Review of General James Longstreet in the West: A Monumental Failure, by Judith Lee Hallock

3 Aug

In the fall of 1863 the Confederacy made a desperate gamble to shore up its flagging hopes by sending a detachment of troops from its most successful army in the east to the aid of its beleaguered primary force in the west. The idea had been floated frequently prior, but owing to a variety of reasons including a myopic concern for the safety of Richmond and General Robert E. Lee’s reluctance to part with any of his forces, it was repeatedly postponed. When the plan was finally agreed to, the man chosen to head west with a corps of the Army of Northern Virginia to help the hard luck Army of Tennessee was General James A. Longstreet. Chronicling the general’s short-lived stay in this pivotal theater of the war is Judith Hallock’s brief book, General James Longstreet in the West: A Monumental Failure. The book first appeared in 1998 as part of the McWhiney Foundation Press’s Civil War Campaigns and Commanders Series.

As the title implies, Hallock is brutal in her assessment of Longstreet’s shortcomings in the western assignment. She refers to his noted success at Chickamauga, in which he attacked the Union line precisely where a gap had opened and turned the tide of the battle, as a “lucky break.” (84) Hallock notes that after that stunning strike he had “no successes whatever” in the west. “(84) At both Chattanooga and during the operations at Knoxville,” she goes further, “Longstreet displayed his lack of moral courage by trying to blame others when his own failures led to defeat. The entire campaign through East Tennessee demonstrated his inability to coordinate an offensive.” (84) Throughout the book, she calls attention to Longstreet’s persistent refusal to follow orders, his inability to understand obvious military necessities, and his penchant for debilitating indecision.

In truth it is hard to argue with many of the basic facts about the results of the actions described in the book, as Longstreet did in fact have luck on his side in Chickamauga, turned in an objectively poor performance at Chattanooga, and bungled his way into an unabashed debacle at Knoxville. By any measure, the effort to have Longstreet’s corps revive Confederate hopes in the west went for naught. Still, the spirit and tone of the book is unusually personal and biased in its antagonism to Longstreet. Relatively little context is provided for any of the campaigns—crucial information that might help readers better understand the failures in which Longstreet was involved were a group effort by a dysfunctional Rebel high command. There are numerous times in which for evidence supporting her assessment of Longstreet’s shortcomings relies on the observations not of military peers but of civilians such as Mary Chesnut.

The blanket condemnation of the general contained in the pages of this volume is perhaps the most selective in terms of evidence and conclusions one will find. If you want a quick summary of just how ineffective was the effort to send Longstreet west, this book is a virtual bullet point list of failure. If you are seeking a thorough and balanced account of how the results of the campaigning at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Knoxville figured into Confederate defeat and all the factors involved in these episodes, look elsewhere.


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