previous next

The Longstreet-Gettysburg controversy [from the Richmond (Va.) Dispatch, February 16, 1896.]

Who commenced it.

The whole matter reviewed by J. William Jones, D. D.

To the Editor of the Dispatch.
You are unquestionably right in the very courteous little difference with the Times as who begun the Longstreet-Gettysburg controversy, but you do not put its origin quite far enough back, and omit some very important points in the history of the controversy.

As I have been in a position to know all of the facts, have read and preserved everything of interest that has been published concerning these matters (although I have not until quite recently printed anything myself), and as there seems to be a constantly recurring question as to ‘who fired the first gun,’ and who is continuing the firing, I ask space for a summary statement of the whole question.

There was in army circles after the battle of Gettysburg a good deal of talk as to the causes of our failure, and it seemed to be very generally understood that the fault was not Lee's, but that his orders had been disobeyed, in that the heights were not carried on the evening of the first day, the attack was not made until the afternoon of the second day, and the troops making the assault on the third day were not properly supported.

But, as Lee, moving among his shattered battalions at Gettysburg, had shown the same superb magnanimity as when at Chancellorsville he had given the glory of the victory to Stonewall Jackson, and had declared, ‘This is all my fault; I have lost this battle, and you must help me out of it the best you can,’ no one was disposed to publish any criticisms of his subordinates. And so after the war there seemed to be a general disposition on the part of leading Confederates to let the Federal generals do the quarrelling, and to preserve among themselves the harmony and good — will counselled by their great commander, and of which he gave so conspicuous an example. [343]

The first publication made in reference to the cause of our defeat at Gettysburg by any Confederate who participated in the battle, so far as I have been able to ascertain, was made by General Longstreet in Swinton's ‘Army of the Potomac,’ which was published in the spring of 1866.

In this book (page 340) Swinton says, and gives Longstreet as his authority for the statement: ‘Indeed, in entering upon this campaign, General Lee expressly promised his corps-commanders that he would not assume a tactical offensive, but force his antagonist to attack him. Having, however, gotten a taste of blood in the considerable success of the first day, the Confederate commander seems to have lost that equipoise in which his faculties commonly moved, and he determined to give battle.’

Swinton then proceeds to criticise Lee very severely for not ‘manoeuvring Meade out of the Gettysburg position,’ and says: ‘This operation General Longstreet, who forboded the worst from an attack on the army in position, and was anxious to hold General Lee to his promise, begged in vain to be allowed to execute.’ (Ibid, p. 341). He quotes General Longstreet as his authority for this, as also for the further criticisms of General Lee which he makes, and the very language of which bears a most remarkable resemblance to what General Longstreet has since printed over his own signature.

Not replied to.

These criticisms of Longstreet on Lee were not replied to by the latter, though it is within my personal knowledge that he had Swinton's book and read at least a portion of it, and none of Lee's subordinates thought proper to make answer.

A short time after General Lee's death General Longstreet gave out for publication the private letter which he wrote his uncle from Culpeper Courthouse, on July 24, 1863, and in which he distinctly claimed that we lost Gettysburg because Lee refused to take his advice, and fought the battle against his judgment; that, if his (Longstreet's) plans had been adopted, ‘great results would have been obtained;’ and, ‘so far as is given to man the ability to judge, we may say with confidence that we should have destroyed the Federal army, marched into Washington, and dictated our terms; or, at least, held Washington, and marched over as much of Pennyslvania as we cared to.’

It will be thus clearly seen that General Longstreet first began [344] this controversy by his criticisms of General Lee, and his claim that we lost Gettysburg because the Napoleonic genius of General James Longstreet could not overcome the obstinate stupidity of Robert Edward Lee.

As a matter of course, these criticisms of Longstreet against the idolized commander of the Army of Northern Virginia met with reply.

January 19, 1872, General J. A. Early delivered the address at Washington and Lee University on the occasion of the anniversary celebration of General Lee's birth. He discussed ‘Lee, the Soldier,’ with that ability, accurate knowledge of the subject, and real loyalty to the name and fame of his old commander which so preeminently characterized that sturdy old patriot, Jubal A. Early, and in the course of his address gave an outline of the Gettysburg campaign and battle, and defended General Lee from the charge that he failed by his own blunders or mistakes.

His criticism of Longstreet.

What he said in criticism of General Longstreet was contained in the following sentences. After speaking of a conference General Lee had with Rodes, Ewell, and himself, held on the evening of the first day, General Early says: ‘General Lee then determined to make the attack from our right on the enemy's left, and left us for the purpose of ordering up Longstreet's Corps in time to begin the attack at dawn the next morning. That corps was not in readiness to make the attack until 4 o'clock in the afternoon of the next day. By that time Meade's whole army had arrived on the field, and taken its position. Had the attack been made at daylight, as contemplated, it must have resulted in a brilliant and decisive victory, as all of Meade's army had not then arrived, and a very small portion of it was in position. A considerable portion of his army did not get up until after sunrise, one corps not arriving until 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and a prompt advance to the attack must have resulted in his defeat in detail. The position which Longstreet attacked at 4 was not occupied by the enemy until late in the afternoon, and Round Top Hill, which commanded the enemy's position, could have been taken in the morning without a struggle.’

Speaking of the fight the next day, of the impossibility of General Lee's doing ‘the actual marching and fighting of his army,’ and the necessity of the prompt and cheerful execution of his orders [345] by his subordinates, General Early said: ‘If Mr. Swinton has told the truth in repeating in his book what is alleged to have been said to him by General Longstreet, there was at least one of General Lee's corps commanders at Gettysburg who did not enter upon the execution of his plans with that confidence and faith necessary to success, and hence, perhaps, it was that it was not achieved.’

These were all of General Early's criticisms upon General Longstreet, and it is obvious that, under the provocation of General Longstreet's previously published criticisms of General Lee, they were very mild for General Early.

General Pendleton's speech.

The next year, January 19, 1893, General W. N. Pendleton, General Lee's chief of artillery and his beloved friend and pastor during his residence in Lexington, made the anniversary address, in which he made the statement about General Lee's orders for the early attack which you have published, and in which, while pointing out his tardiness and its result, he spoke of General Longstreet in very complimentary terms as a brave and sturdy soldier.

This address General Pendleton repeated at a number of points in the South, and then published in the Southern Magazine, Baltimore.

General Longstreet next published in the New Orleans Republican of February 27th, 1876, a very bitter attack on General Fitz. Lee (whose offence was that he had respectfully asked him to publish the whole of a letter from General R. E. Lee, from which he had published a single sentence), General Pendleton, and General Early, but was especially bitter against General Early.

Of course ‘Old Jubal’ replied, there were several papers from each, and General Early used him up so badly that General Longstreet's warmest friends very much regretted that he had gone into the papers.

The next phase.

The next phase of the controversy was the publication of General Longstreet's paper in the Philadelphia Times of November 3, 1877, a very full account of the campaign and battle of Gettysburg, in which he criticised General Lee more severely than ever, and undertakes to show nine distinct mistakes which Lee made, and he (Longstreet) [346] saw, pointed out, and remonstrated with Lee against at the time. This called forth the scathing rejoinder of General Dick Taylor, ‘That any subject involving the possession and exercise of intellect should be clear to Longstreet and concealed from Lee is a startling proposition to those possessing knowledge of the two men. We have biblical authority for the story that the angel in the path was visible to the ass, though invisible to the seer, his master. But suppose that instead of smiting the honest, stupid animal, Balaam had caressed him and then been kicked by him, how would the story read?’

Especial indignation was excited against General Longstreet because in a letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Times, accompanying this paper, he charged that General Lee had altered his original official report, written under the generous spirit in which he had assumed all the blame of the defeat at Gettysburg, and had afterwards ‘written a detailed and somewhat critical account of the battle,’ from which Longstreet's critics had gotten all of their points against him. In other words, he charged General Lee with altering his original report in order to injure him.

In the meantime, I, as secretary of the Southern Historical Society, received a letter from the Count of Paris, propounding a series of questions as to ‘the causes of Lee's defeat at Gettysburg,’ and asking that I secure replies from leading Confederate officers, who were in position to know. I sent copies of this letter to prominent men in every corps, division, and arm of the service, with a personal letter requesting a reply. The result was a series of papers on Gettysburg from such men as Generals J. A. Early, A. L. Long, Fitz. Lee, E. B. Alexander, Cadmus Wilcox, J. B. Hood, H. Heth, L. McLaws, R. L. Walker, James H. Lane, and B. D. Fry, Colonels William H. Taylor, William Allen, J. B. Walton, J. R. Winston, and W. C. Oates, Major Scheibert, of the Prussian Engineer Corps, Captain R. H. McKim, and the Count of Paris. General Longstreet did not send me a paper, as I requested him to do, but published a second paper in the Philadelphia Times, in which he undertook to reply to his critics, who had handled his first article pretty roughly. It is clear that I was, according to the rule among editors, under not the slightest obligation to copy his papers from the Times, and yet I was so anxious to do him the fullest justice, and to have our ‘Gettysburg series’ as complete as possible, that I republished both of his articles. I also published all of the Confederate official reports of Gettysburg that I could procure, including General Longstreet's [347] report, which had never before been in print, and which he contradicted five times in his papers in the Times.

This series of papers excited wide interest among Northern and European military crities, as well as among our own people.

As I did not, personally, write either of the papers, but published all that reached me without note or comment of my own, I may say that most of them were able, clear, and of rare historic value, showing deep research and a thorough knowledge of the subject, and that the series (which may be found in Volumes IV, V, and VI of Southern Historical Society Papers), thoroughly established these points:

Points established.

1. General Lee made no mistake in invading Pennsylvania.

2. After the brilliant victory of the first day, the Confederates ought to have pressed forward and occupied the Gettysburg heights, and General Lee ordered General Ewell to do so, but excused him when he afterwards explained that he was prevented by a report that the enemy were advancing on his flank and rear.

3. We would have won a great and decisive victory on the second day had Longstreet obeyed the orders which there is overwhelming proof General Lee gave him, to attack early in the morning, or, had he carried out the orders which he admits he received to attack at 11 o'clock that morning, but which he managed to put off until 4 o'clock that afternoon.

4. With the great results to be attained, and the confident expectation of winning, General Lee made no mistake in attacking on the third day.

5. We should have pierced Meade's centre, divided his army, smashed to pieces his wings before they could have reunited, and captured Washington and Baltimore, had Longstreet obeyed orders on the third day, and made the attack at daybreak simultaneously with that of Ewell; or made it, as ordered, with his whole corps, supported by A. P. Hill, instead of with a bare 14,000 men against Meade's whole army, while the rest of our army looked on, admired, and wondered while this ‘forlorn hope’ marched to immortal glory, fame, and death.

But I did not mean to go into any discussion of these points, and will only add, as completing the history of the controversy, that Longstreet afterwards continued the fight by publishing in the Century several articles, in which he bitterly criticises General Lee, [348] ridicules Stonewall Jackson as a soldier, belittles A. P. Hill, and makes light of nearly every other Confederate soldier, except—General James Longstreet; who ‘knew it all,’ and virtually did it all—that he submitted to several newspaper interviews, in which he said many unlovely things, and that he has now published his book, which has so fully shown the philosophy of the proverb, ‘Oh, that mine enemy would write a book!’

It will thus be seen that instead of being the meek martyr whom his critics have persecuted and goaded into saying some ugly things, General Longstreet began the controversy, and kept it up—that his attacks upon General Lee have been as unjust as they have been unseemly and ungrateful; and that the only thing ‘politics’ has had to do with the controversy has been that ever since Longstreet became a Republican, a partisan Republican press has labored to make him the great general on the Confederate side, and to exalt him at Lee's expense.

So far as I am personally concerned, while I would not pluck a single leaf that belongs to the laurel crown of the brave leader, the indomitable fighter, the courageous soldier who commanded his old brigade, his old division, his old corps of heroes on so many glorious fields of victory, yet I shall not stand idly by and see him or his partisans criticise and belittle our grand old chief, Robert Edward Lee—the peerless soldier of the centuries—without raising my humble voice or using my feeble pen in indignant burning protest.

J. William Jones, The Miller School, Crozet, Va. February 11, 1896.

Stuart and Gettysburg.

Col. John S. Mosby's defense of the great cavalry leader.

San Francisco, Cal., January 28, 1896.
To the Editor of the Dispatch.
I have just read in the Post the report of Colonel Charles Marshall's speech at the celebration of the anniversary of General Lee's birthday. It is the argument of an astute advocate and sophist, and utterly destitute of judicial candor. I shall briefly notice and [349] answer the charge he makes that General Stuart, the Chief of Cavalry, violated General Lee's order in the Gettysburg campaign. Fortunately, in this case, the truth does not lie at the bottom of a well:

1. General Lee expressly says in his report that he gave Stuart authority to cross the Potomac in the rear of the enemy, which is the route he took. Colonel Marshall was a staff-officer of General Lee's, and, of course, knew this fact; yet he did not mention it.

2. He states that Stuart was ordered to place himself on Ewell's right flank, and did not do it. Any one reading the speech would infer that at the date of the instruction Ewell was with General Lee in the Shenandoah Valley, and that Stuart was in default in this respect. He ignores the important fact that Ewell was then several days' march in advance of General Lee, in Pennsylvania. Of course, Stuart could not be at the same time with General Lee in Virginia and with Ewell in Pennsylvania. He says that Stuart's instructions were to cover the Confederate right as the enemy moved northward. No such instructions were given, but just the reverse. At 5 P. M. June 23d, General Lee wrote to Stuart, who was then east of the Blue Ridge, in Loudoun county:

“If General Hooker's army remains inactive, you can leave two brigades to watch him, and withdraw with the three others; but should he not appear to be moving northward I think you had better withdraw this side of the mountain to-morrow night, cross at Shepherdstown next day (25th), aud move over to Frederickstown. You will, however, be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them all the damage you can, and cross the river east of the mountains. In either case, after crossing the river you must move on and feel the right of Ewell's troops, collecting information, provisions,” etc.

At that time Longstreet's Corps was the rear guard of the army, and Lee's instructions to Stuart were sent through him. On the day before Longstreet had forwarded a similar letter from General Lee, and urged Stuart to go to Ewell by the route around the rear of the enemy. So far from Stuart having been ordered to wait until the enemy moved northward, he was told to go immediately, if they were not moving northward. At that time Hooker was waiting quietly on General Lee; all of his movements had been subordinate to Lee's. He had moved in a circle pari passu with Lee from the Rappahannock to the Potomac so as to cover Washington. When

Lee crossed the river, of course Hooker would cross and maintain [350] the same relative position. General Lee knew that it was physically impossible for Stuart to pass the enemy's rear and keep up communication with him; he knew that it would be equally impossible if he crossed the river west of the Blue Ridge at Shepherdstown, and then (in accordance with his orders) moved on over the South Mountain and joined the right of Ewell's column. How could Stuart be on the Susquehanna and at the same time watch and report Hooker's movements on the Potomac?

Marched day and night.

On June 22d General Lee had written Stuart, ‘One column of Ewell's army (under Early) will probably move toward the Susquehanna by the Emmittsburg route—another by Chambersburg.’ So it was immaterial so far as giving information of Hooker's movements was concerned whether Stuart crossed the Potomac east or west of the Ridge. In either event after crossing he was required to go out of sight of Hooker, and to sever communication with General Lee. Stuart took the most direct route to join the right of Ewell's column, marching continuously day and night to do so. When he reached York he found that Early had been ordered back to Cashtown, the appointed rendezvous of the army. About all this Colonel Marshall says nothing.

3. Colonel Marshall leaves the impression on the reader that Stuart took the whole cavalry corps with him. He knew that Stuart left two brigades of cavalry with Longstreet.

4. Colonel Marshall says that General Lee, at Chambersburg, not having heard from Stuart since he left Virginia, thought that Hooker was still south of the Potomac, until on the night of the 28th he learned through a spy that Hooker was moving northward. This is equivalent to saying that General Lee had lost his head, for no rational being could have supposed that Hooker would remain on the south bank of the Potomac while the Confederates were foraging in Pennsylvania. He might as well have disbanded his army. When General Lee passed Hagerstown on the 26th he knew that the bulk of Hooker's army was north of the river and holding the South Mountain passes. If Hooker had still been in Virginia there would have been nothing to prevent General Lee from marching direct to Baltimore and Washington. If General Lee had supposed (as Colonel Marshall says he did) that the way was open to capture those cities, he would have marched east, and not north to Chambersburg. [351] General Lee never committed any such military blunder. The spy, therefore, only told General Lee what he knew before.

On the morning of June 28th, at Frederick, Hooker was superseded by Meade. His army remained there that day. Instead of threatening General Lee's communications, as Colonel Marshall says, Meade withdrew the two corps that were holding the mountain passes when General Lee passed through Maryland, and moved his army the next day to the east so as to cover Washington and Baltimore. There was never any interruption of Lee's communications.

5. Colonel Marshall says that General Lee took his army to Gettysburg simply to keep Meade east of the mountain and prevent a threatened movement against his communications. This statement is contradicted by the record. General Lee attached no such importance to his communications—if he had any. The road was open to the Potomac, but it was not a line of supply; his army lived off the country, and took with it all the ammunition it expected to use. On June 25th, after crossing the river, he wrote Mr. Davis: ‘I have not sufficient troops to maintain my communications, and therefore have to abandon them.’

According to Colonel Marshall he broke up his whole campaign trying to save them. The fact was they were not even threatened, and General Lee knew it. There was continued passing between the army and the river.

6. I deny that General Lee ever ordered his army to Gettysburg, as Colonel Marshall says, or had any intention of going there before the battle began. In an article published in Belford's Magazine (October and November, 1891) I demonstrated this fact from the records. Colonel Marshall ought to study them before he makes another speech.

General Heth quoted.

On the morning of June 29th General Lee ordered a concentration of the army at Cashtown, a village at the eastern base of the mountain, Hill's Corps was in advance; he reached Cashtown June 30th. That night Hill and Heth heard that there was a force of the enemy at Gettysburg; early the next morning Hill, without orders, with Heth's and Pender's Divisions, started down the Gettysburg 'pike. General Lee was then west of the mountain with Longstreet. Buford's Cavalry was holding Gettysburg as an outpost. Heth was in advance, and soon ran against Buford. There was a pretty stiff fight with the cavalry until Reynolds, who was camped some six miles back, came to his support. Heth says: [352]

Archer and Davis were now directed to advance, the object being to feel the enemy; to make a forced reconnoissance, and determine in what force the enemy were—whether or not he was moving his forces on Gettysburg. Heavy columns of the enemy were soon encountered.’

Davis's and Archer's Brigades were soon smashed, and Archer, with a good many of his men, made prisoners. ‘The enemy,’ says General Heth, ‘had now been felt and found to be in heavy force. The division was now formed in line of battle,’ etc.

The object of a reconnoissance is to get information; after getting the information the attacking force retires. It seems that General Heth ought now to have been satisfied that the enemy was in force, and should have returned to Cashtowni. e., if he only went to make a reconnoissance. Hill now put in Pender's and Heth's divisions, and says they drove the enemy until they came upon the First and Eleventh corps that Reynolds had brought up. He says that he went to Gettysburg ‘to find out what was in my front.’ He had now found it. Hill would have been driven back to Cashtown if Ewell had not come to his support. With Rodes's and Early's divisions, he had camped the night before a few miles north of Gettysburg, and had started to Cashtown when he received a note from Hill telling him he was moving to Gettysburg. The battle had then begun. Ewell, not understanding Hill's object in going to Gettysburg, hearing the sound of battle, and no doubt supposing the army was assembling there, turned the head of his column and marched toward Gettysburg. He came up just in time to save Hill.

At full speed.

General Lee was still west of the mountain when he heard the firing. He did not understand it, and rode forward at full speed to the battle. He arrived on the field just at the close. The battle had been brought on without his knowledge, and without his orders, and lasted from early in the morning until 4 o'clock in the evening. It is clear that Hill took the two divisions to Gettysburg just for an adventure. When General Lee arrived on the field he found about half of his army there. He had been so compromised that he was compelled to accept battle on those conditions, and ordered up the rest of his forces. That morning every division of his army was on the march, and converging on Cashtown. That night the whole army—infantry, cavalry, and artillery—would have been concentrated at Cashtown, or in supporting distance, if this rash movement [353] on Gettysburg had not precipitated a battle. A British officer— Colonel Freemantle—was present as a spectator, and spent the night of July 1st at General Lonstreet's headquarters. In his diary he says:

‘I have the best reason for supposing that the fight came off prematurely, and that neither Lee nor Longstreet intended that it should have begun that day. I also think that their plans were deranged by the events of the 1st.’

The record shows who is responsible for the loss of the campaign, and that it was not Stuart. There were no orders to make a reconnoissance on July 1st, and no necessity for making one.

The success of the first day, due to the accident of Ewell's arrival on the field when he was not expected, was a misfortune to the Southern army. It would have been far better if Ewell had let Hill and Heth be beaten. They had put the Confederates in the condition of a fish that has swallowed a bait with a hook to it.

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 Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: