Longstreet Goes West, part two: Westward Ho!

Part Two in a Series

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.

P. G. T. Beauregard

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.

General Joseph E. Johnston

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.


5 Responses to Longstreet Goes West, part two: Westward Ho!

  1. Not so much a Lee detractor but a steadfast Johnston friend. The relationship between Lee and Longstreet was close, but with Johnston, closer. And don’t forget that Longstreet was one of those who feared that the war was being lost in the West, and more should be done about it, whereas Lee consistently argued for more concentration in the east.

  2. Dave:
    Great stuff. Keep it coming.

    Luckily for our nation, Jeff Davis remained enthralled with Bragg long after he was shown to be incompetent. Some of the criticism of Bragg’s tactics is probably unjustified. He often was ill served by some of his subordinates. But Bragg’s prickliness and his vindictiveness sapped the morale of the Army of Tennessee’s officer corps. This morale problem eventually cost his army dearly.

    Ironically, Lincoln – who, unlike Davis, had no military experience before being elected president – was not averse to firing incompetent generals. He axed many before finally finding one – U.S. Grant – who could win.

    And unlike Davis, Lincoln willingly promoted generals – McClellan and Hooker to name just two – who were critical of him. Lincoln didn’t seem to care about loyalty from his generals. He wanted only one thing from them – victories.

  3. I also agree there is no serious evidence (beyond Longstreet’s joke about the 3 brigades, directed at his and Lee’s lack of confidence of the western leadership) that Longstreet was vying for an Army Theater command. Longstreet was motivated to go west or more importantly that thy conduct a western concentration, to try and win the war. For the South, that meant not losing the war. That meant arresting Union progress, inflicting heavy losses in well-orchestrated battles, creating windows of temporary numerical superiority to win such battles and then re-align to defend the whole nation as best it could be done, use interior lines of the nation to flex forces in a timelier manner than the Union to achieve these advantages. It meant using Operational Art to harness the facets of this art, and gain results that would harm the Lincoln Administration politically; especially as the November 1864 election loomed on the horizon. Longstreet was a consummate professional, and a typical Army officer who was imbued with the mission at job one, before personal prestige. Longstreet, Lee, Jackson, Bragg, Grant, Sherman, Armistead, and several other’s very much in this category. This is not to say there are not officers who serve a career, and are more motivated by their own vanity and prestige. There were many like this in the Civil war, as in any war, but those I list were for the most part driven by being a part of the art of war and serving the nation within the context of that art, rather than ego.
    One piece to add to this in the case of Longstreet, after Chickamauga, was during the crisis of command with Bragg. Jefferson Davis came out to try and settle the issue, –which was most of the officers in Bragg’s command feared the initiative of Chickamauga had been thrown away by Bragg for not following up with another assault on Thomas/Rosecrans 21-23 September, and allowing the Union Army in Chattanooga to solidify into a strong defensive position no longer assailable by frontal assault. Davis listened to all the officers vent (in front on Bragg, instead of privately) about their feeling about Bragg at that point. They all essentially said (except Wheeler) Bragg should go. Davis then asked Longstreet privately who should take over, and Longstreet said Joe Johnston. He was the remaining Confederate officer with the proper rank and experience for this level. Davis was probably hoping and trying to get Longstreet to jump at the chance and take command. But Longstreet was a subordinate of Robert E. Lee, and in command of a corps organic to the Army of Northern Virginia. He was expected to bring it back to Lee once the mission was complete. His loyalty was to Lee and the overall strategy of what I call in my book on Longstreet the “Offensive-Defense;” the application of Operational Art and Design across and within the larger Confederate nation. Longstreet also confided in Davis the situation at Chattanooga was close to lost, due to Bragg’s failure to continue operational maneuver and domination after Chickamauga; ostensibly to go after and close down the Bridgeport-Stevenson rail terminals the Union was harnessing to flow troops and supplies into the area. In my opinion, as a former professional army officer, Longstreet had never sought command outside the Army of Northern Virginia, because Lee had created a highly functional command climate in his army. One of harmony and free-speech by subordinates which Lee valued, –even if he did necessarily follow. The chemistry of the Lee-Longstreet team, and the Lee-Longstreet-Jackson team was worth more to Longstreet in all the positive success it brought, than a command of his own of another Army/Theater.

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