Few Civil War command figures have generated as much controversy and discussion in the many years since the war as James Longstreet. Known as “Old Pete” to his friends in the pre-war Regular Army, Longstreet was affectionately referred to by Robert E. Lee as his “old war horse.” Lee came to rely upon Longstreet not only for his often sage strategic and tactical advice, but also his ability to employ his corps in delivering crushing blows against the enemy. However, it was that very same relationship with Lee and his post-war life as a ‘reconstructed rebel” that made him the target of the Lost Cause movement’s leadership.
He was blamed by Jubal Early and the other leaders of the Lost Cause for the loss at Gettysburg and his sometimes intemperate responses just threw fuel on the fire on controversy. As a result, we are left with a historical picture of Longstreet that is clouded by that controversy and the arguments surrounding what really happened at Gettysburg. To be sure, an entire book could be written about Longstreet and Lee on July 2, 1863, and several historians have attempted to do just that. I certainly don’t have the room in this venue to explore that topic to the level it deserves. Rather, I will endeavor to simply analyze Longstreet as a commander and summarize what I believe is the most logical answer to the questions surrounding his performance at Gettysburg.
Longstreet was born in South Carolina but spent most of his youth on his uncle’s plantation near Augusta, Georgia. It seems his father selected the military as a career for his son when the boy was very young, but realized that the local educational resources were not sufficient to prepare him for any military academy. So, he sent James to his brother’s plantation, where he could receive better schooling. After his father’s death in 1833, his mother moved to Alabama, but young James remained with his uncle. However, when his uncle attempted to obtain an appointment to West Point for him, there was none available from the local Georgia congressman. Therefore, they turned to a relative who happened to be the congressman from the Alabama district where his mother lived and Longstreet got his appointment in 1838.
Longstreet was a solid if not spectacular cadet in a class that included George Thomas, William Rosecrans (his roommate), George Pickett, and John Hood. However, ironically, the cadet who became his closest friend at West Point was Ulysses Grant. Longstreet was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1843 and assigned to the 4th U.S. Infantry at Jefferson Barracks, outside St. Louis, Missouri. His friend Grant would follow him there two years later and it was Longstreet who introduced Grant to Julia Dent, who was his fourth cousin. Longstreet would eventually be best man at their wedding.
Like Grant and most of the other young men who would be commanders in the Civil War, Longstreet saw considerable service in Mexico. He was cited for bravery in combat, receiving brevet promotions to major. Wounded in the thigh at Chapultepec, he recovered and returned to service after the war with assignments in Texas and New Mexico.
As the nation began to tear apart in late 1860, Longstreet considered what course to take. He was generally opposed to secession, but did believe in the doctrine of states’ rights. Therefore, on May 9, 1861, some three weeks after the firing on Fort Sumter, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and accepted a commission from Alabama free of obligations to Federal service and, in his own words, “a clear conscience.” However, the facts of Longstreet’s resignation and entry in Confederate service tell a far different story, one that provides an interesting glimpse into the dark side of Longstreet’s character, and also tells that, while he may have been a good soldier, he was also a very ambitious one.
Most of the Southern officers who resigned their commissions to fight for the Confederacy followed a very careful and honorable process. First, they tendered their resignations and awaited notice that their resignations were accepted. Only then did they apply to their home states for commissions and many waited until they traveled home following their release from U.S. service to so in person. Then, once in the service of their state, they might eventually be elevated to positions directly serving the Confederate government in Richmond based on assignments to command a brigade, division, or corps. But this was not the path taken by James Longstreet.
As early as January 1861, he corresponded with officials in Alabama about the prospects of a commission there. As the most senior officer from Alabama serving in the U.S. Army who had entered West Point from that state, this was a logical course of action as he might expect to get a very senior commission. But, all the while, he was still a serving officer in the U.S Army and he was negotiating for his personal improvement with those who were seceding from the United States and who would soon be its enemy. Worse, according to official records, Longstreet was tendered a commission as a lieutenant colonel of infantry from Alabama on March 16, 1861. On May 1, he accepted this commission, a full eight days before he resigned from Federal service and a month before that resignation was accepted. In fact, he later accepted pay from the government in Montgomery dated to May 1. Remember that the Confederacy had attacked Federal forces at Fort Sumter in April and been declared in rebellion by the President of the United States. Therefore, while serving in supposed good faith as an officer in the U.S. Army, James Longstreet accepted a commission in an enemy army and later would take money for that period. It was not the act of an honorable man, but it was most assuredly the act of an ambitious one.
Interestingly, as further proof of his personal ambition, rather than traveling to Alabama to assume service, as most of his comrades did, Longstreet went straight to the new Confederate capital in Richmond, seeking an assignment. Once there, he met personally with Jefferson Davis, who informed him that he had been appointed a brigadier general with date of rank on June 17. He was ordered to report to General Beauregard near Manassas, and assume command of a brigade of three Virginia regiments. His outstanding service at First Manassas earned him a promotion to major general and command of a division.
However, during the winter of 1861-1862, Longstreet was devastated by personal loss when a typhoid epidemic in Richmond claimed the lives of three of his children. Those who knew him well said that he changed dramatically after that. His tent, which had been the scene of much drinking and card playing, became a more sober and serious place. He would rarely drink alcohol from that time forward and became far more somber.
After Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, Longstreet was given command of 15 brigades, nearly half the army. He would perform superbly for Lee in the Seven Days Battles, aggressively attacking McClellan’s army and driving it back down the peninsula and way from the very doorstep of Richmond. Unlike several of his counterparts, he displayed adeptness at managing such a large force as well as a cool, calm demeanor during the heat of battle. Lee apparently noticed this characteristic as well, and Longstreet would become his closest lieutenant and advisor. Lee would later say, "Longstreet was the staff in my right hand."
Longstreet continued to perform well as Lee turned against John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia. Arriving at Second Manassas on August 29, 1862, his corps was responsible for delivering the smashing blow to Pope’s left flank the next day, sending Federal forces in full retreat back to Washington. Later, however, this singular success would be turned against Longstreet by Lost Cause advocates and would even carry into 20th century historiography. The Lost Cause leaders would point out that Longstreet was supposed to have attacked earlier in the day, but asked Lee to postpone the attack while he prepared his corps and reconnoitered the battlefield. This, they claimed, was a sign of his slowness, lack of aggression, and even disobedience to Lee. Lee’s 20th century biographer and virtual “disciple,” Douglas Southall Freeman, would write that these actions at second Manassas were a sign of things to come and that Longstreet’s performance on July 2 at Gettysburg began here. Freeman would write, "The seeds of much of the disaster at Gettysburg were sown in that instant—when Lee yielded to Longstreet and Longstreet discovered that he would."
Longstreet continued to serve Lee well during the Maryland Campaign a few weeks later. He wisely counseled Lee not to split the army by sending Jackson and his corps to Harper’s Ferry. While Lee did not listen to what was probably very good advice, Longstreet accepted his commander’s decision. Then, at Antietam, he advocated the tactical defense, which he came to believe was not only the soundest course in battle, but also was the South’s best long term approach to surviving and defeating Union forces.
Thus, when Lee entered Pennsylvania in June 1863, Longstreet later would claim that his understanding from discussions with Lee prior to the invasion was that, while the overall strategy was offensive, the plan was to maneuver Federal forces into battle at a place of Lee’s choice, where the Army of Northern Virginia could employ a tactically defensive posture. Therefore, when Lee encountered the Army of Potomac, Longstreet was surprised that his general decided to continue attacking offensively on the second day of the battle. According to Longstreet, he advised Lee to break contact with the enemy and move strategically around his left flank, where they could position themselves between Union forces and Washington, undertake the tactical defensive, and force a fight on Lee’s terms.
Whether that was actually what Longstreet told Lee is something we will never know as there were, apparently, no witnesses or at least none who recorded the event. Further, in three different published versions of the story, Longstreet is inconsistent in what he claims to have said to Lee. Plus, his advice seems somewhat fuzzy and Lee was probably right to reject the idea as he had no idea where the rest of Meade’s army was deployed. He had already been forced to wander about Pennsylvania blind due to Jeb Stuart’s absence and, as a result, he had stumbled into some portion of the enemy army. To now move off to the south in the face of that army, where he might run into the rest of it, made little sense. But, whatever was said, it is clear from other accounts that Longstreet was rebuffed by Lee and was angered by that rejection. Therefore, there is probably some credence to arguments that his lackluster command performance during the next few hours of July 2 was colored by his disagreement with Lee.
An attack on the Union left that was supposed to be launched at midday was delayed by a series of errors, marches in the wrong direction, and an insistence on waiting for more troops to come up. In the balance, his performance from that morning until 4:00 p.m. that afternoon seems like one of an inexperienced, unprofessional soldier and not like the skilled, savvy professional soldier that James Longstreet was. However, despite the fact that he may have felt as he did about the attack and that, once he reached the Union left, he found the enemy not as vulnerably positioned as told earlier, Longstreet sent his men in with aggression and determination. Only the timely arrival and employment of Union reserves, along with stubborn resistance by the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac stopped Longstreet’s relentless assault in what may have been the toughest three hours of fighting during the entire war.
But, Longstreet’s Gettysburg controversy did not end on July 2. The next day, he opposed Lee’s plan for an assault by men from George Pickett’s division and A.P. Hill’s corps against the Federal center. Longstreet would later claim that he told Lee that “no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.” Again, we will never know whether he actually said those words, but the evidence is clear that he opposed the attack and felt strongly that it would fail and do so disastrously.
As the Confederate artillery barrage on Union forces on Cemetery Ridge continued, Longstreet sent an amazing note to Lee’s artillery chief, Porter Alexander, in which he told the artilleryman to essentially use his judgment as to the effectiveness of the artillery fire and not only advise General Pickett when to launch the assault but also whether to attack at all. Alexander was shocked by the note in which it appears Longstreet was actually trying to shift responsibility for ordering the charge to the more junior Alexander. The artilleryman responded to Longstreet in such a manner that Longstreet realized he could not ask someone else to give an order he himself opposed. When Pickett finally came to Longstreet and asked him if he should advance, Longstreet turned away, appearing very “grave and concerned.” Finally, Old Pete could only nod, apparently unable to speak the words that would send so many to their deaths.
Following the defeat at Gettysburg, in September 1863, Longstreet and his corps were dispatched to Georgia and assigned to the irascible Braxton Bragg and the Army of Tennessee. Longstreet would arrive in time to play a critical role in that Confederate army’s only true victory, the defeat of the Union Army of the Cumberland at Chickamauga under Longstreet’s old West Point roommate, William Rosecrans. But Longstreet soon clashed openly with Bragg, as seemingly did everyone else. Further, sending an ambitious man like Longstreet into the snake pit that was the command staff of the Army of Tennessee only added to the already toxic leadership environment. The generals on Bragg’s staff, who had been lobbying for his removal for months, now had what they saw as a powerful and potentially influential ally in James Longstreet. Longstreet would accommodate them by writing a remarkable and utterly insubordinate letter to the Confederate Secretary of War, James Seddon, in which he stated, "I am convinced that nothing but the hand of God can save us or help us as long as we have our present commander."
Seddon forwarded the letter to Jefferson Davis and Davis made what was his second trip to deal with the rebellious generals of Bragg’s army. The president’s visit included what may have been one of the most bizarre moments of the war in which Bragg was forced to sit and angrily face his detractors as, one by one, they openly condemned him. For his part, Longstreet stated that Bragg "was incompetent to manage an army or put men into a fight" and that he "knew nothing of the business." However, just as before, Davis refused to relive Bragg of command and did nothing to change the command picture in the army.
Bragg would then reassign all the officers who opposed him or reduce their authority. Longstreet, who had commanded an entire wing of the army at Chickamauga, was now demoted to only command those forces he had brought with him from Virginia. As a result, he tried to extract himself from Bragg’s siege of Chattanooga. Eventually, he would be ordered to break free from Bragg and undertake operations against Ambrose Burnside’s army at Knoxville. Longstreet finally had an opportunity to prove himself as an independent commander in the field, but he failed miserably in this role. His siege of Knoxville was a failure and his army was forced to spend a harsh winter in the mountains of east Tennessee.
In 1864, Longstreet and his corps would rejoin Lee’s army as they awaited an offensive by Longstreet’s old friend, Ulysses Grant. When that offensive began in May 1864, Longstreet would lead his men into the thick of the fighting on the right flank in the Wilderness. During the fight, in which he rolled up Winfield Scott Hancock and the Federal left “like a wet blanket,” Longstreet was severely wounded when a bullet from friendly fire tore through his shoulder, severing nerves, and ripping a gash in his throat. He would recover and return to Lee in October 1864; however it would take years for him to fully regain the use of his right arm.
Longstreet served with Lee until the end of the war, defending Petersburg and then taking the long retreat that ended at Appomattox. When Lee asked his advice on surrender, Longstreet initially maintained the time had not yet come for that. However, once they found themselves blocked at Appomattox Court House, he knew the time had come. After the surrender, he would shake hands with his friend Grant on the porch of Wilbur McLean’s house and return to private life.
Following the war, Longstreet moved to New Orleans and, ever the opportunist, joined the Republican Party. Leveraging his relationship with Grant, who was now president, he served in a variety of posts and became an outspoken an advocate for equal rights for blacks, national reunification, and reconstruction. It is little wonder that he made such a ready target for the racist leaders of the Lost Cause. As the years passed, Longstreet became the scapegoat for Confederate defeat in the Civil War. James Longstreet may have, at times, allowed his own personal ambition to overcome his sense of honor, but he was a talented soldier who was, without doubt, the greatest of all the South’s corps commanders. The South was defeated both at Gettysburg and in the war for many reasons, but Longstreet was not one of them.
Only in recent decades has his life been reexamined with less prejudice and his name restored. In fact, it would not be until 1998 that a monument to him would be erected anywhere in the United States. Ironically, that monument stands at Gettysburg.