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Jubal Early

Union or Secession
Jubal Anderson Early (1816–1894). Photograph in Special Collections, Library of Virginia.
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Jubal Anderson Early (1816–1894). Photograph in Special Collections, Library of Virginia.
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JUBAL ANDERSON EARLY (1816–1894)

Jubal Anderson Early (3 November 1816–2 March 1894), member of the Convention of 1861, Confederate army officer, and defender of the Lost Cause, was born in Franklin County and was the son of Joab Early, a prosperous land- and slave-owner, and Ruth Hairston Early. In 1833 he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he proved a mediocre cadet. Early graduated in 1837 and served that year and the next as a lieutenant in the 3d Artillery in Florida, where he saw action against the Seminoles.

Early resigned from the army at the end of July 1838 and returned to Franklin County to study law. Admitted to the bar two years later, he practiced for two decades and embarked on a political career. Early won election as a Whig to the House of Delegates in 1841. He sat on the relatively inconsequential Committees to Examine Enrolled Bills and to Examine the Penitentiary but was not reelected in 1842. Early served as commonwealth's attorney for Floyd and Franklin Counties for about ten years. The war with Mexico that began in 1846 pulled him back into military service. Commissioned a major in the 1st Virginia Regiment on 7 January 1847, Early participated in the occupation of northern Mexico but saw no combat. Before he mustered out in 1848, he was stricken with rheumatism, which left him with a pronounced stoop for the remainder of his life.

The convention called in 1850 to revise the Virginia constitution drew Early back into politics. Running as a Whig who opposed extending the franchise, he finished a weak ninth out of ten candidates for the three seats representing the district consisting of Franklin, Henry, and Patrick Counties. Three years later he campaigned unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates.

The Convention of 1861

In February 1861 Franklin County voters elected Early as one of their two delegates to the convention called in response to the secession crisis. He professed his abiding commitment to the Union and to Virginia, and he resolutely challenged the logic behind and the depth of public support for what he believed to be precipitous demands for secession. Early voted against secession on 4 April and again on 17 April when, after Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the rebellion, the convention approved submission of an ordinance of secession to Virginia's voters. Once the will of the majority took Virginia out of the Union, Early voted to approve the wording of the Ordinance of Secession and signed it. He suppressed his profound misgivings and devoted his remaining time in the convention to advocating prudent measures to prepare Virginia for war. He was appointed to the Committee on Military Affairs. In his sometimes testy exchanges with secessionists, Early displayed uncommon prescience about the toll that the war would likely take. He also anticipated that the severing of commercial relations with the North would have devastating economic consequences for his county and state. Nothing in his oratory during the convention suggested that he would become one of the most intractable defenders of the Confederacy.

The Civil War

On 2 May 1861 the governor appointed Early a colonel. As commander of the 24th Regiment Virginia Infantry, Early distinguished himself at the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) and won promotion to brigadier general. Despite suffering a serious wound at the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862, he ably commanded troops throughout the Army of Northern Virginia's campaigns. By January 1863 his service had earned him the rank of major general, and in May 1864 he was promoted to lieutenant general and commander of the Second Corps. Irritable, profane, and outspoken, Early won the respect of his infantrymen but had stormy relationships with many of his subordinate officers.

In June 1864, while the Union army besieged Petersburg, Early repulsed a Union assault on Lynchburg and led the Second Corps in driving Union forces from the Shenandoah Valley before crossing into Maryland and threatening Washington, D.C. Early's Army of the Valley, which inflicted more than 20 percent casualties on Union forces at the Battle of Monocacy on 9 July, was too small to capture and occupy the federal capital, but the maneuver forced Lieutenant General Ulysses Simpson Grant to withdraw more than 40,000 troops from the Petersburg and Richmond theater to contain it. Early also impressed large quantities of matÉriel and money during his foray north of the Potomac River. During another incursion late in July 1864, after the residents of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, failed to provide a ransom of $100,000 in gold, he approved burning the town. Early's drastic measure against a civilian population was defended as justifiable retaliation for Union depredations in the Shenandoah Valley, but it spurred on Union resolve to smash the Second Corps and tainted his reputation.

Early waged a skillful campaign against Major General Philip Henry Sheridan's larger forces, but his badly outnumbered troops were overmatched and endured crushing defeats on 19 September 1864 at Winchester and on 19 October at Cedar Creek. By then Early's force posed no threat to Union control of the Valley, and it suffered from declining morale and growing desertion. On 2 March 1865, Union troops routed and then captured the remainder of the Army of the Valley at Waynesboro. Early eluded capture, but Robert Edward Lee did not give him a new command and acknowledged privately that Early had lost the confidence of Confederates at home and in uniform. Early received a telegram relieving him of command on 30 March 1865.

Despite Early's earnest prewar Unionist convictions and his embarrassing military reverses in the later stages of the war, he remained an ardent Confederate even after Lee's surrender. Early immediately set out for Texas to join the Confederate armies there, but their surrender prompted him to flee to Mexico by way of Nassau, Bimini, and Cuba. He next made his way back to Cuba and then to Canada, where he took up residence and wrote A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America (1866). The book established Early as a tireless defender of his own reputation and of the Confederacy.

Defending the Lost Cause

During the remainder of his life Early promulgated an interpretation of Confederate defeat that mitigated simultaneously his defeats and those of Confederate armies in general. He contrasted the mediocrity of Northern troops and generals with the exceptional valor of Confederate armies and generals, and he elevated Lee (at the expense of James Longstreet) to the highest pantheon of military leaders. Early dwelled on the insurmountable advantages in numbers and matériel that the Union had possessed, insisted that the campaigns waged in Virginia had decided the outcome of the war, argued that the Confederacy had not fought to defend slavery, and justified that institution on the grounds that slavery was the condition God had intended for a barbaric and inferior race. Early's apologia, expounded in subsequent lectures, writings, and pronouncements, provided the essential foundation for the Lost Cause mythology that generations of white southerners embraced and repeated. In addition, it virtually removed the stigma of defeat that Early had acquired by the close of the war.

By 1870 Early had settled in Lynchburg and resumed practicing law. Seven years later he became a commissioner of the Louisiana State Lottery Company. Tainted by rumors of corruption, the lottery company exploited Early's reputation for probity and military valor in return for a large annual salary, much of which he purportedly contributed to charity. Usually monthly, Early and his fellow commissioner and former Confederate general Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard presided over a public ceremony at which the winning lottery tickets were drawn.

Early's light duties as lottery commissioner and his desultory law practice left him ample time to devote to his principal interest, commemorating the Confederacy and its leaders. He served as president of the Southern Historical Society, the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia, and the Lee Monument Association. A tenacious polemicist, he tangled with any veterans, historians, or public figures who challenged his explanation of the Confederacy's defeat.

Early's evolution from a conservative Whig Unionist to an ardent, unreconstructed rebel was one measure of the effect of the Civil War on southern white identity. His devotion to the Confederacy transformed him from a minor local notable in Franklin County into a leading military figure. Arguably his most enduring contribution to the Confederate cause came during his postwar years when he became the self-appointed guardian of southern white honor. For Early, and perhaps many other Confederate veterans, their personal renown as soldiers and the enduring reputation of the Confederacy were inseparable.

Early never married, but he and Julia McNealey, also of Franklin County, had three sons and one daughter born between 1850 and 1864. About two weeks after falling down a flight of stairs, Jubal Anderson Early died at his home in Lynchburg on 2 March 1894. He was buried in the city's Spring Hill Cemetery. His niece Ruth Hairston Early (1849–1928) edited two manuscripts he had written, Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early, C.S.A.: Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War Between the States (1912) and The Heritage of the South: A History of the Introduction of Slavery, Its Establishment from Colonial Times, and Final Effect upon the Politics of the United States (1915).

Contributed by W. Fitzhugh Brundage

This biography, with a bibliographical note, will appear in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ), volume 4 (forthcoming).

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