The war of northern aggression…the War between the States…the Civil War…call it what you will, the conflict that took more American lives than any other war and more than almost all of our other wars combined, changed the United States from a collection of, mostly independent, states into a nation. Without the Civil War, the history of this continent would have been vastly different.
For the record, I am a southerner, born in Georgia. I am not an apologist for slavery or the plantation society that made the south of the 19th century one of the richest places on earth at the expense of the terrible bondage of other human beings.
There is no doubt that many of the rank and file felt that they were fighting for freedom from the aggression of the Federal government, intent on preserving the union of states. Most southerners, in fact, did not own slaves. But, for those of my southern friends who try to justify the war on the basis of state’s rights, make no mistake about it…the states’ right they were trying to preserve was the right to own slaves.
Having said that, I have respect for my forebears who, misguided and wrong as they were, fought against overwhelming odds to secure what they mistakenly and ironically thought was “their freedom” to enslave others.
James Longstreet’s memoirs of the war is, perhaps, one of the finest and most detailed accounts of a great portion of the conflict that tore the country apart and resolved the issue of slavery that the Founding Fathers had put aside during the writing of the U.S. Constitution. Full of details and descriptive accounts of the movements of troops, battles and statistics Longstreet takes the reader backstage, into private meetings and strategy sessions with Lee and other generals as they planned campaigns and fought to stave off their eventual defeat.
His memoirs begin with his service in the Mexican War and subsequently in the west as a fairly junior officer. When war breaks out, he and a number of other officers, resign their commissions to return home and fight for their native state (country). During the course of the war, he rises to the rank of Lieutenant General, commanding the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee.
In addition to gaining a better understanding of the strategies and battlefield conflicts, Longstreet give us a rare, eyewitness view of the personalities involved, from his perspective.
The memoirs occasionally take on a tone of self-justification that the reader may not understand without knowing in advance that at the conclusion of the war, there were those in the south who tried to blame Longstreet for the south’s loss. To many at the time, it was impossible that Robert E. Lee, who had been elevated to almost god-like status, could have made mistakes. Instead, some found a scapegoat in Longstreet, claiming that he had not carried out orders aggressively enough or had failed to carry them out at all. Longstreet goes to great lengths to provide letters and documentation, many from Lee himself, to prove that his actions were in strict accordance with orders and with the military protocols of the day. The truth was that many of his detractors were covering their own failings and culpability for the loss of the war.
In the end, the discussion of responsibility for the loss of the war is moot. The south was destined to lose, as long as slavery was an accepted institution authorized by the government and as long as the north had the will to fight on and incur the significant losses in men and material the south inflicted on them. Certainly, when Ulysses Grant took command of union forces, the war became a war of attrition. The south could not replace losses as quickly as the north. At that point, the war was lost, as Longstreet, forcefully points out.
Longstreet writes in the 19th century style, which may make it a bit tedious for some readers, but if you are student of the Civil war, it is necessary reading in order to gain a full understanding of the relationship between what was happening on the battlefield and the political atmosphere of the day.
Want to understand our nation today, and the struggle that continues to put the shame of slavery behind us? If so, 'From Manassas to Appomattox Memoirs of The Civil War in America', by James Longstreet is a must read that puts the Civil war in context.
Note - The Kindle version is free ( or was) but does not contain maps, charts etc. Paperback or hardcover editions provide more visual context with maps etc., to help the reader understand the action at times.