In a recent episode of the Emerging Civil War Podcast, historian Jeff Hunt talked about one of the most interesting ramifications of James Longstreet’s move to the Western Theater in the fall of 1863. We were talking about the Bristoe Station campaign with my ECW colleague Kevin Pawlak, and of course, Longstreet wasn’t involved in those operations. He’d been shifted out west where he arrived literally in the nick of time to turn the tide of battle and help win the day for Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee.
As we talked about the aftermath of Gettysburg in the east, and what was going on with Robert E. Lee’s army in Longstreet’s absence, Jeff circled back to one of the age-old questions about the campaign. “You can argue ‘Well, what if the Confederates had won at Gettysburg?’” he said. “But how about, ‘What if Hooker had won at Chancellorsville?’ We never do that, do we? Would the war would have been different if Lee had won at Gettysburg? Yes. Would the war have been different if Burnside had won at Fredericksburg. Yes. That’s always true. But it’s a negative. You get back to the same spot.”
But as he studied the Bristoe campaign, he couldn’t help but be intrigued by some of the possibilities. “Given the way things actually worked—not the way they might have worked, and the way Confederates would have hoped they worked, but given the way things actually worked—sending Longstreet west was a bust,” Jeff said. “Chickamauga was really a fruitless victory because the Confederates mismanaged everything after that, and the disaster at Chattanooga is what actually elevates Grant to supreme command. So Chickamauga backfires on the South very badly.”
If Lee had been allowed to keep Longstreet and launched an offensive against the Army of the Potomac in September–October, 1863, it doesn’t win the war for the Confederates, but Lee might rack up another victory, you know, to put on his arch in Valhalla or something like that, but given how Meade was sort of frozen about what to do on October 9th and 10th. . . .
With just Fitz Lee’s cavalry behind the Rapidan supported by just a brigade of infantry—if Lee had had had that third corps—Longstreet’s—he might have actually pulled off getting to fight a battle inside the Culpeper “V” against Meade, given the political circumstances in which Meade was operating. [The Culpeper “V” is the area east of Culpeper between the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers as they converge and then join west of Fredericksburg.]
But by sending Longstreet west to Chickamauga—the outcome of Chickamauga replaces William Rosecrans with George Thomas, and it brings Grant over to redeem the situation because Grant saves the day at Chattanooga. That’s when they start to decide to elevate him to general in chief.
And so, if the Confederates had never won the victory at Chickamauga by sending Longstreet West, then in the spring of 1864, you have Rosecrans driving on Atlanta. You have Meade in Virginia still. And Grant’s probably going against Mobile, or something like that.
Again, that’s hindsight, a big, big dose of hindsight. But it’s interesting when we look at it. With all these commanders, it’s like you’re doing what makes sense at the moment with the information you have, but what makes sense at that moment in that context isn’t always going to play out in in the way you think it is, either tactically or strategically.
You can watch the entire podcast episode here for more on the “Forgotten Fall’s” biggest engagement, Bristoe Station.