previous next
[73]

Lee and Longstreet. [from the Richmond times, June 14, 1896.]

Editor of the Times:
Sir,—I have read the review of General Longstreet's book, ‘From Manassas to Appomattox,’ by the London Daily Telegraph, with much interest. We naturally feel anxious about the conclusions of the impartial and unbiased foreign student of history concerning the events of the war between the States, and especially as to his estimate of the leaders on the Southern side. This review, however, apppears to me to have been suggested by some one nearer home; and, as I read between the lines, I fancy that I hear the partisan here prompting the reviewer over there. Who on the other side of the Atlantic could claim to be so well informed of public sentiment in Virginia during the eventful years of 1862 and 1863 as to be able to assert that ‘controversy raged high in Richmond between the followers of Lee and Johnston as to their relative merit,’ which is a great exaggeration, or to say that ‘Longstreet was distinctly of opinion that General Johnston, as a soldier, was General Lee's superior?’ Where is the authority for this latter assertion? General Longstreet had served under General Johnston up to the battle of Seven Pines, and after that under General Lee; he had been in position to form his own estimate of the ability of each of these great commanders, and no doubt had his own views of their relative merit; but I do not believe that he ever during the war said one word to justify the conclusion of the London Telegraph. Read what General Longstreet wrote to General Lee on the eve of his departure for Tennessee in the fall of 1863. Under date of September 12th he wrote:

‘If I did not think our move a necessary one, my regrets at leaving you would be distressing to me as it seems to be with the officers and men of my command. Believing it to be necessary, I hope to accept it and my other personal inconveniences cheerfully and hopefully. All that we have to be proud of has been accomplished under your eye and under your orders. Our affections for you are stronger, if it is possible for them to be stronger, than our admiration for you.’

Does that read as if General Longstreet was but a lukewarm, reluctant [74] follower of General Lee? Is there anything in the earnest and undoubtedly honest sentiments here expressed to confirm the conclusion of the London Telegraph that it is ‘impossible to read General Longstreet's able book without perceiving that he, who knew General Lee better than any other man who fought under him or against him, was distinctly of opinion that General Johnston, as a soldier, was his superior.’ Be it remembered, too, that this letter from General Longstreet to General Lee was written after the Gettysburg campaign, and the glowing words of admiration and affection employed in giving expression to the recognition of the fact that all the glory of his command was directly due to the ability of his commander are utterly irreconcilable with many statements alleged to have been made by General Longstreet touching the invasion of Pennsylvania by General Lee in 1863. General Longstreet could not claim to have entertained the views and sentiments now attributed to him when he penned the letter of September 12, 1863, without branding himself as a disingenuous flatterer and time-server. When he discussed with General Lee the line of action most advisable to be pursued in the fall of 1863, although rather more disposed to favor the reinforcement of our army in the West for aggressive movements, while the Army of Northern Virginia should take the defensive, nevertheless, he went so far as to suggest another invasion by General Lee of the enemy's country. In a letter to General Lee, under date September 2, 1863, he wrote, ‘I do not know that we can reasonably hope to accomplish much here by offensive operations unless you are strong enough to cross the Potomac.’ With such decided views as he is said to entertain now concerning the Gettysburg campaign, it is impossible to understand the suggestion made so soon thereafter as to a repetition of the invasion of the country beyond the Potomac.

In speaking of General Longstreet's operations about Knoxville in November, 1863, the London Telegraph refers to the mistake then made by him when, ‘from a misconception, he stopped the assaulting column, which he now knows would infallibly have carried Knoxville by storm.’ Clearly the reviewer here charges General Longstreet, by implication at least with the lack of that aggressive and, perhaps, audacious quality, which he subsequently condemns in General Lee. The recognition of this lack of aggressiveness or boldness in General Longstreet is, perhaps, the key to the statement of the Telegraph that General Johnston, who excelled in defensive tactics, was, in the estimation of General Longstreet, superior as a soldier to General Lee, and prepares us for that disapproval [75] on the part of General Longstreet of the aggressive tactics so often pursued by General Lee, which the Telegraph discovers in his book, and to which it gives expression as follows: ‘Yet, we think all readers of this book will admit that, considering the inequality of strength brought into the field by the two belligerents, and of the vast superiority of the North, General Lee was far too fond of fighting. Many extracts might be made from it to show that such is the undoubted opinion of its author.’

Perhaps so. Unquestionably this opinion was shared by Generals McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Meade, and Grant, of the Federal Army of the Potomac.

Now, there is the gist of the London telegraph's version of General Longstreet's criticism of General Lee. Our old chief was too fond of fighting. Well, who else is there in the Army of Northern Virginia who cannot pardon him for that weakness in consideration of the very brilliant results that almost invariably attended his exhibitions of pugnacity? In war it is said that nothing succeeds like success. In General Lee's career his success would seem to attest the good qualities of his generalship, including his tendency to assail his opponents. It was in attestation of his admiration for General Lee's fondness for successful fighting, and in recognition of the brilliant achievements won by his corps in fighting under General Lee's command, that (General Longstreet wrote, ‘All that we have to be proud of has been accomplished under your eye and under your orders.’ The truth is that General Lee was not a wild and reckless fighter, but a discreet and judicious one. When the time arrived to strike he did not hesitate, but gave the blow with force and confidence.

The Telegraph devotes much space to the consideration of General Longstreet's account of the battle of Gettysburg. As is well known, most of the controversy that has occurred since the war between the admirers of General Lee and General Longstreet and his followers has been in regard to the incidents of that campaign. In the discussion of those events intense feeling, and at times even bitterness, has been manifested by both sides; and some of the charges and counter charges made are alike irreconcilable with the general trend of affairs and the unquestionable ability and admitted excellence of each of these great soldiers. Had General Lee lived he would unhesitatingly have accepted his fair share of responsibility for the lack of final success at Gettysburg; but his readiness to assume all blame for failure, even though his lieutenants had failed to do what he had a right to expect [76] of them in the way of co-operation, is in striking contrast to the statement of General Longstreet, as set forth by the Telegraph, that ‘President Davis, Mr. Seddon, and nearly every officer of rank serving under Lee, were opposed to invading the enemy's country, especially after the failure of the Sharpsburg campaign.(?) * * * Yet not a voice was raised against this fatal march, except by General Longstreet when he rejoined General Lee after the battle of Chancellorsville. The two were alone together and what passed between them is now made known for the first time.’ This is indeed a revelation to those of us who were near General Lee, and such bald assertions will not be accepted by those who impartially study the subject with a sincere desire to reach the truth. Indeed, in the light of such assertions made so long after the occurrences and without contemporaneous corroborative testimony, I have been forcibly led to the conclusion that in this book it is not always General Longstreet who speaks. Read what he says when discussing the events of the second day at Gettysburg, page 382: ‘Colonel Taylor says, ‘That General Lee urged that the march of my troops should be hastened, and was chafed at their non-appearance.’ Not one word did he utter to me of their march until he gave his orders at 11 o'clock for the move to his right. Orders for the troops to hasten their march of the first were sent without even a suggestion from him, but upon his announcement that he intended to fight the next day, if the enemy was there. That he was excited and off his balance was evident on the afternoon of the first, and he labored under that oppression until enough blood was shed to appease him.’ How terribly sanguinary this makes General Lee appear! Is it really the utterance of General Longstreet? Then he has greatly changed in his sentiment towards General Lee since I knew him during the war. What a groundless, monstrous charge this is! Think of it, all ye gallant survivors of the Army of Northern Virginia, your old commander depicted to the world as an insatiate, cruel and blood-thirsty monster! Such a charge as that can do him no permanent harm and will but recoil with crushing force on him who made or approved it.

Now, as to the movements of General Longstreet on the 1st and 2d July, at Gettysburg, to which he refers in the quotation last made from his book, may we not ask what more urgent request he could have expected from General Lee that he should hasten to join him than is embraced in his own statement that ‘orders for the troops to hasten their march of the 1st were sent without even a suggestion from him (General Lee), but upon his announcement that he intended [77] to fight the next day, if the enemy was there?’ The greater portion of the two corps of Generals A. P. Hill and Ewell had been hotly engaged during the 1st July, with about an equal force of the enemy; the result was a great victory for General Lee's troops, and the enemy had been driven back some distance through the town of Gettysburg, to the heights beyond. It was of the first importance to follow up this success promptly. General Longstreet, with two of his divisions, camped at a point but four miles distant on the night of the 1st. He was made aware of what had occurred; he had received orders to hasten the march of his troops with ‘the announcement that General Lee intended to fight the next day, if the enemy was there.’ When should he and his two divisions have reported to General Lee for orders? At what hour on the morning of the 2d could General Lee have reasonably expected him? At what hour would General Jackson have saluted General Lee and pointed to his divisions just behind him? I have claimed, and still contend, that General Longstreet was fairly chargeable with tardiness on that occasion. He was fully aware of the importance of joining General Lee at the earliest possible moment. In a letter to me under date of May 31, 1875, he wrote: ‘An order was given, as soon as the fight of the first day was over, for General Ewell to attack, or rather prepare to attack, at daylight in his front, but was almost immediately changed so as to allow time for me to reach the field and make a cooperative attack upon or by our right.’

It is useless to discuss here how different the result might have been had General Longstreet moved his two divisions to the front at dawn of day on the 2d. The only question I propose to consider now is, at what hour did the troops of General Longstreet reach General Lee? For, as will be shown later, there appears to be a contradiction in General Longstreet's own statements about this.

In his book, page 362, General Longstreet says: ‘The stars were shining brightly on the morning of the 2d, when I reported at General Lee's headquarters and asked for orders. After a time Generals McLaws and Hood, with their staffs, rode up, and at sunrise their commands filed off the road to the right and rested.’

Sunrise in that locality and at that date is about 4:35 o'clock A. M. General McLaws, in speaking of the movements of his division on that occasion, says: ‘My division camped at Willoughby Run, about four miles from Gettysburg, on the night of July 1st, about 12 o'clock, perhaps it was later. While there I received an order to move on at 4 A. M. of 2d; but that order was countermanded, and I [78] was directed to move early. Not long after sunrise I moved forward, and before 8 A. M. the head of my division reached Seminary Ridge, where General Lee was in person.’ But I propose to put General Longstreet himself in evidence to contradict the statement just now quoted from his book. I have now in my possession an autograph letter from him, written from New Orleans on the 20th April, 1875, in which he wrote: ‘It occurs to me that if General Lee had any such idea as an attack at sunrise you must surely be advised of it. Right sure am I that such an order was never delivered to me, and it is not possible for me to believe that he ever entertained an idea that I was to attack at that hour. My two divisions, nor myself, did not reach General Lee until 8 A. M. on the 2nd, and if he had intended to attack at sunrise he surely would have expressed some surprise or made some allusion to his orders.’ The point here made by General Longstreet, is that he had received no order to attack at sunrise; nor had he such orders; but, as the matter is now presented, the defence is purely technical. He had been made to know full well the importance to General Lee for the presence of his troops at the front, and he failed to meet the occasion and have his command available for the very co-operation with General Ewell by an early attack by our right, of which he wrote in his letter of May 31, 1875.

In other words, had he placed his troops at General Lee's disposal at the proper time, it was unquestionably the purpose of the latter to have ordered an attack at sunrise or soon thereafter. His troops not being in position, of course the attack could not be made. The two statements made by General Longstreet as to the time that he reported with his divisions, cannot be reconciled. In 1875 when he wrote the letter from which I have quoted, he claims that neither he, nor his divisions reached General Lee until 8 o'clock A. M. In his book, published twenty years later, he claims that he reported at General Lee's headquarters before day, ‘the stars were shining brightly, and that his two divisions reached the front at sunrise,’ say at 4:35 A. M. The preponderance of contemporaneous evidences goes to prove that General Longstreet accurately described the facts in his letter of April, 1875; the ‘star-light’ scene, with which chapter XXVII of his book opens is too finely drawn for ‘Old Pete,’ (rather early you know), and its accuracy is not visible to the naked eye.

The war record of General Longstreet was a brilliant one. That he should have made mistakes was but natural and inevitable; but [79] these did not serve to make his case an exception; and such was the story of his heroic achievements, they could not mar its brilliancy. It is much to be regretted that in the attempt to prove himself invariably right, he should have found it necessary to assail General Lee's motives, and defame his character while claiming for himself qualities as a soldier and leader superior to those possessed by his old commander.

Very respectfully yours,


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)
hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: