An elderly man sat in his parlor, his eyesight too poor to read the newspaper, listening to his son voice the words written by Reverend William Pendleton, Robert E. Lee's head of artillery during The Civil War. The prose was harsh, some would say vicious, as it repeated the charges he, Jubal Early, John Gordon, and others leveled against General Longstreet, accusing him of being insubordinate to the beloved Robert E. Lee and a traitor to the Southern people. "Liars! Liars!" he shouted out, and then, "the light of battle passing once more into his eyes," he stood and defended the General against these outrageous accusations, speaking to no one in particular except his son, who had heard these words before. Even in death, it seemed, Longstreet knew no rest from the controversies that surrounded his tenure as a soldier.
J.C. Gaither, the man's son, stopped him in mid-sentence and asked that he be allowed to read another article, this one written by Helen Dortch Longstreet, the General's widow. In her rebuttal to Reverend Pendleton, Helen alluded to her recently published book in which she attempted to restore the reputation of the man who would come to be known in modern times as Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant. Hearing the benevolence of Longstreet's young widow, the elder Gaither calmed, sat down, and began to cry.
Early life James Longstreet was born in the Edgefield District of South Carolina on January 8, 1821 during a visit by his mother with her mother-in-law. Within weeks, young James was back at home on his parent's cotton plantation in the region of northern Georgia where Gainesville now stands and where his father, also named James, nicknamed him "Pete" for its meaning of "sturdy and trustworthy," a name into which Longstreet certainly grew.
Longstreet owed his birth to South Carolina, his appointment to West Point in 1838 to the state of Alabama, and much of his income to Louisiana and the Federal Government, but he always thought of Georgia as home. He was educated at Westover near Augusta and received another kind of valuable education in the rugged Georgia woods that would serve him well as a soldier. He spent his formative years, and eventually died there. Still the perception among many Southerners in the latter years of Longstreet's life was that he had no home, no state which to call his own. In an age where one's state citizenship was a measure of one's worth as a human, this fact, after the war, added further ammunition to his critics' charges.
Civil War James Longstreet first offered his services to the Confederacy through the state of Alabama after resigning his commission as a Major in the United States army. He expected nothing more prestigious that a job as paymaster, his last appointment in the Federal army, but to his surprise he received a colonel's commission commanding infantry. By First Manassas (Bull Run) he had already been promoted to brigadier-general in command of three Virginia infantry regiments (1st, 11th, and 17th) which covered Blackburn's Ford during that battle. With an odd bit of irony, General Longstreet was supported by the brigade under Colonel Jubal Early who wrote in his official report of the action at the ford that Longstreet "was actively engaged in the thickest of the fire in directing and encouraging the men under his command, and I am satisfied he contributed very largely to the repulse of the enemy by his own personal exertions." This was likely the first and last compliment Early ever directed at Longstreet, and one might be pardoned for musing as to whether or not Early even remembered making this comment in the years after the war as he mounted a premeditated smear campaign against General Longstreet.
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After the Confederate victory at Manassas, Longstreet continued to rise in rank and stature in the Confederate command structure. He formed close associations with P.G.T Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston, the latter desiring Longstreet to be given the distinction of second in command. This appointment was not securable, however, due to several generals ranking Longstreet and Johnston's own squabbles with the Richmond government. By the time George McClellan invaded the Virginia Peninsula, Longstreet was a Major-General, and he performed an important and well executed rear guard action at Williamsburg during Johnston's retreat towards Richmond.
From that point onward, with the single exception of Seven Pines, Longstreet gave exemplary service to the Confederate army. When Robert E. Lee took command and formed the Army of Northern Virginia, Longstreet found in him both a friend and a valuable guide through his career as a soldier. With Lee's unqualified recommendation, he rose in rank to the senior lieutenant-general in the Confederate army and was given command of the 1st Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, the premier subordinate of the premier army of the Confederacy. All across Virginia, into Maryland and Pennsylvania, Longstreet led his soldiers into battle after battle and received the love and affection of his men and the appreciation of his fellow generals. During the Seven Days and 2nd Manassas campaigns, Longstreet displayed his brilliance on the offensive, and at Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg, he showed he was equal to the tasks of the defensive as well. He was known as the bulldog, the staff in Lee's right hand, and the Old War-Horse, and as the war progressed, he would live up to each of these titles. But, Longstreet could hear the guns of war echoing all across the Confederacy, not just in Virginia, and as 1863 opened, he found himself seeding the controversy that followed him for the rest of his life. He disagreed with Robert E. Lee.
The Road to Gettysburg Prior to the campaign that resulted in the battle of Gettysburg, Longstreet offered a plan to Lee and the Richmond government designed to relieve pressure on the important Mississippi River port of Vicksburg, then under attack from the forces under U.S. Grant. The loss of this port would have the disastrous effect of closing the Confederacy's overland link to the states of Arkansas, Texas, and most of Louisiana, and sealing the Mississippi from use by the Confederacy. Additionally, Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee was being pushed back towards the important rail center of Chattanooga, a loss which would further strangle the already suffering Confederacy. "Old Pete" knew that this possibility had to be countered as well.
Robert E. Lee never criticized Longstreet
Longstreet's plan was not adopted that June. The strategy employed was Lee's plan to invade the North, designed to relieve Virginia from the trampling feet of Federal soldiers, giving farmers time to bring in their badly needed crops. Lee also desired to threaten major Northern cities in the hopes of convincing the Union government that a continued war was useless. As indicated by a letter he sent to Richmond after the battle, Lee also hoped that the invasion of Northern soil would have the effect of relieving other parts of the Confederacy then under pressure from Ulysses S. Grant and William S. Rosecrans. While Longstreet had argued for direct relief, Lee seemed to believe that one of these armies would be compelled to move east and assist the Army of the Potomac if the Confederates were able to threaten major Northern cities.
Lee's strategy depended on a grand victory, a literal destruction of the Army of the Potomac, and unfortunately for him, that highly sought after prize was not forthcoming. The Army of the Potomac moved faster than had been expected. Caught unaware with J. E. B. Stuart and his cavalry away from the main body of the army, Lee was forced to give battle in a location of which he had little knowledge and under circumstances which did not favor his desire to utilize an offensive strategy and employ defensive tactics. Longstreet was adamant throughout the entire battle that the plans being enacted were doomed to failure, and he was proven correct. The disagreements between Lee and Longstreet, then only a footnote to the campaign, provided fuel for the fiery attacks of Early, Pendleton, and fellow Georgian John Gordon after the war. Gettysburg was the spark that ignited the Lost Cause mythology that has dominated much of what we have learned of that pivotal event in our nation's history.
Western Theater action In the aftermath of Gettysburg, as the Army of Northern Virginia refitted and rested from its recent exertions, Longstreet again raised his proposal for a western concentration, utilizing the Confederacy's only real advantage of interior lines. This time, Lee and Richmond officials endorsed his idea; however, by the time his plans were adopted, Longstreet's dire predictions of the fate of the Confederacy in the West had largely come true, leaving him an even larger task than he originally envisioned. Vicksburg had fallen, leaving Grant free to maneuver at will, and Bragg had been pushed even further back, south of Chattanooga and into northern Georgia. As Longstreet and two of his divisions began arriving to reinforce Bragg and the Army of Tennessee along the banks of Chickamauga Creek in north Georgia, Federal General Rosecrans was threatening to push past the Confederates and into the heart of Georgia, splitting the Confederacy into dangerously smaller sections.
But, Longstreet had arrived. He was home. Forced by the capture of Knoxville to take a circuitous route, his forces came on the scene later than desired. However, by the morning of September 20, Longstreet and a large part of his 1st Corps were in position on the left flank of the Confederate line that had been established on the first day of the battle of Chickamauga. Longstreet immediately began preparing to launch one of the finest and most forceful attacks of the entire war. It was a moment of truth for the Confederacy. Failure here could mean the failure of the entire effort. A success here could well reverse the course of the war.
A brief commentary on the conditions in which Longstreet found himself is appropriate to understanding what happened later in the day. As Longstreet detrained at Catoosa Station on the afternoon of the 19th, he found no emissary from Braxton Bragg to greet him. This was nearly a fatal error. Nearly captured by Federal pickets, Longstreet was only able to escape by using cunning and trickery. As Longstreet blindly made his way to the battlefield and met with Bragg, his negative assessment of that general's abilities seemed dangerously true. Bragg was found asleep and had to be wakened to discuss the important role the Georgian was to play in the next day's battle. However, Longstreet's spirit and optimism would not be broken. As John Bell Hood later recalled, Longstreet "responded with that confidence which had so often contributed to his extraordinary success, that we would of course whip and drive him [the enemy] from the field. I could but exclaim that I was rejoiced to hear him so express himself, as he was the first general I had met since my arrival who talked to victory." Still, Hood's words gave some indication of the problems Longstreet faced. The veterans of the Army of Tennessee suffered from a severe lack of morale and confidence in themselves. Would Longstreet's high hopes be enough to bring on success?
Well before dawn broke on that cold morning, Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, in command of the left wing of the Army of Tennessee, was busy preparing his men for battle. A man who required little sleep, Longstreet's reputation for preparation showed well in these early hours. As further testimony to his remarkable achievements in so little time, he was assisted in his efforts by only two of his staff officers, P.T. Manning and perhaps the finest staff officer the war produced, G. Moxley Sorrel, himself a Georgia native. His main attack column, which Longstreet centered on the Brotherton farm after having the foresight to gather information of the conditions of the ground from none other than Tom Brotherton, was eight brigades deep, strong, potentially able to break through any line the Federals were then able to bring up to resist him. As Jeffery Wert observes in his biography of Longstreet, "The scheme fashioned by Longstreet on this morning illustrated his tactical thought and demonstrated his skill as a battlefield commander."
After a delay in opening the attack, ultimately caused by sloppy staff work and preparation by Bragg and a poor relationship with Lieutenant-Generals Leonidas Polk and Daniel Harvey Hill, Longstreet's attack wave finally moved forward at 11:10 a.m when Longstreet discovered that Bragg had ordered the right of Longstreet's line into action without consulting him. Rather than wasting time with details, he sent word to Hood to move the line forward. Its force was ferocious. Leading the attack across from the Brotherton farmhouse, General Hindman's front brigades encountered an extraordinary bit of luck. Owing to a mix-up in orders, Wood's Federals had left a hole in the Union line. Hindman wasted no time in pouring through this breach, laying waste to everything that came into his path. Within forty minutes, Longstreet's assault column had all but destroyed two Federal divisions, leaving the survivors to run pell mell in the direction of Dry Valley Road in an attempt to escape the carnage.
Something was wrong, however. Bragg's plan of attack had called for pushing the Federals south, away from Chattanooga, cutting them off from their supply line and retreat route. However, Polk's portion of the attack that morning had failed to achieve any results, and the Federals on that portion of the line remained firmly entrenched. If Longstreet tried to wheel his assault column left, he risked exposing his right flank. After having one brigade on his left under Manginault routed by Federal troops along Dry Valley Road, Longstreet decided his only choice was to pause, regroup, and accept a proposal by Hood to advance against Federal positions northeast of the Dyer field. Soon began the final assaults against Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge, held by the unbreakable Federal general and Virginian, George Thomas.
Longstreet's performance throughout the battle was magnificent. On more than one occasion he inspired the men under his command by his personal exertions, his positive words, and his calm and collected nature. After the battle General Deas was moved to report that "Longstreet is the boldest and bravest looking man I ever saw. I don't think he would dodge if a shell were to burst under his chin." At one point, Longstreet nearly proved Deas correct. Meeting Colonel Thomas Claiborne, temporarily attached to General Simon Bolivar Buckner's staff, a shell came screeching past. Claiborne ducked, to which Longstreet, stern faced and solid, laughingly commented, "I see you salute them," and then, "If there is a shell or bullet over there destined for us, it will find us." Longstreet did not budge.
Shortly before he paused for his now famous lunch of Nassau bacon and sweet potatoes, taken within range of Federal cannon, Longstreet met with General Benjamin Humphreys who commented, "I never saw him wear so bright and jubilant a countenance." Longstreet directed Humphreys in good humor to "Drive them, General. These western men can't stand it any better than the Yankees we left in Virginia. Drive them." Before the end of the day, these soldiers along the Chickamauga had a new nickname for Longstreet, the Bull of the Woods.
As Longstreet began his final push against the Federals, a window of opportunity opened wide, but quickly closed shut due to lack of cooperation and attention to detail by Bragg and Polk. While speculation of what might have happened had circumstances been different is just that, speculation, one cannot help but wonder about Bragg's inactivity during the entire afternoon. Polk's wing remained idle on the Confederate right, leaving Longstreet to assault the strong Federal position alone. Some historians have guessed that Bragg was merely sulking that his plan, as he envisioned it, was not capable of being carried out and refused to believe that his army was actually winning the fight. As a result of this lack of coordination, Thomas and his quickly arranged defense were able to admirably hold off repeated Confederate assaults against Snodgrass and Horseshoe Ridge, giving the Union Army much needed time and allowing for darkness to settle on the battlefield. Longstreet's memoirs indicate his extreme disappointment that a day so filled with success had failed to achieve results that had seemed so certain. He wrote that, "like magic the Union Army had melted away in our presence."
Knoxville and beyond But the worst had not yet come. Bragg refused to pursue the Federal army, allowing them to regroup and escape into the fortress of Chattanooga. The following days and months showed just what a mistake this had been. Before the year was out, Longstreet, under-supplied and plagued by dissension, was defeated in his attempt to take Knoxville and forced to winter in Valley Forge-like conditions in eastern Tennessee. Bragg was soundly defeated on the heights of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, and the Confederacy's hopes for victory in the West seemed all but over. Despite the disappointing results, attributable more to Bragg and pre-existing problems in the Army of Tennessee, the battle of Chickamauga, fought on his home soil, proved to be one of Longstreet's finest moments of the war. It might be said that this battle marked the "high water mark" of his life. His customary graciousness shining through, Longstreet credited his soldiers and his subordinates with the victory. However, as others saw it, Longstreet himself deserved the lion's share of praise. A newspaperman named Lawley wrote that "never in the war has any General been found who was superior to General Longstreet in the art of what is here called 'putting in his men.'" Lawley attributed Longstreet's mere presence as "equivalent to a thousand fresh men." Confederate John Breckinridge, as detailed by Jeffry Wert, is said to have given Longstreet high praise after the battle as he rode along his own lines to the cheers of his men. Quieting the weary soldiers, Breckinridge exclaimed, "Longstreet is the man, boys. Longstreet is the man."
The final year and a half of the war was for Longstreet, as for the rest of the Confederacy, filled with disappointment and despair. Accidentally wounded at the Wilderness by his own men, as Stonewall Jackson had been in nearly the same area the year before, Longstreet was unable to rejoin Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia until they were already holed up in the trenches around Petersburg during the Confederacy's last gasps of life. Still, despite the looming specter of defeat, Longstreet remained forever faithful and loyal to Lee and the army. His final advice to Lee, prior to his commander and friend's tortured decision to surrender the army, was "General, if he [Grant] does not give us good terms, come back and let us fight it out." Two days later, Longstreet and Lee shared a final campsite together, never to see each other again.
Had Longstreet closely mirrored the example of men like Lee, we likely could draw a close to the major discussion of Longstreet's place in history and end with the footnote that he was one of the war's finest generals who fought the good fight and lost. However, not content to calmly and quietly ride out the remaining years of his life remembering the glories of the past, Longstreet became involved in the quagmire of post-war politics and opened an entirely new chapter to his life that blended the past and the present and ultimately proved to be his undoing. Like the Shakespearean protagonists, Longstreet's fatal flaw emerged, and he, for the rest of his days, re-fought the war on an almost daily basis, only this time with the pen rather than the sword.
After the war In the years that immediately followed the war, Longstreet committed what were to many Southerners three unpardonable sins. First, he openly criticized Lee for his actions at Gettysburg. While there is some debate about whether or not what Longstreet was reported to have said was actually what he did say, the effect of statements attributed to him, which he never denied, were the same. Second, he became a Republican, the political party largely responsible for the hated Reconstruction policies. Third, he wrote a letter that was condemned in several newspapers across the South for its apparent counsel to allow Negro suffrage and to bow to Federal authority. This last was greeted with headlines of "Traitor," the first time Longstreet had ever been referred to by this term. These sins made Longstreet ripe for blame as the instigators of the "Lost Cause" cult formulated their plan to explain away the loss of the war. Lee, the lovable commander of the Confederacy's premier army, had not failed. According to the mythology, he had been failed by one of his subordinates. While Longstreet lived as a businessman in New Orleans, the charges against him heated up. His own inept attempts to respond to these falsehoods only served to strengthen the intensity of the assaults. After serving in many government posts, including a stint as the head of New Orleans Metropolitan Police Force which led to the debacle now know as the Battle of Liberty Place, Longstreet was finally able to secure a position as the Federal Marshal of Georgia. He had wanted this assignment for some time as it allowed him to move back to his beloved home state and also placed him in a position where he could hopefully gain an influence in the Georgia political scene. Unfortunately, as Dr. William Piston states, "his participation in Georgia politics served to heighten the negative image he had acquired as a Louisiana scalawag."
His return to Georgia
All that remains of the Piedmont Hotel
Accepting the job of Federal Marshal, Longstreet returned to Georgia in June of 1881 from Europe, where he had served as minister to Turkey and had succeeded in the securing permission from the Turkish Sultan for an American archaeological team to work in that country. A few years previous to this, in 1875, Longstreet had begun his attempts to permanently shift his political power base to Georgia, prompted in part by the invitation of the editor of the Gainesville Southron. He purchased the Piedmont Hotel in Gainesville as well as a farm outside of town where he would live. Prior to leaving for Turkey, Longstreet had already briefly served as the postmaster for Gainesville, so the transition from living abroad was an easy and welcome one.
While in Georgia, Longstreet eventually crossed the path of the powerful Democrat and former comrade John Gordon. Prior to the 1880's, Gordon had not been an official member of what has been termed by modern historians as the anti-Longstreet cabal, but in his political battles with the General, Gordon found much in the philosophy of the Lost Cause to use against his Republican rival. Gordon began publicly agreeing with Early's charge that Longstreet had disobeyed Lee at Gettysburg and was thus a traitor to the South. This tactic served him well as his fellow Georgian floundered through the political scene.
What Longstreet attempted to do in Georgia was what he had attempted in Louisiana. Put simply, he wanted to establish within the Republican party a solid core of native Whites that could negate the influence of the radical "Black" Republicans. The way he viewed the political landscape, working against the Republicans through the Democratic opposition was counter-productive. Unfortunately for him, his own inability to effectively articulate what he was trying to do, in effect, split the Republicans into two distinct factions, rendering them both inept. Instead of overpowering the Republican party with his own philosophy, Longstreet actually helped cement the Republican influence in the post-Reconstruction South as negligible. This had not been his intention. Longstreet saw radical Democrats and radical Republicans as equal evils.
After he was ousted from the Federal Marshal's office, owing in part to a controversy started by his predecessor and in part by the enemies he quickly made in the political arena, Longstreet's influence in politics effectively came to an end. He spent the remaining years of his life in vicious battles with Early, Pendleton, and Gordon over the battle of Gettysburg and, eventually, his entire war record. These controversies, for which Longstreet must take his fair share of the blame for failing to accept his faults where they existed, consumed him and turned him into a bitter man by the time he wrote his memoirs, a tome which is, unfortunately, filled with many factual errors inspired by bitter resentment of his rivals.
Before his death, he suffered the tragedy of the loss of his wife Marie Louise Garland Longstreet and the burning of his home in Gainesville, containing all his personal papers, war relics, and fond memories. He did have the good fortune to re-marry to a young woman named Helen Dortch who would, in future years, be instrumental in the effort to salvage her husband's reputation. Across much of the South, Longstreet was a hated man, but, strangely, he did maintain warm relationships with many veterans' groups and with several of those who had fought with him and against him. The lies spread by the anti-Longstreet cabal were the "official" history, but to those who knew better, official history didn't matter.
A few brief anecdotes of his final years bear telling. Dan Sickles, the former commander of the Federal corps that opposed Old Pete in the Peach Orchard and Wheatfield on the second day at Gettysburg and who had his leg shot off during that battle, visited Atlanta in 1892. He was there to attend the banquet of the Irish Societies on St. Patrick's Day. Upon arrival, he received a call from James Longstreet, who had gone to Atlanta to welcome his old adversary to his state. Sickles, who wrote of the incident in the introduction of Helen's Longstreet's book about her husband, said "We entered the hall arm in arm, about nine o'clock in the evening, and were received by some three hundred gentlemen, with the wildest and loudest 'rebel yell' I had ever heard." Sickles and Longstreet would end the evening together wandering through the streets of Atlanta, old enemies now friends.
Years later, at the West Point Centennial, Sickles relates, "Longstreet and I sat together near President Roosevelt, the Secretary of War, Mr. Root, and the commander of the army, Lieutenant-General Miles. Here among his fellow-graduates of the Military Academy, he received a great ovation from the vast audience that filled Culum Hall. Again and again he was cheered, when he turned to me, exclaiming, 'Sickles, what are they all cheering about?'
'They are cheering you, General,' was my reply."
Longstreet would also attend the Memorial Day celebration of 1902. Moved by witnessing a parade of Union veterans, Longstreet said, "I hope to live long enough to see my surviving comrades march side by side with the Union veterans along Pennsylvania Avenue, and then I will die happy."
Whether he is named "The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier," by Jeffery Wert, or "Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant," by William Garrett Piston, Longstreet was something else to the men that served him during those trying years of war. Despite the accusations and lies spread by the anti-Longstreet cabal, when Longstreet died on January 2, 1904, he still commanded the respect of thousands both North and South, both Blue and Gray. At his funeral on January 6, one of his old soldiers was moved to lay his uniform and enlistment papers on the lid of Longstreet's coffin, saying nothing, but speaking volumes. As Longstreet himself had said, "Error lives but a day. Truth is Eternal." A thousand miles away in a little town in Texas, another of his former comrades, as he listen to the loving tribute written by Longstreet's widow, calmly sat down, bowed his head, and began to cry.
Biographies Biographies of famous, not so famous and infamous people from the North Georgia area or who had an effect on North Georgia The Civil War in Georgia Beginning with the Great Locomotive Chase and the battle of Chickamauga, to the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea