Jubal Anderson Early was born on November 3, 1816, in Rocky Mount, Franklin County, Virginia, the son of Joab Early, a prominent farmer and politician, and Ruth Hairston, whose family owned many slaves. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1837, eighteenth in a class that also included future Union generals Joseph Hooker and John Sedgwick. For a time he was a classmate of future Confederate general Lewis A. Armistead, who resigned from West Point in 1836 after breaking a plate over Early’s head.
After receiving a commission in the 3rd U.S. Artillery, Early briefly served in the otherwise long and costly Second Seminole War (1835–1842) in Florida. He resigned from the army on July 31, 1838, to study law, and began his practice in Rocky Mount in 1840. The following year, he represented Franklin County for one term in the House of Delegates (1841–1842) as a member of the Whig Party, and in 1843 he was appointed his county’s commonwealth’s attorney, serving until 1852. A volunteer officer in the Mexican War (1846–1848), he did not see combat but did contract rheumatoid arthritis, the effects of which would plague him for the rest of his life.
A delegate to the Virginia Convention of 1861, Early was a staunch Unionist, possibly because of his county’s ties to tobacco trade with the North, and his caution earned him the nickname “the Terrapin from Franklin.” He believed that the enthusiasm for secession was short-sighted and likely to lead to war, and he argued that the rights of Southerners who did not own slaves were as worthy of protection as the rights of those who did. He voted against secession “with the hope,” he later wrote, “that, even then, the collision of arms might be avoided.”
During the Civil War
After Virginia seceded from the Union in May 1861, Early was appointed a general in the state militia, then a colonel in the Confederate army, becoming the first commander of the 24th Virginia Infantry Regiment. He commanded a Virginia brigade at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861, participating in a late-afternoon charge along Chinn Ridge that routed Union forces and sent them in retreat back to Washington, D.C. Soon promoted to brigadier general, Early was conspicuous at the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862, where he attacked a superior force without support, lost many men, and was wounded himself. After recuperating in Rocky Mount, he rejoined the army in time for the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, but was not engaged.
Early’s record for the rest of 1862—he served in Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Second Corps—was as impressive as that of any brigadier in the Army of Northern Virginia. He fought well at the battles of Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. In the latter two engagements, he temporarily commanded the division of Richard S. Ewell, who had lost a leg at Second Manassas. Early in 1863, Early was promoted to major general and given permanent command of Ewell’s former division, which he led during the Chancellorsville Campaign in May.
Early’s record for the rest of the year was adequate, but not distinguished. On July 1, he entered Gettysburg wearing, according to one of his artilleryman, a “glossy black ostrich feather, in beautiful condition,” and helped to rout two Union corps. Early then asked Ewell—who had taken command of the Second Corps after Jackson’s death following Chancellorsville—for permission to assault Cemetery Hill, the high ground to which the Union troops had retreated. In what was one of the most controversial decisions of the war, Ewell refused. That evening, Lee conferred with Ewell and several division commanders, but eventually agreed that it was too late to attack that day. Early and the rest of the Second Corps attacked Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill late the next afternoon without success.
Early fought splendidly at the bloody and inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864 and, a week later, during the Spotsylvania Campaign, he took temporary command of the Third Corps when A. P. Hill became ill. After Hill returned, Early again filled in for Ewell atop the Second Corps, an assignment that became permanent when Lee, unhappy with his performance at Spotsylvania, reassigned Ewell to the defense of the Confederate capital at Richmond.
In June 1864, Lee proposed a second Shenandoah Valley campaign (the first had been in the spring of 1862) to draw troops away from his front, to protect the valley’s subsistence, and perhaps to threaten Washington, D.C. Lee temporarily promoted Early to the grade of lieutenant general and put him in charge of the new Army of the Valley, whose nucleus was the old Second Corps. Early marched into Maryland and to the outskirts of Washington in July, but did not fight a large-scale engagement. His operations were important enough, however, that Union forces took notice.
In the second phase of the campaign, Early faced an enemy that outnumbered him almost three to one, and he lost three major battles in September and October, at Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, and Cedar Creek. Early commanded only remnants of his army after the Second Corps returned to Lee in December. A decisive defeat at Waynesboro early in 1865 ended his Confederate career.
Jubal Early and the Lost Cause
Jubal Early’s Post-War Exile
These debates produced what came to be known as the Lost Cause, a view of the war that, over the years, has been largely accepted by American popular culture and, until recently, many historians (including Douglas Southall Freeman, who grew up just down the street from Early’s Lynchburg home).
Early advanced his view of the war in A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence (1866), the first such book by a leading general on either side; and Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War between the States, which was published posthumously in 1912. As Gary W. Gallagher has observed, “Early understood almost immediately after Appomattox that there would be a struggle to control the public memory of the war, worked hard to help shape that memory, and ultimately enjoyed more success than he probably imagined possible.” Early died in Lynchburg in 1894.