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General Longstreet And The Lost Cause

May 2024
18min read

One of Lee’s greatest lieutenants is slowly winning his reputation back after losing it for daring to criticize his boss

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.

Joe Johnston, falling seriously wounded on this field, was replaced by Robert E. Lee, and the happy conjunction of Lee, Longstreet, and the Army of Northern Virginia began to take shape. In the Seven Days’ Battles for Richmond, commencing in the last week of June 1862, Longstreet was unerring as a battlefield manager and tactician. Commanding an oversized division of six brigades, a forerunner of the corps organization the Army would later adopt, he methodically assembled a powerful storming attack to help win the day at Gaines’ Mill on June 27. Three days later, he mounted an offensive at Glendale that failed to cut McClellan’s army in half by only the narrowest of margins. “Could the other commands have co-operated in the action,” said General Lee of Glendale, “the result would have proved most disastrous to the enemy.” The largest of those “other commands” was Stonewall Jackson’s. Lee’s subtle rebuke suggested how poorly Jackson had done in contrast to Old Pete. It was now apparent that James Longstreet could be counted on. “Longstreet,” said General Lee after the campaign, “was the staff in my right hand.”

The Seven Days’ Battles, although very costly for the Confederates (two Rebels dead and wounded for each Yankee), did succeed in driving McClellan away from the gates of Richmond. Lee now undertook to exploit the strategic initiative he had won. In a remarkable measure of confidence, he gave Longstreet the right wing of the Army of Northern Virginia, and five of its nine divisions. During the subsequent Second Bull Run campaign, in August 1862, Jackson would gain most of the public plaudits, but it was Longstreet who delivered the decisive blow. As John J. Hennessy, the pre-eminent historian of Second Bull Run, describes it, his flank assault on August 30, “timely, powerful, and swift, would come as close to destroying a Union army as any ever would."


Victorious and confident, Lee struck out across the Potomac into Maryland, and at Antietam, on September 17, Longstreet demonstrated his mastery of the economy of force. Lee fought off McClellan there with the smallest army he would have until Appomattox, and Old Pete held the right of the battle line by stretching and thinning his hard-pressed troops and by sheer stubborn determination. At one point in that long and bloody day, he waded right into the action to direct the fire of a last-ditch battery.

Fredericksburg, in December 1862, was for James Longstreet, newly appointed a lieutenant general, the perfect victory—indeed, the ideal model for winning Southern independence. There, the blundering Ambrose Burnside threw his massed Yankee brigades against Longstreet’s newly designated I Corps, on the virtually impregnable Marye’s Heights behind the town. When Lee expressed concern, after three Federal charges had been repulsed, that a fourth might break through, Longstreet told him, “General, if you put every man now on the other side of the Potomac on that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line." Until darkness intervened and Burnside finally halted the senseless assaults, Old Pete directed his killing machine with methodical competence.

That winter following Fredericksburg, 1862-63, Lee sent Longstreet and two of his I Corps divisions into the southeastern corner of Virginia to counter threatened Yankee incursions into the coastal country. Lee’s army at Fredericksburg was suffering severe hunger pangs at the time, so Longstreet’s detachment also became a giant victualing expedition. Longstreet’s later detractors would scoff, but insofar as his assignment was to collect supplies, it proved a great success, bringing the army two months of bacon and corn at a most critical time. However, Longstreet and his divisions—George Pickett’s and John Bell Hood’s, two crack units—could not return in time for the battle at Chancellorsville. Critics have explained this as the consequence of Longstreet’s ambition for independent command. But the Suffolk interlude, from first to last, was Lee’s idea, carried out under Lee’s orders.

As he had after Second Bull Run, General Lee sought to exploit his Chancellorsville victory by marching north for a showdown. Jackson’s death, gravest of the Chancellorsville casualties, now left Longstreet as Lee’s senior adviser and most trusted lieutenant. Fully recognizing his new relationship with Lee, Longstreet expected to be listened to and have his views respected.

Gettysburg was fought on July 1-3,1863—and refought by its Confederate protagonists until at least the turn of the century. The fate of the second day’s battle rested in Old Pete’s hands, and he came as close then to breaking through the Union line as he had at Glendale on the Peninsula, failing just as narrowly. Pickett’s Charge, on July 3, happened under Longstreet’s management but not by his choice. Indeed—and this is at the nub of the whole long historical debate—precious few Confederate decisions taken at Gettysburg had Longstreet’s approval.

That fall, as the two armies slowly recovered from their terrible Gettysburg wounds, the war’s focus shifted to the Western theater. Both armies were called upon to send reinforcements to the campaigning around Chattanooga and along the Tennessee-Georgia border. Lee had to give up Longstreet and two of his I Corps divisions. For Old Pete, the second day of Chickamauga, September 20,1863, proved his most spectacular triumph. He drove home a powerful assault that sent the broken Union Army fleeing helter-skelter into Chattanooga.


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.

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.

To help them put these charges against Longstreet into print, Early and Pendleton depended on a third Lost Cause disciple, the Reverend J. William Jones, editor of the Southern Historical Society Papers . Jones recruited other noted Confederate leaders to their cause, including Generals Fitzhugh Lee (R. E. Lee’s nephew) and John B. Gordon. Article after article in the widely read Papers pinned the Gettysburg defeat on Longstreet, accusing him of deliberately and repeatedly disobeying orders and widening the indictment against him until it included virtually everything that had gone wrong on July 2 and 3—and all the while letting General Lee gently off the hook.

What Longstreet seemed unable to understand was that when he tried to call Lee to account, he was challenging something very like a deity.

Longstreet fought back with letters and articles of his own, but he was careless and inconsistent with the facts and swung wildly at his tormentors. He quoted (after two decades or more) private conversations with Lee in which his own arguments were invariably the better ones. And he committed the worst of blunders by daring to criticize Robert E. Lee in print. His tone, furthermore, was neither humble nor self-effacing. Regarding Gettysburg, for example, he left the impression that he had discussed (and argued) with Lee as his equal rather than as his subordinate.

In fact, Old Pete was simply refighting his battles, as old soldiers will, pridefully defending and justifying his actions to what he apparently pictured as an audience of his fellow old soldiers, as became most obvious in his memoir, From Manassas to Appomattox . This sort of thing was going on all over the North and South in the postwar years, but the older Longstreet became, the less reliable was his memory and the greater his bitterness. What he seemed unable to understand was that when he tried to call General Lee to account for wartime decisions, in order to defend himself, he was challenging something like a deity, the very personification of the purity of the Lost Cause. The “Lee cult” had done its work well.

In the years left to Longstreet (he died in 1904), there is no doubt that the prevailing view of Gettysburg in the states of the old Confederacy was that it was he and he alone who was responsible for defeat on that battlefield. And Gettysburg, as the great turning point of the war, was agreed to have determined the fate of the Confederate States of America.

It is hard to imagine this happening had James Longstreet followed a more conventional course politically in the postwar years. But Jubal Early, whose war record did not begin to compare with Longstreet’s, saw this opening and pounced.

Until fairly recently, historians probing for the hows and whys of Gettysburg, and taking in all these articles and arguments, listened far more intently to Early and his cohorts than to Longstreet. Most of them followed the lead of Douglas Southall Freeman, who, in his monumental biography R. E. Lee (1934-35), clearly labeled Longstreet the villain of Gettysburg. The only element of Early’s indictment that Freeman rejected was the matter of Longstreet’s disobeying Lee’s order for a dawn attack (the testimony of Lee’s staff was too strong against that point). But otherwise, Freeman portrayed Longstreet as sullen, angry, and insubordinate that day—and fatally slow in mounting his attack. Freeman even had Lee saying of Longstreet, in front of his other top commanders, “He is so slow.” That surely is a discourtesy Robert E. Lee would never have committed. Freeman cited Early as his source—again, the sole witness-for the quotation.


In Lee’s Lieutenants (1942-44), Freeman softened his assault and spread the blame for Gettysburg more widely. (Late in life, Freeman would tell a friend that he hoped to revise his Lee biography “because I feel I have done some deserving men injustice, especially Longstreet.”) Still, in these pages, Old Pete remains gravely flawed and fails to do his duty by General Lee. Freeman writes, “Longstreet’s behavior on the 2nd was that of a man who sulked because his plan was rejected by his chief. ... He should have obeyed orders, but the orders should not have been given.” Freeman summarizes, with some generosity, that at Gettysburg Longstreet “does not warrant the traditional accusation that he was the villain of the piece.”


Longstreet’s first biographers, H. J. Eckenrode and Bryan Conrad, writing in 1936, largely followed the Early thesis. Their subtitle, “Lee’s War Horse,” might better have been “Lee’s Scapegoat.” Southern historians after Freeman leaned heavily on Lee’s Lieutenants for their interpretations of Longstreet. Shelby Foote’s celebrated three-volume history of the war, for example, follows Freeman virtually step by step through Old Pete’s actions at Gettysburg. In 1958, in Death of a Nation: The Story of Lee and His Men at Gettysburg , Clifford Dowdey believed he had divined the “inner man" within Longstreet, driven by ambition and self-importance. Dowdey wrote that the general “began the day of July 2 with the purpose of thwarting the plans of the high command," and he erected his narrative of the battle on that premise.

To be sure, there was also an undercurrent of revisionism in this period. A 1952 biography by Donald B. Sanger with Thomas R. Hay provided a better-balanced view of Old Pete at Gettysburg. Sanger, an Army colonel who wrote the Civil War portion of the biography, carefully analyzed troop movements and terrain on the battlefield and was able to declare Longstreet innocent of many of the charges of the Jubal Early school. The North Carolinian Glenn Tucker, in his High Tide at Gettysburg , offered an antidote to the Virginian Clifford Dowdey, portraying Longstreet as a loyal officer doing his best to assist Lee.

A more lasting revisionism, however, had to await the focusing of a strong historical spotlight on the Lee cult. This was done by Thomas L. Connelly in The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (1977). Connelly and his followers have not only restored Lee to believable human dimensions but in the process have erased the stigmata placed on Longstreet by Early and his followers. William Garrett Piston’s Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History (1987), and Jeffry Wert’s 1993 biography, the first fully researched and balanced treatment of the general’s life, have set Longstreet revisionism on firm footing. And the drama of Lee and Longstreet at Gettysburg entered a considerably larger public arena with the appearance of Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels and the film Gettysburg based on it.

And the controversy over James Longstreet—at least controversy over his role at Gettysburg—still bubbles merrily. The historian Robert K. Krick, for example, believes that the post-Civil War writings of Longstreet are, in fact, an accurate reflection of the man’s character, and that at Gettysburg the lieutenant general is guilty as earlier charged. In an essay provocatively titled “ ’If Longstreet… Says So, It Is Most Likely Not True’: James Longstreet and the Second Day at Gettysburg,” Krick writes that ”Longstreet decided to play an ugly game with the misguided Lee,” and goes on from there. He has, of course, triggered debate and rebuttals. Gettysburg is not, and never has been, a battle to inspire calm introspection.

Yet, at least today’s debate has come full historical circle from where it once stood. Longstreet can be seen now as a general who may have things to answer for at Gettysburg, but then so does virtually every other prominent Confederate general in that campaign, starting with Lee. There can be no doubt that Longstreet was opposed to Lee’s aggressively offensive stance at Gettysburg, but his opposition can be studied absent the automatic presumption that he therefore did his best to sabotage operations on July 2 and 3. Longstreet’s full wartime record can at last be examined without the overlay of prejudice and partisanship his postwar politics brought on. And Robert E. Lee’s relationship with his old warhorse can be parsed anew without stumbling over long-dead Lost Cause issues.

The fact of the matter is that General Longstreet was as loyal and as devoted to his country’s cause as anyone in Confederate gray, and that he had no superior as a hard fighter for that cause. He fully merits ranking alongside Stonewall Jackson as one of Lee’s paramount lieutenants.

The story even has a fitting ending. Longstreet never got his just place among those Confederate icons whose bronze statuary surveys Monument Avenue in Richmond. Indeed, there was never a single statue or monument dedicated to him anywhere in the old Confederacy. Then, on July 3, 1998, the one hundred and thirty-fifth anniversary of that most momentous day in the general’s life, an equestrian statue of him was dedicated on Seminary Ridge, on the Gettysburg battlefield. “It’s about time,” announced the sponsoring Longstreet Memorial Committee. So it was.

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