MIA Facts Site

My Civil War Selections

These are a few books dealing with a little-known aspect of the Civil War: The deification of Robert E. Lee at the expense of James. B. Longstreet.

  The literature on the Civil War is vast and continues to grow.  Virtually every aspect of the war has been dissected, resected, analyzed, and debated.  My selections about the Civil War are very narrow and deal with only a single aspect of the war. Actually, what I describe here occurred after the Civil War, continuing well beyond the Civil War centennial in the mid-20th century.  In these selected books, I call the reader's attention to the deification of Robert E. Lee at the expense of one of his corps commanders -- some would say his most competent commander -- Lieutenant General James B. Longstreet.

During and after the War,  Lee was only one of several Confederate heroes.  He enjoyed no greater stature than Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, in fact, Jackson was more popular than Lee during and after the war.

All this was to change in the years beginning after Lee's death in October, 1870.  The South had gone into the war with the belief that our cavalier gentry would quickly defeat the industrial workers from the North.  In the years immediately following the war, Southern energies were consumed with rebuilding but, as rebuilding proceeded and memories of the horrors of the war receded, thoughts turned to writing the history of the war.

In the late 1860s, the myth of the Lost Cause emerged and would become a central myth in U. S. history, enshrined not only in Southern histories and popular writings, but also in the works of such respected writers as Douglas Southall Freeman, Bruce Catton, and Shelby Foote.  The Lost Cause myth was cultivated by Southerners to explain how our righteous cause, carried into battle by descendants of English Cavaliers, and blessed by God, could fail.  According to the Lost Cause myth, which I grew up hearing and studying, the South did not lose.  Instead, we were overwhelmed by superior Yankee numbers and betrayed by some in our midst.  The battle of Gettysburg became the "high tide of the Confederacy" and it was in the course of that battle that the scapegoat for the Lost Cause was to be found.

Confederate Lieutenant General James B. Longstreet had been a corps commander in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.  Lee made frequent references to Longstreet's capabilities as a soldier and called him " my old war horse."   A review of Longstreet's military record during the Civil War reveals that he made a few tactical blunders but, in the main, he was deserving of Lee's praise.  In fact, in the early histories of the war, written in the years immediately after Appomattox, Longstreet is recorded to be a powerful, effective military leader, sharing the spotlight with Lee, Jackson, Beauregard, and J. E. Johnston.

However, Longstreet had two strikes against him:  First, he was from rough, north Georgia hill country stock, not a Virginia Cavalier and, second, after the war he wound up in New Orleans where he sided with the Republicans and reconstruction.  As a cabal of Virginians, many of them second-rate general officers, took over producing the history of the war, and as Southern reaction to "black Reconstruction" emerged, Longstreet's post-war position doomed him.  The third strike was his blunt, aggressive defense of himself and his continued portrayal of himself as the genius behind many Lee's actions.

Through the 1870s and 1880s, the history of the war was recorded in works produced by the Southern Historical Society Papers.  In fact, the flawed history presented in the Papers would serve as the basis for much Civil War history written well into the 20th century.  The Papers were dominated by a foursome of Virginians:
 

bulletLt. Gen. Jubal Early (CSA).  Early had a lot to cover up.  He had been a severe critic of secession and had switched his allegiance to the South at the last minute. Late in the war, his leadership of the Second Corps in the Shenandoah Valley was so disastrous that Lee relieved him.  Early had ordered the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.  And, at Gettysburg, he tarried, looking around for his Corps commander when Lee needed him. In fear of post-war Federal prosecution for burning Chambersburg, Early fled to Canada.  When he wrote a defense of his Shenandoah campaign, Lee refused to approve of the book.  In 1869, Early returned to the States and became the head of the Lee Monument Association and, later, president of the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia.  From these two positions, he was able to resurrect his own shaky position, which he did with gusto.
bulletWilliam Nelson Pendleton.  Pendleton was an Episcopal minister in Lexington, Virginia, where Lee lived after the war as president of Washington College (later, Washington and Lee).  Through his ministry, Pendleton became a close friend of the Lee family.  In his position as chairman of the Lee Monument Association, he devoted himself to enshrining the "sacred memory" of Robert E. Lee.  He eulogized Lee on fund-raising trips throughout the South and it was Pendleton who set up many of the images that lead to Lee being looked upon as a Christ-like figure.
bulletJohn William Jones.  Jones had been a chaplain in the 13th Virginia Infantry and was a Baptist minister at Lexington where he, too, was a close friend of the Lees in the post-war years.  Jones's 1874 book, Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes and Letters of Robert E. Lee, became a source for many later writers on the war and Lee, in spite of its many flaws
bulletFitzhugh Lee.  A nephew of Robert E. Lee, his accounts of the war and of the Lee-Longstreet relationship carried far more weight than they were due.

These four, then, were chief architects of the Virginia movement that shaped the Southern Historical Society Papers.  From their work would emerge a skewed view of the Civil War. Lee became a near deity and a military genius, while at the  images of Jackson and Lee's other lieutenants were reduced.  The war in the east -- that is, the battles in Virginia -- and the role of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia became pivotal, even to the point of ignoring the war for control of the Mississippi, the war for the border states, the Federal blockade, and the Federal drive to cut the South into pieces.  From this glorification of Lee and his Army, came the emergence of Gettysburg as the pivotal battle of the war.  In fact, following Gettysburg, Lee never ventured north of the Virginia borders and was gradually contained in Richmond and finally pursued to Appomattox.

If Lee was a deity and a genius and the Army of Northern Virginia invincible, and if the war in the East was the real war, then the reason for the South's defeat must lie, not in Lee's defeat, but in whatever it was that caused Lee to lose at Gettysburg.  That bogey-man became Longstreet.  The editors and authors of the Papers -- the four named above -- launched the most amazing campaign of falsehood, misrepresentation, and myth-making to destroy Longstreet and pin on him the blame for the loss of the war.  Longstreet did not help his cause by his own public blundering, unrestrained attacks, and continued support of the hated Republicans.

I grew up in Mississippi in the late 1940s and 1950s; the Civil War was very much alive then.  I grew up hearing tales of the bravery of Lee, Jackson, Beauregard, and other Southern icons.  I never heard of Longstreet until I was an Army officer reading about the Civil War.  The works I cite here provide a view of this one aspect of Civil War historiography.  I find this tale fascinating and hope that you will, too.

Recommended Books These books are available from Amazon.com. If you would like to see more, or want to order a book, click on the title to link directly to the order pages at Amazon.com  

bulletLee's Tarnished Lieutenant:  James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History.  By William Garrett Piston.
bulletThe Marble Man:  Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society.  By Thomas L. Connelly.
bulletGeneral James Longstreet:  The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier.  By Jeffry D. Wert.

 

  Click on the logo to go to Amazon.com.