Longstreet Goes West: Conclusions

James Longstreet

James Longstreet’s time in the Western Theater has by and large, not garnered accolades. The prevailing western-centric view casts him as a haughty eastern interloper, come to further his own ambitions at Bragg’s expense. Historians of a more eastern bent tend to regard this period as proof of his long-suspected lurking incompetence, very useful in undermining his relationship with Lee.

Here, then, are my own final thoughts on several of the most significant questions concerning Longstreet’s time west of the Appalachians.

Did Longstreet come west intending to replace Bragg?

I think the answer to this question is clearly, no. While he evinced no great admiration for Bragg, James Longstreet clearly thought that the proper man to command the Army of Tennessee was Joseph E. Johnston. Virtually all of Longstreet’s arguments were pitched to this end. He flirted with other solutions, including suggesting that Lee come west and offhandedly suggesting that he and Bragg trade places, but the only man he consistently and repeatedly put forward was Johnston. Was this merely adroit maneuvering, a smokescreen on Longstreet’s part to provide cover for his own ambition? For that to be true, Longstreet would have to be certain that Davis would never place Johnston in command of the Army of Tennessee – thus clearing his own path.

The great flaw in that line of reasoning is obvious: On December 27, 1863, despite admitted misgivings, Davis appointed Johnston to command of the Army of Tennessee.

I think Occam’s Razor applies here: Longstreet liked, admired, and valued Johnston as a man and a soldier. Johnston shared similar views about how the war in the West should be conducted. Those facts are straightforward. Too much Herculean mucking around in Longstreet’s psychological stables looking for unhealthy ambitions and resentments doesn’t make for good history.

Was Longstreet the chief instigator agitating for Bragg’s removal?

This is an easy one: No. The cabal against Bragg organized itself long before talk of sending Longstreet west ever arose. The genesis of the anti-Bragg movement can be found at Perryville, in October 1862; the first command crisis arose in the spring of 1863. The movement’s leader was Leonidas Polk – of that there can be no doubt.

But it is equally certain that Longstreet did become an important player in the drama once he arrived on the scene.

The evidence for Longstreet’s leadership comes primarily from two sources. Mackall’s comment that Longstreet had done more damage to Bragg than all the other generals combined is telling, as is Lafayette McLaws’s charge that Longstreet was the ringleader of the post-Chickamauga plot.

For various reasons, I think McLaws overlooks the roles played by Polk, Hill, and Buckner; but clearly Longstreet’s prestige counted for a great deal. He had influence based on his reputation, and once he threw that influence behind the movement to oust Bragg, it gave greater weight to the scheme. As for being the ringleader; he inherited this mantle largely because Polk was absent, sent packing by Bragg in the wake of Chickamauga. But Polk didn’t travel far – merely to Atlanta, from where he could intercept the President in early October and plead his own case before Bragg had a chance to lay out his case.

It is also worth noting that Longstreet’s own memoirs work against him. In Manassas to Appomattox James Longstreet claimed that Jefferson Davis privately offered him command of the army in Bragg’s stead, an offer he refused. There is no contemporary evidence of that offer, nor is it likely to have been made, given how hard Davis worked to sustain Bragg and heal the rifts in the army’s leadership. Such an offer simply doesn’t square with the facts known at the time. It does seem more like the faulty recollections of an old, much-assailed man salving his wounded pride.

Did Longstreet bungle his portion of the Chattanooga campaign? Specifically, Wauhatchie?

As I have tried to point out, there were no good solutions for the Confederates in Lookout Valley, mainly due to logistic inadequacies. The loiter time there of any Confederate formation larger than a brigade was extremely limited – to be measured in days, not weeks.  The Federals could pick the time and place of their attack, and mass far more combat power there than could any Confederate force. Thus, Longstreet (or any commander who replaced him: see for example Carter Stevenson’s handling of the defense of Lookout Mountain a month later) was always going to be forced to defend too much ground with too few troops. Longstreet’s most significant mistake was in misreading Union intentions; in assuming Hooker’s column would ascend the mountain well to the south and attack north along the crest. That was, after all, the gist of previous Federal efforts.

Tactically, Bragg faulted Longstreet for not using more force. Bragg expected Longstreet to take as many as four divisions into Lookout Valley and crush the newly formed Union bridgehead. Naturally enough, historians have followed suit. But Bragg should have known better. It was all but impossible to move much more than a division across the northern point of Lookout in a single night, and moving during the day was all but impossible. Taking several nights to shift additional strength would have meant not only the complete loss of surprise, but also that the first troops would be out of rations by the time the whole force was assembled. Bragg’s concept was never feasible. As the army’s commander, Bragg certainly should have known that.

Did East Tennessee demonstrate Longstreet’s incompetence?

East Tennessee is often held up as proof of Longstreet’s incapacity at independent command. It is a judgement reached, I think, without understanding the logistics of the campaign. As shown, every Confederate believed that to be successful, the Rebels needed to move quickly, unexpectedly, and in great force. None of those things happened, primarily because Bragg’s logistics were already on the brink of failure.  It took more than a week for Longstreet to transfer his men to Sweetwater. The lack of transport for his pontoon bridge dictated where Longstreet must cross the Tennessee, ruling out rapid maneuver. Longstreet also never had more than numerical parity; there was never any hope of applying overwhelming force. The actual result was the most likely outcome: Stalemate at Knoxville.

The attack on Fort Sanders was flawed, both in planning and execution. But like many such efforts during the war, it was driven by frustration, impatience, and the need to take action – any action. To me, Sanders is reminiscent of Grant’s attacks at Vicksburg on May 22nd and Cold Harbor, Sherman’s effort at Kennesaw, or Lee’s repeated assaults on Malvern Hill. Longstreet’s attack cost his army 813 men, a sizeable butcher’s bill, but hardly without precedent. I suspect that had Longstreet slipped away from Knoxville without an attack, history might instead fault him for not making an effort to storm the Federal lines.

Longstreet’s ability to return his troops to Lee the next spring, despite the hardships and logistical shortcomings of a winter in East Tennessee, meant that he managed some level of success during the campaign – even if in just subsisting his force. It is hardly proof of incompetence.

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In the end, I think that the greatest damage done to Longstreet’s reputation was that he lived through the war. Had he died at Gettysburg, we might well remember him differently. But it was a different war by the Fall of 1863; gone were the Confederate glory days of 1862 when Stonewall Jackson could rampage through a different valley, confounding every Federal he faced.

About Dave Powell

I'm a middle-aged guy with a fascination with the American Civil War, and especially the battle of Chickamauga. In my day job, I am president and an owner of CBS Messenger, a courier company in Chicago, but whenever I can am off pursuing all things Chickamauga. I am also a wargamer, having designed more than fifteen boardgames on various battle topics. Join me as I ramble about things that hold my attention.
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3 Responses to Longstreet Goes West: Conclusions

  1. Theodore Savas says:

    Good thoughts here DP. I agree with them all–including the fact that he would be recalled much more favorably had he died in the Wilderness.

  2. Sam Elliott says:

    Hard to dispute any of these conclusions. At one point, I thought Longstreet’s efforts in Lookout Valley were not optimal, but upon reflection on the logistical problems you concisely discuss, Dave, I have long since cut Pete some slack.

    • Dave Powell says:

      Sam, I think that Longstreet is due some criticism; certainly he continued to let his thinking be dominated by the southern approach, and I find his unwillingness to resove the Law-Jenkins issue problematic. But as I have laid out, logistics dictated some very limited choices.

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