combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2007

Posted Muster
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 target.

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 Mexico.

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 incessantly.

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 of 10,000.

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 brilliant victory.

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 insubordination.

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 heavy fire.

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 illustrative.

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 outside Chattanooga.

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 again.

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 from Virginia.

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 denied.

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 advisor, Bragg.

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 Orleans.

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 Railroads.

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

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