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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
Whatever debate there might have been thus tar over strategy or tactics, Longstreet’s respect for Lee, as Army commander, had never wavered. He found matters very different in Tennessee, where he reported to Braxton Bragg, head of the Army of Tennessee, a general so flawed that he managed to alienate virtually all his chief subordinates. Soon the two were at loggerheads. Bragg called Longstreet “disrespectful and insubordinate” and was glad to send the general off against the Federals holding Knoxville.
This venture proved to be, for Longstreet, an inexplicable regression to his blundering at Seven Pines. Just as he had mishandled that Peninsula battle in 1862, he now mishandled a siege attempt against Knoxville and its garrison. Rather than accept responsibility, Longstreet tried to throw the blame on his subordinates. The aborted action was Longstreet’s only full-fledged effort at independent command, and if it demonstrated anything, it was that his true calling was as Robert E. Lee’s lieutenant.
He was as glad to return to the Army of Northern Virginia as Lee was to have him back. Longstreet was inspirited, and in the Battle of the Wilderness, in May 1864, he thrust forward a tactically brilliant counterstroke that stopped an offensive mounted by his old friend Ulysses S. Grant in its tracks. Then, in an eerie echo of Stonewall Jackson’s fate in the same woods a year earlier, Longstreet was shot down in an accidental volley fired by his own men. A bullet through his neck and right shoulder wounded him so seriously that he needed every ounce of his iron constitution to survive.
Five months later, in October 1864, he returned to the command of his I Corps. The two armies had by then settled into the trenches at Petersburg. One of his men wrote that when Longstreet rode the lines there for the first time, the troops greeted him with wild cheers “for ’ the old bull of the woods ’ as they love to call him.” Through that bitter last winter of the war, Longstreet held the I Corps steady to its tasks.
At the end, close by Appomattox Courthouse in early April 1865, Longstreet’s command offered the last organized resistance, the final line of battle, to the enveloping Federal columns. William N. Pendleton, the Army’s artillery chief, went to Longstreet and urged him to advise Lee to surrender. Old Pete was stern in his refusal. He was there to back up Lee, he snapped, not to pull him down.
Finally, Yankee troops under Philip Sheridan blocked the Rebels’ path. Sheridan sent in the gaudy “boy general” George Armstrong Custer under a flag of truce to call for capitulation. Custer, brought before Longstreet, blurted out his demand for unconditional surrender “in the name of General Sheridan.” Old Pete coldly looked the boy general over, told him that he was not in command of this army, “and if I were, I would not surrender it to General Sheridan,” and waved him away. And Longstreet gave his last, defiant advice to Lee that April 9: If the terms are not just, “come back and let us fight it out.”
The terms were, of course, just. With the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered, Lee bid Longstreet an affectionate farewell—as it happened, they would never meet again—and then turned to Longstreet’s aide and said, “Captain, I am going to put my old war-horse under your charge. I want you to take good care of him.”
Lee’s remark would seem to supply the proper note and tone by which history ought to judge James Longstreet’s Civil War role. But it is only today—a century and a third later—that it is mostly (or at least often) the standard. And to reach this point, history has had to come full circle.
For many years, General Longstreet was demonized in the South. The process began as a consequence of his own postwar actions and attitudes. After Appomattox, he made his way to New Orleans and entered business there as a cotton factor, then expanded his reach into railroad investments and the management of an insurance company. As he became a respected figure in the Crescent City, he was still admired across the South for his wartime role as Lee’s devoted lieutenant. In 1867, the Southern historian Edward A. Pollard described him as ”trusted, faithful, diligent, a hardy campaigner, a fierce obstinate fighter, an officer who devoted his whole mind to the war.”
Early was not acting on any wartime grudge when he picked Longstreet as his victim; he was simply choosing a target of opportunity.
That verdict changed quickly. The former Confederate states were occupied by Federal troops under the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, and when Longstreet was asked for an opinion on how Southerners should react to this, he recommended cooperation. “The war was made upon Republican issues,” he wrote in a New Orleans newspaper, “and it seems to me fair and just that the settlement should be made accordingly. “ To thus cooperate with Republican objectives —and presently Longstreet actually joined the Republican party—was, to Southerners, plain and simple treason.