Confederate General James Longstreet received a severe wound in the Battle of the Wilderness on May 6, 1864. He survived that wound only to be more severely wounded in the post-war years. That second wounding resulted from accusations about Longstreet and his fellow generals at Gettysburg and then was made worse by Longstreet’s political decisions.
Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are celebrated as the greatest generals of the Confederacy. Since both were born in January, Southern communities once had a holiday noted as “Confederate Heroes Day,” and Lee-Jackson banquets are still observed. But James Longstreet, born on January 8, 1821, is often either ignored or politely dismissed from the honors accorded to his fellow generals.
Longstreet, in effect, missed his chance to win undying honors from the South when he survived that wounding in the Wilderness Battle. The entire incident curiously seemed to be a replaying of the wounding and death of Stonewall Jackson. Jackson was wounded on May 2, 1863; Longstreet was wounded on May 6, 1864. It was Jackson’s attack on General Hooker that turned the battle of Chancellorsville; Longstreet’s arrival at the Wilderness Battle had a similar effect. In both cases, the Confederate generals were hit, not by enemy fire, but mistakenly by their own men.
Longstreet said, “I received a severe shock from a minie ball passing through my throat and right shoulder.” Stoically, he went on to say, “In a minute the flow of blood admonished me that my work for the day was done.” Passing on instructions to his staff, Longstreet was taken from the battlefield. By autumn of 1864, he had recovered and was back in command.
As the title of Longstreet’s autobiography, From Manassas to Appomattox, states, he was in the center of the fighting in the war from the beginning to the end. While he is mainly associated with the Army of Northern Virginia and battles in the east, he also led his army corps in the Battle of Chickamauga in northern Georgia. His decisive role in that battle almost turned the tide for the Confederate armies in that campaign.
Longstreet was a first-rate fighting general. Lee called him “my old war horse.” In battles such as Second Manassas and Antietam, his role was decisive. He has been credited for his effective counter-punches in battle, along with his grasp of the defensive warfare. There are those who think that his vision for defensive warfare would have far better served the Confederacy than the more offensive tactics of Lee and Jackson. He was legendary in battle for his calmness, and he was no quitter. As Lee prepared to meet Grant at Appomattox, Longstreet told him, “General, unless he offers us honorable terms, come back and let us fight it out.”
There is more than enough heroism and loyalty in the man to have earned him undying honor both from his contemporaries and from historians. Yet this is where the second wounding took place. In the nearly forty years that Longstreet lived after the war, he became the center of controversy regarding both the war and its aftermath.
The main controversy is in regard to the Battle of Gettysburg. Gettysburg was a tragedy of errors for the Confederate army. Both participants and historians have debated the moves of each of the three days of that pivotal battle. Longstreet reluctantly commanded the ill-fated attack on the third day known as Pickett’s Charge, but it was his actions on the second day of battle that sparked controversy through the years since that day.
Longstreet, in command of the right wing of the Confederate army, was expected to launch an early morning attack on the Union forces. Longstreet himself was a large, slow-moving, and deliberate man. His corps’s movements into battle were also slow. The result was that it was late afternoon before Longstreet’s troops moved into action. The second day of battle yielded no successful results for the Confederacy.
Following a string of successes in previous battles, the Confederate command seemed bent on bad judgments and self-destruction at Gettysburg. Every Confederate commander has received blame for the battle. Even Stonewall Jackson, who might have changed the battle completely, has been faulted for having died two months earlier.In the years following the war, various generals faulted Longstreet for his tardiness and failure to obey orders for a morning attack on the second day. When Longstreet answered them, his answer did more to damage his name than his accusers.
Longstreet laid the blame on Robert E. Lee. This happened at a time when Lee had achieved a certain mythic aura in the South. Longstreet repeatedly expressed admiration for his commander, but he also voiced a strong criticism of Lee’s actions at Gettysburg.
This self-inflicted wound was made worse when Longstreet made some pragmatic political decisions in the years following the war. Seeing the political realities of the time, he joined the Republican Party, a century before that was an acceptable move in the South. Then in 1874, Longstreet was in command of a black police unit in New Orleans that got into a street fight with an organization called the White League. Twenty-six people were killed and many more wounded in that skirmish, but the most lasting wound was Longstreet’s: his reputation was shattered.
Had Longstreet died in the days following his wounding in the Wilderness, his standing among Southerners and historians would have been far better.