Monday, August 14, 2023

Review - " Righting the Longstreet Record at Gettysburg: Six Matters of Controversy and Confusion " by Cory Pfarr

[Righting the Longstreet Record at Gettysburg: Six Matters of Controversy and Confusion by Cory M. Pfarr (McFarland, 2023). Softcover, 9 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:ix,180/213. ISBN:978-1-4766-8597-7. $49.95]

Cory Pfarr's 2019 book Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment strenuously challenges a number of deeply ingrained negative interpretations of Old Pete's generalship that the author feels continue to be repeated in major works even though their foundations fly in the face of the best available primary source evidence. However, while Longstreet at Gettysburg is comprehensive in scope, there were still some matters touched upon earlier that Pfarr hoped to revisit at greater length. Those remaining points are now addressed in the companion essay collection Righting the Longstreet Record at Gettysburg: Six Matters of Controversy and Confusion.

The opening essay, appropriately enough, goes back to the origins of the hotly disputed 'Longstreet at Gettysburg 'historiography in both popular debate and scholarly print. In 1896, Rev. John William Jones, a leading figure in the Southern Historical Society and its influential print arm, penned a fiery response to Longstreet's criticisms of Robert E. Lee's management of the Gettysburg Campaign, opinions that were solicited by William Swinton for the journalist's 1866 book Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac. Opinions might differ, but Pfarr, who concedes that Longstreet technically "started" the controversy by providing his critics the opening salvo, merely sees Longstreet's input as a polite response to an earnest writer asking for assistance in enhancing the historical record. Additionally, he reasonably determines the measured tone and content of the criticisms leveled against Lee by Longstreet undeserving of the highly emotional, vitriolic response they received from fervent Lee partisans such as Jones.

The second essay revisits the postwar friendship that developed between Longstreet and his principal Gettysburg Day 2 foe, Third Corps commander Daniel Sickles. With both men beset by fierce criticisms from their own side of the aisle, a cynic might suspect that the strong defense each had for the other's performance on that day was one of expedience; however, the mutual respect, on both personal and military fronts, appears genuine. The chapter's adoption of the devil's advocate position when it comes to assessing Sickles's forward redeployment of his corps is one of its most intriguing elements. Though there have been notable modern modifications to the old arguments, the traditional objection is that Sickles disobeyed the word and spirit of Meade's orders by moving west to seize the higher ground situated along the Emmitsburg Road. Worse, the movement created a salient that left Third Corps relatively isolated in its forward position, and when Longstreet subjected the jackknifed line to his two-division hammer blow, the Union corps was effectively destroyed as a fighting force. With Sickles's salient crushed, the argument goes that the Union left was saved only by General Meade's deft shuffling of multi-corps reinforcements toward the critical point. Eventually, and at great human cost, those arrivals took the steam out of Longstreet's attack. Judiciously supplementing the views of Sickles, Longstreet, and their supporters, Pfarr constructs a defensible argument in support of Sickles's actions on that day, one that might reasonably lead readers to conclude that the Third Corps's role on that day was that of primary stopping force rather than unnecessarily sacrificed tripwire. On the other hand, the sheer scale of army-wide reinforcements for the endangered left that were required to stop Longstreet argues powerfully against assigning that much credit to Third Corps. Also, we'll never know whether Third Corps might have achieved a similar result (the repulse of Longstreet's attack) had it simply adopted a shorter, denser, straight-line position anchored on Cemetery Ridge to the north and on the south by the Round Tops. Pfarr seems to believe that that arrangement could, with a strong degree of likelihood, have been overcome in front and southern flank by Longstreet. It very well might have, but this reviewer has his doubts, especially when it comes to the argument that the higher ground along the Emmitsburg Road could have been effectively exploited as a platform for Confederate massed artillery support. With rare exception, effective movement and coordination of concentrated artillery, mid-battle and on the tactical offensive, was not among the fighting forte of Confederate armies.

Long before now, the myth of the dawn or early morning attack Lee allegedly intended on July 2 for the Union left has been thoroughly debunked for the nonsense that it always was. It would be late-morning before Lee had even determined where the army's main effort would be on the second day. While Longstreet has been thoroughly exonerated on that front, he remains criticized by many current authors for still dragging his feet, not doing his utmost in gathering intelligence, and not paying his usual attention to detail when preparing his attack. Pfarr, citing the literature's common focus on the morning reconnaissance of the Union left conducted by Lee staffer Capt. Samuel Johnston, challenges the critics with a careful and detailed recitation of evidence that reveals a multitude of recon missions conducted on the Confederate right during the morning and early afternoon hours. Taking to task a number of authors whose writings allege that Longstreet was largely inactive, Pfarr feels that many of the most strongly worded charges lack a basis in primary source evidence. In the chapter, the author offers the sound suggestion that flaws in the quality and reporting of the intelligence (the earliest crop of which was rendered essentially useless by the surprise forward movement of Sickles's Third Corps, the "force of circumstances" blamed in General Lafayette McLaws's later post-battle writings) were the main problem, not the quantity of effort or lack thereof. In Pfarr's estimation, the focus on Longstreet himself is misplaced and largely based on assumptions not borne out by source strength commensurate to the gravity of the charges. On that score his views are convincing.

Two of the war's most infamous mid-battle countermarches, one occurring on the first day of the Battle of Shiloh and the second on July 2 at Gettysburg, subjected their leaders, Lew Wallace and James Longstreet respectively, to decades of intense popular and academic denunciation. While Longstreet, unlike Wallace, was never accused of getting lost, his countermarch of the divisions of McLaws and Hood, and the time lost performing it, fed into the accepted narrative of a sulking and dawdling corps commander, one that proved popular among a wide range of writers. Pfarr's fourth chapter revisits the countermarch in great detail. The author effectively defends Longstreet's actions on several fronts, the overarching one being the concealment imperative. In addition to the Lee directive prioritizing concealment over speed, before the move to the right even started precious time was required to discover a suitable march route that could not be observed by the enemy. At that point, a practical assault launch time was already in the mid to late-afternoon range. Once the march was underway, it soon became apparent that the chosen path would result in the column being seen by the Union signal station atop Little Round Top. Pfarr offers several reasons for not simply reversing the order of march, as many Longstreet's critics say he should have, placing Hood in the lead. One of these was Lee's desire for McLaws to lead the attack, but arguably the strongest reason was based on knowledge of the ground. It was McLaws who suggested the countermarch route through his own earlier personal reconnaissance of the area, and Longstreet (who most closely communicated with McLaws during the march) needed to make a snap decision. With those factors and others guiding the decision-making process, it was natural, in Pfarr's view, that McLaws lead the countermarch. Further, the author makes a good point that, with those circumstances in mind, there's really no guarantee that having Hood take the lead would have saved considerable time. There's room remaining for reasonable minds to differ on some of these points, but, in this chapter and other sections of the book, Pfarr constructs a well-supported case arguing that the lateness of Lee's decision of where to concentrate his army's main effort on July 2, the concealed route imperative, the additional reconnaissance required to prepare that unobservable route, and the unexpected shift forward of the Union left were collectively far more responsible for the assault's 4:30 pm launch time than any alleged sulky attitude, indecision, dereliction of duty, generalship slows (purposeful or not), or insubordination on the part of Longstreet.

Count this reviewer among those dismayed to learn that anyone might seriously believe Richard Anderson's Third Corps division to have been under Longstreet's direct command during the attack on July 2, but apparently it is a common misconception/question raised during the author's public talks. The book chapter discussing it duly confirms its untruth while also generously explaining the possible ways in which some readers and writers might have come to believe it. Again, the author thinks a large part of its appeal lies in it being another way to confirm fault, given the division's poorly coordinated attack that left two of five brigades unengaged, with Longstreet's conduct of the Day 2 battle. He could be right about that.

In the final chapter, Pfarr enjoins readers and scholars to reconsider the value of Lee and Longstreet at High Tide, a work the author feels too often ignored or disparaged on the grounds of its source, Helen Dortch, Longstreet, the controversial general's second wife. The chapter makes the case that Mrs. Longstreet's work actually demonstrates better adherence to historical methods of research and writing than the output of most contemporary critics of the general. In, for example, addressing the published allegations of Longstreet opponents such as former Confederate generals John B. Gordon and William Nelson Pendleton, Pfarr finds her opposing analysis largely sound and several arguments historiographically farseeing.

Profoundly negative interpretations of the character and military conduct of a number of well-known Civil War generals are so deeply entrenched in the most popular and influential secondary works that they've become almost written in stone. While critical analysis of James Longstreet's Gettysburg Campaign role certainly continues to evolve, Cory Pfarr's investigation uncovers and effectively counters a number of persistent myths and misconceptions, some of which still make it into the pages of well-regarded one-volume histories of the Gettysburg campaign and battle. With these six essays (in conjunction with Pfarr's earlier book Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment), Civil War readers, both novitiate and deeply experienced alike, have powerful arguments and accumulated evidence with which to reevaluate Longstreet's actions at Gettysburg. Highly recommended.

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