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].

Decision by General Lee Averted Nightmare Scenario for Nation

robert-e-lee-signed-carte-de-visite
This signed carte de visite of Confederate General Robert E. Lee sold for nearly $9,000 at a December 2006 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The Civil War was drawing to an end and the first week of April 1865 had been tough on Southern soldiers. After losses at the Battle of Sayler’s Creek, Union General Phil Sheridan wired General Ulysses S. Grant: “If this thing is pressed, I think Lee will surrender.” When President Lincoln read this, he telegraphed Grant, “Let it be pressed!”

On April 7, Grant sent a note to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In it, he stressed the dire situation of the South and tried to convince Lee that further resistance would only result in more useless “effusion of blood.” If Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia, it could be avoided.

Both Lee and General James Longstreet read the note very carefully and finally decided … “Not yet.”

Lee sent a note back to Grant suggesting the South’s assessment was more optimistic, however, he asked Grant to elaborate on the details of a surrender. There were several more notes, but in the interim, the Confederates held one last War Council before making a decision.

A number of Lee’s top lieutenants decried any surrender, pointing out that Joe Johnston still had his entire army intact, as did Nathan Bedford Forrest in the West and Edmund Kirby Smith and John Mosby in Virginia. More importantly, they could disband into the surrounding countryside. Since they knew the terrain, a full-scale guerilla war could last indefinitely. The North would be forced to eventually give up and go home, even if it took 20 years!

This was the nightmare scenario that Lincoln, Grant and all top military minds had dreaded: a guerilla army of tens of thousands, scattered across the South, living off the land. It would be an impossible war to extinguish completely and the nation would slowly unravel. (We learned a similar lesson in Iraq and are still in the Afghanistan quagmire after 15 years and counting.)

Perhaps in his finest act, General Lee decided the restoration of the United States of America was the right thing to do, despite the bitterness of defeat, after all the sacrifices, and the destruction of their society, economy and culture. Historians credit this one single decision as the most important in the entire war.

Grant and Lee met on April 9 and the terms of surrender were very generous. Confederate officers and enlisted men could take their horses home, all arms and munitions surrendered and all troops were disqualified from the war. At Lee’s request, 25,000 rations were given to the half-starved men. The formal surrender continued for seven hours and at 4:30 p.m., Grant wired U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton a simple message: “General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia this afternoon on terms proposed by myself.”

Yet for the promise of this day, dire questions remained about the rest of the Confederacy. The war was not over.

More tomorrow.

Jim O'NielIntelligent 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].