General James Longstreet

by Jeffry D. Wert.
Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $27.00.
The man whom Robert E. Lee once addressed as “my old war-horse” presents a biographer with a problem. Longstreet lost two houses to fire, and with them all the private papers and letters that might have enabled Mr. Wert to get beyond his subject’s professional life. The military facts are there, down to the name of the railroad on which Longstreet rode from one unimportant spot to the next. (Mr. Wert is conscientious.) Like so many of the West Pointers who later commanded Federals or Confederates, Longstreet learned his trade in the Mexican War, where he proved himself a notably good officer and had the opportunity to observe the effectiveness of Winfield Scott’s tactics. General Scott deplored frontal assaults and was adroit with flanking movements, points that Longstreet never forgot. Lee’s determination to make a frontal assault at Gettysburg provoked opposition from Longstreet and led to later accusations that Longstreet was responsible for the Confederate defeat there. There is little reason to credit that charge, but Mr. Wert has turned up some other facts that suggest that Longstreet, though a fine battle commander, was less than scrupulous off the field. He received pay as a Confederate officer before resigning his U.S. commission, engaged in what amounted to a conspiracy while serving under Braxton Bragg in Tennessee, and maneuvered shamelessly after the war for preferment from the victorious Federals. That last move can be considered no worse than practical common sense, but men who were not old friends of Ulysses Grant were understandably annoyed. Military records are necessarily cold, humorless, and tailored to circumstance, and because these are all Mr. Wert had to work with, readers looking for a human character may find Longstreet no more than an efficient fighting machine. Civil War enthusiasts will certainly find the book of interest.