American Civil War: Major General Lafayette McLaws

Lafayette McLaws
Major General Lafayette McLaws. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Lafayette McLaws - Early Life & Career:

Born in Augusta, GA on January 15, 1821, Lafayette McLaws was the son of James and Elizabeth McLaws. Named for the Marquis de Lafayette, he disliked his name which was pronounced "LaFet" in his native state. While receiving his early education at Augusta's Richmond Academy, McLaws was schoolmates with his future commander, James Longstreet. When he turned sixteen in 1837, Judge John P. King recommended that McLaws be appointed to the US Military Academy. While accepted for an appointment, it was deferred a year until Georgia had a vacancy to fill. As a result, McLaws elected to attend the University of Virginia for a year. Leaving Charlottesville in 1838, he entered West Point on July 1.

While at the academy, McLaws' classmates included Longstreet, John Newton, William Rosecrans, John Pope, Abner Doubleday, Daniel H. Hill, and Earl Van Dorn. Struggling as student, he graduated in 1842 ranked forty-eighth in a class of fifty-six. Commissioned as a brevet second lieutenant on July 21, McLaws received an assignment to the 6th US Infantry at Fort Gibson in the Indian Territory. Promoted to second lieutenant two years later, he moved to the 7th US Infantry. In late 1845, his regiment joined Brigadier General Zachary Taylor's Army of Occupation in Texas. The following March, McLaws and the army shifted south to the Rio Grande opposite the Mexican town of Matamoros.  

Lafayette McLaws - Mexican-American War:

Arriving in late March, Taylor ordered the construction of Fort Texas along the river before moving the bulk of his command to Point Isabel. The 7th Infantry, with Major Jacob Brown in command, was left to garrison the fort. In late April, American and Mexican forces first clashed beginning the Mexican-American War. On May 3, Mexican troops opened fire on Fort Texas and commenced a siege of the post. Over the next few days, Taylor won victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma before relieving the garrison. Having endured the siege, McLaws and his regiment remained in place through the summer before taking part the Battle of Monterrey that September. Suffering from ill health, he was placed on the sick list from December 1846 into February 1847. 

Promoted to first lieutenant on February 16, McLaws played a role in the Siege of Veracruz the following month. Continuing to have health issues, he was then ordered north to New York to for recruiting duty. Active in this role through the rest of the year, McLaws returned to Mexico in early 1848 after making several requests to rejoin his unit. Ordered home in June, his regiment moved to Jefferson Barracks in Missouri. While there, he met and married Taylor's niece Emily. Promoted to captain in 1851, the next decade saw McLaws move through a variety of posts on the frontier.

Lafayette McLaws - The Civil War Begins:

With the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and start of the Civil War in April 1861, McLaws resigned from the US Army and accepted a commission as a major in the Confederate service. In June, he became colonel of the 10th Georgia Infantry and his men were assigned to the Peninsula in Virginia. Aiding to construct defenses in this area, McLaws greatly impressed Brigadier General John Magruder. This led to a promotion to brigadier general on September 25 and command of a division later that fall. In the spring, Magruder's position came under attack when Major General George B. McClellan commenced his Peninsula Campaign. Performing well during the Siege of Yorktown, McLaws earned a promotion to major general effective May 23.   

Lafayette McLaws - Army of Northern Virginia:

As the season progressed, McLaws saw further action as General Robert E. Lee commenced a counter-offensive which resulted in the Seven Days' Battles. During the campaign, his division contributed to the Confederate victory at Savage's Station but was repelled at Malvern Hill. With McClellan checked on the Peninsula, Lee reorganized the army and assigned McLaws' division to Longstreet's corps. When the Army of Northern Virginia moved north in August, McLaws' and his men remained on the Peninsula to watch Union forces there. Ordered north in September, the division operated under Lee's control and assisted Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's capture of Harpers Ferry.  

Ordered to Sharpsburg, McLaws earned Lee's ire by moving slowly as the army re-concentrated prior to the Battle of Antietam. Reaching the field, the division aided in holding the West Woods against Union attacks. In December, McLaws regained Lee's respect when his division and the rest of Longstreet's corps resolutely defended Marye's Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg. This recovery proved short-lived as he was tasked with checking Major General John Sedgwick's VI Corps during the final stages of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Facing the Union force with his division and that of Major General Jubal A. Early, he again moved slowly and lacked aggressiveness in dealing with the enemy. 

This was noted by Lee, who when he reorganized the army after Jackson's death, declined Longstreet's recommendation that McLaws receive command of one of the two newly-created corps. Though a reliable officer, McLaws functioned best when given direct commands under close supervision. Upset by perceived favoritism to officers from Virginia, he requested a transfer which was refused. Marching north that summer, McLaws' men arrived at the Battle of Gettysburg early on July 2. After several delays, his men attacked Brigadier General Andrew A. Humphreys' and Major General David Birney's divisions of Major General Daniel Sickles' III Corps. Under the personal supervision of Longstreet, McLaws pushed Union forces back capturing the Peach Orchard and beginning a back and forth struggle for the Wheatfield. Unable to break through, the division fell back to defensible positions that evening. The next day, McLaws remained in place as Pickett's Charge was defeated to the north.   

Lafayette McLaws - In the West: 

On September 9, the bulk of Longstreet's corps was ordered west to aid General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee in northern Georgia. Though he had not yet arrived, the lead elements of McLaws' division saw action during the Battle of Chickamauga under the guidance of Brigadier General Joseph B. Kershaw. Reassuming command after the Confederate victory, McLaws and his men initially took part in siege operations outside of Chattanooga before moving north later in the fall as part of Longstreet's Knoxville Campaign. Attacking the city's defenses on November 29, McLaws' division was baldy repelled. In the wake of the defeat, Longstreet relieved him but elected not to court-martial him as he believed McLaws might be useful to the Confederate Army in another position.

Irate, McLaws requested a court-martial to clear his name. This was granted and commenced in February 1864. Due to delays in obtaining witnesses, a ruling was not issued until May. This found McLaws not guilty on two charges of neglect of duty but guilty on a third. Though sentenced to sixty days without pay and command, the punishment was immediately suspended due to wartime needs. On May 18, McLaws received orders for the defenses of Savannah in the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Though he argued that he was being scapegoated for Longstreet's failure at Knoxville, he accepted this new assignment.

While in Savannah, McLaws' new division unsuccessfully resisted Major General William T. Sherman's men that fall at the conclusion of the March to the Sea. Retreating north, his men saw continued action during the Carolinas Campaign and took part in the Battle of Averasborough on March 16, 1865. Lightly engaged at Bentonville three days later, McLaws lost his command when General Joseph E. Johnston reorganized Confederate forces after the battle. Sent to lead the District of Georgia, he was in that role when the war ended.

Lafayette McLaws - Later Life:

Staying in Georgia, McLaws entered the insurance business and later served as a tax collector. Engaged in Confederate veterans' groups, he initially defended Longstreet against those, such as Early, who attempted to blame the defeat at Gettysburg on him. During this time, McLaws did reconcile to some degree with his former commander who admitted that relieving him was a mistake. Late in his life, resentment towards Longstreet resurfaced and he began to side with Longstreet's detractors. McLaws died in Savannah on July 24, 1897, and was buried in the city's Laurel Grove Cemetery.  

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Lafayette McLaws." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General Lafayette McLaws. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Lafayette McLaws." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).