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].

Lincoln’s Assassination Shows How Nation Has Survived Perilous Times

john-wilkes-booth-cabinet-card
An 1863 John Wilkes Booth cabinet card sold for $1,912 at a December 2007 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theatre while the Lincolns were enjoying the play “Our American Cousin.” A Confederate sympathizer, Booth was the younger brother of famed Shakespearian actor Edwin Booth and had become a popular actor himself. A meticulous planner, he had attended a rehearsal the day before and devised his escape plan.

There is a fascinating backstory to this tragedy that started on April 3 when news of the surrender of Richmond was received at the War Department. The telegraph operator had jumped to his feet, opened a window and shouted out “Richmond has fallen!” This extraordinary good news spread quickly and almost by magic the streets were filled with noisy, jubilant people. Among the talking, laughing and shouting, the local newspaper reported that “many wept like children.”

People were convinced that this long nightmare was nearly over. Generally, they were right, except for a series of dramatic events that could have altered the future in any number of possible ways.

It started the following day when Secretary of State William Henry Seward was critically injured in a carriage accident. He was with his son Fred, daughter Fanny and her friend Mary Titus. When the driver stopped to close a carriage door, the horses bolted and Seward jumped out to stop the runaway horses, caught his heel and landed violently on the pavement. After regaining consciousness, he was carried to his home severely injured.

Then on April 11, two days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant, several thousand people gathered at the White House to hear Lincoln give a speech about returning the Southern states, extending suffrage to blacks and the benefits of school to all children. JWB was in the crowd and furiously declared, “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever give.”

Earlier, Booth had planned to kidnap Lincoln, but now he was determined to kill him, along with Vice President Andrew Johnson and Seward in a choreographed decapitation of the Union government. The triple assassination was set for 10:15 p.m. on Good Friday. His accomplice, George Atzerodt, was assigned to kill the VP and Lewis Powell was to kill Seward in his bed while he was recovering.

Only JWB was successful. Atzerodt lost his nerve, got drunk and left the Kirkwood hotel where the VP was in suite 68. Powell went on a rampage in Seward’s house, stabbing him three times in the throat and neck. A metal brace on his neck miraculously saved his life.

The world would now know the power of a single gunshot, yet for America this was a first. Never had a president been assassinated or even died during a war. As sorrow gradually spread throughout the nation, there remained one more haunting question: Would it all come undone and devolve into an endless conflict?

We know the answer now, but it was a perilous time for our troubled nation.

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].

After Civil War, Challenge Was Putting Pieces of Nation Back Together

gen-william-tecumseh-sherman-four-scarce-cartes-de-visite
A set of four cartes de visite of William Tecumseh Sherman, including this image of the general posed like Napoleon, sold for $2,868 at a December 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

After Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, the issue of the remaining Confederate armies was now only a question of time. However, the next anticipated surrender of General Joe Johnston and his army of 22,000 soldiers did not go smoothly.

On April 14, General William Tecumseh Sherman received a surprise communique from Johnston asking for a meeting to discuss terms for “exterminating the existing war.” This was a relief for Sherman since he had been concerned about a “guerilla war” and knew how Spain had foiled Napoleon using similar tactics.

Sherman answered immediately and suggested they meet on April 17 halfway between their two armies. However, tragedy struck before the meeting when President Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre. When Sherman received the news via coded message, he quickly realized this could escalate into a major disaster. Lincoln’s death was calamitous per se, but it also had the potential to plunge the North into a vengeful bloodbath against a prostrated and fearful South. They would, in turn, fight back the only way they had left: chaos, disorder and continued violence. The war could drag out for a long time.

To Sherman it seemed imperative that he reach a prompt accommodation with Johnston and quell any acts of vengeance.

When they finally met, Sherman had apparently misunderstood the limits of his authority. He offered overly generous terms to Johnston and Confederate States Secretary of War John Breckinridge (who had been vice president for President James Buchanan pre-War). Then all hell broke loose in Washington, D.C., when new President Andrew Johnson and his cabinet learned the conditions of surrender. They canceled the armistice, ordered Sherman to resume hostilities and dispatched Grant to modify the terms of surrender.

Fortunately, there was no more fighting and Grant was able to effect the formal surrender. Sherman was infuriated, primarily because Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had insulted him and questioned his motives and loyalty. Things quieted down, but Sherman and Stanton were bitter enemies for the rest of their lives.

Now all that was left to do was to put all the pieces of the nation back together. Some cynics think this work is still under way.

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].

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].

By Making War as Harsh as Possible, Sherman Waged Battle on Minds of the South

Brady Imperial Albumen Photograph Sherman and his Generals
This albumen photograph of “Sherman and his Generals,” published by Matthew Brady in 1865, realized $4,182.50 at a December 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“Well, you might as well attempt to put out the flames of a burning house with a squirt gun!”

This was William Tecumseh Sherman’s sarcastic reaction to President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation on April 15, 1861, for 75,000 three-month volunteers to quell the secession of Southern states from the Union.

Exactly four years later on April 15, 1865, Lincoln would be among the last of the 620,000 to die attempting to stop the war of secession.

Sherman had earlier warned: “You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization …” He thus very accurately described the four years of hell that would rain down on the United States as the country descended into war.

For several generations of Americans, and probably yet today, the name William Tecumseh Sherman would conjure up fear and pure hatred, especially among those familiar with his famous March to the Sea. Also known as the Savannah Campaign, it started after the burning of Atlanta (so vividly depicted in Gone With the Wind) and lasted from Nov. 15 to Dec. 21, 1864. It was viewed as an act of savage brutality, with burning cities, ransacked plantations and terror-stricken women and children.

But it did help to bring the senseless war to an earlier end.

By forcing non-combatants to feel the “hard hand of war” and making the war as harsh as possible, it succeeded in undermining Confederate morale, triggered a wave of desertions and proved to the rebels their cause was hopeless and unwinnable. By using war against the minds of his opponents, the fear Sherman created was more powerful than his acts of destruction. The Confederacy was to be no more.

On Dec. 25, 1864, Sherman telegraphed Lincoln: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition and about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

A few weeks after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Southern General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his three armies to Sherman at Bennett Place near Durham, N.C. The fighting would soon come to an end.

Sherman had succeeded Grant as Commander of the Western Front and when Grant became president, Sherman became Commanding General of the Army. When asked about his relationship with Grant, Sherman famously said, “General Grant was a great General. He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk. And sir, we will stand by each other forever.”

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].

Lincoln Family Saw Great Success, But Also Seemed Cursed

Robert Todd Lincoln Carte de Visite
This Robert Todd Lincoln carte de visite dates to 1861, when he was 18 years old.

By Jim O’Neal

Many historians cling to the belief that Robert Todd Lincoln was the most successful of all presidential children, including those who also became president. He was one of the best businessmen of his generation, a powerful and celebrated figure in society and a public servant. He was a cabinet member in two different administrations and a superb diplomat in another.

He was also present at many famous events.

As a late entrant into the Civil War, he was a member of Major General U.S. Grant’s personal staff and was there when Robert E. Lee surrendered at the McLean House near Appomattox. He actually witnessed the formal signing. Three months later, he was at his father’s side when he died and then accompanied his mother back to the White House. She was too bereaved to attend the funeral or to accompany the body back to Springfield.

Robert performed both of these tasks with poise and dignity. Later, he would be close by when both presidents James A. Garfield and William McKinley were assassinated.

But the Lincoln family almost seemed cursed. Mary Todd Lincoln grew more erratic and confused. In the spring of 1875, distraught and humiliated by her behavior, Robert Lincoln decided to have his mother committed to an insane asylum. He had her followed by Pinkerton agency detectives to record her activities, enlisted six of Chicago’s finest doctors to testify (none of whom examined her), hired her an attorney, and then conspired with the prosecutor to ensure a consistent story for the court.

Mary Todd Lincoln
After her husband’s assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln returned to Illinois, where she lived with her sons.

On May 9, 1875, Mary Lincoln was taken to a public courtroom where she was confronted by this cabal. Her attorney cross-examined no witnesses and called none of his own, including Mary Lincoln. The final witness was Robert Lincoln, who provided the coup de grace. “I have no doubt my mother is insane. She has been a source of great anxiety to me.”

The only example of Mary Lincoln’s sanity occurred when she devised a clever scheme to get a release from the Bellevue asylum in Batavia, Ill., where she had been confined. She then made it to her sister’s house in Springfield and then on to Europe, fearful that Robert would strike again.

Mary Todd Lincoln spent her final years in anonymity and loneliness in the trendy resort village of Pau, France, near the Spanish border. Referring to Robert, her only remaining son, as a “wicked monster,” she insisted in her letters that even his father had always disliked him. Dismissed by the public as “crazy,” she subsisted for many years as an exile in a foreign country, relying on her presidential widow’s pension and fluent French.

Finally, in 1882, Mrs. Abraham Lincoln returned home to Springfield, but even her death was not an easy affair. At the end, she was covered with boils, almost completely paralyzed and blind. She died on July 16, 1882, after a severe stroke. She was 63 years old.

An autopsy revealed a cerebral disease she had for years and her entire estate was inherited by her surviving son, the “wicked monster” Robert Todd Lincoln.

Historians have a wide array of criteria to judge greatness. Obviously, family harmony is not one of them.

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].

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].