Part of the USA Today Network

Old Rebel spun several tall tales on postwar visit to York

Looking north toward York from Webb's Hill (YDR's York Town Square blog).
Looking north toward York from Webb’s Hill (YDR’s York Town Square blog).

After the Civil War, many veterans became passionate in their efforts to remember their service and that of fallen comrades. Parades, statues, lectures, books, music, museums, etc. – the list went on and on. Several former soldiers revisited battlefields and other places they recalled from their war experience, often returning to welcome arms with vivid stories of what they remembered from those long-ago military excursions.

At times, they misremembered their activities and innocently got their facts mixed up.

A few misguided souls, however, for reasons known only to them, misrepresented themselves deliberately, seeking recognition and honor for events and battles in which they did not actually participate.

John Stuart was perhaps in between the two extremes.

The former Confederate cavalry officer visited York, Pennsylvania, in November 1904. The story he told has some holes in it.

Big ones.

Headline from the November 18, 1904 York Daily newspaper
Headline from the November 18, 1904, York Daily newspaper

“Colonel John Stuart, of Charleston, South Carolina, and officer in the Confederate cavalry, which entered York in June 1863, in advance of [Maj. Gen. Jubal] Early’s army, during the civil war and demanded a ransom to save the city from being burned, was in York yesterday and met with a large number of union veterans. Colonel Stuart, in company with two daughters, is making a tour of all the battlefields on which he fought. He came to York Monday evening and spent the night here and yesterday went to Wrightsville, which is the most northerly point the Confederates reached during the war. From there it is said he will go to Harrisburg and then to Gettysburg.

“While in York yesterday Colonel Stuart met Sheriff-elect Manifold, Patrolman Ruth and a number of veterans living here. He greeted all old soldiers he met with a cordial hand shake and said he was always glad to talk with them and call up incidents of fights in which he took part. In speaking to Colonel Stuart Patrolman Ruth asked him if he remembered [Union Gen. Judson] Kilpatrick’s division. Colonel Stuart replied that he guessed he had reason to remember him, and displaying a crippled left arm said, “That’s what I got in a fight with Kilpatrick.” He recalled a number of fights in which he participated against the Ninth Pennsylvania Cavalry, of which Patrolman Ruth was a member.

Lewis Miller sketch of the 31st Georgia as it marched into York (YCHC)
Lewis Miller’s sketch of the 31st Georgia Infantry and 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry as they marched into York  on Sunday morning, June 28, 1863. (YCHC)

“Colonel Stuart took part in the cavalry fight in Hanover. He says he commanded the body of cavalry which came into York as the advance guard of Early’s army and was one of the officers that demanded the payment, under orders of General Early, of a large ransom to save the city from being burned by the Confederate soldiers. He recalled the names of a number of the most prominent citizens of York at that time who helped to pay the ransom. Colonel Stuart found that he was well acquainted with Patrolman Adams’ father who lived in Richmond, Va., before the civil war and stated that he knew him when he owned a large plantation near the city.

“Colonel Stuart seemed well pleased with the way the people he met in York received him and expressed a desire that he would have more time to meet more of them with whom he came in contact during his visit here and on numerous battlefields as a Confederate officer.”

It’s a nice story of reconciliation as an old Rebel visits Northern towns he remembered from his June 1863 visit as part of Jubal Early’s force.

But, let’s take a little deeper look at John Stuart’s tale.

First, the most glaring inconsistency is his comment that he fought at the battle of Hanover against Patrolman Ruth’s 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry of General Kilpatrick’s division. The 9th PA was never at Hanover; in fact they fought in the Western Theater. And, none of the troops, blue or gray, who fought at Hanover on the afternoon of June 30, 1863, were involved at all in Jubal Early’s occupation of York, which took place from June 28-30. Early’s men had left York and were well to the north of Hanover as that battle took place. No one is known to have rode from Early’s force down to Hanover or vice versa.

So, the antenna must be on alert at this stage. Colonel Stuart’s claim to have been at both places just doesn’t match the known facts.

There are more problems with his story.

He said he was a colonel; perhaps he was later in the war or somehow otherwise achieved the title. The names of all Confederate colonels in Early’s force (and in J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry at Hanover) are well documented; none of them are named John Stuart.

Second problem – the main body of cavalry that accompanied Jubal Early into York County was the 17th Virginia Cavalry regiment under the command of Col. William Henderson. However, they did not enter York city at all but rather camped near Emigsville and spent most of their time on June 28 and 29 burning railroad bridges. A Private John Stuart indeed was part of that regiment.

As Brigadier John B. Gordon’s Georgia infantry brigade marched into downtown York on W. Market Street from the west preceding Early’s subsequent arrival from the north on George Street, the 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry led the way, along with the 31st Georgia Volunteers, an infantry regiment. Lieutenant Colonel Elijah V. White led the cavalry battalion. No John Stuart is listed on their roster.

So, who was “Colonel John Stuart”? Was he really Private John Stuart of the 17th Virginia Cavalry, who indeed was part of Early’s force but was never an officer and is not known to have entered the borough at any time? Or, was he a staff officer with White or Henderson whose name for some reason does not appear on known roster rolls? Perhaps Stuart never entered York at all and made up the story (although he seemed to recall the names of citizens who helped collect the ransom). By the way, few of Early’s men hailed from the Richmond area. The Virginia infantrymen were from the Shenandoah Valley; the Virginia cavalry from West Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley, or from the Leesburg area.

And, what about the Hanover element? J.E.B. Stuart’s three brigades did fight at Hanover, and they certainly contained plenty of men who might have lived in Richmond before the war. But, again, no John Stuart appears on the rolls.

Accompanied by his daughters on his visit to York, Stuart appears to have exaggerated his role in Jubal Early’s occupation and falsely claimed to have fought against the 9th Pennsylvania at Hanover, assuming he really had been one of the nearly 11,000 Confederate soldiers who tramped or rode through York County during the Gettysburg campaign.

And, oh, by the way, there really was a Colonel John Stuart of Charleston, South Carolina.

He died in 1779.

That particular Stuart as a British loyalist during the American Revolution. He fled to Georgia after a military defeat and died there. His former house at 106 Tradd Street is listed on the National Historic Register.

Perhaps our post-Civil War “Colonel John Stuart” was a total impostor who bamboozled the good citizens of York PA back in November of 1904?