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Was General James Longstreet Unjustly Vilified in History?

Key points

  • James Longstreet (1821 to 1904) was a prominent Confederate general during the American Civil War.

  • As a general, Longstreet tended to prefer defensive positions. This led to him being referred to as “the Anvil” while the more aggressive Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was called “the Hammer.” Longstreet’s track record was very good, with the notable exception of the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge. That move led to a loss at Gettysburg and turned the tide of the war in the Union’s favor.

  • Celebrated in the South during the war, Longstreet’s reputation suffered with Reconstruction. He publically called on slave owners to carry out abolition, and he encouraged a smooth transition to reunification. This made hard-liners turn against him. Ongoing pro-Confederate forces in the South continued to tarnish his name in the decades after his death.


A picture of James Longstreet near the end of his life.
A picture of James Longstreet near the end of his life.

James Longstreet is a man defined by his era. He did not get to choose the context of his battlefield experiences. He could not singlehandedly control the issues and forces that defined his post-war political career. But the choices he made in these difficult moments have long been a fascination for historians.

To the Confederate supporters of his time, he went from a war hero to a traitor. To those supporting the Union, he went from a feared leader of treacherous forces to a mild supporter. This change in the second half of his life has come to damage his reputation for one side without really earning any rehabilitation on the other.

But none of this history is written in stone. So let’s try to understand Longstreet and reevaluate his place in our country’s past.

Who was James Longstreet?

Early life and career

James Longstreet began life on a farm in South Carolina. Even as a boy he proved to be reliable, earning him the nickname “Peter,” like the saint.

That unflagging spirit carried him to West Point, and he rode this inner force through battles in the Mexican–American War.

After the war, he found himself as a paymaster for the US Army, stationed in the western city of Albuquerque. It was there that he heard news of secession and later the Battle of Fort Sumter.

This created great sadness in Longstreet, who did not support the breakup of the country. But he ended up leaving his posts and joining the fight out of loyalty to his home state.

Service in the Confederate Army

Longstreet’s first major moment in the war came at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). It was there that he led a brigade through arduous conditions, including a day-long artillery barrage.

He served admirably in other major battles, including the Battle of Seven Pines and later the Second Battle of Bull Run, where he played a deciding factor in the Confederate victory.

Longstreet also fought in Antietam, where his persistence earned him the name “Old War Horse.”

Though he found success in further battles, it is his participation in Gettysburg that has earned the most analysis. On the final day there, General Robert E. Lee pushed for a strike at the center of the Union line. Longstreet asked him to change his mind, but Lee insisted.

And so, Longstreet led what is now known as Pickett’s Charge, where Confederate troops were repelled and slaughtered. Gettysburg ended in victory for the Union, and it would later come to be seen as a major turning point in the war as a whole.

Analysis of Longstreet's actions during the Civil War

The Battle of Gettysburg

A picture of the Gettysburg Battlefield today.

The Gettysburg Campaign… is that operation which lies at the core of history’s judgment of Longstreet. — Jeffry D. Wert, General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier

Gettysburg proved to be the most important moment in our understanding of General James Longstreet’s legacy.

As Lee was preparing the plans for Pickett’s Charge, he had reason to believe it would work. On the day before, his men attacked the Union’s right and left flank. Both of these proved strong.

It stood to reason, then, that their center would be weakened, as they must have pulled their strength from there to support the flanks. But that move was predicted by the Union side, and so the charge was met with powerful resistance.

Later commentators, particularly those motivated by an ongoing bias for the Confederacy, have blamed Longstreet for losing at Gettysburg. This laying of blame avoids sullying the name of Lee, and it allows someone who would later support Reconstruction to take the hit.

Could Longstreet have carried out Lee’s orders in a way that would have led to success? Maybe, maybe not. But it was ultimately not Longstreet’s decision.

Another line of thinking suggests the charge failed because Longstreet didn’t believe in it, and there is some appeal to this line of thinking.

His success in other battles, however, suggests that the failure of the charge was not caused by incompetence on the part of Longstreet.

The aftermath of Pickett’s Charge

A painting of Pickett's Charge.
A painting of Pickett's Charge.

Pickett’s Charge was a failure on a massive scale. In less than an hour, the Confederate side lost a total of 6,555 troops and 21 battle flags. That toll is staggering, and it all happened under Longstreet’s command.

What proved even more devastating for the South was the way Gettysburg galvanized the Union cause and helped lead to Confederate defeat a couple years later.

Longstreet's legacy and historical perception

Post-war life and legacy

As scapegoat for the Confederate defeat, Longstreet is perhaps the keystone of the “Lost Cause,” playing a role in history which has affected our perceptions of the Civil War to the present day. — William Garrett Piston, Lee’s Tarnish Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History

Longstreet’s war record came under fire through the rest of the 19th century, particularly by supporters of the Lost Cause movement. This was a group of people who wrote about the war from a pro-Confederate position, introducing the anti-historical claim that the Southern cause was not rooted in slavery.

Why did they go after Longstreet specifically?

After the war, Longstreet managed to avoid being punished for his treason, thanks to the support of Ulysses S. Grant. He used his subsequent freedom to promote the embrace of Reconstruction in the South, and he supported the abolition of slavery and giving Black Americans full citizenship.

He continued to seek positions in government, and even led some fighting against a white supremacist uprising (with the assistance of Black troops, a controversial move in the eyes of his Lost Cause critics). All the while, his war record continued to be criticized.

He tried to set things straight with his From Manassas to Appomattox memoir, but the damage was done.

Historical perception and reexamination

A portrait of James Longstreet.
A portrait of James Longstreet.

The way we see the history of the American Civil War often says more about the present day than it does about the past. As our country has developed, so has the way we talk about the war.

As the effects of the Lost Cause movement on our national story begin to wane, more and more historians are reassessing the evidence. This has led to some rehabilitation of Longstreet, but it has also opened him up to new criticisms, like his support of the Confederacy in the first place. At the same time, the reassessment looks much more positively at his pro-Reconstruction and pro-Abolition stances after the war.

Final thoughts

James Longstreet’s reputation has been a measure of how we see one of the darkest chapters of American history.

Though unfairly vilified after the war by a movement organized to mythologize the Confederacy as a place of peace and prosperity, the general is now receiving a more fair hearing. Neither hero nor villain, it appears Longstreet was that kind of person we all must resign ourselves to be — people of our time.

Looking back through our history is important, not because it rehabilitates the reputations of long dead generals, but because it helps us to better understand how we got where we are today. For better and worse, Longstreet played a major role in the American story.

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