Years after Civil War, (a) Longstreet steps onto York County soil
During a visit to the area last week, David Whelchel stopped at the monument to his great-grandfather Lt. Gen. James Longstreet at the battlefield in Gettysburg. Whelchel is married to a York County native. Background links: Local Civil War Roundtable gets new digs, Noted writer to blog on local Civil War scene and Unsung farmhouse loud symbol of a shaping moment for York.
Jubal A. Early commanded the 6,000-plus Confederates who overran the York area and reached the banks of the Susquehanna River in Wrightsville in late June 1863.
He was part of Richard Ewell’s corps.
James Longstreet was another of Robert E. Lee’s corps commanders (A.P. Hill was the third.)
Longstreet’s men never made it farther east than Cemetery Ridge during Pickett’s charge, also known as Longstreet’s assault, during the Battle of Gettysburg.
Had Longstreet’s men broken through and won the battle, they might have kept going east to York County on their way to capture Harrisburg, the prized Northern state capital… .
David Whelchel believes scholarship has cleared his great grandfather for the Confederate loss at Gettysburg.
Part of their objectives that summer of 1863 was to take Harrisburg and use that as a chip to negotiate an end to the war.
But one of Longstreet’s men – his great-grandson – did what his kinsman failed to do. He reached York County years after the last man fell on Cemetery Ridge.
Richard Whelchel married the former Katherine Wiseman, who grew up in York County.
One of the generals that tarnished James Longstreet’s post-war reputation was John B. Gordon, Whelchel said.
Gordon was a brigade commander during the rebel occupation of York and was in charge of the troops that fired on Wrightsville. His men lost the foot race to the coveted covered bridge at Wrightsville, which Union troops then torched to keep Gordon on the west bank of the river.
But scholarship has proven that Gordon and others conspired to pin the loss at Gettysburg on Longstreet, Whelchel said.
Whelchel came back to York County recently for a memorial service, and the York Daily Record/Sunday News (6/1/08) caught up with him:
David Whelchel reached toward the statue and clutched the handle of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s sword.
“You can sense his thoughts,” he said.
He was talking to eight people who happened to be visiting the Gettysburg battlefield and who had been tipped off by Whelchel’s wife that he is Longstreet’s great-grandson. They asked question after question: How hot was it during the battle? How long did it take the army to march? Was there a draft?
To each query, Whelchel, 71, responded with more than an answer.
He told stories.
He pointed toward the battlefield, slouched his shoulders when talking of the summer heat and smiled a bit when talking of Longstreet.
Longstreet received a memorial there 10 years ago. Before that, he was the only general without one, Whelchel said.
Longstreet had long been blamed for the Confederate Army’s loss at Gettysburg. Some say he didn’t carry out Gen. Robert E. Lee’s orders, contributing to the defeat that was a turning point in the Civil War.
It was Whelchel’s third trip to visit the monument; a pilgrimage, he calls it. Last week, he was in the York area with his wife, Katherine Whelchel, who grew up in the county.
He went to Gettysburg as a child with his father, who was in the Navy, on road trips from their home in Washington, D.C. He went often with his wife in the early years of their marriage, when they lived in Lancaster.
And he was there July 2, 1998, when the statue of Longstreet was unveiled during an emotional ceremony. They returned the next day to find the statue covered in bunches of flowers. The bronze statue depicts the general riding his horse. The statue stands on the ground, rather than on a slab of rock, so it’s possible to lean in and touch Longstreet, or to look into the general’s frowning face.
All his life, Whelchel said, the family has told stories about Longstreet. He was always keenly aware, he said, of the “black cloud” that hung above the head of his great-grandfather’s legacy.
But his father would say:
“They don’t understand.”
Whelchel said he knew it would take more than a family sticking up for Longstreet.
In recent years, scholars have unearthed letters and documents that seem to restore Longstreet’s reputation with those who blamed him for the loss at Gettysburg.
“The family isn’t going to be the group that vindicates him,” Whelchel said.
Before the battle, Longstreet asked to take his men another route. Lee said no, and Longstreet did not hide his displeasure and stalled some of his men.
On July 3, 1863, the third and final day of the battle, the Union Army repelled the Confederate assault.
More than 100 years after the battle, scholars uncovered letters that show some had plotted to make Longstreet – an 1842 West Point graduate whom Lee once called his “Old War Horse” – the scapegoat for the loss, Whelchel said.
The stories Whelchel tells of his great-grandfather and the Civil War come from “a lifetime of research,” he said. He’s read about a dozen books on Longstreet and another dozen on the Civil War. He quotes often from the 1993 movie “Gettysburg.”
After a couple of hours, the crowd around the statue thinned.
The last person there with Whelchel, a man who said it was his first time north of the Mason-Dixon line, slipped Whelchel’s business card into a notebook.
It was about 4 p.m., and it was hot. The yellow flowers tucked in Longstreet’s hand had wilted.
Whelchel and his wife went to the car to begin a journey to a place Longstreet had been 166 years earlier.
Whelchel’s nephew was graduating from West Point.
Name: David Whelchel
Residence: Coon Rapids, Minn.
York County connection: Married to Katherine (Wiseman) Whelchel, formerly of York County.
Gettysburg connection: David Whelchel is the great-grandson of Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet.