"Square" and "solid" applied equally to Lafayette McLaws's character and appearance. His complexion was swarthy, his hair was curly and very black, his beard was enormous and bushy and half-covered his broad face, and his eyes--"coal black" according to the observant Rebel artilleryman Robert Stiles--peered out in a rather owlish way. He was short, compact, and burly, with big square shoulders, deep chest, and large, muscular arms. Stiles thought that "of his type, he is a handsome man."
McLaws personified stolidity, and he reminded Stiles of the Roman centurion who stood at his post in Herculaneum "until the lava ran over him." He was a capable soldier without flair, whose steady performance never produced a high moment. His reliability and dogged tenacity rubbed off on his division, however, and made them as hard to dislodge as any in the army. He exuded unflinching fortitude, with the downside being that he lacked military imagination, and was at his best when told exactly what to do and when closely supervised by superiors. Although he developed a suitable mastery of profanity, his martial demeanor hid a sensitive soul. McLaws was a feeling, literate man who poured out his experiences in candid, often sentimental letters to his wife. On the Rappahannock he and Brig. Gen. William Barksdale would wander over to the riverbank at night and listen quietly to the Yankee bands playing the army favorites about lives and loves lost.
A native Georgian, McLaws was a student at the University of Virginia when he received his appointment to West Point, where he graduated 48th out of 62 students in the Class of 1842. Soon after, he married Zachary Taylor's niece. From there he made his life the army, serving in the infantry in Mexico, on the frontier, and in the Mormon Expedition. He had been a captain of infantry for almost ten years when the Sumter crisis erupted in April 1861 and McLaws resigned his commission to "go South."
Made colonel and assigned to the 10th Georgia regiment in June 1861, McLaws was posted on the James Peninsula and was helping to construct its defenses at the time the battle of First Manassas was being fought further north. Soon, he had so impressed his superior Brig. Gen. John Magruder that he was made brigadier general in September and given a division in the Peninsula defenses in November. The fighting on the Peninsula began in earnest with the arrival of McClellan's Union army the next spring, and after an impressive performance in the battle at Yorktown, for which he was highly commended by both Magruder and army commander Gen. Joseph Johnston, McLaws was made major general on May 23, 1862. He had risen very far very fast, having established himself among the top echelon of Confederate generals before the climax of the Peninsula Campaign. No one could have predicted that he would never rise further.
The next month, in the Seven Days' Battles at Savage's Station and Malvern Hill, McLaws's division fought, but it was Magruder who directed most of its operations. In July, after that week of combat had dimmed Magruder's star and added luster to Maj. Gen. "Pete" Longstreet's, McLaws and his division were added to Longstreet's command, an association which would last for the next two years of almost constant campaigning. In August 1862, when Lee and the rest of the army left Richmond to "suppress" the Union army under John Pope, McLaws and his division were left on the Peninsula (along with D.H. Hill's division) to keep an eye on the Federals there. As a result, McLaws missed the battle of Second Bull Run.
McLaws's and Hill's divisions were soon summoned by Lee for the Maryland Campaign in September. There, McLaws made a poor showing which impaired his standing with General Lee. After McLaws assisted with the capture of Harper's Ferry, at a time when Lee was desperately hurrying to concentrate his army at Sharpsburg and expecting McLaws to demand the last energies of his men, McLaws stumbled. His division took forty-one hours to cover the distance--from Harper's Ferry to Sharpsburg--which A.P. Hill's division covered the later that day in nine. McLaws barely arrived in time for the battle. In his report after Sharpsburg, Lee came as close to censure as he ever did in written comments on his officers' performances when he wrote that "[McLaws's] progress was slow, and he did not reach the battlefield at Sharpsburg until sometime after the engagement of the 17th began."
At Fredericksburg three months later, McLaws put himself back in Lee's good graces. The defensive preparations above the town were the type of work at which McLaws shone. Under Longstreet's supervision and with the help of corps engineers, he dug pits for his batteries and strengthened parts of his line with obstructions. He went to work on a sunken road which made up part of his front, improving on a stone wall which protected the road by digging a ditch on the town side of the road, and banking the dirt against the wall. Within this ideal firing trench he provided his men with stacks of loaded muskets. When the battle was over, the snowy ground in front of the trench was thickly carpeted with Union dead from many divisions; it was the most one-sided victory of the war. The reports of both Longstreet and Lee praised McLaws.
Then at Chancellorsville McLaws's star dimmed again. He received word in the latter stages of the battle that Lee wished his and Early's division to attack and overwhelm the isolated Union Sixth Corps. McLaws was the highest ranking major general in the Confederate army, and Jubal Early the most recently appointed, but the deferential McLaws ended up letting Early direct the whole operation. McLaws had always been happier obeying a direct order than acting on a discretionary one. Called on for initiative to solve the puzzle of how to move against the enemy at Chancellorsville, he was paralyzed by indecision. When the attack finally got under way, McLaws was hesitant and unaggressive, and the enemy host escaped.
The loss of Lieut. Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson at Chancellorsville catalyzed a reorganization of the army that Lee had been contemplating for months. The two corps, Jackson's and Longstreet's, would become three, and two new corps commanders would be named. Longstreet recommended McLaws, and McLaws thought himself deserving of corps command by virtue of his seniority and his reliable service. When in late May Lee chose Maj. Gens. Dick Ewell and A.P. Hill for the new posts, McLaws was shattered. Both of the men chosen were from Virginia, and McLaws felt that favoritism for natives of the Old Dominion had deprived him of his rightful standing in the army. He requested a transfer.
But there was more to McLaws's failure to advance than the fact that he was a Georgian. He had been ill the previous winter, and his listless performance at Chancellorsville had disappointed Lee and recalled his similar failure before Sharpsburg the previous fall. Lee simply did not think McLaws's performance over the last year indicated that he was deserving of further advancement.
Despite his disappointment, McLaws's strengths as a division commander were appreciated by his troops. He attended closely to the needs of his men and had their respect, even if he was not brilliant. "He was an officer of much experience and most careful," noted Longstreet's aide Moxley Sorrel. "Fond of detail, his command was in excellent condition, and his ground and position well examined and reconnoitered; not brilliant in field or quick in movement there or elsewhere, he could always be counted on and had secure the entire confidence of his officers and men." His tendency to be cautious--he sometimes sent out pickets as far as eight miles--and his fussiness and rigidity in enforcing regulations--his men nicknamed him "Make Laws"--made his division a reliable one. McLaws was a career soldier who could be depended upon, but needed to be closely supervised. He had commanded his division longer than anybody in Lee's army and knew it inside and out.
| McLaw's division was in Greenwood on July 1, with orders from Lee to
march east over South Mountain to Gettysburg, about 17 miles distant. The men,
however, were prevented from using the only road over the mountain by Ewell's
trains--reckoned by McLaws to be 14 miles long--which clogged the road for ten
hours, until 4:00 P.M.. Falling in behind the trains, McLaws marched until
midnight. His men camped at Marsh Creek, about 3_ miles west of
On the morning of July 2, McLaws rode up to Lee's headquarters and got personal instructions from Lee on how to place his division for the day's attack. Lee wanted McLaws to place his division perpendicular to the Emmitsburg Road at the Peach Orchard and go northward toward the town, rolling up the Union left flank; the day's march was meant to produce another Chancellorsville. McLaws went back to his men, who had moved forward that morning along the Chambersburg Pike, marched them back to Herr Ridge and waited for Longstreet to give the signal for the trek to their destination.
Longstreet was in a peevish mood and stalled the march until noon. When the two-division-long column finally got moving to the south, it soon came to a stretch of road visible to enemy scouts on Little Round Top. To achieve surprise, the column would have to start over and find a hidden approach. McLaws still wanted to lead the march, however, so rather than everybody turning around and Hood's division leading, McLaws's van marched back along the entire column to the Chambersburg Pike, wasting valuable time. McLaws finally finished his troubled march around 3:30 P.M., reaching the woods along Seminary Ridge opposite the Peach Orchard only to find Yankee infantry and artillery already bristling from the peach trees. When McLaws had a closer look he was shocked to find that the Federal line extended past his front to the right, toward Little Round Top. News of the whereabouts of the Union left flank had obviously been faulty. His assault as planned by Lee would meet head-on opposition.
McLaws and Longstreet were by now both muttering oaths and barking orders. McLaws deployed his division on a two-brigade front, with Kershaw on the right and Barksdale on the left. Semmes was put in a second line behind Kershaw, and Wofford behind Barksdale. Under a hastily improvised plan, McLaws would now have to wait for Hood, deploying on his right, to attack first. About 4:30 P.M. the artillery opened up and Hood's brigades plunged forward toward Little Round Top and Devil's Den. Longstreet stayed with McLaws, and by now he was at his most overbearing. There was not much for McLaws to do except to move among his men, steadying them and telling them to be patient. This arrangement, which produced a lasting bitter resentment in McLaws, was no doubt the result of Longstreet's secret promise to Lee before the battle that he would supervise McLaws closely.
Finally, around 5:30 P.M., Longstreet gave the signal and Kershaw's brigade moved out, then Semmes's behind him. Barksdale's and Wofford's brigades got tangled up in the batteries dotting the Confederate line and were delayed, but soon they too were away, and in a matter of minutes had stormed through Union lines in the Peach Orchard and beyond. As they poured forward, they outflanked the Union brigades in the Wheatfield fighting Kershaw and Semmes and sent them back in a rout. McLaws waited behind with Longstreet while his four brigades stormed eastward.
When McLaws's brigades had gone as far as they could go in the dying light of July 2, Longstreet, who was evidently keeping a firm hand on McLaws's command, ordered them back before they were annihilated by the Union reserves which continued to arrive in front of them. The men of the division pulled back to safe positions from Devil's Den to the Peach Orchard for the night. McLaws's division had fought with deadly ferocity. Between them, Hood's and McLaws's divisions inflicted about 9,000 casualties on the Yankees of the Third, Second, and Fifth Corps. McLaws's casualties for the day were about 2,200, 30% of his force. The disparity in the losses is extraordinary, especially considering that McLaws and Hood were the attackers.
On July 3 McLaws's Division, as well as Hood's, were pulled back to the west side of Emmitsburg Road after the failure of Pickett's Charge.
McLaws did not write a report after the battle of Gettysburg. He later wrote that the attack was "unnecessary and the whole plan of battle a bad one." Longstreet, for his part, failed to commend McLaws in his report after the battle. McLaws never again served with the Army of Northern Virginia. Going west with Longstreet's Corp in the autumn, he was brought up on charges of lack of cooperation and negligence by Longstreet after the disappointing Knoxville Campaign. A court found McLaws guilty of some of the charges, but the next May, Jefferson Davis ordered that he be allowed back in the army. Lee declined to accept him, however, and assigned McLaws to South Carolina, where he spent the rest of the war.
For further reading:
McLaws, Lafayette. "Gettysburg." Southern Historical Society Papers 7, 1879. Reprint, Wilmington, 1990
_____, Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Duke University, Durham, NC