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James Longstreet

Graduated: USMA, West Point 1842; Born: Edgefield, SC, January 8, 1821; Died: Gainsville, GA, January 2, 1904; Buried: Gainsville, GA
Lieutenant General
James Longstreet
Commanding General, 1st Corps Confederate Army of Northern Virginia

What are we to make of James Longstreet, lieutenant general, Confederate States Army? Longstreet’s newest biographer subtitles his work “The Confederacy‘s Most Controversial Soldier.” Not the most controversial during those four years of war, surely. Why, on that smoking battlefield at Antietam, this was the soldier General Lee affectionately called “my old war-horse.” This was the soldier who, during that hopeless last march toward Appomattox, when the question came up if it was finally time to surrender, said calmly, “Not yet.” This was the soldier who, when Lee rode off soon afterward to see Grant, said, again calmly, “General, if he does not give us good terms, come back and let us fight it out.” The “most controversial”? Not that soldier!

No, that subtitle should have been “The Confederacy‘s Most Controversial Ex-Soldier.” Only in the nearly four decades left to him after the war did he become so argued over. How that came about is a cautionary tale for those who write Civil War history, and for those who read it. It is also an argument in favor of the rewriting of history every generation or so.

When “Old Pete,” as he was called by his men (the moniker arose from a childhood nickname), came to write his war memoir, he called it From Manassas to Appomattox. He did not miss much in between. Longstreet was by trade a professional infantry officer. A rural Southerner—born in South Carolina, reared in Georgia, accepted at West Point from Alabama—he was not of the gentleman caste. He graduated 54th of 56 in the Academy class of 1842. Only the cream of the graduates had a choice of the specialty Army branches; he was posted to the infantry. His closest friend there was 2nd Lt. Ulysses S. Grant. During the war with Mexico, Longstreet showed mettle in infantry-leading, winning two brevets for gallantry and taking a bad wound in the storming of Chapultepec. For most of the next dozen years he served on frontier duty, in Texas and the Southwest. He moved from line to staff in 1858 and, at the time of Fort Sumter, he was a major in the paymaster’s office. His record was solid but wholly unremarkable, rather like Old Pete himself.

In the new, struggling Confederacy, simply being a West Pointer and of apparently sound mind and body was enough to guarantee a high rank. Longstreet, modestly requesting a paymaster’s job, was handed instead a brigadier general’s commission and a brigade in the field army being assembled at Bull Run, outside Washington. He took easily and quickly to this infantryman’s task. A big, bulky man with a confident presence that soldiers admired, he always appeared calm and collected, with his command well in hand. He was not colorful and he had no particular eccentricities; unlike his fellow general Stonewall Jackson, he would seldom be featured in the wartime Southern press. And there was always a certain roughness around his edges. He once noted, in a battlefield dispatch, that the enemy’s flanking fire “was exceedingly annoying, particularly with fresh troops, who were always as sensitive about the flanks as a virgin.” General Lee’s calling him “my old war-horse” captured the essence of Longstreet perfectly. Lee could always—and did always—rely on him.

Looking at Longstreet’s war record in its entirety—and being careful to stop at the moment he stopped fighting in 1865—it is easy to see why his biographer Jeffry D. Wert calls him “arguably the best corps commander in the conflict on either side.” His record had its checkered moments, to be sure (what Civil War general’s does not?); still, no general fought his men more effectively and more consistently.

In the Eastern theater’s first major action, along Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia, in July 1861, Longstreet handled his brigade competently in a sharp preliminary action. By the time of the Peninsular campaign, in the spring of 1862, he was a major general and had charge of a division and, at times under Joe Johnston, of a multi-unit command styled as a wing. At Williamsburg, during the Confederate retreat up the Peninsula, he managed a rear-guard action with confidence as well as competence. When Johnston then went on the offensive against McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, at Seven Pines, he entrusted primary tactical responsibility to Longstreet. It turned out to be one of the worst-handled operations of the entire war.

The blame for Seven Pines falls about equally on Johnston and Longstreet: on Johnston for delivering his instructions verbally instead of in writing and for not stepping in when his plan began to go awry; and on Longstreet for somehow jamming his forces onto the wrong road to the battlefield and then mismanaging the troops that did reach the front. Longstreet did not admit culpability but instead shifted the blame onto Gen. Benjamin Huger. Poor Huger was a plausible but innocent victim. Seven Pines, a draw, was not at all Old Pete’s finest hour. Yet it would prove that he learned from his mistakes.

Longstreet: Culprit or Scapegoat?

Did Lee order Longstreet to attack at dawn on July 2 at Gettysburg? Did Longstreet drag his feet because he disapproved? Was Longstreet's idea for a defensive battle in Pennsylvania based on good military judgment? Was he justified in arguing for it with Lee? Was a flanking movement to the right feasible? What is Longstreet's proper rating among Confederate generals?

One of the byproducts of the Civil War Centennial has been the re-establishment of Longstreet. New students, unfettered by old prejudices, have been scanning the records, trudging the battlefields and formulating fresh judgments on old controversies, and Lee's "War Horse" has not been overlooked. Much recent opinion has absolved Longstreet from blame at Gettysburg. "Now that Longstreet is again being recognized as one of the more heroic Confed-erates…" ran a comment of a leading Southern newspaper. "Old Peter Longstreet was a giant of a man," said the editor of a prominent magazine of history a short time ago.

Yet at Gettysburg the story seems ever to linger that had he "obeyed Lee's orders" and at­tacked at dawn on July 2, 1863, the Confederate com­mander would have swept Meade's army from Cemetery Ridge and marched victoriously into Baltimore or Wash­ington. Immediately after the war William Swinton, correspondent for The New York Times during the conflict, began his Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac, drawing information from all quarters. Numerous Southern officers contributed their views, among them Longstreet, who talked with Swinton in Wash­ington. The book was published in 1866 and attracted wide attention.

Swinton wrote that Lee had promised before leaving Virginia for Pennsylvania that "he would not assume a tactical offensive," but, after the success of the first day at Gettysburg, "lost that equipoise in which his faculties commonly moved" and gave battle. The author called this "a grave error" because he (Lee) could readily have interposed hisarmy between Meade and Wash­ington. Longstreet already had one flank securely posted on the Emmitsburg Road and by moving toward Frederick could have maneuvered Meade out of his position-a plan which Longstreet begged to be al­lowed to execute.

From Swinton's footnote it was clear his information about Get­tys­­burg came from Longstreet. There was nothing surreptitious about it. Apparently everything was conversational, and Longstreet wrote nothing. His comment involved no personal at­tack on Lee. It occasioned no break of relationships. The text as presented was the author's and not the general's. Swinton exercised the historian's privi­­lege of analyzing the campaigns. Some of his phrases were certainly not as Lee's friends would have put them. The main feature of his criticism was that Lee had forgotten a promise he made that he would fight a defensive battle in Pennsylvania, then had neglected the opportunity presented to him to dislodge the Federal army by maneuver, instead of by launching a frontal assault against it on Cemetery Ridge. Swinton's thinking was by no means radical, for it was followed by others, among them James D. Mc­Cabe Jr., who four years later published his Life and Campaigns of General Robert E. Lee.

Lee died in October 1870, his relations with Longstreet still unmarred by any ill feeling. On Lee's birthday, January 19, 1872, Early delivered an ad­dress at Washington and Lee Uni­versity Lexington, Va., which was the initial salvo in the long Early-Longstreet feud. Early did not at this time directly charge Longstreet with any wanton dereliction. Speaking of the conference Lee held on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, with Ewell, Early and Rodes at Gettysburg, Early said Lee left them "for the purpose of ordering up Longstreet's corps in time to begin the attack at dawn the next morning." Then he said Longstreet was "not in readiness to make the attack until 4 o'clock in the afternoon of the next day." He declared that "had the attack been made at daylight, as contemplated, it must have resulted in a brilliant victory." His claim was that only a small part of Meade's army was in position, and the Round Tops "could have been taken in the morning without a struggle."

Early later said he made his Wash­ington and Lee address because he had read Swinton's book and discovered the criticisms of Lee's conduct of the Gettysburg campaign. One to which he objected was that Lee had "gotten a taste of blood" on the first day and "lost that equipoise in which his faculties commonly moved." Another was that Longstreet, having one flank on the Emmitsburg Road, could have maneuvered Meade out of his Gettysburg position by marching toward Frederick. Still another was Swinton's report that Longstreet had urged Lee against the attack on the 2nd until Pickett's division could be ordered up, saying that even if Meade's forces were not all up, neither were Lee's.
Early's address was followed a year later by a speech by Rev. William N. Pendleton, who had been Lee's chief of artillery in the Gettys­burg Campaign-"Parson Pendleton," as Longstreet referred to him. Though delivered January 19, 1873, the address was not published until it appeared in the Southern Magazine of December 1874. It quoted Lee as saying on the evening of July 1, 1863, that he had ordered Longstreet to attack "at sunrise the next morning."

Longstreet at first paid no heed to either Early or Pendleton, but in the next two years much opinion was aligned against him as the culprit of Gettysburg. Perhaps an immediate answer in which he could have made countercharges against Early and Pendleton, neither of whom was free of Gettysburg guilt, would have served him better. Pendleton repeated his lecture through the South, but Longstreet held that it was better for him to be blamed "than to put it on our chief." Up to this point he had said nothing publicly about Gettysburg except what he told Swinton.

Finally, in November 1877, after much urging on one hand and goading on the other, Longstreet wrote for the Philadelphia Times, which had become a medium for Civil War articles, a full account of the Gettysburg campaign. Longstreet's article seems to this writer a model of deference and forthrightness. In it he demolished Early and Pendleton as far as their claim about a "sunrise attack" order was concerned. Most of Longstreet's writing was clear and vigorous-it should have been, because he was assisted by two of the country's best scribes, Henry W. Grady and, a little later, Joel Chandler Harris. This, along with Longstreet's own well-known integrity, probably accounts for the fact that his arguments were kept on a high level, and did not descend to the personal abuse to which he was at times subjected.

Longstreet made public in his article a portion of a letter he had written to his uncle, Augustus B. Long­street, dated July 24, 1863, 20 days after the battle, in which he said his own idea about the campaign was "to throw ourselves between the enemy and Washington, select a strong position, and force the enemy to attack us." He said his duty was to express his views to the commanding general, but if they were not adopted, to carry out faithfully the commanding general’s plan.

He explained the reason for writing his letter by saying "a sly undercurrent of misrepresentation" had arisen about his course. Clearly it was no more than a whispering campaign which never broke into the open in 1863. The loss of the battle at that stage was being attributed to others, principally Jeb Stuart because of the missing cavalry. Colonel Marshall, Lee's chief of staff, was telling Lee that Stuart should be shot. The Richmond Enquirer was blaming A.P. Hill's corps. Colonel Abner Per­rin of Pender's division, whose South Carolina brigade had carried the Seminary in a brilliant advance, thought the loss was due to the slowness of Anderson on the first day, for not following Pender and clearing Cemetery Ridge, though he was un­certain whether the fault was Hill's or Anderson's. The Enquirer correspondent complained that Anderson had halted needlessly for three hours at Cashtown and declared this sacrifice of time was what lost the "mountain range" of Cemetery Ridge. "Fatal blunder!" inveighed the scribe, who declared all of Anderson's brigadier generals were anxious to advance but Anderson restrained them.

The most vivid contemporary Richmond newspaper account of the action of July 2 put the blame for the failure not on Longstreet but on A.P. Hill, and for the reason that the attack which was supposed to move from brigade to brigade down the line petered out after three of Hill's brigades-Wilcox, Lang and Wright- had assailed the Federal center on Cemetery Ridge. The Federal center, weakened by the troops Meade had sent to reinforce his left in the Wheat Field and along Plum Run, was soft and might yield to a heavy assault. But the bulk of Hill's corps merely stood by, as the Enquirer correspondent observed it. From 15,000 to 20,000 men were idle. The brigades of Posey and Mahone and the divisions of Pender and Pettigrew (Heth) remained unemployed. The version of the Richmond correspondent was that Hill threw away a victory that had already been achieved by Longstreet.

So while the first blame for the defeat was diffused and settled mainly on Stuart, it appeared to hit Longstreet's corps less than either Hill's or Ewell's. Where the small undercurrent of complaint against Longstreet just after the battle came from cannot now be determined. Pickett struck out so intemperately against someone in the draft of his report that Lee refused to receive it and asked him to rewrite it, which he never did. This writer heard second or third hand some years ago of persons who claimed a copy of the first Pickett draft is still in existence, or that the substance of it is in an extant letter to LaSalle Corbell, Pickett's fiancee and later his wife. Certainly the heated complaint could not have been against Longstreet, with whom Pickett continued to enjoy the most cordial relations. It is a conjecture that it was directed at the two brigades of Anderson's division, Wilcox and Lang, which wandered in the smoke and left Pickett's right flank exposed, or at Pendleton, because of the withdrawal of the artillery that was to accompany Pickett on his advance.

Mrs. Pickett said Pickett jotted down the report with pencil on the backs of old letters and wrapping paper but it was "suppressed at the request of the commander-in-chief," though she claimed Lee admitted the truth of it. She did not state, but strongly implied, that she had this report as late as 1899. She said Lee's wishes about it had been respected "all through the years that have passed." She added, "the most al­luring temptations have not brought the report from the oblivion to which it was consigned in the far-away past." These remarks suggest she could have published it had she desired.

In his Philadelphia Times article Long­street denied the existence of the "sunrise attack" order and produced much supporting testimony. He had written to members of Lee's staff. In reply to his inquiry, Colonel Walter H. Taylor said he had "never before heard of the 'sunrise attack' you were to have made, as charged by General Pendleton." Colonel Charles Marshall, Lee's chief of staff, said he had no personal recollection of the order and "it certainly was not conveyed by me."

Colonel Armistead L. Long, Lee's military secretary, said he did not hear of an order to attack at sunrise or at any other designated hour. Colonel Charles S. Venable, Lee's staff engineer officer, provided what was perhaps the clinching evidence, saying he did not know of any order to attack at sunrise, that he had been sent by Lee at about sunrise to ask Ewell what he thought about an attack on the left, or a move around to attack on the right, and that his mission was inconsistent with an attack at sunrise by any portion of the army.

Douglas Southall Freeman fell into the trap of Longstreet's own error to support his contention that Long­street was supposed to attack on the morning of the 2nd. He places Longstreet with Lee on the evening of July 1 when the attack plans were being discussed. Long­street in one of his articles said he left General Lee "quite late on the night of the 1st." This is an obvious error. Long­street, like most writers, was capable of mistakes. In other accounts he said he left Lee between 5 and 7 o'clock. This writer has made a close investigation of Longstreet's actions on the night of July 1. Statements of others who were with him, or saw him, as well as his own, leave it out of the question that he could have been with Lee after leaving Seminary Ridge some­time around dusk and his return to camp with McLaws' division four miles in the rear on Marsh Creek. He was up at 3 a.m. on July 2 and was on the battlefield again at daybreak, riding with British correspondent Fitzgerald Ross, with whom he breakfasted.

The matter of Longstreet's movements is important be­cause of Pendleton's claim, and the Pendleton state­­­ment is what the case against Long­street simmers down to. Freeman conceded that much. Jefferson Davis used Pendleton's testimony in blaming Longstreet. But Longstreet was not with Lee to re­ceive the order, and clearly Lee did not issue it. Longstreet said nothing about it to McLaws or Hood that night, who would have to put their troops into position for the attack if it had been ordered. Leaving aside the question of whether it was practicable to get men who had been marching most of the night and were still four miles or more from the battlefield into position to attack at daybreak, it is clear from Lee's actions on the morning of July 2, from his reconnaissance on the left, from his dispatch of patrols to determine the Federal position, from statements of his staff, from Longstreet's testimony and other factors that he had not decided on the night of the 1st, or even on the morning of the 2nd, where he would deliver his attack or the troops he would first employ to deliver it.

By the time Freeman wrote Lee's Lieutenants he tended to concede that Longstreet had received no attack orders on the night of the 1st but that Lee had decided probably after Longstreet's departure to at­tack with Longstreet's corps on the right. Even this is not borne out by Lee's continued reconnaissance on his left on the morning of the 2nd and by Venable's mission to Ewell. The decision for Longstreet to attack ap­pears to have come around 11 a.m. on the 2nd, the hour given by both Longstreet and Taylor. Even after that, Lee consented for Longstreet to wait for Law's brigade, which arrived "shortly before noon." Alexander's artillery marched through the night and arrived before 9 a.m. With what was Longstreet supposed to make his "sunrise attack?" The troops were coming up all morning.

How far Early went in overstating his case in his rejoinder to Long­street's reply can be seen from his attack on Venable's testimony that Lee had formed no opinion about how to attack until he (Venable) returned about 9 a.m., or, indeed, until 11 a.m., when Longstreet said he got the order. "If that was the case," stormed Early, "then he (Lee) exhibited a remarkable degree of indecision and vacillation, and the responsibility for the procrastination and delay that occurred must rest on him, and on him alone."

Early even sought to align Longstreet against Lee in the minds of the old soldiers. He skillfully begged the issue to accomplish this: "There is one thing very certain, and that is that either General Lee or General Longstreet was responsible for the remarkable delay that took place in making the attack. I choose to believe that it was not General Lee, for, if anyone knew the value of promptness and celerity in military movements, he did. It is equally certain that the delay which occurred in making the attack lost us the victory." There were other factors causing the delay, but Early brushed these aside. And there were other reasons why the battle was lost, one of which was standing in Jubal Early's shoes.

Another question is whether or not Longstreet delayed unduly after receiving the attack order, as Early implied in his address. As has been seen, the only time to be accounted for in dealing with this question is that between the arrival of Law at noon and the beginning of Hood's attack on the Round Top-Devil's Den line at 3:30 p.m. In this period Longstreet was making his flank march, on which it has been calculated his average unit covered eight miles. Lee was with Longstreet part of the time on this march. How much cannot be determined, but for a time at the beginning and at the end, just before Hood's assault was launched. Longstreet's time is well accounted for, and anyone who traverses the ground covered will quickly understand that the charge by Early that Longstreet was dragging his feet is ludicrous.

In the case of Jackson's flank march at Chancellorsville the orders clearly were delivered on the preceding evening, during the conference between Jackson and Lee. But Jack­son did not get into position and strike until near darkness the following day, and nobody ever has complained about a delay. Both he and Longstreet made long marches-Jackson's the farthest-and both delivered their assaults in reasonable time. Both were successful in driving the enemy in their front. Jackson received nothing but applause; Long­street, unmerited blame.

There is another question. How much of the failure-if failure were involved-should be chargeable against the corps commander for not executing a plan when the commanding general is by his side during a considerable part of the period in question? Lee was back and forth along the lines in the morning and early afternoon of July 2, but he appears to have spent a considerable part of his time with Longstreet, without anyone ever seeing that he was doing any prodding.

Alexander did not feel Lee was in any particular hurry. John Cheves Haskell saw no impatience. William Young­blood, a First Corps scout who no­ticed Lee and Longstreet together on the afternoon of July 2, saw Lee shake hands with both subordinates and say "God bless you" just before Hood launched his attack, about 3:30. There was no evidence Lee thought he had been let down by Longstreet.

After the retreat Lee was standing on the Virginia bank looking back across the Potomac when a officer-apparently Major John W. Fairfax of the First Corps staff-rode up and told Lee that Longstreet was being blamed for the failure at Gettysburg. Youngblood caught Lee's words: "Gen­eral Longstreet is in no wise to blame. It all rests upon me. My shoulders are broad and I can bear the blame." The quotation is no doubt accurate be­cause it tallies with what Lee had told half a dozen others after the battle, but the significance is that it was the first hint of blame against Longstreet for the loss of the battle, and the only one this writer has noted until years after the war.

Another question was whether the flanking movement Longstreet proposed to the right, to dislodge Meade by maneuver, was feasible. Freeman rejects the idea of the flanking movement, which would have required a transfer of the army trains from the Cashtown Road to either the Fairfield Road or a road farther south or east. Freeman states Lee's decision against it has been supported by most military criticism, but the list of critics he cites is far from impressive.

Freeman cited Meade's testimony as dissenting from that of his other witnesses. Meade called Longstreet's advice to Lee to move to the right against the Federal communications "sound military sense; it was the step I feared Lee would take." Meade said it was to meet this threat that he had his chief of staff Butterfield prepare the precautionary withdrawal orders on the morning of July 2.

This writer has talked with many military men about a flank movement in lieu of a frontal assault on Cem­etery Ridge and has found opinion at least sharply divided and apparently weighted in favor of the flanking move­ment. On the other side, there were many cogent reasons why Lee would want to follow up his successes of July 1. It is readily understandable why he fought as he did. The point being made here is not that Lee's judgment lacked merit. It is merely that Longstreet should not have been blown out of the water for holding a contrary view.

As it developed, the frontal as­saults of July 2 and 3 proved so costly that they defeated the whole purpose of the invasion and were decisive factors toward losing the war. Nearly everyone has agreed that an important element in Federal victory at Gettysburg-perhaps the main factor-was the Cemetery Ridge-Little Round Top-Culp's Hill line. The flanking movement would have given Lee a chance to avoid it. He might have lost elsewhere. But the odds for victory would seem to have been better, especially if, as Longstreet proposed, he could have taken a strong position threatening Washington..
The movement of the trains was not an insurmountable problem. As has often been pointed out, it could have been accomplished much more readily by Lee before than after he was defeated at Gettysburg. He could still have employed both the Cham­bersburg and Fairfield Roads be­cause his march toward Frederick and Meade's left flank would have pulled Meade's main army away from Lee's communications.

Longstreet was correct in stating that Lee left Virginia with the purpose of offensive strategy but defensive tactics. The issue of whether he actually promised it, as Longstreet asserted, is of minor significance. Undoubtedly Longstreet was in error on this point, for Lee disclaimed any such promise. Long­street may have placed a false interpretation on some remark. Still, Lee himself in his formal Gettysburg report stated that "It had not been intended to fight a general battle at such a distance from our base unless attacked by the enemy."

So whether or not he made a promise to Longstreet, he was thinking in terms of a campaign of maneuver and a defensive battle. He departed from this plan, fought an offensive battle, and lost the battle and the campaign. What Longstreet was contending was that if he had adhered to his original plan he might have won.

Longstreet thought the Confed­erates could have been sure of a victory because they had never failed when they fought on the defensive. Much was made of the statement that Lee had "lost his equipoise," a term that appeared to describe his agitation and restlessness. Longstreet repeated it from Swinton, or else gave it to Swinton. The most ready explanation yet offered for Lee's unusual conduct on the 2nd was that he was suffering from a severe intestinal disorder, as described by Lt. Col. W.W. Blackford, who visited his tent. Longstreet probably was unaware of this. Still, there is no doubt that Lee was aroused by combat. Joseph B. Polley called him a "game cock," and Harry Heth thought he was more aggressive even than Jackson.

Perhaps the unexplained as­pect of the controversy is why Early and Pendleton entered into it so vigorously. It may have been that these two former generals were assuming the offensive as the best defense. Neither was without blame for the loss of Gettysburg. Early, even more than Ewell, is chargeable for the neglect of the first day which stopped the Confederate advance in the town of Gettysburg, when the heights ahead might have been taken from a disorganized and retreating enemy if the victory north and west of the town had been followed with promptness.

When Early came up in front of the heights with his victorious division, Culp's Hill was unoccupied. With­out Culp's Hill Meade could not have fought a battle on his Cemetery Ridge line. Ewell, the Second Corps commander, was back on Oak Hill. Instead of garrisoning the high ground, Early rode off to look for Ew­ell or Rodes and allowed these great moments to slip through his fingers.

What authority did Early employ to support his contention that an attack at dawn would have been disastrous to the Federals? States­man Edward Ever­ett, who had said so in an oration! "Nothing but a miracle could have saved us from a great disaster," said Everett.

Indeed, Longstreet's delay on July 2 seemed fortuitous. Meade had ef­fected a concentration during the night of the 1st, and Early was in error in saying the Federal lines were not manned. Little Round Top was garri­soned, which it was not when Long­street attacked in the afternoon. Just before he struck, the commander of the Federal III Corps, Sickles, had disarranged the line by advancing to the Peach Orchard on the Emmitsburg Road, where the salient he created gave Longstreet a good target. Longstreet drove the troops in his front. There was ample time to win a victory had he received the prompt co-operation of Hill and Ewell. The significance of his delay has been overstressed. An earlier attack on a more compact Federal line might not have proved so successful.

It is peculiar that so much credence was given to Pendleton, who does not appear to have been actively present during much of the battle. Though he was supposed to be chief of artillery, no information was given Lee on the ammunition supply available for the bombardment that preceded the assault by Pickett, Petti­grew and Trimble on the third day. As it developed, there was not a sufficient amount in the caissons to prepare the way for the infantry. Lee did not know this. Pendleton was charged also with taking away, unbeknown to Pickett or Longstreet's artilleryman, Alexander, Richardson's battery of seven 12-pounders that was to accompany Pickett and give him artillery support on the advance. Some have held the absence of these guns a criti­cal factor in Pickett's repulse.
And so the controversy has gone, without much objectivity and not a whole lot of sense. Gettysburg was lost, and there must have been a reason in a battle so closely fought. Many have been advanced. Longstreet, like other generals, offered his with refreshing frankness and without damage to General Lee's military stature.

Despite the character bombardment which he has suffered for the better part of a century, Longstreet has emerged as one of the foremost tacticians of the Civil War. Some students would put him at the top of the list. Had he not fallen severely wounded at a critical moment for Lee, the Wilderness story might have been different.

A recent penetrating remark was made by George R. Stewart in his book Pickett's Charge when he said the South could never forgive Longstreet for being right. It was not all the South, of course, because Longstreet's own veterans honored him and passed on their affection to their sons and grandsons. Today it may be said that except for a school of bitter-enders-sometimes those who will not read the record carefully or who base their findings more on personalities and emotions-Longstreet has been re-established.

Joe Johnston, falling seriously wounded on this field, was replaced by Robert E. Lee, and the happy conjunction of Lee, Longstreet, and the Army of Northern Virginia began to take shape. In the Seven Days’ Battles for Richmond, commencing in the last week of June 1862, Longstreet was unerring as a battlefield manager and tactician. Commanding an oversized division of six brigades, a forerunner of the corps organization the Army would later adopt, he methodically assembled a powerful storming attack to help win the day at Gaines’ Mill on June 27. Three days later, he mounted an offensive at Glendale that failed to cut McClellan’s army in half by only the narrowest of margins. “Could the other commands have co-operated in the action,” said General Lee of Glendale, “the result would have proved most disastrous to the enemy.” The largest of those “other commands” was Stonewall Jackson’s. Lee’s subtle rebuke suggested how poorly Jackson had done in contrast to Old Pete. It was now apparent that James Longstreet could be counted on. “Longstreet,” said General Lee after the campaign, “was the staff in my right hand.”

The Seven Days’ Battles, although very costly for the Confederates (two Rebels dead and wounded for each Yankee), did succeed in driving McClellan away from the gates of Richmond. Lee now undertook to exploit the strategic initiative he had won. In a remarkable measure of confidence, he gave Longstreet the right wing of the Army of Northern Virginia, and five of its nine divisions. During the subsequent Second Bull Run campaign, in August 1862, Jackson would gain most of the public plaudits, but it was Longstreet who delivered the decisive blow. As John J. Hennessy, the pre-eminent historian of Second Bull Run, describes it, his flank assault on August 30, “timely, powerful, and swift, would come as close to destroying a Union army as any ever would."

Victorious and confident, Lee struck out across the Potomac into Maryland, and at Antietam, on September 17, Longstreet demonstrated his mastery of the economy of force. Lee fought off McClellan there with the smallest army he would have until Appomattox, and Old Pete held the right of the battle line by stretching and thinning his hard-pressed troops and by sheer stubborn determination. At one point in that long and bloody day, he waded right into the action to direct the fire of a last-ditch battery.

Fredericksburg, in December 1862, was for James Longstreet, newly appointed a lieutenant general, the perfect victory—indeed, the ideal model for winning Southern independence. There, the blundering Ambrose Burnside threw his massed Yankee brigades against Longstreet’s newly designated I Corps, on the virtually impregnable Marye’s Heights behind the town. When Lee expressed concern, after three Federal charges had been repulsed, that a fourth might break through, Longstreet told him, “General, if you put every man now on the other side of the Potomac on that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line." Until darkness intervened and Burnside finally halted the senseless assaults, Old Pete directed his killing machine with methodical competence.

That winter following Fredericksburg, 1862-63, Lee sent Longstreet and two of his I Corps divisions into the southeastern corner of Virginia to counter threatened Yankee incursions into the coastal country. Lee’s army at Fredericksburg was suffering severe hunger pangs at the time, so Longstreet’s detachment also became a giant victualing expedition. Longstreet’s later detractors would scoff, but insofar as his assignment was to collect supplies, it proved a great success, bringing the army two months of bacon and corn at a most critical time. However, Longstreet and his divisions—George Pickett’s and John Bell Hood’s, two crack units—could not return in time for the battle at Chancellorsville. Critics have explained this as the consequence of Longstreet’s ambition for independent command. But the Suffolk interlude, from first to last, was Lee’s idea, carried out under Lee’s orders.

As he had after Second Bull Run, General Lee sought to exploit his Chancellorsville victory by marching north for a showdown. Jackson’s death, gravest of the Chancellorsville casualties, now left Longstreet as Lee’s senior adviser and most trusted lieutenant. Fully recognizing his new relationship with Lee, Longstreet expected to be listened to and have his views respected.

Gettysburg was fought on July 1-3,1863—and refought by its Confederate protagonists until at least the turn of the century. The fate of the second day’s battle rested in Old Pete’s hands, and he came as close then to breaking through the Union line as he had at Glendale on the Peninsula, failing just as narrowly. Pickett’s Charge, on July 3, happened under Longstreet’s management but not by his choice. Indeed—and this is at the nub of the whole long historical debate—precious few Confederate decisions taken at Gettysburg had Longstreet’s approval.

That fall, as the two armies slowly recovered from their terrible Gettysburg wounds, the war’s focus shifted to the Western theater. Both armies were called upon to send reinforcements to the campaigning around Chattanooga and along the Tennessee-Georgia border. Lee had to give up Longstreet and two of his I Corps divisions. For Old Pete, the second day of Chickamauga, September 20,1863, proved his most spectacular triumph. He drove home a powerful assault that sent the broken Union Army fleeing helter-skelter into Chattanooga.

Whatever debate there might have been thus tar over strategy or tactics, Longstreet’s respect for Lee, as Army commander, had never wavered. He found matters very different in Tennessee, where he reported to Braxton Bragg, head of the Army of Tennessee, a general so flawed that he managed to alienate virtually all his chief subordinates. Soon the two were at loggerheads. Bragg called Longstreet “disrespectful and insubordinate” and was glad to send the general off against the Federals holding Knoxville.

This venture proved to be, for Longstreet, an inexplicable regression to his blundering at Seven Pines. Just as he had mishandled that Peninsula battle in 1862, he now mishandled a siege attempt against Knoxville and its garrison. Rather than accept responsibility, Longstreet tried to throw the blame on his subordinates. The aborted action was Longstreet’s only full-fledged effort at independent command, and if it demonstrated anything, it was that his true calling was as Robert E. Lee’s lieutenant.

He was as glad to return to the Army of Northern Virginia as Lee was to have him back. Longstreet was inspirited, and in the Battle of the Wilderness, in May 1864, he thrust forward a tactically brilliant counterstroke that stopped an offensive mounted by his old friend Ulysses S. Grant in its tracks. Then, in an eerie echo of Stonewall Jackson’s fate in the same woods a year earlier, Longstreet was shot down in an accidental volley fired by his own men. A bullet through his neck and right shoulder wounded him so seriously that he needed every ounce of his iron constitution to survive.

Five months later, in October 1864, he returned to the command of his I Corps. The two armies had by then settled into the trenches at Petersburg. One of his men wrote that when Longstreet rode the lines there for the first time, the troops greeted him with wild cheers “for ’the old bull of the woods’ as they love to call him.” Through that bitter last winter of the war, Longstreet held the I Corps steady to its tasks.

At the end, close by Appomattox Courthouse in early April 1865, Longstreet’s command offered the last organized resistance, the final line of battle, to the enveloping Federal columns. William N. Pendleton, the Army’s artillery chief, went to Longstreet and urged him to advise Lee to surrender. Old Pete was stern in his refusal. He was there to back up Lee, he snapped, not to pull him down.

Finally, Yankee troops under Philip Sheridan blocked the Rebels’ path. Sheridan sent in the gaudy “boy general” George Armstrong Custer under a flag of truce to call for capitulation. Custer, brought before Longstreet, blurted out his demand for unconditional surrender “in the name of General Sheridan.” Old Pete coldly looked the boy general over, told him that he was not in command of this army, “and if I were, I would not surrender it to General Sheridan,” and waved him away. And Longstreet gave his last, defiant advice to Lee that April 9: If the terms are not just, “come back and let us fight it out.”

The terms were, of course, just. With the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered, Lee bid Longstreet an affectionate farewell—as it happened, they would never meet again—and then turned to Longstreet’s aide and said, “Captain, I am going to put my old war-horse under your charge. I want you to take good care of him.”

Lee’s remark would seem to supply the proper note and tone by which history ought to judge James Longstreet’s Civil War role. But it is only today—a century and a third later—that it is mostly (or at least often) the standard. And to reach this point, history has had to come full circle.

For many years, General Longstreet was demonized in the South. The process began as a consequence of his own postwar actions and attitudes. After Appomattox, he made his way to New Orleans and entered business there as a cotton factor, then expanded his reach into railroad investments and the management of an insurance company. As he became a respected figure in the Crescent City, he was still admired across the South for his wartime role as Lee’s devoted lieutenant. In 1867, the Southern historian Edward A. Pollard described him as ”trusted, faithful, diligent, a hardy campaigner, a fierce obstinate fighter, an officer who devoted his whole mind to the war.”

That verdict changed quickly. The former Confederate states were occupied by Federal troops under the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, and when Longstreet was asked for an opinion on how Southerners should react to this, he recommended cooperation. “The war was made upon Republican issues,” he wrote in a New Orleans newspaper, “and it seems to me fair and just that the settlement should be made accordingly. “ To thus cooperate with Republican objectives —and presently Longstreet actually joined the Republican party—was, to Southerners, plain and simple treason.

He was labeled a scalawag. Scalawags, it was explained, “are verminous, shabby, scabby, scrubby, scurvy cattle,” such as “the native southerner, of white complexion, who adopts the politics of the Radical party [i.e., the Federal government].” Yet Longstreet’s motives were more complex and subtle than they seemed. He hoped, as he explained in private letters but not publicly, that white Southerners would gain control of the ruling Republican party in their states and use it to their own local ends, including controlling the votes of the newly enfranchised blacks. “It then seems plain to me,” Longstreet wrote, “that we should do the work ourselves, & have it white instead of black & have our best men in public office.”

This strategy was too Machiavellian for ex-Confederates being forced to live under Federal occupation, writes William Garrett Piston, the closest student of Longstreet’s postwar activities: “The fact that Longstreet sought to control the black vote was lost on his fellow white Southerners, who saw only that Longstreet had dared to suggest collaboration with the party that had freed the slaves.” Nor did it look good when the general accepted patronage posts from his old friend President Ulysses S. Grant.

In 1874 Longstreet’s public reputation hit rock bottom when the Crescent City White League, a paramilitary force, attempted the violent overthrow of Louisiana’s Republican governor. Longstreet, awarded command of the state militia as a political plum, led his mostly black troops against the White Leaguers, mostly former Confederate soldiers. By the time Federal troops finally restored order, 38 were dead. Now Longstreet clearly had no future in New Orleans, and in due course he resettled with his family in Gainesville, Georgia.

By now, too, he was embroiled in the controversy that would follow him through the rest of his life. The instigator was Jubal Anderson Early, another of Lee’s lieutenants in the late war who, after Lee’s death in 1870, had set out to deify that general as the paladin of the Lost Cause. This process required some major rewriting of wartime history, most notably in the matter of the Confederate defeat in the greatest battle of the war. Early’s solution to the problem of Gettysburg was easy: He would blame the defeat on someone other than General Lee. And who better than Lee’s unofficial second-in-command in that battle, now the most notorious scalawag of the Reconstruction era, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet?

Early was not, apparently, acting on any wartime grudge when he selected Longstreet as his victim—they had served together peaceably enough—but was simply choosing a target of opportunity. After all, Longstreet had played a major role in the battle, especially on the crucial second day of the fighting, and finding fault with that performance would seem credible. Now, by going over to the Republican enemy, Longstreet had revealed his true colors; if he lacked belief in the Lost Cause, his belief in the wartime cause might be suspect as well. Finally, Early himself had been coming in for a share of the blame for Gettysburg, and the more he could shift the focus to Longstreet, the more he would avoid the spotlight.

Jubal Early’s Gettysburg campaign opened in 1872 with an address on “The Campaigns of Gen. Robert E. Lee” to commemorate Lee’s birthday. Early said that on the night of the first day at Gettysburg—a day of Southern success—General Lee told him and Gens. Dick Ewell and Robert Rodes that the battle would be renewed at dawn on July 2 with an attack on the Federal left by Longstreet. But that attack was not delivered until late in the afternoon. Had Longstreet made it as Lee intended, at dawn, the battle would have been won—and the Confederacy would have gained its independence.

This was typical of Early’s tactics. He, it developed, was the sole witness to this supposed statement of Lee’s. Lee and Rodes were both dead. And Dick Ewell was on his deathbed; he would die six days after Early’s address. The case thus rested on Early’s word—Jubal Early, president of the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia, head of the Lee Monument Association, president of the Southern Historical Society. James Longstreet had no record but that of a scalawag. In due course, Longstreet asked four of Lee’s wartime staff about this accusation, and all four insisted Lee had never said anything to them about any July 2 dawn attack. Clearly Early’s accusation was false, but the damage was done.

Early was joined in his crusade by William N. Pendleton, who as Lee’s wartime artillery chief had shuffled papers more than he had directed batteries. Pendleton, an Episcopal minister and chairman of the Lee Memorial Association, was now dedicating himself to preserving General Lee’s “sacred memory.” During an extensive lecture tour in the 1870s, he pounded home the theme of Longstreet’s failure to mount the dawn attack. To explain why Lee had not condemned Longstreet for this “culpable disobedience,” Pendleton credited Lee with executing a magnanimous, Christ-like cover-up.

To help them put these charges against Longstreet into print, Early and Pendleton depended on a third Lost Cause disciple, the Reverend J. William Jones, editor of the Southern Historical Society Papers. Jones recruited other noted Confederate leaders to their cause, including Generals Fitzhugh Lee (R. E. Lee’s nephew) and John B. Gordon. Article after article in the widely read Papers pinned the Gettysburg defeat on Longstreet, accusing him of deliberately and repeatedly disobeying orders and widening the indictment against him until it included virtually everything that had gone wrong on July 2 and 3—and all the while letting General Lee gently off the hook.

Longstreet fought back with letters and articles of his own, but he was careless and inconsistent with the facts and swung wildly at his tormentors. He quoted (after two decades or more) private conversations with Lee in which his own arguments were invariably the better ones. And he committed the worst of blunders by daring to criticize Robert E. Lee in print. His tone, furthermore, was neither humble nor self-effacing. Regarding Gettysburg, for example, he left the impression that he had discussed (and argued) with Lee as his equal rather than as his subordinate.

In fact, Old Pete was simply refighting his battles, as old soldiers will, pridefully defending and justifying his actions to what he apparently pictured as an audience of his fellow old soldiers, as became most obvious in his memoir, From Manassas to Appomattox. This sort of thing was going on all over the North and South in the postwar years, but the older Longstreet became, the less reliable was his memory and the greater his bitterness. What he seemed unable to understand was that when he tried to call General Lee to account for wartime decisions, in order to defend himself, he was challenging something like a deity, the very personification of the purity of the Lost Cause. The “Lee cult” had done its work well.

In the years left to Longstreet (he died in 1904), there is no doubt that the prevailing view of Gettysburg in the states of the old Confederacy was that it was he and he alone who was responsible for defeat on that battlefield. And Gettysburg, as the great turning point of the war, was agreed to have determined the fate of the Confederate States of America.

It is hard to imagine this happening had James Longstreet followed a more conventional course politically in the postwar years. But Jubal Early, whose war record did not begin to compare with Longstreet’s, saw this opening and pounced.

Until fairly recently, historians probing for the hows and whys of Gettysburg, and taking in all these articles and arguments, listened far more intently to Early and his cohorts than to Longstreet. Most of them followed the lead of Douglas Southall Freeman, who, in his monumental biography R. E. Lee (1934-35), clearly labeled Longstreet the villain of Gettysburg. The only element of Early’s indictment that Freeman rejected was the matter of Longstreet’s disobeying Lee’s order for a dawn attack (the testimony of Lee’s staff was too strong against that point). But otherwise, Freeman portrayed Longstreet as sullen, angry, and insubordinate that day—and fatally slow in mounting his attack. Freeman even had Lee saying of Longstreet, in front of his other top commanders, “He is so slow.” That surely is a discourtesy Robert E. Lee would never have committed. Freeman cited Early as his source—again, the sole witness-for the quotation.

In Lee’s Lieutenants (1942-44), Freeman softened his assault and spread the blame for Gettysburg more widely. (Late in life, Freeman would tell a friend that he hoped to revise his Lee biography “because I feel I have done some deserving men injustice, especially Longstreet.”) Still, in these pages, Old Pete remains gravely flawed and fails to do his duty by General Lee. Freeman writes, “Longstreet’s behavior on the 2nd was that of a man who sulked because his plan was rejected by his chief. ... He should have obeyed orders, but the orders should not have been given.” Freeman summarizes, with some generosity, that at Gettysburg Longstreet “does not warrant the traditional accusation that he was the villain of the piece.”

Longstreet’s first biographers, H. J. Eckenrode and Bryan Conrad, writing in 1936, largely followed the Early thesis. Their subtitle, “Lee’s War Horse,” might better have been “Lee’s Scapegoat.” Southern historians after Freeman leaned heavily on Lee’s Lieutenants for their interpretations of Longstreet. Shelby Foote’s celebrated three-volume history of the war, for example, follows Freeman virtually step by step through Old Pete’s actions at Gettysburg. In 1958, in Death of a Nation: The Story of Lee and His Men at Gettysburg, Clifford Dowdey believed he had divined the “inner man" within Longstreet, driven by ambition and self-importance. Dowdey wrote that the general “began the day of July 2 with the purpose of thwarting the plans of the high command," and he erected his narrative of the battle on that premise.

To be sure, there was also an undercurrent of revisionism in this period. A 1952 biography by Donald B. Sanger with Thomas R. Hay provided a better-balanced view of Old Pete at Gettysburg. Sanger, an Army colonel who wrote the Civil War portion of the biography, carefully analyzed troop movements and terrain on the battlefield and was able to declare Longstreet innocent of many of the charges of the Jubal Early school. The North Carolinian Glenn Tucker, in his High Tide at Gettysburg, offered an antidote to the Virginian Clifford Dowdey, portraying Longstreet as a loyal officer doing his best to assist Lee.

A more lasting revisionism, however, had to await the focusing of a strong historical spotlight on the Lee cult. This was done by Thomas L. Connelly in The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (1977). Connelly and his followers have not only restored Lee to believable human dimensions but in the process have erased the stigmata placed on Longstreet by Early and his followers. William Garrett Piston’s Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History (1987), and Jeffry Wert’s 1993 biography, the first fully researched and balanced treatment of the general’s life, have set Longstreet revisionism on firm footing. And the drama of Lee and Longstreet at Gettysburg entered a considerably larger public arena with the appearance of Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels and the film Gettysburg based on it.

And the controversy over James Longstreet—at least controversy over his role at Gettysburg—still bubbles merrily. The historian Robert K. Krick, for example, believes that the post-Civil War writings of Longstreet are, in fact, an accurate reflection of the man’s character, and that at Gettysburg the lieutenant general is guilty as earlier charged. In an essay provocatively titled “ ’If Longstreet… Says So, It Is Most Likely Not True’: James Longstreet and the Second Day at Gettysburg,” Krick writes that ”Longstreet decided to play an ugly game with the misguided Lee,” and goes on from there. He has, of course, triggered debate and rebuttals. Gettysburg is not, and never has been, a battle to inspire calm introspection.

Yet, at least today’s debate has come full historical circle from where it once stood. Longstreet can be seen now as a general who may have things to answer for at Gettysburg, but then so does virtually every other prominent Confederate general in that campaign, starting with Lee. There can be no doubt that Longstreet was opposed to Lee’s aggressively offensive stance at Gettysburg, but his opposition can be studied absent the automatic presumption that he therefore did his best to sabotage operations on July 2 and 3. Longstreet’s full wartime record can at last be examined without the overlay of prejudice and partisanship his postwar politics brought on. And Robert E. Lee’s relationship with his old warhorse can be parsed anew without stumbling over long-dead Lost Cause issues.

The fact of the matter is that General Longstreet was as loyal and as devoted to his country’s cause as anyone in Confederate gray, and that he had no superior as a hard fighter for that cause. He fully merits ranking alongside Stonewall Jackson as one of Lee’s paramount lieutenants.

The story even has a fitting ending. Longstreet never got his just place among those Confederate icons whose bronze statuary surveys Monument Avenue in Richmond. Indeed, there was never a single statue or monument dedicated to him anywhere in the old Confederacy. Then, on July 3, 1998, the one hundred and thirty-fifth anniversary of that most momentous day in the general’s life, an equestrian statue of him was dedicated on Seminary Ridge, on the Gettysburg battlefield. “It’s about time,” announced the sponsoring Longstreet Memorial Committee. So it was.

Glenn Tucker. Longstreet – Scapegoat or Culprit. Civil War Times Issue 1, Vol. 1, 1962. Republished in Civil War Times. February 2012
Stephen W. Sears. General Longstreet and the Lost Cause. American Heritage. February/March 2005; Volume 56, Issue 1.


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