Gettysburg Heroes: Perfect Soldiers, Hallowed Groundby Glenn W. LaFantasie
The Civil War generation saw its world in ways startlingly different from our own. In these essays, Glenn W. LaFantasie examines the lives and experiences of several key personalities who gained fame during the war and after. The battle of Gettysburg is the thread that ties these Civil War lives together. Gettysburg was a personal turning point, though each person… See more details below
The Civil War generation saw its world in ways startlingly different from our own. In these essays, Glenn W. LaFantasie examines the lives and experiences of several key personalities who gained fame during the war and after. The battle of Gettysburg is the thread that ties these Civil War lives together. Gettysburg was a personal turning point, though each person was affected differently. Largely biographical in its approach, the book captures the human drama of the war and shows how this group of individuals—including Abraham Lincoln, James Longstreet, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, William C. Oates, and others—endured or succumbed to the war and, willingly or unwillingly, influenced its outcome. At the same time, it shows how the war shaped the lives of these individuals, putting them through ordeals they never dreamed they would face or survive.
"Gettysburg Heroes offers concise and clear stories of soldiers, civilians, generals and presidents.... Bring[ing] us a little closer to the truth about the battle of Gettysburg and how it has become an oracle for this nation." —Civil War Librarian, April 4, 2008
Richard N. Larsen
"Well-researched, Gettysburg Heroes makes a genuine contribution in the field of the Civil War in thought and memory, and specifically the significance of Gettysburg itself." —Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Spring 2008
"[T]his is a superb collection of essays by an outstanding scholar reflecting on America's obsession with the battle of Gettysburg and 'perfect heroes.'" —The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 76, No. 3
"Glenn LaFantasie is one of the finest writers in the field of Civil War history. His prose is accessible, pleasurable to read, and always insightful and provocative... this book should excite a lot of interest." —Joan Waugh, editor of The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture
"Glenn LaFantasie flat out knows how to write Civil War history!" Richard N. Larsen, The MidWest Book Review
"[T]his is a superb collection of essays by an outstanding scholar reflecting on America's obsession with the battle of Gettysburg and 'perfect heroes.'" The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 76, No. 3
"Well-researched, Gettysburg Heroes makes a genuine contribution in the field of the Civil War in thought and memory, and specifically the significance of Gettysburg itself." Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Spring 2008
"Gettysburg is more than a pivotal battlefield for Americans. It has also, in its way, become something of a national Pantheon. For American heroes have trod that ground, both those who fought there, and those who came after to learn and remember. Warriors like Generals James Longstreet and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, share that field with Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, and Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery. In a stimulating series of essays, Glenn LaFantasie looks at all of them in Gettysburg Heroes, examining not only why they came and what they did, but also the impact this hallowed ground had upon them and all Americans." William C. Davis, author of An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government and The Union that Shaped the Confederacy
"LaFantasie has written in a lucid, easy-to-understand manner... highly recommended." Daily News (Bowling Green, KY), July 13, 2008
"Gettysburg Heroes offers concise and clear stories of soldiers, civilians, generals and presidents.... Bring[ing] us a little closer to the truth about the battle of Gettysburg and how it has become an oracle for this nation." Civil War Librarian, April 4, 2008
"We continually hear that the Gettysburg subject has been exhausted. Glenn LaFantasie proves this wrong. Beautifully written and splendidly researched Gettysburg Heroes is a delight to read." D. Scott Hartwig
Indiana University Press
"Glenn LaFantasie is one of the finest writers in the field of Civil War history. His prose is accessible, pleasurable to read, and always insightful and provocative... this book should excite a lot of interest." Joan Waugh, editor of The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture
"Gettysburg is more than a pivotal battlefield for Americans. It has also, in its way, become something of a national Pantheon. For American heroes have trod that ground, both those who fought there, and those who came after to learn and remember. Warriors like Generals James Longstreet and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, share that field with Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, and Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery. In a stimulating series of essays, Glenn LaFantasie looks at all of them in Gettysburg Heroes, examining not only why they came and what they did, but also the impact this hallowed ground had upon them and all Americans." —William C. Davis, author of An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government and The Union that Shaped the Confederacy
"LaFantasie has written in a lucid, easy-to-understand manner... highly recommended." —Daily News (Bowling Green, KY), July 13, 2008
"Glenn LaFantasie flat out knows how to write Civil War history!" —Richard N. Larsen, The MidWest Book Review
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Perfect Soldiers, Hallowed Ground
By Glenn W. LaFantasie
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2008 Glenn W. LaFantasie
All rights reserved.
Lee's Old War Horse
One of the Confederacy's perfect heroes, James Longstreet, should have been honored by the South for all his great feats on the battlefields of the Civil War, but it was his fate to become an object of scorn and ridicule in the postwar era. What set his fellow Southerners off against him was the inconstancy that formed a pattern in his life. There was something about him that made people generally question his fealty, faithfulness, and dependability. In his autumnal years, Longstreet met one of his family's former slaves, his "old nurse" Daniel, on a visit to Mississippi. "Marse Jim," said Daniel, "do you belong to any church?" Longstreet replied matter-of-factly, "I try to be a good Christian." Old Daniel stopped laughing long enough to say: "Something must have scared you mighty bad to change you so from what you was when I had to care for you." What old Daniel found so remarkable was not that Longstreet had embraced religion in his adulthood, for many a man turns to God as his years grow shorter, but that his master's convictions could have changed so radically over the years. Daniel was not alone. Others who knew Longstreet during his long life—as a soldier in the United States Army, as a general in the armies of the Confederacy, as a politician after the Civil War, or even as a friend—reacted to him in similar ways. In a famous quote, a subordinate once said of Longstreet: "I consider him a humbug."
Generals are supposed to win their reputations on the battlefield, but in Longstreet's case his public image was mostly shaped by his actions after the Civil War, when he embraced the Republican Party and earned the enmity of a cadre of former Confederate officers who, while elevating the beloved Robert E. Lee to Southern sainthood, blamed Longstreet for losing the battle of Gettysburg, bringing about the defeat of the Confederacy as a whole, and betraying the "Lost Cause." After Longstreet's death, when the furor over his actions might have otherwise subsided, historians kept up the attacks on Longstreet and perpetuated the controversy surrounding him. Except for a handful of writers—including Michael Shaara in his famous novel, The Killer Angels, Glenn Tucker in two books written more than thirty years ago about Longstreet at Gettysburg, and two recent historians, Jeffry D. Wert and William Garrett Piston—Longstreet has had few defenders. Some Civil War historians, such as Robert K. Krick, mince no words about Longstreet and his faults. Says Krick rather saucily: "The record shows that Longstreet operated at times during the war with an unwholesome and unlovely attitude."
There's good reason for such bristling criticism. Whether Longstreet was as "unlovely" as historian Krick claims is certainly debatable, but it is evident nevertheless that Longstreet's inconstancy—the apostasy his former slave found so manifestly amusing—hampered his effectiveness as a general officer during the Civil War and tarnished his good name in the years afterward. In fact, the issue of disloyalty runs like a dark river through Longstreet's life. His friends and his enemies never seemed quite certain about where he stood. For all the controversy surrounding him, when it comes to assessing Longstreet's merits and shortcomings as a military man the heart of the matter is to be found in trying to resolve his wavering loyalties—to his country's cause, to his superior officers, and to himself.
In an era when states' rights dominated the politics of the South, James Longstreet held no particular allegiance to any Southern state. Born on his grandparents' plantation on January 8, 1821, in Edgefield District, South Carolina, Longstreet spent his early years on his father's plantation in northeastern Georgia, not far from present-day Gainesville. His father was originally from New Jersey; his mother from Maryland. To prepare him for entry into West Point, Longstreet's father in 1830 sent him to attend an academy in Augusta and live with an uncle, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, an accomplished attorney and judge who would later win attention for his collection of humorous frontier anecdotes, Georgia Scenes, and for his outspoken support of secession in 1860. When his father died in 1833, James Longstreet remained in Augusta and his mother moved to Alabama. It was from Alabama, in fact, that Longstreet received his appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1838.
At West Point, his fellow cadets called him "Old Pete," a variation of his family nickname, "Peter." Even as a young man, Longstreet offered an imposing presence. He stood two inches above six feet in height and carried more than two hundred pounds on his large frame. Later in life, he became barrel-chested and, to some extent, paunchy, but in his youth he was muscular and solid. Longstreet's deep-set blue eyes and his reserved manner (he was a man of few words) lent an air of coolness to his disposition. Yet he enjoyed practical jokes, had a fine sense of humor, and liked playing poker with his comrades. "As a cadet," Longstreet admitted, "I had more interest in the school of the soldier, horsemanship, sword exercise, and the outside game of foot-ball than in the academic courses." Later, in the Civil War, one of his aides described him as "a soldier every inch."
No one ever doubted his bravery in combat or his potential for leadership. During the Mexican War, he distinguished himself in one engagement after another. As a result of his courage and skill as an officer during the battle of Monterey in September 1845, Longstreet was promoted first to adjutant of the 8th Infantry and later to first lieutenant. A year later, at Churubusco, Longstreet and a fellow officer led a bold assault on the Mexican fortifications, with Longstreet carrying the colors and urging his men forward. Longstreet also carried the flag in an attack on Chapul tepec a few days later. Hit in the thigh by a Mexican bullet, he gave the colors over to a fellow lieutenant, George E. Pickett, before falling in pain.
In the Civil War, Longstreet also gained a reputation for bravery and nerve. Edward Pollard, a Southern historian of the Civil War, said there was "a certain fierce aspect to the man." His men adored him and admired the fact that he did not shrink from leading his troops into battle and putting himself in dangerous situations on the field of battle. They called him a "bulldog," and they seemed more than willing to follow him into the very fires of hell. One of his aides, Major Thomas J. Goree, admiringly observed Longstreet's "coolness and daring" under fire. He described how the general, during one battle, rode among his men "amid a perfect shower of balls ... with a cigar in his mouth, rallying them, encouraging, and inspiring confidence among them."
Yet Longstreet's enthusiasm for battle caused concern among many of his compatriots. While traveling with Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia during the summer of 1863, Lieutenant Arthur L. Fremantle of the British Coldstream Guards noted that Longstreet's fellow officers fully expected that he would expose himself on the battlefield in "a reckless manner." Reckless or not, Longstreet loved being in the middle of a fight. He sprang to life during combat. In the smoke and fire of battle, said Goree, Longstreet seemed to be "one of the happiest men in the world."
Given his tendency to throw himself into the fray (Fremantle told how Longstreet, hat in hand, personally led a Georgia regiment in an assault against a Federal battery at Gettysburg), it is remarkable that Longstreet has earned such an undeserved reputation as a defensive fighter. Most of the claims for Longstreet's proficiency as a defensive tactician come from his adept handling of his troops at Fredericksburg in December 1862, when he positioned his men behind a sunken road on Marye's Heights and watched as wave upon wave of assaulting Union troops were mowed down under withering fire from the Confederate guns. Lee was fearful that Longstreet's line would break. Longstreet knew better. "General," he said, "if you put every man now on the other side of the Potomac on that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line." The controversy over his actions at Gettysburg has also made historians believe that he favored defensive, rather than offensive, actions, for Longstreet very publicly criticized Lee after the war for not assuming a defensive posture at Gettysburg that would have allowed the Confederates to choose their own ground and wait for the Union Army of the Potomac to attack them.
While it is true that Longstreet would have preferred defensive maneuvers in Pennsylvania during the summer of 1863, he never consistently argued for defensive tactics, as some historians have implied. As a field general, Longstreet was a decided pragmatist, using offensive and defensive actions wherever they best suited the situation. His battle plans were, for the most part, aggressive and demonstrated, if anything, a tendency toward hard-hitting assaults, such as the ones he led during the Seven Days, at Second Manassas, and at Chickamauga. His soldiers never considered him to be simply a defensive fighter. "Longstreet is a bulldog soldier and cares nothing about flank movements," wrote one Texan under his command. "He takes a dead set at the center, and can whip any army on earth if he has men enough to fight until he is tired of it." Although now mostly forgotten in the thick fog of controversy that has for so long shrouded him from view, Longstreet actually possessed an uncanny ability as a general to size up a situation and determine, coolly and objectively, whether to strike the enemy or hold his ground. For good reason, General Lee valued Longstreet and called him "the staff in my right hand" and "my old war horse."
But off the battlefield, it was an entirely different story. Without the swirl of combat around him, Longstreet fumbled and faltered. Throughout his long career in the service of two armies, Longstreet revealed that he was a far better warrior than he was a steadfast soldier. Some writers have maintained that Longstreet was overly ambitious and that his hopes for advancement (or his despondency over failing to win promotion) frequently got him into trouble. The fact is that Longstreet never appeared to have clear goals in mind. Like most men, and like most good military officers, he wanted to get ahead in life, but unless he could direct his men to take a certain hill or break an enemy's line, he could not always define for himself where he wanted to go, what he wanted to be, or who he really was.
This indecisiveness was readily apparent during the years Longstreet spent as a young officer in the U.S. Army. Although he found military life appealing, he seemed unsure of where he wanted his army career to go. After the Mexican War, Longstreet married Louise Garland, the daughter of one of his post commanders, and took several brief assignments before settling down for a while in San Antonio, Texas, where he served as the adjutant of the 8th Infantry and later as chief commissary for the Department of Texas.
In June 1850, he asked to be transferred to the cavalry, but his request was denied. He longed for promotion, hoped that the cavalry might give him the advancement he wanted, and looked for other alternatives when that avenue became closed to him. Resigning his post as commissary, he returned to the 8th Infantry and began leading patrols into Comanche territory, leaving his wife and their two small children in San Antonio. The dusty forays into the desolate Texas countryside could not have encouraged him about his chances for promotion. He was personally ambitious, but he also wanted the extra pay that would come with higher rank so that he could better support his family and place his children in decent schools. Finally he received a promotion to captain in December 1852, and two years later, he moved to Fort Bliss, in New Mexico Territory, where he got a taste of Indian fighting against the Apaches and even assumed temporary command of the post on two separate occasions.
All in all, Longstreet spent four years at Fort Bliss—his longest assignment to date in the army. In 1858, he requested to be removed from frontier duty and to be assigned a staff job, probably with the hope that he could win a major's commission sooner behind a desk than in front of an Indian patrol. He was right. Longstreet was promoted to major in the paymaster department and ordered to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and later to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
As the sectional conflict between North and South heated up in the East, threatening the dissolution of the country, Longstreet and his comrades watched the events from afar with "intense anxiety" and in "painful suspense." Although the evidence is sparse, and Longstreet himself left no explicit account of his actions during this period, it would appear that Longstreet interpreted Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency in November 1860 as a dire threat to the welfare of the Southern states and took great interest in the course of secession as it spread its way through the states of the deep South after South Carolina withdrew from the Union on December 20, 1860. About this time, Longstreet wrote to Washington asking for an escort for himself and his family from Fort Bliss to San Antonio. The reason for the request is not known, but it was denied by the War Department. He also wrote a letter to a friend, Congressman J. L. M. Curry of Alabama, offering his services to the governor of that state, should Alabama decide to follow South Carolina out of the Union. Meanwhile, if one postwar source can be believed, his mother begged him to remain in service to the United States. But Longstreet had set his own course.
Why he offered himself to Alabama, and not Georgia, is a mystery, although he may have reckoned that his chances for gaining higher rank in the state militia were better in Alabama than they would have been in either Georgia or South Carolina. Whatever his purpose, his letter to Curry was, technically speaking, a treasonous act, for Longstreet was still wearing the uniform of a U.S. Army officer. But his oath to defend the U.S. Constitution and to protect the nation from its enemies did not weigh heavily on Longstreet's mind or conscience. During the secession crisis, his loyalties were at best ambivalent and at worst duplicitous.
Unlike other Southerners, who justified their Confederate allegiances because they claimed to feel a stronger loyalty to their native states rather than to the United States, Longstreet never declared that he possessed any special attachment to a state or even a particular affinity for the South. Some historians have strongly argued that he probably embraced firmly the tenets of states' rights so lovingly espoused by his famous uncle Augustus, but if so, there's little evidence to show that he knew much about the constitutional background to secession at all or that his actions in the winter of 1860–61 were the result of deep political convictions. What seems most likely is that he recognized a clear opportunity when it presented itself, and it was a fair bet that Alabama would follow in South Carolina's wake sooner or later.
But to take advantage of opportunity meant playing his cards close to his vest. After Alabama seceded, Longstreet wrote to Governor Andrew B. Moore in February 1861 and offered his services directly to the state, "should she need a soldier who has seen hard service." Moore forwarded Longstreet's letter to Confederate Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker. It would appear that Longstreet also arranged to have several prominent men endorse his suitability for high rank in the Confederate army by sending letters of support to President Jefferson Davis. Longstreet's brother William also wrote to Davis and offered his younger brother's services "in any capacity that is within the scope of his profession."
Excerpted from Gettysburg Heroes by Glenn W. LaFantasie. Copyright © 2008 Glenn W. LaFantasie. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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