In Defense of Lee's Warhorse: A Review of Longstreet at Gettysburg by Cory M. Pfarr
Cory M. Pfarr, Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment (McFarland Press, 2019).
Confederate Lt. General James Longstreet had a tough time keeping his post Civil War reputation in good standing. He especially caught a few from Lost Cause warriors such as Jubal A. Early (along with many others), who attacked Longstreet on all fronts: his reconciliationist attitude, his membership in the (gasp) Republican Party, his written critique of the generalship of Robert E. Lee, and most especially, his “failure” to carry out Lee’s “winning” plan at the Battle of Gettysburg - the so-called “high tide” of the Confederacy. As Early and others would have their vast readership believe, Longstreet’s shortcomings lost the battle…and thus the war.
Pfarr’s mission is to “critically reassess” the Longstreet-at-Gettysburg evidence in order to evaluate whether or not the claims against “Lee’s Warhorse” hold water. Scholars have long noted that a political agenda motivated Lost Cause attacks on Longstreet in the postwar years, and that the published salvos leveled at Longstreet’s performance at Gettysburg hinged on a fictional July 2, 1863 “sunrise order” that Robert E. Lee never issued. None of this should be any surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the persistent Lost Cause mythology often framing Longstreet as the architect of Confederate defeat. But Pfarr’s mission extends well beyond 19th-century Lost Cause mythology - to take aim at more recent scholarship. Pfarr suggests that many modern scholars have fallen prey to Lost Cause fiction and have, in step with the Longstreet critics of the Lost Cause era, painted an unfairly harsh portrait of the general’s performance at Gettysburg. Some have accused him of sulking about when he did not get his way at Gettysburg, others have gone much further, according to Pfarr, and have either implied or claimed outright that Longstreet employed intentional malfeasance in the face of the enemy.
Pfarr takes the reader on a blow-by-blow journey through the Gettysburg narrative focusing especially on the action as it unfolded on July 2 and 3, 1863. Using battle reports, written orders, and postwar recollections of participants, we learn the whereabouts of the key actors on the battlefield, who said what to whom and when they said it, and the specifics concerning the chain of command and the interpretive latitude offered to the upper echelon of Confederate command at Gettysburg when it came to orders.
I think Pfarr’s reassessment of Longstreet’s actions and decisions at Gettysburg is a worthy endeavor. No historian has the final word on anything…to claim as much would be intellectually dishonest (not to mention arrogant). But I will stand up for my discipline and my historian colleagues and suggest that professional historians, if they are doing their jobs, will (and often do) revise their conclusions when presented with convincing evidence. Pfarr seems to think otherwise. Am I being naive here? Who knows…maybe.
But either way, I believe that Pfarr is correct by showing, for example, how Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, a general who ascended to the number two spot (beneath Lee) in the Confederate pantheon soon after his untimely death, is equally - if not more flawed that Longstreet. Yet, Stonewall strangely escapes the severity of criticism leveled at Longstreet and frequently appears in the literature (perhaps unfairly) in the top spot in the pecking order of Lee’s most trusted lieutenants. After all, Longstreet and Lee conferred regularly, suggesting that Lee valued his corps commander’s opinion a great deal, and as such Longstreet should at the very least be given credit where credit is due. This is where Pfarr excels: Longstreet deserves this attention. To understand the events at Gettysburg it is very much worth exploring the relationship between Lee and Longstreet and how that relationship affected the battle. Such an investigation could (and does) illuminate the decision making process.
My concern with Pfarr’s analysis is his tone. He has a (seemingly personal) bone to pick with academic historians, which often comes across as more of an unseemly Internet squabble than an objective look at the events. He seems at times to be questioning the academic integrity of scholars such as Robert Krick, Noah Treudau, Jeffry Wert, and Earl Hess. To suggest even implicitly that their works are acts of malice is a tad much. Also - he dismisses historians who deal in conjecture when evidence is not forthcoming. Granted, this is never a particularly convincing argumentative tack…as one would be hard pressed to get inside the head of an individual without clear evidence. Yet, Pfarr often wades into these waters himself, frequently using the phrase “one could reasonably assume…” when there is no hard evidence for a particular point. I may be splitting hairs…but one could reasonably assume that Longstreet was annoyed with Lee because he did not get his way…and one could likewise reasonably assume that his annoyance in some way affected his performance on the battlefield. Assuming something when it supports your conclusions but not when it doesn’t is at best, suspect. I mean…you can’t have it both ways.
This book often seems less like a critical reassessment and more like an effort to place the blame for defeat at Gettysburg in other Confederate hands (Lee and/or A.P. Hill, for instance), resurrect Longstreet’s reputation, and attribute honor and respect to a general who, in both history and memory, stands in the shadows of the likes of Lee, Jackson, and other prominent Confederate heroes. In terms of sources - Pfarr could have been much more vigilant about bias and reliability, which he often is not. He can be critical of the testimony that does not fit his thesis but not so critical of the testimony that supports it. Much of his evidence reflects the memories of people writing long after the events. As historians will attest, such recollections are often obscured by the passage of time and frequently penned with an agenda in mind. Case in point: Pfarr relies heavily at times on the testimony of Helen Longstreet, the general’s second (and much much younger) wife who was only a few months old during the battle and, writing in the early-20th century in an effort to right the wrongs done to her husband, quite clearly had an agenda.
Also - reframing the key question from “who was responsible for Confederate defeat” to “who was responsible for Union victory” reorients the discussion in potentially illuminating ways. Much like Allen Guelzo’s single volume book on the battle (which Pfarr endorses) - Pfarr examines the fight as if it was the Confederates’ to win. The victory escaped them but only for some critical mistakes made by Confederates at key moments during the three days. There is very little in terms of Union strategy or crucial decision making (by General George Meade, for example) and no mention at all of key Union players like Gouverneur Warren, Strong Vincent, or George Greene among others. To be fair, this is a book about Longstreet…so the emphasis should remain on him. Still, one might go a long way to absolve Longstreet of blame by considering not only the dubious decisions made by Confederate leadership, but the astute ones made by the men commanding the Union forces. After all, I believe it was George Pickett who responded when the asked about Confederate defeat at Gettysburg …"I've always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”
Anyway - buy the book and decide for yourself…I would love to hear what you think.