James G. Longstreet’s reputation has been a controversial yo-yo for more than 150 years.
James G. Longstreet (1821-1904) was nicknamed Pete in infancy, and it stuck throughout his long life. Born in SC to a large family of Dutch lineage, he showed sufficient promise to warrant a better education than his parents could provide.
At nine, he was sent to live with relatives in Georgia, where they believed he would thrive more academically. Pete thrived, certainly in the sense of a happy childhood. When his own family moved to Louisiana, he chose to remain with his adoptive relative.
Academically alas, he was not the scholar his parents had hoped. Nevertheless he was accepted into West Point’s class of 1842, where he graduated in the bottom quarter of his class. His demerits were on a par with his academics.
A West Point Academic Aside
In the early to mid 19th century, West Point classes were small. A class of 50-60 was the norm. Family social status was important. Military acumen was important. Discipline was important. Academics, perhaps could be more flexible. A gentleman’s “C”.
Some cadets had all the elements in abundance, like Robert E. Lee and George McClellan, who ranked at the top of their respective classes. But academics was not always necessary to future military achievement. Thomas J. Jackson (the future “Stonewall”) was practically dead last when he entered (the year Longstreet graduated), but worked tirelessly to finish mid-range.
Both George Pickett and George Custer were the cellar dwellers of their respective classes. Ulysses S. Grant was also undistinguished, except for his horsemanship.
Ergo, academics alone do not a good soldier make.
The Mexican Crucible
Pete Longstreet’s first assignment post graduation was to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, not far from some distant cousins, the Dents. A year later, Longstreet’s underclass pal, Ulysses “Sam” Grant was posted there as well, and eventually married the eldest Dent daughter.
But before that could happen, the War with Mexico thrust West Point classmates and alumni together, tempering in battle the talents that presaged the Civil War fifteen years later. They were all American soldiers then. Some bonds of camaraderie could withstand the strains that would follow. Some could not.
Shortly after the war Pete married Maria Louise Garland, the daughter of his commanding officer. They would be married for 40 years and have 10 children together, five living to adulthood. About that time, his pal Sam Grant married Julia Dent. Pete Longstreet is said to have been a groomsman.
Longstreet’s First Tragedy: a Private Agony
By 1858, Pete Longstreet was a Major with a distinguished service record. By June 1861, the born and raised Southerner made the not-terribly-hard choice of allegiance to the Confederacy. He was quickly promoted to Brigadier General, then to Major General, and eventually Lieutenant General. Many have considered him one of the South’s best commanders. He was assigned to the Army of Northern Virginia, and accordingly Louise and the children moved to Richmond.
There were five small Longstreets in 1862, along with an epidemic of scarlet fever. General Longstreet was notified that his children were afflicted and raced home. He was barely in time to kiss one-year-old Mary Anne and four-year-old James, Jr. before they died. A week later, 11-year-old Augustus succumbed. Only 13-year old Garland survived.
The parents were devastated. It is said that General Longstreet was never the same. He had gone from being an outgoing and social man to a serious “Gloomy Pete.”
Longstreet’s Second Tragedy: Gettysburg
The three-day Battle of Gettysburg took place early in July,1863, only weeks after the accidental friendly-fire death of Stonewall Jackson. Longstreet was now Robert E. Lee’s Old War Horse: the one he would come to depend on most.
Gettysburg was unplanned. The Northern and Southern armies literally bumped into each other. The audacious Lee saw it as an opportunity; the cautious Longstreet was hesitant. He shared his concerns with his commander, who acknowledged their validity, but overruled him.
“Almost” does not count in battle, and the futility of Pickett’s Charge on the third day, despite the valor, was nothing less than a disaster. Longstreet had argued hard against it, foreseeing the catastrophe that awaited. He could not even issue a verbal command to advance. He merely nodded sadly.
Longstreet’s tragedy was not the battle itself. It came long after the war had ended and he wrote his memoirs. He dared to criticize General Lee’s decisions at Gettysburg. General Lee was revered. Old Pete was expendable. The South frowned.
Longstreet’s Third Tragedy: Grant
Pete Longstreet and Sam Grant had been friends since West Point. They had been at Jefferson Barracks together. They were in Mexico together. Longstreet attended Grant’s wedding. Being “enemies” during the Civil War did not sever the friendship. Many old friends-turned-foes rekindled their old affections. But this old friendship was at the highest level.
After the War, Longstreet and his family moved to New Orleans to rebuild their lives. He entered the private sector to mediocre success. His “citizenship” was reinstated in 1868, the same year Ulysses S. Grant was elected President.
Longstreet registered to vote as a Republican (anathema to the South), voted for his pal Grant, and went to Washington to attend the inauguration.
Always a strong believer in old Pete’s abilities, President Grant appointed him surveyor of Customs in New Orleans shortly after he assumed office. Reinstatement and assignment to high military office in the United States Army would follow. In later years, diplomatic posts followed as well.
This apostasy was more than the South could bear. They would acknowledge his valor. They would acknowledge his military excellence.
But they would never forgive him.
Botkin, B.A. (ed.) – A Civil War Treasury of Tales, Legends and Folklore – Promontory Press, 1960
Henig, Gerald S. & Niderost, Eric – Civil War Firsts – Stackpole Books, 2001