a biographical sketch
Lee's Old War Horse
He was a soldier's soldier. He listened to his own mind. He would
not follow the crowd. He fought through the entire Civil War. He
played a critical role in many of the most important battles.
Many on both sides considered him the South's most effective
corps commander. Robert E. Lee trusted him and praised him as his
Old War Horse. Painfully wounded and partially
paralyzed, he returned to the field as soon as possible. After
the war he was able to adapt to the peace and continue to work
for the good of the South. He was nearly written out of history.
He was Lieutenant General James Old Pete Longstreet.
Longstreet was made a scapegoat after the war by people who
contributed far less to the effort. Ironically, in the instance
primarily cited for his condemnation after the war he was proven
right by events on the field. Years after the war he was blamed
for the loss at Gettysburg. Yet, if Lee had followed his advice,
there is a good chance the battle would have not been fought or
would have been won.
Upon analysis one finds that it was Longstreet's postwar career,
not his performance in the field that led to the poisoning of his
name by Lieutenant General Jubal Early and the Lost Cause
movement. Longstreet pointed out that Lee had made mistakes. He
became a Republican and was condemned as a scalawag or turncoat.
He supported Grant for president to gain patronage for the South.
He accepted African-American suffrage. As the Adjutant General of
the Louisiana state militia in 1874, he used African-American
troops against rioters. These sins made him a handy and popular
Longstreet was brought up to be a soldier. He was born in the
Edgefield District of North Carolina in 1821, to James and Mary
Ann Dent Longstreet. Although he was born in South Carolina, his
family's cotton plantation was near the present-day site of
Gainesville, Georgia. The third son and fifth child, he was
selected for a military career by his father. In consequence he
was sent to Augusta, Georgia to live with his Uncle Augustus so
he could receive an appropriate education.
His father was impressed with young James' steady personality. He
gave his son the nickname Peter, after Saint Peter, the
rock upon which Jesus said he would build his church, because of
the young man's steadiness and determination.
Longstreet's first attempt to gain an appointment to West Point
from Georgia failed. However, he was able to obtain an
appointment from Alabama, where his mother had moved after the
death of his father. He graduated near the bottom of his class in
1842, and his friend, Ulysses Simpson Grant, also graduated in
the bottom half of the class of 1843. Both men's later records
prove academic achievement is not necessary to make a soldier. At
West Point Longstreet also befriended many other men who would
later be central figures in the Civil War, including George Henry
Thomas, William S. Rosecrans, John Pope, D.H. Hill, Lafayette
McLaws, George Pickett, and John Bell Sam Hood.
After West Point Longstreet served at Jefferson Barracks,
Missouri, where he met and married Maria Louisa Garland, The
daughter of his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel John
Garland. They were married in 1848, following the war with
Longstreet showed his mettle in that war. He was brevetted
captain and then major. At the Battle of Chapultepec he was
wounded in the thigh as he was carrying the regimental colors in
an uphill assault on Chapultepec Castle guarding the western
approach to Mexico City. Continuing onward, he handed off the
colors to Lieutenant Pickett, his friend from West Point. Pickett
carried the colors to the top of the hill and was the first man
to reach the summit. Many accounts do not mention Longstreet's
actions in this battle, focusing on Pickett who was unwounded as
well as Lee and Grant who directed artillery fire against the
strong Mexocan position.
When Lincoln was elected president, Longstreet sided with the
South. He was not for secession but had been made a strong
believer in State's Rights under his uncle's tutelage. He
resigned from the U.S. Army in June 1861 to offer his services to
the state of Alabama. He was the senior West Point graduate from
that state and was appointed a lieutenant colonel. When he
arrived in Richmond later in the month, President Jefferson Davis
made him a brigadier general. He was given a brigade of three
Virginia regiments stationed at Manassas. He trained his men
Longstreet's first action was at Blackburn's Ford on 18 July
where his men beat back a Union reconnaissance in force that
preceded the First Battle of Bull Run. His brigade played a minor
role in that battle, but endured nine hours of artillery
bombardment. When the Union forces broke and retreated he went
into a rage because there was no pursuit. Often during the war he
would show a better grasp of strategic and tactical situations
than did his superiors. On 7 October he was promoted to major
general and given command of a division. Three of his young
children died of scarlet fever in January 1862 and the usually
gregarious Longstreet became withdrawn for a period.
During the Peninsula Campaign he performed well despite some
confusion at the Battle of Seven Pines. General Joseph Johnston
was wounded during the battle and Lee assumed command of the Army
of Northern Virginia. During the Seven Days Battle, Longstreet
commanded about half of Lee's force and turned in an aggressive
performance. Lee called him the staff in my right hand.
Longstreet's staff officer Moxley Sorrel later wrote that
Longstreet was "Like a rock in steadiness when the world was
flying to pieces."
At the Second Battle of Bull Run Longstreet was a slow starter,
but on the final day directed the flank attack that broke the
Union Army. Longstreet gave the credit for the success to Lee,
calling his superior's performance clever and brilliant.
The Lost Cause movement would later focus on his early slowness
rather than his tiger-like finish.
Despite many aggressive performances, Longstreet was known as a
defensive general. This categorization was not quite fair. He in
fact believed in strategic offense and tactical defense. In other
words, he favored placing his troops where the enemy could not
tolerate them, forcing an attack on ground of his own choosing.
The German, Erwin Rommel, in Africa during World War II,
perfected this policy. Longstreet also showed an exceptional
ability to adapt his tactics to the terrain.
At Antietam on 17 September 1862, Longstreet held against forces
twice his number, despite many of his men having been dispatched
to reinforce the other flank of Lee's army. Longstreet used the
terrain to his advantage, effectively multiplying his heavily
outnumbered force. He earned the accolade of Old War
Horse, from Lee following that bloody day. Longstreet cut a
strange figure for a war horse, riding side saddle in carpet
slippers due to an injured heel. Lee arranged for Longstreet to
be appointed senior lieutenant general following the battle.
Longstreet's promotion was dated a day before that of Thomas
Jonathon Stonewall Jackson. In November, Longstreet was
given the First Corps of around 41,000 men. Previously he had
commanded one wing of the army and Jackson the other.
At Fredericksburg in December 1862, Longstreet dug his men in on
Mayre's Heights and successfully resisted fourteen assaults by
Union forces. His entrenched troops lost 500 men to Union losses
Early in 1863 Longstreet grasped the strategic importance of the
war in the west and pressed Lee for transfer to middle Tennessee
where Union Major General William S. Rosecrans was facing General
Braxton Bragg. Critics would later say Longstreet was seeking
advancement in an independent command.
Instead, Lee sent Longstreet to the Departments of North Carolina
and Southern Virginia where he besieged Union Forces at Suffolk,
Virginia. Though a minor action, it was critical because it
released provisions for the Army of Northern Virginia that had
been under Federal control. Missing the strategic importance of
this service, critics would later attack him for missing the
Battle of Chancellorsville, where he was not needed, as Lee won a
Following Chancellorsville and Jackson's death, Lee and
Longstreet met to discuss summer plans. Longstreet again urged
his detachment to the west where Grant was now threatening the
critical position at Vicksburg, which, if it fell, would isolate
the western states of the Confederacy. Lee chose to advance to
the North instead. This set the stage for the Battle of
Gettysburg. While an invasion of Pennsylvania would be a
psychological blow to the North, it had little strategic
importance. Longstreet had correctly analyzed the situation.
Gettysburg, a battle that need never have been fought, would form
the core of later attacks on Longstreet by Lieutenant General
Jubal Early and the Lost Cause Movement.
Following the war, Early, joined by a chorus of others, embarked
on a lengthy smear campaign that blamed Longstreet for losing the
war at the Battle of Gettysburg. Longstreet was accused of
disobeying a direct order from Lee to attack at dawn on 2 July
1863, and for not fully prosecuting the ill-fated attack known as
Pickett's Charge on 3 July. As the charge of
insubordination on 2 July was leveled two years after Lee's
death, it was not substantiated, but was widely accepted by many
Southerners who were displeased with Longstreet's postwar
behavior, and were seeking a scapegoat for the loss of the war.
Longstreet had certainly opposed the 3 July assault on strong
Union positions. His continued insistence that turning the Union
flank would have been a better strategy than the disastrous
attack on the center on that day led to direct criticism of Lee
by Longstreet after the war. The attack was conducted under
Longstreet's direction with three divisions under the command of
now Major General Pickett, Brigadier General J. Johnston
Pettigrew, and Major General Isaac R. Trimble. History has given
Pickett's name to the event, showing how fully Longstreet's
reputation was damaged.
Longstreet insisted that he had been against the attack from the
beginning, and later clearly stated he had said "General, I have
been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in
fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions,
and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers
can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever
arranged for battle can take that position." During the battle,
Longstreet had pushed for a flanking strategy and had been
reluctant to give the command for the attack on the center,
acknowledging it with a nod rather than a verbal order.
Before Gettysburg, Longstreet had advocated that the Army of
Northern Virginia fight from an advantageous position, a less
aggressive plan than the advance into Pennsylvania Lee proposed.
"All that I could ask was that the policy of the campaign should
be one of defensive tactics; that we should work so as to force
the enemy to attack us, in such good position as we might find in
our own country, so well adapted to that purpose."
At Gettysburg on the controversial second day Longstreet was
criticized for slowness not his own. He delayed his attack on the
Union left because he was waiting for more brigades to arrive so
that he would have sufficient force to prosecute the attack. This
was the delay that eventually led to Early's charge of
The controversy about Longstreet that emerged later ignored the
fact that Lee gave no formal order for the dawn attack
until 11 a.m., agreeing with the need for additional troops.
Longstreet continued to push for a flanking attack. Instead he
was ordered to supervise the three-division attack on Cemetery
Ridge that developed through the day on 3 July. First, the
preliminary artillery barrage, with some 150 cannon, was
ineffectual and left some Confederate artillery without
ammunition to support the actual assault while other guns were
withdrawn too soon when the Federal guns ceased firing. This was
interpreted to mean the guns had been knocked out when that was
not the case.
The three participating divisions were badly mauled, suffering
over fifty percent casualties. About 12,500 troops participated
in the attack and losses totaled over 6,500 including killed,
wounded, and captured. The debacle on 3 July was magnified by the
fact that Confederate troops not only had to fight their way up
Cemetery Hill, they had to fight their way back down again under
Legend has it that when Lee urged Pickett to organize his
division in a defensive position after the assault, Pickett is
alleged to have protested, "General Lee, I have no division."
Since history disputes the existence of any meeting between
Pickett and Lee after the attack, the anecdote should be taken as
This 3 July attack, which broke the first line of Northern
defenders before being forced back, became known as the High
Tide of the Confederacy.
Longstreet was always his own man. He quite often disagreed with
his superiors. His ideas of how things should be done often
diverged from Lee's way of doing things. That they disagreed
about the Gettysburg campaign was not surprising.
The real split between Longstreet and his former comrades in arms
did not appear until after the former general had enraged them
with his new Republican allegiance that was based on an extension
of his years-long acquaintance with Grant.
It is interesting to note that on the same day, 4 July, that Lee
withdrew from Gettysburg, Grant entered Vicksburg and the
Confederacy was split from the provision-rich western states. The
new nation was as much starved as beaten in the field.
Following Gettysburg, Longstreet continued to lobby for a posting
in the West. On 5 September, President Davis acceded, and sent
him to reinforce Bragg, who was under pressure from Rosecrans
Moving west with two divisions, a detached brigade, and an
artillery battalion, Longstreet showed logistical brilliance.
Moving his men over 775 miles along sixteen railroads, Longstreet
arrived in time for the Battle of Chickamauga.
Commanding the Left Wing of Bragg's army on 20 September, a mere
fifteen days after he started out from Virginia, Longstreet
played a critical role at Chickamauga. He organized an eight-brigade attack in a deep column reminiscent of Napoleon's tactics
in the final hour at Waterloo when he sent troops against
Wellington's center in a broad column. Longstreet was much more
successful. He was facing a different general in different
circumstances. Wellington's troops were deployed to resist the
desperate assault; Rosecrans' micromanagement of his men left a
gap in his lines.
The Union right collapsed under the onrush of the First Corps
veterans and Rosencrans reeled back toward Chattanooga. Only
Union Major General George H. Thomas' stalwart defense and
Bragg's lack of pursuit prevented a total rout and destruction of
the Union Army. Still, it was the greatest Confederate victory in
the West. Rosecrans was not effective after the defeat. Grant
later replaced him with Howard. He ended the war in the
Department of Missouri, never holding a major field command
Following the battle, Longstreet became the leader of a group of
officers dissatisfied with Bragg's performance. He accused Bragg
of incompetence. Jefferson Davis had to intercede on Bragg's
behalf and the much-maligned general retained his command.
Considerable animosity remained between Bragg and Longstreet, who
was reduced to command of only the forces he had brought with him
After some minor engagements, Longstreet was dispatched to east
Tennessee to thwart an advance by Major General Ambrose Burnside.
He was being posted back to Virginia and this was in the right
direction. He gained the nickname Slow Peter from his
troops for his leisurely march to Knoxville in contrast to his
earlier rush to join Bragg.
Burnside evaded the First Corps at Campbell's Station and settled
into defenses at Knoxville where Longstreet besieged him. When
Grant defeated Bragg at Chattanooga, Longstreet was ordered back
west but returned toward Virginia instead.
Longstreet was devastated by his failure in his second
independent command and submitted his resignation, but it was
In winter quarters in east Tennessee, Longstreet developed plans
for a thrust into Kentucky, but although Lee concurred, the
proposal was rejected by President Davis and his new military
Upon his return to Virginia in May, Longstreet again showed his
tactical genius in the Battle of the Wilderness. He deployed six
brigades in heavy skirmish lines attacking along the Orange Plank
Road. This allowed for heavy fire to be maintained and nearly
unbalanced the Union II Corps. Unfortunately, Longstreet was
wounded by friendly fire and the attack abated. The incident
happened about a mile from where Jackson had also been shot by
his own troops a year earlier. With Longstreet out of the battle
with a wound to his shoulder and neck, the pace of the attack
fell off and the Union forces were able to recover.
Longstreet missed the rest of the spring and summer campaigns,
recuperating in Georgia. He returned to Lee in October 1864 with
his right arm paralyzed. He commanded the defenses in front of
Richmond during the remainder of the Siege of Petersburg. He
retreated with Lee in the spring of 1865. As Lee, tired of the
carnage, considered surrender, Longstreet assured him that Grant
would be fair. However, at the last moment before Lee's meeting
with Grant at Appomattox Court House on 9 April, Longstreet
expressed a willingness to fight on, telling Lee, "General, if he
does not give us good terms, come back and let us fight it out."
Following the war, Longstreet moved to New Orleans and entered
business. He joined a cotton brokerage partnership, served as
president of an insurance company, and tried to enter the
railroad business, finally being named president of the New
Orleans and Northeastern Railroad in 1870.
Perhaps the greatest praise one can receive is from one's
enemies. When he applied for a pardon from President Andrew
Johnson, with Grant's endorsement, he was rejected. "There are
three persons of the South who can never receive amnesty: Mr.
Davis, General Lee, and yourself. You have given the Union cause
too much trouble," Johnson told Longstreet in a meeting. Congress
restored his civil rights in 1868, and he became a Republican,
supporting Grant for the presidency. Six days after Grant's
inauguration, Longstreet was appointed customs surveyor for New
Longstreet was not popular among Southerners for his actions, and
voices rose against him, eventually including Early and the Lost
Cause movement. Longstreet's criticism of Lee for being unsteady
at Gettysburg also damaged his reputation. He was appointed
Adjutant General of Louisiana by the state's Republican governor,
and was given charge
Of militia and state police forces in New Orleans. Longstreet did
not respond well to criticism and was deeply hurt, believing he
was still serving the South.
In 1874, during rioting over election irregularities, he was shot
by a spent bullet and taken prisoner by the mob. Federal troops
were required to restore order. Longstreet's use of African-American troops against the rioters led to further denunciations.
Longstreet left New Orleans with his family in 1875, returning to
Gainesville, Georgia. He converted to Catholicism in 1877 on a
business trip to New Orleans, a mark of how deeply his rejection
as a scalawag disturbed him.
He served in various posts under Republican administrations
including ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and Commissioner of
In April 1889, his first wife died after forty years of marriage.
Then on 8 September 1897, he was remarried in the Georgia
governor's mansion to 34-year-old Helen Dortch. She spent a long
life working to clear his name. It was an uphill battle, as he
had generally served in Lee's shadow, and he had made few friends
with his criticisms of his superior and his Republican
affiliation. In the long run, however, history has revealed him
as a man of uncommon good sense and perseverance who made a
significant contribution both to the war and the ensuing peace.
His grasp of tactics at times seemed intuitive. He died in 1904.
Only in the last part of the Twentieth Century has he begun to
reclaim his rightful place in the history books.
contributed by Jess C. Henderson