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].

In Weeks Before Gettysburg, Lee was Supremely Confident

A carte de visite of Union General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, signed, went to auction in June 2015.

By Jim O’Neal

In May 1863, General Robert E. Lee and his nimble Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defeated the Union Army at the Battle of Chancellorsville. The North’s Army of the Potomac was twice the size of Lee’s forces and led by General “Fighting Joe” Hooker. This stunning defeat would result in President Lincoln replacing Hooker just before the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg.

At Chancellorsville, Lee lost his most trusted general, Thomas Jonathon “Stonewall” Jackson, when Confederate pickets accidentally shot him. He survived the initial wound, but died eight days later of pneumonia. In one of life’s little ironies, Jackson also had an arm amputated. General Lee always complained that he (Lee) had “lost his right arm” when Jackson died.

The supremely confident Lee then turned north to replenish rapidly dwindling supplies and further undermine Union morale. Another convincing victory would surely accelerate the growing anti-war sentiment and erode Lincoln’s declining support. What actually followed was the Battle of Gettysburg, the most famous battle in the entire Civil War.

The battle started on July 1, 1863, with Lee intent on inflicting severe damage to the Union Army. Had he been successful, it is highly likely that the war would have ended much differently. However, after two days of fighting, it was clear that the outcome was in doubt and Lee’s invincibility was at risk since attacks on both Union flanks had failed.

In an act of uncharacteristic desperation, Lee ordered an all-out assault on the middle, with a massive artillery bombardment followed by an attack using nine infantry brigades totaling 12,500 men. Major General George Pickett was one of three Confederate generals who led the assault and “Pickett’s Charge” is now commonly called the “High-water Mark of the Confederacy.” It turned out to be a crushing defeat and the Southern forces never fully recovered.

General Lee, who had turned down an offer to head Union forces, whose ancestors included two signers of the Declaration of Independence, and was himself the son of a Revolutionary War hero, had led the entire Army of Northern Virginia to an open-field defeat in a high-risk gamble that failed spectacularly.

Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle in American history and one to spawn the most enduring controversies, would be Lee’s last offensive operation in the Civil 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].

Gettysburg Symbolizes Horror of War, Quest for Equality and Freedom

1936 50C Gettysburg MS68 PCGS
This 1936 50-cent coin (MS68 PCGS), commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, sold for $48,875 at a May 2007 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

People who read about American history are aware of the Battle of Gettysburg and President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. They are less familiar with the details of these famous events.

In early May of 1863, the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia pitted an outnumbered Robert E. Lee against “Fighting Joe” Hooker, whose Army of the Potomac was twice the size of Lee’s army. However, the Confederate general won the battle by outmaneuvering Hooker, which resulted in Lincoln replacing him.

Chancellorsville was also where General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Lee’s right arm) was killed.

Buoyed by success, General Lee then turned north into Pennsylvania with plans to capture Harrisburg and then surround Washington, D.C. This would change the entire war. However, on July 1, 1863, the Union Army – now under General George Meade – blocked Lee at the crossroad town of Gettysburg. This is where the famous battle occurred.

The fighting raged over three days and was highlighted by southern General George Pickett’s famous charge on July 3 where his division suffered staggering casualties and forced Lee’s entire army to retreat. “Pickett’s Charge” became known as the “high water mark” of the Confederacy as the South slowly spiraled downward over the next two long years.

When General Meade finally moved south after Lee’s retreat, he advised Lincoln, “I cannot delay to pick up the debris on the battlefield.”

And quite a battlefield horror it was.

Eight thousand bodies and the corpses of 3,000 horses still lay unburied across the ridges and farmland of Gettysburg. Burial resources were scarce and the most they could do was lightly cover the bodies with dirt. The horses were burned in great piles south of the town.

Soon, relatives of Union soldiers began to scavenge through the shallow graves looking for loved ones. Arms, legs and even heads were left protruding and the horror was magnified when crows, pigs and flies descended looking for food.

Something had to be done and the job fell to William Saunders, a cemetery landscape architect. Then came the task of digging up the dead, identification and reburial.

Saunders shaped the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg (now called Gettysburg National Cemetery) and it was here on Nov. 19, 1863, that President Lincoln uttered the 272 words that became so well known.

The main speaker for the event was Harvard President Edward Everett, who droned on for two hours before Lincoln in a 13,000-word speech. The next day, Everett wrote to Lincoln: “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself, that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, as you did in two minutes.”

Amen.

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].