Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South

Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South

by Elizabeth Varon
Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South

Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South

by Elizabeth Varon


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Notes From Your Bookseller

A fascinating insight into a unique individual with reverberations into the modern day. This is a deftly written biography about the conroversial Confederate General that is an absolute must for anyone interested in the Civil War.

Finalist, Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography
American Battlefield Trust Prize for History Finalist

A “compelling portrait” (Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize­–winning author) of the controversial Confederate general who later embraced Reconstruction and became an outcast in the South.

It was the most remarkable political about-face in American history. During the Civil War, General James Longstreet fought tenaciously for the Confederacy. He was alongside Lee at Gettysburg (and counseled him not to order the ill-fated attacks on entrenched Union forces there). He won a major Confederate victory at Chickamauga and was seriously wounded during a later battle.

After the war, Longstreet moved to New Orleans, where he dramatically changed course. He supported Black voting and joined the newly elected, integrated postwar government in Louisiana. When white supremacists took up arms to oust that government, Longstreet, leading the interracial state militia, did battle against former Confederates. His defiance ignited a firestorm of controversy, as white Southerners branded him a race traitor and blamed him retroactively for the South’s defeat in the Civil War.

Although he was one of the highest-ranking Confederate generals, Longstreet has never been commemorated with statues or other memorials in the South because of his postwar actions in rejecting the Lost Cause mythology and urging racial reconciliation. He is being discovered in the new age of racial reckoning as “one of the most enduringly relevant voices in American history” (The Wall Street Journal). This is the first authoritative biography in decades and the first that “brilliantly creates the wider context for Longstreet’s career” (The New York Times).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982148270
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 11/21/2023
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 25,045
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth R. Varon is Langbourne M. Williams professor of American history at the University of Virginia and a member of the executive council of UVA’s John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History. Varon’s books include Longstreet; Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew; A Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy; and Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War. Her book, Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War, won the 2020 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize and was named one of The Wall Street Journal’s best books of 2019.

Read an Excerpt

It was a quintessentially American scene. Although the event was slated to begin at four o’clock in the afternoon, the city square began to fill up hours earlier, as thousands of spectators gathered in eager anticipation of a venerable civic ritual: a militia parade and flag presentation ceremony. Such occasions, in which volunteer citizen soldiers displayed their martial prowess and their patriotic devotion to the state, generally followed time-honored scripts. And this parade was, in key respects, no different from countless others that had come before. The arrival of the militia was heralded by the martial airs of a regimental band. Having made their way to the square, the troops drew up in line of battle and opened ranks, to be inspected by their officers and demonstrate their skill in marching in close order. The regiment then wheeled into column by companies and passed a reviewing stand, where dignitaries and distinguished guests—military and civil—looked on with approval. “One might be easily excused for mistaking them for regulars, so admirable was their marching,” crowed the local newspaper, comparing the militiamen favorably to professional soldiers.1

The militia formed a line of battle again, and its commissioned officers marched forward to receive a stand of colors—featuring a brightly colored flag bearing the coat of arms of the state—from the general who commanded the militia force. The general made a short speech in which he expressed his faith that if the troops were ever called into battle, they would do the state proud. The regiment’s colonel, accepting the stand of colors on behalf of his fellow officers, then gave a speech of his own, expressing his sincere thanks for “the honor you have done us and the confidence you have reposed in us.”2

Such events had a timeless quality, as celebrations of the vital role nonprofessional soldiers have played, in times of peace and war, as auxiliaries to the standing, full-time, professional US military.

But this particular ceremony also marked a unique moment in American history—a moment of fleeting possibility. The year was 1870, the zenith of Reconstruction in the post–Civil War South. The place was New Orleans, a key proving ground for testing whether Reconstruction would succeed. The soldiers, the 2nd Regiment of the Louisiana State Militia, were African American. They pledged themselves to defend not only the flag of Louisiana but also the flag of the Union.

And positioned conspicuously in the reviewing stand, radiating his approval, was a man who had waged four years of bloody war against that very Union: the famed Confederate general James Longstreet.

Longstreet did not make a speech at this October review, but his presence spoke volumes. Like the militia’s commander, a former Union colonel named Hugh J. Campbell, Longstreet was there as a representative of Louisiana’s governor, Henry Warmoth, and of Warmoth’s governing coalition. Warmoth had appointed Longstreet adjutant general (chief of staff) of the state force, in recognition of his military experience as a career soldier and, more important, of the bold and unlikely political position that Longstreet took on Reconstruction: namely, to support the US Congress’s ambitious, revolutionary program for remaking the American South. The centerpiece of its plan was the enfranchisement of Black Southern men as voters and their inclusion in the body politic as citizens. In aligning himself with this program, Longstreet joined ranks with the Republican Party—the party of the North, of Lincoln, of emancipation, of Union victory, of everything Confederates had loathed and feared. The Republicans rewarded him with a major federal patronage position as customs surveyor in New Orleans (bestowed in 1869 by President Ulysses S. Grant) and with various leadership positions within the Louisiana party apparatus.3

Longstreet threw himself into his role as an agent of Reconstruction, in his capacity as a civil servant and warrior. As Hugh J. Campbell noted in his remarks during the October 1870 flag presentation ceremony, Longstreet showed “every favor in his power” to the Black regiments in the Louisiana State Militia, seeing to it that they were properly armed, equipped, and trained; promoting the careers of the LSM’s Black officers; and according them, from his position as one of the most “illustrious soldiers of America” (so Campbell put it), their rightful legitimacy and respect. Indeed, during the ceremony, Longstreet singled out one of the companies of the 2nd Regiment, led by United States Colored Troops veteran Captain R. R. Ray, for its drilling, praising it “in the most complimentary manner,” according to newspaper coverage of the event. Such a show of support was meant to nerve the men to do battle, as the regiment’s colonel, James B. Lewis, intoned in his comments, with their ultimate enemy, that “great monster, the most formidable of all”: the “caste prejudice” that had so long subordinated Southern Blacks.4

How did Longstreet, a man who had gone to war in 1861 to destroy the Union and perpetuate slavery, find his way onto that reviewing stand, among his former enemies? This biography will answer that question, and in so doing reintroduce Americans to one of the Civil War era’s best-known—but least understood—figures.

The basic outlines of Longstreet’s story have long been familiar to scholars and the interested general public. During the Civil War, he commanded the Army of Northern Virginia’s fabled First Corps, and won laurels in Confederate victories at Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chickamauga, among other battles, earning a reputation as Robert E. Lee’s hardy and dependable “war-horse.” Longstreet’s postwar embrace of Radical Reconstruction infuriated his fellow white ex-Confederates, who promptly cast him out of the pantheon of Confederate heroes—and then proceeded, in a decades-long campaign, to blame Longstreet retroactively for their defeat in the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as for the loss of the war itself. Longstreet’s efforts to defend himself were muddled and contradictory, and he remained a social pariah, remembered in the South as Lee’s “tarnished lieutenant.”5

The vast majority of popular writing and academic scholarship on Longstreet has revolved around the question of whether, militarily speaking, he deserved this fate: his performance as a commander in the Civil War, especially at Gettysburg, has been litigated over and over in painstaking detail, with various verdicts (mostly negative) offered on his generalship. But Longstreet’s remarkable postwar political conversion—the very event that sparked the endless debates over his military leadership—has never been the subject of an extended, thorough account. Longstreet’s 1867 decision to support Reconstruction launched him on a lifelong career as a Republican political operative and national celebrity whose iconoclastic positions on race relations, sectional reunion, military history, foreign affairs, and even marriage kept him consistently in the public eye. A prolific writer and speaker and interviewee who produced a vast oeuvre of political commentary, Longstreet ruminated at length on the issues of loyalty and treason, victory and defeat, progress and reaction—and his distinct voice can help us better understand both the transformative changes and the entrenched inequities of the postwar era. Longstreet was not, by the standards of Radical Republicans and abolitionists such as Thaddeus Stevens and Frederick Douglass, a true racial egalitarian. But even his circumscribed challenge to the racial caste system—his insistence that Blacks could exercise, through the Republican Party, a measure of political influence and leadership in the Southern polity—was a clear and present threat to Lost Cause orthodoxies. Defenders of the Lost Cause, such as Confederate general Jubal Early, insisted on the righteousness of slavery, secession, the Confederacy, and white supremacy. Longstreet rejected the conservative South’s demand for ideological purity, and that was enough to cast him forever as an apostate in the eyes of those who rejected change. Longstreet was “le Judas Confedéré,” as the reactionary francophone New Orleans paper Le Carillon charged, to go along with the labels of “Benedict Arnold,” “Lucifer,” and other such favorites of the unreconstructed press.6

Longstreet’s political journey from ardent Confederate to ardent Republican was an exceedingly unlikely one. As this biography will show, his remarkable life played out in three distinct acts, each with its own dramatic arc. The first act saw Longstreet, bred for battle and steeped in proslavery ideology, seize the mantle of rebel when the South seceded and fight tenaciously for Southern independence until the bitter end. Longstreet was a true believer in the Confederacy’s racial politics. As a military commander, he tried to preempt and to punish the many forms of Black resistance to the Confederacy, such as the flight of slaves and their offering their services as spies, scouts, and soldiers to the Union army. And he worked to forestall and undermine emancipation, through acts such as seizing free Blacks during the Gettysburg campaign and sending them South as slaves.

While his belief in the Confederate cause did not waver during the four long years of war, Longstreet’s confidence in it did. His growing bitterness about the human costs of the conflict and the failings in Confederate leadership primed him to contemplate the prospect of defeat and to formulate a critique of the fatal flaws that beset Southern society—especially the flaw of hubris. It was not the battle at Gettysburg that defined Longstreet’s Civil War but rather the surrender at Appomattox. There, on April 9, 1865, Longstreet’s West Point classmate and dear old friend, U. S. Grant, extended the hand of clemency to the surrendering Confederates, to effect their submission to a new order. Longstreet took that offer to heart.

In his second act, during the turbulent era of Reconstruction, Longstreet affirmed the finality and necessity of both Union victory and of emancipation. Motivated by a complex blend of personal and political factors—including his respect for Grant and his exposure to the unique racial politics of New Orleans—Longstreet announced his support for Reconstruction to the public in the spring of 1867. “There can be no discredit to a conquered people for accepting the conditions offered by their conquerors. Nor is there any occasion for a feeling of humiliation. We have made an honest, and I hope I may say, a creditable fight, but we have lost. Let us come forward, then, and accept the ends involved in the struggle.” This simple sentiment drew the wrath of ex-Confederates, who reviled Longstreet as a race traitor—even as Northern and Southern Unionists, Longstreet’s wartime foes, rallied to his defense.7

Stung by Confederate condemnation of his stance, Longstreet doubled down and became deeply immersed in Republican Party politics. He chose, in Louisiana’s bitter gubernatorial election cycle of 1872, to back the faction led by Union veterans William P. Kellogg (a white Northerner) and Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback (a Black Southerner). As conservative whites wielded propaganda, fraud, intimidation, and violence to suppress Black votes and undermine the Republican coalition, Longstreet defended Black voting as a key to rebuilding the South. In what became known as the battle of Canal Street, on September 14, 1874, Longstreet, leading the interracial New Orleans Metropolitan Police and the state militia, fought to defend the Republican state government against a violent takeover by the White League, the Democratic Party’s white supremacist paramilitary arm, full of Confederate veterans. It took federal troops, sent by President Grant, to pacify the city.8

The traumatic events of 1874 drew the curtain on Longstreet’s second act, in which he had battled alongside Radical Republican allies against racial segregation and oppression. Making a strategic retreat from the turmoil in Louisiana, Longstreet resettled his family in Gainesville, Georgia. During his third act, lasting thirty years until his passing in 1904, he remained active in government, holding patronage posts as an internal revenue collector, postmaster, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, US marshal for Georgia, and US railroad commissioner. He continued to support Black voting and officeholding, working closely, sometimes at cross-purposes, with Georgia’s leading Black activists and politicians. But Longstreet also tried in these years to claw back some of his lost popularity among white Southerners, especially Confederate veterans. He emphasized the need for white Southerners to firmly control the Republican coalition, and he fashioned himself as a herald of sectional reconciliation who was equally proud of his Confederate record and his Republican affiliation.

Limbering up his pen, Longstreet did literary battle with a clique of Confederate veterans, led by Jubal Early and William Nelson Pendleton, who worked relentlessly to scapegoat him for the South’s defeat and to immortalize Robert E. Lee as a faultless saint. Longstreet labored doggedly, and with considerable skill, to set the record straight on his military performance during the war. As he put it in 1876, “I should have been willing to have any one, who wished to use it, appropriate any or all of my part in the war if it had been done without arraigning me before the world as the person, and the only one, responsible for the loss of the cause. Under the severest provocations I have remained silent, until the importunities have forced me to speak.”9 Speak Longstreet did, in torrents of prose, including published interviews, letters, speeches, essays, articles, and a 690-page memoir, From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America (1896), all of which were eagerly consumed by a rapt public.

Longstreet’s tireless campaign at self-reinvention—one that received a jolt of energy when he married a maverick young journalist, Helen Dortch, in 1897—paid off. His popularity and visibility surged in the last years of his life, as he managed to build reservoirs of goodwill among divergent groups in American society, each of which saw in him, as he did in them, some political value. Those groups included Southern Blacks competing for Republican patronage in the nadir years of Jim Crow; Northern Republicans eager to devise a winning “Southern strategy” for capturing votes; “New South” boosters, like the editors of the influential Atlanta Constitution, who hoped to fuse economic modernization and social conservatism; and Civil War veterans, blue and gray alike, swept up in the burgeoning cult of sectional reunion. But Longstreet’s skill at cultivating these alliances only further pointed up his iconoclasm. His stubborn efforts to reconcile his Confederate and Republican identities meant that he never secured the full trust of either conservatives or progressives. His impassioned critiques of Southern intolerance boomeranged back on him, as whites in the region simply would not tolerate his challenges to the cult of Lee worship or the “Solid South” political dominance of Democrats.

Debates over the current landscape of Civil War memorialization invariably invoke the fate of Longstreet, who, unlike Lee and his ilk, never became a “marble man,” immortalized among the Confederate statues erected in town squares across the South. Longstreet could not be used as a symbol of white supremacy and the Lost Cause because, in the eyes of Confederates, he had repudiated both.10 But Longstreet’s legacy is so complex that he does not fit easily the mold of either hero or villain. His long life is a revealing window into nearly a century of Southern history. He embodied antebellum Southern society’s commitment to slavery and white supremacy; the wartime elusiveness, for Confederates, of command harmony and social cohesion; the suppression of dissent in the postwar South (with Longstreet taking up the mantle of an embattled dissenter); and American culture’s unfolding contests over the Civil War’s legacies. In the face of ex-Confederates’ intransigence, his greatest provocation was his very willingness to change. He is one of nineteenth-century America’s most significant public figures precisely because he confounds our labels and forces us to confront the haunting complexity of Southern history—and the elusiveness of reconciliation among Southerners over the meaning of the Civil War.

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