Tuesday, January 2, 2024

This Day in Civil War History (Death of James Longstreet, Lee’s ‘Old War Horse’—and a Scapegoat for Rebel Defeat)

Jan. 2, 1904— Lieutenant General James Longstreet died six days short of his 83rd birthday in Gainesville, GA.  Acclaimed as one of the South’s best and bravest commanders during the Civil War, he ended up ostracized afterward by many comrades-in-arms for non-military reasons like joining the Republican Party, supporting the rights of freed slaves, and writing a defensive memoir in the postwar period.

So strong was the animus against him that the Daughters of the Confederacy voted not to send flowers to his funeral, and it was not until 2005 that he was honored with a statue at Gettysburg—and even then, its organizers stated, it was for his actions during the battle rather than his postwar conduct.

As Nikki Haley’s controversial comments last week about the cause of the Civil War indicate, Americans remain deeply divided about the conflict. And in the last century and a half, few figures have sparked as much division as Longstreet.

Advocates for “The Lost Cause”—the argument that the Confederacy’s role in the war was just and heroic—may have tried to plant disbelief that the conflict resulted from slavery, but they had no doubt that Longstreet had played a crucial role in the South’s eventual loss by carrying out Robert E. Lee’s orders on the third day at Gettysburg with insufficient vigor.

Yet the negative comments about Longstreet emerged overwhelmingly after the guns fell silent rather than before—indeed, Robert E. Lee referred to him affectionately as “my old war horse.”

From First Manassas to Appomattox, Longstreet served in all but one (Chancellorsville) of the major campaigns of the Army of Northern Virginia.

While not as aggressive as Lee’s other corps commander in the first two years of the war, Stonewall Jackson, the bluff, broad-shouldered Longstreet was arguably steadier and more consistent. 

Reflecting his preference for defensive warfare, his network of trenches, fieldworks, and artillery at the Battle of Fredericksburg, for instance, produced so many Federal casualties that it led to Lee’s famous remark, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”

In May 1864, Longstreet was mistakenly fired on by his own men near the start of the Battle of the Wilderness. Had he died from his wound, as Jackson had done in a similar incident near the same spot the year before, he would have joined Stonewall in the Valhalla of Confederate martyrs.  

Instead, while he could not assist Lee for five months in this critical campaign, he survived, albeit with a right arm paralyzed for life. 

To his own surprise as much as anyone else’s, this diehard who had strongly urged his commander not to surrender at Appomattox started to soften towards the North when he saw Ulysses Grant’s generous peace terms.

Subsequently, in advocating that Southerners should cooperate with the victorious North in rebuilding the region, defending former slaves from threats to their lives and rights, and questioning the ongoing deification of Lee and Jackson, Longstreet was reviled as a traitor—or, in the parlance of the time, a Southern “scalawag” who collaborated with Northern “carpetbaggers” in inflicting a vengeful peace and African-American leaders on whites.

Several factors led to the disaffection that so many Southerners began to feel for Longstreet:

*A June 1867 letter to the New Orleans Times, in which Longstreet advocated obedience to recent Reconstruction legislation—and even join the Republican Party—as a Union victory meant the issues that had divided the country previously were now settled. (See Patrick Young’s Nov. 2019 post from “The Reconstruction Era” blog for the text of the letter, as well as contemporary responses to it.)

*His nomination by his old friend Grant, whom he supported for President in 1868, to be the Surveyor of Customs for the Port of New Orleans, a political appointment seen as being to his advantage.

*His leadership of the biracial Louisiana militia and the New Orleans Metropolitan Police—service that came to an end when these forces were overwhelmed in a September 1874 insurrection by thousands of white supremacists at the “Battle of Liberty Place,” requiring federal troop intervention.

* General Jubal Early and William Pendleton, Lee’s artillery chief, castigated Longstreet in the 1870s for not launching a dawn attack on the Union at Gettysburg on the second day of battle. With Lee dead and no other proof available, the charge shouldn’t have stuck (particularly since Early and Pendleton had their own reasons for deflecting attention from their failures during the battle). But with his two critics not letting go—and with Longstreet himself increasingly resentful of how the reputations of Lee and Jackson were being exalted at his expense—the “old war horse” responded in a flurry of charges and countercharges, first in periodicals, then when he was 75 in an 800-page memoir that his enemies mined for inaccuracies and self-serving charges of his own.

For years, the Early-Pendleton side was supported by the likes of Douglas Southall Freeman in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Lee. Only in the 1950s and 1960s did revisionist historians begin to look more critically at Early, Pendleton, and to a lesser extent, Lee.

In the last 40 years, biographers such as William Garrett Piston, Jeffrey Wert, and Cory Pfarr have offered more balanced appraisals of Longstreet’s military record, absolving him of charges of incompetence at Gettysburg and accepting that he was right in strongly urging Lee not to make the last disastrous assault on Day 3. 

This past fall, Univ. of Virginia historian Elizabeth Varon rendered an additional service to scholarship with Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South, which concentrates more on his postwar career than his service with the Army of Northern Virginia. In the process, it explains how prior misjudgments of Longstreet were based more on politics than on documentation or the context of events.  

But in the court of public opinion, Longstreet may have received significant support less from academic studies than from a 1974 novel. Michael Shaara’s account of the turning point of the war, The Killer Angels, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was adapted into the 1993 film Gettysburg, and inspired Shaara’s son Jeff to write other novels about the war in which Longstreet figured.

The Killer Angels and Gettysburg have led many readers to reevaluate conclusions about Longstreet that had seemed settled for nearly a century. They argued more convincingly for the general than he was able to do for the last three decades of his life.

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