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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
To help them put these charges against Longstreet into print, Early and Pendleton depended on a third Lost Cause disciple, the Reverend J. William Jones, editor of the Southern Historical Society Papers . Jones recruited other noted Confederate leaders to their cause, including Generals Fitzhugh Lee (R. E. Lee’s nephew) and John B. Gordon. Article after article in the widely read Papers pinned the Gettysburg defeat on Longstreet, accusing him of deliberately and repeatedly disobeying orders and widening the indictment against him until it included virtually everything that had gone wrong on July 2 and 3—and all the while letting General Lee gently off the hook.
What Longstreet seemed unable to understand was that when he tried to call Lee to account, he was challenging something very like a deity.
Longstreet fought back with letters and articles of his own, but he was careless and inconsistent with the facts and swung wildly at his tormentors. He quoted (after two decades or more) private conversations with Lee in which his own arguments were invariably the better ones. And he committed the worst of blunders by daring to criticize Robert E. Lee in print. His tone, furthermore, was neither humble nor self-effacing. Regarding Gettysburg, for example, he left the impression that he had discussed (and argued) with Lee as his equal rather than as his subordinate.
In fact, Old Pete was simply refighting his battles, as old soldiers will, pridefully defending and justifying his actions to what he apparently pictured as an audience of his fellow old soldiers, as became most obvious in his memoir, From Manassas to Appomattox . This sort of thing was going on all over the North and South in the postwar years, but the older Longstreet became, the less reliable was his memory and the greater his bitterness. What he seemed unable to understand was that when he tried to call General Lee to account for wartime decisions, in order to defend himself, he was challenging something like a deity, the very personification of the purity of the Lost Cause. The “Lee cult” had done its work well.
In the years left to Longstreet (he died in 1904), there is no doubt that the prevailing view of Gettysburg in the states of the old Confederacy was that it was he and he alone who was responsible for defeat on that battlefield. And Gettysburg, as the great turning point of the war, was agreed to have determined the fate of the Confederate States of America.
It is hard to imagine this happening had James Longstreet followed a more conventional course politically in the postwar years. But Jubal Early, whose war record did not begin to compare with Longstreet’s, saw this opening and pounced.
Until fairly recently, historians probing for the hows and whys of Gettysburg, and taking in all these articles and arguments, listened far more intently to Early and his cohorts than to Longstreet. Most of them followed the lead of Douglas Southall Freeman, who, in his monumental biography R. E. Lee (1934-35), clearly labeled Longstreet the villain of Gettysburg. The only element of Early’s indictment that Freeman rejected was the matter of Longstreet’s disobeying Lee’s order for a dawn attack (the testimony of Lee’s staff was too strong against that point). But otherwise, Freeman portrayed Longstreet as sullen, angry, and insubordinate that day—and fatally slow in mounting his attack. Freeman even had Lee saying of Longstreet, in front of his other top commanders, “He is so slow.” That surely is a discourtesy Robert E. Lee would never have committed. Freeman cited Early as his source—again, the sole witness-for the quotation.
In Lee’s Lieutenants (1942-44), Freeman softened his assault and spread the blame for Gettysburg more widely. (Late in life, Freeman would tell a friend that he hoped to revise his Lee biography “because I feel I have done some deserving men injustice, especially Longstreet.”) Still, in these pages, Old Pete remains gravely flawed and fails to do his duty by General Lee. Freeman writes, “Longstreet’s behavior on the 2nd was that of a man who sulked because his plan was rejected by his chief. ... He should have obeyed orders, but the orders should not have been given.” Freeman summarizes, with some generosity, that at Gettysburg Longstreet “does not warrant the traditional accusation that he was the villain of the piece.”
Longstreet’s first biographers, H. J. Eckenrode and Bryan Conrad, writing in 1936, largely followed the Early thesis. Their subtitle, “Lee’s War Horse,” might better have been “Lee’s Scapegoat.” Southern historians after Freeman leaned heavily on Lee’s Lieutenants for their interpretations of Longstreet. Shelby Foote’s celebrated three-volume history of the war, for example, follows Freeman virtually step by step through Old Pete’s actions at Gettysburg. In 1958, in Death of a Nation: The Story of Lee and His Men at Gettysburg , Clifford Dowdey believed he had divined the “inner man" within Longstreet, driven by ambition and self-importance. Dowdey wrote that the general “began the day of July 2 with the purpose of thwarting the plans of the high command," and he erected his narrative of the battle on that premise.