Book Review: Lieutenant General James Longstreet: Innovative Military Strategist: The Most Misunderstood Civil War General


by Gregorgy F. Toretta

Philadelphia: Casemate Books, 2022. Pp. xxii, 241+. Illus., maps, chron., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1636241174

A Fresh Look at Lee's "Old War Horse"

In recent years the “Lost Cause" school of southern history, championed by William Pendleton, Jubal Early, and others, that worked diligently to blame James Longstreet for the defeat at Gettysburg and even the outcome of the Civil War, has come under critical scrutiny from historians, though its influence remains strong. In this new military biography of Longstreet independent historian Toretta marshals the evidence from the man's career to show that he was a superior, innovative commander, rather than an incompetent and even traitorous one.

Trotta points out that, initially, commanders on both sides used Napoleonic tactics that were obsolete by 1861 due to the advent of the rifled musket and better artillery. As the war unfolded some officers saw the need to improve tactics, operations, and strategies. On the Confederate side, a careful analysis of Longstreet’s actions in the field reveals several notable innovations. He early came to understood that the tactical defense generally prevailed over the offense, something few grasped in 1861-1862. His evolution began on the field of First Manassas in July 1861, grew during the gory combat of 1862, culminating in a dazzling defensive triumph at Fredericksburg, where the lethality with which his riflemen and artillery cut down recurring Union attacks gave a hint of what was to come in World War I.

Looking at Longstreet’s hammer blows at Second Manassas in August 1862 and later at Chickamauga in 1863, Toretta argues that Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg and Braxton Bragg at Chattooga were seriously mistaken in not heeding Longstreet’s alternative battle plans. . Other areas in which Trotta argues Longstreet displayed forward-thinking were in his use of artillery, staff work, force prognostication, and operational-level thinking.

Longstreet's reputation might have been higher but for some things that occurred after the war. With the erstwhile Confederacy prostrate, Longstreet supported Reconstruction, accepted government posts during Grant's presidency, and, perhaps most harmful to his reputation, in the paper battles that followed the war, deigned to make some criticisms of Lee's conduct of operations. It was the combination of these that brought down upon him the hostility of the "Lost Cause" crowd (the leaders of which had far fewer successes in the war to their credit), albeit they waited until after Lee's death - he would certainly have defended his "Old War Horse".

It took over a century for historians to recover Longstreet's reputation, showing him to have been one of the most effective commanders on either side as a corps commander and master of offensive tactics.

Toretta makes extensive use of quotations from participants and witnesses to Longstreet’s activities during and after the war, which are unfortunately in a smaller font, making reading a bit difficult.

Presenting an interesting – and decidedly favorable – view of Longstreet’s leadership at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Knoxville, and the Wilderness, Toretta does a decent job of reconstructing his leadership on many occasions. He also doesn't hold back in showing how Longstreet attempted to use connections and pull strings to gain independent commands and push alternative strategies for fighting the Union differing from those of Lee, Bragg, and even Jefferson Davis.

Although much of Toretta’s treatment will be familiar to serious scholars of the historiography about Longstreet, this will prove rewarding reading for the layman new to the literature of the war.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include Stephen A. Swails, The Great ‘What Ifs’ of the American Civil War Chained to History, Grant vs. Lee: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War, Spectacle of Grief, Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy, First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Ellsworth, Their Maryland, The Lion of Round Top, Rites of Retaliation, Animal Histories of the Civil War Era, Benjamin Franklin Butler, Dreams of Victory: General P. G. T. Beauregard, Bonds of War, Early Struggles for Vicksburg, True Blue, Civil War Witnesses and Their Books, Love and Duty, When Hell Came To Sharpsburg, Lost Causes, Six Miles From Charleston, Five Minutes to Hell, "If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania", James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior, and Cedar Mountain to Antietam.




Note: Lieutenant General James Longstreet is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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