Longstreet to the Rescue: The Battle of the Wilderness and the Wounding of James Longstreet


First of all, I do kind of have to apologize
for being so late with the program. I had some things going on back in March and I had
to make a trip to accommodate some things that were going on, but Tony and Angie were
very gracious to reschedule the program for today. So this is officially our last mid-winter
talk for 2014. The date is pretty, actually worked out pretty well, April 27th, because
the 150th anniversary of the Wilderness is going to be in ten days. So if anyone is planning
at trip down to the Wilderness for that, you’re going to get a little preview of what’s going
on. Of course we’re talking about Longstreet to the rescue and actually the second day
of the Battle of the Wilderness. Before we can get there though, we have to go back several
months to September of 1863. In September of 1863, General Longstreet, along with two
divisions of infantry and some of his artillery, are ordered west to reinforce the Army of
Tennessee. Some of his troops arrive on the battlefield of Chickamauga towards the end
of the first day’s fighting. When Longstreet arrives, he’s placed in command of the left
wing of the army. And as command of that left wing, he would mount a massive attack that
breaks through the right half of the Union Army of the Cumberland, sending that half
of the army in retreat back to Chattanooga. Caught up in the retreat is the army’s commander,
General Rosecrans, who happened to be not only Longstreet’s classmate, but also Longstreet’s
roommate at West Point. During the fighting on September 20th, though, Longstreet is going
to lose one of his division commanders. Major General John Bell Hood is hit in the leg,
the leg would eventually have to be amputated, and Hood is gone now from Longstreet’s command;
he would never report back to him. Longstreet, or actually on September 25th, five days after
the battle, Longstreet receives a message from General Lee, and among other things,
Lee said, “Finish the work before you, my dear general, and return to me. I want you
badly and you cannot get back too soon. Your departure was known to the enemy as soon as
it occurred.” Now Longstreet tries to convince the commander of the Army of Tennessee General
Braxton Bragg, to leave a token force around Chattanooga and take the rest of the army
to reoccupy Tennessee, possibly move into Kentucky, and maybe even besiege the city
of Cincinnati, Ohio. Bragg is not going to do that. He is going to sit back and try to
mount a siege of Chattanooga. Bragg, though, doesn’t have enough men to completely encircle
the city, so it’s not a true siege in that sense. Also coming to the relief of Chattanooga
are two army corps from the Army of the Potomac and William Sherman’s army corps from General
Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. And Ulysses S. Grant himself is placed in overall command
of the troops around Chattanooga. To try to keep the North from extending its supply line,
Bragg will have Longstreet try to launch an attack near Wauhatchie, Tennessee on the western
side of Lookout Mountain, and this is one of the most botched attacked Longstreet’s
troops are going to carry out. Longstreet, of course, will blame Evander Law for the
defeat at Wauhatchie. Law is going to blame Longstreet, and General Bragg will also blame
Longstreet for what happened. So things are not going well for Longstreet and his men
at this point. Law had taken over command of Hood’s division after Hood’s wounding at
Chickamauga, just as Law had done here after Gettysburg, and Law felt he deserved to be
promoted to take command of the division. Longstreet wants Micah Jenkins to take command
of the division. At this point, he can’t really do that, but that’s what Longstreet is angling
for, so there’s a conflict now between Law and Jenkins. Longstreet will also get into
arguments with General Braxton Bragg, along with just about everybody else, and the upshot
is on November 3rd, 1863, Bragg ordered Longstreet to Knoxville to try to lay siege and capture
that city. Knoxville is a well-fortified town, the defenses were started by the Confederates,
and when they left, they were improved by Union forces. The Union forces now in Knoxville
were commanded by Ambrose Burnside, and he actually has more troops than General Longstreet,
so again, Longstreet can’t conduct a proper siege of Knoxville. But on November 29th,
1863, he’s going to try to break through at a place called Fort Sanders. This is another
poorly-executed attack. From here, Longstreet would fall back to Russellville, Tennessee
to establish his winter headquarters by December 10th. He’s 82 miles from Bristol, Tennessee
and 52 miles from Knoxville. As bad as things had been for the First Corps up until now,
they’re going to get even worse. On December 17th, Longstreet will relieve Major General
Lafayette McLaws of command of his division and bring charges against him. McLaws is going
to be charged with neglect of duty stemming from the attack on Fort Sanders. On the same
day, Longstreet will bring charges against Brigadier General Jerome Robertson of the
Texas Brigade and also relive Robertson of command. Robertson is going to be charged
with conduct highly prejudiced as a good order in military discipline. Two days later, on
December 19th, Evander Law, who heard he was going to be charged, offered Longstreet his
resignation, and Longstreet is going to accept it. Longstreet had planned to charge Law with
conduct highly prejudiced as a good order in military discipline and conduct unbecoming
an officer and a gentleman. To replace McLaws, Longstreet would choose Senior Brigade Commander,
Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw. On February 12th, 1864, Major General Charles Field, under
orders from the war department assumed command of Hood’s old division. Now, Longstreet still
wanted Micah Jenkins to command Hood’s division and he actually wrote the war department,
“Can I transfer Field over to McLaws’s division and put Jenkins in charge of Hood’s division?”
And the war department wrote back and said, “No, Field is directing Hood’s division by
our orders,” and the only people that can change that is the war department, not Longstreet.
While at Russellville, Longstreet received orders on April 12th, 1864 to report back
to Lee in Virginia. He is to return to Charlottesville by April 14th. At this point, Longstreet himself
is somewhat despondent, he’s become a little demoralized, and it’s arguable that the East
Tennessee Campaign was Longstreet’s worst performance in the whole Civil War. Douglas
Southall Freeman, in “Lee’s Lieutenants” wrote, “Longstreet has failed in a semi-independent
command and failed to maintain peace in his corps. His strategy continued, despite discouragements.
A bitterness toward the administration had developed in his heart. He was less the imperturbable
old war horse and more the aggrieved, restive lieutenant who thought all authorities except
Lee are readied against him.” And even one of his most ardent defenders in the 20th century,
Lieutenant Colonel Donald Bridgman Sanger wrote, “All in all, he failed to measure up
to the standard required for the role of an independent commander. There was a fatal lack
of harmony in his command and it appeared at times as if he could not handle his own
troops and preserve that quality of discipline which he had formerly instilled in the First
Corps. Most serious of all, Longstreet, for the first time, lost confidence in himself.”
When Longstreet’s men returned to Virginia, the divisions were commanded by Major General
Charles Field, Hood’s old division, and Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw commanded McLaws’s
division; all in all about 10,000 officers and men. Pickett’s division had been sent
to North Carolina in September of 1863 and had not yet reported back to Longstreet’s
command. Longstreet is going to write to Lieutenant Colonel Walter Taylor, Lee’s assistant adjutant
general, about when Lee can come to review the troops. Taylor wrote on April 26th that
Lee would visit the First Corps as soon as possible, and then he added a personal note.
He told Longstreet, “I really am beside myself, general, with joy of having you back. It is
like the reunion of a family.” And it seems as though once Longstreet has made it back
on Virginia soil, everything in east Tennessee is going to be forgotten. For some reason,
just because they’re back from Tennessee, the old esprit de corps and Longstreet’s handling
of the corps is going to be like it was in the old days. East Tennessee is kind of a
black mark, but it’s passing now and Longstreet will soon have a chance to redeem himself
from east Tennessee and some modern historians might say redeem himself from Gettysburg as
well. Lee is going to review the troops on April 29th at Gordonsville. Longstreet says
Gordonsville on the line of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad in case of a Federal advance
against Richmond – he can use the line to get to Richmond pretty quickly. On May 2nd,
Lee is going to meet with his corps and division commanders on Clark’s Mountain here in the
background. From Clark’s Mountain, they can see the Army of the Potomac encampments across
the Rapidan River. Field’s division has moved north of Gordonsville to meet a possible Federal
advance toward Richmond along the rail line. If Meade and the Army of the Potomac, though,
advance against Lee’s right near Germanna or Ely’s Fords on the Rapidan, Longstreet
is going to be at least a day’s march away. Lee was willing to take that chance and would
try to offer some cover for Richmond. On May 4th, Longstreet is going to be ordered to
march. His objective is Richard’s Sharp on the Catharpin Road. The recommended route
was by Brock’s Bridge on the North Anna River. Kershaw starts to move out about 4:00PM in
the afternoon to Brock’s Bridge, a distance of about ten miles. Field has a distance of
about sixteen miles to cover. These are also the opening moves in what’s going to become
General Grant’s Overland Campaign. You have General Meade commanding the Army of the Potomac,
but the new commanding general, Ulysses Grant is going to establish his headquarters with
the Army of the Potomac. Grant’s going to cross the Rapidan River on the evening of
May 3rd and 4th. Longstreet’s initial orders were to continue on the Catharpin Road to
Todd’s Tavern; that would place him on General Meade’s southern flank. Early in the morning,
the guard resumed the march to Richard’s Sharp, a distance of about sixteen miles on the Catharpin
Road. Most of Longstreet’s units are going to cover thirty-two miles in twenty-four hours
and still be about ten miles short of the battlefield. Also, the morning of May 5th,
Lafayette rallies his Confederate cavalry and skirmishes with James Wilson’s Union cavalry
at Todd’s Tavern and Wilson’s cavalry is going to get the worst of it in this engagement.
It’s also the first day of the Battle of the Wilderness and Lee is trying to use the tangled
mess of the Wilderness to neutralize Grant’s and Meade’s forces. At the best, by the end
of the first fighting on the first day of the Wilderness, you’re going to have a stalemate.
Lee can’t force Grant out of the Wilderness and Grant can’t seem to move forward at that
point. But Major Charles Venable would be sent by Lee to Longstreet with a change of
marching orders. Longstreet is to cut across country now to the Orange Plank Road and link
up with General Hill and his corps. Major Venable later wrote, “My message to you was
to reach General Lee as soon as practicable on the morning of the 6th.” Longstreet himself
wrote, “The accounts we had of the day’s work were favorable to the Confederates, but the
change of direction of our march was not reassuring.” At 1:00AM on the morning of May 6th, Longstreet’s
men would start their march for Parker’s Store and they arrived at Parker’s Store at dawn
which was about 4:40AM in the morning of May 6th. He is there to relieve Heth and Wilcox’s
divisions about another three miles from Parker’s Store. Longstreet wrote, though, of this cross-country
march, “Such a march and under such conditions was never before experienced by the troops.
Along blind roads overgrown by underbrush, through fields that had lain fallow for years,
now stumbling over bushes and briars.” Even the so-called “roads” through the wilderness
are not like the nice country roads up here in Pennsylvania which are nice and bright
and, in some cases, hard surfaced. These are, in some cases, just tracks through the Wilderness,
and there is a good reason in 1864 that they called this the Wilderness. It’s just a massive,
tangled woods broken up by small farms and that’s it, and there’s a lot of undergrowth
in the Wilderness as well, so this is not an easy march across country for Longstreet’s
men to make. In fact, Longstreet actually ordered his divisions to double up into tighter
and more efficient marching columns to get his men through this. Once they reach Parker’s Store they’re going
to pass Colonel Henry C. Cabell’s artillery battalion of the 1st Corps. This is one of
the units left behind when Longstreet went to Tennessee. Included Cabell’s battalion
is the 1st Richmond Howitzers. One soldier from the Howitzers wrote, “Everything broke
loose as General Longstreet in person rode past. Like a fine lady at a party, Longstreet
was often late in his arrival at the ball. But he always made a sensation, and that of
delight, when he got in, with the grand old First Corps streaming behind him as his train.”
Another soldier of the Howitzers wrote, “The instant the head of his column was seen, the
cries resounded on every side. Here is Longstreet, the old war horse is up at last, it’s alright
now.” At 5:00AM, on the morning of May 6th, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock and Brigadier
General James Wadsworth would launch a massive attack against the divisions of Heth and Wilcox
of A.P. Hill’s corps. Those troops are going to be quickly pushed back from their advanced
positions and they start to retreat almost in a pell-mell fashion. The right flank of
Lee’s line now in the Wilderness is in danger of collapse, and along with it, maybe even
the Army of Northern Virginia. The only troops ready to stop this Union advance is Poague’s
artillery line in the Widow Tapp field. In there with the batteries is Lieutenant Colonel
William H. Palmer, General Hill’s chief of staff. He was walking along the guns trying
to encourage the gunners when he suddenly looked up and there was General Longstreet
on horseback. Palmer, who knew Longstreet, went over to him and said, “Ah General, we
have been looking for you since twelve o’clock last night. We expect to be attacked at any
moment and are not in any shape to resist.” Longstreet started replying, “My troops are
not up – I have ridden ahead. And then the rest of what Longstreet said kind of got lost
in the growing crescendo of the battle. But Palmer noted that Longstreet turned his horse
to meet his oncoming soldiers. Field and Kershaw are coming up, side by side, on either side
of the Orange Plank Road; Field on the north side of the road and Kershaw on the south
side of the road. It was reported that they also came up in perfect order, ranks well
closed, and no stragglers. “Those splendid troops came on regardless of the confusion
on every side, pressing their steady movement onward like a river in the sea of confusion
and troubled human waves around them.” Moxley Sorrell, Longstreet’s capable chief of staff,
also reported that, “never did his great qualities as a tenacious, fighting soldier shine forth
in better light. I have always thought that in its entire splendid history, the simple
act of forming line in the dense undergrowth under heavy fire, and with the Third Corps
men pushing to the rear through the ranks, was perhaps its greatest performance for its
steadiness and inflexible courage and discipline.” Again, the field discipline of the First Corps
is coming to the front and Longstreet and his officers have the troops well in hand
and know exactly what to do. Even Major Charles Venable of Lee’s staff, in the postwar years
no particularly great friend of Longstreet’s, had to admit, “I met your two divisions within
less than half a mile of the battlefield coming up in parallel columns very rapidly on the
Plank Road side by side and that they came in grandly, forming line of battle. It was
superb and my heart beats quicker to think about it, even at this distance of time. Leading
Field’s division is going to be the Texas Brigade under Brigadier General John Gregg.
Gregg had joined the division and Longstreet’s troops in Tennessee, so he was an unknown
quantity to General Lee, Lee didn’t know who the guy was. So he goes riding over to Gregg
and asks, “What brigade is this?” And of course General Gregg proudly says, “The Texas Brigade!”
And Lee said, “I am glad to see it. When you go in there, I wish you to give those men
the cold steel. They will stand and fight all day and never move unless you charge them.
The Texas Brigade has always driven the enemy and I want them to do it now, and tell them,
General, that they will fight today under my eye. I will watch their conduct. I want
every man of them to know I am here with them.” And then Lee rides to the front of the Texas
Brigade and starts to shout, “Texans always move them!” And the Texans shout back, “Lee
to the rear!” Here is the famous episode of the Texans trying to get Lee to move to the
rear, out of danger. Lee, at first, isn’t moving. He’s determined to lead the Texas
Brigade in person. And then Charles Venable shows up again, this guy seems to be all over
the place, and he points out to Lee that General Longstreet is on the other side of the road.
So Lee rides over to Longstreet and they have a little conference, and Longstreet assures
Lee that he can restore the line if given a free hand on the battlefield. But if Lee
wants to take charge of everything, Longstreet’s more than willing to go to the rear, because
as he said, “It was not quite comfortable where we were.” Lee took the hint, started
to ride to the rear to leave the battlefield in Longstreet’s capable hands, and Longstreet
knows exactly what to do. This is the view the Texans had of the Union forces. They have
to charge across this open field as the Union troops are just emerging from the treeline
in the distance. Lieutenant Colonel Palmer, who also seems to be all over the place, said
that, “Longstreet rode down the line, his horse at a walk, and addressing each company
said, ‘Keep cool men, we will straighten this out in a short time. Keep cool.’ In the midst
of the confusion, his coolness and manner was inspiring.” Longstreet’s going to send
Field’s division in one brigade at a time. So Field’s division will be attacking with
sledgehammer blows against the Union line. Kershaw goes in to a slightly more extended
line, but these soldiers now would start pushing back the Union troops, regaining a lot of
the lost ground. Almost about eight o’clock in the morning, Major General Richard H. Anderson’s
division arrives on the battlefield. Prior to the army reorganization in May of 1863,
Anderson had belonged to Longstreet’s command; in the reorganization, he was transferred
to the Third Corps. So at the Wilderness, as he’s coming up, he belongs to the Third
Corps. But when Anderson arrives on the battlefield, Lee’s going to reassign him to the First Corps,
acknowledging Longstreet’s command on that part of the field. A.P. Hill, meanwhile, is
trying to extend his line into the Chewning Farm, north of Longstreet’s position. And
now, in what had to be somewhat embarrassing circumstances, Hill had to send Palmer over
to Longstreet to request a brigade from Anderson’s division. Remember, just prior to this, Anderson
had been under Hill’s command and now suddenly he’s under Longstreet’s command, so duty and
protocol dictates Hill has to ask Longstreet for a brigade of Anderson’s division. Longstreet
is very helpful; when Palmer asks for the brigade, he said, “Certainly Colonel, which
one will you take?” And Palmer said, “The first one.” And Longstreet said, “That’s good
enough for me.” Longstreet, though, he’s pushing back the Union forces, he’s regaining lost
ground, but that’s not good enough for him. He wants to try to organize an attack that
will lead to a possible Confederate victory on the field. Coming up to Longstreet at ten
o’clock in the morning is Brigadier General Martin Luther Smith, the chief engineer for
the Army of Northern Virginia and a member of Longstreet’s class of 1842. Smith reports
to Longstreet that he’s found a way through the Wilderness to turn Hancock’s left flank.
There is an unfinished railroad cutting through the Wilderness, and just like the railroad
cut here in Gettysburg, the area had been cleared, but there were no tracks through
here. They won’t be any railroad tracks until several years after the Civil War. Longstreet’s
going to direct his chief of staff Moxley Sorrell to conduct three brigades by the route,
have them face to the left, and march against Hancock’s flank. The three brigades making
the assault would be William Wofford, William Mahone, and George “Tige” Anderson. In support
would be the Davis-Stone Brigade in reserve; four brigades from four different divisions
now making this attack. Since William Mahone is the senior brigade commander, he is going
to be in charge of the attack. Lieutenant Colonel E.M. Field and 170 men of the newly-organized
Sharpshooter Battalion from Mahone’s Brigade would lead the advance. Mahone’s attack is
going to smash into the left flank of Hancock’s line and completely disorganize and start
to rout it. Longstreet later wrote: “The movement was a complete surprise and a perfect success.
It was executed with a rare zeal and intelligence. The enemy made but a short stand and fell
back in utter rout with heavy loss to a position about three-quarters of a mile from my attack.”
Years later, even General Hancock had to admit to Longstreet, “You rolled me up like a wet
blanket and it was some hours before I could reorganize for battle.” In a sense, these
three under-strength Confederate brigades would overpower five times their number on
the Union side, and that’s the effect of a flank attack on an enemy force. You can still
get to the site of Longstreet’s flank attack, but you have to go through the entrance of
the Fawn Lake development to get there. Now fortunately, the development has recognized
that path through the Wilderness and its historical importance, so they have still maintained
it. The last time I was down there, we actually had to call ahead to get into the place because
it is a gated community. As Longstreet’s men are advancing up the Orange Plank Road they’re
going to pass by the mortally wounded Brigadier General James Wadsworth, and there’s a monument
to Wadsworth’s wounding on the battlefield today. So Longstreet’s men are pushing past
him on the road. What Longstreet is aiming for is this intersection between the Orange
Plank Road and the Brock Road. If Longstreet can control this crossroads, he’s going to
limit the Union options in the Wilderness. General Hancock’s men, though, are erecting
fortifications along the Brock Road, or at least improving the ones they’ve already put
up. They’re trying to clear a field of fire in front of it well. General Smith now comes
back to Longstreet and he reports that this rail line extends even further into the Wilderness,
and they can take more troops in to attack Hancock’s position along the Brock Road. Smith,
now, is going to be authorized by Longstreet to lead the attack. Wofford’s Brigade is moved
by what’s called inversion, in other words, he’s going to move from the left flank of
the line over to the right and form the new attack. Mahone’s Brigade in the middle is
still advancing toward the Orange Plank Road. General Kershaw is going to report: “We met
the lieutenant general commanding, coming to the front, almost within musket-range of
the Brock Road. Exchanging hasty congratulations upon the success of the morning, the lieutenant
general rapidly planned a direct attack to be made by Brigadier General Jenkins and myself
upon the position of the enemy upon the Brock Road, before he could recover this disaster.
The order to me was to break the line and push on to the right of the road towards Fredericksburg.
Jenkins’s brigade was put in motion by a flank on the road; my division in the woods on the
right. I rode with General Jenkins to the head of his command and arranged with him
the details of our combined attack.” So Longstreet wants not just his flank attack, he wants
to keep up the pressure on the front as well, to keep Hancock from trying to get organized,
while the flank attack is being organized itself. What’s going to happen next? The 12th
Virginia of Mahone’s brigade, as the brigade was nearing the Plank Road, encountered a
fire in the woods and they had to go around it. They found themselves about fifty yards
north of the road, separated from the rest of the brigade, so the officers organized
the 12th Virginia, turned around, and started to head back to the south side of the road.
Jenkins’s brigade, as we mentioned, is in the middle of the road and column and they’re
described as being in new uniforms so dark or grey as to be almost black. Jenkins was
riding with General Longstreet and he said, “I am happy. I have felt despair for the cause
for some months but am relieved and feel assured that we will put the enemy back across the
Rapidan before night.” And turning to his brigade, Jenkins said, “Why do you not cheer
men?” And they answered him with a hearty round. Andrew Dunn, one of Longstreet’s aide-de-camps
suggested the general was too exposed at the head of the column. Longstreet responded,
“That is our business.” Then suddenly, shots are going to ring out. Some men cried out,
“Show your colors!” and the 12th Virginia color bearer walked onto the road to show
his flag. Kershaw reported that, “Two or three shots were fired on the left of the road and
some stragglers came running in from that direction. A melee or volley was pouring into
the head of our column from the woods on our right occupied by Mahone’s brigade.” Kershaw
said, “The leading files of Jenkins’s brigade on this occasion faced the firing and were
about to return it, but when I dashed my horse into the ranks crying, ‘They are friends!’
they instantaneously realized the position of things and fell on their faces where they
stood. This fatal casualty arrested the projected movement.” In Longstreet’s party, Captain
Alfred E. Doby, Kershaw’s aide-de-camp, and his orderly Marcus Barnum, are going to be
killed. Also Private John F. Menga of the 12th Virginia will be killed in the same volley.
The worst casualty is going to occur to General Longstreet himself. First of all, Micah Jenkins
himself was hit in the head and mortally wounded. General Longstreet is going to be hit from
behind, the bullet exiting the throat. Longstreet’s servant said that, “He, Longstreet, was a
heavy man with a firm seat in the saddle,” but he was actually lifted straight up and
came down hard. Longstreet was about 6’2″ and weighed close to 200 pounds. Longstreet
himself wrote that he felt, “a severe shock for the minie ball passing through my throat
and right shoulder. The blow lifted me from the saddle and my right arm dropped to my
side, but I settled back to my seat and started to ride on, when in a minute, the flow of
blood admonished me that my work for the day was done.” A lot of historians and some contemporary
people thought that the bullet hit Longstreet in the throat and came out his back. That
probably could only happen if either somebody shot the general from a tree or if the general
was somehow leaning over the saddle like this, and that’s not happening. All the reports
were that the general was sitting upright in the saddle when he took the hit. The best
scenario, if you will, is that he’s hit in the back with the bullet coming out of his
throat. General Charles Field reported that, “I was at Longstreet’s side in a moment an
in answer to my anxious inquiry as to his condition, he replied that he would be looked
after by others and directed me to take command of the troops and push ahead.” Colonel Walter
Fairfax, one of Longstreet’s staff officers reported, “On reaching the line of troops,
you were taken off the horse and propped against a tree. You blew the bloody foam from your
mouth and said, ‘Tell General Field to take command and move forward with the whole force
and gain the Brock Road.'” Longstreet’s wounding occurred roughly half a mile from the Brock
Road and almost one mile from the Widow Tapp field. Moxley Sorrell is going to be sent
to report to General Lee and Sorrell said, “Here is the report what had been accomplished
and urged him, Lee, to continue the movement he, Longstreet, was engaged in, the troops
being already successful for truly far along, and Grant, Longstreet firmly believed, be
driven back across the Rapidan.” Dr. John Synge Dorsey Cullen, the medical director
of the First Corps was on the scene. He checked the flow of blood and also noted the bloody
froth at the general’s mouth and throat. This is sort of a modern diagram of the general’s
wound. To put it in medical terms, the bullet entered the right side of the general’s back
just along the medial border of the scapula. It traveled in an anterior superior direction
and angled medially, transecting the right brachial plexus and the right recurrent longtudinal
nerve. It then passed through the right lobe of the thyroid gland and the right anterior
lateral wall of the trachea, exiting almost at the midline. In other words, the bullet
hit the general right below the scapula, traveled up and to the left, cut the nerve going to
his right shoulder, and then exited out through his throat. And that explains why the general
never really recovered the use of his right arm and why after this, even though before
this he had a booming voice that could be heard over the whole battlefield, after this,
he could never speak above a whisper. Longstreet himself is going to place a hat over his face.
This is noon of May 6th and the sun is shining down on him so they put the hat on to cover
his face. Well the troops saw the general going back with the hat on his head and they
immediately thought he was dead. They’re telling us he’s alive, but he’s actually dead. Longstreet
heard these comments and he took his left hand, lifted his hat off his face, and then
reported that, “The bursting of voices and the flying of hats in the air eased my pain
somewhat.” An artillery officer observed all that was
going on here, and these are all the members of Longstreet’s staff, and he reported that,
“I never on any occasion during the four years of the war saw a group of officers and gentlemen
more deeply distressed. They were literally bowed down with grief. It was not alone the
general they admired that had been shot down, it was rather the man they loved.” This same
officer saw Longstreet in the ambulance when they placed him in there, and he said Longstreet
took his left hand and lifted up the blanket to look at the saturated shirt he was wearing
and after seeing it, Longstreet but the blanket back down again. This officer said, “He is
not dead and he is calm and entirely master of the situation. He is both greater and more
attractive than I have heretofore thought of.” Lee is going to arrive on the battlefield
now with Richard Anderson. Since Anderson outranks Charles Field, Lee, by military protocol,
would place Anderson in charge of the First Corps. Even though Lee had been encouraged
by Longstreet to continue the attack the troops, to Lee’s mind, are so disorganized at this
point, he doesn’t want to press the attack. So he’s going to take the time to reorganize
the troops. By the time they get things moving forward, it’s about four o’clock in the afternoon.
Jenkins’s men, along with one other, are going to capture part of the defenses along the
Brock road before Union reserves come up and force him back again. By the end of the second
day there is still somewhat of a stalemate in the Wilderness. Now Longstreet was convinced
he could force Grant back across the Rapidan; some ardent historians dispute that. They
make the argument that Lee had used the woods to counter Grant’s strength in the Wilderness.
Grant could now use those woods to mask whatever he was doing. To show you the importance of
the Brock Road, by the end of the day, Hancock’s troops controlled the intersection; that’s
going to give Grant one major option. Lee probably thought if he hadn’t defeated in
the Wilderness, Grant’s going to do what what every other Union general would do – that’s
fall back across the Rapidan. Well Grant’s not exactly a guy to fall back
and start over again. With the Brock Road in his hands, Grant now can move the Army
of the Potomac south around Lee’s flank and head towards a place called Spotsylvania Court
House. If Longstreet’s men had controlled the Brock Road intersection, Grant might not
have had that option. Some of the First Corps troops would fall back to the Widow Tapp field
and start to erect entrenchments just in case of another Union attack the next day. Here
are some of the stops on the driving tour of the places we’ve been talking about. Stop
five is the Chewning Farm where Hill is trying to set up his line, stop six is the Widow
Tapp field, and stop seven is the Longstreet wounding marker. There’s actually a little
pull-off there and they have some wayside exhibits that talk about Longstreet’s wounding.
Dr. Lafayette Guild, the medical director for the Army of Northern Virginia, and other
doctors, examined Longstreet’s wound and they determined that it was not necessarily fatal.
Alexander Dunn heard this report and wrote back to General Lee, “I assure you general,
nothing can be announced to General Longstreet’s staff that could give them more pleasure,
and we hope that in a short time, he will be on duty again. It will afford our dear
general great pleasure to know that what he inaugurated has been successful, that is,
the entire repulse of the hated enemy.” And, of course, as we learned, Lee is not going
to do that; he can’t force Grant out of the Wilderness. Longstreet is first taken to Meadow
Farm, the home of Major Erasmus Taylor, his chief quartermaster. He is then transferred
to Taliaferro Hospital in Lynchburg, Virginia. On May 18th, Mrs. Susan Blackford, the wife
of Longstreet’s provost marshal, is going to see Longstreet in the hospital. She is
going to write, “He is very feeble and nervous and suffers much from his wound. He sheds
tears on the slightest provocation and apologizes for it. He says he does not see why a bullet
going through a man’s shoulder should make a baby of him.” Longstreet is later transferred
to the home of Mrs. Caroline Garland, his cousin-in-law by marriage and the mother of
General Samuel Garland, who had been killed at South Mountain in September of 1862. Longstreet
was moved to Campbell County Court House in Rustburg, Virginia where he stays with Colonel
John D. Alexander until they’re chased down with word of Union cavalry coming to capture
them. Longstreet later moves down to Georgia and first stays with Josiah Sibley and his
second wife Emma Eve Longstreet. Emma Longstreet was the daughter of Gilbert Longstreet, a
brother of the general’s father. So Emma is the general’s first cousin. He later moves
to Union Point, Georgia to stay with the Hart’s and Daniels’ families who were friends of
his. Also staying with him this whole time is going to be his wife, Mrs. Longstreet,
and Captain T.J. Gorey from Texas, who Longstreet had been with on his first trip when he was
coming back to join the army in 1861. Longstreet is going to write, around the 1st of October,
“I was strong enough to ride horseback, and after a little practice, and having become
very weary of idle hours, took leave of wife and children and traveled back to Richmond
to find our great commander and his noble followers.” On October 7th, Longstreet would
write to Walter Taylor, “I have not reported formally for duty because I doubted the propriety
of being assigned in my crippled condition to a position now filled by officers of vigorous
health. If I can be of service in any position, I prefer to go to duty.” And he actually asks
for assignment to the Trans-Mississippi. “The doctors give me little reason to hope to recover
the use of my arm even within a year hence my desire to be assigned for duty or to have
an extended leave of absence.” General Lee is having none of that. Ten days later, on
October 17th, Longstreet is ordered to resume command of the First Corps, and he’ll return
to Lee two days later on October 19th, 1864. Lee is going to take personal responsibility
for the defenses around Petersburg, Virginia. Longstreet is going to be commanding virtually
everything else, from the James River, up to and around the defenses of Richmond, and
he’ll hold that position until April 2nd, 1865 when he’s ordered to finally rejoin Lee
at Petersburg for the retreat that would end at Appomattox. To repeat a few things, General
Hancock, as we said, in the postwar years, had to admit to Longstreet that, “you rolled
my line up like a wet blanket” and Moxley Sorrell had been directed by Longstreet to
report to Lee what’s going on and to urge Lee to press the advantage and drive Grant
out of the Wilderness. Longstreet firmly believed that if Lee had pushed the attack, that’s
exactly what would have happened. Grant would have been pushed out of the Wilderness and
back across the Rapidan. Some modern historians debate that, dispute that, but it is one of
those things that brings up an interesting “what if” question at the Battle of the Wilderness.
And that is what if Longstreet’s plan had succeeded. If Lee had continued the attack,
as Longstreet planned, and pushed Grant out of the Wilderness. What effect would that
have had on the Overland Campaign of 1864? And more importantly, what effect would it
have had on Grant’s military career which might have been cut short in such an event?
I’m going to leave the last word here, though, to Colonel Walter Taylor, Lee’s adjutant,
and he wrote in the postwar years, “I have always thought that had General Longstreet
not been wounded, he would have rolled back that wing of General Grant’s army in such
manner as would have forced the Federals to recross the Rapidan. A strange fatality attended
us. Jackson killed in the zenith of his successful career; Longstreet wounded in the act of striking
a blow which would have rivaled Jackson at Chancellorsville and its results, and each
case the fire was from our own men. A blunder, call it so. The old deacon would say that
God willed it thus.” I want to thank you, folks, for joining me this afternoon for the
program. Does anybody have any questions at this point about anything I’ve talked about?
[Audience member] How long did Longstreet live? [Karlton Smith] How long did Longstreet
live? He died in 1904, just two days short of his 84th birthday. He never recovered the
use of his right arm, and he never spoke above a whisper. What apparently happened is he
came down with a case of pneumonia and all the coughing reopened the old wound and that’s
what lead to his death. He had lost a lot of weight because he had also been treated
for cancer of the eye. Among other things, he had rheumatism, he was deaf by that time,
he had a speaking trumpet, but he was still, officially, a U.S. Railroad Commissioner.
And among other things, in the 1890s, he had taken trips out to San Francisco to report
on the conditions of the railroads out there, so still fairly active, almost up to the end.
Yes ma’am? [Audience member] You know, one thing that you hear about wounded personnel
during the war that so many of them died not from their actual injuries but from infections
and so forth. Did he have some type of, or were his doctors more progressive, or modern
medical care than any other doctors? [Karlton Smith] Well, in one sense, Longstreet is going
to get what’s today called V.I.P. treatment. I mean he not only has his own medical officer,
chief medical officer with him, he’s got the chief medical officer of the entire Army of
Northern Virginia, and three or four other doctors, looking after him. So he is going
to get kind of V.I.P. treatment, in a way, because he is General Longstreet. This is
one guy Lee cannot afford to lose, especially Longstreet. If he loses Longstreet, he’s got
Richard Ewell, A.P. Hill, and maybe Richard Anderson commanding his army corps. A lot
of people have wondered if Longstreet bungled here at Gettysburg, why didn’t Lee just get
rid of him? If there was an officer Lee didn’t like, or Lee didn’t think was up to standards,
he got rid of him. After Gettysburg, Lee’s got two great opportunities to get rid of
Longstreet; he could very easily have told the administration, “I need Longstreet’s troops,
but keep Longstreet himself in Tennessee.” And here, after he’s been wounded, Lee can’t
wait for Longstreet to get back. Longstreet soon requests, on October 7th for either transfer
or an extended leave, and ten days later, pretty fast for any war department, he’s got
orders to report back to Lee, and that has to be coming from Lee himself. This is the
one man, at this point, that Lee depends on the most. Yes? [Audience member] Didn’t Longstreet’s
second wife lived until 1962? When were they married? [Karlton Smith] They got married
in, I want to say, 1896 or 1898. [Audience member] He was quite an old man then. [Karlton
Smith] Yeah, she was the assistant state librarian for the state of Georgia when they met and
that was an unusual position for a woman to have in Georgia, so she was quite progressive
in the 1890s. Longstreet’s excuse was that an old man gets lonely sometimes, so that’s
why they got married. Yes? [Audience member] When did his first wife die? [Karlton Smith]
His first wife died in the early 1880s and we don’t know exactly why because this is
one of the cases where, I think, shortly after that, Longstreet’s house burned down and he
lost almost all of his personal correspondences, lost his Civil War uniform, his Mexican War
sword that he wore in the Civil War, all of that was lost, and all his personal papers
were lost as well. Yes? [Audience member] Did he have children? [Karlton Smith] He and
his first wife, prior to the Civil War, had six children, two died before the Civil War,
and within the period of one week between February and March of 1862, they lost three
more. So between those six children, only one survived, and then afterwards, Mrs. Longstreet
had six more. So altogether, they had twelve children, but lost five of them. There are
no direct descendants of General Longstreet, though, it’s through branch families instead,
but I can tell you that two of his sons served in the Spanish-American War in the army and
one is buried in Arlington Cemetery because of it; they followed in their father’s footsteps.
Longstreet is one of those guys who viewed the Spanish-American War as the major reconciliation
point between North and South. His sons were fighting in the war, the nephews of General
Pickett were fighting in the war, Lee’s nephew, Fitzhugh Lee, was the American consular in
Havana when the Maine was blown up, and General Joseph Wheeler, the famous Confederate cavalry
commander, is an American brigadier general, U.S. Army brigadier general in Cuba, he was
actually Teddy Roosevelt’s commander. There is a story that Longstreet was able to make
it up to the West Point centennial in 1902 and there’s a story that he was sitting on
the porch with at least one or two other officers and they see Joe Wheeler walking down the
path to the hotel. Well Wheeler is wearing his dress uniform from the Spanish-American
War which is blue, and as he started getting closer, Longstreet tells Wheeler, “I hope
I die before you do because I want to be at the gates of Hell when Jubal Early sees you
wearing a Yankee uniform.” I’ve heard somebody else said that to Wheeler but it’s usually
attributed to Longstreet. If you want a book that covers the general’s whole life, it’s
simply “James Longstreet” and that’s by Donald Bridgman Sanger, and, I forget his first name,
but a guy named Hay. Now that book is probably out of print. It doesn’t have a lot of footnotes
to it, but that covers Longstreet’s whole life. Sanger was a former lieutenant colonel,
he was able to write the first half of the book which covers Longstreet’s life up through
the Civil War and then Thomas Hay took over writing the second half of Longstreet’s life.
Longstreet lived to be the age of 84. He was 42 here at Gettysburg, so he’s got half his
life to lead after the war. He gets involved in Louisiana politics, Georgia politics, he’s
a U.S. Marshal for Georgia after the war, he serves briefly as U.S. Ambassador to Turkey,
and U.S. Railroad Commissioner. He actually took over for Wade Hampton. That commissioner
appointment was a political appointment so when the Republicans came in, they threw Wade
Hampton out and appointed Longstreet, and it had a pretty nice salary too. Plus he wrote
his memoirs, in 1898 it came out. It’s actually been sort of, since I started working here
at the park, that there’s been a concerted effort to rehabilitate Longstreet’s reputation.
Some of the older historians like Glenn Tucker were trying to do it back in the ’60s, but
it’s really been since the early ’90s that it’s hit full stride. Anything else? Alright,
once again, I want to thank everyone for joining us today and I hope you have a good afternoon.

14 thoughts on “Longstreet to the Rescue: The Battle of the Wilderness and the Wounding of James Longstreet

  1. None of us are worthy of judging these fine men.  Longstreet was both loved and respected by Robt E Lee, and that should be good enough for the rest of us.  What I am left with is the incredible bravery and courage that was commonplace in the men of those times.

  2. omg! Longstreets description of his unjury makes me impressed that soldiers are spiritual beings before the flesh and blood they command

  3. Why can't the confederates shoot their bad Generals? They can't seem to help themselves when they get a free shot on Jackson and Longstreet both right after they save the army from complete destruction.

  4. Even if Longstreet succeeded, the South lost Shiloh. By that point, Grant could have retreated and let George Thomas and Sherman clean up house. I think it was George Thomas who absolutely crushed an army at least as large as the army of Northern VA with proven commanders. It was the only time Nathan Bedford Forrest lost and he lost an entire army. He also held the entire confederate army at Chikamauga to a draw (probably would have lost day 2 though). The East Coast version of battle would have cost Lee so dearly fighting in the West and deep South where Napoleanic tactics were on the way out as early as Shiloh. Vicksburg and Verdunne probably looked pretty similar in terms of trench networks and then there is the battle of Franklin. It would have been interesting to see what the West would have been if Thomas couldn't flank Southern armies out of existence. That and Western commanders were being given repeating rifles that allowed single regiments to stop entire brigades (perhaps the real secret behind the Thomas U-curve).

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