Friday, June 7, 2013

Famous Catholic Friday: Gen. James Longstreet

Since we did a Union General last time, this week we turn to the Southern side.

Catholic Credentials: Devout Catholic covert; man of deep integrity.

Nerd Credentials: One of Robert E. Lee’s most trusted and effective commanders; diplomat and civil servant.

                Robert E. Lee may be the most iconic Southern General, but perhaps no Confederate Commander embodied the tragedy and contradictions of the Civil War like James Longstreet.           
                 Longstreet was born in what is now North Augusta, South Carolina, on January 8th, 1821. He spent his boyhood working on his father’s farm, where his tough, ‘rocklike’ character inspired his father to nickname him ‘Pete,’ a name his friends would call him for the rest of his life. His father early on decided on a military career for his boy and to prepare him academically sent him to live with his editor/minister uncle, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet. When his father died in 1833, twelve year old Pete remained with his uncle.
                At West Point, Longstreet failed to distinguish himself much. He was a poor student and frequently in trouble, but he at least managed to make a large number of friends, including his roommate, William S. Rosecrans, George H. Thomas, George Pickett, and Ulysses S. Grant. He graduated 54th out of his class of 56 and was commissioned a second lieutenant and stationed in Missouri alongside Grant. During their time in Missouri, both men met and courted their respective wives. Longstreet wooed Maria Louisa Garland, the daughter of their regimental commander, while Grant fell passionately in love with Longstreet’s fourth cousin, Julia Dent. 
                But before love came war. Conflict over the border of Texas had sparked the Mexican War, and both Grant and Longstreet were called to the front. Longstreet served with distinction, rising to the rank of Major while commanding part of the 8th US Infantry during the battles of Veracruz, Contreras, Churubusco, Molino del Rey, and Chapultepec. During the latter battle, he was wounded in the leg while carrying the regimental colors up a fortified hill, which he passed on to his friend, George Pickett, who carried them to the top.
                While he recuperated following the war, Longstreet married Maria and served as a groomsman at Grant’s wedding to Julia. Unlike his friend, Longstreet chose to remain in the Army following the war and served on the Texas frontier, running scouting missions and drilling the 8th Infantry.
                His life, like so many others, was irrevocably changed on April 12th, 1861 when Confederate guns opened fire on Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Though he personally was unenthusiastic about the prospect of succession, Longstreet had been taught by his uncle to believe in States’ Rights, so he resigned his commission and cast his lot with the Confederacy. He was quickly commissioned a brigadier general by President Jefferson Davis and was assigned to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard.  In this capacity, Longstreet played a minor role during the First Battle of Bull Run, where he endured nine hours of artillery fire and was refused permission to pursue the fleeing Union Army, an action that may have changed the course of the entire war.
                As the Confederate Army solidified itself, Longstreet began to prove himself one of its stars. He put in a strong showing during the Peninsula Campaign, harassing and delaying the hapless Gen. McClellan on his march towards Richmond, and nearly destroyed the Union Army in the Battle of Seven Days with his aggressive assaults. By the end of the campaign, he had become Lee’s most trusted lieutenant, the “staff in my right hand” as Lee put it.
With its imposing trio of commanders at its head – Lee, Longstreet, and Stonewall Jackson – the Confederate Army seemed nearly invincible. Again and again it inflicted humiliating loses on the Army of the Potomac. The Second Battle of Bull Run proved even worse for the Federals than the first, while the winter battle at Fredericksburg was nothing short of a nightmare for the Union. Longstreet played key roles in both battles, including organizing the brutal defenses at Fredericksburg which led to the Union taking eight times as many casualties as the Confederates. The only time they were stopped was at Antietem, where Lee’s initial plan to take the fight to Union territory was turned back in the bloodiest single day in American history. During the battle, Longstreet held off a Union force twice his size to prevent the collapse of Lee’s army.
One of the keys to Longstreet’s success was that he was one of the few commanders in the war who understood the way improved technology had changed the battlefield. With the old ball-and-flint muskets, the attackers had the advantage over the defenders. But with the huge new rifled firearms that were being used now, the defenders could tear an exposed line of marching men to pieces. Again and again, Longstreet exploited this insight to inflict horrific casualties on the Union lines.
Then, in spring 1863 came the Confederacies greatest and most costly victory: Chancellorsville. Lee almost literally ran circles around Union General Joseph Hooker, defeating a force twice his size with a series of brilliant maneuvers. The South had lost fewer men than the North, but one of them was a man they absolutely could not afford to lose. Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops while scouting for a follow-up night attack and died a short time later.
Longstreet was not present at the battle. He had been sent several days earlier to besiege to city of Suffolk, Virginia. Following the battle, he and Lee met to discuss the possibility of once again taking the war to the north in the form of a large scale incursion into Pennsylvania, with the potential of assaulting Washington. Longstreet argued against this idea, proposing instead that he should take a portion of the army to confront Ulysses S. Grant, who, along with Gen. Rosecrans, was scoring victory after victory in Tennessee and was currently approaching Vicksburg, potentially capturing the Mississippi River in the process. Lee responded that General Bragg could handle Grant and Rosecrans in the West and denied Longstreet’s request. And so the Army of Northern Virginia, with Lee and Longstreet at its head, marched north on its fateful journey into Pennsylvania.
A chance encounter over a supply of shoes sent both the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac (now commanded by the lackluster General Meade) racing to the sleepy college town of Gettysburg. The Confederates quickly occupied the town, while the Union took the heights of Cemetery Ridge, Culp’s Hill, and Big and Little Round Top. On the second day of the battle, Lee sent Longstreet to dislodge the Union from the Round Tops and so march along the heights rather than attacking them directly. It took Longstreet most of the day to get into position, and when he did he encountered fierce resistance at the local peach orchard, wheat field, and a rocky area nicknamed ‘the Devil’s Den.’ Longstreet managed to drive the Union back from these positions, almost completely destroying the Union Third Corps in the process, but were unable to take the heights, largely due to the incredible courage of the Union 20th Maine on Little Round Top, who held the Confederates off with a bayonet charge after their ammo ran out.
With the Union Line intact and stronger than ever, Lee conceived of an uncharacteristically desperate plan: he would mass he forces and send them straight into the Union line, hoping to break through and seize the strategically crucial Cemetery Ridge by sheer force. Longstreet objected that this was suicidal, but Lee again overruled him. Resigned to his duty, Longstreet ordered his men as well as he could and, too choked with emotional turmoil to speak, gave the order to march with a nod. The center of the assault was led by Longstreet’s friend, George Pickett, who was eager for the chance as his unit had largely missed the fighting so far.
Longstreet had been correct; what became known as Pickett’s Charge was suicide. Twelve thousand men marched in line across three-quarters-of-a-mile of open field straight into the teeth of Union guns and artillery. The Confederates reached the Union line in only one place, a bend in the road called ‘the angle’ where they were quickly repulsed, losing their corps commander, Brig. Gen. Armistead in the process. Longstreet later delivered Armistead’s personal bible to his wife, as per the man’s dying wishes.
Half the men who stepped out on Pickett’s Charge never returned. Pickett himself lost seventy percent of his troops. When General Lee ordered Pickett to form up his division in case of a Union counterattack, Pickett gave the agonized response, “General Lee, I have no division!”
The Confederacy would never recover from the blow, and neither Pickett nor Longstreet would ever forgive Lee for his decision. Following their retreat into Virginia, Longstreet again requested permission to go West, even though Vicksburg had fallen the very day after Gettysburg, and just as he had predicted, the Union now controlled the Mississippi, cutting the South in two. The request was granted in September, 1863. Longstreet travelled nearly eight-hundred miles, taking twenty-six cannons and several thousand men with him, to try to reinforce Bragg, arriving just in time to take part in the Battle of Chickamauga. A devastating mistake by Longstreet’s friend, Gen. Rosecrans, allowed him to rip through the Union lines and nearly destroy the army. He was stopped only by the tenacious defense of another West Point friend, George H. Thomas on Snodgrass Hill.
Bragg’s conduct during the battle was inept; he failed to coordinate his men effectively to trap Thomas, allowing the battered Army of the Cumberland to escape. Longstreet was furious and tried to have Bragg removed, joining with a number of other commanders in the effort. Eventually, President Davis had to intercede, and when he did, he sided with Bragg.
In retaliation, Bragg reduced Longstreet’s command to the men that had come with him from Virginia. He also rejected a plan by Longstreet to head off Union reinforcements that were approaching Chattanooga, with result that Chattanooga, the last Confederate stronghold in Tennessee, fell to the Union in November, 1863.
Disgusted by the conduct of the war in the west, Longstreet headed back to Virginia, soon pursued by Gen. William T. Sherman, whom he managed to escape during the winter. In Virginia, Longstreet learned that Grant had taken command of the whole Union Army. “He will fight us every day and every hour until the end of the war,” he warned gloomily. Yet, like Lee, Longstreet was determined to see things through to the end. He struck a devastating blow during the vicious Battle of the Wilderness, causing one of the Union Commanders he fought to later comment “You rolled me up like a wet blanket,” but he was wounded in the process, shot, like Jackson, by his own men by mistake. This prevented him from pressing his attack, allowing the Union to regroup and continue fighting. The wound kept Longstreet out of the war for most of the spring and summer of 1864.
The unbeatable Confederate command team had been shattered, with Jackson dead and Longstreet wounded. Meanwhile the Union now had a spearhead of commanders of its own in the form of Generals Grant, Sherman, and Phil Sheridan. Together, they mauled the Confederacy throughout 1864 in an almost continuous series of vicious encounters. Sherman ravaged Georgia and South Carolina, Sheridan burned the Shenandoah Valley, and Grant held onto Lee like a bulldog as he wrestled his way closer to Richmond, finally ending with the extended Siege of Petersburg.
Longstreet recovered in time to command the defenses at Petersburg, and when Grant finally broke through his lines retreated with Lee to Appomattox Courthouse. There he counseled Lee to accept Grant’s surrender, trusting that his old friend would be fair to the Confederacy. Lee took Longstreet’s advice, and Grant lived up to his expectations.
With the end of the war, Longstreet moved his family (minus three of his ten children, who had died in a Scarlett Fever epidemic in Richmond) to New Orleans, where he became interested in the cotton and railroad businesses. He was initially refused a pardon from President Andrew Johnson, on the grounds that he had “given the Union too much trouble.” “There are three persons of the South who can never receive amnesty,” Johnson told him. “Mr. Davis, General Lee, and yourself.” Nevertheless, with help from Grant, the U.S. Congress went over Johnson’s head and gave Longstreet his citizenship back in 1868.
Longstreet put his citizenship to work by becoming the only major Confederate officer to join the Republican Party. He endorsed Grant for President and attended his inauguration ceremonies. Grant repaid him by appointing Longstreet as customs surveyor in New Orleans. All this, coupled with his criticism of the beloved Lee, earned him the everlasting hatred of the South. He furthered his pariah status by commanding a force of police and Black militia troops against a rioting White League in New Orleans in 1874. He was wounded and captured by the League, who locked him in his own customs house. When they gave the rebel yell, Longstreet shot them a disdainful look and said “I have heard the yell before.” He was rescued three days later when the League was driven from the city by federal troops sent by Grant.
So unpopular was Longstreet with his fellow southerners that even when he attended services at the local Episcopalian Church the congregation would get up and walk out rather than sit with him. When a local priest, Father Abram Ryan (who had been a Confederate chaplain), discovered this, he invited Longstreet to join the Catholic Church, where he assured him that people only came to worship God and didn’t give a hoot about politics. Longstreet converted in 1877 and remained a devout communicant for the rest of his life.
From then on, he remained active. He served as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1880-1881, a U.S. Marshall from 1881-1884, and U.S. Railroad Commissioner from 1897-1904 under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. His wife Maria died in 1889, and Longstreet unexpectedly married again in 1897, to a woman nearly forty years his junior named Helen Dortch. A fire in 1889 unfortunately destroyed most of his Civil War documents, meaning that he was largely unable to defend his legacy during his lifetime. He died in 1904 of pneumonia at the age of 82, having outlived most of his critics. His widow, Helen, outlived him by fifty-eight years, most of which she dedicated to restoring his reputation as one of the great generals of the Confederacy.
Longstreet was a man of immense dignity and principles who understood the war he was fighting better than most of his contemporaries, even, on occasion, his legendary commander. His conduct during the war was mostly a series doing his best in the face of highly adversarial circumstances and receiving little but criticism for reward. Strangely enough, it was that criticism and adversity that drew him into the Church of Christ. His story is a reminder that God uses our adversity to bring us to him.

Vive Christus Rex!

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