Moxley Sorrel, one of his staff officers, wrote of Longstreet’s confidence and calmness in battle: “He was like a rock in steadiness when sometimes in battle the world seemed flying to pieces.” Gen. Lee said, “Longstreet was the staff in my right hand.” He had been established as Lee’s principal lieutenant.
At the Seven Days Battles he was in operational command of nearly half of the army, 15 brigades. Longstreet was an aggressive commander especially at Gaines’ Mill and Glendale. His command eventually became the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Longstreet’s reputation suffered unfairly from the disastrous attack on the Union center on the third day at Gettysburg when the misnamed Pickett’s Charge had nearly wrecked the Confederate Army. After the war many of the ‘Lost Cause’ proponents blamed Longstreet rather than the man who ordered the attack, Robert E. Lee.
After the war Longstreet and his family settled in New Orleans where he entered a partnership in the cotton brokerage business and became the president of the newly created Great Southern and Western Fire, Marine and Accident Insurance Company. In 1870, he was named president of the newly organized New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad.
He applied for a pardon from President Andrew Johnson, endorsed by his friend, Ulysses S. Grant. Johnson refused, however, telling Longstreet in a meeting: “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.” Regardless of such opposition the United States Congress restored his rights of citizenship in June 1868.
James Longstreet was the only senior Confederate officer to join the Republican Party during Reconstruction. He endorsed Grant for president in 1868, attended his inauguration ceremonies, and six days later received an appointment as surveyor of customs in New Orleans. For these acts he lost favor with many Southerners. His old friend Harvey Hill wrote to a newspaper: “Our scalawag is the local leper of the community.”
Longstreet and Grant had been friends since their days at West Point. Grant married Longstreet’s fourth cousin, Julia Dent, and Longstreet was in attendance although his role is disputed by historians. The two men would remain friends through the war and the peace that followed.
The Republican governor of Louisiana appointed Longstreet the adjutant general of the state militia and by 1872 he became a major general in command of all militia and state police forces within New Orleans. During protests of election irregularities in 1874, referred to as the Battle of Liberty Place, an armed force of 8,400 White League members advanced on the State House.
Longstreet commanded a force of 3,600 Metropolitan Police, city policemen, and African-American militia troops, armed with two Gatling guns and a battery of artillery. He rode to meet the protesters but was pulled from his horse, shot by a spent bullet, and taken prisoner. The White League charged, causing many of Longstreet’s men to flee or surrender. Federal troops were required to restore order. Longstreet’s use of black troops during the disturbances increased the denunciations by anti-Reconstructionists.
The Longstreet family left New Orleans and moved to Gainesville, Georgia over concerns for their health and safety. He applied for various jobs through the Rutherford B. Hayes administration and was briefly considered for Secretary of the Navy. He served briefly as deputy collector of internal revenue and as postmaster of Gainesville.
In 1880 Hayes appointed Longstreet as his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and later he served from 1897 to 1904, under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, as U.S. Commissioner of Railroads, succeeding Wade Hampton III.
Longstreet’s wife Louise died in December of 1889. He remarried at the age of 76 in 1897, in a ceremony at the governor’s mansion in Atlanta, to Helen Dortch, age 34. Although Longstreet’s children reacted poorly to the marriage, Helen became a devoted wife and avid supporter of his legacy after his death. She outlived him by 58 years, dying in 1962.
After suffering criticism of his war record from other Confederates for decades, Longstreet refuted most of their arguments in his memoirs entitled From Manassas to Appomattox, a labor of five years that was published in 1896.
His final years were marked by poor health and partial deafness. In 1902 he suffered from severe rheumatism and was unable to stand for more than a few minutes at a time. His weight diminished from 200 to 135 pounds by January 1903. Cancer developed in his right eye, and in December he had X-ray therapy in Chicago to treat it.
He contracted pneumonia and died in Gainesville, six days before his 83rd birthday. Longstreet’s remains are buried in Alta Vista Cemetery. He outlived most of his detractors, and was one of only a few general officers from the Civil War to live into the 20th century.
Longstreet’s reputation suffered greatly from the attacks of the believers in the Lost Cause mythology. It should be noted that the attacks began two years of the death of General Lee. They centered on Longstreet’s actions at Gettysburg. Jubal Early in a speech at Washington College falsely accused Longstreet of attacking late on the second day and of being responsible for the debacle on the third.
The following year William N. Pendleton, Lee’s artillery chief, claimed in the same venue that Longstreet disobeyed an explicit order to attack at sunrise on July 2. Both of these allegations were fabrications. However, Longstreet failed to challenge these lies publicly until 1875. That failure further damaged his reputation.
Most of the criticisms and fabrication lasted into the 20th century with Douglas Southall Freeman including them in his famous biography of Robert E. Lee. Clifford Dowdey, a Virginia newspaperman and novelist, was noted for his severe criticism of Longstreet in the 1950s and 1960s. (Dowdey was quite a prolific author and many of his works can be found on Amazon.com.)
The publication of Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels in 1974, based in part on Longstreet’s memoirs, followed by its 1993 film adaptation, Gettysburg, have been credited with helping to restore Longstreet’s reputation as a general and to dramatically raise his public visibility. The 1982 work by Thomas L. Connolly and Barbara L. Bellows, God and General Longstreet, provided a “further upgrading of Longstreet through an attack on Lee, the Lost Cause, and the Virginia revisionists.”
Jeffry D. Wert wrote that “Longstreet … was the finest corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia; in fact, he was arguably the best corps commander in the conflict on either side.” Richard L. DiNardo wrote “Even Longstreet’s most virulent critics have conceded that he put together the best staff employed by any commander, and that his de facto chief of staff,Lieutenant Colonel G. Moxley Sorrel, was the best staff officer in the Confederacy.”
DiNardo cited the effective way in which Longstreet delegated responsibilities for control of battlefield movements to his staff and how they were able to communicate with him more effectively during battles than the staffs of other Confederate generals during the war.
After Longstreet’s death, his second wife Helen privately published Lee and Longstreet at High Tide in his defense, in which she stated “the South was seditiously taught to believe that the Federal Victory was wholly the fortuitous outcome of the culpable disobedience of General Longstreet.” (This book is also available on Amazon.com.)