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150 years ago: Longstreet returns to Army of Northern Virginia

Spring 1864 meant a reunion of sorts as James Longstreet left eastern Tennessee to return to Virginia and rejoin Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. In doing so, Longstreet left the turmoil of Tennessee behind him. Once again forming the winning combination of Lee and Longstreet, the question was if that pairing was enough to bring about Confederate victory.

In 1863, Longstreet experienced defeat at Gettysburg, military brilliance at Chickamauga and a bitter feud with Braxton Bragg and some subordinate generals at Chattanooga and east Tennessee.

Since his internal war with Bragg and failure to capture Knoxville, Tenn., Longstreet's corps had been living off the land in eastern Tennessee. This was a difficult task as much of this region had remained loyal to the Union throughout the war.

At the start of 1864, Longstreet favored plans to team with Joseph E. Johnston or P.G.T. Beauregard in an attempt to recapture Nashville or even Kentucky. Such a maneuver could possibly force Union troops in Chattanooga to fall back.

Longstreet understood the plight of the Confederacy in 1864, surmising that the Confederacy could no longer win the war outright by military victories only. Instead, the Confederacy needed to achieve some sort of success that would break the Northern morale and cause the populace not to re-elect Abraham Lincoln for a second term.

With the collapse of northern morale, peace negotiations could possibly begin. If Lincoln was no longer president and a Peace Democrat was elected, such peace negotiations might prove successful in ending the war without a Southern defeat.

Longstreet's Nashville or Kentucky plans were not accepted. Instead, Longstreet left eastern Tennessee in April 1864 to rejoin Lee. While Longstreet's corps had fought at Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, Wauhatchie and Knoxville, the Army of Northern Virginia had been in a stalemate with the Army of the Potomac since Gettysburg.

In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was named lieutenant general and placed in charge of all Union armies. Instead of staying in the western theater, Grant trusted William T. Sherman to execute the advance into Georgia. Meanwhile, Grant attached himself to the Army of the Potomac, pitting him against Lee.

Longstreet's role after reuniting with Lee initially proved to be a short one. On May 6, 1864, Longstreet's corps arrived at the Battle of the Wilderness to prevent the rout of A.P. Hill's corps.

Along the Orange Plank Road, Longstreet's corps pitched into Winfield Scott Hancock's II Corps, creating a panic in the Federal lines. During the fighting, Confederate troops accidentally fired upon Longstreet and some of his generals. Ironically, Longstreet was only 4 miles from the spot where Stonewall Jackson was shot by his own troops in 1863.

Two of Joseph Kershaw's staff were killed instantly and Micah Jenkins mortally wounded. Longstreet was also hit by the Confederate volley. The bullet passed through Longstreet's shoulder, severing nerves and ripping a gash in his throat.

As Longstreet was lowered from his horse, Kershaw shouted "friends" in hopes of stopping another volley. An aide named Peyton Manning rode into the face of the infantry that was about to fire a second volley, stopping the errant fire.

With the loss of Longstreet, the Confederate momentum faded away. E.P. Alexander said of the loss of Longstreet, "I have always believed that, but for Longstreet's fall, the panic which was fairly underway in Hancock's Corps would have been extended & have resulted in Grant's being forced to retreat back across the Rapidan."

Longstreet missed the entire summer campaign, returning to Augusta, Ga., to recuperate. Meanwhile, Lee desperately needed his Old Warhorse to help stop Grant and the Army of the Potomac. Longstreet would not rejoin Lee until October 1864.

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