the Last Cavalier —which is very much worth reading.

Mr. Davis has the right title. Stuart was the last cavalier. The Civil War was the last war in which he could have operated; indeed—and this is perhaps the point of the whole business—he was just slightly obsolete even for the Civil War, although neither he nor the men who fought against him ever suspected it. He saw war as a matter of gallantry and the heroic gesture, and it had got past that. He comes down to us as a streak of bright color in a darkening landscape, and he was never able to see why things were clouding up so badly because he was out of touch with the realities of his day. The ultimate realities of life and death he knew very well, and they never scared him. When his time came to die he played his part perfectly; carried off the field at Yellow Tavern with a mortal wound (an uncommonly painful one, to boot) he could call out to his troopers to go on back and give the Yankees another round, adding grimly and quite truthfully: “I would rather die than be whipped!” But of the larger reality in which his life was cast Stuart apparently understood very little.

Which is to say that he was pure act; a man of enormous gusto, who was the last cavalier without suspecting that something more than a cavalier was needed. Long before he died his deeds had become legendary. He twice rode completely around McClellan’s army, he deftly screened Lee’s army from prying Yankee cavalry, and when he took his men into battle—which he did with enormous enthusiasm whenever the chance offered—he was usually up in the front line himself, doing his own personal cutting and thrusting. As a soldier he was wholly admirable; the only trouble was that he was fighting in the wrong war.

War had ceased to be a romantic adventure. Traditionally, it was something that a nation might do with its left hand, carrying it on until the other side concluded that everybody might be better off if the fighting stopped, at which point some sort of accommodation would be reached. By the 1860’s war had taken on the two terrible characteristics of modern war; neither participant could afford to stop anywhere short of complete, unconditional victory, and each discovered as it fought that to win a modern war a nation has to use every resource it has, from the farmer’s corncrib or the village machine shop on up to the last full measure of the citizen’s devotion. The converse of this, of course, is that you have to destroy every resource your enemy has, no matter where that leads you. It has led us in these later years considerably beyond our depth; even in the Civil War it led people farther than anyone intended to go, farther than anyone was ready to understand.

Jeb Stuart, the Last Cavalier , by Burke Davis. Rinehart & Co. 480 pp. $6.

It had led them, for instance, beyond the point at which war could be won by cut-and-thrust cavalrymen pounding along in the grand manner. Stuart’s own romantic concept tripped him at Gettysburg, where he saw the glamour of a bold cavalry raid so much more clearly than he saw what he was supposed to do to help Lee. In the end, it is possible to argue that roughhewn Bedford Forrest, who would not have recognized a romantic notion if it had hit him in the eye, had a better understanding of what mounted troops ought to be doing than Stuart had. The Stuart story is colorful and inspirational, but at bottom it is the tragic story of a man who came on the scene in the wrong era. That tragedy he shared with his entire generation.

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