Tennessee’s highest-ranking Confederate officer

Alexander Peter Stewart was born on Oct. 2, 1821 in Rogersville, Tenn. in a home on present-day North Church Street. His parents were William and Elizabeth (Decherd) Stewart, who had recently located to Rogersville from Blountville where they purchased the downtown home for $300.
The family was moderately wealthy and Alexander spent the first ten years of his life in the East Tennessee city and attended grammar school at McMinn Academy. His parents saw to a lot of his education in his formative years when it was discovered that young Alexander had a gift for mathematics.
In 1831, the family sold their home for $600 and relocated to Winchester, Tenn. The family prospered in the middle Tennessee town and Elizabeth went on to give birth to eight more children.
Alexander continued with his studies and, in 1838, his grades were such that he earned an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. A.P. Stewart, as he was becoming known, excelled in the Academy and quickly proved his ability as a scholar in mathematics. He graduated 12th in a class of 56 in 1842. During his time at the Academy, A.P. Stewart roomed with future Generals John Pope, W.S. Rosecrans, James Longstreet, and Gustavus Smith. In addition, John Newton and William T. Sherman would also graduate with the class of 1842 – making it one of the most influential classes in West Point history.
Lt. A.P. Stewart was posted to his first assignment in Army Artillery, where he served one year before being recalled to West Point to work as an instructor of mathematics. The Tennessean held the position for three years and fulfilled his military obligation to America. In 1845, he resigned his commission from the United States Army and took a professorship in his native state at Cumberland University. That same year he married Harriet Byron Chase and soon after started a family.
After four years, Stewart left his professorship and became a member of the faculty at the University of Nashville. He returned to Cumberland University in 1854 and remained there until the outbreak of the War Between the States.
Stewart enjoyed scholarly pursuits and had been a voracious reader from his early childhood. The positions at the University allowed him to pursue his intellectual interests until war began looming over the South. His wife bore him four sons in the years he worked as a professor and he was a good father. He was, like most Tennesseans, against slavery and secession, but was an adamant believer in the state’s rights to decide such issues.
Following Tennessee voting to secede from the Republic, Stewart volunteered his services to then-Governor Isham Harris. Gov. Harris assigned Stewart the rank of Major in the Tennessee Militia and gave him command of the heavy artillery and water batteries on the Mississippi River at Fort Wright at Randolph.
Major Stewart organized and trained 20 batteries of Tennessee artillery at the fort. Stewart’s "by the book" style quickly earned him the nickname "Old Straight" from his men, but his personal leadership also earned their respect.
The mathematics professor proved himself under fire as a good tactician and old school military soldier. He and his men were able to push off Gen. U.S. Grant’s forces for a time in the futile battle. During the early action, Stewart was wounded when a cannon next to him exploded, burning his face with the ignited powder, but the wounds were only superficial.
Major Stewart’s actions under fire and his examples of leadership quickly earned the respect of then-commanding General Albert Sydney Johnston who soon recommended promoting Stewart to the rank of Brigadier General.
Following the fall of Fort Donelson and Nashville, northern forces pushed south towards Pittsburg Landing.Gen. A.P. Stewart was ordered to march his Second Brigade north from Corinth, Miss. and meet the advancing Union troops. The Rogersville native arrived with his troops around midnight on April 4, 1862.
Stewart’s brigade, which was made up of the Fourth, Fifth, and Thirty-third Regiments of the Army of Tennessee, the thirteenth Regiment of Arkansas Volunteers, and a light artillery battery of six pieces. With Gen. A.S. Johnston commanding, Gen. Stewart’s men engaged the Union forces at what would eventually become known as the Battle of Shiloh.
The report he filed with Confederate headquarters praised the actions of his men and especially the actions of the Fourth Tennessee Regiment for relieving three other units pinned down by enemy fire and forcing the Union Army back towards the river.
According to his report, Gen. Stewart received the order from Gen. Braxton Bragg to assault the battery position and rode back to locate a unit capable of attacking the enemy battery that was preventing the Confederate forces from advancing. Stewart went on to say:
"...I turned to the Fourth; told them what was wanted and asked if they would take the battery, and received the reply ‘Show us where it is; we will try.’ The regiment moved forward, under a severe fire of canister, from which it lost 31 men killed and 160 wounded, charged and carried the battery, and drove the enemy back into the thick woods beyond it. The entire regiment behaved admirably, and it gives me pleasure to bear testimony to their gallant conduct and especially that of Lt. Colonel Strahl and Colonel Neely..."
Following the death of Gen. Johnston at Shiloh and the subsequent retreat of Southern forces from the battlefield, Gen. Stewart and his men fell back helping to cover the retreat and regrouped. As a commander, A.P. Stewart found himself becoming regarded as one of the better officers in the Army of Tennessee. His ability to demand the best from the soldiers under him was a rare thing as times became tough for Confederate soldiers. He wasn’t below lending a hand helping his men get into position. Once while crossing a creek, a cannon being pulled by a horse became bogged down in the mud and couldn’t be moved. Without thinking, Gen. Stewart threw his reins to an aide and waded out in the creek where he put his shoulder against the wheel and said "all together men" and pushed the wheels out of the trough and onto the bank. His modesty and shyness were just as legendary and he never put his needs above those of the men under him. His men proved themselves time and again at the battles of Perryville and Murfreesboro.
At the Battle of Murfreesboro, the troops under Stewart picked up their nickname "the little giant division" for their actions in destroying Union Gen. Philip Sheridan’s stand on the right flank.
Gen. Stewart’s hardest fought actions on the battlefield, however, occurred in September 1863 while engaging the Union Army in Chattanooga and at the Battle of Chickamauga. Stewart ran headlong into trouble while checking his division’s lines prior to a crucial charge in the battle. Gen. Stewart accidentally rode his old roan horse through a yellow-jackets’ nest and was aggressively attacked by the insects. Although the incident dislodged him from the saddle, Stewart was not seriously hurt in the incident and immediately returned to action.
The Battle of Chickamauga would prove to be one of his most expensive in terms of casualties. Stewart’s men broke the Union line briefly on the first day of battle and helped lead the attack the second day that shattered the federal forces and sent them headlong into retreat from the battlefield. Gen. Stewart and his men advanced towards Chattanooga in Bragg’s disastrous attempt to take the city. The "little giant" division were placed along the left line and spread out too thin to have any real effect on the Union forces. Although Stewart’s men performed well under fire, the division suffered a 52 percent casualty rate in the battle. Following Gen. Bragg’s order to withdraw, morale started becoming a problem in the ranks. Gen. Stewart regrouped his command, but the seemingly constant retreat from the Union towards Atlanta was slowly demoralizing the Army of Tennessee and the Rogersville native found it difficult to keep his men’s spirits high.
In May 1864, Army of Tennessee Commanding General Joseph Eggleston Johnston ordered Stewart and his men to engage Union General Joseph Hooker at New Hope Church, GA. As was his custom before a battle, Gen. Stewart rode along the front of his line talking to his men and giving them the before-battle pep talk. The Union rifle fire began to get heated around the front causing his son, Lt. R.C. Stewart, to call out:
"Now, father, you know you promised mother that you would not expose yourself today."
The quick-witted Tennesseans started laughing and passing the comment down the line. As the general rode past them, many repeated the remark to their beloved general.
As the battle of New Hope Church began in earnest, Stewart noticed that Gen. Sherman had stretched his battle lines thin and was able to successfully pinpoint their weakness and order his men to pour their fire into the positions. It was no easy battle for the Tennessean. Stewart and his men came under devastating fire from Hooker’s battle-hardened corps. Although tired and frustrated, the Tennesseans under Gen. Stewart held their own and brutally fought off the Union soldiers – devastating Hooker’s men and forcing Gen. Sherman to order Hooker to retreat. Gen. Johnston was so impressed with Stewart’s turn-around from almost certain defeat that told him:
"If I can make you a Lieutenant-General for your management, then you shall have it."
The rank was delivered, as promised, a few weeks later while Stewart was directing his men in the building of breastworks.The promotion made him one of only two Tennesseans to earn the rank of Lt. General in the Confederate Army.
At a battle near Ezra Church in Georgia, the Tennessean was scouting open ground between his line and the Union’s when received his second wound in the war. A spent musket ball fired from a Union soldier struck him between the eyes and knocked him from his horse. His aide Aristide Hopkins carried him off of the battlefield and everyone seeing the wound thought "Old Straight" had finally pushed his luck too far. Much to everyone’s surprise, however, Gen. Stewart had only been knocked unconscious by the bullet. After coming to and shaking it off, he mounted his horse and resumed command of his corps.
On July 17, 1864, a telegram from the Confederate War Office was received ordering Texas Gen. John B. Hood to take command of the Army of Tennessee replacing the popular Johnston. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who personally disliked Johnston, ordered Gen. Hood to put the Army of Tennessee back into the war with offensive tactics. The Texan’s first order of business was locating the positions of Hardee and Stewart and establishing communications for the upcoming defense of Atlanta.
There was some trouble from his new command. The Senior Corps Commander of the Army of Tennessee General Hardee echoed the anger being felt by the troops and thought the decision by President Davis was a way of replacing him as well. General Hardee almost tendered his resignation, but the junior Corps Commander Stewart convinced Hardee to remain in the interest of his men.
Gen. Hood’s early actions in command revitalized the Army of Tennessee and did put them back in the fight as a formidable force.
From Atlanta to the Army’s near destruction at the Battle of Franklin, Lt. Gen. A.P. Stewart garnered a reputation as one of the better commanders in the Army of Tennessee. He was cool-headed under fire and could inspire his men under the most adverse of conditions. In many cases, rallying them to complete their assignments in spite of overwhelming odds. Three horses were shot out from under him at the Battle of Resaca. Under Commanding Generals A.S. Johnston, Joseph Johnston, Bragg, and Hood, Stewart maintained their respect of his command style and also that of his subordinates. In a report filed by General John Hood, he wrote of his admiration for Stewart stating "he admired the Tennessean for his cheering of his command by riding among them before every battle, talking with and encouraging them toward the bloody work ahead." One of his officers also later wrote of his demeanor in battle and his regard for the soldiers under him saying:
"As an example of the consideration for his men, I have seen him, when we were on the march and halted by the roadside to rest and he wished to pass through the line of tired men lying or sitting by the road, most politely ask the men to make room for him and his staff to get through and then ride through slowly and carefully least the horses trample some of the men..."
As the war began coming to an end, Lt. Gen. A.P. Stewart found himself commanding the final remnants of the Army of Tennessee.
In April 1865 at the Battle of Coe’s Farm in North Carolina, the Lt. General and other commanders surrendered the Army to Union General William T. Sherman– making the Rogersville native the highest ranking Confederate Commander from East Tennessee to have served in the War Between the States. In later years he would comment on fellow West Point Classmate General Sherman saying that while he was an able student of the Academy, he was no gentleman.
Since his first engagement four years earlier, Lt. Gen. A.P. Stewart had served in every campaign fought by the Confederate Army of Tennessee.
A war-weary and tired Stewart was paroled in Greensboro, NC and returned to Lebanon, Tenn. where he took a professorship at Cumberland University. In this position, he rode out the tumultuous Reconstruction era and managed to reestablish himself in the academic world.
In 1868, he was appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Mississippi at Oxford and quickly earned a reputation as one of the University’s best professors.
In 1874, he was elected President of the University and immediately set about making some much-needed reforms at the facility. As president, Stewart helped reestablish the University as one of the best in the South.
In 1886, Stewart stepped down as President of the University and pursued other interests. Four years later, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that called for the formation of a National Park from the battlefields around Chattanooga and Chickamauga.
The former Confederate general and Southern scholar was appointed as one of the commissioners to take charge of the work. A.P. Stewart returned to the woods and fields where he had led his men in the Confederacy’s last great victory. This time, however, he looked upon the region as a historian and worked diligently to ensure the battlefields collected were the most strategic positions of the battle and reflected the sacrifice of both the Confederate and Union soldiers who fought in the battle. In 1896, Chickamauga National Battlefield Park became the first of its kind in the United States and set the example for the others that followed. Stewart’s popularity in the region soared. The United Daughters of the Confederacy named the Chattanooga Chapter in his honor.
A.P. Stewart remained in that position and eventually moved to Biloxi, Miss. where he pursued literary interests until his death on Aug. 30, 1908. His body was removed from the City and sent to St. Louis, MO where he had lived with his son for a short while. The Tennessean was laid to rest amid ceremonies proper to a distinguished citizen and military officer.
In 1918, the former Confederate General from Tennessee was memorialized by the Chattanooga U.D.C., who contracted noted Tennessee artist Belle Kinney to sculpt a bust of the Rogersville native. It was cast at the famous Tiffany Studios in New York and unveiled on April 22, 1919 in a ceremony held on Chattanooga’s courthouse lawn.
No one figure has so slipped from the pages of Tennessee history as has Alexander P. Stewart. Information gathered for this story had to be gleaned from his personal reports, those of Gen. John B. Hood, Rogersville historians, and battlefield accounts from the War Between the States where his troops were engaged.
I especially have to thank Carson-Newman English professor Doug Taylor, who is one of the few people that has researched the Rogersville native and frequently gives lectures on the forgotten Tennessean. Prior to the publication of this article, he informed me that a new book on Stewart written by Sam Davis Elliott has just been published and should be available from your local bookstore.
Although a man of scholarly pursuits, A.P. Stewart never wrote a memoir of his life or experiences. He did later comment on the War Between the States when he wrote:
"...I hold that the actions of the Southern people was legally, constitutionally and morally right. The Southern people were devoted to the Constitution and the laws of this country, and never violated either..."
In addition, the modest quiet-spoken man gave a speech at a Convention of the Sons of Confederate Veterans where he spoke of the need to aid the forgotten veterans of the war and to provide for the proper education and training of their children. His words would memorialize him to the men who had served in his command during the war.
Although a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, A.P. Stewart was chiefly regarded by many as a scholar and little credit is given to his tactics on the battlefield. He was, as the story said, a man of the old military school. His knowledge of artillery aided him greatly in his battlefield command and reinforced an old saying of Emperor Napolean’s "that he would have no man as a general who had not served in artillery."
As mentioned in the story, he was only one of two native sons to achieve the rank of Lieutenant general. The only other Tennessean to achieve the rank was Confederate cavalry legend N.B. Forrest. At the time of his death on 1908, Former Lt. Gen. Simon Buckner was the only Confederate soldier living who had held the same rank in the War Between the States.
While Stewart’s work at the University of Mississippi is notable, his efforts in helping to establish the Chickamauga National Military Park is regarded as one of his best contributions. The states of Tennessee and Georgia gave $400,000 and the U.S. Government appropriated $725,000 to purchase the land, which would encompass 15 square miles and become the first such Park of its kind in U.S. History. The battlefield remains much as it did in 1863. The heavily forested woodlands were still intact because the battle’s rifle-fire imbedded in the trees made them hazardous to cut. This past weekend, more than 20,000 historical reenactors descended on the Park to reenact the Battle of Chickamauga. The mega-reenactment drew more than 100,000 spectators from around the world, including numerous domestic and foreign military students studying the tactics that were employed in the battle.
No monument, except the bust erected by the Chattanooga United Daughters of the Confederacy, exists in Tennessee to honor Stewart. A Tennessee Historical Commission plaque marks his birthplace in Rogersville. A large women’s residence hall on campus is named the A.P. Stewart Hall in his honor. The boardroom of the University of Mississippi once had a full-color oil portrait of him in Confederate uniform hanging on the wall, but no one at the University could confirm if the portrait is still there.