General James Longstreet and Pickett's Charge

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Longstreet's Grand Assault

General James Longstreet
(January 8, 1821 – January 2, 1904)

"Never Was I So Depressed."
James Longstreet on Pickett’s Charge

General James Longstreet
General James Longstreet.jpg
(Library of Congress)

James Longstreet was born in South Carolina in 1821, and he graduated West Point in 1842. During the Mexican-American War in 1847, he experienced extensive front line combat service in both the northern and southern theaters of operations, where he led detachments that helped capture two Mexican forts guarding Monterey (Longstreet also engaged in street fighting in Monterey). At Churubusco, he planted the regimental colors on the walls of the fort and saw action at Casa Marta, near Molino del Ray. On August 13, 1847, Longstreet was wounded during the assault on Chapaltepec while "in the act of discharging the piece of a wounded man. He was always in front with the colors. His high and gallant bearing won the applause of all who saw him." The general remained in service after the war and became one of the "Old Army Regulars"- men who served from post to post in a less than glamorous peace-time army. On May 9, 1861, Longstreet resigned his commission from the U.S. Army to join the new Confederacy. Appointed brigadier general on June 17, 1861, and a major general on October 7, 1861, Longstreet commanded troops at First Manassas, Seven Pines, the Seven Days Campaign, Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. He was appointed a lieutenant general on October 9, 1862, one day before Thomas J. Jackson's promotion, making Longstreet the senior lieutenant general in the Confederate Army.

Lt. Col. Moxley Sorrel
Lt. Col. Moxley Sorrel.jpg
(Library of Congress)

Lt. Colonel G. Moxley Sorrel, Longstreet’s Chief of Staff, described his commander as, "a most striking figure... a soldier every inch, and very handsome, tall and well proportioned, strong and active, a superb horseman and with an unsurpassed soldierly bearing, his features and expressions fairly matched; eyes, glint steel blue, deep and piercing." Captain Thomas J. Goree, Longstreet’s aide, thought the general was, "one of the kindest, best hearted men I ever knew." Longstreet could appear "short and crabbed" to some people but not when in the presence of ladies, at the table, or on the field of battle. "At any of these places, he has a complacent smile on his countenance, and seems to be one of the happiest men in the world." Even though Longstreet was usually very "sociable and agreeable" at these events, there were times when he, "is as grim as you please." But Goree noted that this usually happened when the general, "was not very well or something has not gone to suit him." The staff came to discover that there were times when it was best to leave Longstreet alone unless, "he is in a talkative mood. He has a good deal of the roughness of the old soldier about him."

Capt. T.J. Goree
Capt. T.J. Goree.jpg
(Library of Congress)

Goree believed that Longstreet’s forte as an officer consisted, "in the seeming ease with which he can handle and arrange large numbers of troops, as also with the confidence and enthusiasm with which he seems to inspire them.... if he is ever excited, he has a way of concealing it, and always appears as if he has the utmost confidence in his own ability to command and in that of his troops to execute. In a fight he is a man of but very few words, and keeps at all time his own counsels.... He is very reserved and distant towards his men, and very strict, but they all like him."

The general's contemporaries also considered "Old Peter" to be a grudging, yet professional soldier. General Robert E. Lee considered him "a Capital soldier" and expressed confidence in his abilities. Their headquarters were often established near each other and the two became close friends. Longstreet described his relations with Lee as one "of confidence and esteem, official and personal, which ripened into stronger ties as the mutations of war bore heavier upon us." Lee wanted his views "in moves of strategy and general policy, not so much for the purpose of having his views approved and confirmed as to get new light, or channels for new thought, and was more pleased when he found something that gave him new strength than with efforts to evade his questions by compliments." Lt. Colonel Arthur J. L. Fremantle, a British military observer who accompanied Longstreet during the Gettysburg Campaign, noted that the relations between the two, "are quite touching - they are almost always together.... It is impossible to please Longstreet more than by praising Lee. I believe these two generals to be as little ambitious and as thoroughly unselfish as any men in the world. Both long for a successful termination of the war, in order that they may retire into obscurity."

On more than one occasion during the war, Longstreet was to prove his ability to organize, coordinate, and direct a massive offensive strike as long as the situation suited him. At Second Manassas, Longstreet's Corps struck the Union left with a solid line; the battle resulted in Longstreet's casualties being higher in three hours than what Jackson's had been in three days. However, Longstreet's overwhelming assault broke the Union army in half and sent it reeling from the field. The situation at Gettysburg was very different than these circumstances, which did not suit 'Longstreet the strategist.'

Longstreet's Grand Assault
Longstreet's Attack at Gettysburg.jpg
Period Map of Pettigrew-Pickett Charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863

Lee’s basic battle plan for July 2 was to launch an attack all along the Union line. Longstreet's Corps was to envelope and drive in the Union left. Lt. General A. P. Hill's troops were "to threaten the enemy’s center", and cooperate in Longstreet’s attack while Lt. General Richard S. Ewell's was "to make a simultaneous demonstration upon the enemy’s right, to be converted into a real attack should opportunity offer." By the end of July 2, two of Longstreet's divisions under Major General John B. Hood and Major General Lafayette McLaws had smashed the Union left at the Peach Orchard and Devil's Den, but had failed to take Little Round Top. Brig. General A. R. Wright, leading a brigade of Georgians late that day, claimed to have penetrated the Union line just south of a copse of trees near the Union center on Cemetery Ridge, but could not hold it. Major General Edward Johnson’s Division of Ewell’s Corps captured some of the Union entrenchments on the lower slopes of Culp's Hill. The initial reports of these successes caused Lee to believe that, "with proper concert of action...we should ultimately succeed, and it was accordingly determined to continue the attack. The general plan was unchanged."

Lee planned a continuation of his July 2 battle plan for July 3, with the troops launching their attacks from the positions gained that day. The only alteration was to be the addition of Major General George E. Pickett’s Division, of Longstreet’s Corps, which had not yet been engaged. The major drawback to Lee’s plan was his failure to meet personally with his three corps commanders on the evening of July 2 to ensure that they understood his intentions and their role in the coming battle. Longstreet also admitted that contrary to his usual practice of meeting with Lee, he only sent a message on the July 2 action. It is not clear what, if any, orders Longstreet may have received on that evening. Without formal orders from Lee, Longstreet probably felt Lee's previous directions were vague enough for him to use his discretion in execution. Given this seeming lack of communication it is hard to see how Lee hoped to achieve his "proper concert of action." In any event, Lee’s plan for July 3 was disrupted by the actions of the Army of the Potomac. As dawn approached at around 4:30 A.M., the Union Twelfth Corps artillery in the Culp’s Hill area opened fire on Johnson's men in preparation of a planned Union counter-attack. This action forced Ewell to launch his attack with Johnson’s Division before the rest of the army was ready. Half an hour after the attack started, and while Johnson was heavily engaged and unable to withdraw, Ewell received word that Longstreet would not be able to attack until at least 10:00 A.M. By then it would be too late for Ewell who was hard pressed and forced to cease his attacks by approximately 11:00 A.M.

Meanwhile, General Longstreet had been up most of the night and reported that his scouts had found a route around the left flank of the Union army that would enable him to attack the Round Tops in flank and reverse. Admittedly, this "would have been a slow process, probably, but I think not very difficult." Just after Longstreet issued orders for a flank march, or while he was in the process, he was joined by Lee who countermanded this major change in Lee’s battle plans. Due to the circumstances at Culp's Hill, Lee was forced to rethink his plan of action on July 3. Shortly after canceling Longstreet’s proposed flank move, Lee met with Longstreet, Hill, and Major General Henry Heth. Lee’s staff- Colonel A. L. Long, Major Charles S. Venable, and possibly Colonel Walter Taylor also attended. Lee proposed using Longstreet’s entire corps to attack the Union center but Longstreet objected that Hood and McLaws, "were holding a mile along the right of my line against twenty thousand men, who would follow their withdrawal, strike the flank of the assaulting column, crush it." Lee agreed to leave them in place and assign other troops to join Pickett's Division in the attack. It may have been Hill, or possibly Heth, offered Heth’s Division and two brigades from Major General William D. Pender’s Division as substitutes. These troops were already in the right position to join Pickett. As Heth had been seriously wounded on July 1, his division was under the temporary command of Brig. General James Johnston Pettigrew. Brig. General James H. Lane was in temporary command of Pender’s Division after his being wounded on July 2. Lane was subsequently relieved by Major General Isaac R. Trimble. Lee also indicated that he wanted to precede the attack with a massive artillery bombardment to drive off some of the Union batteries and demoralize the Union infantry. The objective point was to be a salient angle in the Union line between Ziegler's Grove and a distinctive smaller grove of trees to the south.

The main attack was to be made by Pickett, Pettigrew and two brigades under Trimble. Brig. General Cadmus Wilcox’s Brigade, Anderson’s Division of Hill’s Corps, was ordered to move in rear of Pickett’s right flank and "to protect it from any force that the enemy might attempt to move against it." Colonel David Lang, commanding Perry's Brigade of Anderson’s Division, stated that at daylight he received orders from Anderson, "to connect my right with General Wilcox’s left, and conform my movements during the day to those of his brigade." He also stated that he was told that he "would receive no further orders." A total of about 12,891 officers and men were in the attacking column and under the tactical command of Longstreet. What other troops were to be involved, and how much authority Longstreet had over them is more difficult to establish.

Lee’s staff officers, most notably A. L. Long and Walter Taylor, maintained that Lee expected Longstreet to use his whole corps to support the attack, but there is no direct or contemporary evidence to this effect. Hood’s Division, commanded by Brig. General Evander Law since Hood’s wounding, was deployed to protect the army’s extreme right flank. In McLaws’ Division, Kershaw's Brigade was stationed in the area of the Peach Orchard, Wofford’s Brigade was west of the Emmitsburg Road, and Semmes’ Brigade was in the area of Rose’s Woods. Barksdale’s Brigade was deployed in a skirmish formation from Trostle’s Woods to somewhere between the Klingle House and the Rogers’ House. Major James Dearing, stationed with his battalion in the area of the Rogers’ House, stated that during the morning he had no infantry to protect his front and had to order Captain R. M. Stribling’s battery to drive in the advance of Union skirmishers. The units of Hood and McLaws were thus not positioned to join the attacking column and none of the commanders reported receiving any orders to do so.

Major General Robert E. Rodes' Division of Ewell’s Corps, was positioned in Long Lane, north of the Bliss Farm and east of Seminary Ridge, with the brigades of Doles, Ramseur, and Iverson (about 2,337 men). Rodes reported that his orders for July 3 were the same as for July 2, to "co-operate with the attacking force as soon as any opportunity of doing so with good effect was offered." Rodes said nothing about being directly under Longstreet’s command. A. P. Hill recorded that he was, "directed to hold my line with Anderson’s division and the half of Pender’s... Anderson had been directed to hold his division ready to take advantage of any success which might be gained by the assaulting column, or to support it, if necessary." Major Joseph A. Engelhard, Assistant Adjutant-General of Pender’s Division, reported that only two brigades, Lane and Scales, were to report to Longstreet. Pender’s other two brigades under Brig. General Edward L. Thomas and Colonel Abner Perrin, were located in Long Lane to the right, or south, of Rodes Division. Neither reported what their roles were to be in the assault. The only troops designated for the attack and thus directly under Longstreet’s authority were Pickett, Pettigrew, Trimble, Wilcox, and Lang. It does appear that if the attack succeeded, Lee intended for other units to exploit the break-through and the anticipated Union retreat, a natural action which Lee’s army had executed at Second Manassas and Chancellorsville with some success.

Once Lee had determined the point of attack and the troops to make it, Longstreet still raised objections. Colonel  E. P. Alexander, responsible for directing most of the Confederate guns on Longstreet's front on July 3, wrote his father that Longstreet opposed the attack because the, "enemy’s position was so powerful, entirely sweeping the 1200 yards over which we had to advance, that it was of doubtful success," adding that Longstreet announced, "General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position." Whether these were Longstreet’s exact words or not is unimportant. What is important is that Longstreet had no faith in the plan, did not believe it would work, and felt justified in telling Lee so. Longstreet later wrote that Lee, "knew that I did not believe that success was possible; that care and time should be taken to give the troops the benefit of position and the ground; and he should have put an officer in charge who had more confidence in his plans." With Ewell occupied at Culp's Hill and General Hill sick, there was no one to accept the role except Lee’s most senior, experienced, and trusted commander. That left Longstreet with no option but to execute Lee’s plan which he proceeded to carry out to the best of his ability.

On the balmy afternoon of July 3 and at the time of Pickett's Charge, it was 87 degrees, which was also the maximum temperature at Gettysburg for the month of July 1863. With battles on July 1-2, the Gettysburg battlefield was still processing and absorbing the blood of thousands of men and hundreds of horses. In one last grand assault, also known as Longstreet's Grand Assault, Pickett was about to lead his division through mixed terrain and into the Union ring of fire.

Longstreet had the responsibility of organizing and deploying over 12,000 men from two different corps, in a line over a mile long and have them maneuver so as to converge on a narrow front of the Union line. Longstreet escorted Pickett to the crest of Seminary Ridge to show him where to shelter his men, the direction and the point of the attack. Pickett "seemed to appreciate the severity of the contest he was about to enter, but was quite hopefull of success." Colonel James B. Walton, the Chief of Artillery of Longstreet’s Corps, was sent for so he could learn the plans and arrange the signal for the start of the cannonade. Walton and Alexander organized 75 guns from Longstreet’s corps for the opening barrage. Brig. General William N. Pendleton, the army’s Chief of Artillery, issued orders for Hill’s and for some of Ewell’s artillery to assist in the cannonade. The batteries of Longstreet, and apparently Hill, "were directed to be pushed forward as the infantry progressed, protect their flanks, and support their attack closely."

Pickett's Charge Battlefield Map
Pickett's Charge Map, by Civil War Trust.jpg
Pickett's Charge Map, by Civil War Trust

Col. Alexander
Col. E. P. Alexander.jpg
(LOC)

The officer responsible for determining the effect of the cannonade, and thus the timing of the assault, was to be Colonel E. P. Alexander and not James B. Walton. Longstreet justified Alexander’s increased responsibility by explaining that, in this situation, he considered Alexander as more of an engineer staff officer than a battalion commander. Longstreet said that Alexander was more familiar with the ground and was an officer of "unusual promptness, sagacity, and intelligence." At about 11:00 A.M., Alexander reported that the artillery was posted and ready. He was then "ordered to a point where he could best observe the effect of our fire, and to give notice of the most opportune moment for our attack."

Colonel Birkett D. Fry, commanding Archer’s Brigade of Pettigrew's Division, reported that during the forenoon he observed Lee, Longstreet, and Hill sitting down on a fallen tree near Spangler’s Woods to examine a map. After the trio remounted, staff officers and couriers issued orders for the coming assault. Longstreet later reported that Lee rode with him at least twice to see that everything was properly arranged. Longstreet also told Lee, "that we had been more particular in giving the orders than ever before; that the commanders had been sent for, and the point of attack had been carefully designated, and that the commanders had been directed to communicate to their subordinates, and through them to every soldier in the command, the work that was before them, so that they should nerve themselves for the attack, and fully understand it."

Pickett's Division had remained at Chambersburg to guard army supplies when Longstreet's Corps left for Gettysburg on June 30. It was not until 2:00 A.M. on July 2, that Pickett received orders to proceed eastward. The head of the division arrived in the area of Marsh Creek, on the Chambersburg Pike three miles west of Gettysburg, on or about 2:00 P.M. Pickett reported directly to Longstreet two hours later, about the time of Hood’s opening attack that day, and Col. Walter Harrison, Pickett’s Chief of Staff, reported the division's arrival to Lee. Harrison reported that Lee stated that Pickett’s men would not be needed that afternoon and that, "I will send him word when I want him." Harrison’s account of Lee’s remarks may have made General Longstreet believe that Pickett would be moving under Lee’s orders and not his. Considering Longstreet’s continued debate with Lee over strategy and any uncertainties about his or Pickett's role, orders should have been clarified directly with Lee. Failure to get such clarification was uncharacteristic of Longstreet and could be seen by some as bordering on petulance or irresponsibility. Lee also should have made certain that his orders, however transmitted, were clear and concise. (Baron Jomini, whose writings Lee would have been familiar with, observed that "Inaccurate transmission of orders... may interfere with the simultaneous entering into action of the different parts.")

Pickett’s Division had left its bivouac at Marsh Creek at about 3:30 A.M., and was deployed along Seminary Ridge by 7:00 A.M. As Pickett’s brigades were moving into position, it was discovered that Brig. Gen. Richard B. Garnett’s Brigade would overlap part of Pettigrew’s line and prevent Brig. General Lewis A. Armistead from continuing the line of Garnett’s Brigade. Colonel Walter Harrison, not finding Pickett, saw Lee and Longstreet on top of the ridge in front making a "close reconnaissance." Harrison needed to find out if Armistead should hold his position or push out. He found Longstreet in "anything but a pleasant humor at the prospect of ‘over the hill." When Harrison asked about Armistead, Longstreet "snorted out, ‘General Pickett will attend to that, sir.’" Longstreet, then suspecting that he may have hurt Harrison’s feelings, added that Armistead could stay where he was and could make up the distance when the advance started. There was also minor confusion in Pettigrew's ranks. Capt. Louis G. Young, aide-de-camp to Pettigrew, wrote that the division had been directed by Longstreet "to form in rear of Pickett’s Division and support his advance," but that the order "was countermanded almost as soon as given, and General Pettigrew was instructed to advance upon the same line with Pickett, a portion of Pender’s Division acting as supports."

Harrison and Young seem to imply that Pickett’s Division was originally to deploy into a division front with all three brigades (Kemper, Garnett, and Armistead) in one line and with Pettigrew as a support. The division was eventually deployed into two lines with Kemper's and Garnett's commands in front and Armistead in a second line. Longstreet, probably through Hill, arranged Pettigrew and Trimble into three lines. Pettigrew’s regiments appear to have been deployed into division columns thus forming two battle lines with Trimble’s two brigades in support. This was probably done to add more weight to the center of the attacking column. Wilcox was ordered to move on the right flank of Pickett, "to protect it from any force that the enemy might attempt to move against it."

Longstreet appeared to have worked closely with Hill in arranging Hill’s troops. Although some historians claimed that Longstreet and Hill did not get along, Longstreet’s staff denied this. After the Seven Days Campaign in 1862, reports in the Richmond papers (for which Longstreet blamed Hill) gave credit to Hill’s Division at the expense of Longstreet’s Division. This dispute caused Hill to ask for a transfer to T. J. Jackson’s command. The relationship between Longstreet and Hill was strained for only a short time "and they were warm friends until the day of General Hill’s death." Realistically, there was no time for jealousies between the two officers while the preparations were made for the attack. Longstreet remembered that after the troops were in position, Lee accompanied him as they again rode over the field, "so that there was really no room for misconstruction or misunderstanding of his wishes." Longstreet, "rode once or twice along the ground between Pickett and the Federals, examining the positions and studying the matter over in all its phases so far as we could anticipate." On occasion, the corps commander, "looked after Pickett, and made us give him things very fully; indeed, sometimes stay with him to make sure he did not get astray."

Longstreet wrote that Pickett, "who had been charged with the duty of arranging the lines behind" the artillery, reported that the troops "were in order and on the most sheltered ground." Longstreet also stated that Pickett had been ordered to form his line "so that the center of the assaulting column would arrive at the salient of the enemy's position." Pickett was to be the guide for the attacking column and was to "attack the line of the enemy’s defenses." Pettigrew was to move on the same line as Pickett and "was to assault the salient at the same moment." The only change to these orders, of which Longstreet may not have been aware, was that at the start of the advance, Fry’s Brigade in Pettigrew’s column was the brigade of direction. This arrangement was made by Pickett, Garnett, and Fry prior to the cannonade.

Longstreet later confessed that he was never so depressed as on July 3. He felt his men were to be sacrificed and that he "should have to order them to make a hopeless charge." Despite his depressed feelings, he appears to have maintained his professional objectivity and not to have transmitted his misgivings to any of the field commanders, with the possible exception of Alexander. Longstreet's noontime note to Alexander stated, "if the artillery fire does not have the effect to drive off the enemy or greatly demoralize him, so as to make our effort pretty certain, I would prefer that you should not advise Gen Pickett to make the charge."

Longstreet, "being unwilling to trust myself with the entire responsibility," appears to have come close to abnegating his duty by placing the responsibility for ordering the attack on the shoulders of a 26-year old lieutenant colonel. Alexander, who also wanted to avoid the responsibility, began to see "overwhelming reasons against the assault." Alexander discussed these points with Brig. General A. R. Wright as he wrote a reply. Alexander, who did not keep a copy of his reply, stated, in effect, that he would only be able to judge the effect of his fire by the enemy’s return fire and if there was any alternative to the attack "it should be carefully considered." This note seems to have brought Longstreet back to his sense of duty. He replied that it was the intention to advance the infantry if the artillery could drive off the enemy. When that happened Alexander was to advise Pickett and advance such artillery as he could to aid the attack. Alexander still felt uncomfortable. Wright informed Alexander "that the difficulty was not so much in reaching Cemetery Hill, or taking it - that his brigade had carried it the afternoon before - but that the trouble was to hold it, for the whole Federal army was massed in a sort of horse-shoe shape and could rapidly reinforce the point to any extent." Alexander next visited Pickett "who seemed to feel very sanguine of success in the charge, and was only congratulating himself on the opportunity." In his last message to Longstreet, Alexander said that when "our artillery fire is at its best, I will advise Gen Pickett to advance."

After receiving this last message, at about 12:40 P.M. and having done everything he could to get the men ready, Longstreet took a nap. It could not have been a very long nap, for at about 1:00 p.m. the following message was sent to Col. Walton: "Let the batteries open. Order great care and precision in firing. If the batteries at the Peach Orchard cannot be used against the point we intend attacking let them open on the enemy on the Rocky Hill."

Shortly after the Confederate batteries opened at 1:00 P.M., the Union artillery responded. Longstreet, perhaps to help steady his men while under this fire, started to ride along Pickett’s front. Captain John Holmes Smith, 11th Virginia Infantry in Kemper’s Brigade, observed Longstreet riding along "as quiet as an old farmer riding over his plantation on a Sunday morning, and looked neither to the right or left." General Kemper related that Longstreet, "sat his large charger with a magnificent grace and composure I never before beheld. This bearing was to me the grandest moral spectacle of the war. I expected to see him fall every instant. Still he moved on, slowly and majestically, with an inspiriting confidence, composure, self-possession and repressed power, in every movement and look that fascinated me." Concerned for his commander's safety, Kemper warned "this is a terrible place" and not "the very safest place about here." Longstreet replied that he was greatly distressed by the Union fire, but that "we are hurting the enemy badly, and will charge him presently." As he rode off, Longstreet seemed to Kemper, "as grand as Arthur to Guinevere, when he lead his hosts ‘far down to that great battle in the west.’"

Pickett's Charge Map, July 3, 1863
Pickett's Charge Map, July 3, 1863.jpg
Longstreet's Grand Assault, more popularly known as Pickett's Charge, by Civil War Trust

A battery under fire
A battery under fire.jpg
by Edwin Forbes

Longstreet rode to Major James Dearing’s artillery positions near the Rogers’ House along the Emmitsburg Road to observe the effect of the cannonade at close range. It was at this point that Longstreet decided that if the attack had any chance of success it had to be made soon, passing on orders for the batteries to refill their ammunition chests and to follow the infantry advance. Longstreet next rode to Alexander’s position and finding that Alexander had already advised Pickett to advance, he reported that "I gave the order to General Pickett to advance to the assault." (Although this is a very positive statement, every other account, including later ones by Longstreet, paints a slightly different picture. After talking with Alexander, it appears that Longstreet rode to Spangler's Woods to meet with Pickett. When Pickett asked permission to advance, Longstreet was so overcome with the certainty of what lay ahead for his men that he could not speak and could only bow his approval.)

After issuing the attack order, Longstreet rode back to Alexander’s position and found "that our supply of ammunition was so short that the batteries could not reopen. The order for this attack, which I could not favor under better auspices, would have been revoked had I felt that I had that privilege." Alexander confirmed that Longstreet wanted him to stop Pickett until the ammunition had been replenished. When told that this, "would involve sufficient delay for the enemy to recover himself, and moreover, that the supply of ammunition in the ordnance trains was not sufficient to support a fifteen minutes fire or to either renew our present effort, or attempt another, he recalled the order and allowed the division, then just approaching... to advance, saying, however, to me, that he dreaded the result and only ordered it in obedience to the wishes of the Commanding General." Alexander felt that Longstreet would have stopped the charge with "a word of concurrence from me," though Longstreet knew the only person who could stop the attack was Lee as he later confirmed:

"When your chief is away, you have a right to exercise discretion; but if he sees everything that you see, you have no right to disregard his positive and repeated orders. I never exercised discretion after discussing with General Lee the points of his orders, and, when, after discussion, he ordered the execution of his policy. I had offered my objections to Pickett’s battle and had been overruled, and I was in the immediate presence of the commanding general when the order was given for Pickett to advance."

Apparently no one inquired about the quantity of artillery ammunition. General Pendleton, the army’s Chief of Artillery, might have been able to supply an approximate answer after checking with the various corps chiefs of artillery and taking a quick inventory of the army’s supply train. Pendleton did report that Longstreet’s ordnance train had been moved further to the rear from "the convenient locality I had assigned it," necessitating a longer time in refilling the caissons. He also noted that the "train itself was very limited, so that its stock was soon exhausted, rendering requisite demand upon the reserve train, further off. The whole amount was thus being rapidly reduced." Alexander did imply the shortage in his first note to Longstreet stating that "ammunition is already very low. It will take it all to try this attack, and we will have nothing left for a new one." Dearing reported that just before the infantry advanced "my ammunition became completely exhausted, excepting a few rounds in my rifled guns." He, too, had sent his caissons back for a fresh supply "an hour and a half before" but they were unable to get any. If Longstreet had known of this situation earlier he would have had his best argument against the attack.

The infantry line of Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble began their advance and Union artillery immediately responded. Longstreet, with "his soldierly eye watched every feature of it. He neglected nothing that could help it," later observing that the "advance was made in a very handsome style, all the troops keeping their lines accurately, and taking the fire of the batteries with great coolness and deliberation." Seeing a threat to Pettigrew’s left flank, Longstreet sent Major Osmun Latrobe of his staff to warn Trimble. Latrobe’s horse was shot from under him and by the time he delivered the message Trimble had already detached two regiments from Lane’s Brigade to protect the left. Longstreet then sent Moxley Sorrel to warn Pickett about a threat to his right. In the confusion, Sorrel failed to find Pickett but did find Armistead and Garnett on the way to the front. Sorrel also had his horse shot from under him when a shell burst took off both hind legs.

Wilcox and Lang did not advance at the same time as Pickett and the reason is unclear. Apparently Wilcox misunderstood his role, and later reported that he did not receive any orders to support Pickett until about 20 or 30 minutes after the advance started. At that time "three staff officers in quick succession (one from the major-general commanding division) gave me orders to advance to the support of Pickett’s division." Lang reported that Pickett’s Division had already fallen back when he and Wilcox began their advance. Since the advance of Wilcox and Lang appears to have been a case of too little too late, historians have asked why they were ordered forward or why the order was not rescinded. There is no clear answer. Longstreet’s attention may have been focused on Pickett’s Division and he was not completely aware of Wilcox’s move. What was clear to Longstreet was that the attack had failed. Longstreet believed the left of the column was staggered by artillery fire and sent word to Anderson to move forward "to support and assist" Pettigrew and Trimble. Anderson was about to comply when Longstreet countermanded his orders, adding "that it was useless, and would only involve unnecessary loss, the assault having failed." Instead, Anderson placed his men in line "to afford a rallying point to those retiring." Longstreet directed his staff to assist Wright, "with all the officers... to rally and collect the scattered troops behind Anderson’s division."

Longstreet feared a possible Union counter-attack and rode to the front of the batteries along Alexander’s line, "to reconnoiter and superintend their operations," hoping his presence "would impress upon every one of them the necessity of holding the ground to the last extremity." Observing the general, Colonel Fremantle was impressed: "(Few) could have been more calm or self-possessed than General Longstreet under these trying circumstances....I could now thoroughly appreciate the term bulldog, which I had heard applied to him by the soldiers. Difficulties seem to make no other impression upon him than to make him a little more savage." Fremantle also remembered Longstreet meeting with another general, possibly Wilcox, who informed him that "he was unable to bring his men up again." Longstreet shot back, ‘Very well; never mind then, General; just let them remain where they are: the enemy’s going to advance, and will spare you the trouble.’" Soon after, Longstreet asked for something to drink and Fremantle offered him some rum from a silver flask, telling the general to keep the flask "in remembrance of the occasion."

What were General Rodes, Colonel Perrin, and General Thomas, stationed with their troops in Long Lane, doing during the charge? These were some of the troops that Lee’s staff officers later said were to have taken part in the assault. Rodes reported that when the "favorable opportunity seemed to me close at hand," he sent word to Ewell, not Longstreet, "that in a few moments I should attack." When Rodes realized that the troops on his immediate right, Perrin and Thomas, had not "made any advance or showed any preparation" it was announced and apparent to Rodes that the attack had failed. Perrin did not report on the attack specifically, but did speak of heavy skirmish fighting. He also stated that at "one time the enemy poured down a heavy torrent of light troops," probably a strong skirmish line, necessitating the deployment of the 14th South Carolina to charge the enemy. Although Thomas reported that his brigade made no movement, the 35th Georgia did advance, perhaps in support of the 14th South Carolina or in support of Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s withdrawal.

As the attack drew to its tragic conclusion, Longstreet sent Moxley Sorrel to order McLaws and Law to retire their commands to Warfield Ridge, the original attack positions of July 2. McLaws argued that there was no necessity for the order and that it was important to hold the ground that had already been won. When Sorrel explained that the order left no room for discretion, McLaws began to pull his brigades back to Warfield Ridge. After reoccupying the ridge line, Sorrel returned and asked McLaws if he could reoccupy the position he had just left. When asked for an explanation, Sorrel said that "General Longstreet had forgotten that he had ordered it, and now disapproved the withdrawal." These orders may indicate some confusion on Longstreet’s part which followed the end of Pickett's Charge and the general's attempt to consolidate his battered corps. Sorrel, himself, never wrote of this incident. Longstreet did report that after nightfall his line "was withdrawn to the Gettysburg road on the right, the left uniting with Lt. General A. P. Hill’s right." The next evening, Lee and Longstreet led the army on a retreat from Gettysburg and onto the road that would eventually take them to Appomattox Court House.


In the immediate aftermath of the Gettysburg Campaign, questions arose over the conduct of the battle and critics found General Longstreet's actions to be questionable, especially in his lack of enthusiasm in carrying out orders. Longstreet defended his actions maintaining that, "we were not to deliver an offensive battle, but so maneuver that the enemy should be forced to attack us - or, to repeat, that our campaign should be one of offensive strategy, but defensive tactics." Longstreet desired to swing south of Gettysburg and find good defensive positions, but Lee was determined to drive the Union army away from Gettysburg. As Lee's subordinate, Longstreet well knew his obligations to the army commander as he expressed in a private letter to his uncle, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, written July 24, 1863:

"General Lee chose the plan adopted, and he is the person appointed to chose and to order. I consider it a part of my duty to express my views to the commanding general. If he approves and adopts them it is well; if he does not, it is my duty to adopt his views, and to execute his orders as faithfully as if they were my own."

While clearly not approving of Lee’s July 3rd attack, Longstreet did everything he could, both before and during the charge, to ensure its success. Moxley Sorrel supported his commander: "(Longstreet) did not want to fight on the ground or on the plan adopted by the General-in-Chief. As Longstreet was not to be made willing and Lee refused to change or could not change, the former failed to conceal some anger. There was apparent apathy in his movements (lacking) the fire... of his usual bearing on the battlefield."


General Longstreet's military career ended with the demise of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House in 1865. As the years passed from that event and America entered into the age of Reconstruction, the debate began as to why the Confederates lost at Gettysburg. This debate, at times an acrimonious one, naturally centered on the actions and personality of James Longstreet whose performance throughout the Civil War, and particularly at Gettysburg, came under increasing scrutiny and criticism. Much of this was brought about by partisan politics and the writings of Virginia authors who championed the myth of The Lost Cause. Unlike some ex-Confederates, Longstreet did not wish to dwell on the past. He believed it was time to heal old wounds and look to the future. He thought this might entail ex-Confederates joining the Republican Party in order to control the Negro vote and the South’s future. He discussed this idea with other ex-Confederates, such as P. G. T. Beauregard, and his uncle August Baldwin Longstreet. Both advised against making his views public, but after passage of the Reconstruction Acts in 1867, Longstreet wrote:

"My politics is to save the little that is left us, and to go to work to improve that little as best we may. I believe that the course that some politicians have pursued, tends to increase our humiliation and distress, and leads us to greater trouble, until we finally shall have confiscation and expatriation. Since the negro has been given the privilege of voting, it is all important that we should exercise such influence over that vote, as to prevent it being injurious to us, 'we can only do that as Republicans. As there is no principle at issue now that should keep us from the Republican party, it seems to me that our duty to ourselves', to all our friends requires that our party South should seek an alliance with the Republican party..."

On October 12, 1870, Robert E. Lee passed away. The man who had assumed full responsibility for the defeat at Gettysburg was to be very rapidly raised to the pinnacle of Southern heroes who embodied the myth of the Lost Cause. In order to raise Lee, however, it became necessary to find a scapegoat for the loss at Gettysburg. Longstreet became the perfect choice due to his political apostasy, and comments found in William Swinton’s book, History of the Army of the Potomac, that suggested Longstreet was disloyal to Lee. This was perfect fuel for two of the leaders of the anti-Longstreet crusade, Jubal Early and William N. Pendleton. Early's military career was just as controversial as his antagonist. He had issued the order to burn Chambersburg in 1864 and then had been fired by Lee after the Shenandoah Valley Campaign that year. Early became president of the Southern Historical Society and led the movement to elevate Lee. Pendleton, who had come to Longstreet just prior to Appomattox with the suggestion that he advise Lee to surrender (a suggestion strongly rejected by Longstreet), may also have had some personal motives behind his attacks. Both of these men, for various reasons, decided that they had to defend Lee’s reputation and champion what has become known as the "Lost Cause". Part of this "myth" of the Lost Cause holds that by losing Gettysburg the South lost its chance at independence. In turn, Longstreet was responsible for the loss at Gettysburg, and he alone cost the South its independence.

Pendleton's writings were particularly vicious, charging that Longstreet failed to attack at dawn on the morning of July 2 as ordered by Lee. He also questioned Longstreet’s conduct throughout the battle and his loyalty to Lee. Pendleton’s own official report, however, and the testimony of Lee’s staff officers, clearly shows that Lee never issued a "dawn attack" order. T. J. Goree, and other Longstreet supporters, felt that Pendleton was presuming upon Longstreet’s unpopularity to make these charges. Goree added that it was, "preposterous and absurd, and must to every soldier of the Army of Virginia(,) the idea of such an old granny as Pendleton presuming to give a lecture or knowing anything about the battle of Gettysburg--Although nominally Chief of Artillery, yet he was in the actual capacity of Ordnance Officer, and, as I believe, miles in the rear. I know that I did not see him on the field during the battle."

In a letter to Jefferson Davis, Jubal Early claimed that he had, through his articles in the Southern Historical Society Papers, "fully demonstrated the falsehood of many of Longstreet’s statements, and the absurdity of his pretensions and criticisms." Early also wrote that articles written by Longstreet for Century Magazine, "has demonstrated his want of sense as well as his utter disregard for the truth, as he had before shown his utter want of principle by his political course."

Others joined the fray, especially on the hot debate of the general's actions during "Pickett's Charge". Feeling that Longstreet’s articles had unjustly criticized Lee’s performance, some of Lee’s former staff officers authored their own accounts of what they thought happened on July 3. The most notable was Walter Taylor's memoir, Four Years with General Lee. Brig. General Benjamin G. Humphreys, who had assumed command of Barksdale’s Brigade at Gettysburg, felt compelled to refute Taylor’s charges. In the margins of his copy of Taylor’s book, Humphreys questioned the statement that Lee had ordered Longstreet to order McLaws and Hood to support Pickett, who gave the orders and why they apparently were not transmitted to Longstreet. He also questioned Taylor’s assertion that "it is not apparent" how McLaws and Hood were needed to protect Longstreet’s flank. "Not apparent to whom?", Humphreys wrote. "To General Lee? Did Lee ever say so? 'Not apparent' to whom? To W. H. Taylor? Wonderful, with 40,000 watchful, vigilant Yankees on Round Top, not over 1 mile off and overlooking every movement of McLaws and Hood, 'yet it is not apparent' to W. H. Taylor- 'how they were necessary to defend his flank and rear.'"

Gettysburg Battlefield Map
Gettysburg Battlefield Map.jpg
Battle of Gettysburg Map

General Longstreet in 1895
General Longstreet in 1895.jpg
(Library of Congress)

Longstreet found support in other quarters. For a variety of reasons, the survivors of Pickett’s Division showed little or no interest in elevating Lee at the expense of Longstreet. In 1874, James Kemper won the governorship of Virginia on a Conservative ticket. He, like Longstreet and Pickett, believed that it would be best for the South to look to the future instead of dwelling on the past. But hard-core Lost Cause advocates, who led the anti-Longstreet forces and remained loyal Democrats, saw Longstreet, Kemper, and Pickett as traitors to their Southern heritage. Throughout the 1870’s and 1880’s, the editorial board of the Southern Historical Society Papers, essentially controlled by Jubal Early, kept most accounts by Pickett’s men out of their publication unless it could somehow be used to attack Longstreet. Pickett’s men never blamed Longstreet for what happened on July 3 and refused to join the anti-Longstreet crusade. But the power in the pens of Early, Pendleton, and others was successful in making James Longstreet one of the most hated men in the South to the extent that he was formally snubbed from ceremonies and memorials honoring the heroes of the Confederacy.

But the men who served under the general were the ones who ultimately came to his support. In 1890, The Washington Artillery of New Orleans insisted that Longstreet be invited to the unveiling of the Lee statue in Richmond or they would not attend. The group was prestigious enough to overcome the anti-Longstreet forces and secure invitations on his behalf. Longstreet remembered:

"My carriage attracted more attention I suppose than was expected and we were sidetracked, but that only made it more unpleasant for the managers. Generals Fitz Lee, (John B.) Gordon, and other grandees rode along, but little noticed by the troops in line, but as they passed our carriage they broke and crowded about us and hurried around in such crowds as to block the street, which threatened to break up the procession, and when urged on tried to take the horses from the carriage, and pull it along with them, and it was all that Latrobe and Cullen could do to urge them on, and preserve their line of order."

In 1892, at the third annual meeting of the United Confederate Veterans in New Orleans, Longstreet was again recognized by the men who had served under his command. "The business was interrupted by calls for opportunity to come up and shake my hand," the aging general recalled, "and ended by hurrying (John B.) Gordon and others of the managers from the stand in order to make room for the soldiers to come up and meet me." Clearly, when Longstreet made these rare appearances, most ex-Confederate soldiers were able to rise above partisan politics and disparaging rhetoric, and remember the Longstreet who had led them through four years of war. T. J. Goree spoke for most veterans when he wrote to the general:

"With my heart full of gratitude, I often think of you and of many acts of kindness shown me, and the innumerable marks of esteem and confidence bestowed upon me by you during the four long and trying years that we were together. Although we may differ in our political opinions, yet I have always given you credit for honesty and sincerity of purpose, and it has made no difference in my kindly feelings towards you personally, and I trust that it never will."

Despite the adulation of his old command, an anti-Longstreet attitude has prevailed among historians into this century, most notably by Douglas Southall Freeman and Clifford Dowdey. Some writers, such as Donald B. Sanger, Edwin B. Coddington, William G. Piston, and Carol Reardon, have been more objective in their approach to the events of July 3 and to Longstreet’s role. While we might normally leave the last word on Longstreet to these historians, it is more appropriate to give the last word to a veteran of "Pickett's Charge". Speaking to the Buffalo Evening News, during the 75th Anniversary Reunion at Gettysburg, a former officer in Pickett’s Division remarked:

"Longstreet opposed Pickett’s Charge, and the failure shows he was right.... All these damnable lies about Longstreet make me want to shoulder a musket and fight another war. They originated in politics and have been told by men not fit to untie his shoestrings. We soldiers on the firing line knew there was no greater fighter in the whole Confederate army than Longstreet. I am proud that I fought under him here. I know that Longstreet did not fail Lee at Gettysburg or anywhere else. I’ll defend him as long as I live."

(Sources and related reading below.)

Recommended Reading: General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier (Simon & Schuster). Description: This isn't the first biography to be written on Confederate General James Longstreet, but it's the best--and certainly the one that pays the most attention to Longstreet's performance as a military leader. Historian Jeffry D. Wert aims to rehabilitate Longstreet's reputation, which traditionally has suffered in comparison to those of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Some Southern partisans have blamed Longstreet unfairly for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg; Wert corrects the record. He is not “uncritical” of Longstreet's record, but he rightly suggests that if Lee had followed Longstreet's advice, the battle's outcome might have been different. Continued below...

The facts of history cannot be changed, however, and Wert musters them on these pages to advance a bold claim: "Longstreet, not Jackson, was the finest corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia; in fact, he was arguably the best corps commander in the conflict on either side." Wert describes his subject as strategically aggressive, but tactically reserved. The bulk of the book appropriately focuses on the Civil War, but Wert also briefly delves into Longstreet's life before and after it. Most interestingly, it was framed by a friendship with Ulysses S. Grant, formed at West Point and continuing into old age. Longstreet even served in the Grant administration--an act that called into question his loyalty to the Lost Cause, and explains in part why Wert's biography is a welcome antidote to much of what has been written about this controversial figure.

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Recommended Reading: James Longstreet: The Man, The Soldier, The Controversy (Hardcover). Description: Few figures from the American Civil War have generated more controversy than Confederate general James Longstreet. As the senior officer present at Pickett's Charge, he has been blamed by many, particularly in the South, for the decisive Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. Other scholars have cited his exemplary combat record during the Civil War and looked to rivals within the Confederate hierarchy or his post-war support for the Northern-based Republican Party as sources for the criticism leveled at him. Richard L. DiNardo and Albert A. Nofi have assembled some of the top Civil War and Longstreet scholars to fully examine this still-controversial topic. Continued below...

About the Author: Albert A. Nofi has a Ph.D. in Military History from the City University of New York and was associate editor for many years of the ground-breaking military journal Strategy and Tactics. He was a founder of wargaming, the conflict simulation system used both by hobbyists and military planners. Dr. Nofi has written numerous books and articles on military history and was a news media military commentator during the Persian Gulf War. He is also the author of The Gettysburg Campaign and The Waterloo Campaign.
 
Recommended Reading: General James Longstreet: the Confederacy's Most Modern General. Description: While many books and writings are available on the history of Lieutenant General James Longstreet of the Confederate States Army, nearly the entire body of this historiography marginalizes his accomplishments and is devoted to his falling from grace with the postwar Southern elites. This piece of historiography aims to look at Longstreet with twenty-first century objectivity, and completely abandons the Lost Cause linked hatred that many postwar Southern elites had for him and his post war politics. While Longstreet s political incorrectness was the reason he became ignored, politics is completely irrelevant to the student of warfare looking to garner lessons from Longstreet s battles and campaigns. This work will compare the similarities of Longstreet s innovations and operations to certain aspects of war that became standard in the First and Second World Wars. Continued below...

Interpreting Longstreet through the comparison of his methods to twentieth century methods shows Longstreet was a very modern general. Even more important than identifying Longstreet s originality is identifying how his actions greatly added to the changing complexion of warfare. Some of his innovations were the early origins of prominent facets in twentieth century warfare, and he clearly established his legacy as a modern innovator as early as 1862. But only now are the postwar negative portrayals of Longstreet faded enough for him to emerge as the Confederacy s most modern general.

 

Recommended Reading: Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History. Description: William Piston has written a fine, highly readable, and fair-minded but sympathetic biography of one of the most controversial leaders of the Civil War. While Lee held Longstreet in the highest regard and made the dependable Longstreet his senior subordinate and commander of his First Corps in the Army of Northern Virginia, the stubborn South Carolinian, Longstreet, found his reputation tarnished after the war by jealous military rivals who disliked Longstreet's politics and resented his criticisms of some of Lee's command decisions. As a military biography, this work offers a comprehensive and balanced treatment of Longstreet's career that effectively demolishes some of the more unfair criticisms of Longstreet as a commander, and in particular takes apart the myth (that emerged in post-war controversy) that Jackson, not Longstreet, had been the senior commander in whom Lee had placed his most reliance and trust. Continued below...

Reading Piston's book will demonstrate why Lee described Longstreet as "my Old War Horse," and why Longstreet was widely regarded on both sides as one of the very finest -- if not THE finest -- corps commanders of the war. Piston also does a nice job of disentangling the post-war Gettysburg controversy, which emerged out of polemics over Reconstruction politics and the bickering among former Confederate generals anxious to rescue their own reputations while putting Robert E. Lee above any criticism. Lee, of course, was a great commander, but he never pretended to be perfect, and Longstreet, in daring to criticize certain aspects of Lee's tactical operations, became a threat to a post-war mythology -- the cult of Lee -- that became so important in building a post-war, solid Democratic South and white supremacist post-Confederate Southern identity. As Piston demonstrates, the post-war Lost Cause mythology, in deifying the defeated Lee, required a scapegoat, a "Judas", upon whom the blame for defeat and humiliation could be heaped. As both Jackson and Stuart had been killed during the war, and as most western Confederate commanders lacked the prominence to serve this function, Longstreet emerged for unreconstructed Confederates as the bete noir of Southern military history, both for his post-war Republican politics and his criticisms of Lee, his actual war record and relationship with Lee notwithstanding. And in this post-war Lost Cause narrative, Gettysburg became the critical key or turning point upon which all else hinged, as though the outcome of a thousand campaigns mobilizing millions of men, fought over five years across a vast continent, could be reduced to one afternoon on one bloody field in Pennsylvania, or as though (even if that had been true) Longstreet alone could be blamed for Lee's failure at Gettysburg. It is the politics of Reconstruction and Longstreet's place in that political struggle that largely shaped what became the dominant Southern narrative about the battle of Gettysburg, and the meaning of that defeat in the larger destruction and humiliation of the Confederacy. Piston's treatment of this issue, and his discussion of the evolution of Lost Cause historiography, is brilliant, and deserves attention not only from those interested in the Civil War and Reconstruction, but from those interested in the relationship between politics, historical memory, the historical record, and the writing of history.

 

Recommended Reading: Civil War High Commands (1040 pages) (Hardcover). Description: Based on nearly five decades of research, this magisterial work is a biographical register and analysis of the people who most directly influenced the course of the Civil War, its high commanders. Numbering 3,396, they include the presidents and their cabinet members, state governors, general officers of the Union and Confederate armies (regular, provisional, volunteers, and militia), and admirals and commodores of the two navies. Civil War High Commands will become a cornerstone reference work on these personalities and the meaning of their commands, and on the Civil War itself. Continued below...

Errors of fact and interpretation concerning the high commanders are legion in the Civil War literature, in reference works as well as in narrative accounts. The present work brings together for the first time in one volume the most reliable facts available, drawn from more than 1,000 sources and including the most recent research. The biographical entries include complete names, birthplaces, important relatives, education, vocations, publications, military grades, wartime assignments, wounds, captures, exchanges, paroles, honors, and place of death and interment. In addition to its main component, the biographies, the volume also includes a number of essays, tables, and synopses designed to clarify previously obscure matters such as the definition of grades and ranks; the difference between commissions in regular, provisional, volunteer, and militia services; the chronology of military laws and executive decisions before, during, and after the war; and the geographical breakdown of command structures. The book is illustrated with 84 new diagrams of all the insignias used throughout the war and with 129 portraits of the most important high commanders. It is the most comprehensive volume to date...name any Union or Confederate general--and it can be found in here. [T]he photos alone are worth the purchase. RATED FIVE STARS by americancivilwarhistory.org

Sources: Jeffrey D. Wert, General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial General, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1993; H.J. Eckenrode, James Longstreet: Lee's War Horse, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1936, 1986; Condensed from the 1998 Gettysburg Seminar paper, by Karlton Smith: Gettysburg National Military Park.

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