James was born on a plantation called Laurel Hill in Patrick County, Virginia on February 6, 1833, to Archibald Stuart, a politician and attorney, and Elizabeth Stuart. After attending school in Wytheville, Virginia, he attended Emory & Henry College from 1848 to 1850. In 1854, he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York when Robert E. Lee was its Commandant. When he graduated, he had obtained the rank of cavalry sergeant, the highest rank attainable for these cadets.
In the U.S. Army, he served as a Mounted Rifleman in Texas before joining the 1st Regiment of the U.S. Cavalry, where he was involved in a number of Indian conflicts as well as those involving the Kansas-Missouri border war, more familiarly known as Bleeding Kansas. In 1859, Stuart carried the orders for Colonel Robert E. Lee to proceed to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia to stop John Brown’s raid on the U.S. Arsenal. Stuart was promoted to captain in April 1861, but resigned from the on May 14, 1861, to join the Confederate Army following the secession of Virginia.
He was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel of the Infantry in the Confederate Army the next month and quickly received a number of promotions and became the Cavalry Commander. By July 1862, he received the rank of a Major General, fighting in a number of campaigns including the Peninsula Campaign, the Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, before losing his life on May 12, 1864, during the Overland Campaign, at the Battle of Yellow Tavern.
©Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated February 2020.