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General Longstreet And The Lost Cause
One of Lee’s greatest lieutenants is slowly winning his reputation back after losing it for daring to criticize his boss
February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
What are we to make of James Longstreet, lieutenant general, Confederate States Army? Longstreet’s newest biographer subtitles his work “The Confederacy‘s Most Controversial Soldier.” Not the most controversial during those four years of war, surely. Why, on that smoking battlefield at Antietam, this was the soldier General Lee affectionately called “my old war-horse.” This was the soldier who, during that hopeless last march toward Appomattox, when the question came up if it was finally time to surrender, said calmly, “Not yet.” This was the soldier who, when Lee rode off soon afterward to see Grant, said, again calmly, “General, if he does not give us good terms, come back and let us fight it out.” The “most controversial”? Not that soldier!
No, that subtitle should have been “The Confederacy‘s Most Controversial Ex-Soldier.” Only in the nearly four decades left to him after the war did he become so argued over. How that came about is a cautionary tale for those who write Civil War history, and for those who read it. It is also an argument in favor of the rewriting of history every generation or so.
When “Old Pete,” as he was called by his men (the moniker arose from a childhood nickname), came to write his war memoir, he called it From Manassas to Appomattox . He did not miss much in between. Longstreet was by trade a professional infantry officer. A rural Southerner—born in South Carolina, reared in Georgia, accepted at West Point from Alabama—he was not of the gentleman caste. He graduated 54th of 56 in the Academy class of 1842. Only the cream of the graduates had a choice of the specialty Army branches; he was posted to the infantry. His closest friend there was 2nd Lt. Ulysses S. Grant. During the war with Mexico, Longstreet showed mettle in infantry-leading, winning two brevets for gallantry and taking a bad wound in the storming of Chapultepec. For most of the next dozen years he served on frontier duty, in Texas and the Southwest. He moved from line to staff in 1858 and, at the time of Fort Sumter, he was a major in the paymaster’s office. His record was solid but wholly unremarkable, rather like Old Pete himself.
Gettysburg was fought on July 1–3,1863—and ref ought by its Confederate protagonists until at least the turn of the century.
In the new, struggling Confederacy, simply being a West Pointer and of apparently sound mind and body was enough to guarantee a high rank. Longstreet, modestly requesting a paymaster’s job, was handed instead a brigadier general’s commission and a brigade in the field army being assembled at Bull Run, outside Washington. He took easily and quickly to this infantryman’s task. A big, bulky man with a confident presence that soldiers admired, he always appeared calm and collected, with his command well in hand. He was not colorful and he had no particular eccentricities; unlike his fellow general Stonewall Jackson, he would seldom be featured in the wartime Southern press. And there was always a certain roughness around his edges. He once noted, in a battlefield dispatch, that the enemy’s flanking fire “was exceedingly annoying, particularly with fresh troops, who were always as sensitive about the flanks as a virgin.” General Lee’s calling him “my old war-horse” captured the essence of Longstreet perfectly. Lee could always—and did always—rely on him.
Looking at Longstreet’s war record in its entirety—and being careful to stop at the moment he stopped fighting in 1865—it is easy to see why his biographer Jeffry D. Wert calls him “arguably the best corps commander in the conflict on either side.” His record had its checkered moments, to be sure (what Civil War general’s does not?); still, no general fought his men more effectively and more consistently.
In the Eastern theater’s first major action, along Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia, in July 1861, Longstreet handled his brigade competently in a sharp preliminary action. By the time of the Peninsular campaign, in the spring of 1862, he was a major general and had charge of a division and, at times under Joe Johnston, of a multi-unit command styled as a wing. At Williamsburg, during the Confederate retreat up the Peninsula, he managed a rear-guard action with confidence as well as competence. When Johnston then went on the offensive against McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, at Seven Pines, he entrusted primary tactical responsibility to Longstreet. It turned out to be one of the worst-handled operations of the entire war.
The blame for Seven Pines falls about equally on Johnston and Longstreet: on Johnston for delivering his instructions verbally instead of in writing and for not stepping in when his plan began to go awry; and on Longstreet for somehow jamming his forces onto the wrong road to the battlefield and then mismanaging the troops that did reach the front. Longstreet did not admit culpability but instead shifted the blame onto Gen. Benjamin Huger. Poor Huger was a plausible but innocent victim. Seven Pines, a draw, was not at all Old Pete’s finest hour. Yet it would prove that he learned from his mistakes.