Lee-Jackson-Longstreet Day? Of course not… (and here is why)

I’ve offered my thoughts on previous occasions as to why Lee-Jackson Day should graciously end, and this year the movement to replace it with a “Virginia Heritage Day” was kicked off over at Bearing Drift by Jim Hoeft and others.

As a co-conspirator in the effort, I’ve made two distinct arguments: (1) that Lee-Jackson Day should end, and (2) that the romanticized assessment of Generals Lee and Jackson is precisely that — romanticized — and that Virginians deserve a better, more critical assessment of their character.

Positions have flown back and forth, along with some of the more scurrilous commentary from the fringe on both ends. Those arguments from “fire eaters” and their opposite cousins on the left have no merit, and aren’t worth the patience to bear them out.

Likewise, I have very little use for the proportionalist view of history which neglects objective truths (e.g. slavery is wrong) in favor a subjective, more Marxist view of societies within their times. Men should be viewed in their times, and I agree it is naturally wrong to place 19th century men (or 9th century men) in a 21st century court of public opinion.

The rejection of lasting truths and the perspective of history, though, is a far greater evil. Moral equivalence and revisionism is terrible history. No one rightly argues that Rommel or von Rundstedt were justified in carrying out their orders in defense of Nazi Germany, no matter how brilliant their careers or the view of history. One could not charge an observer with “presentism” by arguing otherwise (though Rommel did attempt to end the war by unsuccessfully assassinating Hitler).


When it comes to the history of the Army of Northern Virginia, three men stand out: Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet. As a native of Fredericksburg, it’s well known how Longstreet repulsed attack after attack at Sunken Road, while the real battle took place two miles south on now-Lee Drive. Jackson’s lines momentarily broke before they were restored… a fact graciously omitted in the movie God’s and Generals to preserve Jackson’s reputation.

While most amateur historians believe Sunken Road to be “impregnable”, it was most certainly not. Second and Third Fredericksburg repeated the same attacks, and both times Marye Heights were taken. In fact, Burnside’s strategy was well placed — assault the Heights, put as many Confederate soldiers there defending a safe position, and then take out the right flank of the Confederate Army on open ground.

It almost worked. Had Longstreet not kept his cool and demanded more men from the then-untouched right flank, Burnside very well might have won at Fredericksburg.

Longstreet was the tactical genius who drove McClellan off during the Peninsula Campaign. Longstreet demanded to pursue the fleeing Union troops after First Bull Run. Longstreet covered a blistering 30 mile march to meet Pope at Second Bull Run, throwing his 25,000 men at the Union lines and then honorably giving the battle’s tactical brilliance to his commander — General Lee.

It was at Anietam that Longstreet began what would become the innovative feature that would dominate warfare for nearly 80 years — strategic offense with a tactical defense. This line of thought ran counter to the Napoleonic innovations of concentrated artillery providing cover for massive attacks along a front, but would be employed by both sides in places such as Chickamauga and Petersburg. Longstreet held of superior numbers at Antietam against McClellan, and for his actions received the promotion of lieutenant general one day before Stonewall Jackson, making him the senior Confederate general within the Army of Northern Virginia.

It was along the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg where Longstreet applied all his genius. Thousands of Federal troops fell before Longstreet’s First Corps, to the loss of a few hundred Confederate soldiers in front of the Heights. “It is well war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond of it” was an honor Lee bestowed on Longstreet’s impeccable performance at Fredericksburg.

Jackson’s crowning achievement came at Chancellorsville while Longstreet was besieging Union troops in Suffolk, Virginia. While Chancellorsville would claim Jackson’s life, Suffolk would be yet another advance in modern warfare innovated by Longstreet, where the use of interior lines, strong modes of transportation, and the swift aggregation of superior numbers for pitched battles is reminiscent of Prussian, German, and later Israeli tactics.

At Gettysburg, it was Lee who reverted back to the old Napoleonic school on the third day, insisting upon an attack in the center of the Federal lines. Longstreet demurred, as he felt the attack foolhardly and counter to his previous experience. While Lee asked for the attack to commence at 11am, Longstreet waited until 4pm. The result was a repeat of Fredericksburg, only that the Federals repulsed the Confederate soldiers. Lee’s grand strategy — that Pickett’s men would link up with Stuart’s much guarded cavalry attack behind Federal lines at the moment of battle — never materialized, as J.E.B. Stuart was blocked by George Armstrong Custer who would gain infamy at Little Big Horn.

At Chickamauga, Longstreet again displayed his talent for improvisation. Taking advantage of an opening in Federal lines, Longstreet poured nearly eight brigades through the gap (an attack reminiscent of German blitzkrieg tactics during the Second World War). Bragg was unable to follow up on the attack, turning what should have been a rout into a protracted siege.

After an aborted attempt to remove Bragg from command and having his plans rejected to catch Hooker strung out on the march in northern Alabama and Georgia, Bragg dispatched Longstreet to a campaign in eastern Tennessee against his old nemesis Burnside. While the campaign’s overall objective was to transfer First Corps back to the Virginia theater, Longstreet’s caution got the best of him. While in dismal winter quarters, he planned for a renewed offensive in eastern Tennessee, which though it gained the approval of General Lee, it was dismissed by both President Jefferson Davis and his new military advisor, General Bragg.

At Wilderness, Longstreet again proved his tactical brilliance, delivering a smashing attack on the Orange Plank Road. Had it not been for the fact that Longstreet was wounded by his own men in an event eerily similar to that which happened to Jackson, Longstreet could very well have pressed the attack. Lee stopped the attack, allowing Confederate lines to rest and Federal troops reform.

While a similar attack might have sent previous Union commanders reeling back across the Rappahannock, Longstreet knew better than this, as his longtime friend General Ulysses S. Grant. During the long Wilderness Campaign of 1864, Lee was without his “old war horse” as Longstreet recuperated. By the time Longstreet was well enough to retake the field, Petersburg was under siege and Longstreet transferred to the defense of Richmond.

After the fall of Petersburg, Longstreet retreated with First and Third Corps with Lee to Appomattox. Advising General Lee before the surrender, Longstreet counseled that Grant would honor any agreement and treat the Confederates fairly, but as Lee left to meet Grant, Longstreet cautioned one last time:

“General, if he does not give us good terms, come back and let us fight it out.”


Thus was the storied career of Lt. General James Longstreet concluded.

..or so he thought.

Shortly after the war, while much of the South sulked in defeat, Longstreet removed himself to New Orleans. Applying for a pardon, then-President Johnson refused, stating that Davis, Lee, and Longstreet had caused the nation “too much trouble” to ever be offered such a pardon, a backhanded compliment if there ever was one. Eventually it was granted to Longstreet by 1878.

Sadly, it would be his compatriots in the South who would never forgive him his treason. The reason for this? Longstreet was as farsighted in his political temperament as he was in his military career.

Longstreet advocated for full suffrage for African-Americans in the South, as well as full unification after the War and the reconstruction of the South. Longstreet joined the Republican Party early, and in 1868 was present for his old-friend Grant’s inauguration.

For these positions, Longstreet’s reputation suffered immeasurably. During the 1870’s, former colleagues such as Jubal Early would propagate the first attacks on Longstreet, insisting that his delay cost the Confederacy its victory at Gettysburg. Colonel Pendleton would repeat such stories about Longstreet’s inaction at Gettysburg. Douglas Southall Freeman in his histories of the War continued this line of attack, as Longstreet — ever one for caution — never directly responded to these attacks until much later in life.

Longstreet was a convert to Catholicism in 1877, and remained a devout Catholic the rest of his life. After Reconstruction ended, Longstreet retired to his home and farm. A fire in 1889 burned many of his correspondence, though Longstreet was able to have his his memoirs From Manassas to Appomattox published in 1896. Longstreet remarried in 1897, and his wife (much younger than he) published a defense of her former husband against the Lost Cause revisionists in Lee and Longstreet at High Tide in 1904, shortly after the war horse’s death in 1903.


Longstreet arguably gave all for a state that was not his own, and for a cause he did not fully embrace. While he embraced States Rights, Longstreet never owned slaves (as did Lee and Jackson). After the war, Longstreet performed his duty, advocating not only for full reunion, but for the voting rights of free blacks in the South.

For this, Longstreet’s political enemies attacked his military service, though the were cautious enough to do so well after Longstreet’s best defender — Robert E. Lee — had passed away.

Certainly no general had given so much to the cause as Longstreet, and Lee honored and recognized this be giving him seniority over Jackson. The Army of Northern Virginia had no better commander, save perhaps Lee himself. Though Longstreet was not flawless as a military commander, he embraced all the principles and ideals that modern defenders of the Old South would recognize as their own — states rights, suffrage for free blacks, and union.

Longstreet has a special place in Virginia’s heritage, yet it is not celebrated or mentioned. In fact, many historians will vociferously blame Longstreet for his inaction at Gettysburg, thus dashing the Confederacy on the rocks. Longstreet’s double villainy as an advocate for civil rights and reunion were added insult to injury for the “unreconstructed” rebel.

Certainly Lee and Jackson would have seen this differently, yet many trample Longstreet’s reputation in order to purify and cleanse the romanticized idea of the Old South and the glory days of the rebellion.

As it is, the whole heritage of Virginia is slighted in turn. Two men, flawed as they are, are upheld as celebrated and beyond reproach by a brand of 19th century political correctness.

It is ignorant of the contributions of other Virginians who have helped create the rich tapestry of our history: John Smith, John Rolfe, Nathaniel Bacon, Alexander Spotswood, George Wythe, George Washington, Hugh Mercer, Thomas Jefferson, Matthew Maury, Patrick Henry, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, Cyrus McCormick, Edgar Allan Poe, James Monroe, James Madison, Sam Houston, Henry Wise, John Sargeant Wise, John Singleton Mosby, J.E.B. Stuart, A.P. Hill, Walter Reed, Booker T. Washington, George Patton (his family has a long pedigree in Virginia), Douglass Southall Freeman, Ella Fitzgerald, Patsy Cline, Arthur Ashe, John Warner, Doug Wilder, and the thousands of unnammed heroes who have helped build our Commonwealth.

Add to it our achievements: The founding of a nation, the oldest representative body in the world, a Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, the ceding of most of the American Midwest to our young nation, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, the flood of young Virginians who colonized and pioneered our Midwest, Texas, and the West in search for cheap land and a brighter future, the resurrection of Richmond after the War, the sons of Bedford County during the Second World War, the Shenandoah Valley, Colonial Williamsburg, one of the largest ports in the world at Hampton Roads, our State Capitol, Monticello, our universities and colleges, and the finest tradition of freedom and all that is best about America.

Of course, this isn’t all. Slavery, the “triangle trade”, segregation, sharecropping, destructive land use by plantation owners, the loss of our Native American population, the era of massive resistance, the hundreds of thousands of Virginians either killed or wounded during the War, Reconstruction, the crushing poverty of Appalachia and our inner cities, and the poor state of public education all hang in the balance as well.

Should we respect this history in it’s totality? Or should we romanticize a tiny sliver of it, whitewash it, and present that as what Virginia honors?

Jefferson’s reputation is a fine example. Once reviled, then honored, Jefferson’s reputation came under fierce scrutiny as his popularity rose in the latter half of the last century. Rather than whitewashing it, Jeffersonians allowed it in spurts and struggled with his legacy as a slaveowner and with regards to Sally Hemmings. In the final analysis, we have a much clearer picture and better appreciation of the man, his times, and his own personal views.

Lee-Jackson Day is a holiday whose time has come and gone. It must end, not only because of what it tells the world about our values, but because it tells the tiniest fraction about who Virginians really are and what we honor.

I recognize right readily that many Virginians who care about Lee-Jackson Day will disagree, and for differing reasons. Those reason are either good or ill, and it’s useless to speculate as to the reasons.

Further, I will not go into the flawed history that the Lost Cause movement has invested so heavily in, other than to note that it is indeed flawed and often hijacked by those with less to invest in good history and more to invest in racial discord.

Over the last few days, I have certainly been called all sorts of names for advocating this position, as well as encouraging a deeper view of Lee and Jackson as men. Such names that have been thrown my way are liberal, progressive, secular humanist, and advocate of presentism, scalawag, carpetbagger, self-hating white, or worse. Examples to change my mind have often been those who advocate ideas such as neo-Nazi historical revisionism, ideas of a “Jesuit-Masonic” conspiracy, or Marxist ideas of history commonly espoused by revisionist authors.

As you can see, this has been quite an enlightening experience. It’s been moderately entertaining to see these individuals rail against socialism, but when it comes time to give up something the state provides and recognizes that you enjoy, it’s very difficult to surrender this. Bastiat was right, after all.

States rights is a noble idea that, in the case of the Civil War, was used for ignoble ends — the perpetuation of the enslavement of our fellow human beings. Until we learn to decouple the evils of slavery from one of the most fundamental principles of our government, we will never fix what is wrong about America in the way our Founders intended.

Longstreet was one of the few Confederate commanders who understood this. History (presentists?) at first judged him terribly… especially those who he had done so much for during the War. In time, history has vindicated a noble man for his military genius and his civic foresight.

It’s time to end Lee-Jackson Day. Sign the petition and lend your support for a Virginia Heritage Day, and let’s uphold the best of Virginia as a whole, not in part.

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