Your Civil War Geek. Installment I

Since this is the first of my attempts at regular essays, I’m going to offer a brief explanation about why I’m doing this. First and foremost, I’m a Civil War geek. Hell, I’m just a geek. I want to tell the stories about remarkable figures thrown into a war, which many would have probably wished had never happened. For those of you that don’t know me, I am a Unionist with respects to sides in the Civil War but that does not prevent me from recognizing the remarkable achievements of participants from both sides of the conflict. The theme of the essay and the opinions in this essay are entirely my own. I defend them with established historical research which is included in my reference section of this blog. For those history teachers out there, I’m sorry I’m using APA formatting. I’m also finishing a PhD which requires APA formatting and I don’t want to get my wires crossed between my recreational writing and my professional writing.

James Longstreet, the Scapegoat of the Lost Cause

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In 1993 an oddly designed monument was placed on the grounds of the Gettysburg National Battlefield. The equine sculpture is the only one that was not mounted on an elevated plinth and the proportions of the monument were deliberately skewed to give it an illusion of motion and animation. If you don’t know where to find the monument, you may never see it (McPherson, 2003). Many of the monuments to fallen Confederate soldiers that were placed on the battlefield were erected in the late 1880s and early 1900s. Both sides of the conflict united together in their efforts to memorialize this pivotal and most bloody of battles in our nation’s Civil War.  This obscure monument memorializes an officer who was labeled as a villain by his fellow officers after the Civil War.  In this geeky post, I’m going to highlight some of this officer’s accomplishments as well as explain why he is so vilified even to this day.

James Longstreet was a career army officer with distinguished service in the Mexican American War. When his native state Georgia seceded from the Union, he resigned his commission in the United States Army and accepted a Brigadier General’s commission in the Confederate States Army (Longstreet, 2004). He served in both theater’s Eastern and Western theaters of the Civil War. Despite his performance at Gettysburg, which historians seem polarized about, he remained Lee’s most trusted subordinate and adviser from 1863-1865. Longstreet has been accused of self-aggrandizement by peers, historians, and enemies alike. This is probably due to three sins he committed against the Confederacy, 1) suggesting that Lee erred at Gettysburg, 2) becoming  a member of the Republican Party in the late 1860s, and 3) becoming a member of Grant’s political family.  Lost Cause historians and ideologues have never been able to accept responsibility for their part in the fratricidal conflict which cost the nation 600,000 dead and countless maimed soldiers on both sides. The South needed a scapegoat, and that scapegoat was named Longstreet.

Longstreet served under Generals PTG Beauregard, Joseph E. Johnston, Braxton Bragg, and Robert E. Lee. Many in the Confederacy were lukewarm about the idea of invading the North and turning their fight into one of the aggressor rather than to aggrieved defender. This is even evident in the language used by the Lost Cause cliques who referred to the Civil War as either The Second War of Independence or the War of Northern Aggression. Since the South was the first to fire a shot in the war this is a conveniently deceptive bit of spin on who the aggressors really was during the Civil War. Following the Battle of Second Mananas (or second Bull Run in the Northern reference to civil war battles).* Lee, influenced by the lack of resources in Virginia and Lieutenant General Thomas J. Jackson’s urging decided to launch an invasion of the North through Maryland. Lee was counting on the sympathies of the people of Maryland who had been living under Lincoln’s restrictive policies toward that state (Murfin, 1993).

Some novelist and some historians have taken poetic license with Longstreet’s predilection for defensive fights to paint him as hopelessly reluctantly. Although Longstreet voiced his reticence with offensive strategies, he effectively supported Lee throughout this invasion even personally manning a cannon which checked the Union’s advance on Bloody Lane during the Battle of Sharpsburg/Antietam (Priest, 1989). Despite several incidents like his performance at Antietam, Longstreet’s critics continued to besmirch his character despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. During Lee’s second invasion of the North in early summer of 1863, it was Longstreet’s scout Henry T. Harrison that provided the crucial information about the Federal movements rather than Lee’s esteemed but absent cavalry leader Lieutenant General J. E. B. Stuart (Wert, 1994). Longstreet was never bashful about his role in trying to dissuade Lee from an offensive fight against the Union at Gettysburg but neither did he fail to act. On the second day of the battle Longstreet commanded his corps in an attack on the Union left suffering the losses of General’s John B. Hood (severely wounded), and  William Barksdale (killed) (Pfanz, 1987).

The failures of the final charge of Major General George Pickett’s brigade under Longstreet’s reluctant command has been well documented in the 153 years since the battle. Where I firmly believed Longstreet failed at Gettysburg, was not his reluctance, but his failure to vigorously execute orders once he made his objections known. In the military, as a leader, you are expected to make concerns about orders known, but when you fail to energetically execute orders lives are lost unnecessarily. I think Longstreet truly erred in this respect on July 3rd.  That being said, he continued to serve throughout the war, with a brief foray in the Western theater under Bragg, as Lee’s right hand man. In 1864 he was severely wounded when he was shot in his neck. After a brief period of convalescence he returned to command his corps until the end of the war (Longstreet, 2004).

He stood by Lee until the last, never publicly criticizing him or attempting to undermine his leadership. After the war he did what anyone would do when insulted from all directions. He told his side of the story. Since he embraced the postwar world and resumed serving his good friend President Ulysses Grant, Longstreet became the quintessential Carpetbagger and was attacked by those who believed Lee could not possibly do any wrong. Lee never published his memoirs and like Longstreet embraced the rejoined Union eventually becoming president of Washington College.

While Longstreet was a flawed hero, he did not end his service after Gettysburg. As a Republican he was placed in charge of militia in New Orleans. During a confrontation with White League protesters, he was wounded and help prisoner until Federal authorities stepped in and put an end to the struggle and restored order (Wert, 1994). He, unlike many that would endeavor to undermine the government, sought to re-integrate into postwar life.  He would serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and pass away in 1904.

Sadly the bitter controversy that surrounded his performance after the war and the desire to pin the blame of the Gettysburg defeat on his shoulders, would bury all of his remarkable accomplishments.  The South’s ability to continue for two years after Gettysburg is due in large part to his battlefield leadership in support of Robert E. Lee. The true scapegoats for the loss at Gettysburg should be, 1) Lee for proceeding without adequate information and ignoring his subordinate commanders read of the battlefield, 2) Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell for not capitalizing on the momentum of the first day and seizing the high ground on Culp’s hill on the first day, and 3) on a reinvigorated Union Army willing to redeem its defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. It seems to be more convenient for Lost Cause historians and sympathizers to blame one person alone. When  John Adams defended the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre he said, “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the or our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence” (McCullough, 2001 p67). Nothing is different in this case. Longstreet was no Benedict Arnold. Rather, Longstreet was a man who recognized the limitations of Army of Northern Virginia and gave voice to those limitations. After the war, he saw the futility of being bitter and resistant to the future. Longstreet was an admirable man, a solid commander, and a repentant citizen of a fractured nation.

*During the Civil War the South named battles primarily after towns and the North, when possible named them after terrain or water features. So, in the South it was the battles of 1st and 2nd Mananas and Sharpsburg, and in the North those battles were referred to as 1st and 2nd Bull Run and Antietam for the major watercourses which affected the battles.

Author Patrick D. Stoker MA.

Longstreet, J. (2004) From Mananas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America.New York, NY: Barnes and Noble.

McCullough, D. (2001). John Adams. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

McPherson, J. M. (2003). Hallowed ground. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.

Murphin, J. V. (1993). The gleam of bayonets: The battle of Antietam and Robert E. Lee’s Maryland  campaign, September 1862.  Baton Rouge, LA. Louisiana State University Press.

Pfanz, W. H. (1987). Gettysburg: The second day. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Priest, J. M. (1989). Antietam: The soldier’s battle. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wert, J. D. (1994). General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s most controversial soldier. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

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