January 8, 1821–January 2, 1904
Bulldog, Dutch, My Old Warhorse (by Robert E. Lee), Old Pete, Peter
WORDS TO REMEMBER:
“This is a hard fight, and we had better all die than lose it” (at the Battle of Antietam).
History has handed down to us two James Longstreets. The first is a likable military Übermensch, routinely referred to by historians as the finest tactician on either side of the Civil War, whose simple charisma and sublime instincts earned him the most intimate place in Robert E. Lee’s circle. The second, on the other hand, is a regular Mr. Hyde: an unkempt, boorish, calculating opportunist whose incompetence and perfidy cost the Confederacy the war and who defected to the winning faction after the war in a gutless, unforgivable breach of faith. In the popular consciousness, he has been revered, reviled, and forgotten by sharp turns. Indeed, so much emotion has been heaped onto attempts to discover whether either storyline is true that seeing the fellow himself has become nearly impossible.
One thing is for sure: There wasn’t much cause to expect that James Longstreet would grow up to become one of the most controversial men in American history. Born in South Carolina, he grew up in Georgia and secured a spot at West Point from Alabama, where his mother relocated with the family after his father’s death. The military academy proved an ideal environment to make friends and pull pranks; it was hardly surprising that Longstreet graduated in 1842 near the bottom of his class academically. Nicknamed “Peter,” connoting toughness and dependability, Longstreet had spent his late youth under the eye of Uncle Augustus, a brilliant educator and judge who went on to hold the president’s post at several colleges. But Pete was no bookworm, and it was in the Georgia wilds that he had discovered his principal loves: physical activity and the outdoors. For this energetic and gregarious jokester, classwork was to be endured.
Due to an inflamed wound on his foot, James Longstreet was incapable of wearing boots during the Battle of Antietam. He fought one of the war’s bloodiest battles while dressed in carpet slippers.
Fortunately for “Old Pete,” classwork had nothing to do with staying cool under fire and killing enemy soldiers, both of which he did quite well in the Mexican War. Wounded and awarded two brevets for bravery, he served in the postwar frontier army as a popular and respected young officer. He was an army paymaster when war broke out between the states in 1861—a fact that, in the wake of imminent events, would seem incredible.
He proved soon enough that he was better at leading men than counting change. When Union general Irvin McDowell made a thrust across Blackburn’s Ford in the prelude to the First Battle of Bull Run, he ran up against a brigade of Rebels led by a newly minted brigadier general named Longstreet. Peter inspired his men by calmly sitting on his horse in civilian clothes and taking in the spectacle of advancing Federals as if they were a pretty tableau in a history book. His troops repulsed, McDowell ended up changing his strategy for getting across Bull Run—a decision that led to Union disaster three days later, when the main clash came. This kind of stolidity, along with Longstreet’s prewar reputation, endeared him rather quickly to the guys who mattered most—particularly Joseph Johnston, the commanding general running things in Virginia. Longstreet took the faith placed in him and blew it all to hell in the spring of 1862, when, at the Battle of Seven Pines, he misinterpreted his orders, marched his troops down the wrong route of attack, and undermined the entire Confederate plan. It was a conspicuous failure by a man who, though trusted in important circles, had yet to secure tenure for himself in the Rebel army. Nevertheless, Longstreet’s reputation survived the debacle, not least because Johnston’s wounding at Seven Pines placed the defenders of Richmond in a state of chaos that abated only with Robert E. Lee’s arrival as Johnston’s replacement.
Throughout the first months of the war, many of Old Pete’s intimate friends had come to look on his tent as a second home, where whiskey, poker, and ribald conversation were always in fashion. Then a scarlet fever epidemic struck Richmond in January 1862, claiming three of his children. Longstreet and his wife, Louise, were simply destroyed. From this point onward, something of the spirit that had fueled those long nights of cards and drinking disappeared. But Peter retained much of the robust amiability that had become his trademark—enough to coax Robert E. Lee into joining those who continued to feel drawn to his company. Beginning with the Seven Days’ campaign that followed, Longstreet endeared himself to the commander of the new Army of Northern Virginia.
The bond between the two, however, was based on professional trust. To build the Army of Northern Virginia into an effective force, Lee needed officers he could depend on, and no one proved more dependable in the Seven Days’ Battles than Longstreet. Lee ended up dividing his army into two wings, giving the smaller one to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. To Old Pete went the majority of the army and the commanding general’s highest confidence. The result was an operational structure that, in practice, was not unlike a hammer and anvil. Despite an utterly lousy performance in the Seven Days, Jackson—with his Shenandoah Valley exploits still on everyone’s lips—was made the hammer, a role suited to his innate boldness. Longstreet, conversely, became the ballast of the army and the foundation of its strength. Lee considered his counsel invaluable.
The feeling wasn’t mutual—not completely, anyway. Though taught like every other West Point grad to appreciate the aggressive mentality, Longstreet had become an ardent fan of the strategic offensive combined with the tactical defensive. That is, seize and maintain the initiative in war to steer the course of events, but when battles are joined, always find the most defensible ground and invite the enemy to make attacks upon your position that are doomed to failure. A fundamentally conservative stance, it was increasingly at odds with Lee’s impulsive need to attack and incur casualties that Longstreet, at least, felt certain the Confederacy couldn’t afford.
At first the difference remained in the background of a friendship that blossomed amidst the tremors of war. Through the campaigns of Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg, Old Pete solidified his role as the stout, sarcastic, tobacco-chomping bulwark of the Army of Northern Virginia, earning his men’s devotion for his solidity and concern for their welfare, and the respect of his fellow officers for his outstanding ability to handle vast numbers of men as if they were a small marching band. Though he missed the fireworks of Chancellorsville (he had been sent temporarily to southeast Virginia on an independent command), Longstreet was back at Lee’s side for the invasion of Pennsylvania. And there, in the most pivotal campaign of the war, their differences collided in a Confederate disaster that—to Longstreet’s terrific misfortune—refused to die.
Pete picked up his most famous nickname in the wake of Antietam, when Lee, elated to find that Longstreet had survived the bloodletting, enthusiastically referred to him as “my old warhorse.” It was an apt description. Longstreet even looked the part, with his thick physique and burly beard. If Jackson—killed at Chancellorsville—had been Lee’s right arm, Old Pete was his heart and soul. But when Lee turned to his warhorse for input on the grand idea of striking deep into Pennsylvania, the steed reeled. For Longstreet, the war’s fulcrum had shifted west, where Ulysses Grant threatened Vicksburg like the Angel of Death. Pete the strategist understood that losing the Mississippi River meant losing the war, and he didn’t understand why his superior wanted to go gallivanting off into the pastures of Pennsylvania. In language that many historians claim is proof positive of Longstreet’s insatiable ambition, he had been suggesting that he be allowed to go west with a good chunk of the Army of Northern Virginia in order to resolve the question that loomed over the fate of the western theater; i.e., defend in the east and go over to the offensive in the west. Lee was having none of it, however, and he needed his old warhorse to pull off the northern invasion. And so it went.
Hence Gettysburg. By the time Longstreet arrived at the battlefield, it had turned into precisely the sort of situation that he thought must be avoided at all costs: The Army of Northern Virginia was on the tactical offensive against a foe of unknown strength on the tactical defensive (and on easily defensible ground). The battle lasted three days, as Lee strove to find a weak point in his opponent’s lines. And Longstreet’s First Corps was his blunt instrument.
Longstreet didn’t even like fighting on the ground in question; now he was supposed to carry the day. Despite his sanguine pleas to abandon the madness of assaulting heavily defended high ground, Old Pete was ordered by Lee to attack the enemy’s left flank on July 2 and drive it from its advantageous position, thereby rendering the rest of the Federal works either useless or doomed. What happened next depends on which historian you ask. It seems that Pete, angered by his superior’s insistence on attacking a formidable position without all of the First Corps present (a division under George Pickett had yet to arrive), carried out his orders with less than the usual aplomb. Indeed, some accounts insist that he dithered like some sulking child faced with a chore. His subordinates made things more complicated by protesting the planned deployment and insisting that a flanking maneuver be executed instead of a head-on test of grit. By the time Longstreet’s men were ready, it was late afternoon. The attack that ensued produced much heroism and a lot more blood, but no victory.
But it gets better. Longstreet, torn between vindication and horror, was supposed to direct the following day’s shenanigans as well. The division under Pickett that Pete had been waiting for had one hell of a welcoming party: Accompanied by divisions from A. P.Hill’s corps, it was to throw itself across the vast flatland that separated the opposing armies from each other in a last-ditch assault against the center of the Union line. This made the previous day’s folly seem like a cakewalk, and Longstreet knew it. When the time came to send his old friend Pickett forward, all Pete could do was nod, his disgust at the task having rendered him speechless. Pickett’s charge was an unmitigated catastrophe.
In the wake of the Gettysburg reverse, Longstreet’s western schemes found favor. The resultant sympathetic mood in high places put him on a roundabout journey by rail with thousands of his men toward the battle that would witness his finest hour:Chickamauga, in his home state of Georgia. Debarking from the train into the chaos that typified General Braxton Bragg’s area of command, he followed the sounds of battle until he found Bragg and helped to hatch a plan that would make history. What ensued was the sort of Union rout that hadn’t been seen in those parts since the Battle of Shiloh.
Chickamauga was the zenith of Longstreet’s career, earning him the nickname “Bull of the Woods.” He had arrived with almost no intelligence about the enemy, found his fellow commander’s camp with no help from Bragg, and dealt a blow to the enemy that left no doubt whatsoever as to the truth of his ability. And this at a time when the Confederacy’s star was falling on all fronts. Infighting and a lack of cooperation, however, prevented the Confederates from properly exploiting the extraordinary victory they’d achieved. The western theater continued to slip further into Union hands. And Old Pete did nothing to help: After advancing his men far enough to besiege Ambrose Burnside in Knoxville, Tennessee, he was eventually driven away, exposing his weakness for independent command. He went back to the Virginia battlefields that had made him a legend.
But there’s the rub: Those fields hadn’t earned him the laurels he deserved. Despite the gravitas of his position and the significance of his achievements, Longstreet remained the least popularized of the Army of Northern Virginia’s lead players. Why? For one, he was a Georgian (or Alabamian or South Carolinian) in an army whose aristocracy was almost entirely from Virginia. And it didn’t take a genius to spot the difference between Old Pete the backwoods hick and all the Old Dominion aristocrats. Longstreet could hold his own in a drawing room soiree, but not without giving away a certain impatience with Victorian fustiness. Nothing about Old Pete’s martial certitude was romantic—he didn’t exhibit the breeding of Robert E. Lee or the dash of Jeb Stuart. And he certainly didn’t ooze Old Testament rectitude like that quintessential Southern favorite, Stonewall Jackson. Pete’s coat was often undone, his speech was unadorned, and he ate like a boar. Simply put, he didn’t make very good copy. Ironically, the very press that irritated Longstreet for ignoring him during the war would infuriate him years afterward for doing precisely the opposite.
In the meantime, the old warhorse threw himself into the final act of the doomed experiment to which he’d pledged his sword. In the murky, labyrinthine hell of the Wilderness, he nearly lost his life when he took a shot through the throat from friendly troops in a near-deadly moment of confusion. By the time he returned to the First Corps the following autumn, the stalemate around Petersburg had begun, Sherman had taken Atlanta and stood poised to eviscerate Georgia, and everybody with more than four brain cells knew that the fat lady was warming up her voice. Longstreet, stalwart to the end, stuck with the Army of Northern Virginia right through Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
And then the real fighting began.
But not at first. As Lee’s principal lieutenant and a man who had inspired thousands of soldiers during the war, Longstreet entered the chaotic Reconstruction era as a venerated Southern hero. Indeed, he even had notoriety going for him: Along with Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, he was considered by President Andrew Johnson to have been too much trouble to pardon. But Lee’s ex-warhorse had a practical, canny side to him that saw the end of the war as a new beginning for anyone smart enough to realize it. He was a survivor, and he had a household to support. It was time to put the rebellion behind him and become part of the future.
There was nothing unique or particularly brash about that. But central to Longstreet’s plan of action for success was joining that most despised institution of Northern aggression: the Republican Party. This heresy, perpetrated by one of the most esteemed officers to wear gray in the late rebellion, hit most Southerners like a vigorous kick in the groin. In fact, virtually everything about Longstreet was beginning to piss people off. He refused to wax indignant about black suffrage, accepted a series of political appointments from the occupying Republicans, and warmly embraced associations and friendships with his erstwhile enemies—not least Ulysses Grant. This was a friendship that had existed since West Point and was solidified by marriage: Old Pete’s mother was a cousin ofJulia Dent, Grant’s beloved wife. Friends and kinsmen, Grant and Longstreet shared a sincere affection for each other that personified the nation’s slowly healing wound. To the average defeated secessionist, it had the effect of a belly full of castor oil. (Another friend was Dan Sickles, drawn to Longstreet as a fellow hard-drinking scoundrel attacked for his unpopular decisions at Gettysburg.)
This might have remained what it was—one man’s bold, abrupt transformation in the face of circumstances beyond his control—were it not for the fact that greater schemes were afoot. If Longstreet worried about the future, a bunch of his fellow Confederates were obsessing over the past. To men like Jubal Early, a former corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia, the fall and occupation of the South was a tragedy too enormous to explain without recourse to fantasies. Dixie’s finest, each of whom had been worth three Yankees in a fight, must have been sold out. Fortunately for the “Lost Cause” enthusiasts, a scapegoat already existed—and, incredibly, he stood passively amongst them like a sacrificial goat, his throat casually exposed.
It was Early himself who sliced first, publicly casting Longstreet in the role of a Judas who had deliberately squandered victory at Gettysburg, the war’s turning point, by allowing his differences of opinion with Lee to affect his decisions. This theory made headway with the help of several congruent myths: first, that Robert E. Lee was all but infallible; second, that Union armies were incapable of scaring up some sort of victory on their own; and third, that Longstreet was petulant and puerile enough to risk the fate of an army in order to prove a point. The decades of strife that followed sickened Longstreet, affecting even his religion: He left Episcopalianism and its association with American soldiery for Catholicism.
When the Lost Cause assumed the dimensions of a religion (which it did in due time), any attempts at resistance by Longstreet doomed him as surely as the pleas of a witch before the medieval Inquisition. Unfortunately, Longstreet did the one thing that could make his situation worse: He stooped to the level of his accusers. Old Pete’s rebuttals, both in journals and in his memoirs, showed him to be a vain and supercilious agitator, no more concerned with setting the record straight than the men who methodically attacked him. Blatantly setting himself up as the brains behind Lee’s operation, Longstreet came off as a braggart and made the unlikely accusations against him seem more plausible.
He died of pneumonia in 1904. He is a man who continues to personify the passion with which Americans choose to look back at the war that once divided them. As the most controversial of Lee’s lieutenants, it is strangely fitting that he was the last of them to go.
James Longstreet was seventy-six when he married Helen Dortch, thirty-four, in 1897, in his second marriage. Maria Louisa, known as “Louise,” had been Longstreet’s beloved wife for more than forty years. In addition to bearing up under the strain of being the spouse of a military man in wartime, Louise had borne ten children with Peter, only five of whom made it to adulthood. It was a long, close, and emotionally intense marriage by any standard. And Longstreet never mentioned her in his memoirs.
FIGHTING IN STYLE
Robert E. Lee never needed the steady professionalism of James Longstreet more than he did on September 17, 1862. Little wonder that Lee ended up calling Old Pete a warhorse after the Battle of Antietam. The Georgian showed his sense of black humor during the beginning of the fight when the mount of fellow Confederate general D. H. Hill lost its forelegs to a Union cannonball. As Hill tried to dismount the swaying animal, Longstreet teased his distressed friend, telling him to come down one side, then the other, “get off over his head, Hill,” and so on, making light of the gruesome spectacle. (Hill ultimately made his escape and put the beast out of its misery.) But later in the day, Longstreet gave evidence to support his reputation as one of the calmest of fighters in the thickest of scrapes. At one point, virtually the only thing that stood against a Union advance on Longstreet’s end of the line was a Confederate battery that had been savagely denuded of artillerists by enemy shells. Old Pete ordered his personal staff to the rescue, as they took over the guns themselves and started pouring canister shot, per Longstreet’s orders, into the oncoming Federals. The general himself directed their efforts from the back of his horse while calmly chewing a cigar, the air around him popping with enemy bullets. It became one of the indelible images of that bloodiest of days and one of the moments that secured for Longstreet a beloved place in the hearts of his men.
But the best part of it all was that, owing to an inflamed scraping wound on his foot, Longstreet was incapable of wearing his boots that fateful day. He fought the entire Battle of Antietam wearing carpet slippers.
On the second day of Gettysburg, Longstreet threw himself into the maelstrom around the peach orchard, personally leading a brigade of Mississippians by riding in front of their ranks and waving his hat in his hand. A captured Union officer who had witnessed the display later remarked, “Our generals don’t do that sort of thing.” Despite antics like this, Old Pete managed to get through the Civil War without being captured. Ironically, it was in his postwar career that such a humiliating fate befell him.
Having settled in New Orleans after the war and allying himself with the governing Republican faction, Longstreet found himself at the flashpoint of violence that engulfed that city over politics gone mad. In the autumn of 1874, Longstreet—appointed leader of the state militia forces stationed in New Orleans—was ordered to confront mobs of agitators convinced that the Democratic Party was being shafted and that the only way to stop radical Republican abuse was through a street war. Calling themselves the White League, the ranks of anti-Republican demonstrators included a large number of Confederate veterans. On September 14, they marched on the State House, only to be intercepted by policemen and militia, many of whom were black, led by none other than JamesLongstreet—a man whom many of the White Leaguers had once saluted as general. When he rode out to parlay with the League’s leaders, it proved a mistake. They pulled him from his horse, took him prisoner, and opened fire on the troops under his command. Held captive until the struggle was concluded by the intervention of federal troops, Longstreet found his reputation throughout the South further smeared by the fact that he had led black troops against white Southern veterans. For Lee’s old warhorse, it was a humiliating moment indeed—especially when a White League leader later admitted that he had had to prevent his men from “firing particularly at Longstreet.”
Longstreet eventually left Louisiana behind for the Georgia he called home, settling on a farm that his hostile neighbors derisively dubbed “Gettysburg.” Perhaps aware of the fact that his fellow Georgians held him in contempt, he guarded his fields and vineyard with a shotgun, with which he was widely believed to be deadly accurate. Unfortunately, it wasn’t trespassers he needed to worry about, but fire. In 1889, the house burned to the ground, taking several invaluable artifacts with it—including his uniform and sword, as well as a sash that Jeb Stuart had given him. But the greatest loss may have been all the papers he had been gathering to defend his conduct during the war. Their loss only made his fight to save his reputation that much harder.