Saturday, January 3, 2009

Book Review: "Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant"

The journey of General James Longstreet through history is a remarkable insight into the fickle response of history to those who help make it. Few officers were more important to the Confederate war effort, arguably no officer was more beloved by General Robert E Lee (who called him his "war horse" and camped next to him every night), perhaps no commander had a better grasp of defensive and counter-offensive warfare.
More important than all of these plaudits is the fact that, despite this incredible war record, no single Confederate general has been more smeared and defamed by the Lost Cause mythology than General Longstreet. It is this evolution that William Piston takes on in his book "Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant".
Piston does a strong job working through Longstreet's war record and his incredibly close relationship with Lee during the war. He also captures an interesting point; despite his successes and leadership, his popularity paled in comparison to Virginians like Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, and Stonewall Jackson. The point is made, successfully for that matter, that because Longstreet was not from the state of Virginia, he never captured the heart of the Old Dominion and would be plagued by this separation long after the war was over.
Despite this, when the war was over, the initial writings about Longstreet were filled with praise and respect for his efforts. A few years later, Piston shows us an intersection of events that brought Longstreet to the forefront of the battle over the war's memory and the rise of the Lost Cause;
#1: the death of General Lee in 1870.
#2: Longstreet's becoming a Republican and publicly voicing support of the Reconstruction government.
#3: General Jubal Early, William Nelson Pendleton, and Reverend John Jones launching a public relations campaign, starting with Early's speech to Washington College on January 19, 1872, that would become "one of the cleverest orchestrations of innuendo and unsubstantiated accusations in American historiography."
With Lee's death in 1870 before he'd written even a manuscript of his memoirs about the war , there was a surge of interest in capturing and celebrating his memory. Piston carefully introduces us to the characters that took in upon themselves to elevate Lee to the beatific status he enjoyed for over one hundred years, as well as the techniques they used to do it.
Simply put, just like Newton's Third Law tells us, the action to elevate Lee required the opposite action of defaming Longstreet. Piston (and many authors who have tackled this subject matter described the development of Longstreet as Judas Iscariot to Lee's Christ-like status.
This is best illustrated by the "Longstreet Lost the War at Gettysburg" myth, all based on a lie perpetrated by William Pendleton (stay tuned, a post on this phenomenon will be forthcoming.) Longstreet made an easy target, not just because he wasn't a Virginian, but because he openly supported the Republican government, was thought to be betraying the tenets of the Confederacy he had fought for. Longstreet's clumsy and arrogant responses to these men did little to help his cause.
This book is less an apologia for General Longstreet as it is a scathing indictment of the personalities and agendas that set about smearing him as a part of the larger construction of the Lost Cause mythology. Piston is sometimes quite unsympathetic towards Longstreet, especially regarding his responses to those who would defame him; but this does not subtract from his pointed study of the manipulation and dishonesty perpetrated by men like Early et al, as well as influential historians that followed in the decades after the war, first among them Douglas Southall Freeman.
This all starts with the title of the book. By calling his work "Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant", Piston is clearly co-opting the title of Freeman's "Lee Lieutenants", a work which went a long way towards cementing the fables created around the Confederacy after the war. Piston carries us through not only the nitty-gritty of how a Confederate war hero became defamed and despised, but also how that myth perpetuated itself through the near 150 years since. From the United Daughters of the Confederacy applying pressure on schools regarding textbook content to Freeman's lavish use of hearsay and editorial comment, Longstreet's reputation never had a chance.
General Longstreet is as good a general as the Confederacy had; a fact recognized during and immediately after the war. In the years that followed, he would fall under the heels of the Lost Cause and its veneration of Lee to the point where he bore the blame for Gettysburg and bore yoke of Confederate defeat. Piston's text does a wonderful job of detailing and describing this evolution, leaving the reader to shake their head in disbelief at just how powerful a force the Lost Cause mythology was and still remains.

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