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General James Longstreet speaks his mind.

In the summer of 1879, Alexander K. McClure, editor of the Philadelphia Weekly Times Herald General James Longstreet was then working as postmaster, and inter- view him for McClure’s “Annals of the War” series. At the time, most Southerners despised Longstreet for his support of Congressional to travel to Gainesville, Georgia, where former Confederate , engaged Henry W. Grady of the New York Reconstruction and for having joined the Republican Party. Two years earlier, Robert E. Lee’s former Adjutant General Walter Taylor had written Four Years Under Lee, in which he blamed Longstreet for the defeat at Gettysburg. Longstreet responded with two articles on Gettysburg for “Annals of the War.” But McClure wanted more, and he got it. In a July 23, 1879, conversation with Grady, the general talked frankly about the conflict.

The 29-year-old Grady was the ideal man to put Longstreet at ease. Like Longstreet, Grady wanted to see the former Confederacy peaceably reintegrated into the Union. A brilliant writer and orator, the young Georgian would soon become famous as the spokesman for the “New South.” His interview with Longstreet appeared in the August 2, 1879, issue of the Philadelphia Weekly Times, headed “General Longstreet: His Reminiscences of the War Between the States.”

If you should happen to find yourself in this little mountain town [Gainesville, Ga.]—and you could not well find yourself in a cooler place—and you were to drop in at the dingy post office—and you could not well drop in at a dingier one—you would, in all probability, meet with a surprise when you inquired for your letters. Instead of the hurried, pert and inquisitive apparition that pops up at the call hole of the average country post office when a strange voice is heard, you would be confronted with a deliberate and noble face.

Through the little window you would see a large, wellshaped head, a pair of brave, frank gray eyes, a strong, expressive mouth, massive jaws, silken moustache, and whiskers almost as white and worn as “Burnsides,” the whole fine in tone and fiber, aristocratic in every detail, and carrying a singular impression of power and dignity; you would then be looking into the eyes of the most accomplished soldier on the Southern side of the late war: [General Robert E.] Lee’s most trusted and best loved lieutenant, the “bulldog” of the Army of [Northern] Virginia—General James Longstreet.

I had the pleasure of a long and easy talk with General Longstreet concerning the conduct of that war.

Longstreet: I was paymaster in the United States army when the trouble between the states began. I had the rank of major and was stationed in New Mexico. I viewed from my distant point of observation the agitation of the Southern leaders with impatience. I was devoted to the Union and failed to see any cause for breaking it up when secession was accomplished. I held on. I had determined to remain where I was if secession was peacefully accomplished, of which, however, I had little hope. My relatives in Georgia wrote me urgently to come on at once, saying that “all the good officers [are] being taken up.” I replied that if there was going to be any war it would last for several years, and that in that time every soldier would find his level, and so that it mattered little whether he commenced at the top or bottom.

At length [Fort] Sumter was fired upon, and then I knew that war was inevitable and felt that my place was with my people. I resigned my commission and came home. I was at once made a brigadier general, and may I say that I led the Southern troops into the first battle they ever fought and commanded in the first field of victory that the Southern flag ever floated over. This was the affair at Blackburn’s Ford, usually known as Bull Run. [Union Brigadier General Daniel] Tyler attempted to force a passage, but my brigade repulsed him handsomely.

Were you much elated over this victory?

I was proud if it, of course, but I did not join in the wild delight that followed it. I never had any doubt that our people would make good fighters, but I knew that the issues must at last be put upon organization. Individual bravery amounts to nothing in a protracted war. Everything depends upon organization. As I feared it would be, the Southern armies were never properly organized or disciplined. The Northern armies were moved like machines and handled like machines. A spring was touched, the whole mass moved regularly and promptly.

With us it was different. There never was a better army than the Army of [Northern] Virginia, but it lacked the machine-like harmony of the Northern armies. We had too much individuality in the ranks and inefficiency at Richmond. The government was to blame, I think, for the lack of organization.

Did the Southern troops display more valor than the Northern troops?

I cannot say that they did. As I said before, individual bravery amounts to very little in a battle. Men must be fought in blocks and masses, just as parts of a machine. Nearly everything depends upon the commander. If the men have confidence in him and his movements, they will stand by him to the end. They will actually come to feel safer in following him, no matter where he leads, than in breaking away from him. A good general can take an army of Chinamen and whip an army of Englishman, if the latter are improperly handled. No matter how brave men are, they will not fight if they feel that they are in doubtful and unskillful hands. This principle explains the wonderful victories of the French under the first Napoleon. If a general can only inspire his men with the feeling that he knows what he is about, he will have good fighters. He can put them anywhere on any field, and in the face of any fire.

I was once dining with Horace Greeley, and he asked me if it was not necessary to swear at your men and “whoop them up,” as the saying goes. I replied that I thought not. There is nothing like quiet assurances and confidences. A general need never be noisy, and I think quiet troops are the best fighters.

I once sent a brigade to occupy a certain point. As it was mounting a little crest, it came full upon immense masses of Federals. The men were panic-stricken, and I thought I had made a mistake in ordering them forward. They halted irresolute, and then dropped down upon the ground. It was very important that they should advance and make a feint, at least. I therefore rode quietly through their ranks on the crest, and there halting my horse, adjusted my glasses and calmly surveyed the scene in front. I turned carelessly around, and as I expected, there was my brigade at my back, every man in position for anything—confident and assured.

At another time, in the heat of the battle of Chickamauga, [Brig. Gen. Henry L.] Benning, of Georgia, one of the bravest men I ever saw, came charging up to me in great agitation. He was riding a captured artillery horse, without any saddle, with the blind bridle on, and was using a rope trace as a whip. His hat was gone and he was much disordered.

“General,” he said, “My brigade is utterly destroyed and scattered.” “Is that so?” I asked quietly; “utterly destroyed, you say?” “Yes, sir,” he replied; “gone all to pieces.” His great heart was nearly breaking.

I approached him and said quietly. “Don’t you think you could find one man, General?” “One man,” he said in astonishment. “I suppose I could. What do you want with him?”

“Go and get him,” I said, still quietly, laying my hand on his arm, “and bring him here. Then you and I and he will charge together. This is sacred, General, and we may as well die here as anywhere.”

He looked at me curiously a moment, then laughed and, with an oath, lashed his horse with his rope trace and was off like a flash. In a few moments he swept by me at the head of a command that he had gathered together somehow or other and he was into the fight again.

But were not the Southern troops, in defending their own soil, inspired by stronger motives than the Northern troops, who were intruders?

I think not. The sentiment in favor of the Union and memories that cling about the old flag were just as strong, if not stronger, than the love of the soil of the states and the feeling aroused in defending homes. There were thousands of men in every state who turned against their native states in deference to this love of the Union and joined with the Federals in invading their own homes. It is impossible to overestimate the love that the Federals had for the Union and the old flag. It was a love that was born with the Revolution and cemented with the blood of our fathers.

I remember myself that after the battle at Chickamauga [Maj. Gen. John C.] Breckinridge made a speech congratulating his men at being able for the first time in their lives to sleep on the battlefield, and he said that they had to thank me for it. The next day someone remarked that I must feel very proud of this. I replied that I felt just as if I was being congratulated over whipping my own brother. The truth is, the soldiers on both sides were nerved by lofty and desperate emotions, and I knew from the first that there would be heroism displayed by both armies, and that the struggle must be prolonged and strenuous.

What were the decisive battles of the war?

It is my opinion that we were whipped when we failed at Gettysburg. After that we had only a chance. After [General Braxton] Bragg’s failure to follow up the advantage at Chattanooga, I felt that only a miracle could save us, and you know a soldier does not rely to any great extent on miracles. You see, as regards Gettysburg, we had staked a great deal on the invasion of which it was the turning point.

It had been decided that we must make an offensive campaign. I did not favor the invasion of Pennsylvania. My idea was to hurry the army, then concentrating at Jackson for the purpose of succoring Vicksburg, forward to Tullahoma, where Bragg was confronting [Maj. Gen. William Starke] Rosecrans, who might have been easily crushed, and with our grand army we could have swept through Tennessee and Kentucky and pierced Ohio. By sending this great force, with the prestige of victory, through Tennessee and Kentucky, we would have won over both of those doubtful states. I found, however, that General Lee had his head very much set on invading Pennsylvania. I agreed to his plans, only making one point, viz: that we should never attack the Federals, but force them to attack us. I remembered Jackson’s saying: “We sometimes fail to drive the enemy from a position. They always fail to drive us.”

The invasion was made. Its wise plan was changed by the Battle of Gettysburg, and we were forced back across the river. I felt then that we were beaten. I considered it simply a question of time.

Once after this there was a chance (a bare chance) of saving the Confederacy. This was after the Battle of Chickamauga, which was in many respects the most brilliant victory of the war. The enemy was more thoroughly put to rout here than be fore or since.

If ever there was an occasion that demanded pursuit pell-mell, this was the time. The Federals were rushing back on Chattanooga in the utmost confusion. It was a bright moonlit night, and our people were anxious to pursue. We might actually have entered Chattanooga with the flying Federals and thus recovered the key to Georgia and East Tennessee. General Bragg declined to follow up this advantage. The enemy rallied, reformed, and Bragg was driven back to Missionary Ridge.

I had a talk with Mr. [Jefferson] Davis shortly after Chickamauga. I told him that there was no hope for the triumph of our arms. He was very much discouraged and finally grew petulant. He said he never remembered having seen such a movement as I proposed at Chickamauga. I replied that if his memory would carry him as far back as the First Manassas he would see such a movement. He replied very tartly, and we had some sharp words. These were arranged, however, and we parted on good terms.

You say, General, that organization was the military deficiency of the military system of the Confederacy. What was the fault of its operations?

Chiefly this—the failure to concentrate troops. The government, moved doubtless by a de sire to protect our soil as much as possible, kept our troops scattered, and thus made them inefficient. There was scarcely a time when we had a really grand army at any one point.

The policy of the Federals, and especially General Grant’s policy, was to mass everything available at one single point and then drive straight at it. Of course our government disliked to leave any section of the Confederacy at the mercy of the Federals. Therefore, our men were scattered over our whole extent of territory. I do not think that our best generals ever comprehended the necessity of concentration of forces. They relied too much on the valor of their own men. They seemed to forget that where good, cautious generals commanded on each side, numbers must triumph over valor.

There was a notable instance of this at Fort Donelson. General Albert Sidney Johnston, one of the loftiest souls that ever lived, had about 45,000 men. Of this force 15,000 were at Donelson, 15,000 at Columbus, and 15,000 in front of [Maj. Gen. Don Carlos] Buell. Grant, having a force of about 30,000 men, fell upon Donelson and captured it.

Had Johnston either concentrated his forces at Donelson or in front of Buell, he could have crushed either Grant or Buell. As it was, General Grant told me afterwards that he was as badly whipped at Donelson as the Confederates were, if the Confederates had only known it and been able to act upon their knowledge.

Who do you think was the best general on the Southern side of the war?

I am inclined to think that General Joe Johnston was the ablest and most accomplished man that the Confederate armies ever produced. He never had the opportunity accorded to many others, but he showed wonderful power as a tactician and a commander. I do not think that we had his equal for handling an army and conducting a campaign.

General Lee was a great leader—wise, deep and sagacious. His moral influence was something wonderful. But he lost his poise in certain occasions. No one who is acquainted with the facts [thinks] that he would have fought the Battle of Gettysburg had he not been under great excitement, or that he would have ordered the sacrifice of Pickett and his Virginians on the day after the battle [of July 2, 1863]. He said to me afterwards, “Why didn’t you stop all that thing that day?”

At the Wilderness, when our lines had been driven in and I was just getting to the field, General Lee put himself at the head of one of my brigades, and leading it into action my men pressed him back, and I said to him that if he would leave my command in my own hands I would reform the lines.

His great soul rose masterful within him when a crisis or disaster threatened. This tended to disturb his admirable equipoise. I loved General Lee as a brother while he lived, and I revere his memory. He was a great man, a born leader, a wise general, but I think Johns – ton was the most accomplished and capable leader that we had.

Who was the greatest general on the Northern side?

Grant—incomparably the greatest. He possessed an individuality that impressed itself upon all that he did. [Major General George B.] McClellan was a skillful engineer but never rose above the average conclusions of his council. [Major General William T.] Sherman never fought a great battle and displayed no extraordinary power. But Grant was great. He understood the terrible power of concentration and persistency. How stubbornly he stuck to Vicksburg and to Richmond. He concentrated all his strength, trained his energies to a single purpose, and then delivered terrible sledgehammer blows against which strategy and tactics and valor could avail nothing. He knew that majorities properly handled must triumph in war as in politics, and he always gathered his resources before striking.

What was the most desperate battle of the war?

Gettysburg—as far as my observation extended. There was never any fighting done anywhere to surpass the battle made by my men on July 2.

Did you agree with Lee as to the necessity of the surrender at Appomattox?

I did. For some time I had felt that we were fighting against hope. I kept my lips closed and fought ahead in silence. For the week preceding the surrender I fought almost without ceasing. I was covering General Lee’s retreat, while [Maj. Gen. John B.] Gordon opened a way for him in front. I had [Maj. Gen. Charles W.] Field’s division, all that was left.

The Federals pressed upon us relentlessly, and we fell back, fighting night and day, inch by inch, covering the slow retreat of our wagon trains. Our lines were never once broken or disordered. My men fought with the finest regularity and heroism. Wherever I placed a brigade, there it would stand until I ordered it away. I was among my men constantly, so that I knew little of the general situation.

Early in the morning [of April 9, 1865], General Lee sent for me, and I at once went to him. He was in deep concern. He stated to me that his retreat had been cut off and it was impossible for him to escape from the circle that had been drawn around him.

“If that is the case,” I replied, “you should surrender the army. If escape is not possible, not another life should be sacrificed.” General Lee then began to talk about the distress and trouble that surrender would bring upon his country and his people. “That cannot be put against the useless shedding of these brave men’s blood. If you are satisfied that you cannot save the army, it should be surrendered. The people will know that you have done all that men can do.” He then told me that he had discovered that there were heavy masses of infantry in front and that he could not hope to cut through.

It was a terrible moment for General Lee. Having fought for years with high and lofty purposes, having won victory after victory and made a record for his army not equaled in our history, it was hard that he must surrender everything. I cannot tell you how my heart went out to him.

I left General Lee and went back to my men. I ordered firing stopped. I stood quietly awaiting events. Suddenly a horse came clattering along my front. I looked up and saw a smart-looking officer [Union Brig. Gen. George A. Custer], with yellow hair streaming behind him, hurrying forward to where I stood. Then he wrenched him suddenly to his haunches and said, in a somewhat violent tone: “In the name of General Phil Sheridan, I demand the instant surrender of this army!” I was not in a humor for trifling just then, but I replied as calmly as I could: “I am not the commander of this army, and if I were I should not surrender to you,” meaning of course that I would treat with the proper authority. “I make the demand,” he rejoined, “simply for the purpose of preventing further bloodshed.”

“If you wish to prevent any further shedding of blood don’t shed anymore; we have already stopped,” I said, still keeping cool. He reiterated his demand for an immediate and unconditional surrender. I then notified him that he was outside of his lines, and that if he was no more courageous I would remind him of this fact in a way that might be unpleasant to him. I then explained that General Grant and General Lee were then engaged in a conference that would probably settle everything.

He grew pleasant then, and after a while galloped off. He was a brave and spirited young fellow, but my old veterans were not in the mood to humor him when he dashed up to us that day.

The surrender fell with more crushing effect on my troops than on any in the army. They were in fine condition and were flushed with victory. We had thrown back the Federals day after day as they pressed on us—punishing them when they came too near and stunning them when they charged us seriously. Enveloped for six or eight days in the continual smoke of battle, we had little idea of what was going on elsewhere, and when we surrendered 4,000 bayonets to General Grant we surrendered also 1,600 Federal prisoners that had been plucked out of his army during our retreat. Still, we all had the most perfect confidence in General Lee’s ability and heroism, and we knew that he had done all mortal man could do.

Did you say to General Lee when parting with him that you regretted you had gone into the war?

No sir; I said that before I drew my sword again I would be sure that it was necessary. I did not believe, and I do not believe, that the war was justified on either side. It is a terrible thing and should be resorted to only in absolute self-defense—just as killing in private life. Besides, I had fought all the time knowing that our plans were wrong and believing that we could not succeed.

Still I did not and do not regret my service. I fought for my people. I fought steadily, uncomplainingly, as best I knew how, and there never was an hour that I would not have gladly laid my life down to have assured the success of our cause. No sir, I regret nothing. I only did my duty. The war was a grievous error—an error both sections have deeply atoned. As for me, I only did my duty in a humble way as a man and a soldier, and the same reverent, devoted sentiment that compelled me to draw my sword filled my heart when I sheathed it forever.


Peter Cozzens’ latest book is Shenandoah 1862: Stone – wall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Suggested reading: Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History, by William Garrett Piston.

Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.