She was no stranger to profound loss. And not even death could overcome the love and devotion she felt for her husband. Although their love in this life was cut short, she mourned for a lifetime the man who had kept her picture in his pocket, telling her he did “not need it, my love, to keep you ever vividly before me.”
Flora Cooke was born into a military life on January 3, 1836, at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. Her father, Philip St. George Cooke, was at the time of her birth a lieutenant with the United States Army, and he and her mother had four children together, Flora being their second. As part of an army family, she was accustomed early on to a life of traveling, moving from fort to fort with her father’s changing stations.
Flora found some sense of stability when her parents enrolled her at a boarding school in Michigan. There she discovered she had a talent for music, playing both the piano and guitar, and a love of horseback riding. After graduation in 1855, she returned to her family—Cooke was now stationed at Fort Riley in the Kansas Territory. It was there that her equestrian skills first caught the eye of a West Point graduate and young lieutenant named James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart.
Handsome, outgoing, charming, and with a love of riding that matched her own, Stuart’s affections were hard for Flora to resist. After a short courtship, Stuart proposed. In November of the same year, the two wed at Fort Riley before a honeymoon trip to see the Stuart family in Wytheville, Virginia.
Despite living a happy life with their growing family in Kansas, Flora knew her husband’s loyalties were in Virginia. As tensions were mounting throughout the Southern states, she gave birth to a daughter, Flora, and a son, Philip St. George Cooke Stuart. But as the country found itself on the brink of war, Flora was soon facing decisions that would test her own loyalty to both her country and kin.
In April 1861, Virginia voted to secede from the Union. Other states had already led the movement, but this was the one it seemed Stuart was waiting for. He resigned from the United States Army and took Flora, little Flora, and Philip to Wytheville. As Flora settled her family into their new home, Stuart rode to Richmond to enlist in the Confederate Army. Her family of origin, however, stayed in Kansas, pitting her father against her husband on either side of a war that would ravage her home and country. At the urging of her husband, they renamed their son James E. B. Stuart, Jr.
Away from the support of her parents, Flora clung to her relationship with Stuart more than ever. She stayed near him as much as possible, so that despite the war going on outside their home, they could enjoy each other’s company as best they could. And Stuart loved his wife dearly. When they were apart, he wrote her letters of his love, keeping a picture of her with him always.
War takes its toll on families as much as on the country itself. The often flamboyant, or charismatic, Stuart gathered admirers along his hero’s journey. Called the “eyes and ears” of the Confederate army by Robert E. Lee, women were easily charmed by his personality along with the tales of his valor. They sent him letters and gifts, much to Flora’s dismay and disapproval.
But admiring girls were the least of her concerns when in November 1862, their oldest child, five-year-old Flora, succumbed to typhoid fever. The elder Flora was devastated at the loss of her daughter, who had been her mother’s constant companion. She publicly mourned the loss of her child for two years, even after the birth of her second daughter, Virginia. But just a month after Flora publicly came out of mourning, her world collapsed once more.
On May 11, 1864, Major General Stuart’s cavalry came against Union Major General Philip Sheridan near the Yellow Tavern Inn outside of Richmond. During the battle, Stuart was shot on his left side. The following day, Flora received a telegram about her husband’s serious wound. Although she rushed to her husband’s side, she was three hours too late. She stayed in Richmond, burying her husband of just less than ten years at Hollywood Cemetery.
Donning her mourning wardrobe once more, twenty-eight-year-old Flora remained in the South, per her husband’s request that their children be raised as Southerners. Despite the pain, Flora occupied herself with a career in education. She opened a school in Saltville, Virginia, and later, upon moving to Staunton in 1878, she taught at a Methodist school. In 1880, she ran Staunton’s Virginia Female Institute, which in 1907 was renamed Stuart Hall in her honor. In 1898 Flora buried a child once more after the death of Virginia.
Of her eighty-seven years in this world, Flora Cooke Stuart spent sixty-one years in mourning. She mourned the death of her husband for fifty-nine of those years, the vibrant colors leaving her wardrobe as his colorful presence left her side. After Virginia’s death, Flora moved into her daughter’s home to help raise her three grandchildren. Those close to her said she filled her quarters with objects that reminded her of her husband. Gone, but not forgotten. All reminders of the love they shared, but not needed to keep him “ever vividly” before her. Flora joined her husband and little Flora at Hollywood Cemetery on May 12, 1923, two days after her death but after a lifetime of mourning.
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