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Re-examining General Longstreet at Gettyburg

Lt. General James Longstreet commanded the First Corps of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia for much of the Civil War, at times including independent command and special assignments. His commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, referred to Longstreet as “my old war horse.” Longstreet, a South Carolina native, was among the highest-ranking non-Virginians in Lee’s vaunted army. He had a reputation as a hard-hitting fighter, one who brought out the best in his men.

Yet, it is his performance at Gettysburg that has drawn the most attention to the general over the years. He is oft depicted in the media as slow and stubborn, launching Pickett’s Charge reluctantly on July 3 after delaying the planned grand assault on July 2 for hours by a lengthy countermarch.

In recent years, Longstreet has enjoyed somewhat of a revival in modern Civil War circles. Artist Gary Casteel sculpted an equestrian statue of Longstreet that stands in Pitzer’s Woods off of West Confederate Avenue, decades after another planned statue failed to gain enough support to become reality. Several authors have issued fresh biographies of the general in recent years, adding the previously lean historiography.

Among those modern scholars is Cory M. Pfarr. The Marylander’s most recent book is titled Righting the Longstreet Record at Gettysburg: Six Matters of Controversy and Confusion (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2023). The author’s passion for the subject and the depth of his research is evident throughout this new 204-page work.

Pfarr has sectioned his book into six chapters, each one an independent essay yet linked with the common theme that many historians have unjustly criticized Longstreet without examining all of the available evidence. As the author states, his intention was to produce “a carefully sifted story of the records,” one that in the end exonerates Longstreet to a large degree. Confederate intelligence failures, unexpectedly strong Union performances among the leadership and rank and file, miscommunications, etc. plagued Lee’s army at Gettysburg. Singling out Longstreet as a prime culprit for the Confederate defeat in Pennsylvania has been a popular thread in many secondary books on the battle of Gettysburg. Pfarr looks at available primary resources, including battle accounts from Longstreet’s peers, to dispel some of the longstanding criticisms of Longstreet.

Righting the Longstreet Record at Gettysburg is lavishly illustrated with maps from cartographer Hal Jespersen (no stranger to Civil War readers), period photos, and modern images. The graphics nicely augment and support the prose, helping the reader to better understand what Longstreet and his men actually accomplished at Gettysburg.

Among the topics that Pfarr tackles are the arguments for and against Longstreet’s performance on July 2, 1863, most notably the controversial countermarch that has drawn so much attention from writers for 160 years. He dives deeply into the origins of the criticisms of the general, including the post-war dialogue in the press and in private correspondence. His concluding chapter looks at Longstreet’s widow, Helen, and her early 20th-century efforts to rectify the image of her husband and his relationship with Robert E. Lee.

All in all, this book is sure to evoke new interest in the historical record of James Longstreet at Gettysburg and how the popular misconceptions and controversies came into the stream of consciousness over the past century in particular. Cory Pfarr has raised the bar in Longstreet research (again, joining his previous fine book, Longstreet at Gettysburg.

Pick up a copy from your favorite book dealer and judge for yourself if the longstanding traditions about Longstreet are, as the author puts it, a “vestige of the postwar Lost Cause, anti-Longstreet group’s agenda that has managed to survive into the present day.”

Rating: Five stars.