Sunday, July 8, 2012

Longstreet, Lee and the Lost Cause Myth

A few days ago someone challenged William Garret Piston's Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant, James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History especially in regard to Stonewall Jackson. He suggested that to get a more accurate view of Longstreet and Jackson in relation to Robert E. Lee I should read Jeffry D. Wert's General James Longstreet, the Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier.

I have Wert's book and as far as I could see Wert (who referenced Piston's earlier book as well as his doctoral dissertation) didn't disagree with anything Piston wrote about Longstreet and Jackson. Jackson was not favored over Longstreet by Lee.

One might have predicted, based on the squabbling that Confederate generals engaged in during the war that their squabbling would continue after the war and that is what happened but in a more complicated fashion than anyone could have foreseen.

Up until Lee's death in 1870, Jackson was the most revered general in the south, but after that Lee's reputation grew and grew until, according to Thomas Connelly (The Marble Man, Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society), Lee achieved sainthood.

The problem with making Lee a saint was that he really screwed up at Gettysburg; so if the blame could be shifted over to Longstreet (and since Longstreet  had gone over to the Republicans and become a Scalawag no one was likely to worry about his reputation) all would be well.

Jubal Early who had guilty secrets lead the deification of Lee campaign. Piston writes, "Early's motives deserve explanation, as he, more than any other man, convinced nineteenth-century Americans and twentieth-century historians that Longstreet's military career deserved censure. Early had been an outspoken critic of secession and had switched his loyalty to the South at the very last moment, a fact which some people remembered and held against him during the war. His military career was marked by controversy and failure. His hesitation on July 1, when Cemetery and Culp's hills were still vulnerable, was one of the major blunders of the Gettysburg campaign. Late in the war, while he led the badly outnumbered Second Corps in the Shenandoah Valley, he was so disastrously defeated that Lee, in response to public outcry, relieved him of command. Further humiliations followed as Early fled the country after the war, fearing Federal retaliation for his having ordered the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, during a raid. Living in Canada in acute poverty, he wrote a vitriolic defense of his last campaign only to have Lee politely but firmly withhold approval of either the book or his expatriation. . . ."

While Wert doesn't provide this explanation of Early's motives he does describe what actually happened at Gettysburg and his description clearly disagrees with Early's. Many (most?) of the attacks against Longstreet were fabricated.

I couldn’t help thinking of the comparison with modern forensic science and DNA. Rapists who thought their crimes could never be discovered were caught and punished after scientists learned how to use DNA. Something similar happened in the case of Early and his cohorts. Modern historians are as ruthless and dogged as forensic scientists. Records and testimonies were discovered and a true (or at least truer) picture of what happened at Gettysburg arose and Longstreet comes off looking better than Lee let alone General Early.

Longstreet to this day is condemned in the South for his pragmatic decision to cooperate with the Reconstructionists and hasten the day when the South would once again be left to its own devices. While Longstreet was probably correct in theory, most Southerners found his ideas offensive. For if God was on their side, the North must be of the Devil; so some other way (other than Longstreet’s pragmatism) had to be found to account for what happened.

I am reminded of what happened in France after the Vichy period. De Gaulle fostered the idea that all of true France was overtly or covertly resistant to the Nazis. This was clearly untrue and historians have subsequently described their collaborative period more objectively and completely, but at the time De Gaulle was probably correct in believing that France needed this myth. French people needed some myth to enable them to feel good about themselves and about what they had done during the Vichy period.

Perhaps Southerners needed their Lost-Cause myth to enable them to be optimistic about what they and their leaders had done during the Civil War. Longstreet became a Republican with the intention of making things easier on Southerners during the Reconstruction period, not understanding that what they really needed wasn't better treatment from Republicans but a myth to enable them to feel better about themselves.

No comments: