When Longstreet Took Boston

General Longstreet

Readers of Civil War News know that I contribute a regular column, “Critic’s Corner,” in which Publisher Jack Melton allows me to write about books and other published works. July is traditionally our “Gettysburg” issue, with a big central section featuring historical essays, news items, and battlefield updates about the huge event. In keeping with that, I’ve written my July column about the counterfactual literature of how the South won Gettysburg.

As I rummaged through a bunch of old notes, I came upon a source I had not thought about in years: Alexander A. Lawrence’s article, “If Longstreet Had Come Up at Gettysburg.” Lawrence (1906-1979) was a native Savannahian who practiced law there for almost forty years. He was also an avocational historian and author of several books, including A Present for Mr. Lincoln: The Story of Savannah from Secession to Sherman (Macon GA, 1961). His counterfactual musing (back then it was called “What if? history”) dates from October 1947, when he delivered a paper before the Atlanta Historical Society entitled, “Celebration of the Eighty-Fourth Anniversary of the Surrender of Washington, D.C.” Years later he published it as “If Longstreet Had Come Up at Gettysburg” in a collection of essays entitled Tongue in Cheek (Atlanta, 1979).

Pete Longstreet, as everyone knows, didn’t launch his assault against the Union left till late afternoon of July 2. But in Lawrence’s revisioning, the Confederates attack around 9 a.m., catching the Federal infantry so unprepared that soon the Peach Orchard and both Round Tops are in Southern hands. Just then Ewell attacks Culp’s Hill at the other end of Meade’s line and the Union army, pressed by the Rebel vise, begins to retreat. Lee’s pursues vigorously on July 3, pounding the fleeing Yankees with his infantry and artillery. Jeb Stuart’s cavalry swoops up thousands of prisoners as the Army of the Potomac effectively melts away (General Meade himself is captured). Lee’s army bears down on Washington, whose defenders fail to prevent President Lincoln from being bagged while trying to slip out of the city. The Federal capital surrenders on October 25, 1863. (Recall the title of Lawrence’s address.)

Out west, demoralized Federal forces under Grant in Mississippi and Rosecrans in Tennessee begin their own retrogrades back toward the Ohio. But a lot of Yankees in New York and New England refuse to give up, and must be dealt with. The triumphant Lee, his army now swollen to 100,000 by Southern volunteers eager to be in on the kill, marches north. By April 1, 1864, New York has fallen to Confederate forces. “The surrender of Brooklyn,” Lawrence explains, “was delayed for several days by the difficulty the Confederates experienced in finding any officials in that city who could conduct the negotiations in English.”

Then commences Longstreet’s celebrated “March to the Sea”: the Confederate campaign from New York to Boston harbor, calculated to crush the spirit of New Englanders who fail to see that they had lost the war. To do so, Southern soldiers for the first time in the war are forced to resort to the hard techniques—burning and wrecking—that the Yankees had originally introduced and developed. Thus it is in this march, as Connecticut and Massachusetts farms and sweatshops go up in smoke, that Georgia’s General John B. Gordon earns his reputation as being “a good soldier, but a little careless with fire.” Boston falls to Confederate forces exactly one year after Gettysburg. “On July 4th, 1864,” Lawrence observes, “Bob Toombs, true to his promise, called the roll of his slaves on the steps of Fanieul Hall.”

To President Davis, Longstreet dispatches his famous telegram: “I beg to present you as a Fourth of July gift, the city of Boston, with 25,000 cans of baked beans, 150 tons of cod and Harvard College.”

The world after the South won is a far better place, as Lawrence traces subsequent events well into the 20th century. Confederate international power is brought to bear against the Bavarian rabble-rouser Hitler, who is hanged after his failed effort to reoccupy the Rhineland. Even the Russian dictator Stalin cowers, reminding Confederate diplomats that he, too, had been born in Georgia.

All this could have happened, Alexander Lawrence reminds us, if only Longstreet had attacked early on the second day!

5 Responses to When Longstreet Took Boston

  1. wonderful nonsense especially given that Old Pete was in no position to attack at 9am. Now what if general Lee had taken Longstreet’s advice on the evening of day one…that’s a real what if which has no doubt exercised many Southern minds in the past 152 years

  2. These are always great fun to read – and take apart! I remember one published about 1960 predicated on Lee winning GB, followed, coincidently, by Grant being killed at VB. The 2 countries separate peacefully and go their merry ways. IIRC, Texas then seceded from the CS! Of course, while I don’t remember any mention of blacks, I suspect the story found civil rights irrelevant. Then the US and the CS fought together in the 2 world wars, finally reuniting with the election of Texas-born but Yankee-raised Ike and all lived happily ever after!
    All seem to depend on 1. Lee winning GB, 2. The AoP collapses, 3. Lincoln killed or captured, and 4. Grant being killed and VB not captured. The fourth was very unlikely since, by the time the ANV won GB, VB was only a day or so from surrender. The second was pure imagination: CW armies did not foldup and die. After all, Lee almost escaped from Richmond in 1865; only the brilliance of Grant’s campaign trapped him.
    As for the first, what does Lee do to resupply his army in Southern Pennsylvania? He did not have a Montgomery Meigs waiting to provide artillery and gun ammunition, to say nothing of food! We forget the brilliance of Sherman’s March to the Sea was that he was going *towards* Meigs and his supplies waiting off Savannah!

  3. My favorite “what if” book on the Civil War is Ward Moore’s _Bring the Jubilee_, originally published in 1953, and considered a SciFi classic. Pringle, _Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels_ ranks it as #11. However, the Lost Cause and other devotees of the Lee cult ignore it.

    In Hodge Backmaker’s alternative world, 20th-century New York is a city of cobblestones, gas lamps and 10-story skyscrapers. In his world, the Confederate South won its independence and North America is divided with slavery and serfdom are still facts of life. Its portrayal of the implications to African-Americans of a Confederate victory is not what neo-Confederates want to hear!

    After winning the Civil War at Gettysburg by the brilliant occupation of Little Round Top – Grant and Vicksburg are ignored – the Rebels go on to conquer Cuba and Mexico, moving their capital to a more central location in Leesburg, formerly Mexico City. In the novel Hodge travels to a Gettysburg think tank built by the retired Confederate colonel who captured LRT. There he falls in love with the daughter of the colonel (the novel takes place in the 1920s) and finds that the think tank is involved in constructing a time machine which Hodge uses to go to Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 – with predictably disastrous results.

  4. Alexander Lawrence has quite an imagination. Stephen, how does he deal with the “Peculiar Institution?” Is slavery still alive and well in the 20th Century America Lawrence’s fantasy imagines?

    I too vaguely remembered a Civil War alt history that I read in the early 60s, titled “If the South Had Won the Civil War.” I googled it and turns out it was in its day popular (originally published as a Look Magazine feature!) and had an enormous impact on the genre of alternative history.

    If you want a hoot of an alt history but are too lazy to read a book, check out the film “CSA: The Confederate States of America.” Spike Lee I believe is the producer. It is done as a BBC documentary (PBS wouldn’t be allowed to make such a film in this alternative America, where slavery is a institution in the North as well as the South.). Despite its dire premise, the film is a spoof with a lot of humor, outrageous faux commercials and PSAs, and over-the-top portrayals of interviews with public leaders and political figures in the imagined 21st Century CSA.

  5. One shouldn’t overlook Newt Gindrich’s trilogy on Gettysburg. A good, and perhaps a more realistic appraisal of the results of Lee following Longstreets advice at Gettysburg. But even though the South won the battle it was apparent that as long as Lincoln could keep the north in the war ultimately they would win.

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