December 30, 1863 (Wednesday)
During the last few days of the year 1863 the cold of the severest winter of the war came on, and constantly increased until the thermometer approached zero, and on New Year’s dropped below, hanging near that figure for about two weeks. The severe season gave rest to every one. Even the cavalry had a little quiet, but it was cold comfort, for their orders were to keep the enemy in sight.
The season seemed an appropriate one for making another effort to be relieved from service, — that service in which the authorities would not support my plans or labors, — for now during the lull in war they would have ample time to assign some one to whom they could give their confidence and aid. But this did not suit them, and the course of affairs prejudicial to order and discipline was continued. It was difficult under the circumstances to find apology for remaining in service.
– General James Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox
But that wasn’t quite how it happened. Longstreet didn’t find himself a little chilly and decide to resign. There was quite a little back story. Actually, it was two stories (and sort of three).
The first involved General Jerome Robertson, a doctor and politician before the war. Nevertheless, Robertson proved a fine regimental commander, and a fair brigade commander in John Bell Hood’s Division. At Gettysburg, he was wounded, but recovered in time to join Longstreet’s Corps as they were shifted to the west. At the Battle of Chickamauga, Robertson’s troops began their protestation. “This officer has been complained of so frequently for want of conduct in time of battle,” wrote Longstreet, “that I apprehend that the abandonment by his brigade of its position of the night of the 28th [October] may have been due to his want of hearty co-operation.”
Unfortunately for Longstreet, the fast pace of war would not allow him to permanently relieve Robertson, and so along with the rest of the corps, he tramped to Knoxville. Following the siege and the Battle of Bean’s Station, Longstreet again pursued charges, this time with more ammunition.
John Bell Hood, who had complained of Robertson’s character, had been wounded. The new division commander, Micah Jenkins, also leveled grievances. Jenkins officially charged him with “conduct highly prejudicial to good order and military discipline.” According to the report, Robertson complained constantly and spoke openly and bitterly against the campaign and Longstreet. He was relieved of duty and sent north to Bristol.
The second involved General Lafayette McLaws, one of Longstreet’s two division commanders. They had been friends since childhood and were members of the same Class of ’42 at West Point. At the start of the war, McLaws rose quickly through the ranks – by spring of 1862, he commanded a division. With General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, McLaws’ Division, in Longstreet’s Corps, shared the victories and set backs with the rest of the army. When Longstreet was detached to the west, McLaws Division (along with John Bell Hood’s) followed.
McLaws performed well enough at Chattanooga, but when Longstreet moved north to attack Knoxville, things seemed to change. After the unsuccessful assaults upon Fort Sanders, McLaws felt the brunt of the blame. And after Bean’s Station, Longstreet relieved McLaws of command. Naturally, he requested to know why he was being relieved. Through his aide-de-camp, Moxley Sorrel, Longstreet explained to McLaws that he had “exhibited a want of confidence in the efforts and plans which the commanding general has thought proper to adopt, and he is apprehensive that this feeling will extend more or less to the troops under your command.” McLaws was not actually given any specifics.
Rather than putting him under arrest, Longstreet sent him away to Augusta, Georgia just in case anyone else might need a major-general. By December 18th, McLaws was on his way.
The third sort of story involved General Evander Law, who had, over the past year or so, become embittered toward Longstreet and just about everything else. Law was a brigade commander in Hood’s Division, and when Micah Jenkins was promoted to command it, he took offense, believing that it should be he who commanded, and not Jenkins.
In the hopes of relieving the broiling turmoil, Longstreet tried to place Robert Ransom, a brigade commander who had temporarily led a division in Longstreet’s Corps at Fredericksburg. Richmond, however, was not happy with the idea, and so Jenkins had to stay. Longstreet had no real issue with Law, but happily granted his request to be relieved. Originally, the reasoning was so that Law could go to Richmond to procure a cavalry command.
By this date, James Longstreet was finished, though the Evander Law strangeness had little effect on his decision. Longstreet had charged McLaws with Neglect of Duty, but did not arrest him. He also felt the situation did not warrant a court-martial. Unfortunately, Longstreet did not have the right to relieve one of his officers from duty and send him away to a place outside of his command. Because Longstreet leveled official charges, a court-martial had to be called – there was no getting around that.
When Richmond informed the general of such things, he resigned: “I am here without authority to order courts-martial or any other authority which is necessary to a separate command. I am entirely cut off from communication with General Bragg’s army, and cannot get from those headquarters orders for courts, boards of examination, or anything else. I desire to be assigned as part of some other officer’s command, whom I may reach with less trouble and in less time.”
By all appearances, he was serious, telling Richmond that if a senior officer could not be found to replace him, “it will give me much pleasure to relinquish” his command to a junior. In the hope of making it stick, Longstreet accepted all of the blame for the failed campaign (though he still forwarded charges against McLaws and Robertson).
In the end, Longstreet’s resignation was refused (as he no doubt assumed it would be). Charges against Robertson actually developed into a court-martial, but would find him (mostly) innocent, sending him back to home state of Texas to command reserve troops.
The McLaws case would drag on for months. Though Longstreet didn’t want it, and dragged his feet throughout it, a court-martial was convened in February, but wouldn’t wrap up until May. Like Robertson, McLaws would be found mostly innocent, and was exonerated by Richmond anyway.
As for Evander Law, much drama and misunderstanding would soon ensue, and again Richmond would step in to protect one of Longstreet’s subordinates. In Law’s absence, Longstreet had shuffled his brigade to another division. When Law returned to Longstreet’s command by the grace of Richmond, his brigade was no longer there. This mattered little, because as soon as he was within earshot of Longstreet, he was again placed under arrest. When Richmond intervened once more, Longstreet was ordered to reinstate Law to command, and to shift his brigade back to his original division.
But much of this was now in the future. As of this date, all Longstreet knew was that he wanted out.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 1, p467-468, 470, 498, 503; The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess. [↩]