During a recent holiday excursion across several states, my wife and I visited the National Battlefield Park at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. One who is interested in such things cannot help being overwhelmed by the events of this key battle during the American Civil War —155 years ago in July. It may be an understatement to suggest that this battle was a disaster on many levels, all of which tend to demonstrate that General Robert E. Lee was not a great field commander of the Southern cause. This is not an undue criticism —particularly in view of the human carnage suffered by the Army of Northern Virginia and the ultimate failure of General Lee to achieve his objectives, which were, at best, if not vague, unattainable.
Much has already been written about the Battle of Gettysburg by those far more qualified than I, so it is not my intent to describe it further here. But I am intrigued by the relationship between General Lee and his principle lieutenant, James Longstreet. Lee referred to Longstreet as his “old war horse.”
Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) (called Rob by his family) was the son of Henry Lee III and Anne Hill Carter. Lee was a top graduate of the U. S. Military Academy (USMA) (class of 1829) who was trained as an engineer and served in the United States Army for 32 years. For most of that time, Lee performed the duties of a field engineer, not a combat commander. As a military engineer, Lee was a builder and participated in numerous projects. He was involved in the early construction of shore fortifications in Georgia (Fort Pulaski), with later assignments at Fort Monroe, Virginia, leading survey teams to Ohio and Michigan, and in helping to develop the St. Louis harbor area.
Lee (whose ancestors migrated to the American colonies from Shropshire, England in 1639) married Mary Anna Randolph Custis (1808-1873), a great-granddaughter of Mary Washington through her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis (and a step-great granddaughter of George Washington) and the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis. The couple married on 30 June 1831, altogether siring seven children.
During the Mexican American War, Lee served as a staff officer under General Winfield Scott, and from every account, Lee provided invaluable advice to his field commander during the war. Between 1846 and 1855, Lee received brevet promotions to major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel while retaining his permanent rank of captain in the corps of engineers. Following the Mexican American War, Lee served at Fort Carroll in Baltimore, and with a survey team in Florida. It was a challenging period in Lee’s life because of his wife’s debilitating illnesses. Over time, with her husband’s frequent absences from her side, Mary became bitter toward him. When Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee was appointed Superintendent of the USMA, Mary Lee did not join him at West Point in 1852.
In 1855, Lee received his first combat arms assignment when transferred to the cavalry and assigned as the deputy commander, 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Texas, serving under Albert Sidney Johnson at Camp Cooper, Texas. His father-in-law’s death in 1857 forced Lee to take a two-year absence from his military duties to attend to matters at home. The family’s financial situation was dire, which forced Lee to manage the plantation by himself. From every account, Lee’s management style (toward Negroes) was harsh, even for the time, and particularly so after several slaves rebelled against his authority. It was an incident that led Lee to redistribute black families to various properties of his deceased father-in-law’s vast holdings. Despite these “management” issues, Lee was a gradual emancipationist who not only provided for the manumission of his personal slaves in his will, but he actively supported the establishment of a free republic in Liberia for the transportation of blacks back to Africa. In effect, Lee did not believe that America was a suitable place for Negroes.
In 1859, Lee returned to active service with the U. S. Army. Two important events took place in 1859 and 1860; (then) Lieutenant Colonel Lee was involved in both. In October 1959, John Brown led a band of abolitionists to Harpers Ferry, Virginia and seized the federal arsenal. It was Brown’s intent to provoke a slave rebellion in western Virginia. Lee commanded detachments of state militia and US Marines (under Lieutenant Israel Greene) to suppress the rebellion and arrest its leaders.
In 1860, Lieutenant Colonel Lee assumed command of Fort Brown, Texas during the so-called Cortina War. Texas Ranger John “Rip” Ford offered a complimentary description of Lee at the time: dignified, calm, and a quality leader. When Texas seceded from the Union in February 1861, General Dave E. Twiggs surrendered US forces (about 4,000 men, including Lee) to the Texans. Paroled, Lee returned to Washington and assumed command of the 1st US Cavalry Regiment. In April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln offered Lee an appointment to Major General in the US Army, but Lee refused based on his belief that his first duty was to the state of Virginia, who seceded from the Union. Scholars tell us that Lee believed secession was a grave mistake, but as a man of honor, Virginia’s secession prompted Lee’s resignation from the U. S. Army. With this duty fulfilled, he returned home (present day Arlington National Cemetery).
Lee’s initial service as part of the Confederacy found him in command of two Confederate brigades (seven regiments) in western Virginia. In this role, Lee demonstrated his lack of qualification to serve as a battlefield commander and was highly criticized for his defeat at the Battle of Cheat Mountain. Nevertheless, Confederate President Jefferson Davis retained him in service to organize coastal defenses along the Carolina and Georgia seaboard. In November 1861, Lee received appointment as Commander, Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. He successfully defended Savannah by blocking the Union’s attempt to occupy that city. Lee’s plan for the defense of Savannah allowed the city to hold out against Union forces until the end of 1864.
In the Peninsula Campaign during the spring of 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac advanced on Richmond, Virginia from Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. Union General George B. McClellan forced Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson and the Army of Virginia back to a point just north and east of the Confederate capital. When Johnson was wounded at Seven Pines, Lee assumed command and re-named his army the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee did not inspire the confidence of the southern press, however. After three weeks of shoring up his defensive positions around Richmond, Lee launched a series of audacious assaults against McClellan’s forces. McClellan, unnerved, abandoned the Peninsula Campaign by withdrawing his army 25 miles to the lower James River. One effect of McClellan’s timidity was President Lincoln’s adoption of relentless warfare. Lee defeated General John Pope at the Second Battle of Manassas and moved the forward edge of the battle area to within twenty miles of the nation’s capital.
Robert E. Lee was fourteen years older than James Longstreet, but in several respects, they were remarkably similar personalities. Both graduated from West Point at the age of 21, both men distinguished themselves during the Mexican American War (Lee, as a staff officer and Longstreet as a combat commander), and both men expressed reservations about the secession of southern states. This may be the place where their similarities end.
James Longstreet, who went by the familiar name “Pete,” was born on 8 January 1821 in Edgefield, South Carolina (present day Edgefield County, Georgia). He was the third son born to James Longstreet (1783-1833) (of Dutch descent) and Mary Ann Dent (1793-1855) (of English descent). Mary was originally from New Jersey and Maryland. The Longstreet’s owned a cotton plantation near present-day Gainesville, Georgia. Long before Pete was born, the Longstreet name was anglicized from Langestraet.
Longstreet’s father wanted his son to pursue a military career and, recognizing limited educational opportunities in the rural setting, sent his son to live with uncle Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, in Augusta, Georgia. James spent eight years on his uncle’s Westover Plantation. While there, James attended the Academy of Richmond County. James’ father died from cholera while visiting Augusta in 1833. Afterward, Pete’s mother and other siblings relocated to Somerville, Alabama while he remained in the care of his uncle.
Unlike many of our modern boys, James was raised to appreciate and excel in manly activities. He was an exceptional shot with the rifle and pistol, and strong swimmer, a skilled hunter, and an accomplished horseman. During the time of his youth, Georgia was a frontier where the so-called southern traditions had not yet taken hold. Socially, “Pete” was rough around the edges, known for his profanity, a preference for strong drink, and playing cards—a legacy passed to him from his uncle. Pete expressed no interest in political matters, despite the prominence of his Uncle Augustus in local politics. Augustus was a lawyer, a judge, a newspaper editor, a Methodist minister, and a staunch “states’ rights” partisan who, during the Nullification Crisis, supported the state government of South Carolina. It is likely that James was influenced by his uncle’s beliefs even if he did not embrace them publicly.
In keeping with his brother’s wishes, Augustus attempted to obtain a congressional appointment for James to attend the USMA in 1837, but at the time, a vacancy for the congressional district in Georgia was unavailable. Instead, James received an appointment to attend the USMA in 1838 through Representative Ruben Chapman, First Congressional District of Alabama (where his mother resided). While Pete Longstreet was an accomplished athlete at the USMA, he was somewhat less gifted in academic pursuits. He ranked in the bottom third of his class in each of his four years at the academy. Nevertheless, Longstreet was significantly influenced in his training by Professor Dennis Hart Mahan, who stressed the importance of swift maneuvering, protection of interior lines, and strategic positioning rather than making attempts to destroy an opposing force. Longstreet’s tactical and strategic methods during the Civil War reflect Mahan’s emphases.
Upon graduation, Longstreet was ranked 54th of 58 cadets in the class of 1842 and while he may not have set the bar in academic pursuits, he did establish important friendships with several individuals destined to become prominent military men in subsequent years, including Ulysses S. Grant. In any case, Brevet Second Lieutenant James Longstreet proceeded to this first posting with the 4th US Infantry at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. In Missouri, Longstreet’s commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel John Garland. Second Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant joined the regiment a year later.
In 1844, Longstreet met the daughter of his commanding officer, Maria Louisa Garland, whom he would later marry. At the same time, Ulysses S. Grant began courting Longstreet’s fourth cousin, Julia Dent, whom he married. Some historians believe Longstreet was “best man” at Grant’s wedding … the point being that Longstreet and Grant had established a close relationship long before the Civil War that would, for a time, divide them.
Over the next two years, Longstreet served in Louisiana and Florida, finally receiving his appointment to regular Second Lieutenant in March 1945. When the 4th Regiment joined the 3rd Regiment in South Texas, Longstreet was reunited with several of his friends.
Pete Longstreet served with distinction during the Mexican American War. Assigned to the 8th US Regiment under Zachary Taylor in 1846, Longstreet participated in the battles of Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, and the Battle of Monterrey. During this last engagement, Longstreet (now commanding two companies of infantry), was assaulted by around two-hundred mounted lancers, which initially forced the American infantry to withdraw. Longstreet, however, quickly reorganized his men and led a counterattack that resulted in the destruction of about half of the Mexican force. He subsequently participated in the battles of Contreras and Churubusco, both of which were pivotal in seizing Mexico City. The 8th Regiment was the only force in General William J. Worth’s division to reach the earthworks and it was Longstreet who carried the regimental colors to the Mexican positions.
Exposed to heavy enemy fire from above, Longstreet led his troops into a ditch seeking shelter. Once there, however, Longstreet realized that the walls were so tall that the only way his men could scale the Mexican earthwork was by forming human ladders. Eventually, the Americans prevailed, but only after fierce hand to hand fighting. For this action, Longstreet was brevetted to Captain. Following the Battle of Molino del Rey, he was brevetted to the rank of major. During the Battle of Chapultepec on 12 September 1847, Longstreet received a serious gunshot wound to his thigh. Falling, he handed the regimental colors to a subordinate, (then) Lieutenant George E. Pickett, who continued the charge to the summit of the castle. Longstreet was evacuated to Casa de Escandón, where he received treatment for his wound. Slow to heal, Longstreet did not leave the Escandón home until December 1847.
Following the war, Pete served in several administrative assignments, including recruiting duty, as a pay master, and as a commissary officer. Longstreet, typical of officers with distinguished combat service, preferred assignments in command of troops. He requested assignment to the horse-mounted infantry, but his request was denied. He did serve on frontier duty in Texas and fought several engagements against the Comanche and Mescalero Apache Indians. In Texas, he served at Fort Scott near Fredericksburg and he commanded the garrison at Fort Bliss, Texas in 1856 and 1858. In summary, Longstreet’s post-war military assignments were typical of most other “civil war” generals, north or south.
In 1860, the term “United States” was laughable. There was nothing “united” about the states. Sectionalism controlled the political debate, with such issues as States’ Rights and slavery occupying the top two tiers. These were important issues of the day —emotional issues which lead to significant disunion within the states and in the Congress. The question that confronted military officers was whether their loyalty belonged to the federal government, or to their home states. Those who believed that states must always subordinate themselves to the will of the federal government elected to serve with the Union; those who believed, as Lee and Longstreet did, that their primary loyalty belonged to their home states, resigned their military commissions and returned home. After the Battle of Fort Sumter, Longstreet agonized over the issue of secession. At the time, he was serving as a paymaster in Albuquerque, New Mexico Territory. Ultimately, he resigned his commission because, in his view, there was no other honorable course of action available to him.
Although born in South Carolina and raised in Georgia, Pete Longstreet offered his services to the State of Alabama, and did so for several reasons. First, his appointment to the USMA came from Alabama. Second, Alabama was the home of his mother, and third, as the senior-most officer from Alabama, he was in line to receive a prominent position within the Confederate army. Longstreet resigned his US Army commission on 8 May 1861 and accepted a commission from the State of Alabama as a confederate lieutenant colonel.
Summoned to Richmond, Virginia by the President of the Confederacy, Longstreet met with Jefferson Davis on 22 June where he was offered advancement to brigadier general. He accepted this appointment on 25 June and reported for duty under Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard at Manassas junction. There, Longstreet was assigned command of a brigade consisting of the 1st, 11th, and 17th Virginia infantry within the Confederate Army of the Potomac. Longstreet immediately set about training his staff and regiments. The Civil War began in earnest for Longstreet when Major General Irvin McDowell marched his army into Manassas with the expectation of bringing the rebellion to a quick end. Longstreet’s Brigade saw its first action on 18 July at Blackburn’s Ford in a clash with Brigadier General Daniel Tyler. When Tyler’s troops pushed the rebels back, Longstreet drew his sword and led his men forward to re-capture lost ground. Elements of Colonel Jubal Early’s brigade rushed forward to reinforce Longstreet, but inexperienced and poorly trained riflemen fired into the backs of Longstreet’s Virginians. Tyler withdrew from the field because his orders were to avoid a major battle with Confederate forces.
Northern forces believed they were preserving the union, but in the minds of the Confederates, they were defending their homes from “Yankee aggression.” In these early days, Confederate forces waged a defensive strategy, one that worked for them during the first two years of the war. One after another, Union incursions were defeated by rebels who were defending their homeland. This, Longstreet believed, was the morally correct strategy.
In May 1863, Longstreet was a lieutenant general commanding the 1st Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. In this capacity, Longstreet was Lee’s deputy commander, with whom he was at odds in the matter of invading northern territories. Longstreet supported the defense of Confederate states; he did not support the invasion of Union states or territories. Moreover, Longstreet knew (as Lee should have known) that the Confederate army could not realistically expect success against its Union opponent. The US Army had far greater access to recruitment (replacements), armaments, mobility, and logistical support to field armies.
Upon arriving at Gettysburg, Lieutenant General Longstreet was not surprised to find an army twice as large as his own. What did surprise him was General Lee’s stubborn insistence that a battle be waged there. It caused him to argue strenuously with Lee to withdraw his army and find a terrain more suitable for a battle that favored the Confederates. Lee could not be persuaded. Worse, Lee was reckless in the deployment of his three corps. In giving Brigadier General J. E. B. Stuart wide latitude in his ranging activities, Lee had no one to blame but himself for Stuart’s absence until 2 July 1863. Lee wanted a victory at Gettysburg, and he wanted it immediately. In trying to achieve it, however, Lee made battlefield decisions without full knowledge of the strength or disposition of his enemy.
Having lost the argument for withdrawal, Longstreet urged Lee to allow him to aggress the high ground on the Union left. Lee again denied Longstreet’s request, ordering instead a frontal attack into the center of the Union line, which Lee believed was lightly defended. For Longstreet’s Corps to arrive at that position, however (from the far-right flank of the Confederate line), it demanded a series of oblique movements across an open field of nearly one mile to the Union defenses. It took a long time for those men to execute that assault, but worse than this, Longstreet’s hour long artillery preparatory fires directed toward the Union center made his intentions known to the George Meade, the Union commander. While federal artillery answered Longstreet in counter-battery fire, Meade quickly reinforced the center line with infantry and short canister artillery.
Much has been written about the Battle of Gettysburg, evaluated in retrospect by men endowed with 20-20 vision. Commanders make mistakes, of course —after all, they are mere human beings. Lee’s invasion of the north had serious consequences not only for the men who fought at Gettysburg, but also for the war, which raged for another two years. Having invaded the north, there was no other way for the war to end except by the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy. We must wonder how the war might have ended had Longstreet, rather than Lee, been appointed as General of the Army of Northern Virginia.
In fairness, Robert E. Lee was a very ill man from around late 1862 when he suffered at least one heart attack (some suggest as many as five). On this basis alone, Lee should have resigned his commission. If not that, then the Confederate administration should have replaced him with someone healthier and who had a better understanding of military strategy. There is no question that, considering Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet, “Old Pete” was the better general. He was an exceptional field commander; he would not have sought a confrontation on northern territory; he would not have squandered the lives of so many men in a campaign that could not have been won.
Lee succumbed to his heart disease in 1870. Subsequently, Lee became a deity in the defeated south. He was worshipped by his men, whom he wasted in horrifically large numbers, by those who refused to relinquish the southern cause, even for the next one hundred years, and by those who turned their vitriol upon the superior field commander: James Longstreet. Longstreet became the target of southern venom because of his post-war support for the rights of black Americans. His critics were former soldiers, statesmen, and members of the southern press who ignored the fact that Pete Longstreet worked hard on behalf of Civil War veterans (north and south) throughout the Reconstruction Era. They were small-minded fellows (Democrats) who criticized Longstreet for joining the Republican Party, for endorsing Ulysses S. Grant for the presidency (in 1868), and for taking on government roles during and after Reconstruction.
No general officer in our country’s history warrants deification … not Washington, Taylor, Lee, Longstreet, or even more recently, “Mad Dog” Mattis. These men accepted commissions and the heavy burden of command. They owed no loyalty to their political masters, but the were obligated to their purpose, which in this tale, was either defending and protecting the Constitution of the United States, or their solemn commitment to protect their homeland. Equally important, they owed their loyalty to the men whom they sent into harm’s way. There can be no greater calling for a military officer than to lead men into a great battle —and lead them well.
If Robert E. Lee has a legacy, it is that he violated the trust and confidence placed in him to defend the homeland, he failed to attend to the welfare of his men and preserve them, as much as possible, in the crucible of war.
- Coddington, E. B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. Simon & Schuster, 1968.
- Connolly, T. L. The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society. 1978.
- Knudsen, H. M. General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Modern General. Word Association Publishing, 2007.
- Longstreet, J. From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America. Lippencott Publishing, 1896.
- Lynch, J. D. Robert E. Lee, or, Heroes of the South. A Poem.
- Railton, B. The Saturday Evening Post, 2 May 2019: Considering History: Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and the Truths of Civil War Memory.
- Sawyer, G. James Longstreet: Before Manassas and After Appomattox. Sawyer House, 2005.
 Also known as “Light Horse Harry Lee,” a distinguished Revolutionary War major general. Subsequent to his military service, economic downturns financially ruined Henry who ultimately spent a year of his life in debtor’s prison. When Harry Lee opposed the War of 1812, he was beaten nearly senseless by a mob of Democrats from Baltimore. The result of these injuries forced Lee into convalescence, but he never fully recovered. He died on 25 March 1818 while in the care of Louisa Greene, the daughter of Nathaniel Greene, at Cumberland, Georgia.
 Daughter of Charles Carter (1732-1808), the fifth-generation owner of Shirley Plantation and a distinguished family of Tidewater, Virginia.
 Albert Sydney Johnson (1803-1862) served as a general officer in three separate armies: the Texian Army, the U. S. Army, and the Confederate States Army. In a career spanning 34 years, Johnson was a seasoned combat officer with service in the Black Hawk War, the Texas War of Independence, the Mexican American War, the Utah War, and the American Civil War. Despite his prowess as a field commander, statues of Johnson have been removed in Texas and schools named in his honor were renamed in 2018. If there is any shame in Texas history, this is it.
 When Secretary of War John B. Floyd learned of the rebellion, the Virginian may have had visions of Haitian rebellion in the early 1800s and Nat Turner’s rebellion and their resulting carnage of whites. Floyd ordered a message delivered to Lee, who at the time, was at home in Arlington, Virginia, which detailed Lee to assume command of the US reaction forces. President James Buchanan was dissatisfied with Floyd’s re-action and urged him to rush troops to Harpers Ferry. Apparently, an artillery battery was already en route from Fort Monroe to Baltimore, but their movement was taking too long. To assist, Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey offered a detachment of Marines from the Washington Navy Yard. Ultimately, an expedition of fifty Marines proceeded to Harpers Ferry to help quell the disturbance. After commanding his force to “charge” the arsenal, the fight lasted less than five minutes. Lee was complimentary of Lieutenant Greene and his Marines during this episode.
 Fought between 12-15 September 1861 in Pocahontas and Randolph counties, Virginia (present day, West Virginia). Lee attempted to surround the Union garrison atop Cheat Mountain, but the attack was never launched due to faulty intelligence and poor communications among the rebel forces, inadequate supplies, and poor weather.
 Nicknamed by his father because of his rock-like character.
 Nullification was a political argument, taken directly from the Bill of Rights, which held that states were entitled to nullify any federal law that infringed on the rights of states. The issue as it first surfaced in the early 1790s eventually led to the formation of political parties in the United States, and this in turn polarized the nullification debate between those who believed in the supremacy of the federal government over the states, and those who believed that the federal government could not impose laws upon the states that violated the Tenth Amendment of the US Bill of Rights; specifically, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
 Mahan’s books became standard textbooks used in military academies throughout the western world through the First World War. His lectures and writings about field strategy and fortification were instrumental during the Civil War, used by officers on both sides of the conflict. From Mahan, Longstreet learned the importance of topography and the use of terrain to achieve advantages in combat. Mahan’s son was Alfred Thayer Mahan, who became an important influence in the use of naval warfare in the emerging United States after 1877.
 The placement of US military units in Texas in 1844-1845 suggests that the United States anticipated a war with Mexico resulting from the admittance of Texas into the Union, which in fact broke out in 1846.
 Brevet promotions were temporary advancements in rank (without pay increases) in recognition of courage in the face of the enemy.
 A commissary officer was responsible for the procurement and distribution of food for troops and animals. While not a particularly exciting duty, it was an experience that gave Longstreet an appreciation for the complexities of logistical support of front-line troops.
 Prior to the Civil War, the US Army did not have formal “cavalry” units. Called dragoons, horse-mounted units were simply mobile infantry troops tactically employed as riflemen (although the distinction between the two may be slight).
 In 1858, Longstreet visited his friend Ulysses Grant in St. Louis, Missouri. By this time, Grant had left the Army to pursue business interests, which were largely unsuccessful. Longstreet found his friend extremely poor, depressed, and frequently inebriated.
 Our knowledge of Longstreet’s activities between 1848-1861 are limited by the fact that he was not known as a diarist and what papers he might have had were destroyed in a house fire in 1889.
 For many southern officers, the question was never about maintaining their loyalty to the US Constitution; it was rather a belief that the federal government had violated the Constitution in the matter of states’ rights.
 Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard (1818-1893) was the first prominent Confederate general officer of the American Civil War. Beauregard served with distinction and gallantry during the Mexican American War and the Civil War. He was raised in a prominent Creole family in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, finished second in his class at the US Military Academy, became an accomplished military engineer, and in 1861 served as the Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was dismissed from this assignment after only a few days because of his vocal sympathy for the Southern cause. He subsequently resigned his commission from the U. S. Army and offered his services to the Confederacy. Beauregard was the first general officer appointed by the Confederacy and was placed in command of the defenses of Charleston, South Carolina. It was Beauregard who ordered the first shots of the Civil War resulting in the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861. At Manassas, he served as second in command to General Joseph E. Johnson.