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General Longstreet And The Lost Cause
One of Lee’s greatest lieutenants is slowly winning his reputation back after losing it for daring to criticize his boss
February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
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.