Flora Cooke was born on January 3, 1836, at Jefferson Barracks, outside Saint Louis, Missouri. Her father, Philip St. George Cooke, was a native Virginian, while her mother, Rachel Hertzog Cooke, hailed from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The two married in 1830, and Flora was the second of their four children. Cooke grew up at various army forts where her father was stationed and then attended boarding school in Detroit, Michigan. She played the piano and the guitar and enjoyed horseback riding and shooting. Following her graduation in 1855, Cooke planned first to visit her parents at Fort Riley in the Kansas Territory, where her father was commander, and then to travel to Philadelphia to make her social debut. During a troop review at Fort Riley, however, her equestrian skills so impressed a young lieutenant, J. E. B. Stuart, that a courtship followed. Shortly before departing for Fort Leavenworth on the Kansas frontier, Stuart asked Cooke to marry him. She apparently consented, for a letter from Stuart to his cousin on September 20, 1855, announced the engagement. Wearing her graduation dress, Cooke married Stuart on November 14, 1855, at Fort Riley. They spent their honeymoon in Wytheville, Virginia, visiting Stuart’s family. Their first child, Flora, was born in September 1857. A son, Philip St. George Cooke Stuart, was born in 1860. The couple continued to live in Kansas for several more years before returning to Virginia where J. E. B. Stuart served as volunteer aide towho, in October 1859, had been dispatched to quell ‘s raid on .
After learning of Virginia’s secession, J. E. B. Stuart arranged to enter Confederate military service and moved his family to Virginia. Philip St. George Cooke, meanwhile, chose not to resign his U.S. Army commission, provoking Stuart to write his wife that it would do “irreparable injury to our only son” to have him named after Cooke. After some deliberation, the couple renamed the boy James E. B. Stuart Jr.
After J. E. B. Stuart left forto enlist in the Confederate army, Flora Stuart and her children settled in Wytheville. She often arranged to stay at or near her husband’s camp, where they could enjoy meals, music, and conversation together. Such pleasantries could be interrupted at a moment’s notice, of course, and their frequent separations strained their relationship. Stuart wrote letters to his “darling wife,” but he also corresponded with other women as his fame grew. These were insubstantial flirtations, but Flora Stuart disliked the photographs and other gifts these admirers sent, and wrote of feeling laughed at for her “husband’s fondness for society and the ladies.” Generally speaking, however, J. E. B. Stuart was a thoughtful and romantic husband, carrying his wife’s photograph near his heart, although he told her he did “not need it my love, to keep you ever vividly before me.”
On November 3, 1862, their daughter Flora died of typhoid fever. In the following weeks, Stuart wrote that his wife was “not herself since the loss of her little companion,” and another observer wrote, “Words could not describe the agony she had endured.” The birth of a daughter, Virginia Pelham, the following October both eased and intensified the loss. “She is said to be like Little Flora,” Flora Stuart wrote. “I hope she is.”
Flora Stuart emerged from her mourning clothes late in April 1864, but then on May 12, she received a telegram informing her that her husband had been “seriously wounded” at the Battle of Yellow Tavern. Having seen her husband just two days earlier, Flora Stuart immediately traveled to Richmond but was too late. Stuart died on May 12 and was buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.
Flora Stuart honored her husband’s request to raise their children in the South, and for a short time after the war, she lived inwith J. E. B. Stuart’s brother William Alexander Stuart and his family. (The log cabin where they resided still stands.) She also opened a school in Saltville. In 1878 she moved to Staunton where she taught at a Methodist school. In 1880 she became principal of Staunton’s Virginia Female Institute, an Episcopal school for girls chartered in 1844. Before his death in 1870, Robert E. Lee had served on its board of visitors. Flora Stuart—who in these years preferred to be called Mrs. General Stuart—oversaw an increase in enrollment from twenty-five to ninety-nine students. She retired in 1899 and her cousin, Maria Pendleton Duval, became headmistress. Stuart’s daughter, Virginia, helped found the school’s honor and library service society, and Stuart’s granddaughter, Virginia Stuart Waller Davis, graduated from the school in 1917 and served as a trustee. In 1907, the Virginia Female Institute was renamed Stuart Hall in Flora Stuart’s honor. (As of 2009, Stuart Hall is an independent coeducational Episcopal school, educating students from pre-kindergarten age through twelfth grade.)
In 1898, following the death of Virginia, Flora Stuart moved to Norfolk to help raise her three grandchildren. There, according to an entry in the Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography (1915), she surrounded herself with “many reminders of her honored husband, among them a flag, carefully framed, made by her own hands and carried at the head of his troops.” She died on May 10, 1923, and was buried beside J. E. B. Stuart and their daughter Flora in Hollywood Cemetery.