By Colin Woodward
Gettysburg is Robert E. Lee’s most controversial battle, and for good reason. It was the one where Lee lost the most troops of any commander at any single Civil War fight. Historians have estimated the Army of Northern Virginia’s losses at 28,000 men. The three day battle, which ended on 1863 July 3, occurred at the same time as the South’s surrender at Vicksburg. Lee’s defeat, coupled with the Confederacy’s loss of Vicksburg, has been called the “turning point of the Civil War.” Never again would Lee’s army invade the North. For the rest of the war, Lee would remain on the defensive in Virginia.
Early and Longstreet
Historians have debated whether or not Lee’s defeat in Pennsylvania was the turning point of the war. But no battle has been written about more than Gettysburg, which has been the subject of thousands of books. After the war, the battle of Gettysburg was hotly debated by former Confederates, especially two of Lee’s most important generals: Jubal Early and James Longstreet, both of whom were at Gettysburg.
The debate over strategy and tactics at Gettysburg lasted long after the war. Robert E. Lee never weighed in on these controversies. He never wrote a memoir, and he avoided discussing the war in public (though he did get political in private letters). Such was not the case with either Longstreet or Early, both of whom outlived General Lee, and who wrote recollections of the war. Early published A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in 1867. Longstreet’s memoir, From Manassas to Appomattox, which was ghost-written, appeared in 1896, two years after Early’s death. Longstreet lived until 1904.
Early was one of the first major generals to publish a memoir, but well into the postwar period, he wrote and argued about the war. He became one of the major architects of the Lost Cause, which celebrated the Confederacy in print, song, and monuments. Robert E. Lee relieved Early of command in 1865 because of Early’s failures in the Shenandoah Valley. But Early defended Lee later in life.
Longstreet, in contrast, became a pariah in the South because of his choice to become a Republican and supporter of Ulysses S. Grant. Longstreet also endured criticism for second-guessing Lee’s tactics at Gettysburg, more specifically, Lee’s decision to launch the fateful assault known as “Pickett’s Charge” on the third day.
The Gettysburg wars involved not just Early and Longstreet, but Lee’s staff officers, such as Charles Marshall, Charles Venable, and Walter H. Taylor (who lived until 1916). Jefferson Davis and Wade Hampton also were involved in the debate concerning Gettysburg.
Excerpts from the Letters
Here are some excerpts from the recent uploads to the LFDA:
“I am not invited to Gettysburg but will give you my opinion about going in giving my thoughts when I saw that they were pestering Mars Bob with an invitation. . . . I am opposed to the whole thing as a piece of Yankee vanity & impudence but think at the same time all chances of keeping these Army men our friends should be taken. . . . I cannot think [Lee] will go. I know one thing, if Heth & Longstreet go there, they will know noth[in]g beyond a division & a corps & they are not smart. ”
—Charles S. Venable to Walter H. Taylor, 1869 August 21
“There is an article in the Galaxy for April by Imboden, entitled ‘Lee at Gettysburg,’ which glorifies Imboden much and Lee but little. Imboden has taken occasion to say a good deal for himself, while professing to give some important facts in regard to General Lee, and the conditions of things after Gettysburg.”
—Jubal Early to Walter H. Taylor, 1871 April 9
“He is a mere wreck of his former self, & I felt truly sorry for him [when I visited him]. . . . He has lately written to me asking for the same facts, & I fear his mind is affected, as he does not seem to remember the interview.”
—D. H. Hill to Jubal Early, 1874 April 10
“I have not had time to follow closely the controversy to which the article refers, but I remember perfectly my conversation with General Lee on this subject. He said plainly to me, that the battle would have been gained, if Gen. Longstreet had obeyed orders given him, and had made the attack early instead of late.”
—John Lee Carroll to Fitzhugh Lee, 1874 April 15
“I told you Longstreet had better let me alone. He has taken nothing by his false claims.”
—Early to Taylor, 1874 April 29
“It occurs to me that if Gen Lee had any such idea as an attack sunrise you must surely be advised of it. Right sure am I that such an order was never delivered to me, and it is not possible for me to believe that he ever entertained an idea that I was to attack at that hour [sunrise].”
—Longstreet to Taylor, 1875 April 20
These letters are just a sampling of the vast literature on Gettysburg. Today, many historians don’t view it as the turning point that scholars once did. The battle, nevertheless, will always be the biggest and bloodiest event of the war. And the men that fought there certainly understood that.