Longstreet the Soldier
Longstreet, who had no middle name, was born on January 8, 1821, near Edgefield, South Carolina, but was raised in Georgia and Alabama. He was graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1842 and won repeated brevet promotions for conspicuous bravery during the Mexican War (1846–1848). On March 8, 1848, he married Maria Louisa Garland, and the couple had ten children, five of whom lived to adulthood. Longstreet served mainly on the western frontier during the 1850s, rising to the rank of major. He owned a small number of slaves and showed no interest in politics.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Longstreet resigned his commission and entered Confederate service as a brigadier general. During the war he rose to the rank of lieutenant general and won consistent praise while serving under Lee, with whom he developed a lifelong friendship. Longstreet fought in all of Lee’s major battles of 1862 and 1863 except Chancellorsville (1863), when he led two divisions on a foraging expedition to the south that included a brief siege of Suffolk, Virginia. He opposed Lee’s plans at Gettysburg in July 1863, but risked his life recklessly in their execution. Following Lee’s defeat, Longstreet led reinforcements to the Western Theater and contributed to the Confederate victory at Chickamauga (1863). He performed poorly, however, as subordinate to Confederate general Braxton Bragg during the Chattanooga Campaign (1863), and as an independent commander he failed to capture Knoxville, Tennessee, during the subsequent fall and winter. Recalled to Virginia in the spring of 1864, Longstreet was wounded by friendly fire at the Battle of the Wilderness within only a few miles of the spot where Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had been similarly wounded the year before. Jackson soon died, whereas Longstreet returned to service in October, participating in the Petersburg Campaign and the endgame at Appomattox in April 1865.
Longstreet’s Place in Southern History
Following the war, Longstreet lived in New Orleans, Louisiana, but he moved to Gainesville, Georgia, in 1875, remaining there until his death. During Reconstruction, he accepted political appointments from the Republican Party. Although traditionally conservative on social issues, he endorsed biracial politics as the South’s future. As commander of the Louisiana state militia, Longstreet risked his life defending black civil rights against white supremacist violence. These actions alienated Longstreet’s wartime comrades-in-arms and effectively erased his reputation as a Confederate hero.
In his wartime reports and private papers Lee never criticized Longstreet. But after Lee’s death in 1870, former Confederate general Jubal A. Early accused Longstreet of being late in his attack on the second day at Gettysburg, a failure that supposedly cost Lee the battle and the Confederacy the war. Early emerged as the foremost leader of various efforts to commemorate Lee and enshrine his memory. For two decades he coordinated a carefully organized campaign of character assassination against Longstreet, whose politics he despised. Early enlisted many in his cause, including former Confederate generals John B. Gordon and Fitzhugh Lee (Robert E. Lee’s nephew), and former Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Although some of Early’s most specific accusations were disproved by Lee’s after-action report and the testimony of Lee’s staff officers, his scapegoating of Longstreet offered southerners a temptingly simple explanation for defeat, one that did not call into question southern manhood or the loss of God’s grace. With Lee’s failure at Gettysburg transferred to Longstreet, Lee emerged as the Confederacy’s stainless hero, defeated by superior numbers but never outgeneraled. As a result of Early’s prolific writings, the criticisms voiced by others working with Early, and public reaction to Longstreet’s support of biracial politics, Longstreet was cast out of the pantheon of Confederate heroes. He soon became a figure of public scorn across the South.
Longstreet proved to be his own worst enemy when defending his reputation. He wrote a series of newspaper and magazine articles in the 1870s and 1880s, and published his autobiography, From Manassas to Appomattox, in 1896. In almost all of these he displayed a jealousy of Lee’s reputation, as well as that of Stonewall Jackson, and he was often critical of their actions. Defenders of Longstreet, who included former Confederate generals Daniel Harvey Hill and Lafayette McLaws, understood Longstreet’s writing to be a product of his postwar embitterment. They defended his reputation while decrying his politics.
Despite health problems, Longstreet’s private life was mostly happy and he was a devout Christian. His wife died in 1889, but on September 8, 1897, he married Helen Dortch. Much younger than her husband, Helen Longstreet defended his reputation tirelessly until her own death in 1962. She enjoyed little success. Longstreet had died on January 2, 1904, still a figure of controversy. During the 1930s and 1940s his place as a villain in southern history was codified by the publications of Virginia historian Douglas Southall Freeman, who accepted the writings of Longstreet’s critics without question. Freeman portrayed Longstreet as slow and obstinate, lusting for independent command, and seeking to impose his will on Lee.
During the 1960s historian Glenn Tucker challenged Freeman’s conclusions, and subsequent scholarship—along with pop-culture renderings, such as in the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Killer Angels (1974) and its movie adaptation, Gettysburg (1993)—has begun to re-establish Longstreet to his rightful place as Lee’s principal subordinate and intimate confidant and a highly competent soldier. Longstreet helped popularize the use of field fortifications and advocated employing defensive tactics when and where practicable. He disagreed with Lee’s strategy of concentrating in Virginia, identifying the Western Theater as the critical arena of the war. Deeply beloved by his men, he had few peers and no superiors as a corps-level commander.