Review of: Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment by Cory M. Pfarr

Longstreet

People forget sometimes that I am a military historian on top of writing in other more popular genres.  This book has been nagging me for weeks to read it, so I did and it was not quite what I expected, but proved to be more.  This is an unsolicited review.

Like many people, I have read a lot of books on Gettysburg over the years.  In many there has been an undercurrent of sorts, taking jabs, sometimes less than gentle, at General James Longstreet.  Some historians have laid the failure at Gettysburg at his feet.  I knew the stories all too well.  Longstreet was a Republican and after the war took an active role in the Federal Government.  In his post-war assessments and writings he was candid about Gettysburg and less-than-artfully pointed the finger for some of the blame on General Robert E. Lee.  To many in the south, this was akin to sacrilege.

After the war the mythos of the Lost Cause emerged.  In this, Southerners attempted to deflect that the war had to do with slavery, shifting more to the narrative that it was really about states rights.  There is plenty of foundation for that thinking and I won’t turn this into a states-rights vs. slavery debate because it gives even me a headache at times.  At the same time they tended to iconize the Southern leaders, placing them on pedestals.  They railed against Reconstruction, the Republican Party, and the north.  When I wrote about Bert Hall’s father (In my book, The Bad Boy), I had to study the Confederates that migrated to Mexico to attempt to reform the Confederacy there – so prevalent was this determination to remain sovereign on their part.  There was a certain dignity to it, that the South had been fighting what was a doomed lost cause from the beginning but did so nobly and with honor.

Highest on those pillars of untouchable Southern leaders is Robert E. Lee.  So when Longstreet even hinted that Lee was to blame for the defeat at Gettysburg, he became a pariah amongst his own people.  Former generals lined up to contort history as much as possible to make it look like he was the reason that the Confederacy lost that battle.  Historians that followed often used these heavily slanted accounts to further besmirch Longstreet’s leadership.

Which brings me to this book.  Mr. Pfarr has written something of a unique book on Gettysburg.  Rather than retell the battle minute-by-minute, he raises the critiques of Longstreet by various former officers and historians, and compares them to facts and a cold dose of reality.  Being a true crime author, I love it when someone compares conflicting accounts of events, sometimes from the same person, to show how the telling of events is corrupted and twisted over time.

This is a good solid book, but it is aimed more at scholarly researchers rather than casual readers.  I really enjoyed the opening chapters where you see Longstreet in his later years.  Once you get into the battle itself you don’t get the entire picture of Gettysburg, but rather the points of contention around Longstreet.  Believe me, there was plenty of blame to go around for the failure there, not just with Lee but with other subordinates.

I think Mr. Pfarr, much like a well-organized lawyer, has made a compelling case in support of Longstreet.  He does not claim that the general is perfect by any stretch, but he casts enough doubt to make you want to reconsider Longstreet’s true role and contribution in the battle.  My only real critique about the book is what isn’t there, which is a chapter that really delves into the Lost Cause mythology. I don’t subscribe to the Lost Cause, but there is a lot of fertile ground that would have been great to explore for context.

So, if you like more academic works of military history, this is a must for Civil War reader.  I anxiously await Mr. Pfarr’s next book.

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