Reviewed by Richard McMurry, Roanoke, Virginia
27 September 2002
The Papers of the Blue and Gray Education Society, Number 15
This publication was made possible by funds from the BGES’ Battlefield Education, Acquisition, Restoration, Scholarship Support (B.E.A.R.S.S) Fund, a living fund that supports the programs of our organization.
A Soldier’s General: The Civil War: Letters of Major General Lafayette McLaws, Edited by John C. Oeffinger. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Pp. 299. Notes. Illustrations. Index. ISBN: 0-8078-2690-I
Major General Lafayette McLaws (1821-1897) served the Confederacy as a regimental, brigade, and division commander. This native of Georgia graduated from West Point in 1842 (one of his boyhood friends and Academy classmates was James Longstreet). He then served in the United States army until 1861 when he followed his state into the Confederacy.
McLaws served capably but not brilliantly as a division commander. In 1863 at Gettysburg and even more so at Knoxville he fell out with Longstreet who commanded the corps of which McLaws’ Division was a part. Longstreet refused to allow McLaws to fight at Gettysburg as the latter wished and sought to make McLaws the scapegoat for the failed attack at Knoxville. As a result, McLaws left Longstreet’s command. He served in the Savannah defenses in 1864 and commanded troops in the Carolinas in 1865.
For inclusion in this collection, editor John Oeffinger has selected ninety-five of McLaws’ letters, mostly to members of his family (five of the letters date from his years in the U. S. Army); extracts from transcripts of thirteen more letters; and twenty-seven entries (February-March 1865) from the general’s journal.
McLaws’ writings, mostly letters to his wife Emily Taylor, a niece of Zachary Taylor, do give us insights into the life and mind of one of the least-known major generals in the Army of Northern Virginia. They also shed some light on the internal politics of the Rebel military establishment. Except for the journal entries covering the 1865 operations in the Carolinas, however, the documents do not deal with military operations in much detail.
Oeffinger’s editorial work is not intrusive. Overall, the index is more helpful than is often the case these days, although users should be aware that not every person mentioned in the letters is included. One of the letters is misdated (1862 rather than 1863 as the contents clearly indicate), but this is probably McLaws’ fault, not Oeffinger’s (pp. 126-127). The editor does confuse Columbia, South Carolina, and Columbus, Kentucky, (p. 129) and makes several other minor errors in his identification of people and things.
McLaws’ handwriting is often very difficult to read, and it is good to have these documents available in this easily accessible form. Students of the Confederate army and high-ranking officers can profit from this collection. Those seeking detailed material on battles and campaigns will probably be disappointed.