I'm often amazed at the many people who have come to refer to James Longstreet as one of the greatest defensive general's of the Civil War and how the South would have won the Battle of Gettysburg if Lee would have followed his advice. I blame the movie Gettysburg and the book The Killer Angels for starting this myth. I believe we could rewrite everything in history by putting it on the big screen. Before all the Longstreet fans become upset with me please allow me to finish.
In defense of Longstreet, he did not want to fight the battle at Gettysburg. He wanted Lee to move around the right and entrench between Meade's army and Washington, thus forcing Meade to make a disastrous frontal assault to try to save his capital. The problem that is so often overlooked is the fact that this is the exact move Meade was anticipating and watching for. He'd informed his cavalry to watch for signs of Lee attempting to move around his flanks. He'd set up an excellent defensive position on the heights behind Pipe Creek in Maryland. Meade didn't want to fight at Gettysburg any more than Longstreet did. He thought the position wasn't strong enough.
Another myth many believe is that Longstreet had no ambition to higher command. He did everything he possibly could to gain the command of the Army of Tennessee. He arrived at Chickamauga with his corps and joined Bragg's army against Federal General Rosecrans. Granted, Longstreet arrived in mid-battle, there is no controversy about him asking Bragg to move around Rosecrans flank. The battle was fought as another frontal assault and this just two months following the battle at Gettysburg.
The Battle of Fort Sanders
Worse still, Longstreet moved his corps to Knoxville, Tennessee a month later and assaulted Fort Sanders which contained 440 Federal troops with 3,000 of his men. This assault was an utter failure. The battle cost him 813 casualties and only inflicted 13 on the enemy troops in the fort. Does this sound like the ultimate defensive commander?
Which brings me to the question of whether Longstreet would have been a better commander than Braxton Bragg. I read once where a historian had said that what made Lee such a great commander is his ability to take full responsibility when a battle was lost. The historian actually said, "Where Lee could say it was all his fault, Bragg would have choked on the words." I can add that Longstreet would have choked on the words also. After the battle at Knoxville, Longstreet did the same thing Bragg was famous for, he began arresting his subordinates. He arrested Major General Lafayette McLaws and Brigadier General Jerome Bonaparte Robertson for the disaster. Longstreet admitted after the war that he'd done McLaws an injustice.
Longstreet Monument at Gettysburg
Going a step farther about how movies affect history, one need only to look at the monument of Longstreet at Gettysburg. In the book These Honored Dead by Thomas Desjardin he refers to the problems with this monument. I'll just insert a quote from his book here. "Despite the work of historians that shows Longstreet was wearing an officers 'kepi' style hat during the battle, and wartime photos that show his long narrow beard, the solid metal image that future generations will see at Gettysburg is the image of...well...Tom Berenger, the actor who played Longstreet in the movie with a horribly false, wide beard and a hat reminiscent of a western cowboy." Because of the size of the man mounted on the horse, many Civil War buffs have nicknamed the monument 'The Troll on the Pony.'
I'm not here to bash Longstreet. I think he was a fine commander. All commanders make mistakes. Even Lee and Jackson made mistakes. I'm just saying Longstreet has been built up beyond what he truly was by the big screen and one of my favorite actors Tom Berenger.