Born in the Edgefield District of South Carolina in 1821, James Longstreet was just two generations removed from the North. His grandfather, William, was a inventor who was fascinated by steam engines. He moved his family from New Jersey to Savannah, Georgia and eventually into South Carolina.
Longstreet’s father, also named James, owned a cotton plantation in what is now the metro Atlanta region. At the age of nine, James was sent to live with his uncle Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, who was a newspaper editor, educator, and a Methodist minister. James spent eight years on his uncle’s plantation, Westover, just outside the city, while he attended the Academy of Richmond County.
In 1838, James received an appointment to the United States Military Academy from the congressman of the First District of Alabama, where his mother had moved to after the death of his father five years earlier. James was a poor student academically and a disciplinary problem at West Point, ranking 54th out of 56 cadets when he graduated in 1842. However, he was popular with his classmates, many of whom would serve under him or against him, including George Pickett and Ulysses S. Grant. He was known as ‘Pete’, ‘Old Pete’ or ‘Peter’, a childhood nickname.
Longstreet and Grant would become fast friends at West Point and later in the army. Grant’s wife, Julia, was Longstreet’s fourth cousin. Their friendship would transcend four years of bloody combat.
Longstreet served with distinction in the Mexican War with the 8th U.S. Infantry. He received brevet promotions to captain for Contreras and Churubusco and to major for Molino del Rey. In the Battle of Chapultepec on September 12, 1847, he was wounded in the thigh while charging up the hill with his regimental colors. Falling, he handed the flag to his friend, Lt. George E. Pickett, who was able to reach the summit.
Longstreet, accompanied by his wife and a growing family that would eventually reach 10 children, served in a succession of frontier posts, primarily in Texas.
In 1861, Longstreet resigned his commission in June and offered his services to his adopted state, where his mother still lived. He was the senior West Point graduate from the state. Longstreet was not enthusiastic about secession from the Union, but he had learned from his uncle Augustus about the doctrine of states’ rights early in his life and had seen his uncle’s passion for it.
Although he was born in South Carolina and reared in Georgia, he offered his services to the state of Alabama, which had appointed him to West Point and where his mother still lived. Furthermore, he was the senior West Point graduate from that state, which implied a commensurate rank in the state’s forces would be available. He resigned from the U.S. Army in June 1861 to cast his lot with the Confederacy in the Civil War.
He arrived in Richmond as a lieutenant colonel but in short order he was offered a commission as a brigadier general with date of rank on June 17, a commission he accepted on June 25. He was ordered to report to Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard at Manassas, where he was given command of a brigade of three Virginia regiments—the 1st, 11th, and 17th Virginia Infantry regiments.
Longstreet took part in the First Battle of Manassas but his unit was little used, infuriating the new brigadier general. His trusted staff officer, Moxley Sorrel, recorded that he was “in a fine rage. He dashed his hat furiously to the ground, stamped, and bitter words escaped him.” He quoted Longstreet as saying, “Retreat! Hell, the Federal army has broken to pieces.”
On October 7, Longstreet was promoted to major general and assumed command of a division in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia —four infantry brigades and Hampton’s Legion.
In January of 1862, a scarlet fever epidemic struck Richmond, taking three of Longstreet’s children. After this severe loss, Longstreet became somber and withdrawn, a complete change from the earlier fun-loving man.
During the Peninsula campaign, Longstreet’s performance was mixed. But at the Seven Days Battles, when he commanded almost half of the Confederate army, his leadership was considered sterling.
Moxley Sorrel 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. Lee took to calling ‘my old war horse’.
Longstreet has been criticized by some for his slow march to Jackson’s rescue at Second Manassas but his troops did cover roughly 30 miles in a little over 24 hours. Longstreet’s performance on August 30th at Second Manassas is considered by some as his finest performance of the war. Longstreet began to develop superior defensive tactics at Second Manassas that carry him through the rest of the war.
After their smashing victory at Second Manassas, the Army of Northern Virginia turned their columns north, crossing the Potomac into Maryland. His troops were engaged at South Mountain and Antietam, where Robert E. Lee greeted him as his old war-horse after the battle.
After Antietam, the Confederate Army moved south back into Virginia where they fought again at Fredericksburg where Longstreet was given the time to construct superior defensive works which held off 14 separate assaults from Union troops.
After Fredericksburg, Lee detached Longstreet with two divisions to Suffolk in coastal Virginia. He was given command of the Departments of North Carolina and Southern Virginia. Longstreet and his troops were to stay there until after the Battle of Chancellorsville and the death of Stonewall Jackson. Lee recalled them for his planned march into the North which culminated with the Battle of Gettysburg.
Longstreet, a lieutenant general since after Antietam, commanded the First Corps with a complement of three divisions led by Lafayette McLaws, George Pickett, and John Hood. Longstreet counseled Lee to move around the Union left and make the Union Army attack Confederate defensive positions. But Lee, ever the offensive commander, vowed, “If the enemy is there tomorrow, we must attack him.”
Over the next three days, the Army of Northern Virginia dashed itself on the defenses of the Army of the Potomac, culminated in a grand assault of the Union center on July 3rd. Known as Pickett’s Charge, Longstreet was in overall command of the 12,000 men who marched into the Union guns on Cemetery Ridge.
Longstreet favored a move to the right but General Lee insisted that his men assault the center. Longstreet wrote later in his diary that he told Lee, “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.”
Longstreet was correct and his attacking force was devastated. Pickett’s Division had an 80% casualty rate, including the death of two of his brigade commanders and the near mortal wounding of the third. The Confederate defeat at Gettysburg is considered one of the turning points of the Civil War.
After Gettysburg, Longstreet got his longed-for transfer to the Western Theater with the divisions of Lafayette McLaws and John Hood, a brigade from George Pickett’s division, and Porter Alexander’s 26-gun artillery battalion, traveled over 16 railroads on a 775-mile route through the Carolinas to reach General Braxton Bragg in northern Georgia.
Longstreet’s Corps took part in the Confederate victory at Chickamauga in September 1863. He ordered an attack of 8 brigades in column formation that penetrated the Union line and caused half of the Union army to flee in panic. The Union Army was saved by the leadership of Maj. Gen. George Thomas, who became known as the “Rock of Chickamauga” forever after. It is considered the greatest Confederate victory in the Western Theater and Longstreet had a great deal to do with it.
Longstreet became involved with a cabal of senior officers who sought Bragg’s removal but ultimately Jefferson Davis kept Bragg in command. Bragg soon retaliated against his critics, relieving or reassigning the generals who had testified against him, and retaliated against Longstreet by reducing his command to only those units that he brought with him from Virginia.
Longstreet devised a grand plan to prevent the lifting of the Confederate siege of Chattanooga but thought that it was too logistics-intensive. Longstreet accepted Bragg’s arguments and offered a plan to move into East Tennessee to stop an advance by Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. This movement was in line with the Confederate high command’s desire for Longstreet to rejoin Lee in Virginia.
Burnside was able to evade Longstreet and settled into Knoxville, which the Confederates unsuccessfully besieged. Spending the winter in East Tennessee, Longstreet continued to devise plan but the spring found him back in Virginia where the Confederate’s new opponent was his friend ‘Sam’ Grant. Longstreet told his fellow Confederates that “he will fight us every day and every hour until the end of the war.”
At the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, Longstreet launched a powerful flanking attack along the Orange Plank Road against the Union II Corps and nearly drove it from the field. After the war, the Union II Corps commander that day, Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, said to Longstreet of this flanking maneuver: “You rolled me up like a wet blanket.”
During the assault, Longstreet was wounded by his own troops in an accidental shooting that was reminiscent of the mortal wounding of Stonewall Jackson one year earlier and just 4 miles away. Without Longstreet’s leadership, the attack subsided and the Union forces were allowed the time to reorganize.
Longstreet missed the rest of the 1864 spring and summer campaign, where Lee sorely missed his skill in handling the army. He rejoined the army in October, with his right arm paralyzed and in a sling, initially unable to ride a horse. He had taught himself to write with his left hand; by periodically pulling on his arm, as advised by doctors, he was able to regain use of his right hand in later years.
For the remainder of the Siege of Petersburg he commanded the defenses in front of the capital of Richmond, including all forces north of the James River and Pickett’s Division at Bermuda Hundred. He retreated with Lee in the Appomattox Campaign, commanding both the First and Third Corps, following the death of A.P. Hill on April 2.
As Lee considered surrender, Longstreet advised him of his belief that Grant would treat them fairly, but as Lee rode toward Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, Longstreet said, “General, if he does not give us good terms, come back and let us fight it out.” Longstreet had judged his old friend correctly and Lee surrendered his army, bringing the war in Virginia to an end.
After the war, Longstreet and his family settled in New Orleans, where He entered into a cotton brokerage partnership there and also became the president of the newly created Great Southern and Western Fire, Marine and Accident Insurance Company.
He applied for a pardon from President Andrew Johnson, endorsed by his old 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.
He was the only former Confederate general to join the Republican Party during Reconstruction. Grant appointed him as surveyor of customs in New Orleans. He was heavily criticized in the Southern press for these acts. 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.
In 1875, he removed his family to a Gainesville, Georgia because of threats to their safety. 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.
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.
James Longstreet was my 5th cousin, 4 times removed.