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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
He was labeled a scalawag. Scalawags, it was explained, “are verminous, shabby, scabby, scrubby, scurvy cattle,” such as “the native southerner, of white complexion, who adopts the politics of the Radical party [i.e., the Federal government].” Yet Longstreet’s motives were more complex and subtle than they seemed. He hoped, as he explained in private letters but not publicly, that white Southerners would gain control of the ruling Republican party in their states and use it to their own local ends, including controlling the votes of the newly enfranchised blacks. “It then seems plain to me,” Longstreet wrote, “that we should do the work ourselves, & have it white instead of black & have our best men in public office.”
This strategy was too Machiavellian for ex-Confederates being forced to live under Federal occupation, writes William Garrett Piston, the closest student of Longstreet’s postwar activities: “The fact that Longstreet sought to control the black vote was lost on his fellow white Southerners, who saw only that Longstreet had dared to suggest collaboration with the party that had freed the slaves.” Nor did it look good when the general accepted patronage posts from his old friend President Ulysses S. Grant.
In 1874 Longstreet’s public reputation hit rock bottom when the Crescent City White League, a paramilitary force, attempted the violent overthrow of Louisiana’s Republican governor. Longstreet, awarded command of the state militia as a political plum, led his mostly black troops against the White Leaguers, mostly former Confederate soldiers. By the time Federal troops finally restored order, 38 were dead. Now Longstreet clearly had no future in New Orleans, and in due course he resettled with his family in Gainesville, Georgia.
By now, too, he was embroiled in the controversy that would follow him through the rest of his life. The instigator was Jubal Anderson Early, another of Lee’s lieutenants in the late war who, after Lee’s death in 1870, had set out to deify that general as the paladin of the Lost Cause. This process required some major rewriting of wartime history, most notably in the matter of the Confederate defeat in the greatest battle of the war. Early’s solution to the problem of Gettysburg was easy: He would blame the defeat on someone other than General Lee. And who better than Lee’s unofficial second-in-command in that battle, now the most notorious scalawag of the Reconstruction era, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet?
Early was not, apparently, acting on any wartime grudge when he selected Longstreet as his victim—they had served together peaceably enough—but was simply choosing a target of opportunity. After all, Longstreet had played a major role in the battle, especially on the crucial second day of the fighting, and finding fault with that performance would seem credible. Now, by going over to the Republican enemy, Longstreet had revealed his true colors; if he lacked belief in the Lost Cause, his belief in the wartime cause might be suspect as well. Finally, Early himself had been coming in for a share of the blame for Gettysburg, and the more he could shift the focus to Longstreet, the more he would avoid the spotlight.
Jubal Early’s Gettysburg campaign opened in 1872 with an address on “The Campaigns of Gen. Robert E. Lee” to commemorate Lee’s birthday. Early said that on the night of the first day at Gettysburg—a day of Southern success—General Lee told him and Gens. Dick Ewell and Robert Rodes that the battle would be renewed at dawn on July 2 with an attack on the Federal left by Longstreet. But that attack was not delivered until late in the afternoon. Had Longstreet made it as Lee intended, at dawn, the battle would have been won—and the Confederacy would have gained its independence.
This was typical of Early’s tactics. He, it developed, was the sole witness to this supposed statement of Lee’s. Lee and Rodes were both dead. And Dick Ewell was on his deathbed; he would die six days after Early’s address. The case thus rested on Early’s word—Jubal Early, president of the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia, head of the Lee Monument Association, president of the Southern Historical Society. James Longstreet had no record but that of a scalawag. In due course, Longstreet asked four of Lee’s wartime staff about this accusation, and all four insisted Lee had never said anything to them about any July 2 dawn attack. Clearly Early’s accusation was false, but the damage was done.
Early was joined in his crusade by William N. Pendleton, who as Lee’s wartime artillery chief had shuffled papers more than he had directed batteries. Pendleton, an Episcopal minister and chairman of the Lee Memorial Association, was now dedicating himself to preserving General Lee’s “sacred memory.” During an extensive lecture tour in the 1870s, he pounded home the theme of Longstreet’s failure to mount the dawn attack. To explain why Lee had not condemned Longstreet for this “culpable disobedience,” Pendleton credited Lee with executing a magnanimous, Christ-like cover-up.