The words resonate through Confederate history like an unwelcome truth. As General Robert E. Lee made preparations for an assault on the center of the Union line at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, his senior subordinate, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, voiced objections. At one point in the discussion, Longstreet recounted his experience as a soldier and then stated, “It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.”
Lee thought otherwise, and the attackers went forward that afternoon into a cauldron of hellfire and were repulsed. Longstreet’s judgment had been correct. In the years after Appomattox, however, a group of ex-Confederate officers began shaping the history of the war. A tenet of their interpretation stressed the virtual infallibility of Lee’s generalship. If Gettysburg had been the Confederacy’s finest opportunity to achieve independence, the reasons for the defeat rested with others in the army, not Lee.
This “Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War made Longstreet a prime, if not primary, culprit. The former Confederates, mostly Virginians, invented a “sunrise order,” alleging that Longstreet failed to obey instructions to attack at sunrise on July 2, 1863. They further charged him with insubordination for opposing Lee’s offensive plans during the battle. It was an indictment that endured for decades.
Longstreet aided his critics during the postwar years by accepting positions within the federal government and joining the Republican Party — thus becoming a political apostate in the Democratic South. When he tried to defend himself in print, he misstated facts, enhanced his role in campaigns and criticized Lee’s generalship. His defense of his conduct in the war was understandable. He had been arraigned, he would write, “before the world as the person and the only one responsible for the loss of the cause.”
It was ultimately Gettysburg, the South’s greatest might-have-been, that formed the core of history’s judgment of Longstreet. His controversial performance there cannot be denied, nor can his failures at Seven Pines and Knoxville be dismissed. But he had been Lee’s “old war-horse,” a general who had directed four of the conflict’s most striking attacks and counterattacks. He was a gifted tactician and arguably the Confederacy’s finest corps commander.
Longstreet was 42 years old in the summer of 1863. A West Pointer, class of 1842, he had suffered a wound in the Mexican War and spent the remaining antebellum years on the frontiers of Texas and New Mexico Territory, attaining the rank of major. When he joined the Confederacy, he was appointed a brigadier general and assigned to the army at Manassas, Va. On July 18, 1861, his brigade repulsed a Union advance at Blackburn’s Ford. Three days later, his troops maintained a reserve position during the First Battle of Manassas.
Shortly after the Confederate victory there, Longstreet was assigned command of the designated “Advance Forces,” which lay closest to the Federal lines around Washington, D.C. The duty required him to maintain constant vigilance to prevent an enemy surprise attack and to gather intelligence on Union movements. He had authority over seven infantry brigades and cavalry units and daily control over their operations. Longstreet worked closely with Colonel J.E.B. Stuart, who was commanding the cavalry. Longstreet recognized Stuart’s talent for reconnaissance and became quite fond of the fun-loving officer. He was instrumental in Stuart’s promotion to brigadier general in late September.
Longstreet’s conduct of operations impressed his senior commanders, Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston. In mid-August, Beauregard inquired of the Confederate War Department, “Can it not be so arranged as to make General Longstreet second in command?” Several weeks later, on October 7, Longstreet and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson were promoted to major general. Longstreet received command of a division, while Jackson was appointed commander of the Valley District, with headquarters in Winchester.
Johnston, who now held command of the army, withdrew it into lines around Centreville, where the troops spent the late fall and winter. During these months, Longstreet demonstrated the characteristics that would mark his generalship. He attended to details, conferred with and lectured to his brigade commanders and maintained strict discipline. He was the only major general to conduct drills with his division at Centreville. A staff officer, Thomas Goree, wrote to his mother that the general’s “forte though as an officer consists, I think, in the seeming ease with which he can handle and arrange large numbers of troops, as also with the confidence and enthusiasm with which [he] seems to inspire them. If he is ever excited, he has a way of concealing it, and always appears as if he had the utmost confidence in his own ability to command and in that of his troops to execute.”
During the long winter nights, Longstreet’s headquarters served as a popular gathering place. Fellow generals and aides enjoyed dinners, music, poker games and whiskey. Frequently, he and former Regular Army comrades reminisced about their youthful days in Mexico and on the frontier. A soldier’s life had always appealed to Longstreet. In January 1862, however, he and his wife, Louise, suffered a terrible tragedy when three of their four children died of scarlet fever within eight days. An aide noted his “grief was very deep,” while others commented on his change in personality. He sought solace in religion and gave up gambling.
By late spring, operations in Virginia had shifted to the Peninsula and Richmond. As Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac closed on the Confederate capital, Johnston, Longstreet and other senior generals attended meetings with President Jefferson Davis and cabinet members to discuss the city’s defense. Johnston committed to an offensive strike against the Federals and assigned Longstreet to command of the main attack force of 30,000 troops. The resulting Battle of Seven Pines, or Fair Oaks, occurred on May 31-June 1, 1862.
Longstreet’s direction of the offensive revealed his inexperience in handling so large a force. He misunderstood orders and misdirected units onto the wrong road, resulting in an hours-long delay. The muddy roads and wooded terrain hampered the attackers, and Longstreet relinquished control of the fighting to subordinates. It was a bungled assault, with Longstreet and Johnston bearing primary responsibility. Both commanders, however, shifted the blame onto Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger in their reports, an act unworthy of either man.
Johnston fell wounded in the action, and President Davis assigned General Robert E. Lee to temporary command of the soon-to-be designated Army of Northern Virginia. Longstreet had never served directly under Lee, who had been Davis’ military adviser at the time of his appointment to command. Later, Longstreet described his and Lee’s wartime relationship as “affectionate, confidential, and even tender, from first to last.” When Louise Longstreet gave birth to a son in October 1863, the couple named him Robert Lee Longstreet.
Lee’s appointment marked a turning point in the war in the East. He possessed audacity, a trait lacking in Johnston’s generalship. The Confederates struck McClellan’s Federals during the final week of June. In a series of engagements — the Seven Days’ campaign — the Rebels shoved the enemy back down the Peninsula. While Stonewall Jackson’s lethargic performance during this fighting has been controversial ever since, Longstreet emerged as Lee’s most reliable combat commander. After the campaign, Lee described Longstreet as “the staff in my right hand.”
From the Peninsula, Lee moved the army into central Virginia to confront Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia. The collision occurred on August 29-30, on the old killing ground at Manassas. Lee had divided the army into two wings, under Jackson and Longstreet. While Jackson’s troops repulsed Federal assaults, Longstreet rolled up Pope’s left flank in a powerful counterattack. Longstreet sent his units forward en echelon, in a series of hammerlike blows that nearly routed the Federals.
Second Manassas was a stunning Confederate victory. Longstreet later called the operation “clever and brilliant,” giving the credit to Lee, who “displayed the most brilliant tactical ability” on the battlefield. Longstreet came to regard it as Lee’s masterpiece of the war — a blend of the strategic or operational offensive and the tactical defensive. In Longstreet’s judgment, it was the preferred model upon which to conduct campaigns.
Lee seized the initiative after the victory at Manassas and crossed his army into Maryland. Misfortune and a Union advance led to a stand by the Rebels behind Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg. September 17, 1862, became the bloodiest single day of the war. A Yankee compared the combat to “a great tumbling together of all heaven and earth.”
Time and again Confederate reserves plugged gaps in the beleaguered lines. At one point Longstreet personally directed the fire of a cannon, manned by his staff officers, slowing the enemy until infantry units re-formed. A Virginia captain who watched Longstreet on this day stated that he “was one of the bravest men I ever saw on the field of battle.”
G. Moxley Sorrel, the general’s chief of staff, wrote afterward: “Longstreet’s conduct on this great day of battle was magnificent. He seemed everywhere along his extended lines, and his tenacity and deep-set resolution, his inmost courage, which appeared to swell with the growing peril to the army undoubtedly stimulated the troops to greater action, and held them in place despite all weakness.” Longstreet was not alone in his performance, for the battle was, perhaps, the army’s greatest day. That night when he rode to army headquarters, Lee greeted him with the words: “Ah! Here is Longstreet; here’s my old war-horse! Let us hear what he has to say.”
On September 18, President Davis signed into law an act that provided for the creation of army corps and for the appointment of lieutenant generals. Lee recommended Longstreet for the First Corps and Jackson for the Second Corps. Both men received promotion to the new rank — Longstreet to rank from October 9, Jackson from October 10. Longstreet became the senior subordinate in the army.
Two months later, on December 13, the Battle of Fredericksburg reconfirmed Longstreet’s belief in the tactical defensive. In a series of forlorn assaults — a Union officer called it the Army’s “saddest hour” — Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Federals bled and died before Longstreet’s veterans on Marye’s Heights. While watching the attacks, Lee expressed some concern. “General,” replied Longstreet, “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.”
In his report Lee wrote of his senior officers: “To Generals Longstreet and Jackson, great praise is due for the dispositions and management of their respective corps….Beside their services in the field — which every battle of the campaign from Richmond to Fredericksburg has served to illustrate — I am also indebted to them for valuable counsel, both as regards the general operations of the army and the execution of the particular measures adopted.”
Lee detached Longstreet and two infantry divisions to southeastern Virginia during the winter and spring of 1863 to garner badly needed supplies and to oppose a Union force at Suffolk. Longstreet besieged Suffolk for a few weeks, but the garrison’s formidable entrenchments dissuaded him from making a frontal assault. Detachments of Confederate troops, meanwhile, roamed the countryside, gathering foodstuffs and supplies. Longstreet remained in the region during the Chancellorsville campaign. Lee had not expected Longstreet’s divisions to return to the army in time for the battle.
En route back to the army, Longstreet conferred with Secretary of War James Seddon and Davis in Richmond. The president and secretary were concerned with situations in Tennessee and Mississippi. Longstreet advocated a concentration of Confederate forces in Tennessee, arguing that he and his two divisions could be sent there by railroad. Once the Union army was defeated there, the Rebels could invade Kentucky, which might force the Federals to abandon the campaign against Vicksburg, Miss. The matter was left unsettled when the general departed to join Lee.
Longstreet had proposed a “western strategy” of concentration months earlier. His support for it was, however, not as firm as he portrayed it after the war. When he rejoined Lee, the two generals met privately for three days, discussing future operations. On May 13, as Lee journeyed to Richmond to obtain approval for a movement across the Potomac River into Pennsylvania, Longstreet wrote to a confidant, Senator Louis T. Wigfall: “There is a fair prospect of forward movement. That being the case we can spare nothing from this army to re-enforce in the West. On the contrary we should have use of our own and the balance of our Armies if we could get them.” He concluded, “I was under the impression that we would be obliged to remain on the defensive here. But the prospect of an advance changes the aspects of affairs to us entirely.”
Throughout the march north to Pennsylvania, Lee and Longstreet conferred almost daily. A fellow general later asserted that Longstreet was Lee’s “confidential friend, more intimate with him than anyone else.” Longstreet described their meetings as “almost always of severe thought and study.” Contrary to Longstreet’s postwar claims, Lee did not promise to fight a defensive battle when they met the Federals. At the time, however, it was understood not only by Longstreet but also by other senior officers and Lee’s aides that the army would try to maneuver the Yankees into assailing it. Longstreet described it as “the ruling idea of the campaign.”
Longstreet joined Lee on the battlefield at Gettysburg late on the afternoon of July 1, after the Southerners had routed the Union I and XI corps. When they talked, Longstreet proposed marching the army south in a broad turning movement and awaiting an attack from the enemy. Lee rightly rejected the idea, as he did not know where the other five Union corps were located, he had insufficient cavalry to screen such a movement and his veterans had given him the initiative on the battlefield. Lee’s assertion that he would resume the offensive the next day disturbed Longstreet. Twice more, on July 2 and 3, Longstreet would present the idea, and twice more Lee would reject it.
Longstreet believed that Lee was committing a grave mistake by attacking the Union position instead of fighting a defensive battle. His opposition to Lee’s plans affected his conduct. Moxley Sorrel noted that on July 2, Longstreet “failed to conceal some anger” and that “there was apparent apathy in his movements. They lacked the fire and point of his usual bearing on the battlefield.” Longstreet knew early on the morning of the second day that his divisions would assault the Federal lines, and he did little to prepare for the operation. When Lee settled on a specific attack plan, Longstreet marched his two divisions of 14,500 men, despite delays and a countermarch, with reasonable celerity.
The infantrymen of Maj. Gens. John B. Hood’s and Lafayette McLaws’ divisions were among the army’s finest shock troops. Their afternoon assault nearly collapsed the Yankees’ left flank. Longstreet was conspicuous along the ranks, ordering in individual brigades. He declared later with justification that his veterans delivered “the best three hours’ fighting ever done by any troops on a battlefield.” Union reserves, shifted along interior lines, saved the Federal position. It was as one Rebel exclaimed to his comrades: “Great God! Have we got the universe to whip?”
Longstreet’s worst mistake at Gettysburg might have been his failure to order Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett’s Division to be on the field at daylight on July 3. Lee had evidently directed Longstreet to bring Pickett forward at that time. Lee intended to renew the offensive with all three First Corps divisions. When Pickett did not arrive as expected, Lee had to scrap his plans and fashion a new attack. The result was Pickett’s Charge, directed by Longstreet. Once again, omissions occurred in the preparation for the attack for which both Lee and Longstreet bore responsibility. Other senior officers failed Lee at times during the campaign, but at Gettysburg he chose the bloodiest path.
When the army returned to Virginia, Longstreet wrote a “private letter” to Secretary of War Seddon, requesting a transfer to the West. Gettysburg haunted him. If Lee continued to use costly offensive tactics and sacrifice precious Southern blood, Longstreet preferred to be elsewhere. He told his friend Wigfall, “I am not essential here, on the contrary, and I am satisfied that it is a great mistake to keep me here.”
Events in Tennessee intervened for Longstreet. Union forces had occupied Knoxville and Chattanooga, and General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate army had retreated into northern Georgia. The situation demanded action, and with Lee’s reluctant approval, Davis ordered Longstreet, with Hood’s and McLaws’ divisions, to the region. The troops boarded trains on September 9 for a circuitous journey west. Bragg, meanwhile, advanced against Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ Federals, attacking them at Chickamauga Creek on September 19. Longstreet arrived on the battlefield about midnight, with the van of Hood’s Division close behind. Bragg assigned him to command of the army’s left wing.
The assault that Longstreet launched on the morning of September 20 demonstrated his abilities as a tactician. He stacked eight brigades in five lines to give the attack depth and power in the wooded terrain. The Yankees resisted fiercely, but the Southerners poured through a gap in their lines and scattered two Union divisions. Only a stalwart defense of Horseshoe Ridge by additional Federal units saved Rosecrans’ army. Longstreet’s presence on the battlefield proved to be the decisive factor for the Confederates. He brought order to his command, and his tactical alignment of units was a superb formation for the terrain and conditions on the field. According to a newspaperman, it was a belief in the army that “never in the war has any General been found who was superior to General Longstreet in the art of what is here called ‘putting in his men.'”
Ironically, the victory at Chickamauga rekindled long-standing dissension about Bragg’s leadership among the army’s senior officers. Although Longstreet was apparently not directly involved in the effort to oust Bragg from command, his relationship with Bragg deteriorated into acrimony and mutual dislike. When Longstreet failed to prevent a Union occupation of Lookout Valley, Bragg sent him and his troops to retake Knoxville. That operation ended in a bungled assault, with Longstreet preferring charges against McLaws and a brigade commander. His self-confidence had abandoned him, and he even tendered his resignation to the War Department, which was rejected. He and his men then spent a miserable winter in East Tennessee.
With the spring of 1864, Longstreet and his command returned to Virginia. On the morning of May 6, as the right wing of Lee’s army streamed rearward before a massive Union assault, Longstreet’s veterans arrived on the Wilderness battlefield. Although Lee stated after the war that Longstreet had been slow in coming up, his troops had marched 40 miles in less than 48 hours. Lee faced a crisis, and it appeared to him that Longstreet had been tardy in his arrival.
Longstreet reacted to the Federal attack with skill. He deployed his units in heavy skirmish lines — an excellent formation in the heavily wooded terrain — and sent them forward in a stunning counterattack. The Confederates broke the Northerners’ momentum and then drove them rearward. As Longstreet was preparing for a flank attack against the final Union line, he was seriously wounded by a volley from his own troops. He fell not far from where Stonewall Jackson had been mortally wounded by similar fire at Chancellorsville a year before. The planned charge faltered without Longstreet’s leadership.
The First Corps commander had been struck by a bullet in the throat that passed through his shoulder, severing nerves. He would not return to the army until October. By then the life of Lee’s army was draining away daily in the trenches at Petersburg. The end came in April 1865. As Lee prepared to meet Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to surrender at Appomattox Court House, Longstreet said to Lee, “General, if he does not give us good terms, come back and let us fight it out.” But Grant, Longstreet’s best friend at West Point and in the antebellum army, offered generous terms, and it was over.
History might have been kinder to “Old Pete,” as his men called him, if he had not survived the Wilderness wound. Instead, his postwar decisions to accept federal posts and to join the Republican Party made him an inviting target as fellow Confederates sought a scapegoat for the cause’s defeat. He aided his enemies by his writings. He had had bad performances during the war, but to be charged as “the only one responsible for the loss of the cause” was unquestionably unfair.
A physically strong man — he stood 6 feet 2 and weighed about 200 pounds — Longstreet had worked tirelessly for the cause. An excellent organizer, he assembled arguably the finest staff in the army. A skillful tactician, he had directed four assaults that defined his ability on a battlefield. His personal courage was never questioned. He lacked Stonewall Jackson’s prowess in independent command, but in other key respects he was Jackson’s superior. Part of Lee’s genius lay in using the best attributes of both of those exceptional lieutenants. It had been Lee’s decision to appoint Longstreet by date of rank as his senior subordinate.
When the Army of Northern Virginia recrossed the Potomac River after Gettysburg, Longstreet wrote a letter to an uncle. In it he stated that he “would prefer that all the blame should rest upon me. As General Lee is our commander, he should have the support and influence we can give him.”
He then added, “The truth will be known in time, and I leave that to show how much of the responsibility of Gettysburg rests on my shoulders.” Unfortunately for him, he could not know at the time how heavy that burden would be. It would define his military career and history’s judgment of him.
This article was written by Jeffry D. Wert and originally published in the August 2006 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.
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