Confederate General James Longstreet remains one of the war’s most controversial figures. Detractors see him as a scheming subordinate whose ambition overreached his talents; supporters hail him as a clear-sighted realist who understood the changes in warfare better than most of his contemporaries, and who tried to change with the times.
Short of Gettysburg, no aspect of Longstreet’s Civil War career stirs more controversy than his trip west to reinforce the Army of Tennessee in September, 1863. Was this venture a duplicitous effort to get out from Robert E. Lee’s thumb, undermine Braxton Bragg’s command of that army, and at last let Longstreet take his rightful place in the sun? Or was it a trip motivated by the increasingly disastrous course of the war in the West, a feeling that no matter how well the South did in Virginia, the war was not being won in the Old Dominion State?
On one level, that question is easily answered. By the fall of 1863, it was apparent to virtually every Southerner that something had to be done to reverse the course of western defeat. Vicksburg was gone, leaving the Mississippi River in Union hands and rendering 30,000 Rebels prisoners of war at a stroke. Tennessee was all but lost. At the end of August, when the Union Army of the Cumberland crossed the Tennessee River, opening a new drive to capture Chattanooga, a new crisis seemed at hand.
The response was to send a corps – James Longstreet’s, two divisions strong (George Pickett’s division was still recovering from their ordeal in Pennsylvania) – to help Bragg. By the time Longstreet reached the scene, however, Bragg had already been forced out of Chattanooga, and was preparing to give battle in North Georgia.
That battle, of course, was Chickamauga. Only half of Longstreet’s troops participated, with Longstreet himself not arriving until the night of September 19, after two days of fighting had already concluded. Still, after a brief midnight conference, Bragg granted Longstreet command of half the army; Longstreet’s subsequent attack the next day proved devastating. The Federals were badly defeated, and fell back into Chattanooga.
That moment of discussion in the late hours of September 19-20 proved to be the high point of Bragg’s and Longstreet’s wartime relationship. Henceforth, almost every moment of interaction between the two men would by characterized by misunderstanding, recrimination, and acrimony. It would be one of the more fateful – doomed, one might say – command relationships of the war, with enormous negative repercussions for the cause of Confederate independence.
This relationship fascinates me, and not just because I believe it to be one of those “turning point” moments.
Longstreet’s long history of controversy, tainted by fellow Confederates’ efforts to scapegoat him for any number of blunders real and imagined (Gettysburg springs to mind) complicates modern efforts to untangle fact from speculation, let alone outright fiction. It probably didn’t help matters that James Longstreet experienced a boom of popularity beginning in the 1970s, when Michael Shaara cast him as a highly sympathetic character in his seminal, Pulitzer-prize winning Civil War Novel, Killer Angels (1974).
A sudden spate of Longstreet fans, naturally enough, produced the inevitable backlash, as the opposition pushed back on Shaara’s portrayal.
The pro-Longstreet crowd managed to get a statue of him erected at Gettysburg, the only Confederate general (to my knowledge, anyway) so honored there besides Lee. Even that statue, naturally enough, became controversial. Here it is. Judge for yourself.
I find that Longstreet’s detractors come in several flavors: Fans of Stonewall Jackson tend to dislike Longstreet, for example; and those who favor the Western Theater sometimes seem to resent Longstreet as an interloper, all the more so for his role at Chickamauga.
But what of the ‘real’ James Longstreet? Where should he fit into the war’s cast of characters?
Over the next series of posts, I intend to explore Longstreet’s western experience, and where it fits in Civil War historiography.