Last time I discussed the visible effect Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s death had on Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This time I am going to talk about one of the two hidden aspects.
After Jackson’s death, Lee found himself relying more and more on senior corps commander Lt. Gen. James Longstreet (1821-1904). Though Longstreet is widely regarded as one of the best corps commanders on either side of the war, and had the best staff of any field officer of the Civil War, he was no Jackson.
An over simplified explanation of their differences in style can best be summed up thus: Jackson was an aggressive general who liked to take the fight to the enemy and was willing to take risks. Longstreet was more methodical. He preferred the defensive approach, of having the enemy come to him. (Which, by the way, is the approach many believe the Confederacy should have used given their limited resources of men and materials.) Consequently, Jackson was viewed as Lee’s “hammer” while Longstreet was Lee’s “anvil.” Together they made an almost invincible team.
Longstreet was more prone to questioning Lee’s orders, almost to the point of insubordination. Some scholars cite Longstreet’s performance at the Battle of Second Manassas, where he dismissed “suggestions” Lee made to him without punishment, as a key to this. In fairness, Longstreet’s performance their battle was a major factor in the South’s victory, but as Lee’s biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, noted: “Lee yielded to Longstreet and Longstreet discovered that he would.”
Conversely, though Lee would listen to Longstreet, he did not accept suggestions from him as readily as he did from Jackson. One reason for this is that Lee shared Jackson’s philosophy of being the aggressor in battle, though ironically Lee won his most one sided victory, The Battle of Fredericksburg, by following Longstreet’s approach.
All of this would come into play at the Battle of Gettysburg, the ANV’s first major battle without Jackson. Longstreet was all but insubordinate during this critical battle. He openly questioned Lee’s plans and strategy, was slow to implement them, and at best showed only half-heart support for his commanding general. On the other hand, Lee pretty much dismissed all of Longstreet’s suggestions, though many believe Lee could have won the battle if he had listened to Longstreet.
Despite their differences, Lee and Longstreet enjoyed a good professional relationship for the duration of the war. Lee was personally fond of his senior corps commander dubbing him his “War Horse.”
Another problem over which no one had control was that Longstreet was not a Virginian, he was born near Aiken, S.C. During the Civil War, being a Virginian meant everything in the ANV. South Carolina’s Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton III almost took every South Carolina unit back home to the Palmetto State in protest over the preferential treatment Virginia units received.
While being the ANV’s second in command shielded Longstreet from some of this bias during the war, it made him an open target after the war. He became the scapegoat for why Lee lost at Gettysburg, ignoring the fact that he gave a better performance during the battle than his two fellow Virginia-born corps commanders. Longstreet made things worse by writing a memoir that was critical of Lee and joining the Republican Party. (He and Grant were pre-war friends.) Not surprising, it was not until 1998 that a monument to Longstreet was erected at Gettysburg National Military Park.
In the last two decades scholars have reexamined Longstreet’s war record, and have concluded that much of the criticism he has received is undeserved. And though the modern consensus is that Longstreet was a superb corps commander, he was still no Jackson.