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].

Only Four Presidents Never Appointed a Supreme Court Justice

An 1840 silk banner depicting William Henry Harrison realized $33,460 at a May 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When Donald Trump’s appointee fills the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the chief executive will escape from a small group of presidents who did not appoint a single nominee confirmed by the Senate. Trump’s pick will join the other 117 justices, 17 chief justices and four women who have served on the court.

Presidents without a Supreme Court appointee:

  • William Henry Harrison (1841) – Died only 31 days after being inaugurated.
  • Zachary Taylor (1849-50) – Died 16 months after inauguration.
  • Andrew Johnson (1865-69) – Victim of a hostile Congress that blocked several nominees.
  • Jimmy Carter (1977-81) – The only president to serve a full term with no vacancies during his four years in office.

It seems clear that the Founding Fathers did not spend a lot of time considering the importance of the Supreme Court as an equal branch of government. That would come later during the tenure of Chief Justice John Marshall, who many credit with providing the balance to ensure that our fragile democracy survived.

One example is there are no legal or constitutional requirements for a federal judgeship. There does exist an unwritten prerequisite to have practiced law or to have been a member of the bar, but it is not mandatory. As a matter of historical record, no non-lawyer has ever been a member of the Supreme Court – and it is a virtual certainty that none ever will.

And, although the methodology for judicial appointments was subject to intense debate, the criteria for such appointments was apparently not a matter of significance. Those few delegates who did raise the issue of criteria did so by assuming merit over favoritism. Congress also did not foresee the role political parties would very soon come to play in the appointment and confirmation process.

Only John Adams clearly anticipated the rise of political parties but, of course, he was not a member of the Constitutional Committee. He summarized it rather well: “Partisan considerations, rather than the fitness of the nominees, will often be the controlling consideration of the Senate in passing on nominations.”

I suspect they would all be disappointed by the dramatic, partisan “gotcha” grilling that nominees face today.

Personally, I would prefer the old process the Scots used to select Supreme Court justices. The nominations came from the lawyers, who invariably selected the most successful and talented members of the legal community. This effectively eliminated their most fierce competition, which then allowed them to solicit their best customers. The court would then truly be assured of getting the best-of-the best, while the profession competed for clientele.

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].

Zachary Taylor was First President Elected With No Political Experience

zachary-taylor-half-plate-daguerreotype-from-the-taylor-family
A half-plate daguerreotype of Zachary Taylor circa 1844, once owned by the Taylor family, sold for $47,800 at a November 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The Washington, D.C., that said farewell to James Polk in 1849 and greeted General Zachary Taylor was similar to many American cities with a combination of town and pasture. However, even after 50 years, it still looked unfinished. Pennsylvania Avenue was the principal commercial street, lined with buildings from the Capitol to the White House. But beyond, it was a town of monotonous red brick houses interspersed with seas of grass.

There were schemes for improving public lands in various places, but only one was significant to the White House. The marshy expanse to the south was believed to give off vapors, especially in the summer. In 1849, the most feared disease was cholera – particularly from May to November when the first frost quelled it. Those who could afford it left town for the summer and President Polk’s insistence on staying probably contributed to his early demise.

Taylor was the first president elected to office with no political experience. He was ill-prepared for the politics and problems involved. Like William Henry Harrison, Taylor was chosen by the Whigs as their presidential candidate solely because he was a war hero. Taylor spent 40 years in the Army, fighting Indians and winning glory in the war with Mexico. He was called “Old Rough and Ready” by his men. He preferred civilian clothes to military uniforms, even in battle. Short and plump, he had none of the appearance of a military hero and had to be given a leg-up when he mounted a horse.

Taylor was inaugurated in March 1849 and as he moved from the Capitol to the WH, the police had trouble holding back the throngs. Nodding and smiling, he waved his hat and seemed approachable, if not particularly presidential. Those who got a close look found him heavy and scruffy, his face deeply wrinkled, gray hair tousled. After four years of the dour Polk, the public was eager to idolize someone friendly.

But Taylor was an odd hero. Lacking the presence of General Jackson or General Harrison, he looked more the Louisiana planter he was in private life. The general had become president at age 64 and was considered an old man. The hope was that he would prevail through the sheer force of his prestige. Plus, Taylor’s greatest asset was his integrity, which he wore like a medal. Voters seem to have willingly accepted that he would allow his advisers to run the government. It seemed logical to have a chain of command with an honest, experienced general at the head.

The strategy failed since their hero-president provided little leadership and Democrats controlled Congress. The Taylor family circle included few intimates with one notable exception: Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. He had been their son-in-law after he married the second-eldest Taylor daughter in 1835, but she died three months later of cholera.

Then it was suddenly 1850, a most pivotal year and possibly the last chance to prevent a civil war. The slavery issue came to a boil and debates raged in Congress over allowing the people of California and New Mexico to determine their own status. Perhaps with a different president, a workable solution could have held the Union together, but Taylor scorned compromises.

On July 4, 1850, at the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument, President Taylor remained in the hot sun for many hours and became ill. He died five days later. The winds of war only became fiercer and there was nobody on either side who could temper them.

Next stop: an all-out Civil War that would come close to permanent disunion.

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].

Samuel Tilden Was a Brilliant Intellectual on Path to the Presidency

Engraved Portrait of Samuel J. TildenBy Jim O’Neal

Samuel J. Tilden got robbed in the 1876 presidential election.

But then again, his life was full of conflicts and ironies:

  • A brilliant intellectual with a tired, battle-worn body at age 62
  • Intense loyalty to the Democratic Party that was crushed by prosecuting the Boss Tweed gang in NYC
  • A cold, unapproachable man that tens of thousands of Americans revered for his reform efforts
  • A hypochondriac who was always searching for medicines and cures, but with the stamina to work healthy men to exhaustion

His legal practice and shrewd investments made him both rich and influential. He managed the finances for many friends, relatives and political allies … including Martin Van Buren.

lf
As governor of New York, Samuel J. Tilden in 1876 issued a proclamation urging district attorneys to enforce laws against “Bribery at Elections.”

In 1848, he helped ex-President Van Buren snag the Free Soil Party nomination for president (he lost), and in the process helped ensure the election of the Whig Zachary Taylor.

Tilden (1814-1886) became the 25th governor of New York in 1875 … and then immediately took on the Canal Gang that was systematically robbing the state through fraudulent construction and maintenance on the New York State Canal System.

His success earned him the 1876 Democratic nomination for president … ugh.

To be continued …

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].