I‘m a novice when it comes to Civil War history. I get lost in the details of the major military campaigns of the war, much less the smaller skirmishes, and even the geography at times. My interest in the Confederacy relates to my ancestry and my interest in Confederate currency. I had three great grandfathers and three great uncles who served in the war. During a recent meeting of our Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp, Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Harold Knudsen of the US Army was our guest speaker. LTC Knudsen is the author of the book, “General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Modern General.” I had no idea of who General Longstreet was and, at the time, really didn’t care all that much. After all, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were my heroes. However, Knudsen quickly captured my attention as it became apparent that the legacy of James Longstreet had been swept under the rug by the philosophy of political correctness. I was so enthralled by Knudsen’s lecture; I was the first person at his book table to purchase a hardbound copy of his book.
LTC Knudsen’s book is small and is less than one hundred pages. It is tiny in comparison to the monolithic volumes that exist on Lee and Jackson and other figures. I have in times past started to read some of those exhaustive works on the Civil War and its heroes, but have rarely completed any. It seems I would get bogged down in what would seem to be the endless battles and forever lost in the explanations of force movements, placement of batteries, flanking maneuvers and all the minutiae of military speak. Even though Knudsen is militaryesque in his writing, he is succinct and keeps the reader’s attention. At one point I asked myself, where are the maps? However, I soon realized his descriptions do not require maps. Actually, I believe maps would have been a distraction.
Knudsen makes the case that General Longstreet has not only been misjudged by history, but actually was one of the most successful generals of the war. He subtitles his book “The Confederacy’s Most Modern General” and indeed it appeares Longstreet was. Longstreet broke with the Napoleonic practices of warfare and introduced innovations that had not been seen in nineteenth century warfare. Not until recently has Longstreet’s reputation begun a slow re-examination. In fact, it wasn’t until 1998 that the first monument to honor him was erected at Gettysburg.
James Longstreet was a South Carolina-born West Point graduate who was raised on a Georgia plantation. He received his first combat experience at age twenty four as the US began its war with Mexico. At age forty, he accepted a commission as a Confederate colonel with the Army of Northern Virginia at the start of the Civil War in 1861. Biographers of the post war era stated Longstreet was smart and ambitious but also a “know it all.” They turned against him for rejecting the ideology of the “Lost Cause.” Indeed, Longstreet was not a politically correct person, and according to the author, considered political correctness a form of dishonesty. Longstreet wasn’t interested in political debate and didn’t engage on the causes of the war, but instead excelled in the art of war. His view was simple: once war was decided to be the course of action; his goal was to win it.
It was at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862 that Longstreet carried out an effective and deadly approach to stopping a Union frontal assault. He merged firearm advancements with field modifications that Knudsen claims were fifty years ahead of its time. Longstreet combined discipline, low aiming, and clear lanes of fire, with one to two rifle loaders for each shooter. This produced an increased rate of fire equivalent to a machine gun in World War I.
Knudsen offers a chapter on the “defensive offense” and a chapter on the vindication of Longstreet’s strategic vision. It was the Battle of Chickamauga that gave Longstreet the opportunity to attack and set conditions for decisive victories. It was here that Knudsen believes Longstreet introduced a tactic similar to what the Germans used in their tank warfare in World War II, i.e., the Blitzkrieg theory. Knudsen leaves the reader with the notion that if Longstreet had been in charge of the forces at the Battle of Chickamauga instead of General Braxton Bragg, the Union Army would have been soundly defeated.
Knudsen does not discuss Longstreet’s post military career, other than mentioning his involvement with the passage of military reconstruction bills in Congress. However, that only fueled my curiosity in wanting to do more research on the general. My research uncovered that Longstreet enjoyed a career working for the U.S. Government and he was a convert to the Republican Party. Combining this with his support for reconstruction and some critical comments he wrote about General Robert E. Lee, he inflamed his detractors and distanced himself from his Confederate colleagues.
Portions of Knudsen’s conclusion were steeped with a good bit of military strategic lingo which required me to read it twice to obtain a good comprehension. Knudsen’s background in military command structure and control is very evident as he knows his stuff. However, parts of the final chapter sometimes leave the reader with a feeling he is at a military academy receiving a briefing on military policy and doctrine. All in all, I believe his book is long overdue and it deserves a place on your bookshelf. You won’t be disappointed.
About the author: Johnny Kicklighter is a member of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans, Lt. George E. Dixon Camp # 1962, Belleville, Illinois. The Sons of Confederate Veterans honor ancestry through the preservation of history and heritage. Johnny is a collector of Confederate currency.