Daily Archives: March 22, 2015

The Reconcilled Rebel: James Longstreet

Friends of Padre Steve’s World 

I am going to periodically interspersing and publishing short articles about various commanders at Gettysburg  on the site. These all come from my student text and the reason is I am going to do this is because I have found that readers are often more drawn to the lives of people than they are events. As I have noted before that people matter, even flawed people, and we can learn from them.

Today’s vignette is about Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet who commanded the Confederate First Corps of  Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg, and is considered by many military historians to be the best corps commander on either side during the war. Yet, Longstreet is one of the most controversial figures in the Confederate Army and there are lessons, good and bad to be learned from him. But I think the one thing that can be learned is that for Longstreet the war was never a “holy cause” and he refused to give in to the hatred that consumed so many Confederates during and after the war. Longstreet chose the path of reconciliation when the war was over and in doing so was mailigned by many in the South. 


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James Longstreet was a native of the Piedmont area of northeastern Georgia. His father, a planter, hailed from a Dutch family that had originally migrated to the colonies in 1687. The young Longstreet, nicknamed Peter or Pete by his family had determined as a child that he would have a military career. His father assisted in his admission to the Military Academy which he entered in 1838. Longstreet was neither a model cadet nor student. He graduated in 1842 “ranked fifty-fourth in a class of fifty-six” [1] and was commissioned into the infantry.

At West Point the young Georgian’s academic performance was lackluster, and he accumulated a significant amounts of demerits. However, the husky Longstreet was well liked and made many lifelong friends while at the academy. His class was distinguished and produced ten Confederate and seven Union Generals during the war. Longstreet’s best friend was a cadet from Ohio in the class which followed him, Ulysses S. Grant of whom Longstreet said was “of noble, generous heart, a lovable character, a valued friend.” [2] That friendship would endure for the rest of their lives.

Longstreet served in the West and went to Texas after it was annexed into the Union. Subsequently, he served in Mexico, getting his first taste of combat on the Rio Grande, then at Monterrey and later at Chapultepec. At Chapultepec, Longstreet was in command of Company H of the 8th Infantry Regiment which was leading the assault. He was near the head of the regiment the regiment as they breached the first parapet carrying the regimental colors “which he had grabbed …as they fell from the hands of their wounded bearer[3] Wounded in the thigh, he handed the colors to his friend George Pickett, whose Company A was advancing behind Longstreet’s company.

After his wound healed Longstreet continued to serve in Texas and later in the New Mexico Territory in campaigns against the Comanche. Serving in various command and staff positions including as a company commander, regimental adjutant, and department Quartermaster he became a well-rounded officer. He was promoted to Major and appointed as a Paymaster. With the promotion he was assigned to duties at Fort Leavenworth in 1858 and then again to New Mexico in 1859.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 and Southern states began to secede, Longstreet, who was not a proponent of secession, did not hesitate and offered his services to the Governor of Alabama in February 1861. However, there are many questions about this period due to the conflicting story that Longstreet recorded and what the administrative and pay documents record.

Longstreet resigned his commission on May 9th 1861, though he had already accepted a commission in the new Confederate Army dated May 1st 1861 with a date of rank of March 16th 1861 “eight days before he wrote his letter of resignation from the United States Army.” [4] His biographer Jeffry Wert notes that the acceptance of the Confederate commission while he was still serving as an officer in the United States Army, is “a dark story of a man who crossed the delicate line between honor and dishonor” and that “what he did, however, was not the act of an honorable man and officer.” [5] While there may be extenuating circumstances that we do not know, it does appear that Longstreet crossed a line that few, if any other active officers who left the Army for Confederate service crossed.

After his resignation he travelled to Richmond where he was promoted to Brigadier General on June 17th and given command of a brigade that fought at Bull Run. He was consider to be one of the best Brigadiers in the army and was promoted to Major General on October 7th 1861. After this promotion, Longstreet was given command of a division on the Peninsula. He was noted by his aide Moxie Sorrel to be “rather gay in disposition with his chums, fond of a glass, and very skillful at poker.” [6] However, during that time, his family living in Richmond was ravaged by a Scarlett fever outbreak in January 1862 which claimed the lives of three of his children, leaving him a much more serious, and very changed man. “There was no more gaiety, no more poker, and, certainly for the time, no more liquor. Essentially, from that tragic January, he was a soldier and little besides.” [7]

When Lee took over the Army, Longstreet quickly became one of his most trusted subordinates. Following the Seven Days battles Longstreet was promoted to command a wing of the army, with Jackson commanding the other. These were in effect army corps and functioned as such until the Confederate Congress allowed the creation of army corps within the army. The Confederate Congress then promoted each man to the Rank of Lieutenant General. The contrasts between the two men were remarkable. One of Lee’s biographers wrote of the contrast between Jackson and Longstreet and how each man in a sense reflect a part of his military personality:

“In these two latter men Lee seemed to have recognize the Janus face of his own military personality. Longstreet seemed to be steady and dependable, the consummate professional. Jackson, on the other hand, had been by turns brilliant (the Valley) and useless (Mechanicsville and White Oak Swamp). But Jackson was a killer, possessed of the same sorts of aggressive instincts which obsessed Lee.” [8]

During the 1862 campaign Longstreet built a solid reputation as a commander. Douglas Southall Freeman wrote that if there was a word Longstreet’s contemporaries would have used to describe him “they would have agreed on the same soldierly term: dependable. Brilliance there might not be, reliability there undoubtedly was.” [9] He led that corps in the hammer blows that nearly destroyed Pope’s army at Second Manassas, grimly held the line at Antietam, and helped direct the massacre of Burnside’s attacking force at Fredericksburg. His corps was not present at Chancellorsville. As a commander he was noted for his devoted care and concern for the welfare of his soldiers, his reluctance to waste their lives in what he believed to be unwise, foolish, or suicidal attacks and “Under his command, the First Corps was the “bedrock” of the army.” [10]

During their time together Lee and Longstreet developed “a close personal and professional relationship.” [11] Lee would refer to him at times as “the staff in my right hand” and “my old war horse.” After Jackson’s death their relationship grew closer, even when they did not agree, not an uncommon occurrence. Longstreet could be, and was, blunt with Lee and thankfully for the two men, Lee “was a strong enough personality to bear the presence of a contrarian,” [12] Longstreet could indeed be a contrarian. Even so, Longstreet was a trusted subordinate and Longstreet later wrote that the relationship was “one of confidence and esteem, official and personal, which ripened into stronger ties as the mutations of war bore heavier upon us.” [13]

Longstreet’s presence as a gruff but kindhearted Georgian in an army dominated by Virginians who “idolized Lee” brought him to appoint “himself to pronounce on military reality, which was to say that his outlook on war was more practical than romantic.” [14] That outlook and honesty would cause Longstreet great consternation after the war as Jubal Early and other leaders of the Lost Cause branded him a “Judas” for his actions at Gettysburg and criticism of Robert E. Lee. Even at Gettysburg, despite their differences of opinion regarding Lee’s strategy, British Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Freemantle noted “The relations between him and Longstreet are quite touching – they are almost always together.… I believe these two generals to be as little ambitious and as thoroughly unselfish as any men in the world.” [15]

Longstreet was grievously wounded in the throat during the Wilderness campaign but returned to serve through the surrender at Appomattox. In the search for villains in the post war South, Longstreet became a target of those seeking to defend and exalt Robert E. Lee. After the war Longstreet quickly reconciled with the Union, made amends and renewed his friendships with Ulysses Grant and others. When Grant died he remarked that Grant “was the truest and bravest man that had ever lived.” [16]

He also became a Republican and served in various positions in the U.S. Government and converted to Roman Catholicism. The combination of those decisions as well as his criticism of Lee’s generalship have led to decades of debate, argument and recrimination. That being said the soldiers who served under him continued to hold him in high regard at Confederate veteran reunions until his death in 1904. Thomas Goree who served on Longstreet’s First Corps staff wrote him after the war:

With my heart full of gratitude, I often think of you, and your many acts of kindness shown me, and the innumerable marks of esteem and confidence bestowed on me by you during the four long and trying years that we were together. Although we may differ in our political opinions, yet I have always given you credit for honest and sincerity of purpose.” [17]

[1] Ibid. Wert Longstreet p.30

[2] Ibid. Wert Longstreet p.31

[3] Longacre, Edward G. Pickett: Leader of the Charge White Mane Publishing Company, Shippensburg PA 1995 p.26

[4] Ibid. Wert Longstreet p.54

[5] Ibid. Wert Longstreet pp.54-55

[6] Ibid. Wert Longstreet p.91

[7] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s p.111

[8] Ibid. Thomas Robert E. Lee p.247

[9] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s p.112

[10] Ibid. Wert Longstreet p.405

[11] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.61

[12] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory p.527

[13] Ibid. Wert Longstreet p.173

[14] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory p.527

[15] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s p.552

[16] Ibid. Wert Longstreet p.424

[17] Ibid. Wert Longstreet p.424

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