McLaws attended the University of Virginia before he went to West point. He graduated from West Point in 1842, ranked 48 out of 56 in his class. He was assigned to the infantry officer. He served in garrison, on the frontier, in the Mexican War, and in the Utah Expedition to suppress the Mormon uprising.
While at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, he married Emily Allison Taylor, the niece of President Zachary Taylor.
At the start of the Civil War, he had served for 10 years in the U.S. Army. He resigned his commission on March 23, 1861, and was commissioned a major in the Confederate Army. He was quickly promoted to Colonel of the 10th Georgia Infantry regiment; then quickly again to Brigadier General in brigade and division command in the Seven Days Battles; then, on May 23, 1862, to major general. He joined Lieutenant Gen. James Longstreet's corps in the Army of Northern Virginia as 1st Division commander and stayed with Longstreet for most of the war.
At Chancellorsville, while the rest of Longstreet's corps was detached for duty near Norfolk, McLaws fought directly under Lee's command. On May 3, 1863, Lee sent McLaws' division to stop the Union VI Corps under Major Gen. John Sedgwick marching toward Lee's rear. He did accomplish this, but Lee was disappointed that McLaws had not attacked more aggressively and caused more harm to Sedgwick, instead of letting him escape across the Rappahannock River. When Lee reorganized his army to compensate for Jackson's mortal wounding at Chancellorsville, Longstreet recommended his subordinate for one of the two new corps commands, but both men were disappointed when Lee chose Lieutenant Gen. Richard S. Ewell and Lieutenant Gen. A.P. Hill instead. McLaws requested a transfer, but it was denied.
During Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, he commanded the second division to step off in Longstreet's massive assault on the Union left flank. He achieved great success in the areas known as the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard, but the army as a whole was unable to dislodge the Union forces from their positions on Cemetery Ridge. His division did not participate in Pickett's Charge the next day, despite Longstreet's command of that assault.
McLaws accompanied Longstreet's corps to Tennessee to come to the aid of Gen. Braxton Bragg's army. His division arrived too late to help at Chickamauga and Chattanooga. Longstreet became displeased with his cooperation and preparations for the assault at Fort Sanders and at Bean's Station.
In the Knoxville Campaign, Longstreet relieved McLaws for the failure of the attack on Fort Sanders on December 17, 1863, citing inadequate preparations. A court of inquiry cleared McLaws of most charges on May 4, 1864, but it took the intercession of President Jefferson Davis disapproved the findings on the 7th and ordered him back to duty with his Division, now back in Virginia. Understandably, his relationship with Longstreet was ruined.
He left the corps and, since Lee would not accept him for command in Virginia, he was sent to Georgia to defend Savannah against Major Gen. William T. Sherman's "March to the Sea" Campaign . He was unable to defend Savannah and had to abandon the city. He fought at Bentonville while continuing to retreat. He surrendered with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's army in Durham, North Carolina on April 26, 1865.
After the war, McLaws worked in the insurance business, served as Savannah's postmaster, and was active in Confederate veterans' organizations. Despite his wartime differences with Longstreet, McLaws initially defended Longstreet in the post-war attempts by Major Gen. Jubal A. Early and others to smear his reputation. Just before his death, however, his opinion changed about the lost cause movement, and he began speaking out about Longstreet's failures at Gettysburg.
Lafayette McLaws died in Savannah and is buried there in Laurel Grove Cemetery. He is the posthumous author of "A Soldier's General: The Civil War Letters of Major General Lafayette McLaws."
Major- May ??, 1861
Colonel - June 17, 1861
Brigadier General - September 25, 1861
Major General - May 23, 1862
1st brigade, Department of the Peninsula (October 3 - November 10, 1861)
2nd Division, Department of the Peninsula (November 10, 1861 - April 12, 1862)
Division, Magruder's Command, Department of Northern Virginia (April 12 - July 1862)
Division, lst Corps, Army of Northern Virginia (July 1862 - September 9, 1863)
Division, Longstreet's Corps, Army of Tennessee (September 19 - November 5, 1863)
Division, Department of East Tennessee (November 5 - December 17, 1863)
District of Georgia and 3rd Military District of South Carolina, Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida (May 25 - July 1864)
Division, same department (July 1864 - April 9, 1865)