Wednesday, November 21, 2018
November 21, 2018: GettysburgStudying: Longstreet and Lee
[On November 19, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettsysburg Address. Few American speeches have been more significant, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy the address and a few other Gettysburg histories and contexts. Leading up to a special Thanksgiving weekend post!]
On the distinctions between military and cultural history, and their interconnections.
As I understand it—and as a youthful Civil War buff AmericanStudier-in-training I read quite a bit into the war’s battles and strategies, most especially in Bruce Catton’s magisterial American Heritage Picture History—military historians have consistently tended to argue that General James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee’s chief subordinate and dependable “old war horse,” made a number of significant tactical mistakes during the battle of Gettysburg, particularly on the second day (Longstreet naturally disagreed). Moreover, at least some of those mistakes were of the disobedient variety: failing to follow particular orders, attemping his own maneuvers instead of those ordered by Lee, not readying his troops when ordered to do so, etc. Historian Henry Pfanz argues, “Longstreet's angry dissidence had resulted in further wasted time and delay,” and David Callihan adds, “It is appalling that a field commander of Longstreet's experience and caliber would so cavalierly and ineptly march and prepare his men for battle.” Overall, Edwin Coddington sums up this line of thinking, the battle was “a dark moment in Longstreet's career as a general.”
I don’t doubt that these military historians have the right of it in many ways, but I’ll admit that the narrative is a frustrating one for me, for the reasons detailed in this post (and expanded upon for the rest of this paragraph). As I wrote there, young AmericanStudier worshipped Robert E. Lee the military tactician and leader, and was concurrently frustrated at the thought that a lesser commander like Longstreet thwarted some of Lee’s best-laid plans in a crucial battle like Gettysburg. Then I grew up, and realized a) thank goodness the Confederacy didn’t win at Gettysburg (as I argued in yesterday’s Chamberlain post); and b) whatever their respective tactical qualities, Longstreet was a considerably better man than Lee, probably throughout their lives and certainly during the crucial post-war years. And just as I can’t separate those cultural historical issues and frames from how I now respond to the battle and its controversial decisions, neither can the Lost Cause acolytes and neo-Confederate partisans whose post-war hostility toward Longstreet has without question contributed to the ongoing narratives of him as a disgruntled Lee subordinate.
Moreover, if we try to remove those cultural histories from the equation, I believe that Longstreet’s disobedience at Gettysburg looks significantly different. That’s unquestionably true of his opposition to Lee’s final-day plan to charge the Union center directly; as Longstreet would later recall his words to Lee in his memoir, “General, I have been a soldier all my life. … It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.” Lee ordered the attack nonetheless, Longstreet was right, and Pickett’s Charge would become one of the war’s most disastrous and destructive failures. And if we start there, perhaps Longstreet’s other disagreements with Lee during the battle might look more understandable and even accurate as well. After all, military history is still a history of humans, of personalities and perspectives, both the ones we bring from our own era and the ones we find in the historical figures and moments. Longstreet was always a bit of an iconoclast—and if that clearly put him on the right side of history after the war, perhaps it also did so at Gettysburg more than our typical narratives of the battle have allowed.
Next Gettysburg post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?