General James Longstreet (1821-1904) fought on the side of the Confederacy in almost every major battle of the U.S. Civil War. In addition to commanding one of the most noted offensives of the war at Chickamauga, he led troops at both First and Second Manassas and Gettysburg and stood beside Confederate general Robert E. Lee to the assignation at Appomattox Courthouse that brought an end to the war in the spring of 1865.
Despite the fact that he was highly respected by Robert E. Lee and one of the most noted commanders of the Confederate Army, General James Longstreet has been the subject of controversy since the U.S. Civil War. A highly respected soldier whose courage and thoughtfulness gained the respect of all under him, Longstreet fought in the Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), Sharpesburg, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, and on the lengthy Wilderness Campaign and commanded the Confederate First Corps from its creation in 1862 to Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in early April 1865. Although Longstreet's military record shows him to be a soldier as valiant as fellow Confederates Lee and Stonewall Jackson, his later criticism of Lee's maneuvers during the battle of Gettysburg was viewed as traitorous by southerners still loyal to Lee after the war. The blame for the heavy losses suffered at Gettysburg was placed squarely upon Longstreet's shoulders, and he was excluded from Confederate circles—even military reunions—through his death in 1904.
No Patience with Bookish Pursuits
The second surviving son of James and Mary Ann (Dent) Longstreet, James Longstreet was born January 8, 1821, at his paternal grandmother's home in Edgefield District, South Carolina. His family was of Dutch descent—the family name had originally been Langestraet—and his grandfather, William Longstreet, moved the family south from its original home in New Jersey in the 1780s. His father was a farmer, and James Junior was raised on the family's cotton plantation in the northeastern Georgia town of Piedmont. On his mother's side, which hailed from Maryland, Longstreet was related to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. Dubbed "Pete" by his family, Longstreet spent the first nine years engaged in farm work or outdoor activities with his older siblings William and Anna, as well as the four younger sisters he accumulated between 1822 and 1829. His father owned slaves and through the combined efforts of their toil and the family's work the Longstreet farm was prosperous. Young James's early education was one gained through hard work and time spent out of doors, and Longstreet developed physical strength, independence of mind, and a strong work ethic. While he dreamed of a military career, his parents recognized that entrance into West Point Military Academy would require preliminary academic training. On October 7, 1830, young Longstreet was removed from the rural life he loved and sent to the Augusta, Georgia, home of his uncle, noted attorney Augustus B. Longstreet, where he enrolled at the prestigious Richmond County Academy.
Three years after moving to Augusta, Longstreet suffered a family tragedy when his father died in a local cholera epidemic while on a visit. In June of 1838 seventeen-yearold Longstreet was admitted to West Point Academy in New York, an appointment obtained through the efforts of his uncle, Augustus. While a cadet at West Point, his interests continued to remain athletic rather than intellectual—he later wrote that he "had more interest in the school of the soldier, horsemanship, sword exercise, and the outside game of foot-ball than in the academic courses"—and he consistently ranked in the bottom third of his class. A sociable young man, Longstreet retained the family nickname "Old Pete" among his fellow cadets, and he gained several friends who he would retain throughout his adult life: one of these was a young man named Ulysses S. Grant, who was in the class behind Longstreet. At the time he graduated from West Point as part of the class of 1842, he ranked 54th in a class of 56, 16 of whom would go on to be Civil War generals.
Following graduation, Longstreet was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant with the U.S. Fourth Infantry, then stationed outside of St. Louis, Missouri. While stationed there, he fell in love with Mary Louisa Garland, the daughter of his regiment's commander; the couple honored her parent's request that they wait until Mary was older and were married in Lynchburg, Virginia, on March 8, 1848. Meanwhile, the ambitious Longstreet undertook tours of duty in Louisiana and Florida before traveling to Texas to join General Zachary Taylor's Eighth Infantry. During the border dispute that escalated into the Mexican War in May of 1846, 25-year-old Longstreet fought at the Battle of Cherubusco under General Winfield Scott, and a severe wound to the leg at Chapultepec prevented him from joining the U.S. troops as they marched into Mexico City on September 14, 1847, to end the war. He remained in Mexico at an army hospital until the end of the year, then returned to his regiment.
Gained Experience in Mexican War
Longstreet continued his career in the U.S. Army for over a decade, serving in Texas, Kansas, and New Mexico, and moved up the ranks through a promotion to major in the paymaster's department in July of 1858. Meanwhile, the political climate between the northern states and Longstreet's native south deteriorated, issues of states' rights, slavery, and economics creating a divide that politics could not mend. When Alabama seceded from the Union in January of 1861, Longstreet, like many other officers with ties to the south, felt the pull of his allegiance to his home in Georgia. He resigned his commission in the U.S. Army in May and joined the forces of the Confederacy as a lieutenant colonel. He traveled to the Confederate capitol at Richmond, Virginia, was appointed brigadier-general in June, and was sent to Manassas Junction, Virginia, to head a brigade of Virginia infantry.
The battle at Manassas, which became known as Bull Run, was the first major fight between north and south. Longstreet and his men participated in fighting on the 18th of July and stood as reserve troops during the actual battle at Bull Run, which occurred three days later. Although a Confederate victory, the battle revealed the bloody nature the war would take. During the fall and winter of 1861, while both sides regrouped, Longstreet was promoted to major-general and wintered with his division in Centreville, Virginia. Despite the lull in the war, the winter would hold tragedy for the Longstreets when the younger three of their four children died within a week of one another during an outbreak of scarlet fever. Longstreet, his wife, and their surviving son, 13-year-old Garland, were devastated.
After Longstreet returned to his command at Centreville, the Confederate Army was ordered to stop a move by Union troops toward Richmond. He showed himself to be a competent leader at skirmishes at Yorkton and Williamsburg in early May of 1862. At the Battle of Seven Pines, on May 31, Longstreet led the Confederate attack, a move that proved costly when he confused his orders. Fortunately, he learned from this mistake, and when General Robert E. Lee was appointed commander of the Army of Northern Virginia by Confederate president Jefferson Davis, Longstreet quickly proved his competency to the new commander, willing Lee's confidence during the Seven Days' Battles near Richmond in late June. In mid-August of 1862 Lee reengaged Union forces at the battle of Second Manassas. A Union victory under Major-General John Pope seemed foregone when, on August 29, Longstreet and his men arrived to support Lee's battered troops and sent five divisions in to storm a two-mile-long section of the Union flank. One of the bloodiest battles of the war, Second Manassas resulted in 25,000 casualties and proved a victory for the south.
Became Lee's "Old Warhorse"
At Sharpesburg, Maryland, on September 15, 1862, Longstreet watched, with General Lee and 18,000 Confederate troops, as 95,000 Union soldiers under General George B. McClellan marched before them. The following morning the armies engaged at the battle of Antietam; that afternoon Lee's valiant effort to make a northern push into Maryland cost him one fourth of his army. As the tide of battle turned against the Confederate ranks, Longstreet boosted moral among the scattered troops by ordering his personal staff to begin rapid fire of unused cannon into the Union line. This move inflicted casualties upon Federal troops sufficient to stop their advance. The Battle of Antietam, which casualties totaled 10,318 Confederate and 12,401 Union, was considered a technical victory for the South due to its battle against superior odds, but the course of the war was radically altered in its aftermath. On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. From this point on the war no longer turned on issues of states' rights or economics; it became a war against the enslavement of African Americans and as such, the north claimed the moral high ground.
His performance at Antietam earned Longstreet the epithet "old warhorse" from General Lee, who promoted him to lieutenant-general on October 11, 1862, and gave him command of the First Corps of Virginia. Another officer equally rewarded was Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, who became leader of the Second Corps. Relied upon by Lee due to his methodical nature and thoroughness, Longstreet remained a trusted advisor and Lee followed his counsel in many battles. A believer in tactical defense, Longstreet saw greater chance of victory in preserving the lives of his men and resisting the temptation to make heroic assaults on the enemy. Rather, he counseled Lee that a series of counterstrikes against Union offensives were the best chance of winning the war.
Turning back to the south, Lee marched his troops toward Virginia, pursued by General Ambrose Burnside, who had succeeded McClellan. Three months and 75 miles into this withdrawal, on December 13, the two armies collided in the small Virginia town of Fredericksburg. Lee, with Longstreet at his left flank and Jackson at his right, led 75,000 men against Burnside's 120,000. As wave upon wave of Union troops were ordered by General George Sumner to advance upon his 40,000 troops positioned on the high ground to the west of town, Longstreet recalled that the men downed by his firepower were like "the steady dripping of rain from the eaves of a house." Despite the tragic death of Jackson—shot accidentally by one of his own men during the night of May 2—Fredericksburg was a Confederate victory, Union losses numbering 12,600 compared to Lee's 5,300. Most of the Confederate casualties were "missing" men who abandoned their post in order to return to their families for Christmas.
The Tide Turned at Gettysburg
A Confederate victory at Chancellorsville in May o 1863 continued to build the south's confidence in their new general. Determined to give a show of Confederate strength, Lee marched north with Generals Longstreet, Richard S. Ewell, and A. P. Hill, and 70,000 troops. Lee's aim was to invade southern Pennsylvania, attack Philadelphia, and force Union General Ulysses S. Grant to defend the District of Columbia. Under Lee were Generals Longstreet, Richard S. Ewell, and A. P. Hill. On July 1, 1863, Hill's advance corps were spotted by a Union picket as they marched toward the small rural town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. With little intelligence as to the size or location of the opposing army, both Union troops under General George Meade and Lee's Confederates were in the process of resupplying and reorganizing their forces in anticipation of a major conflict. The clash of advance troops that occurred at Gettysburg ignited this conflict and brought about the longest three days of the war.
On July 1, the first day of battle, the Confederate army claimed victory, as Union casualties outnumbered Confederate, and Lee was left with 35,000 men compared to Meade's 25,000. The second day of battle opened with an attack by Lee on the union right flank, a decision Longstreet strongly argued against in favor of taking a defensive position on Seminary Ridge and repulsing Meade's advance. Longstreet believed that an offensive posture should only be adopted when an attack was planned in advance, and victory was probable. Both Longstreet, who opposed the Union's southern flank, and Ewell, equally uncomfortable with Lee's plan and directed by Lee to oppose the Union north, stalled their attacks until the afternoon. According to his chief of staff, Longstreet neglected to send scouts out to study the ground of the proposed battle—a move a prudent general would undertake—and this negligence on his part was later used as evidence of his contravention of Lee's orders. During the hours Longstreet postponed his attack, Union General Daniel Sickle made the probably misguided decision to move his troops from the high ground at Little Round Top and cross the orchard below. At 4:00 in the afternoon, Longstreet ordered his First Corps northeast from Warfield Ridge, attacking Sickle's men in the Peach Orchard in an effort to occupy the strategic advantage at Little Round Top. The battle raged for three hours, Sickle's troops strengthened by reserves led by General Gouverneur K. Warren. At the close of July 2, Longstreet's effort had failed and Union troops retained control of Little Round Top.
That evening Longstreet met with Lee, Ewell, and Hill. In the belief that the Union army was weakened, Lee was determined to stage a frontal assault, and he ordered Longstreet to command this action. In vain, the "old warhorse" attempted to convince Lee that the Union forces were far from vanquished; as he later wrote, "when the [second day's] battle was over, General Lee pronounced it a success … but we had accomplished little toward victorious results." Longstreet also realized—as did others—that Lee's proposed attack—across an open field surrounded by Union troops occupying the high ground—spelled disaster. Longstreet proved to be correct. The following morning Meade, anticipating Lee's attack, reinforced his center, and after an unsuccessful seven-hour effort by Ewell to gain the high ground at Culp's Hill, the Confederates pulled back. Two hours later, at 1:00 in the afternoon, after once again failing to dissuade Lee, Longstreet supervised a 140-cannon bombardment of the Union left flank. This barrage was answered by 110 Union guns, making it the largest artillery battle in U.S. history. After an hour Meade ordered a cease fire, leading Lee to believe the Union batteries had been demolished. When the smoke cleared at three in the afternoon, Lee ordered Longstreet to advance on the Union center, an order Longstreet transferred to his friend, Major General George E. Pickett. Horrified, Longstreet and Pickett watched as a line of well-shielded Union forces armed with highly accurate rifled muskets fired on their 13,000 Confederate troops marching in formation toward Cemetery Ridge. Over 6,500 of Longstreet's men marched to their death, fell wounded on the field of battle, or were captured.
After the Turning Point of the War
A devastating defeat for the Confederacy, the Battle of Gettysburg cost the south 3,903 dead, 18,735 wounded, and 5,425 missing; the Union army suffered 3,155 dead, 14,529 wounded, and 5,365 missing. These casualties forced the south into a defensive war and energized the Union into beginning its push south into northwest Georgia. Longstreet and the First Corps were sent by rail to the aid of General Braxton Bragg, who with his ill-kempt force had been holding defensive positions near Lafayette, Georgia, since late December 1862. Union forces collided with Bragg at Chickamauga Creek on Saturday, September 19, 1863, and fought on for hours in confusion. By Sunday morning, when Longstreet and his 12,000 men arrived, he was given an additional 11,000 troops and ordered into the fray. Cognizant of his men's fatigue following their all-night march, Longstreet postponed his assault until 11:00, then ordered five divisions to attack the Union front line. His attack severely weakened the Union array and forced the opposing troops into a large-scale retreat toward Chattanooga. Longstreet's decision to delay his attack resulted in one of the strongest offensive battles of the war; he continued on the offensive for the duration of the Chickamauga conflict, halting the Union advance southward and contributing to what became a costly victory for the South.
In the days following Chickamauga, Longstreet urged General Bragg to pursue the withdrawing Union force and destroy it, but Bragg resisted, thereby losing the south's momentum. Longstreet was so angered that he formally requested President Davis to order Bragg's dismissal, noting: "I am convinced that nothing but the hand of God can help as long as we have our present commander." His efforts proved unsuccessful, and Bragg remained in command. While the Union Army remained entrenched in Chattanooga, Bragg and his generals surrounded the city and awaited the north's surrender. Camped on Lookout Mountain, Longstreet and his men waylaid all shipments of food and supplies into Chattanooga except a meager flow from the north. The arrival of Generals Grant, George Sherman, and Joseph Hooker in late October would spark the battle at nearby Brown's Ferry that broke the Confederate blockade of the starving Union forces in Chattanooga. However, Longstreet would not be there to participate; before the battle at Brown's Ferry he was ordered to Knoxville to engage in an unsuccessful effort to seize that city from Union General Ambrose Burnside. On the 25th of September the Confederate forces at Chickamauga fell to Union advances. Union General George Sherman now began his move south, creating the path of devastation through Atlanta into Savannah that became known as "Sherman's march to the Sea." A Union victory appeared imminent.
Longstreet and his men wintered in eastern Tennessee and joined Lee in Virginia in late April of 1864. In May of 1864 Longstreet helped Lee repulse efforts by Grant to breech the Confederate lines near Chancellorsville, part of a prolonged battle that became known as the Wilderness Campaign. Wounded by a bullet that passed through his throat and into his shoulder, Longstreet was forced to leave his post until October. Meanwhile, stalemates at battles at North Harbor and Cold Harbor continued to draw on Confederate strength. When Longstreet rejoined his command, Lee was defending the Confederate capitol of Richmond against Grant at nearby Petersburg; the battle deteriorated into trench warfare after Union troops finally breached Richmond's fortifications on April 3, 1865. The Army of the Confederacy was now in retreat. On Sunday, April 9, 1865, Longstreet accompanied a tired and beaten Robert E. Lee to Appomattox, West Virginia. There, in the town's small courthouse, the war between the states was brought to a close, the cost the death of over 620,000 Americans.
Became Scapegoat for Lee's Defenders
After the war, Longstreet planned to move his family to Texas, where he had served prior to the Civil War, but ultimately moved to New Orleans where he worked in insurance and became a cotton factor. Grant's election to the presidency in 1869 provided him with a new opportunity: the position of surveyor of customs in New Orleans, Louisiana, for a salary of $6,000 per year. Longstreet accepted and joined the Republican Party of longtime friend Grant, his loyalty to the administration eventually earning him federal appointments as postmaster of Gainesville, minister to Turkey, U.S. marshal, and U.S. commissioner of railroads. He and his wife made their home in Gainesville, where they remained until Mary Longstreet died in December 1889, at the age of sixty-two.
Although the war was over, the battle lines between the republican north and the south were still very much in evidence, and Longstreet's party affiliation—and his surprising conversion to Roman Catholicism—branded him a traitor in the Protestant south. Although continuing to retain Lee's friendship until the general's death in 1870, many southerners—even those who had once hailed him as a military hero—now cast dispersions on his military record and blamed him for the disaster at Gettysburg. In defense of his criticism of Lee's tactical offensive at the Battle of Gettysburg, which Longstreet maintained resulted in the death of thousands of Confederate troops during Pickett's Charge, the former general published From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America in 1896. His position was further defended by his second wife, Helen Dorch Longstreet, who married him on September 8, 1897, when she was thirty-four. Helen continued to defend her husband even after his death from pneumonia on January 2, 1904, publishing Lee and Longstreet at High Tide: Gettysburg in the Light of the Official Record. Through the twentieth century a battle of the books raged as supporters of Robert E. Lee attempted to rest the blame for Gettysburg squarely on the shoulders of Longstreet, and revisionist historians attempted to reevaluate Lee's record as a general after his aura as the leader of the "Lost Cause" began to fade.
Conrad, Bryan, James Longstreet: Lee's War Horse, University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
Dinard, R. L, and Albert A. Nofi, editors, Longstreet: The Man, the Soldier, the Controversy, Da Capo Press, 1998.
Longstreet, James, From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America, edited by Jeffry D. Wert, Da Capo Press, 1992.
Piston, William Garrett, Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant, University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Wert, Jeffry D., General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier, Fireside Books, 1994.
American History, March 1998, p. 16.