Published by Casemate Publishers and Savas Beatie
This weekend is the 159th anniversary of The Battle of Gettysburg and thus it seems like an excellent time to review two new biographies of one of the most famous commanders who fought on that field, Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Longstreet commanded the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia for almost the entirety of the war, becoming closely associated with the Confederate Commanding General Robert E. Lee, who labeled Longstreet his “Old War Horse”. He served in most of the major campaigns in the Eastern Theater, from First Manassas through to the Appomattox Campaign, while also contributing decisively to the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chickamauga in September of 1863. Longstreet’s post-war reputation suffered at the hands of numerous detractors due to his close ties to the Republican Party, and his efforts to thwart anti-reconstruction southerners, as well as critical remarks levied against his former commander, Lee. While his reputation underwent a rehabilitation thanks to the novel The Killer Angels and Tom Berringer’s subsequent portrayal in the film Gettysburg, Longstreet exists more in the popular imagination as character of Michael Sharra rather than a professional soldier. Toretta and Knudsen have produced books that go a long way to addressing this deficiency.
In Lieutenant General James Longstreet: Innovative Strategist, Toretta makes a convincing argument that Longstreet made a serious study of the art of war, focusing on the impact of the Industrial Age on both tactics and strategy. Toretta highlights that tactically, Longstreet had a tremendous appreciation for the increased lethality of rifled musket and artillery, and the inherent strength of prepared field fortifications in the face of such fire power. In the arena of strategy, he demonstrates that Longstreet advocated for an integrated defense of the Confederacy in the spring of 1863, sharing resources between Eastern and Western theaters. Specifically, Longstreet urged taking advantage of interior lines using railroads to move men and material, while coordinating operations via telegraph. While Longstreet found his plan rejected in favor of Lee’s desire to mount an offensive operation into Northern territory, resulting in the Gettysburg Campaign, his vision took shape later that year, when his corps moved via rail to northwest Georgia, to join Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. Thus reinforced, Bragg scored a signal victory against Union forces under General Rosecrans at the Battle of Chickamauga.
Toretta makes extensive use of primary sources, to include Longstreet’s own memoirs as well as those of officers with whom he served and those he faced in combat. He supplements their recollections with relevant selections from the Official Records of the War of Rebellion. The result is a balanced summary of the operations conducted by Longstreet throughout the war, contrasted with the memories of both his supporters and detractors and compared with the words of his Union opponents. While the bulk of this material is not the result of new scholarship, Toretta has done a tremendous service to students of the American Civil War by compiling this material in a single volume, analyzing the various arguments made and presenting a clear and compelling conclusion.
Knudsen’s James Longstreet and the American Civil War presents readers with an argument like Toretta’s. Knudsen identifies Longstreet as a true engine of change, not only adapting to the impact of Industrial Age technology, but actively working to incorporate improved weapons and machines into his own brand of warfighting. Knudsen is an experienced United States Army officer, familiar with the roles of both commanders and staffs and an expert in military doctrine. He presents Longstreet as an officer who, while trained in the battlefield tactics advocated by writers of the Napoleonic Age like Antoine-Henri Jomini, developed new, forward-thinking tactics that made use of combined arms such as infantry and artillery integrating their efforts to achieve specific outcomes to win battles. Knudsen further emphasizes that Longstreet anticipated many 20th century innovations, such as the use of specialized staff officers who possessed the knowledge and experience to assist him as a commander in planning and overseeing operations, dealing with unanticipated developments, and seizing opportunities as they appeared on the battlefield.
Knudsen builds his arguments chronologically, illustrating how Longstreet grew as a commander during the war; however, the book itself is not an overview of Longstreet’s operational experiences. The author uses different battles to illustrate specific lessons learned by Longstreet and how his skill as a tactician and strategist evolved. Knudsen employs his extensive knowledge of doctrine, the principles of war and operational art to put Longstreet’s performance as a commander into a larger context and to demonstrate that his understanding of war was generations ahead of that of his contemporaries. Knudsen’s work is enhanced with relevant maps and illustrated with appropriate period sketches. The result is an excellent book that bridges the gap between military history and military theory to present a fully formed picture of Longstreet as both a man of action and a thinking man’s commander.
Both Lieutenant General James Longstreet: Innovative Strategist and James Longstreet and the American Civil War succeed in showing readers an in-depth picture of Longstreet and his development as a strategist and tactician. I highly recommend both to civil war enthusiasts and students of military history in general.