Wednesday, January 02, 2013

`The Wise Serpent Made Successful Retreat'

For three years starting in 1883, twenty years after Gettysburg, The Century Magazine published a series of reminiscences by 230 participants from both sides of the Civil War. Among the contributors were Grant, McClellan, Pope, Early, Beauregard and Longstreet. The articles were collected in four volumes in 1887-88 under the title Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. In 2011, the Modern Library published Hearts Touched by Fire, a 1,230-page selection of articles drawn from the series. On returning to Houston from Virginia, just days after my last tramp around the battlefield, I pulled it out to see what Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, “Old War Horse,” as Lee called him, had to say of the slaughter at Fredericksburg.

In his introduction to the section devoted to the events of 1862, Stephen W. Sears, author of Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam (1983), among other books, writes of Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, the Union commander at Fredericksburg:

“For Burnside everything went wrong from the start, and on December 13 the repeated charges he ordered against the impenetrable enemy front resulted in disaster. James Longstreet, in command of that section of the Confederate line, narrates the grim story of Fredericksburg. Before the fighting started, Longstreet’s chief of artillery positioned his batteries and said, `General, we cover that ground now so well that we will comb it as with a fine-tooth comb. A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.’ It was an exact prediction. Utterly defeated, Burnside fell back across the Rappahannock.”

Longstreet has been criticized for not pursuing the beaten Union forces. In his article, Longstreet described pursuit of a beaten enemy as “problematical,” and illustrates the point with an anecdote worthy of Mark Twain:

“The condition of a retreating army may be illustrated by a little incident witnessed thirty years ago on the western plains of Texas. A soldier of my regiment essayed to capture a rattlesnake. Being pursued, the reptile took refuge in a prairie-dog's hole, turning his head as he entered it, to defend the sally-port. The soldier coming up in time, seized the tail as it was in the act of passing under cover, and at the same instant the serpent seized the index finger of the soldier's hand. The result was the soldier lost the use of his finger. The wise serpent made successful retreat, and may to this day be the chief ruler and patriarch of the rattlesnake tribe on our western plains. The rear of a retreating army is always its best guarded point.” 

Longstreet remains controversial in some quarters. He was probably Lee’s most trusted adviser but also a friend to Grant. Some blame him for the defeat at Gettysburg. After the war he joined the Republican Party and became an adviser to Grant. In 1877, Longstreet converted to Catholicism and remained devout until the end of his life. In his memoirs he criticized Lee’s performance during the war. Born in 1821, Longstreet died on this date, Jan. 2, in 1904. At the time of his death he was the U.S. Commissioner of Railroads in the Roosevelt administration.

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