The Old War Horse: James Longstreet

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New Orleans, 1874. In the throes of Reconstruction, elections have erupted in riots throughout the city. Major general of militia and state police James Longstreet enters the fray, only to be pulled from his horse, shot – albeit with a spent bullet, then taken prisoner. The former hero of the Confederacy, the now-Republican Longstreet is now called a traitor and a scalawag. Soon after the riot, he and his family flee to Gainesville, Georgia.

In less than ten years, Longstreet went from one of the most prominent generals in the Confederate Army to a virtual pariah in the South. By refusing to cling to the tenets of the glorious Lost Cause, Longstreet became that which the Southerner despised – the scalawag.

Longstreet’s upbringing was thoroughly Southern. The son of a South Carolina cotton planter, Longstreet was sent to Augusta, Georgia for schooling, living with his uncle, writer/editor Augustus Baldwin Longstreet. Although admitted to the prestigious West Point, Longstreet’s time there was marked by poor grades and disciplinary problems; he graduated 54th of 56 students in 1842. His closest friend while there was Ulysses S. Grant.

Why do men fight who were born to be brothers? James Longstreet

After a long military career that included distinctive service during the Mexican-American War, Longstreet left the U.S. Army in 1861 to join the Confederacy, although he had he expressed reservations about secession.

Longstreet began to distinguish himself early on in the Civil War. General Robert E. Lee often referred to Longstreet as “the staff in my right hand,” and affectionately called him “the old war horse.” Lee’s confidence in Longstreet was proven by Longstreet’s performance at the Bull Runs, Fredericksburg, and Antietam.

However, at Gettysburg, Lee and Longstreet would be divided about the controversial battle strategy that Lee believed would deliver victory, and that Longstreet harbored misgivings about from the beginning – Pickett’s Charge.

I do not want to make this charge. I do not see how it can succeed. I would not make it now but that General Lee has ordered it and expects it.James Longstreet at Gettysburg.

On July 3, the last day of battle at Gettysburg, Lee gave Longstreet orders to coordinate a massive frontal assault on the Union line, using General George Pickett’s division among others. Longstreet felt that the chances of this assault’s success were slim, especially compared to the number of casualties that would result.

Longstreet’s reservations about the charge proved fateful; instead of delivering the victory that Lee anticipated, Pickett’s Charge was a deadly defeat. More than 50% of the Confederate troops who charged the Union forces were casualties. Total losses for the attack were around 6500; of this number, around 1100 were Confederate dead.

Contemporaries and historians blamed Longstreet’s delay in following Lee’s orders to charge for the bloodbath; however, most of the blame can be traced to the fact that unlike most of his contemporaries, Longstreet openly criticized Lee and his strategy.

General, if he does not give us good terms, come back and let us fight it out. James Longstreet to Robert E. Lee upon Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

Longstreet was severely wounded, resulting in the paralysis of his right arm, at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, and thus was out of commission for most of the year. His loss was felt keenly by Lee. Longstreet rejoined Lee in time for the Appomattox and the subsequent surrender. His and Lee’s paths divided sharply after the surrender.

After the surrender, Longstreet and his family relocated to New Orleans, as did many former Confederate officers. However, Longstreet soon became anathema to his former brothers in arms; he endorsed his old friend Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1868, going so far as to attend the inauguration ceremonies. Soon thereafter, he was rewarded with an appointment as surveyor of customs in New Orleans.

Longstreet’s conversion to the Republican Party resulted in his disavowal by many other Southerners. The Republican Party and Reconstruction were bitterly despised in the South, as was their support of African-American rights, which Longstreet also supported. “Our scalawag is the local leper of the community,” wrote Henry Hill of Longstreet, and “is a native, which is so much the worse.”

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. James Longstreet

His reputation destroyed, particularly when Democrats again gained control of the South in the late 1870s, Longstreet retreated to semi-retirement in Georgia.

It was in Georgia that Longstreet wrote his memoirs, From Manassas to Appomattox, which was published in 1896. Although greatly admired by later historians, the book did little at the time to restore Longstreet’s reputation.

Longstreet outlived many of his peers, living until 1902, still as controversial as ever.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 18th, 2008 at 1:20 pm and is filed under Civil War Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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  1. Military Statue Trivia - Old Hippie's Forums    Aug 20 2010 / 11pm:

    […] called ?Old Pete? and the soldier General Lee referred to affectionately as ?my old War Horse.? This link will take you to an article that?s a fine start to such an exploration. Longstreet?s statue stands […]