The Longstreet, Lee and the Lost Cause Myth

Jun 2012
264
San Jacinto
A few days ago someone challenged William Garret Piston's Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant, James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History especially in regard to Stonewall Jackson. He suggested that to get a more accurate view of Longstreet and Jackson in relation to Robert E. Lee I should read Jeffry D. Wert's General James Longstreet, the Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier.

I have Wert's book and as far as I could see Wert (who referenced Piston's earlier book as well as his doctoral dissertation) didn't disagree with anything Piston wrote about Longstreet. Jackson was not favored over Longstreet by Lee.

One might have predicted, based on the squabbling Confederate generals engaged in during the war that their squabbling would continue after the war and that is what happened but in a more complicated fashion than anyone could have foreseen.

Up until Lee's death in 1870, Jackson was the most revered general in the south, but after that Lee's reputation grew and grew until, according to Thomas Connelly (The Marble Man, Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society) Lee achieved sainthood.

The problem with making Lee a saint was that he really screwed up at Gettysburg; so if the blame could be shifted over to Longstreet (and since he had gone over to the Republicans and become a Scalawag; so no one was likely to worry about his reputation) all would be well.

Jubal Early who had guilty secrets lead the deification of Lee campaign. Piston writes, "Early's motives deserve explanation, as he, more than any other man, convinced nineteenth-century Americans and twentieth-century historians that Longstreet's military career deserved censure. Early had been an outspoken critic of secession and had switched his loyalty to the South at the very last moment, a fact which some people remembered and held against him during the war. His military career was marked by controversy and failure. His hesitation on July 1, when Cemetery and Culp's hills were still vulnerable, was one of the major blunders of the Gettysburg campaign. Late in the war, while he led the badly outnumbered Second Corps in the Shenandoah Valley, he was so disastrously defeated that Lee, in response to public outcry, relieved him of command. Further humiliations followed as early fled the country after the war, fearing Federal retaliation for his having ordered the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, during a raid. Living in Canada in acute poverty, he wrote a vitriolic defense of his last campaign only to have Lee politely but firmly withhold approval of either the book or his expatriation. . . ."

While Wert doesn't provide this explanation of Early's motives he does describe what actually happened at Gettysburg and his description clearly disagrees with Early's. Many (most?) of the attacks against Longstreet were fabricated.

I couldn't help thinking of the comparison with modern forensic science and DNA. Rapists who thought their crimes could never be discovered were caught and punished after scientists learned how to use DNA. Something similar happened in the case of Early and his cohorts. Modern historians are as ruthless and dogged as forensic scientists. Records and testimonies were discovered and heard and a true (or at least truer) picture of what happened at Gettysburg arose and Longstreet comes off looking better than Lee.

Longstreet to this day is condemned for his pragmatic decision to cooperate with the Reconstructionists and hasten the day when the South would once again be left to its own devices. While Longstreet was probably correct in theory, most Southerners found his ideas offensive. For if God was on their side, the North must be of the Devil; so some other way must be found to act and to view what had happened.

I am reminded of what happened in France after the Vichy period. De Gaulle fostered the idea that all of true France was overtly or covertly resistant to the Nazis. This was clearly untrue and historians have subsequently described this collaborative period more objectively and completely, but at the time De Gaulle was probably correct in believing that France needed this myth. French people needed some myth to enable them to feel good about themselves and what they had done during the Vichy period.

Perhaps Southerners needed their Lost-Cause myth to enable them to be optimistic about what they and their generals had done during the Civil War. Longstreet became a Republican with the intention of making things easier on Southerners during the Reconstruction period, not understanding that what they really needed wasn't better treatment from Republicans but a myth to enable them to feel better about themselves.

Lawrence
 

diddyriddick

Historum Emeritas
May 2009
14,692
A tiny hamlet in the Carolina Sandhills
Nice post, L.

You are pretty much on the money. What I find striking about Early's attack on Longstreet in the Southern Historical Society papers was that he didn't make his accusations until after Lee had died. From everything I've read, Lee had great respect-perhaps even affection-for Old Pete. As honorable man as Marse Robert was, it might have been interesting to see his response to Early's view.
 

Rongo

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
5,683
Ohio
Longstreet was certainly a casualty of the Lost Cause myth. But I also think we need to realize that not all criticism of Longstreet, or praise of Lee and Jackson, are Lost Cause inspired.

They had very different military styles, and people are going to prefer one over the other based on those styles.
 
Jun 2012
264
San Jacinto
Longstreet's different style

Longstreet was certainly a casualty of the Lost Cause myth. But I also think we need to realize that not all criticism of Longstreet, or praise of Lee and Jackson, are Lost Cause inspired.

They had very different military styles, and people are going to prefer one over the other based on those styles.
Yes this is quite true. Longstreet very strongly believed in the defensive style of warfare. He argued with Lee about it saying the South couldn't afford any more head-on charges against entrenched positions. The didn't have the troops. Lee needed to husband his troops by maneuvering the North into attacking his entrenched positions. Longstreet seems to have been under the impression that Lee was swayed by his arguments before the battle of Gettysburg. Perhaps Lee just gave up arguing with him. Later Lee was surprised to learn that Longstreet thought he had agreed to conduct defensive battle.

Longstreet was clearly thrown off-balance when he learned that Lee intended to conduct the Gettysburg campaign in his usual offensive manner. Did Longstreet's being off-balance detract from his usual optimistic, enthusiast form of leadership? Probably. He agreed to do his duty but it was apparent to his subordinates that he didn't like it.

In retrospect we know that Longstreet was right and Lee wrong. Lee should have fought Meade defensively, that is, Lee should have maneuvered Meade into attacking him. Knowing this should we fault Longstreet for not putting on a false face and pretending optimism and enthusiasm in order to get the most out of his troops? In don't know.

Lawrence
 

Tuthmosis III

Ad Honorem
Oct 2011
3,738
the middle ground
Dang it. The annoying thing about threads like these is how little there is to add to such good posts... :D

It really would be awesome to have memoirs from Lee...
 

Viperlord

Ad Honorem
Aug 2010
8,109
VA
Nice post, L.

You are pretty much on the money. What I find striking about Early's attack on Longstreet in the Southern Historical Society papers was that he didn't make his accusations until after Lee had died. From everything I've read, Lee had great respect-perhaps even affection-for Old Pete. As honorable man as Marse Robert was, it might have been interesting to see his response to Early's view.
I entirely agree with this post.
 
May 2012
657
Los Angeles, California, USA
Great post. I don't much about Jubal Early, but you are correct that Longstreet has gotten a raw deal in popular opinion in order to buttress the mind-boggling myth of Lee's greatness. I've always thought Longstreet was the best Confederate general, and that Lee was somewhere between competent and decent. Hopefully as time passes the truth will begin to take hold.
 
Aug 2011
209
Where I retired.
A few days ago someone challenged William Garret Piston's Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant, James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History especially in regard to Stonewall Jackson. He suggested that to get a more accurate view of Longstreet and Jackson in relation to Robert E. Lee I should read Jeffry D. Wert's General James Longstreet, the Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier.

I have Wert's book and as far as I could see Wert (who referenced Piston's earlier book as well as his doctoral dissertation) didn't disagree with anything Piston wrote about Longstreet. Jackson was not favored over Longstreet by Lee.

One might have predicted, based on the squabbling Confederate generals engaged in during the war that their squabbling would continue after the war and that is what happened but in a more complicated fashion than anyone could have foreseen.

Up until Lee's death in 1870, Jackson was the most revered general in the south, but after that Lee's reputation grew and grew until, according to Thomas Connelly (The Marble Man, Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society) Lee achieved sainthood.

The problem with making Lee a saint was that he really screwed up at Gettysburg; so if the blame could be shifted over to Longstreet (and since he had gone over to the Republicans and become a Scalawag; so no one was likely to worry about his reputation) all would be well.

Jubal Early who had guilty secrets lead the deification of Lee campaign. Piston writes, "Early's motives deserve explanation, as he, more than any other man, convinced nineteenth-century Americans and twentieth-century historians that Longstreet's military career deserved censure. Early had been an outspoken critic of secession and had switched his loyalty to the South at the very last moment, a fact which some people remembered and held against him during the war. His military career was marked by controversy and failure. His hesitation on July 1, when Cemetery and Culp's hills were still vulnerable, was one of the major blunders of the Gettysburg campaign. Late in the war, while he led the badly outnumbered Second Corps in the Shenandoah Valley, he was so disastrously defeated that Lee, in response to public outcry, relieved him of command. Further humiliations followed as early fled the country after the war, fearing Federal retaliation for his having ordered the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, during a raid. Living in Canada in acute poverty, he wrote a vitriolic defense of his last campaign only to have Lee politely but firmly withhold approval of either the book or his expatriation. . . ."

While Wert doesn't provide this explanation of Early's motives he does describe what actually happened at Gettysburg and his description clearly disagrees with Early's. Many (most?) of the attacks against Longstreet were fabricated.

I couldn't help thinking of the comparison with modern forensic science and DNA. Rapists who thought their crimes could never be discovered were caught and punished after scientists learned how to use DNA. Something similar happened in the case of Early and his cohorts. Modern historians are as ruthless and dogged as forensic scientists. Records and testimonies were discovered and heard and a true (or at least truer) picture of what happened at Gettysburg arose and Longstreet comes off looking better than Lee.

Longstreet to this day is condemned for his pragmatic decision to cooperate with the Reconstructionists and hasten the day when the South would once again be left to its own devices. While Longstreet was probably correct in theory, most Southerners found his ideas offensive. For if God was on their side, the North must be of the Devil; so some other way must be found to act and to view what had happened.

I am reminded of what happened in France after the Vichy period. De Gaulle fostered the idea that all of true France was overtly or covertly resistant to the Nazis. This was clearly untrue and historians have subsequently described this collaborative period more objectively and completely, but at the time De Gaulle was probably correct in believing that France needed this myth. French people needed some myth to enable them to feel good about themselves and what they had done during the Vichy period.

Perhaps Southerners needed their Lost-Cause myth to enable them to be optimistic about what they and their generals had done during the Civil War. Longstreet became a Republican with the intention of making things easier on Southerners during the Reconstruction period, not understanding that what they really needed wasn't better treatment from Republicans but a myth to enable them to feel better about themselves.

Lawrence
Nice post. There is so much here I just don't know where to start.
Did you read where Longstreet claimed to have designed Jackson's valley campaign? Which is absolutely not true.
 
Feb 2009
357
United States
Great post. I don't much about Jubal Early, but you are correct that Longstreet has gotten a raw deal in popular opinion in order to buttress the mind-boggling myth of Lee's greatness. I've always thought Longstreet was the best Confederate general, and that Lee was somewhere between competent and decent. Hopefully as time passes the truth will begin to take hold.
Let's not forget that Longstreet became a Republican and tried to facilitate reunion on Northern terms after the war. Early and others creating the Lost Cause myth naturally threw him under the bus because it was easiest and it gave them a scapegoat.
 
Aug 2011
209
Where I retired.
Yes this is quite true. Longstreet very strongly believed in the defensive style of warfare. He argued with Lee about it saying the South couldn't afford any more head-on charges against entrenched positions. The didn't have the troops. Lee needed to husband his troops by maneuvering the North into attacking his entrenched positions. Longstreet seems to have been under the impression that Lee was swayed by his arguments before the battle of Gettysburg. Perhaps Lee just gave up arguing with him. Later Lee was surprised to learn that Longstreet thought he had agreed to conduct defensive battle.

Longstreet was clearly thrown off-balance when he learned that Lee intended to conduct the Gettysburg campaign in his usual offensive manner. Did Longstreet's being off-balance detract from his usual optimistic, enthusiast form of leadership? Probably. He agreed to do his duty but it was apparent to his subordinates that he didn't like it.

In retrospect we know that Longstreet was right and Lee wrong. Lee should have fought Meade defensively, that is, Lee should have maneuvered Meade into attacking him. Knowing this should we fault Longstreet for not putting on a false face and pretending optimism and enthusiasm in order to get the most out of his troops? In don't know.

Lawrence
The line where you say Longstreet tried to talk Lee out of a frontal assault happened at just about every order Lee gave him. He tried to talk Lee out of every battle the 2 were involved in. And the reason for it in my view was Longstreet always from the beginning thought HE should have been the Commanding General of the Army of Virginia. General Lee was smart enough to know how he was and gave into him in order to keep him happy.

According to Rhea in the battle of Wilderness, his flank attack was also slow to happen because in my view, he just wasn't an aggressive soldier. Although once into the fight he handled his men marvelously. This shows at both Knoxville and 7 Pines. General Lee covered for him many times. I have also wondered why he Lee sent his 1st corp to NC instead of someone else. Lee won his greatest battle without him, which tells me a lot.