Flora Cooke Stuart: Widow Of The South
Flora Cooke was by no means an ordinary woman of the South, and in fact she was quite extraordinary for a woman of her times, especially considering who her parents were, and who eventually became her spouse. Flora was a very beautiful, vivacious woman and along with her lovely singing voice and skill at the guitar, Flora could outride most men and was as accomplished with a rifle as she was a pistol. Feisty at times, and coy at others, Flora was simply, quite the “catch.” She was a naturally attractive woman, and in all her 88 years, she never once felt the need to wear make-up.
Born in Missouri on January 3, 1836, Flora Cooke was the daughter of Virginia career Army officer Philip St. George Cooke. She was educated at a private boarding school in Detroit and this is where Flora’s story begins…attracting the attention of the dashing J.E.B. Stuart, known simply to his friends as “Jeb.” Stuart had recently graduated from West Point and was stationed on the Kansas frontier, while Flora’s father was commanding the 2nd U.S. Dragoons at Fort Leavenworth.
It would be remiss to not comment on Flora’s skills as a horsewoman, being the daughter of a colonel of the Cavalry. Evenings found Stuart and Flora sharing long evening rides together, and within two months Jeb Stuart and Flora were besotted with one another, and engaged to be married. Stuart’s infamous quote at the time sums up his infatuation with his bride to be: “I came, I saw, I was conquered.”
The gala wedding that was planned for the young couple at Fort Riley, Kansas, had to be changed due to Jeb Stuart’s father passing away on September 20th, so their wedding became a small affair, with a few family witnesses in attendance.
When the WBTS broke out, Stuart was promoted to “Captain” but he resigned from the U.S. army on May 14, 1861 to join the Confederate army. Trained cavalry officers were so rare at the time that Jeb Stuart was immediately promoted to “Colonel.” Family friction sprung forth when Jeb’s father-in-law turned his back on Virginia and remained loyal to the Union. Stuart and Philip Cooke never spoke again and in a letter to his brother-in-law, Jeb Stuart stated that, “He will regret it but once, and that will be continuously.”
Philip St. George Cooke
Flora and Jeb went on to have three children – “Flora,” who died at the age of 5; “Jeb Stuart Jr.”; who was originally named for his paternal grandfather but was renamed after Philip Cooke chose to fight for the Union cause. And “Virginia Pelham,” who was named after Stuart’s artillery commander who was killed in action at Kelly’s Ford in March, 1863.
Flora’s husband was promoted to “Brigadier General” and placed in command of the cavalry brigade in September, 1861, due to his daring reconnaissance raids in the enemy’s rear, and Stuart gained notoriety for his infamous ride around McClellan during the 1862 Peninsula campaign.
During the war, Flora tried to stay near her husband’s camp but eventually tension took a toll on their marriage due to Stuart’s growing popularity, and the gifts and letters he received from many admiring females. But according to many of Stuart’s contemporaries, he was a thoughtful and romantic husband, always carrying his wife’s photograph close to his heart.
Flora was still recovering from the loss of her daughter, “Flora” and the birth of “Virginia,” when she received a telegram on May 12, 1864, indicating that her husband had been “seriously wounded” at the Battle of Yellow Tavern. Flora had just seen her husband two days prior to receiving the above dreaded telegram, and she immediately embarked on a challenging journey to Richmond, to be at her husband’s side. But Jeb Stuart had already passed away.
Flora Stuart, at only 28 years of age, and nine years of marriage, was catapulted into the unexpected role of “widow.” She was fortunate enough to have the support of her sister, brother-in-law and close friends at this devastating time in her life, but Flora had survived so much.
Despite her husband’s wishes, Flora wore black for the rest of her life, and found solace in referring to herself as “Mrs. General Stuart.”
Jeb Stuart had requested that their children be raised in the South, so Flora moved to Saltville and lived with her husband’s brother, William Alexander Stuart and his family. Flora opened a school in Saltville and in 1878 she moved to Staunton where she taught at a Methodist school. She became principal of Staunton’s Virginia Female Institute for girls and retired in 1899. In 1907 the Virginia Female Institute was renamed “Stuart Hall” in Flora Stuart’s honour.
Flora moved to Norfolk to help raise her three grandchildren, after the death of her daughter Virginia, in 1898. It was in Norfolk that Flora surrounded herself with “many reminders of her honored husband, among them a flag, carefully framed by her own hands and carried at the head of his troops.”
Flora Stuart passed away on May 10, 1923, and was buried beside her husband and their daughter, Flora, in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond Virginia. This was the 59th anniversary of her beloved husband.
Mrs. General Stuart was the epitome of devotion to her husband and the Confederate cause. With all that she endured, she went on to do something meaningful with her life, that was near and dear to her heart, but she never forgot her husband and the deep and enduring love that they had shared for nine years.
A truly Southern woman.