Two dramatic scenes stand out in James Longstreet’s Confederate career. The first occurred on the evening of September 17, 1862, after a day of ghastly combat at Antietam that almost shattered the Army of Northern Virginia. Upon seeing Longstreet, General Robert E. Lee, who earlier had described his senior lieutenant as “the staff in my right hand,” extended a warm greeting. “Ah! here is Longstreet,” he said with evident relief that “Old Pete” appeared unhurt after the day’s carnage, “here’s my old war-horse.” That affectionate nickname stuck.
The second scene came nearly a year later, when Confederate infantrymen were arrayed along Seminary Ridge on the afternoon of July 3, 1863, awaiting orders to advance. Manifestly upset, Longstreet met with Edward Porter Alexander, who oversaw the Rebel batteries that had been firing at the Federals along Cemetery Ridge. As the general spoke to his talented young artillerist, there were slight pauses between each statement: “I don’t want to make this attack—I believe it will fail—I do not see how it can succeed— I would not make it even now, but that Gen. Lee has ordered & expects it.” Soon the Confederate brigades advanced in what became the most famous failed assault in American history.
Longstreet ended the war as a widely admired commander who deserved a position alongside Stonewall Jackson as one of the Confederate Army’s top two corps commanders. But his reputation soon underwent a drastic change. Unlike most former Confederates, Longstreet criticized Lee publicly, embraced reconciliation quickly and wholeheartedly, and became a Republican. Reaction across much of the South was swift and furious. He was cast as a traitor to his old chief and all who had fought for the short-lived slaveholding republic. Jubal A. Early led the way among the first wave of detractors, establishing a tradition followed by John B. Gordon and several generations of later critics. Longstreet had failed Lee at Gettysburg, these writers argued, proved a balky subordinate on other fields, and lied about events and comrades in his memoir From Manassas to Appomattox, as well as other postwar publications.
Longstreet defended himself but proved no match for his tormentors. Although he remained popular among veterans of his First Corps, he finished his life as a pariah in the South. Hundreds of monuments soon sprouted across the Southern landscape, many honoring soldiers far less important and accomplished than Longstreet, but none honored Lee’s “old war-horse.”
That changed in the summer of 1998, when supporters dedicated an equestrian statue on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg. Far from an artistic success in the minds of many, the statue nevertheless announced Longstreet’s official rescue from perdition within the world of Civil War memory.
Several forces came together to bring this turnaround. Longstreet’s admirers, some of whom rallied in support of the statue under the slogan “It’s About Time,” had long faced a difficult task. Biographers such as Hamilton J. Eckenrode and Bryan Conrad, whose James Longstreet: Lee’s War Horse (1936) remained the standard work for many years, had been very harsh. No historian had hurt Longstreet more than Douglas Southall Freeman. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning R.E. Lee: A Biography (4 volumes, 1934-35), Freeman presented a devastating portrait of Longstreet as a sulking, minimally gifted soldier.
Between the 1950s and the mid- 1990s, four biographies helped to rehabilitate Longstreet. Donald B. Sanger and Thomas Robson Hay’s James Longstreet: I. Soldier; II. Politician (1952) offered a positive treatment based largely on published materials, while Wilbur D. Thomas’ General James ‘Pete’ Longstreet: Lee’s ‘Old War Horse,’ Scapegoat for Gettysburg (1979) mounted a no-holds-barred defense of its subject. William Garrett Piston’s Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History (1987) dealt at length with the Lost Cause assault on Longstreet’s reputation, setting the stage for Jeffry D. Wert’s General James Longstreet, The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier: A Biography (1993), a well-researched, carefully argued study that portrayed a gifted officer who had done his best for the Confederacy.
The greatest impetus for Longstreet’s popular rehabilitation came from Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel The Killer Angels, which won the Pulitzer Prize and also inspired director Ron Maxwell’s cinematic treatment Gettysburg. Both the novel and the 1993 film depict Longstreet as a modern soldier who understood the killing power of Civil War weapons, preferred the tactical defensive and sought to avoid useless effusions of blood such as the Pickett-Pettigrew assault. Juxtaposed against a tired and impatient Lee, whose aggressive instincts set up the climactic horror of the attack, Longstreet functions as the most perceptive and attractive character on the Confederate side. Indeed, the novel and film align very well with Longstreet’s own accounts of Gettysburg.
Longstreet surely deserves to be defended against critics inspired by the Lost Cause warriors, but modern readers should not get carried away with notions of him as a far-seeing modern officer. A solid subordinate who reached his level of competency at the corps level and functioned best under Lee’s sure leadership, he had his share of bad days. Few generals mounted less effective assaults than Longstreet’s against Fort Sanders at Knoxville on November 29, 1863, and his performance at Seven Pines in 1862 was equally dismal. In terms of tactical understanding, he fit comfortably within the framework of mid– 19th century thinking. His operational and strategic imagination was far inferior to Lee’s in every way.
At his best on the tactical offensive while with Lee, Longstreet delivered powerful blows at the Seven Days’, Second Manassas and on May 6, 1864, at the Wilderness. He marched his men efficiently (though Lost Cause writers shamelessly claimed otherwise), looked after them in camp, habitually brought units to the battlefield in excellent condition and handled them impressively once fighting commenced. His courage was unquestioned, and Lee’s reliance on him was such that news of Longstreet’s wounding at the Wilderness proved deeply troubling. “I shall not soon forget the sadness in his face,” wrote a witness to the moment Lee learned that Longstreet had been shot, “and the almost despairing movement of his hands, when he was told that Longstreet had fallen.” Lee’s continuing high opinion best counters those who would diminish Longstreet’s well-earned stature.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.