James Longstreet at age forty-two was the dean of corps commanders at Gettysburg; he had been in corps command twice as long as anybody else on either side. It was he who would command of the Army of Northern Virginia if Lee were incapacitated. Longstreet was a devoted poker player, and as such was the opposite of a gambler. He was a man who studied the averages and calculated the odds carefully. Never one to force his chances, he preferred to wait for a situation like the one at Fredericksburg, where he could prepare his defenses on advantageous terrain and wait for the enemy to shatter himself against them. If the odds were not in his favor, he would wait for the moment when he held the trumps. Longstreet, also like a good poker player, approached his business dispassionately. To him, victory was the result of thoughtful planning, not heroism. While he supported Lee's bold strategic offensives, it was always with an eye to fighting a defensive battle at the climax of each campaign. His way of evening the odds with the numerically superior Union army was to conserve his men's lives, not gamble them needlessly in costly assaults. He thus dealt in human life with a conservatism lacking in many military men, especially in the South. He showed constant concern for his men's well-being. At Fredericksburg, for instance, when his engineers protested to him that the gunners were digging their emplacements too deep, Longstreet would not order them to stop. "If we only save the finger of a man, that's good enough," he said.
Longstreet's appearance was like his personality: oversized, blunt, and rugged. Six feet two inches tall and burly, he gave an impression of solidity and dependability, rather than dash or brilliance. His aide Moxley Sorrel described him at First Manassas: "A most striking figure . . . a soldier every inch, and very handsome, tall and well proportioned, strong and active, a superb horseman and with an unsurpassed soldierly bearing, his features and expression fairly matched; eyes, glint steel blue, deep and piercing; a full brown beard, head well shaped and poised. The worst feature was the mouth, rather coarse; it was partly hidden, however, by his ample beard." Free of any nervous habits, Longstreet's unruffled presence on the battlefield imparted a feeling of well-being to those around him; his imperturbability, which seems to have been his preeminent trait, may have had something to do with the fact that he was slightly deaf. At any rate, few ever saw him get excited about anything, good or bad.
When the bullets began to fly, Longstreet's immovability translated into a magnificent fearlessness. At Sharpsburg, one witness recalled that, under fire, he was "as cool and composed as if on dress parade. I could discover no trace of unusual excitement except that he seemed to cut through his tobacco at each chew." Longstreet later revealed his philosophy to a colonel on the battlefield of Chickamauga, who remembered the general "had sort of a toothpick in his mouth, and thoughtfully gazed at me." When an artillery shell shrieked by, the colonel flinched. "I see you salute them," chided Longstreet. "Yes, every time," the colonel answered. "If there is a shell or bullet over there destined for us ," Longstreet mused, "it will find us."
Of Dutch extraction, Longstreet was a native of South Carolina who grew up mostly in Georgia. He was accepted at West Point, but he was a poor student who preferred the physical side of military life; he graduated only 54th out of 62 in the Class of 1842. After graduation, he served a tour of duty at Jefferson Barracks outside Saint Louis, where he fell in love with the regimental commander's daughter, Louise Garland. She was only 17, and her parents insisted the couple wait to marry until she was older. Longstreet departed to serve in the Mexican War, and carried with him a daguerreotype of Louise. When he returned in 1848 (after a heroic exploit--being wounded in the thigh carrying the flag forward in the storming of Chapultapec), the couple was wed. They eventually had ten children together. (Longstreet, however, neglected to mention her in his memoirs.) Life settled down into a dreary succession of dusty outposts, and he became content with the undemanding duties and security of a paymaster.
When the Civil War began in 1861 Longstreet joined the Confederate army with no ambition for glory, intending to continue as a paymaster. Since he was the ranking officer from Alabama, he was instead made a brigadier general and commanded a brigade at First Manassas two weeks later. In those two weeks, he imposed discipline, drilled the brigade three times a day, and saw to the care of his men. His brigade wasn't heavily involved in the battle, but Longstreet's presence was noticed--cavalryman Fitzhugh Lee recalled seeing him and thinking "there is a man that cannot be stampeded." By the fall of 1861, Longstreet and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson were already marked as the two outstanding brigadiers in the Confederate army. On October 7, they were both promoted to major general. Longstreet was given command of the Third Division of the army.
Aide Thomas Goree wrote during this time that Longstreet's "forte as an officer consists in the seeming ease with which he can handle and arrange large numbers of troops, as also with the confidence and enthusiasm with which he seems to inspire them. . . . If he is ever excited, he has a way of concealing it, and always appears as if he had the utmost confidence in his own ability to command and that of his troops to execute." He could be difficult, however. Longstreet was a pouter. Goree noticed that when someone displeased him, "he does not say much, but merely looks grim. We all know now how to take him, and do not talk much to him without we find if he is in a talkative mood. He has a good deal of the roughness of the old soldier about him."
When the war heated up in the spring of 1862 with McClellan's arrival on the Peninsula, Longstreet displayed ability in the early fighting, at Williamsburg. At Seven Pines, however, he not only performed miserably but falsified records to place the blame on a fellow officer. (Fortunately, this was an isolated incident.) Then came the Seven Days' Battles. Since this was the one week in Jackson's career when that legendary leader appeared to falter, Longstreet shone brighter with a solid performance. This had a memorable effect--Lee divided his army into wings, one Jackson's and one Longstreet's, and when he eventually promoted both men to lieutenant general in the fall, Longstreet's name would be first.
At Second Manassas in late August Longstreet displayed both his tendencies: balkiness while getting into position to deliver a blow, then hitting like an avalanche when he was finally ready. A few weeks later, at Sharpsburg, wearing carpet slippers and riding sidesaddle on account of a boot-chafed heel, he rode up and down the lines, holding his men in place through the critical hours of the afternoon. When the fight was over and Longstreet reported back to headquarters, Lee said "Here comes my war horse from the field he has done so much to save!"
"War Horse" to Lee, "Pete" or "Old Peter" to his men, "Dutch" to his West Point pals, sometimes "Bull" or "Bulldog," Longstreet was a man who attracted nicknames. Few colorful stories attached themselves to him, however, because of his phlegmatic personality. Interestingly, Longstreet in the first year of the war had been a popular companion; his headquarters had been a center of socialization where visitors could expect a good time, a fine meal, plenty of whiskey, and a convivial game of poker. "He was rather gay in disposition with his chums," wrote Sorrel. Then in January 1862 three of his children died in a single week during a scarlet fever epidemic in Richmond, and when the bereaved general returned to the army from the funeral he was, said Sorrel, "a changed man." The poker parties stopped, and he rarely drank. Longstreet became a devout Episcopalian. While he had always been taciturn by nature, he afterward became more withdrawn, often saying little beyond a gruff "yes" or "no."
During operations between Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg, General Lee followed the custom of pitching his tent close to Longstreet's. Although the two differed fundamentally in their philosophy of how the war should be waged, Lee would continue to value Longstreet as an "idea man." "Old Peter," even if he was at times presumptuous when he advanced his recommendations to Lee, did not bother his superior with unsolved problems. Perhaps this is the trait which most endeared Lee to Longstreet and his other lieutenant, Jackson: in an army where most generals were disposed to await instructions, these two advanced their own ideas forcefully. Lee's continuing physical closeness with Longstreet indicated respect for his opinions.
Fredericksburg, for Longstreet, was the most instructive battle of the war. His men, stoutly prepared, repulsed division after division of Federal attackers. This became the battle he sought to re-fight for the rest of the war. Perhaps it spoiled him, giving him the notion that if he got in position and stayed there, impatient Union generals would crash headlong into his prepared defenses like Union commander Ambrose Burnside did on that December day.
Longstreet was not present for the army's victory at Chancellorsville in May, being detached with Hood's and Pickett's divisions for duty in southeastern Virginia. When Lee reunited the army for the Gettysburg Campaign, Longstreet discussed grand strategy with Lee, and somehow got the impression that Lee was committed to fighting only defensive battles, the kind Longstreet liked. Combined with Longstreet's liabilites--his deliberateness when on the offensive and his habit of sulking when contradicted--this misunderstanding would have terrible consequences for the Army of Northern Virginia in enemy territory.
| Longstreet's two lead divisions--McLaws's and Hood's--started July 1 in
Greenwood, about 17 miles west of Gettysburg, on the west slope of South
Mountain. Orders came from Lee to move to Gettysburg, but Longstreet's men
were held up by the 14-mile-long trains of the Second Corps rolling eastward
over the Chambersburg Pike--the only road over the mountain. After waiting for
the wagons to pass, Longstreet's men finally got moving from Greenwood around
4:00 P.M. and marched 13 miles over the mountain, halting at midnight at Marsh
Creek, about 3_ miles west of Gettysburg.|
Longstreet himself rode ahead on July 1 and reached General Lee, who was standing on Seminary Ridge observing the Union position on Cemetery Hill, at about 5:00 P.M. Longstreet took out his field glasses and surveyed the enemy position for a few minutes, then turned to Lee and said he did not like the look of things. Longstreet urged a move to the right, which would take Lee's army past the Union left to a position between the Army of the Potomac and Washington, where the Rebel army could face about and fight a defensive battle, since the Federals would be forced to attack to reopen communications with Washington. Lee disagreed. The Union army was in front of him, he said, and he would strike it there. Longstreet dropped the discussion for the time being.
About 3:00 A.M. the next morning, July 2, Longstreet's column resumed its march and advanced a mile or so to near Seminary Ridge, where the men stopped and rested while Longstreet and Maj. Gen. John B. Hood went to Lee's headquarters. Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws arrived soon after. A little after 9:00 Lee gave McLaws orders to manuever and attack the Union left--considered to be somewhere north of Little Round Top--from end-on. Hood would move forward behind him. Hours went by while Longstreet stalled until Pickett's division could come over the mountain. Then, when that was ruled out, he stalled again, waiting for Laws's brigade to arrive.
Law's men strode up around noon, and Longstreet finally started McLaws's, then Hood's divisions south along the west side of Herr Ridge toward their destination on the Union left. Longstreet was under orders to move without being seen by the enemy, and when the road went over the southern end of Herr Ridge it became, for a quarter-mile, visible to Union scouts on Little Round Top. Longstreet halted his men short of the visible stretch and gave the order to countermarch--they would begin again and try another approach.
The column waited while the van marched back along Herr Ridge to the starting point. Then the two divisions marched three miles along a hidden route to their positions for the attack--in Pitzer's Woods opposite the Peach Orchard. The frustrating marching and countermarching took four hours to cover the distance. Longstreet sulked the entire way and made things as difficult as possible, refusing to take responsibility for the march, riding not at the head of the column with McLaws's division but with Hood's, halfway back. When McLaws's men reached their destination opposite the Peach Orchard, it was discovered that the Peach Orchard was not empty as had been supposed, but was instead bristling with Yankee troops and guns. Another delay ensued while Hood's division was deployed to the right of McLaws's, an improvisation which would make Hood's the first division to attack, hoping to drive in the extended Union flank before McLaws's attacked the enemy in his front.
Longstreet's men were finally in place by about 4:00 in the afternoon. There was another delay while Hood asked Longstreet once, then again, then a third time for permission to go around the Union left rather than attack straight ahead. Longstreet refused each time, whether out of tactical considerations or bad temper is hard to tell.
Sometime around 4:30 P.M. Longstreet's artillery opened and Hood's division assaulted Little Round Top and Devil's Den. Once Hood's men were engaged, timing McLaws's jump-off was Longstreet's next task. When Union reinforcements were thrown in and Hood's attack started to falter, Longstreet sent in McLaws's division about 5:30 P.M. (Longstreet, who before the campaign had soothed Lee's doubts about McLaws by promising to supervise him closely in event of a battle, stayed with McLaws when he would have done more good supervising Hood's division after that general fell wounded.) McLaws's attack, though delayed, was serendipitously timed--the surge of McLaws's four fresh brigades threatened the entire Union left. More Yankee reinforcements were rushed over to stop them. The brigades of Anderson's division on Longstreet's left were now rushed forward to exploit the weakened Union center, but, insufficiently coordinated by Anderson, they too failed to push the Union line off Cemetery Ridge. The July 2 attack on the Union left petered out as daylight faded with the Federal position still intact. So ended what Longstreet called "the best three hours of fighting ever done by any troops on any battlefield." His eight brigades had knocked out thirteen Union brigades from the Union Third, Second, and Fifth Corps, but had fallen short of winning the battle.
Longstreet's third division, Pickett's, arrived on the afternoon of July 2, the only division in the army which had not yet been engaged. After the day's fighting ended, Lee and Longtreet did not meet--Longstreet said he was not up to the long ride to headquarters--so Lee sent Longstreet an order to renew his attack at daylight the next morning, throwing in Pickett's fresh division.
Next morning, however, at the hour when the attack was supposed to have started, Lee rode to Longstreet's headquarters to find his subordinate still trying to figure out how to work his way around the Union left. Pickett was not yet even in position. Lee had to scrap his original plan and make a new one. Lee and Longstreet rode up Seminary Ridge and examined the Union line on the parallel ridge to the east. Lee pointed to the Clump of Trees and designated it as the target of the day's attack. Longstreet objected--how many men were to be in the attacking force? Lee gave the figure at 15,000. Longstreet replied, "I have been a soldier, I may say, from the ranks up to the position I now hold. I have been in pretty much all kinds of skirmishes, from those of two or three soldiers up to those of an army corps, and I think I can safely say there never was a body of fifteen thousand men who could make that attack successfully."
Lee would not change his plan, however. In the new scheme, Hood's and McLaws's divisions would not make the initial assault. Longstreet would instead attack the Union center with Pickett's division, Heth's (now under Brig. Gen. Johnston Pettigrew) and half of Pender's (now under Maj. Gen. Isaac Trimble), plus half of Anderson's in support. Longstreet balked again at such a ham-handed frontal attack, and even tried to transfer responsibility for ordering the attack onto his artillery chief, Colonel E.P. Alexander. He finally resigned himself to Lee's plan, however, and personally directed Pickett's men into their positions for the assault. He supervised the placement of Hill's attacking divisions less carefully. Then Longstreet wrote to Alexander: "Colonel: Let the batteries open."
During this bombardment, which drew a furious response from the Union guns on the ridge opposite, Longstreet showed himself at his most fearless. With the shells screaming and exploding all around him, he was observed by Brig. Gen. J.L. Kemper of Pickett's division: "Longstreet rode slowly and alone immediately in front of our entire line. He sat his large charger with a magnificent grace and composure I never before beheld. His bearing was to me the grandest moral spectacle of the war. I expected to see him fall every instant. Still he moved on, slowly and majestically, with an inspiring confidence, composure, self-possession and repressed power in every movement and look, that fascinated me."
Nearly two hours later, when the bombardment ended, Longstreet still could not bring himself to give the order to attack--Pickett had to ask, "General, shall I advance?" and Longstreet merely nodded. "Pickett's Charge" then went to its tragic end while Longstreet watched helplessly from Seminary Ridge. Longstreet reacted quickly after the disaster by getting artillery ready to repulse a possible Union counterattack, pulling McLaws's and Hood's divisions back to a position west of the Emmitsburg Road, and helping to rally Pickett's men.
There was never any question that Longstreet would stay in his place at the head of the First Corps after Gettysburg--after all, he was the only experienced corps commander Lee had. Lee's "Old War Horse" would be with his chief at the surrender at Appomattox. However, Longstreet's conduct at Gettysburg would be a remain a subject of heated controversy. According to Moxley Sorrel, "There was apparent apathy in his movements. They lacked the fire and point of his usual bearing on the battlefield." Lafayette McLaws wrote that "during the engagement he was very excited giving contradictory orders to everyone, and was exceedingly overbearing. I consider him a humbug--a man of small capacity, very obstinate, not at all achivalrous, exceedingly conceited, and totally selfish." When the opportunity had presented itself, Lee had sought to win the war with one aggressive stroke. Longstreet, in the meantime, carried to Gettysburg the memory of the easy victory at Fredericksburg, and it had hardened into a psychological block: He could not execute Lee's orders with the required celerity when they ran counter to his idea of the right way to fight a battle.
For further reading:
Eckenrode, H.J. and Bryan Conrad, James Longstreet: Lee's War Horse. Chapel Hill, 1933. Reprint, Chapel Hill, 1989
Krick, Robert K. "'If Longstreet . . . Says so, It is Most Likely Not True': James Longstreet and the Second Day at Gettysburg." in Gary Gallagher, ed., The Second Day at Gettysburg, Kent, 1993
Longstreet, Helen D. Lee and Longstreet at High Tide: Gettysburg in Light of the Official Records. Wilmington, 1989
Longstreet, James. From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America. Bloomington, IN, 1960
Piston, William G. Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History. Athens, 1987
Rollins, Richard. "'The Ruling Ideas of the Pennsylvania Campaign': James Longstreet's 1873 Letter to Lafayette McLaws." Gettysburg Magazine 17, Jul 1997
Moxley Sorrel, Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer. New York, 1905. Reprint, Dayton, 1978
Glenn Tucker, Lee and Longstreet at Gettysburg. Indianapolis, 1968
Jeffry Wert, General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier: A Biography. New York, 1993