Secretary of State Cass Resigned to Protest Inaction Over Looming War

This rare political campaign daguerreotype of Lewis Cass from 1848 realized $17,925 at a February 2007 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

By 1857, Lewis Cass was back in national politics as secretary of state for our only bachelor president, James Buchanan. As an old military man, Cass was growing increasingly concerned about activities in the South. He could sense the undercurrent of war that had been brewing for 20-plus years, but this time it was more palpable.

He was convinced that it would be prudent to beef up military garrisons in the South as a show of determination. It would also help prevent the South from appropriating guns and supplies that could be used against the Union if war did break out. He also attempted to persuade President Buchanan to send federal troops to Charleston, S.C., since that was an obvious hot spot.

Although Cass would prove to be absolutely correct, Buchanan refused to take any action, since “It was not in the country’s best interest.” However, privately, he was predicting “he would be the last president of a United States” because he thought the country would divide permanently … soon.

On Dec. 13, 1860, Cass resigned in protest. It was the only viable option he had to demonstrate how strongly he disagreed with the administration.

Lewis Cass died in 1866, a year after the bloody civil war he was so determined to prevent ended. He had a long career that stretched across 13 presidencies starting with Thomas Jefferson (as a U.S. marshal), followed by brigadier general, governor (Michigan), secretary of war, and secretary of state.

The Lewis Cass Legacy Society is still active and his name is still recognized in Michigan.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Life, History Have Not Been Fair to Pat Nixon

As the wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, Pat Nixon, above at her husband’s 1973 inauguration, was trained at the knee of Mamie Eisenhower, the quintessential 1950s political wife.

By Jim O’Neal

As the nation seems transfixed again on the White House and there is a special counsel investigating “everything,” it is nostalgic to see old faces popping up on CNN as the “I” word is faintly heard.

John Dean has returned with his colorful Richard Nixon anecdotes and even Richard Ben-Veniste is back. Ben-Veniste was a special prosecutor during the Watergate scandal and chief counsel for the Democrats in the less-famous, but much longer and tedious Senate Whitewater Committee, which was investigating the Clintons (especially the first lady) over their curious relationships before they left Arkansas.

Rarely does anyone mention earlier first lady Pat Nixon. She grew up on a small truck farm in Artesia, Calif., about 20 miles from my high school (Compton). She lost her mother to cancer when she was 12 and was forced to take over the family household chores, including the laborious task of doing the laundry, which involved building a fire in an outdoor brick fireplace and lifting the clothes with long sticks from cauldrons of boiling water into cold water and then hanging them out to dry.

She also took care of two older brothers and her father for five years until he died from silicosis (miner’s disease). She was an orphan at 17 and determined to get a college degree. She worked her way through the University of Southern California, graduating cum laude in 1937. She met Richard Nixon when they were auditioning for parts in a local production of the mystery drama The Dark Tower. She was teaching shorthand and typing at a high school and he was a young lawyer from Duke University Law School. (He had been accepted into the FBI, but never received the notice.)

They married in June 1940, and then he was off to the Navy for several years. He ran for Congress with Pat as his office manager. She basically devoted the rest of her life supporting his political ambitions. She was crushed when he lost the 1960 presidential race to John F. Kennedy and never understood why reporters never investigated the speculation that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley had stolen Illinois’ 27 electoral votes or why her husband had not demanded a recount.

Nixon promised Pat that he was finished with politics after he lost his 1962 comeback campaign for governor of California, famously blasting the deeply hated press with his parting message, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Pat was relieved and her happiest days were after that defeat, when the family moved to New York and Nixon retreated to private life as a lawyer.

By the time they did get to the White House in January 1969, the Vietnam War was raging and the feminist movement was in full swing. As the wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, Pat was trained at the knee of Mamie Eisenhower, the quintessential 1950s political wife.

Although she never publicly crumbled, Watergate took a terrible toll on Pat Nixon’s health. She lost sleep, lost weight and rumors of her drinking started.

Her loyal aides fought back, saying she enjoyed an occasional highball and a cigarette at the end of a long day. However, Pat told her daughter Julie, “Watergate is the only crisis that got me down. It is just constant and I know I will never live to see the vindication.”

She was right about that. Life and history have not been fair to Pat Nixon … period.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Vice President Agnew Believed They Were Out to Get Him

Spiro Agnew in his memoirs suggested Richard Nixon and Alexander Haig planned to assassinate him.

By Jim O’Neal

Spiro Theodore Agnew was elected vice president twice … in 1968 and 1972. However, he became the second vice president to resign in 1973. Although accused of several crimes along the way, he finally pleaded no contest to a single charge of not reporting $29,500 income in 1967.

Lesser known is that in 1995, his portrait bust was placed in the U.S. Capitol. An 1886 Senate resolution stipulated that all former VPs were entitled to a portrait bust in the building. Agnew proudly attended the formal ceremony.

He later claimed that both President Richard Nixon and his Chief of Staff, Alexander Haig, had threatened to assassinate him … “Either resign … or else.” (That would have really been a first!)

Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms as president – No. 22 and No. 24.

He was the first Democrat elected after the Civil War, which he conveniently sidestepped by hiring a replacement to take his place in military service.

Some of his firsts include:

• Only president to admit fathering an illegitimate child.

• First and only president to marry in the White House.

• First president to have a child born in the WH.

During the Panic of 1893, he secretly had a cancerous jaw replaced with a rubber mandible. It was done on a yacht at sea to avoid spooking the markets. Perhaps the absence of any “leaks” was because he was a tough man who had (personally) hung two crooks when he was a sheriff in Buffalo.

Thomas Riley Marshall is still a relatively obscure vice president despite serving eight years (1913-21) with Woodrow Wilson, and in 1916 becoming the first VP reelected since John Calhoun (1828).

Many historians argue that he should have assumed the presidency when Wilson suffered his debilitating stroke, but a small group around Wilson (including his wife) were able to keep it a secret. Some Wilson signatures appear to be forged, however Marshall had little interest and confined his duties to calling each day to inquire about the president’s health.

Marshall is famously credited with saying, “What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar!”

Three of our first five presidents died on July 4, as did Abraham Lincoln’s first VP, Hannibal Hamlin.

Calvin Coolidge Jr. was born on that historic date. After President Warren G. Harding died in San Francisco in 1923, Coolidge assumed the presidency and won re-election in 1924. His father swore him in in 1923 as he was a judge/notary.

“Silent Cal” was a real tax cutter, and by 1927, 98 percent of the population paid zero income tax. Plus, he balanced the budget every year and when he left office in 1929, the federal budget was lower than when he started.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Tidbits: Bluebonnets, Sherlock Holmes, Bums and Booze

Julian Onderdonk’s Texas Landscape with Bluebonnets sold for $437,000 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The bluebonnets in Texas are beginning to fade, but two names always come to mind when talking about the flowers: Claudia Alta Taylor (better known as “Lady Bird” Johnson ) and “Cactus Jack” Garner, who lobbied to make the prickly pear cactus the state flower (and lost).

Garner became the 32nd vice president of the United States in 1932 and concurrently was elected back to the House. So for one day, on March 4, 1933, he was both Psident of the Senate and Speaker of the House.

Earlier on Feb. 15, 1933, as VP-elect, he came close to being president when FDR just missed being assassinated in Miami.

Garner served two full terms as VP and died 15 days before his 99th birthday – making him the longest-living VP.

“A Study in Scarlet” by Arthur Conan Doyle was the first story featuring Sherlock Holmes. It was published in 1887 in the magazine Beeton’s Christmas Annual – with only 11 copies known to exist today.

Joe Louis by Irving Penn

The last heavyweight championship bout scheduled for 20 rounds was held in Detroit in 1941. Joe Louis TKO’d Abe Simon in 13 rounds. Simon was a member of Louis’ “Bum of the Month Club” – 13 opponents Louis defeated between 1939 and 1941.

After leaving boxing, Simon went to Hollywood, where he won roles in On the Waterfront, Never Love a Stranger and Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Our 35th vice president, Kentucky lawyer Alben W. Barkley, was elected with Harry S. Truman in 1948 and is still the only one with the middle name of William (he was actually born Willie Alben Barkley).

One of his career highlights was his keynote address at the 1932 Democratic Convention, where he supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and denounced Prohibition (Kentucky bourbon?). It worked … FDR won and prohibition was repealed in 1933.

Although the oldest VP elected at age 71 (Joe Biden was 65 in 2008), Barkley is the only one to marry while in office … a woman half his age. Later, he denounced the 80th Congress as “Do Nothing,” but Truman often gets credit for the phrase.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Promise of Free Land Under the Prairie Skies was a Powerful Lure

This photograph, circa 1889, shows the town of Guthrie, Okla., which appeared in one afternoon shortly after the Oklahoma Land Rush.

By Jim O’Neal

Exactly at the stroke of noon on April 22, 1889, the largest one-day settlement of land in American history began. Free land for the taking. Just get there first and stake your claim. With the sound of “Dinner Call” from soldiers’ bugles, thousands of people fanned out across the open prairie of the Oklahoma territory to claim a plot of 160 acres to call their own.

When the dust finally settled, they had claimed 3,125 square miles, an area more than twice the size of Rhode Island, and Eastern reporters from newspapers and magazines were there to cover it. There was plenty to write about. The noise, the sheer mass of humanity and the impatient urgency of the scene came alive in story after story. Long rows toeing the line, panting with excitement and looking greedily toward a dream come true.

They were headed for some 2 million acres of land that had not been assigned to the Creek and Seminole Indian tribes in earlier treaties. A St. Louis Dispatch reporter wrote of a minister’s conversation with a man set to go after his land. When the minister offered a religious tract to the driver, he was told to keep it. “Don’t you want to go to heaven?” the minister asked. “That’s just where I’m headed!” the man replied.

When President Benjamin Harrison signed the bill that opened the land the month before in March 1889, it became known as “Harrison’s Hoss Run” or simply “The Run.” What had been wide-open prairie was settled almost overnight. Tents went up, businesses opened and postal service began. Harper’s Weekly reported that Oklahoma City looked like a “handful of white rice thrown out across the prairie.”

Free land underneath the prairie skies – lots of land – was a powerful lure and Pennsylvania miners, Indiana bricklayers, Michigan lumbermen and New York pharmacists all made the run, along with butchers, tailors and blacksmiths. The news of free land even crossed the Atlantic, increasing the number of immigrants from Liverpool, Hamburg and Antwerp.

Some arrived by train, planning to simply set out on foot, while others had well-thought-out plans. Families rode in prairie schooners, huge wagons filled with furniture, household goods, farming implements and food. Men planning to start a business brought well-drilling equipment, medicine or a law library. Those who could afford a fast horse (some even purchased racehorses) intended to stake their claims ahead of the wagons. They used willow poles, sharpened at one end and a name and claim attached to the other. These were thrust into the ground around the perimeter of their claim.

Despite soldiers’ efforts to prevent anyone from crossing the line early, many jumped the gun, staked their claims and then hid out to avoid detection. They were called “Sooners” and scorned for their illegal tactics. However, it inevitably turned from a pejorative and became a term for those smart enough to get there first … an American virtue. Oklahoma, a Choctaw word for “red men,” is now known as the Sooner State.

Estimates vary for the number of people who made The Run in 1889, with some saying it was up to 100,000, which seems high since the 1890 census counted 53,829 inhabitants. But in less than 20 years, the newly settled land won statehood. President Theodore Roosevelt signed a proclamation on Nov. 16, 1907, making Oklahoma the 46th state of the Union.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Confederate Torpedoes Wreaked Havoc on Union Vessels

This carte de visite of Lt. Frank Cushing, who led a mission that destroyed the Confederate ironclad Albemarle in 1864, went to auction in November 2008.

By Jim O’Neal

“Torpedo” is a generic name for a variety of naval and land mines employed by the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The word derived from a Latin name for an electric ray fish whose sting numbs its prey. It was first used to describe a weapon in 1776. It was disapproved on moral grounds because targets were struck without warning. The torpedo satisfied the Confederacy’s urgent need to compensate for its inferior strength of arms.

Torpedoes destroyed more Union vessels than all other actions, with 43 sunk or damaged, per best estimates. The psychological effect was obviously incalculable, but it was an important factor. Curiously, only one Confederate vessel fell victim to a Union torpedo … the ironclad CSS Albemarle in Lt. William Cushing’s famous commando raid.

Torpedo manufacturing proliferated with a major factory in Richmond, at Augusta Powder Works, and at many small facilities in various Southern cities. In Atlanta, even wives of naval personnel at the Naval Arsenal pitched in to help (an early version of Rosie the Riveter in World War II). Designs were configured to solve the three major issues: how to deliver the torpedo, how to keep the powder dry, and how to detonate the charge.

Some torpedoes were simply set adrift in a river to strike a ship’s hull in random collisions. Others were anchored and held in “plantations” set at a 45-degree angle downstream. This allowed Confederate vessels unobstructed passage over the frame, but Union ships travelling upstream would trigger explosions on contact.

Another clever variation was the “coal torpedo,” a bomb disguised as a lump of coal and hidden in coal bunkers. Later shoveled into a Union ship’s boiler, it had a devastating effect on the ship, the crew and others near the explosion. A “clock torpedo” smuggled aboard a ship at City Point on the James River created one of the most spectacular and costly explosions of the war.

It is amazing what desperate people will do, even to their fellow citizens, during war. The American Civil War is a tragic example of the horrors that can occur.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Thomas Edison Embodied the American Spirit of Stick-to-itiveness

A signed photograph of Thomas Edison taken inside his Menlo Park Laboratory, circa 1887, sold for $3,734.38 at an October 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In April 1983, my Frito-Lay team toured a research laboratory in Delaware to view their facilities and new product development using polypropylene in our packaging systems. At one point, the national sales manager prodded their head scientist about the possibility of speeding it up and, memorably, the reply was a curt “We don’t schedule inventions.”

At the time, it seemed like a profound statement to me, but that was before I got to know Thomas Edison via his writings and others stories about his fabled career.

Edison’s invention factories were not torn over the merits of applied science versus basic research. They were always about applied research, but with a vengeance! “I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and invent it,” Edison said. And did he ever. When he was finished, he would have 1,093 patents in his own name alone, more than any other American in history.

His second patented invention, a stock market ticker, sold for $40,000 in 1869. The sale provided the money for a workshop in Newark, N.J., where he and a small group of workers produced stock tickers, ink recorders and typewriters for automatic telegraphy. In 1876, he moved the shop 12 miles to Menlo Park, where the first of the invention factories was built. The lab and workers were just a hundred yards from Edison’s home.

It was an eclectic group from all over the world: a German glass blower, an English mechanic, mathematicians, carpenters, and draftsmen. Menlo Park became the best private laboratory in the country. The atmosphere Edison created encouraged independent, creative thinking. “There ain’t no rules around here. We’re trying to accomplish something.”

He could be authoritarian and cranky, and set impossible deadlines, since he was there shoulder-to-shoulder with employees 18 hours a day for extended times. Balancing work and personal lives was not as issue; creation was. His approach to failure was the antithesis of other corporations that flourished and failed. “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I now know 10,000 ways not to do it.”

The indefatigable nature of Edison and his workers was exemplified by the search for material that could make a durable filament essential to the incandescent light bulb. After trying numerous promising candidates, on Oct. 22, 1879, they tested carbonized cotton thread. It would glow for 13½ hours without bursting into flame, the common problem with all light bulbs at the time. Problem solved.

What a difference those invention factory ideas meant to our young nation: a viable incandescent light bulb, cylinder phonographs, nickel-iron-alkaline storage batteries, the electric pen for a mimeograph, the Ediphone, the Kinetoscope, etc. Edison even created inventions that improved other inventions: a simple carbon button transmitter for the mouthpiece on AGB’s telephone … eliminating the need to shout to be heard.

Edison was a charter member of that self-taught group that fervently believed that “if this doesn’t work, we’ll just try something else.” Edison may not have defined genius as 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration, but he certainly proved, without a doubt, that “Genius is hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and common sense.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell]

President Coolidge’s Inaction Opened White House Door for Herbert Hoover

A photograph of President Herbert Hoover and his Cabinet, signed, circa 1929, sold for $2,151 at an April 2012 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The first president born west of the Mississippi River was Herbert Clark Hoover in 1874. He was born in West Branch, Iowa, about 30 miles from the mighty river. He had a remarkable life, although there is little evidence of true joy other than the rewards from devoting all of his energy to work and public service … always striving for achievement.

It’s curious that he ended up the Cabinet of President Calvin Coolidge. “Silent Cal” was another taciturn man, “weaned on a pickle” and a work ethic that resulted in five-hour workdays, supplemented by naps in the White House. He did not like many people, especially Hoover, his Secretary of Commerce, complaining, “That man gave me unsolicited advice for six years, all of it bad.” Coolidge jeeringly called Hoover “Wonder Boy,” since Hoover’s reputation for saving lives in World War I had earned him an international title as “The Great Humanitarian.”

It was the Roaring Twenties and times were rosy.

By 1927, America was the most comfortable place in the world. Surrounded by sleek new appliances – radios, refrigerators, telephones, electric fans – that were all within reach of the common man. Eighty-two percent of all things produced were made in America, 80 percent of movies and 85 percent of all cars. America had 50 percent of the world’s gold and the stock market increased by one-third in one year.

But suddenly, there were rain clouds in the sky and for months, it rained steadily across the country. Southern Illinois received two feet of rain in three months and places in Arkansas got over three feet. People had never seen anything like it.

Rain-swollen rivers overran their banks; the San Jacinto in California; the Klamath and Willamette rivers in Oregon; the Snake, Payette and Boise in Idaho; the Neosho in Kansas; Ouachita in Arkansas; the Tennessee and Cumberland in the South; and the Connecticut River in New England.

Then on Good Friday, April 15, 1927, a mighty storm system pounded the middle third of the nation with an unprecedented rain of intensity and duration. From Western Montana to West Virginia and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, rain fell as one might envision what Noah experienced.

Nearly all of this water raced into swollen creeks and rivers and headed straight to the great central artery of the continent – the Mississippi River. The Mississippi and its tributaries drain 40 percent of America, almost 10 million square miles across 31 states. Never in recorded history had the entirety of it been this strained. People standing on the banks watched the carnage floating by. Houses, trees, dead cows, barn roofs. At St. Louis, the volume of passing water was an astonishing two million cubic feet per second.

On April 16, the first levee gave way and 1,300 feet of earthen bank ruptured and a volume of water equal to Niagara Falls passed through the chasm. By May 1, the flood stretched 500 miles from Illinois to New Orleans. The statistics of the Great Flood were staggering. Sixteen million acres flooded … 204,000 buildings lost … 637,000 people homeless, along with 50,000 cattle, 25,000 horses, 145,000 pigs and 1.3 million chickens.

The Mississippi Flood of 1927 was the most epic natural disaster in American history. The Mississippi was at flood stage for 153 consecutive days.

President Coolidge sent Wonder Boy to clean up the mess, rolled over and went back to sleep. It would help Herbert Hoover win the 1928 presidential election, never suspecting that in 1929 the merry-go-round of good times would stop when the stock market crashed, followed by the Great Depression, which would last for 10 long years until we started gearing up for war.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

People of South Carolina were Eager, Even Jubilant, to Start an All-Out War

This Confederate albumen photograph of Fort Sumter, taken two days after Union Major Robert Anderson surrendered, sold for $1,875 at a June 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Fort Sumter, S.C. – site of the first battle of the Civil War – was located on an artificial island inside the entrance to Charleston Harbor. A pentagon with block walls 300 feet long, 40 feet high and up to 12 feet thick was still under construction in late 1860.

On Dec. 26, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson moved his troops from Fort Moultrie, at the edge of the harbor entrance, to Fort Sumter to reduce their exposure to an attack. Just days earlier, South Carolina had declared their state an independent republic and they resented the “foreign” U.S. flag. They considered Anderson’s transfer of troops an act of aggression.

They considered it another hostile act when the lame-duck James Buchanan administration sent an unarmed merchant ship with reinforcements in January 1861. As the ship approached Charleston Harbor, shore batteries opened fire and forced it to turn back.

Apparently, few recognized how eager (perhaps more than just eager) the people of South Carolina were to start an all-out war against what they considered the oppression of the North. Some even prayed for it to start.

On Feb. 15, 1861, the Confederate Provisional Congress in Montgomery secretly resolved that “immediate steps should be taken to obtain possession of both Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens … either by negotiation or force.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis then dispatched three commissioners to Washington to try diplomatic negotiations. However, he also ordered P.G.T. Beauregard (full name Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard) to take command of the harbor and start formal preparations for the use of force.

Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard

General Beauregard (one of only eight full generals in the Confederacy … ever) proceeded to extend and enlarge the batteries, targeting the fort. His preparations nearly complete, he advised President Davis on March 27 that expulsion of the Union troops “ought now to be decided in a few days.” Davis replied that Anderson should not be allowed to buy provisions in Charleston.

Want to start a war? Surround a fort with canons … cut off any reinforcements … and restrict its provisions. Then get a match and prepare to light the fuse.

On April 10, Beauregard was ordered to demand an evacuation of Fort Sumter, and if refused, to “reduce it.”

On April 12, 1861, 50 Confederate guns and mortars launched more than 4,000 rounds on an ill-equipped Fort Sumter. They surrendered after 34 hours. Two days later, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the “insurrection.” The president was not willing to start a war over the slavery issue, but the taking of federal property was leading to disunion, something the president was not going to allow, even if it meant all-out war.

The U.S. flag would not be raised over Fort Sumter again until April 14, 1865, exactly four years after the surrender. Who would have guessed? Obviously, few if any of the people who were so jubilant when the war started and so utterly demoralized when it ended.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

General Longstreet at Center of One of Civil War’s Greatest Controversies

A signed carte de visite of Confederate General James Longstreet sold for $3,250 at a June 2015 Heritage auction.

“Bring me Longstreet’s head on a platter and the war will be over.” – President Abraham Lincoln

By Jim O’Neal

Confederate General James Longstreet (1821-1904) was born in South Carolina and his mother sent him to live with an uncle who decided his should have a military career. He received an appointment to West Point, where he underperformed academically. However, he made many lifelong friends, including future President Ulysses Grant.

Commissioned into the infantry, he served until the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. From 1847 to 1849, he served under generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, was wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec, and finally resigned from the U.S. Army in June 1861. It was nearly a month after Fort Sumter.

Like many of his southern colleagues, he joined the Confederacy and ended up in the Army of Northern Virginia after Robert E. Lee declined Lincoln’s offer to head up the entire Union Army. Almost inexorably, this led to the most famous battle of the Civil War. On July 1, 1863, Longstreet rode onto the battlefield of Gettysburg as infantry units were cleaning up after a decisive day-one victory. He was 42 years old.

After surveying the Federals rallying on Seminary Ridge, he lowered his field glasses, turned to General Lee and spoke – launching one of the greatest controversies of the entire Civil War. “General Lee, we could not call the enemy to position better suited to our plans… all we have to do is to flank his left…” The words either surprised or angered Lee, who pointed a fist toward the ridge beyond town: “If the enemy is there tomorrow, I will attack him!”

Despite the open disagreement, Longstreet reluctantly supervised the disastrous infantry assault known as Picket’s Charge (the high-water mark of the Confederacy) as ordered. The date was July 1863, and despite being preceded by a massive artillery bombardment, its futility was an avoidable mistake: 12,500 Confederate soldiers in nine infantry units advanced over three-quarters of a mile – charging into a withering hail of Union pure death. The staggering 50 percent casualty rate resulted in a defeat that the South never recovered from – either militarily or psychologically.

Noted historians are still debating who to blame: Lee, for overriding the advice of his most-trusted second-in-command, or Longstreet for being too slow to carry out a direct order.

Personally, I side with General George Pickett, one of three Confederate generals who led the assault under Longstreet and who was bitterly unequivocal: “That old man [Lee] destroyed my division.” His regular daily report is missing and is believed to have been intentionally destroyed, perhaps by Longstreet personally. It was now just a matter of time until the South’s war machine gradually came to a stop. The war would continue until April 1865, but the end was never again in doubt.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].