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General John Buford & General James Longstreet: Mighty Oak Part 2

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

Portrait of James Longstreet from the Battle of Gettysburg
Portrait of James Longstreet.

General James Longstreet: “Old War Horse”

James Longstreet also graduated from the United States Military Academy West Point. Prior to his service to the Confederacy, he served in the United States Army during the Mexican-American War where he was wounded in battle.

After resigning from the United States Army in 1861, he joined the Confederate Army and primarily fought in the Eastern Theater. While he led men in several battles, such as the First and Second Battles of Bull Run, he greatly disagreed with Robert E. Lee’s decision to invade Pennsylvania. This is because Longstreet believed it to be more prudent to send troops to Tennessee due to the Union’s General Ulysses S. Grant advancement towards Vicksburg, which was a Confederate stronghold at the time. However, Lee's desire to turn the North’s public opinion against the war and give farmers in war-torn Virginia a much-needed break ultimately led to the clash of both armies in Gettysburg.

Longstreet's Cautionary Advice

After a successful first day of battle, Longstreet cautioned Lee about the Union army’s strong position on high ground and that attacking them at such a juncture would be very costly. He instead wanted to flank the Union Army and cut off supply lines, which he believed would cause the Army of the Potomac to retreat and would more likely give the Army of Northern Virginia the victory they so desired.

Lee rejected his idea and on the second day of the battle ordered Longstreet to position his troops for a bold advance on the Union's strong positions on the high ground to the east. This took longer than expected and while some maintain that Longstreet’s slow movements were because of his disagreement with Lee’s frontal assault, Longstreet blamed the poor roads and the simple fact that his men, after having marched for an entire day, were exhausted. While his slow movement was certainly a factor in the resulting outcome of the battle, Lee’s frontal assault, as Longstreet had predicted, led to a devastating number of casualties in the assault known as Pickett’s Charge on the final day of the battle.

Lee's Regret

It was reported that Lee regretted not taking Longstreet’s advice, and even announced to his men that “it is all my fault”. The Battle of Gettysburg, which had looked like a Confederate victory on July 1st, ended on July 3rd, not only with a Union victory, but a boost of positive public opinion in the North about the war in the South.

One Person Can Make a Difference

Often, people will wonder about how one person can possibly make a difference when they are one of so many. The fact is that both men individually did make a difference to the outcome of the war, albeit with two very different outcomes.

Buford's Impact

Buford, being the first to encounter Confederate troops near Gettysburg, made the decision that the clash between the two armies would ultimately be made in that small Pennsylvanian town. His choice to hold the high ground in the area gave time for other Union troops to arrive and create strong defensive positions.

While it is folly to conjecture about different decisions made in historical events and Longstreet’s cautious attitude towards moving his men in place for the offensive attacks certainly played a factor in the assault’s outcome, a defensive stance might have prevented Lee’s disastrous Pickett’s Charge. It appears that, though both men served on two different sides of the conflict, they both understood the importance of defense during the three-day turning point of the Civil War.

History in Your Hands

The Battle of Gettysburg was one of the bloodiest in American history with 51,000 dead, wounded, or missing in action. Though Generals Lee and Meade get top billing as the leaders of their respective armies, it's important to remember that the decisions made by one person can have lasting consequences.

The Importance of Defense

Buford and Longstreet both championed the idea of the necessity of defense being a necessary strategy for desired outcomes, and if Lee had accepted Jackson’s advice, the fight might have turned out quite differently. Nevertheless, Lee’s army was forced to retreat on July 4th, the Union claimed victory in the battle, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Having a better understanding of the backgrounds of the people who have their names associated with the Witness trees certainly add a newfound appreciation to the handcrafted products made here at Gettysburg Sentinels.


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