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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 be sure, there was also an undercurrent of revisionism in this period. A 1952 biography by Donald B. Sanger with Thomas R. Hay provided a better-balanced view of Old Pete at Gettysburg. Sanger, an Army colonel who wrote the Civil War portion of the biography, carefully analyzed troop movements and terrain on the battlefield and was able to declare Longstreet innocent of many of the charges of the Jubal Early school. The North Carolinian Glenn Tucker, in his High Tide at Gettysburg , offered an antidote to the Virginian Clifford Dowdey, portraying Longstreet as a loyal officer doing his best to assist Lee.
A more lasting revisionism, however, had to await the focusing of a strong historical spotlight on the Lee cult. This was done by Thomas L. Connelly in The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (1977). Connelly and his followers have not only restored Lee to believable human dimensions but in the process have erased the stigmata placed on Longstreet by Early and his followers. William Garrett Piston’s Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History (1987), and Jeffry Wert’s 1993 biography, the first fully researched and balanced treatment of the general’s life, have set Longstreet revisionism on firm footing. And the drama of Lee and Longstreet at Gettysburg entered a considerably larger public arena with the appearance of Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels and the film Gettysburg based on it.
And the controversy over James Longstreet—at least controversy over his role at Gettysburg—still bubbles merrily. The historian Robert K. Krick, for example, believes that the post-Civil War writings of Longstreet are, in fact, an accurate reflection of the man’s character, and that at Gettysburg the lieutenant general is guilty as earlier charged. In an essay provocatively titled “ ’If Longstreet… Says So, It Is Most Likely Not True’: James Longstreet and the Second Day at Gettysburg,” Krick writes that ”Longstreet decided to play an ugly game with the misguided Lee,” and goes on from there. He has, of course, triggered debate and rebuttals. Gettysburg is not, and never has been, a battle to inspire calm introspection.
Yet, at least today’s debate has come full historical circle from where it once stood. Longstreet can be seen now as a general who may have things to answer for at Gettysburg, but then so does virtually every other prominent Confederate general in that campaign, starting with Lee. There can be no doubt that Longstreet was opposed to Lee’s aggressively offensive stance at Gettysburg, but his opposition can be studied absent the automatic presumption that he therefore did his best to sabotage operations on July 2 and 3. Longstreet’s full wartime record can at last be examined without the overlay of prejudice and partisanship his postwar politics brought on. And Robert E. Lee’s relationship with his old warhorse can be parsed anew without stumbling over long-dead Lost Cause issues.
The fact of the matter is that General Longstreet was as loyal and as devoted to his country’s cause as anyone in Confederate gray, and that he had no superior as a hard fighter for that cause. He fully merits ranking alongside Stonewall Jackson as one of Lee’s paramount lieutenants.
The story even has a fitting ending. Longstreet never got his just place among those Confederate icons whose bronze statuary surveys Monument Avenue in Richmond. Indeed, there was never a single statue or monument dedicated to him anywhere in the old Confederacy. Then, on July 3, 1998, the one hundred and thirty-fifth anniversary of that most momentous day in the general’s life, an equestrian statue of him was dedicated on Seminary Ridge, on the Gettysburg battlefield. “It’s about time,” announced the sponsoring Longstreet Memorial Committee. So it was.