The Passion of General James Longstreet

Lieutenant General (CSA) James Longstreet (Wikimedia Commons)

Lieutenant General (CSA) James Longstreet (Wikimedia Commons)

Time’s unrelenting march is always ticking down to things known and unknown, never celebrating or mourning what once was. This is especially true regarding the nature of war. For General James Longstreet, the awful minutes passing before 2 p.m. on July 3rd, 1863, are marked by the roar of a cannonade whose concussions shake his broad frame. At least, that is why he hopes he is shaking. Weeks of marching and two days of vicious fighting over rocky hills and tidy fields wears on him. How their misadventure ends now falls to him. On this occasion, he knows too much.

Dark Pennsylvania soil plays host to Longstreet’s anxious boots as he paces. Amidst the trees around him, Pickett’s division huddles against Federal counter-battery fire. Pettigrew and Trimble’s boys do the same, completing a line of battle running north towards the old seminary. The rawest of them press themselves flat on the ground, seeking shelter against the Earth’s bosom. Ragged veterans stare off into the distance, content to pass the time reliving the glories and horrors of past battles. At some point, all of them will think of home. Longstreet shudders. Faith holds each man in place. It’s a faith born in those who trust the gun in their hands and the perceived miracles they have seen conjured up by their commanders. Commanders such as Longstreet. The Staff of Lee’s Right Hand. Why should this battle differ from all the others?

Map of Pickett's Charge of the American Civil War. Drawn by Hal Jespersen. (Wikimedia Commons)

Map of Pickett's Charge of the American Civil War. Drawn by Hal Jespersen. (Wikimedia Commons)

Longstreet considers glassing Cemetery Ridge once again. No use, it’s shrouded in thick pewter gun smoke. In Mexico he had learned to memorize the landscape. Terrain is the god of war; its highest priests know they only have to flow with its contours to realize victory. Attacking uphill is a fool’s errand. The high ground the Federals occupied outside Gettysburg haunted Longstreet since he arrived on the battlefield two days ago. A grove of trees huddled atop the ridge was his target. Between him and it was three quarters of a mile of open ground sloping uphill, each acre of it fertile soil charged by the Almighty with giving life where men chose to put roots down. Longstreet fully expects to nourish it.

The clock ticks down to what is known and unknown.

Porter Alexander, whom Longstreet placed in command of Lee’s prescribed bombardment, sends word: his ammunition is starting to run low. Colonel Alexander's bombardment lasted longer than his staff anticipated. General Pickett bounces about like a terrier awaiting the opening of the hunt. Lee, the human embodiment of their Cause, sits serene on a stump, making himself visible for the sake of the men about to charge the field. Longstreet examines the ground in his mind’s eye once more. In the distance Hood and McLaws’ shattered divisions stand in reserve. Pride swells up in his chest. Longstreet had never seen his men fight so hard as they did yesterday. Only his immediate staff kept him from charging into the fray alongside the division commanders. Even now, the boulder-strewn ground to the south still writhes with their wounded comrades. Cries for water and momma can still be heard across the valley.

There is another course of action, a way to avoid all of this, but the ultimate decision is in the hands of the grey god-man, and he wants to fight. Longstreet’s knows they should have marched around the little hills on Meade’s left flank and occupied a defensive position between the Federals and the great cities of the Northeast. Then, await battle fresh and concentrated against an exhausted foe. Let the Federals charge uphill in sweltering heat after exhausting all other options. The enemy, however, is here, now. So Longstreet paces on.

Pickett's Charge from a position on the Confederate line looking toward the Union lines, Ziegler's Grove on the left, clump of trees on right, painting by Edwin Forbes.

Pickett's Charge from a position on the Confederate line looking toward the Union lines, Ziegler's Grove on the left, clump of trees on right, painting by Edwin Forbes.

Anguish rises in his throat, which is already dried by the July heat and years of inhaling the acrid smoke of battle. He believes in The Cause down to his rattling bones. He believes, even though three of his five children, Mary Anne, James, and Gus were all snatched away from him by scarlet fever the year before. Longstreet’s home is devoid of everything that brought joy to his life, yet he fights on. The North had not the right to injure the South as it pleased. Old Uncle Augustus’ thundering secessionist serenades echoed in Longstreet’s head. Still, Longstreet had ordered the forced acquisition of property from Pennsylvania farmers along their invasion’s route to replenish the army’s stores of food. The South’s soil could no longer provide for its boys. Freedmen and escaped slaves alike were rounded up and herded south with little regard for who was which under his watch. If the people of the North had any doubts about the war, like Lee said they did, surely now they did not. There is no time to think of that. Scanning the assembled men, he knows he cannot afford to lose any of them. Each body that tumbles to the ground, each limb torn away from its master, is a national treasure their nascent country’s meager coffers could never replace. Anything short of a thunderous blow against their enemy would not be worth the price the Confederacy paid.

The clock ticks down to what is known and unknown.

Anguish turns to anger. No battle should have to be fought here. Longstreet loves General Lee like a father. He recalls the Seven Days’ battles, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, and Fredericksburg. Longstreet gave himself over to Lee and earned the trust of the man who filled the void left by the father he hardly knew. Now he learns that there’s no feeling comparable to when a father disappoints his son. Lee had countenanced Longstreet’s opinion before, why not now? In their consultations, Lee had reacted favorably to Longstreet’s suggestion that the intent of the campaign should be to fight only defensive battles. Lee had stood beside Longstreet on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg as wave upon wave of Federal troops were cut down on the plains below. He thought, if history does not speak to us, it should at least echo. Lee was not a reckless man, which raises Longstreet’s ire further. Fighting a battle here, in Gettysburg, was a gambler’s manic impulse not a poker player’s call on a bet.

Longstreet’s mind wanders west, to the muddy banks of the Mississippi River. General Grant had Vicksburg in his grasp. Threatening the Tennessee Valley with invasion may lure Grant away and preserve the Confederacy’s integrity. If the Federals succeeded in splitting the Confederacy in two, General Grant might come east. Longstreet knows Grant well, a man after his own heart, one who makes up for a lack of pedigree with a grim tolerance for the pain that accompanies learning hard lessons. Men like the two of them did not repeat their mistakes. Longstreet knew to attack now would be pointless. Especially here, in this open space. Now, no matter what, disaster was upon the Confederate Army.

The clock ticks down to what is known and unknown.

Major General (CSA) George Pickett (Wikimedia Commons)

Major General (CSA) George Pickett (Wikimedia Commons)

Anger turns to obstinacy. If Lee refuses to see the calamity that Longstreet knows so plain, then let someone else give the order to Pickett. If Lee did not trust Longstreet’s tactical assessment, he should not have placed him in charge of this abomination. He should beseech Stonewall’s ghost if need be. Porter Alexander knows when his ammunition expires, have him judge the right time to step off. Instead, Pickett approaches, glory burning in his heart, and asks to proceed as the cannonade slows.

Alexander’s artillery goes silent. The moment has arrived.

There is much Longstreet does not know and will never know. He does not know that after this moment there will be no more miracles to conjure up, the war in the west would become a futile exercise, or just how successful Grant would be after the Siege of Vicksburg. After this moment, he cannot know The Cause would be broken after the freedom both Union and Confederates shared was redefined by President Lincoln over the bones of those who died here. Longstreet does not know that, even as the battlefield comes back into view, the jackals who will one day hang responsibility for The Cause’s demise around his neck for accepting the South’s defeat and honoring his old oath prowled his own lines.

Pickett begs again to go.

Obstinacy turns to resignation. In this moment, what Longstreet does not know is unimportant. What he knows for sure is that he had done his duty as the senior Lieutenant General in the Army of Northern Virginia. No one present could say they were not warned. Now he is numb. Without an outlet, his emotions implode inward and he just stares out across the killing fields. Few of the blades of grass he sees will be spared a watering of blood and shot. Better angels cry out to Longstreet from somewhere beyond, but it is too late. Unable to support the weight of his assignment, Longstreet bows his head. Pickett’s wet eyes plead for the order to advance, oblivious to his commander’s torment.

Longstreet can only nod once.

Kyle Gaffney earned his master’s degree in History from William Paterson University in New Jersey.


Header Image: "Battle of Gettysburg" by Peter Frederick Rothermel showing Pickett’s Charge. Via Gettysburg Daily.