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.
Taken from Civil War Times Issue 1, Vol. 1, 1962. Republished in February 2012 Civil War Times.