Thoughts on General James Longstreet
By
Professor Ernest Butner (Irish)

        Napoleon Bonaparte once said that "The ancients had a great advantage over us in that their armies were not trailed by a second army of pen-pushers." James Longstreet has been trailed for many years by the pen-pushers who either want to give him blame for destroying or give him credit for saving the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg.
        When speaking of a honored man of our past it is important for historians to be very careful with adjectives and metaphors that describe a personality. Comparisons can be made with his contemporaries. He did not have the intuition of Jackson. He did not have the ideology of Lee. He did not have flair of Forrest. He did not have the charisma of McClellan. He did not have the perseverance of Grant. He did however, have enough of each of the descriptors of the others to make himself a capable commander in the Civil War. He understood that the art of war is a simple art; "everything is in the performance." There is nothing vague in it; everything in it is common sense; ideology does not enter in.
        James Longstreet was not driven by ideology, but by a commitment to his home. He did not try to over simplify the art, nor did he make it more than it was. He understood as well as any commander that the issue of a battle is the result of a single instant, a single thought. Adversaries come into each other's presence with various combinations; they mingle; they fight for a length of time; the decisive moment appears; a psychological spark makes the decision; and a few reserve troops are enough to carry it out. There are no precise, determinate rules in battle. Everything depends on the character that nature has bestowed on the general, on his qualities and defects, on the nature of the troops, on the range of the weapons, on the season of the year, and on a thousand circumstances which are never twice the same.
        He must have thought about the single instant or the single thought when ordered to move his army into a position where it was asked to attack a position that flanked it on either side as was the situation on the second day at Gettysburg. The thought of Fredericksburg raced through his mind, and he did not prosecute...he hesitated, hoping for a change in orders. It will possibly be that decisive moment in time that will haunt General Longstreet until the end of time. The great scriptors of fate had led General Longstreet onto many battlefields and gave him just enough soldierly qualities to make him efficient in the bloody contest of battle. He understood the 'single instant', he understood the 'psychological spark' He, like Jackson was an extraordinary soldier. He understood what had happened at Chickamaugua when his troops poured through the breach in Rosecrans' lines. The psychological spark of bringing reserves in quickly was sought but never complied with...and the tide in the west turned once more against the South. A turning point? A failure in decision, a hesitation...and momentum changed. His detractors will criticize his ability as an independent commander, as they do Hooker and Hood.
        One of the true messages of psychology in the art of war is that accomplished men can rise to a level of inability. Hooker was an accomplished division and corps commander, but will be remembered for his inglorious defeat at Chancellorsville. There was possibly no better division commander in the Army of Northern Virginia than Hood. He will be remembered for the disaster at Franklin...and Atlanta. A.P. Hill was in the same mold as Hood as a division commander but failed miserably as a corps commander. When I think of Longstreet I think that yes indeed he had lapses where he made mistakes, he was not a strong independent commander as was possibly proven at Knoxsville. He did not have the intuition that Stonewall had, but he had enough skill at the corps level to make himself extremely dangerous to his enemy. A wound in the Wilderness...that single instant in time...when Longstreet led his fabled corps toward the exposed left flank of the Army of the Potomac...to create the spark...to pour the reserves in...to place a numerically inferior army in a position to destroy a larger enemy. Would it have been enough spark to create the fire that was needed to turn back Grant?
        Longstreet was ahead of his time. He was a twentieth century warrior fighting in a nineteenth century war. The chief virtue of a soldier is constancy and discipline. When looking at the smoke clad battlefield through his eyes, I feel a tenacious sense of undying pride in leading disciplined men into the fray.

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