Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Civil War Reflection: A Golden Chain that Binds and Links Together – Truth is Eternal

Ice drapes the James Longstreet monument at Pitzer’s Woods, Gettysburg.
Ice drapes the James Longstreet monument at Pitzer’s Woods, Gettysburg.

Pay a visit to Gettysburg National Military Park, as some two million worldwide visitors do every year, and arguably what strikes you first is how many monuments dot the hallowed landscape that skirts the southern Pennsylvania border with Maryland, where the Civil War’s largest battle occurred in July 1863. Memorialized for memory’s sake far more than any other blood-soaked battlefield in the world, this epic three-day battle garners more scrutiny than any other fight ever fought.

Here, General Robert E. Lee brought his 80,000 Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in an invasion designed to first live off the abundant bounty of the German farmers of Pennsylvania’s richly soiled southern tier, and to also threaten Harrisburg and send panic rifling through an already jittery northern populace weary after two long years of fraternal strife.

Lee’s army fattened itself for a week, raiding and pillaging farms in retaliation for Union armies’ wanton destruction of Virginia farms during the war’s first years. Turnaround was fair play in southern eyes, and so too was the capture of free African Americans who were farming or working in towns and villages in Franklin, York, Cumberland and Adams counties. Those captured were sent back to Virginia to be sold as slaves as retribution for the North’s aim at liberating slaves not as a holy crusade but as a financial attack on the South’s slave-based economy. To believe that the American Civil War was not about slavery fails every honest historical exam.

Wherever General Lee was moving amongst his gray-clad legions, so too was Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Lee’s number two, especially so, since Lee’s other trusted lieutenant Stonewall Jackson had been killed by friendly fire in early May of 1863. Though Lee and Jackson formed a formidable offensive-minded style of warfare that crippled the Union armies in battle after battle, it was James Longstreet in whom Lee placed his most trust and paternal affection. In the chaos and horrendous carnage of the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, it was Lee who was worried about Longstreet’s welfare, asking repeatedly where his favorite general was as night fell with some 23,000 casualties scattered on the ground. When Longstreet rode up the hill towards Lee’s station on Cemetery Hill in Sharpsburg, he saw him blackened by gunpowder’s soot and missing a boot, barely able to ride his steed. “Ah, there is my old warhorse,” Lee said to his staff. “All is going to be fine now. Let us go see what Longstreet has to say.”

James Longstreet was born on January 8, 1821, in the Edgefield District of South Carolina’s upstate region. As a boy, he grew up in northeastern Georgia where his family owned a cotton plantation where slaves produced abundant pickings for lucrative profits. James’ father loved his son’s “rocklike” character and gave him the nickname Peter, which later in life would become Old Pete to his best friends. At age nine, young James went to live with his uncle Augustus Baldwin Longstreet in Augusta, Georgia, so he could attend better schools and help with his uncle’s cotton plantation. Uncle Gus, a Yale graduate, was a fierce states-rights advocate and staunch defender of slavery, but his attention to his plantation was not his first priority, as he was a Methodist preacher, judge and local elected official too. He viewed slavery as a “positive good.” He eventually sold his plantation, Westover, over his disgust with his slaves. What he saw as “laziness and faithless” attitudes he mistook for their resistance to his domination. “My negroes have become thieves; they stole my hogs, my corn, my bacon, everything they could sell for themselves,” Augustus wrote his brother. “You can hardly name a trouble to which I am not subjected.”

Uncle Gus did secure an appointment for James to West Point, though he was hardly the model student. He was rough with language and his manners were not becoming of the elite planter class that he would meet at the U.S. Military Academy – the most elite academic institution in the world in the 19th Century. It was there that Longstreet met his best and lifelong friend, Ulysses S. Grant – a future general of all Union armies that Longstreet would have to do battle within the war’s last year. Longstreet attended Grant’s wedding in St. Louis and after the ceremony he and his wife Louise moved to his new post at the Carlisle Army Barracks, in Pennsylvania. Thirteen years later, Longstreet would again return to southern Pennsylvania to fight a battle that would haunt him till he died in 1904.

West Point officers had become prized leaders for both the northern and southern armies as Civil War broke out in April 1861. After the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861 along the banks of Bull Run, Longstreet received a promotion to lieutenant general as his ascent to the top levels of Confederate command commenced.

Two years later, that it was General Longstreet standing on Gettysburg’s Lutheran Seminary grounds with General Lee discussing battle plans after the battle’s stunning first day rout of the Union Army of the Potomac back through the town’s streets onto the high ground south of town, was a surprise to nobody. Lee always sought Longstreet’s council. “If the enemy is there tomorrow,” Lee said, shaking his fist, “we must strike him.”

“If he is there tomorrow….,” Old Pete replied. “It is because he wants you to strike him.” The retort made Lee bristle. Few challenged the austere and overbearing “queer genius,” as his officers referred to him. But it would be Longstreet’s vaunted First Corps who would do the next two days of attacks, and a sullen and upset Longstreet balked at every decision.

Snow blankets Pitzer’s Woods with Longstreet’s monument at Gettysburg.
Snow blankets Pitzer’s Woods with Longstreet’s monument at Gettysburg.

Just a year earlier, in January 1862, three of Longstreet’s children died in Richmond of scarlet fever. Young Garland, the oldest boy, barely survived, and Louise too almost succumbed to the deadly contagion. Never again would Longstreet drink, play cards and socialize with his fellow officers. His religious devotion increased to help him deal with the immense grief of losing three children he adored in a matter of a week’s time.

It was this sober-minded general who counseled Lee against attacking on Gettysburg’s second day. The attack, based on faulty and old reconnaissance of the Union army’s position on Little Round Top, gave Longstreet little chance of success. But it was Lee who was right there with Longstreet that pushed for the attack, even though the Union army was there in force. Longstreet would later dub the ill-fated attack on July 2 as the “best three hours of fighting by any troops on any battlefield ever.”

July 3 was no different. Lee again decided to strike the Union army in what has become known as Pickett’s Charge – the world’s most famous infantry assault in the middle of Gettysburg’s southern farmlands. Lee unleashed a two-hour artillery barrage as well as a cavalry assault on the Union rear, designed to soften the Union’s impregnable position on Cemetery Hill and its rolling ridge to the south. History says that the assault was a near thing for Longstreet’s assault with Pickett’s division, but it was a total Confederate disaster as the assault melted under blistering artillery fire and thousands of trained muskets aimed at vulnerable attacking gray columns over open ground.

“No fifteen thousand men arrayed for battle can take that position (he felt it would need to be 30,000 men),” Longstreet told Lee there in the open fields. “I should not have been so urgent had I not foreseen the hopelessness of the proposed assault. I felt that I must say a word against the sacrifice of my men.”

Impatient of listening to his bulky lieutenant, Lee turned and did not budge. The two glared at one another and Longstreet turned in silence, choked to where he could not speak. More than 6,000 Confederate casualties fell that summer afternoon, and those who did survive were greeted by a shaken Lee who cried out, “This has been my fault, all my fault. All good men must rally.”

Throughout the assault, Old Pete sat upon his charger, riding behind his troops as cannon balls rained down from above. “During the firing, Longstreet rode slowly and alone immediately in front of our entire line,” one of his trusted generals said after the battle. “He sat on his large charger with magnificent grace and composure I have never held before. His bearing was to me the grandest moral spectacle of the war. I expected to see him fall every instant and his look fascinated me.”

Though against every disastrous assault at Gettysburg which cost the Rebel army nearly 25,000 casualties they could ill-afford, Longstreet never wavered in his leadership of his beloved troops, mostly from Virginia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.

In May 1864, Longstreet fell grievously wounded in the Battle of the Wilderness, shot through the shoulder and neck, and was sorely lost to Lee for six months. He was still Lee’s most trusted and loyal subordinate despite their Gettysburg troubles. It was a wound that would bedevil him until his death 40 years later. In the war’s closing moments, Longstreet again was back by Lee’s side. At Appomattox in April 1865, it was Longstreet who told Lee not to surrender to Grant. “Not yet,” he said. “Give us more time.”

“I know him through and through,” Longstreet had said of Grant several months earlier to Lee. “And I tell you we cannot afford to underrate him…. For that man will fight us every day and every hour till the end of this war.”

General Longstreet, in his last official portrait, sitting three years before his death
General Longstreet, in his last official portrait, sitting three years before his death

That General Grant gave lenient surrender terms to Lee in Wilmer McLean’s parlor that Palm Sunday 1865 was no surprise to his best friend, Pete Longstreet. When the two saw each other at Appomattox, Grant came over to him and put his arm around him with an affectionate hug. “Pete, let’s go back to the good old times and play a game of brag as we used to.”

This personal grace of Grant to the vanquished Longstreet had a lasting effect on him. And it would begin another war that would last until James Longstreet died of pneumonia and the closing of his throat from the Wilderness wound that knocked him clear off his horse at the Wilderness.

He settled in New Orleans after the war and obtained his pardon while he worked in business with old friends from the army. But to the chagrin of other Ex-Confederate comrades who were staunch Democrats (conservative party and pro-slavery still), Longstreet joined the Republican party. And when his friend U.S. Grant was elected the 18th president of the country, Longstreet was in a position to receive a low-level government patronage job from Grant. For decades Longstreet worked for the federal government, a fact that rankled old Confederates even more, given multitudes hated the Reconstruction policies of black suffrage and equal rights for former enslaved African Americans.

The greatest sin seen by old Confederates clinging to the Lost Cause of the chivalrous South was that they were only defeated by hordes of Yankees whose overwhelming numbers, and not Confederate battlefield mistakes, caused their demise.

Moreover, James Longstreet quietly converted to the Catholic faith with his family in the late 1860s. And that he attended Holy Mass every Sunday with his wife and children was even more fuel for bitter partisans to attack him in the press. True, too, which drew ire, was that he supported black suffrage, as he led black militia units in New Orleans who were constantly under attack from white terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and White League nationalists who wanted nothing to do with blacks exercising their newly won right to vote.

In 1874, Longstreet led his black militia in defense as White Leaguers stormed Canal Street in New Orleans, hoping to cripple the government and blacks who had achieved this voting political power in the reconstructed South. It was more fuel for Southern newspapers to attack Longstreet as a traitor to the Southern cause of white supremacy.

And that is where Gettysburg became the post-war focus of ex-Confederates who sought to discredit Longstreet’s politics, religion and support for African Americans. Ex- Generals Early and Pendleton, who praised Longstreet’s steadfast loyalty during the war, began attacking Longstreet for disagreeing with Lee at Gettysburg and dragging his feet on the ill-conceived assaults. The attacks came especially so after Lee’s death in 1870, as Lee would never have allowed ex-officers to be critical of battles lost long ago. In a damning speech at Washington and Lee University in 1872, Jubal Early blistered Longstreet for his “insubordination” at Gettysburg. He even accused Longstreet of deliberately sabotaging Lee’s plans in the 1863 battle. That Longstreet worked at cross-purposes to Lee at Gettysburg is not only spurious but forgets his lead-from-the-front behavior so many of his men witnessed. To disagree with your superior is not disloyal – yet many historians still lampoon him for his reluctance to acquiesce to Lee – it is rather the trait of a trusted lieutenant telling the boss they are wrong. History proves Longstreet right.

Fought out in newspaper editorials and magazine articles throughout the 1880s, Longstreet battled every charge hurled at him. In an overwhelming Protestant South, whose prejudice towards minorities was militant, Longstreet’s conversion to Catholicism too was not acceptable. He remarried Helen Dortsch after his wife Louse died, and though she was some 42 years his junior, he found the Catholic soulmate he had been looking for. The 76-year-old general said, “Old men get lonely and must have company.” The two attended Holy Mass and were active in their local Georgia parish for years until his death at 92.

Newspapers were bitter towards the marriage. “No congratulations worthy,” one paper editorialized. To a man “antagonistic to everything Southern and to all Southern interest.” Helen Longstreet with vim and vigor fought the couple’s battles. The Southern Farming Alliance, a fiercely partisan, Protestant organization, began a war of words and political attack that lasted until she died in 1962 – 58 years after her husband.

What consumed the couple in the general’s last years of his life were the writing of his long-awaited memoirs. Despite losing many of his papers due to a tragic fire which destroyed their home in the 1880s, Longstreet penned his memoirs which, like his friend U.S. Grant, were remarkably candid and fresh. The 698-page tome, From Manassas to Appomattox, however, was critical of Lee at Gettysburg, and one line sent those who worshipped Lee into apoplectic rage. “That he (Lee) was excited and off his balance was evident on the afternoon of the 1st, and he labored under that oppression until enough blood was shed to appease him,” Longstreet wrote on page 384. The swift rage swelled, and the memoirs were roundly discredited by southern reviewers who were deeply offended by the “enough blood to appease him” line that caste their hero, General Lee, in harsh light. Yet, the Philadelphia-based publisher, J.B. Lippincott, sold tens of thousands of copies, mainly across the northern cities, not so in the South. Confederate loyalists still today see Longstreet as a villain and southern traitor for daring to be critical of General Lee who is still revered today as schools, streets and colleges are named in his honor in the Old Confederacy.

James “Old Pete” Longstreet died on January 2, 1904, of pneumonia, though he was also suffering from cancer of the eye. At his funeral in Gainesville, Georgia, thousands came out in January weather to march in a funeral procession from the Catholic church to Alta Vista Cemetery as the church bells rang and battle flags waved. Buried with full military honors, with an American flag draped on one end of the coffin and a Confederate one on the other, Longstreet went out as a venerated old soldier by his hometown despite his politics so many despised in the Deep South. After a lengthy gun-salute, Bishop Benjamin Keiley, a prelate from the Diocese of Savannah, offered his blessing and shed light on his conversion. “Deep down in the heart and breast of every man… there is a longing for some means of communicating with loved ones who have been taken from us by death,” the bishop said. “Catholicism had provided the golden chain which links and binds together the children of God here and above.”

History has not been kind to James Longstreet. In 1998, after more than 90 years of efforts to place a monument to him at Gettysburg, on July 2nd the national park agreed to erect one, though not without controversy, in Pitzer’s Woods where he oversaw Day Two’s assault and Pickett’s doomed charge the next afternoon. Not to scale, and grossly undersized, the monument stands as an ironic reminder of his diminished stature in the pantheon of Southern Lost Cause post-war history, which is more myth than history.

Today, America’s overdue reckoning with Confederate memorialization has quickened with the removal of Lost Cause monuments designed to symbol racial dominance. Yet the use of the Confederate battle flag continues as a political method of pronouncing resistance to a government seen as tyrannical. “To me, the surrender of my sword was my reconstruction. I looked upon the Lost Cause as a cause totally, irrevocably lost,” Old Pete wrote late in life. “I chose it best to admit defeat and make peace with those who won the war.”

That he had the courage to stand for his convictions in the heat of battle, yet risk his life, makes him worthy of Gettysburg contemplation. That he embraced his dear friend after the guns were stacked at Appomattox and fought for reconciliation and racial healing and equality makes him ever the more courageous as when he rode quietly in front of his men at Gettysburg as shells burst above him. He accepted defeat, was gracious in battle’s loss, and felt that the South’s just cause was to accept the loss of a bitter war, and he worked to make sure that his good friend’s Reconstruction policies were followed out of respect for the lenient terms given by him at Appomattox in 1865. And that he embraced his full conversion to the Catholic faith also showed his commitment to reconciliation, and a rejection of Protestant Southern Lost Cause ideology that proved poisonous to reaching a just and lasting peace between regions. That fight continues 160 years later.

“I do not fear the verdict of Gettysburg. Time sets all things right. Error lives but a day. Truth is eternal,” Lieutenant General James Longstreet said before he died, 41 years after he fought the great battle at Gettysburg where he had to pay a steep price for being on the right side of history.

Writer’s Note:

Since I was eight years old when I first visited Gettysburg, General James Longstreet has fascinated me. One of the first books I read on the battle was The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1974 as the nation was recovering from the Vietnam War, Watergate and President Nixon’s resignation. The novel is brilliantly fashioned, underscoring the relationship between Lee and Longstreet. Though fictional, it is still insightfully astute in its dialogue and thought. No person can skip reading this novel which remains a classic. In 2023, a biography by Dr. Elizabeth Varon of the University of Virgina offers the best post-war chronicle of his turbulent life after Appomattox. Entitled: Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South is not detailed about Gettysburg or the war in general, but his treatment after the Civil War is worthy of exploring. She deserves my gratitude for the Bishop Keiley quotes and insight into Longstreet’s Catholic conversion and embrace. There is no evidence that Longstreet was not a devoted, Eucharistic, Confession-oriented convert the final 45 years of his life. The best wartime biography of Longstreet remains Jeffry Wert’s 1994 published General James Longstreet: The South’s Most Controversial Soldier. If you want a non-sympathetic reading of Longstreet’s relationship with Lee, go back to Douglas Southall Freeman’s magisterial 3-volume: Lee’s Lieutenants, which was published as World War II raged in Europe and the Pacific. It follows every facet of General Lee and his relationship with his faulty command structure in the war. Unabashedly a Lee admirer and Lost Cause advocate (Freeman was a newspaper editor in Richmond for decades), he has had a large audience of readers of the last nine decades. His prose and narrative style are the gold standard in Civil War historiography. Yet his views are certainly pro-Southern in sentiment.

Several books have recently been published by historian Cory Pfarr which debunk much of Freeman’s 80-year-old conclusions. First, Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment followed by Righting the Longstreet Record at Gettysburg: Six Matters of Controversary and Confusion are worth reading.

Finally, Longstreet’s own 1896 memoirs: From Manassas to Appomattox – Memoirs of the Civil War in America is worthy of exploring as numerous reprints are available. The original first edition is a book lover’s great find and is one of the most handsomely designed memoirs ever published – J.B. Lippincott of Philadelphia published the book for Longstreet. This writer stumbled on a finely preserved copy and purchased it without remortgaging the house.

(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)

By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness

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