Trading Flags: The Shifting Loyalty of Jubal A. Early

Jubal A. EarlyThe year 1861 divided the nation and a great many men were forced to make the incredibly difficult choice as to which allegiance was strongest in their hearts. Men across the country made their choices for numerous reasons such as devotion to the Union, belief in the Constitution, defense of their State, the support of the peculiar institution, among others. As we look at Jubal A. Early, he represents such a man torn between two allegiances. A man who in 1860-1 argued vehemently against secession in the state of Virginia, yet ended up forsaking his military oaths of defense of the country.1 Here was a man who twice left his comfortable civilian life to take up arms for the Republic; the epitome of the American citizen-soldier so glorified during the Revolutionary War, turning his back on the flag he bravely defended only to raise the flag of the newly founded Confederacy.2 What could make a man trade flags by resigning from one military to join another?

Early was raised in the state of Virginia and therefore exposed to slavery throughout his life. Although there is no record of Early himself owning slaves (other than perhaps a servant) his extended family owned numerous slaves as part of their holdings throughout Virginia. He held that the blacks were property and that there could be no abolition of slavery because the Constitution guaranteed to protect an individuals property. “He believed the government established by the Constitution protected liberty and the sanctity of private property, allowing Americans, whether above or below the Mason and Dixon’s Line, to prosper.”3 Along this line of argument he believed that every state had decided for itself whether to be “slave” or “free” at the time of its inception and at the signing of the Constitution there didn’t appear to be any obstinate hurdles regarding the issue of slavery. “Slavery was a domestic institution and should not be subject to interference from the North in the form of ‘moral suasion, legislative enactment, or physical force’.”4 Despite being a centralist in regards to slavery, equally disliking fire-eaters and abolitionists, Early felt that the institution of slavery should not be touched by meddling Northerners.

A West Point graduate from the class of 1837, Jubal A. Early did not strike many as a commanding battlefield figure. Seeing no future in the military, Early resigned from the United States Army just a year after graduating. However short and unrewarding his early military career, Early experienced some fighting against the Seminoles in Florida.5 After his short military service, Early spent the better part of the next 15 years practicing law in his home state of Virginia. This time was broken with another short return to military action during the Mexican-American War from 1847-1848. “Impelled by his sense of patriotic submission, he accepted a commission as major of the First Regiment of Virginia Volunteers” to fight against a Mexican foe who sought to deprive the Texans of their rights.6

In addition to being a full-time lawyer and part-time soldier, Early also dabbled in the realm of Virginia politics. A Whig for all of his adult life leading up to the Civil War, he was constantly in the minority of Virginian politics dominated by Southern Democrats. “Because Early believed the national government to be a justly formed one, he always had followed (President) Jackson’s recommendation to yield a patriotic submission, even when he disagreed with the ruling party’s programs.”7 Early understood that as a Whig he would forever be in the minority of Southern representation, yet he fought down to his last votes in the Virginia convention against the majority, even in regards to secession.

The political drama in Virginia in April of 1861 left Early with a test of his “firm allegiances to what he considered two legitimate governments – those of Virginia and the United States.”8 Despite being a minority voice, Early did not believe that Virginia would secede from the Union. “Departing from the Union, he warned, would bring ‘such a war as this country has never seen’.”9 Alas, Early’s predictions were proved wrong when on April 17, 1861 Virginia voted to secede from the Union and on April 25 to adopt the Confederate Constitution. In both votes, Early cast his own vote for the losing side.10 Once Virginia has officially seceded and joined the Confederacy, Early saw that he now had to choose between the Constitutional government he had defended so ardently or standing by his state regardless of what was to come. For a man like Jubal A. Early, the choice was a simple one. “Just as he had opposed war with Mexico and then volunteered to serve, so also did he acknowledge the a duty to sustain Virginia in this new crisis.”11 Early wanted to do everything in his power to defend his home state of Virginia. After stating his disagreement with the decision to secede, Early countered himself by saying, “…yet as a Convention of my State has decided in favor of that act of secession, and as we are now engaged in this contest, all my wishes, all my desires and all the energies of my hand and heart will be given to the cause of my State.” In he end, Early’s commitment to Virginia was always stronger than his Union support. “State thus trumped nation, and his willingness to oppose the old flag followed naturally…” from his Southern identity.12

In the end, the turning point for the state of Virginia, and Jubal A. Early himself, was the call by Lincoln for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion.13 He saw this as a force that would be used to fight a war on Virginia soil. More than most in the country, Early understood that a war on Virginia soil would be incredibly destructive, but not more so than the systematic destruction of Southern social structures by an oppressive government using the strong-arm of military force. Early saw the defense of Virginia as paramount and his devotion to Virginia led him down the road of duty to the Confederacy. He would spend the war fighting mostly in the Shenandoah Valley against superior numbers and weaponry. “(General) Lee demonstrated his confidence in Early by assigning him difficult tasks.”14 His war was fought against insurmountable odds and when he was victorious early in the war the South lauded him as a hero. However, as the opposition grew stronger his own forces weakened. His eventual loses in the Shenandoah Valley led him to be seen later in the war as a cause of failure and he was blamed for a great many things beyond his control.15

Jubal A. Early began the war as a colonel in the Virginia forces and ended the war a general in the Confederate Army. When asked to choose, he went with his heart and supported his home state of Virginia. He fought in the defense of Virginia as devotedly as he had in defense of the Union earlier in his life. He supported the Constitution and held firmly that Lincoln had violated his rights and those of all Southerners. In the end, the words of Thomas Jefferson may sum up the feelings of Jubal A. Early.  “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.16 Early clearly saw Lincoln and Northerners as the tyrants and the good Southern men shedding their blood as the patriots rebelling against an unjust war on Southern cultural and economic identity. He saw the end of slavery as the end of a Southern institution ingrained in society. It was not a good or an evil, only a necessity. Early would fight valiantly throughout the war to defend the Southern society he so cherished, but never forgave the Union for the usurpation of powers that degraded and invalidated the Constitution. After the war he settled in Canada for several years before returning to the United States to live out the remainder of his life arguing in defense of Confederacy.

1 Gary W. Gallagher, Becoming Confederates: Paths to a New National Identity (University of Georgia Press, 2013), 66-67.

2 Ibid., 60-61.

3 Ibid., 59.

4 Ibid., 70.

5 J. Tracy Power, “Jubal A. Early (1816-1894),” Encyclopedia Virginia (Nov. 29, 2012): (Accesses June 6, 2013).

6 Gary W. Gallagher, Becoming Confederates: Paths to a New National Identity (University of Georgia Press, 2013), 61.

7 Ibid., 60.

8 Ibid., 66.

9 Ibid., 67.

10 Ibid., 66.

11 Ibid., 67.

12 Ibid., 73.

13 Ibid., 67.

14 Ibid., 62.

15 Ibid., 64.

16 Thomas Jefferson, Correspondence to William Stephens Smith (Nov. 13, 1787), The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian Boyd, ed., Princeton University Press (1950), 12:356-7.

6 thoughts on “Trading Flags: The Shifting Loyalty of Jubal A. Early

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