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Lafayette McLaws: Setting the record straight

March 15, 2003 1:07 am

A SOLDIER'S GENERAL: THE CIVIL WAR LETTERS OF MAJOR GENERAL LAFAYETTE McLAWS, edited by John C. Oeffinger. The University of North Carolina Press, 299 pages. Illustrations, footnotes, bibliography, index. $34.95.

OF LATE, SOME Civil War historians have set out to rehabilitate the reputations of certain Confederate generals, chief among them Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, who fell into disfavor after the war for failing to support the prevailing view that Gen. Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson could do no wrong. It seems only fair, under the cir-cumstances, that other Confederate generals who have remained in undeserved obscurity should also now receive their due from the historical profession.

In the case of Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws, illumination of the historical record raises questions about the performance of other generals, Longstreet among them.

McLaws was born in Augusta, Ga., in 1821, but had ties to South Carolina through his mother. He first met Long-street at school in Augusta, but McLaws spent a year at the University of Virginia before entering West Point. McLaws graduated 50th, Longstreet 40th, in the academy's Class of 1842, which numbered 56.

Having served in the Indian Territory, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida prior to the Mexican War, McLaws entered Texas with Zachary Taylor's army, then transferred to that of Winfield Scott, but spent a large portion of the war on sick leave. During postwar duty at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, he met and married a niece of Zachary Taylor who hailed from Kentucky.

The 1850s found him serving in New Mexico and Utah. Capt. McLaws was engaged in an expedition against the Navajo when the secession crisis arose. He resigned his commission in May 1861, returned to Georgia, entered Confederate service as a major, and was elected colonel of the 10th Georgia.

McLaws and his regiment soon moved north to Virginia, where they were assigned to the Peninsula forces under the command of Brig. Gen. John Bankhead Magruder. McLaws' military experience gave him advantages over regimental commanders who had been civilians before the war, and he doubtless deserved promotion to brigadier general in September 1861. Soon after, Magruder was made a major general, and McLaws remained under his command until the spring of 1862. McLaws' letters provide considerable insight into what life was like on the Peninsula in 1861 and early 1862. A creditable performance in the Battle of Williamsburg won McLaws promotion to major general in May 1862.

McLaws' division was not engaged at Second Manassas, but took part in the operations that resulted in Stonewall Jackson's capture of Harpers Ferry in September 1862. It arrived on the field at Sharpsburg as John Bell Hood's Texas Brigade was being driven back, and helped stabilize that portion of the Confederate lines. The division held the Sunken Road below Marye's Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg, for which it won much praise.

As for the division's commander, the prevailing opinion is that he was competent in a defensive fight, but lacked the imagination to function successfully on offense. At Chancellorsville, McLaws performed well enough when under the direct command of Gen. Lee, but did not act knowledgeably or aggressively when he found himself in command at Salem Church. He thereby failed to deliver a potentially devastating blow to a large enemy force under the command of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick.

McLaws' division was part of Longstreet's Corps at Gettysburg, where it fought in the Peach Orchard and Devil's Den on the second day of the battle. In his letters, McLaws was critical of Longstreet's performance that day; he considered the attack unnecessary, and blamed Longstreet for not reconnoitering the ground and for continuing the attack after his errors were discovered.

According to McLaws, Longstreet gave contrary orders that day, and behaved in an exceedingly overbearing manner. His verdict on Longstreet after Gettysburg was fairly concise: "I consider him a humbug--a man of small capacity, very obstinate, not at all chivalrous, exceedingly conceited, and totally selfish."

It is unclear from his letters how guarded McLaws was in his criticism of Longstreet within the army. His division and that of Hood accompanied Longstreet to Georgia in September 1863, but McLaws and most of his men did not make it to northern Georgia in time to fight in the Battle of Chickamauga.

In November, Longstreet and his two divisions set out to take Knoxville, then held by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's reinforced 9th Corps, but Longstreet mishandled an attempt to capture the town. He subsequently brought charges against McLaws and Brig. Gens. Evander Law and Jerome B. Robertson for dissension and various military failings in an evident attempt to shift the blame for the failure at Knoxville. However, President Jefferson Davis exonerated all three men and assigned them to other duties.

McLaws was given command of the District of Georgia with headquarters at Savannah, where he spent most of 1864. When Sherman's forces approached the city, McLaws retreated into South Carolina, eventually joining Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee. His letters contain interesting information about the Battles of Averasboro and Bentonville. McLaws' command was surrendered with Johnston's army.

After the war, McLaws ran an insurance company in Augusta and served as collector of internal revenue and postmaster in Savannah. McLaws was reconciled to Longstreet, who finally admitted that he had wronged his subordinate, in the 1890s, and died in 1897.

McLaws' letters, most of them addressed to his wife, reveal much information about what it was like to serve as a division commander in the Army of Northern Virginia, in terms of staffing, living arrangements and day-to-day life. Discussions of military strategy and tactics, operational art and troop dispositions are noticeably lacking. After all, how interested would McLaws' wife have been in these subjects?

We learn a lot about McLaws' four children, about the methods by which husband and wife exchanged messages (someone they knew was always going home or heading back to the army), about nepotism in the Army of Northern Virginia and about McLaws' attitude toward the war and life in general.

John C. Oeffinger, who transcribed and edited these letters, most of which are from the Lafayette McLaws Collection in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Southern Historical Collection, has done the Civil War community a service by shepherding this volume to publication. Lafayette McLaws has long deserved a biographer, and we may hope that having the most important of his Civil War letters in print will make that goal more obtainable.

It must be observed, however, that a different editorial strategy would have made this a far better book. Oeffinger's 61-page introductory essay is heavily larded with genealogical information on the McLaws and Taylor families; a simple chart of the two families would have been more concise and less confusing. Most of the footnotes provide bare-bones biographical information on various people mentioned in the letters; a glossary of names would have freed up the footnotes for important information about events mentioned in the letters, unfortunately absent from the book as published.

Editorial headnotes could have summarized various phases of the war from McLaws' perspective. Finally, a timeline interspersed among the letters would have provided historical context, necessary given the frequent gaps of several months between letters. In short, this is an important work that could have been better.

DANE HARTGROVE of Stafford County is editor of Drum & Bugle, newsletter of the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Round Table.

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