Is There a Difference Between Longstreet’s July 2 and Jackson’s May 2?

Still making my way through Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. Here is how Guelzo sums up Confederate assaults on July 2 led by James Longstreet and Jubal Early.

So much of the fighting ended in agonizingly near misses for the Army of Northern Virginia–the within-an-inch failure to capture Little Round Top…the last-minute blunting of Barksdale and Wilcox by George Willard’s “Cowards” and the charge of the 1st Minnesota…Ambrose Wright’s bitter moment of abandonment, just shy of Cemetery Ridge..Harry Hays’ Tigers having victory (not to mention captured Federal artillery) snatched from their hands by Samuel Carroll’s helter-skelter counterattack by the Evergreen Cemetery gatehouse and left without support by Rodes’ intertia…and finally the failure to overrun just one Union brigade on Culp’s Hill–that it has become almost a matter of habit to speak of Longstreet’s attack or Early’s assault on east Cemetery Hill purely in the mordant tones of failure. This is not really true. In the first place, although James Longstreet’s corps failed to turn Dan Sickles’ collapse into a complete rout, this was no more of a failure than Stonewall Jackson’s famous flank attack at Chancellorsville on May 2nd. Jackson, like Longstreet, achieved a great initial success; but Jackson’s attack also like Longstreet’s, fell far short of dislodging the entire Federal army (that work had to be completed by Lee on May 3rd).  Jackson, like Longstreet, had begun his attack so late that darkness forced him to halt substantially short of their goal. Yet no one has ever suggested that Jackson’s descent on the Union right flank at Chancellorsville was a failure–or at least not in the way Longstreet’s descent on the Union left at Gettysburg would be described. (p. 351)

First, do you agree with Guelzo’s comparison of Longstreet’s assault with that of Jackson’s at Chancellorsville?  To the extent that you do agree, does this make it more difficult to talk in counterfactual terms about what Jackson would have done had he been at Gettysburg? In other words, if Longstreet did everything that Jackson accomplished at Chancellorsville than why do we need to imagine his presence at Gettysburg?

6 comments… add one

  • Steve Light May 26, 2013

    Hi Kevin,

    An interesting comparison. I’ve always been a defender of Longstreet’s performance at Gettysburg. I think his success on July 2nd can be measured in the number of troops George Meade had to throw in his way to stop his attack. While his divisions did not fully succeed, they opened many opportunities for A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell to carry critical positions on the evening of July 2nd.

    I think there are some similarities between the two attacks, but the side-by-side comparisons fall apart pretty quickly. First – Jackson’s march was much longer. Second, the terrain was much different, and at Chancellorsville it enabled Jackson to achieve complete surprise and to get fully onto the federal flank and drive it in quickly. Longstreet’s assault only narrowly wrapped around Sickles’ flank, and he had a much harder, and bloodier time driving in the 3rd Corps.

    I do think it valid to compare the ways that these two attacks have been remembered – one venerated as an act of genius, the other picked apart for its mistakes and missed opportunities. It ties into postwar politics and the Lost Cause. But if you are looking for something to compare with Jackson’s assault at Chancellorsville, there are some eerie similarities with Longstreet’s May 6th assault in the Battle of the Wilderness.

    I’ve never had much time for Jackson counterfactuals myself, but I suppose those giving credit to Longstreet’s assault would still point to the need for Jackson’s presence on the other flank, in place of Richard Ewell.

  • M.D. Blough May 26, 2013

    There’s also the point that Jackson was on home ground, getting help from people with local experience and had cavalry scouting for him plus an extraordinary difference in the terrain from Gettysburg and he still took many hours. I think where Longstreet compares very favorably is his flank attack at the Wilderness which was put together in an extremely short period of time and was devastating in its impact. However, it’s impossible to know what would have happened if Longstreet had not been wounded before he could direct the follow up to the attack. That was an area of land with an aura of Greek tragedy for the Confederates, twice taunting them with a spectacular success only to be followed up by an essential officer being taken out by “friendly” fire only a few miles and almost 1 year to the day apart from each other. Unlike Jackson, Longstreet didn’t die but he was out of commission for the remainder of the Overland Campaign and could not return until well into the Siege of Petersburg. He never fully recovered from his wounds.

  • Dudley Bokoski May 27, 2013

    I would be reluctant to accept the premise that the two attacks ended in roughly equivalent situations. Leaving the personalities involved aside for a moment, Jackson’s attack did something which Longstreet’s did not, that is it changed the tactical situation. Hooker’s plans were blunted, at least temporarily. Longstreet’s attack didn’t produce any change in advantage or position in recompense for the loss of troops and ammunition.

    As to Jackson and Longstreet specifically, Jackson’s attack occurred when it did because of the time required to move around the Union flank. Longstreet’s attack lost critical time because he was very deliberate in his movement into position. Given the 5th Corp arrived in position to impede Longstreet’s attack only as the attack was being made, the opportunity lost by not attacking earlier becomes evident.

    I think most of the “if only Jackson were at Gettysburg” discussions are too rooted in specific situations and miss a bigger point. Lee’s style of management worked well with Jackson and not so well specifically with Longstreet and Ewell. This was fully on display at Gettysburg.

    • chrisM May 27, 2013

      Note that Jackson also had days where he was very dilatory in carrying out orders- see the Seven Days Campaign where he repeatedly failed to get the ordered attack underway on time.

  • W. Hettle May 27, 2013

    When comparing great generals, we do need to watch out for great man theories of history, which Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson popularized by the middle of the nineteenth century. Tolstoy skewered this theory in “War and Peace,” which was written in 1864. For him, the wonder was not Napoleon’s genius or his hubris, but rather that thousands of men, for their own reasons, marched into Russia.

    The most instance of overrating the influence of a single general was the media enthusiasm for David Petraeus. That did not work out well.

  • M.D. Blough May 27, 2013

    If Longstreet had moved much earlier, he would have attacked before Sickles moved the Third Corps and could well have faced a situation similar to what he did to Pope at Second Manassas. “As to Jackson and Longstreet specifically, Jackson’s attack occurred when it did because of the time required to move around the Union flank. Longstreet’s attack lost critical time because he was very deliberate in his movement into position. ” That’s classic anti-Longstreet. If Jackson did it, it was necessary. If Longstreet did something similar, it was wrong. Try reading how Jackson sent Stephen Dill Lee to talk Lee out of another attack on September 18 at Antietam, without informing S.D. Lee that Jackson had already failed at that task, and compare it to Longstreet’s much attacked interactions with Porter Alexander on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg.

    However, I think what we’re leaving out here is what George Pickett is alleged to have said, when asked why the Confederates lost the Battle of Gettysburg, “I think the Yankees had something to do with it.” (It probably is too good to be true, particularly coming from Pickett who wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.) Confederates, after Chancellorsville, thought they’d be facing a demoralized, disintegrating AOP because of Hooker’s retreat, not knowing that it was bitterly opposed by most of his commanders and the troops. To some extent, it’s sort of like the Seven Days, oft portrayed as a brilliant Lee victory. Look at each battle one by one and you begin to wonder why, particularly Malvern Hill. However, McClellan “changed bases” and Lee, by the standards of the time, was the winner. At Gettysburg, Lee faced an enemy with home field advantage.

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