The decision to reinforce Bragg came only after much debate, and only after every other expedient had been exhausted.
While President Davis believed that the Confederacy needed to use interior lines to achieved localized concentrations of force, that theory did not extend to Virginia. In general, troops flowed into Virginia from other theaters, not the other way around. By the spring of 1863, however, there was a growing group of soldiers and politicians who felt that Davis, (and by extension, Robert E. Lee) were neglecting the Western Theater. These men included Louis T. Wigfall, Joseph E. Johnston, P. G. T. Beauregard, and James Longstreet.
In May, 1863, after Lee’s victory at Chancellorsville, these men began to press more actively for an effort to shift troops westward, in response to Ulysses S. Grant’s increasingly worrisome operations around Vicksburg. Since half of Longstreet’s corps had not fought at Chancellorsville – they were operating down near Suffolk, Virginia – the idea arose to send one or two divisions under Longstreet to either Mississippi or Tennessee.
Longstreet personally broached the idea of a strategic concentration in Tennessee to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon on May 6th, when he was in Richmond; arguing that he take Hood’s and Pickett’s Divisions to join Bragg, while Joseph E. Johnston brought troops from Mississippi. This combined force could then assail William S. Rosecrans’s Union army near Nashville. Johnston, as the senior man, would have overall command. Once Rosecrans was defeated (presumably an easy task, with sufficient numbers) then the Rebels could move north or west. Either way, Grant’s operations would have to cease.
This plan was strongly resisted by Davis and Lee, who instead argued for a concentration of force under Lee, who wished to make an offensive of his own, into Pennsylvania. Lee prevailed. The result was Gettysburg.
Almost as a footnote to this decision, in June, Lee marched north, there was some discussion of bringing P. G. T. Beauregard (then directing coastal defense in Charleston South Carolina) to Virginia, ideally with enough reinforcements to add a fourth corps to Lee’s Army. Longstreet was in favor of this plan. It came to nothing, though it makes for a fascinating alternative scenario for the Gettysburg campaign.
What makes Longstreet’s support for either the Tennessee concentration or of bringing Beauregard to Virginia interesting is the fact that in each case, Longstreet was not necessarily agitating for an independent command. He was junior to both Johnston and Beauregard. This fact undermines the idea that Longstreet had become overly ambitious, putting forth scenarios that would expand his independence and authority.
Before Gettysburg, the South was to some extent working from a position of strength, at least in the east. With Hooker defeated, Lee held the initiative. After Gettysburg, that was not the case. Lee lost his Pennsylvania gamble, Vicksburg was gone (and with it a Confederate army) and Bragg, outnumbered, couldn’t retain a hold on Middle Tennessee.
Even so, the decision to send Longstreet west came at the last minute, after Knoxville fell to one Federal army and Chattanooga to another. The resultant concentration, which included not only Longstreet’s corps but a large number of troops from East Tennessee and Mississippi, was a move more of desperation than design.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this discussion is found in Longstreet’s various communications with Joseph E. Johnston, a correspondence maintained since Johnston left the Virginia Army in May 1862. Longstreet remained in contact with Johnston. By the time Johnston recovered from his battle wound (October 1863) Lee was firmly in the command saddle of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Johnston was instead sent west to help ‘co-ordinate’ affairs there. At that time, Longstreet made the interesting (and probably unrealistic) offer to yield his own position as corps commander to Johnston, who would then serve under Lee – but only for a time. “I have no doubt,” said Longstreet, “that you would command this army by spring.”
At other times, Longstreet suggested that he go west and serve under Johnston. In September, as he was departing, Longstreet penned a 15-page missive to Davis, urging for a larger concentration, with Johnston in command. As late as March, 1864, Longstreet would again propose the same strategic western concentration under Johnston, who by then was heading up the Army of Tennessee at Dalton; using his own men and Beauregard’s force. The idea was to raise Johnston’s numbers to 80,000 and seize the initiative.
What is clear is that Longstreet was reluctant to serve under Bragg. At one point, Longstreet suggested to Seddon and Davis that he take three brigades from the Richmond defenses (about 6,000 men) and go west in Bragg’s stead, letting Bragg come east to take command of the First Corps under Lee – a highly unlikely event, to be sure. But Longstreet seemed to favor such “swaps” however unrealistic they might be. Just before heading west in September 1863, Longstreet informed Lee that he wished Lee were coming west with him, to take overall command. That, too, was unlikely. Lee, for one, didn’t want any part of that plan.
In a letter to Confederate Senator Louis T. Wigfall, also penned in September 1863, Longstreet elucidated his opinion of Bragg: “I don’t think that I should be under Bragg, and would fight against it if I saw any hope of getting anyone in the responsible position except myself.”
This statement has been widely interpreted as Longstreet’s clearest statement of his own naked ambition. Personally, I am not sold on that idea. Given how hard and often Longstreet lobbied for the man he really wanted to see in that job – Joe Johnston – it seems unlikely that this lobbying was all just a smokescreen.
In the next sentence of that letter to Wigfall, Longstreet also admitted that he knew exactly how such a fight would be interpreted: “If I should make any decided opposition the world might say that I was desirous of a position which would give me fame. So I conclude that I may be pardoned if I yield my principle under the particular circumstances.”
The evidence of Longstreet’s supposed overweening, destructive ambition seems sparse, at least to me. The evidence that Longstreet didn’t trust Bragg’s generalship is stronger, but then, by the fall of 1863 there were a great many other generals, southern politicians, and civilians who didn’t trust Bragg’s generalship. Many of them were serving in the Army of Tennessee.
And the evidence that James Longstreet wished to be serving under Joseph E. Johnston is perhaps strongest of all.