Monday, June 17, 2024

What did General Longstreet really think about General Lee at the end of the Civil War?

Studying the Battle of Gettysburg is all about meeting the ghost of Napoleon.  And Longstreet turns out well.  The south could not afford Gettysburg and its cost ended what was already a diminishing hope.

At least we get to see into the minds of those generals and the changing role of the rifle man.

After that, Grant showed them that the North did have ten  thousand men to throw away in battle after battle and that they had no answer. Yet they had to be shown.  Sadly, once the North was truly committed to victory, there was no forlorn hope to be had.

Understand that a remnant surrendered at Appomattox.  the rest died or deserted in the previous months.

What did General Longstreet really think about General Lee at the end of the Civil War?


There have probably been a few doctorates handed out for good answers to this one. Remember that they had known each other for a long time. Lee had been a right hand man to Winfield Scott in the Mexican war. He scouted ways around the Mexican army several times enabling Scott with a modest army moving quickly to overpower a far larger Mexican force. Lessons learned in Mexico informed much of the Confederate tactics during the Civil War and, while valuable would eventually lead to Lee’s downfall. Longstreet served in Taylor’s army before the forces combined for the lead up to the attack on Mexico City. He and Grant were bosom pals during their West Point time and after, primarily at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. It was here that Grant met Julia Dent, the daughter of a wealthy farmer, business man and slave holder and she was Longstreet’s fourth cousin. Longstreet was Grant’s best man at his wedding to Julia. They were together in Mexico and stormed the ramparts at Chapultepec, where Longstreet was wounded. But Longstreet had developed tactics much like those of WW2 in taking a position without a broad frontal assault. Probably more than Grant and surely more than Lee he understood the capacity of the riffled musket, its tremendous advantage on the defensive and that frontal assaults must therefore be focused and narrow. When Lee took over after the battle of Seven Pines during the Peninsular Campaign Longstreet criticized the appointment feeling that the post should have gone to him. He doubted Lee’s capacity to command an army in the field. Subsequent experience with Lee showed Longstreet that Lee excelled at command, and Longstreet became his most stalwart lieutenant. It was Longstreet who was responsible for the success of the “Seven Days” as the other Corps commanders, including Jackson failed. Yet while Longstreet was becoming Lee’s “War horse” he still wanted independent command. At Gettysburg Longstreet publicly criticized Lee’s tactical decision making and their relationship suffered. He shortly got his independent command in the west and though responsible for the victory at Chickamauga, later did not do well. He brought his corps back to the ANV and excelled at Wilderness (where he was seriously wounded) and was stalwart for the rest of the war, surrendering at Appomattox with Lee. Following Lee’s departure from the McLean house Longstreet came to meet Grant and was treated like a long lost brother.

In his memoirs, Longstreet was critical of Lee who, as the darling of the “Lost Cause” movement was beyond rebuke. Of course by this time Lee had the added advantage of being dead and as such in the minds of many white Southerners, was beyond criticism. Longstreet was blamed by such generals as Lafayette McLaws who had been his close pre-war friend, for real and imagined failures at Gettysburg. Jubal Early, a darling of the Lost Cause crowd and a particularly unpleasant man (One of the reasons Lewis Armistead left West Point before graduating was that he broke a plate over Early’s head in the mess hall) spoke out against Longstreet blaming him for the loss at Gettysburg when it had been Longstreet who had tried to talk Lee out of ordering Pickets Charge and vocally predicted its failure to Lee himself. “It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.”

Because he became a Republican after the war and was given appointments by his old friend Grant and because he used colored troops to put down white supremacists, Longstreet’s reputation suffered greatly in the South.

Longstreet died at 83, being one of the few Civil War generals to live into the 20th century and outliving most of his critics. Since his papers were burned in a house fire late in his life, little in writing has survived for biographers, but with the eventual fading of the Lost Cause crowd that reputation has been rehabilitated greatly.

What exactly he thought of Lee in the years following the war is hard to say. I believe that in coming to know the overall strategy of Grant, Sherman, Lincoln and many others that he probably came to see the futility of the South’s position and agreed with most of the Unionists that the South was never going to win that war. No less than William Faulkner wrote that every Southern boy could go back to that moment when the troops were arrayed and the banners unfurled and the cannons loaded just before Picket’s Charge and have that precious moment before the war was lost. The problem with that sentiment, as appealing to the “Lost Causers” as it was and still is, is that it simply was never true. Lee and Longstreet both thought that if the South could win that one battle, that one Trafalgar or Waterloo or Gettysburg that they could then force the North into negotiation and separation. But many in the North understood that the reason the Europeans stayed out wasn’t all slavery, it was the knowledge that without a truly United States they could move in and like buzzards feast on the carcass of America. Thus Lincoln and Grant and Sherman and the others were committed to what they termed a “War of Conquest” in which individual battles could be lost but the South’s lack of men and material would spell the eventual outcome. If the South could win, it would be the end as Lincoln put it to “The last best hope of Mankind.” Like the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, the South’s greatest mistake turns out to be firing on Ft. Sumter and beginning a war that they could never win.

No comments: