Lee’s Best Battle According to Lee’s Old War Horse

In 1893, Washington Post correspondent Leslie J. Perry had an opportunity to do something that modern historians would kill to have: a sitdown interview with a Civil War soldier. In particular, this interview was with one of the Confederacy’s top soldiers, James Longstreet. The conversation varied on many war-related topics. Perry could not hold back from asking some of the same questions we banter around roundtables and symposium tables and online forums, including: “Which do you consider Gen. Lee’s best battle?”

Before providing Longstreet’s answer, it’s important to caveat what he said. Many consider Lee’s greatest victory–and hence his best battle–to be at Chancellorsville in May 1863, and for good reason. Though Longstreet was not present there, so he gave a contrary (and I think, correct) answer: Second Manassas. Here is what Longstreet had to say in full about that battle and why he considered it Lee’s best, partly because of his own performance there.

James Longstreet (Library of Congress)

Well, perhaps the second battle of Manassas was, all things considered, the best tactical battle Gen. Lee ever fought. The grand strategy of the campaign also was fine, and seems to have completely deceived Gen. Pope. Indeed, Pope failed to comprehend Gen. Lee’s purpose from start to finish, and, on August 30, when I was preparing to push him [Pope] off the Warrenton pike, he still imagined us to be in retreat, and his most unfortunate movements were based on that false assumption. Had Pope comprehended the true situation as early as the afternoon of August 28, as I think he ought, it might have gone hard with Jackson before I arrived. Pope was outgeneraled and outclassed by Lee, and through improper dispositions his fine army was outfought. Still, it will not do to underrate Pope; he was an enterprising soldier, and a fighter. His movements in all the earlier stages of the campaign were excellent for his purpose to temporarily hold the lines first of the Rapidan and then the Rappahannock. In the secondary affair with Banks at Cedar Mountain we had gained quite a success, yet Pope promptly concentrated and forced Jackson back again over the river.

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You can learn more about Lee’s, Longstreet’s, and Pope’s performances during the Second Manassas Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas from Dan Welch’s and my Never Such a Campaign: The Battle of Second Manassas, August 28-30, 1862You can purchase it directly from Savas Beatie’s website.

14 Responses to Lee’s Best Battle According to Lee’s Old War Horse

  1. I have to agree with Longstreet. Arranging his forces so as to catch Pope’s army off guard, and then devastating it by a powerful flank attack while it was potentially trapped against the Bull Run, Second Manassas was Lee’s best opportunity to achieve his goal of actually annihilating a U.S. army in total.

  2. It was Chancellorsville…but Longstreet would never give Lee credit for Chancellorsville because Longstreet wasn’t there. He was gallivanting in North Carolina, looking for food with two of his four divisions, when he should have been back with Lee in Virginia no later than April 20, because the spring campaigning would begin then. Always late. Longstreet was always, always late.

    1. Not true. Longstreet was not “always late.” That is post war propaganda by liars like Jubal Early and other who made up slander against him, such as the “sunrise” order at Gettysburg. The reason Longstreet was not at Chancellorsville is because Lee sent him on a mission to gather food from an area that had not been denuded of food like the part of Virginia that they were operating in, and to protect the rail line from possible Federal encroachment against it. He was not “galivanting” around North Carolina, he was there per his orders from Lee, and he completely fulfilled his mission to gather enough food to provision the whole army for a while longer, which also helped make possible Lee’s decision to campaign in Pennsylvania. Also, as soon as Hooker started to make his movements at Chancellorsville, Lee wrote to Longstreet about it, and at that moment, Longstreet started on his way back. But Hooker struck first, and Lee had to fight without Longstreet. So, this claim Longstreet should have been there was not Longstreet’s fault, he was on a mission, which he completed, and was on his way back when the battle started. Not his doing. Regarding 2nd Manassas, I agree with Longstreet. 2nd Manassas was a battle that was executed primarily by Jackson and Longstreet, and Lee stayed out of the tactical aspects, and did it right. He showed trust and confidence in his subordinates, as Jackson held his line to further lure Pope against him, which Longstreet maneuvered into place, carefully deployed his five divisions, and then dropped the hammer when the time was exactly right — when all of Pope’s forces were facing Jackson, and his left flank was exposed. 2nd Manassas was a greater victory than Chancellorsville, because this was the first time probably in the history of North America anyone put together a cohesive 5 division attack. Others would come later in the war, but after the first year’s learning curve to put together larger formations and wield them properly, here at 2nd Manassas, Longstreet leads the way on a scale not achieved before. As a modern soldier myself, I recognize 2nd Manassas as a victory not only of tactics on the field, but more significantly one of outstanding Operational Level maneuver and the use of modern force structure. Modern organizational structure. 2nd Manassas was the transformation point where the Confederate Army under Lee changes from a loose gathering of brigades to proper divisions and 2 wings, which improve the command and control. 2nd Manassas proved this, and Longstreet was the architect of much of this as Lee’s co-planner.

      1. You’ve hit most of the key points. I’d just add that when Longstreet got the initial orders from Lee to return, it was already late. His troops were scattered doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing in collecting forage, etc. Once Longstreet got the new orders he had to get his forces assembled and then transported. By that time the battle was well underway. There is zero evidence that he “delayed”, as opposed to implementing complex logistics. I don’t know how this fiction continues to live, other than people not actually reading up on it and having no understanding of logistics.

      2. A lot of Southern generals attacked Longstreet after the war, a bit unfairly, because he became a Republican and supported full rights for the freed slaves. They had other reasons to criticize him, but that was a subtext. Also why no one built statues of Longstreet.

  3. It seems to me that Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet had the strategic and tactical initiative throughout the 2nd Manassas campaign, whereas Lee was in reactive mode from the start at Chancellorsville having been outflanked and surprised until Jackson’s Hail Mary flank attack turned the tide.

  4. After the tactical blundering and command confusion during the Seven Days, Second Manassas stands out as a near gem. Had Jackson moved forward earlier to join Longstreet, it is difficult to see how Popes army could have survived.

  5. For awhile now I have considered Second Manassas as Lee’s best battle, and while his accomplishments at Chancellorsville are impressive, I think he was ultimately very lucky to have survived that battle. Lee was simply outgeneraled at the outset of the campaign, and it was only due to Hooker’s sudden timidness that Lee was not defeated. Many point to Jackson’s flanking march as his most brilliant move, but in reality it was almost more destructive to the ANV than it was to the AOP. I grew up thinking it was the coup de grace and won the battle, but in reality the battle went on for several more days of hard fighting, and the flanking march required Lee and Stuart to suffer massive casualties in order to rejoin the two wings of his army.

    Manassas, on the other hand was a brilliant use of this two stellar corps commanders, ironically in the the reverse of the roles usually attributed to them, Jackson, usually lauded for his lighting offensive strikes, excelled on the defensive at Sec,Man, and Longstreet, long portrayed as the utmost advocate of defensive warfare, launched what was probably the most effective attack ever effected by the ANV. When comparing casualties between the battles, Sec.Man was a rout of the AOP, while Chanc. was a bloodbath for both sides.

  6. Yes, I agree with Longstreet. Second Manassas was their greatest victory. Lee et. al made a good calculated risk and moved quickly to implement their plan at Second Manassas. And it helped that Pope and McClellan were knuckleheads.

  7. I really like Longstreet. There is no doubt as to why Lee called him His Old War Horse. But I think Old Pete may have misunderstood the question posed to him. I think he answered the question: what was your best battle?

  8. Great read about the post war deification of Lee in a book entitled ‘Marble Man’. A small cadre of former Confederates did masterful job salvaging the South’s defeat. Longstreet’s contributions were minimized. Note the lack of statuary and his name on a military installation. Just or unjust, his critics prevailed.

  9. Considering Longstreet’s track record of bias I’m sure there’s a jab at Jackson somewhere in this choice. It certainly comes from his fetish for defense.

  10. I think different cases can be made for 2BR and Chancellorsville. In the first, Lee was on a “level playing field” and administered a clear thrashing. In the second, he was at a massive numerical disadvantage and still defeated his opponent. In both, Pope’s and Hooker’s decisions helped but – just as in sports – the job is to beat who’s on the schedule. I do see some of the usual and fallacious Longstreet stereotypes surfacing in these posts. They simply ignore the fact that Longstreet was involved in four of the best-executed offensive assaults of the war. Two were devastating – 2BR and Chickamauga; one came close and was stopped only by superb “triaging” on the part of Meade; and the fourth was stymied when at its height Longstreet was removed by his wounding. As for Jackson at 2BR on August 30, the battle’s authoritative chronicler John Hennessy is critical.

  11. I could go on and on, but I’ll try to concisely put my overall thoughts.

    1) Disagree; Gaine’s Mill was Lee’s greatest victory. The reason I say this is that Gaine’s Mill was one of the first battles ever fought in the style of the Era of Total War (1850-1945), wherein, the objective of determining the Victor in war had changed from the preceding Era of Classical War, the ‘Napoleonic Era’ (1700-1850),

    In the CE, land determined the Victor, who could seize, control and hold it. In the ETW, the ability to destroy any ability of the adversary to resist you was the determining factor, or at bare minimum, the ability to win in combat and demonstrate all resistance was utterly futile.

    Lee demonstrated what I’d even call an early foreshadow of Vimy Ridge in 1917.

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