The Tragedies of General James Longstreet

General James G. Longstreet

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

“Pete” Longstreet as a young officer.

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

The Longstreets and the Grants would be friends for nearly forty years.

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

Louise Garland Longstreet and two of their children.

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

General Robert E. Lee. He would be a military icon.

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.

Battle is battle, and General Longstreet was always in the thick of it.

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.

Longstreet’s good friend, General George Pickett.

“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

The General as a civilian after the Civil War.

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.

Elderly General Longstreet

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




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FLOTUS Ellen Wilson: American Impressionist

A statue of Ellen Axson Wilson in her hometown of Rome, Georgia.

While many First Ladies displayed some artistic gifts, Ellen Wilson was arguably the most talented.

Ellen Axson: Child to Woman

Ellen Axson Wilson (1860-1914) was bookended by war: Born just as the American Civil War was about to start, dying just as Europe was about to explode into World War I. She was  Georgian born and raised, and displayed artistic talents at an early age.

Young Ellen Axson

By the time she was in high school, her abilities were readily acknowledged. A teacher who attended the Paris Exposition one summer, brought along some of her students’ art projects for judging. Ellen’s freestyle drawing won a prize. Back in Rome, Georgia, she was becoming well known.

One of Ellen Wilson’s paintings

In Victorian times, women artists, no matter how gifted, were generally considered Sunday painters. Hobbyists. Their opportunities for earning a living at art were very few. Ellen Axson had hoped to continue her studies, and become an art teacher, but when her mother died, Ellen was twenty and her family needed her at home.

She married Woodrow Wilson in 1885, and as expected, her art became her hobby – when she had time to spare. Woodrow’s meager professor’s salary, a kid brother she was raising, three children in five years, and a rotating assortment of Woodrows, Wilsons and Axsons as long-term houseguests assured that time for serious art would be nil.

Nearly two decades would pass before “EAW,” as she would sometimes sign her paintings, would be able to pick up her palette with any regularity.

EAW: The Art Colony Summers

Ellen Axson Wilson, the talented artist

By the beginning of the 20th Century, when Ellen’s daughters were coming to maturity, women artists were beginning to be taken more seriously. Rosa Bonheur and Berthe Morrisette in Paris, and even Mary Cassatt of Philadelphia, were become well known artists. They received commissions. Their works hung in galleries.

With more time on her hands, once Woodrow Wilson achieved academic success at Princeton, and her children did not need her constant attention, Ellen could unpack her easel and paints again, and find some uncrowded hours for herself and her art.

In 1905, personal tragedy descended on Mrs. Wilson. The brother she had raised from earliest childhood, his wife and baby son all died in a drowning accident. She was devastated, and sank into a severe depression. As she slowly recovered from her great loss, she found solace and comfort in her art.

Ellen Wilson and her daughters, painted by Robert Vonnoh, one of the master American impressionists.

Lyme, Connecticut is not that far from Princeton, New Jersey. A small summer art colony had formed there where area artists could spend a few weeks painting or sculpting at the Lyme Summer School of Art, sponsored by the Art Students’ League (which Ellen Axson had briefly attended prior to her marriage). More importantly, artists met each other as peers. They worked together; critiqued each other’s projects; compared techniques. They formed friendships and pooled resources. It was ideal for Mrs. Wilson, both professionally and in spirit.

Noted American Impressionist Childe Hassam spent time in the art colony in Lyme. So did Robert and Bessie Vonnoh, a husband-and-wife duo of exceptional skills.

Ellen Wilson’s talents were far superior to just those of a “Sunday” painter.

In 1910, Ellen Wilson and her daughters began staying at Florence Griswold’s Boarding House (now the Florence Griswold Museum); Woodrow, now NJ Governor, came up from Princeton on weekends. Margaret, Jessie and Nell Wilson, now young ladies, formed their own friendships and activities, allowing their mother the time to work and have discussions with her own set.

EAW: The Artist

By Ellen Wilson

Ellen had worked in several media early in her marriage. She had oils. She sketched. She drew portraits in artist-crayon (displayed at the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace in Staunton, VA). She even constructed a clay model of the home they were building in Princeton.

But the mature Ellen, the “EAW” of the artist colony, found her milieu in water colors. She found her subject in nature. Mostly florals and landscapes. She also found increasing confidence in her abilities, especially when her peers considered her “a peer,” and judged her work as worthy.

Another painting by Ellen Wilson

As the Governor’s wife, Ellen acquired an agent, and submitted some of her work for “blind” competitions. (This meant that the identity of the artist would be unknown to the judges.)  She not only entered, but won awards. By the time Woodrow Wilson was elected President, Mrs. Wilson was considered a serious artist in her own right. Her work was hung in galleries and museums, and she had a one woman show in Philadelphia.

EAW: The First Lady

First Lady Ellen Wilson

In 1913 she became First Lady. Now Ellen Wilson was now inundated with dozens of public responsibilities as well as personal ones – the weddings of two of her daughters.  Her time for to art was limited once again.  She also changed her summer artist colony visit from Lyme, CT to Cornish, NH, which had the reputation of “hosting” some of the most prominent artists of the early twentieth century. With such notables as Augustus Saint Gaudens, Maxfield Parrish, Daniel Chester French and Frederic Remington, the colony was well known to American artists. President Wilson was happy to bring his talented wife to the Harlakenden House, one of the finest homes in the area, where once again, she could work alongside her peers.

It was the only summer that First Lady Wilson spent there; she died the following year.

Ellen did not live long enough to produce any more than a modest body of work, but even today, her fine artistry has been rediscovered, and judged much better than somewhat.


McAdoo, Eleanor Wilson – The Woodrow Wilsons – Macmillan Co. 1937

Miller, Kristie – Ellen and Edith – University Press of Kansas, 2010

Saunders, Frances W. – Ellen Axson Wilson – University of North Carolina, 1985


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Saying Goodbye to FDR

The unfinished portrait of FDR.

Death is always private, but the death of a world figure becomes a public event.

President Roosevelt’s Health

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in April, 1945, the world was stunned. He had been US president for twelve years, just recently inaugurated to an unprecedented fourth term.

Television was still experimental, and newsreels and photographs of the President were always carefully staged. Few Americans were aware that FDR had been crippled by polio for nearly twenty-five years, and could not walk without braces, a cane and the arm of a strong man to steady him.

There was a noticeable decline in FDR at Yalta.

Even fewer noticed his visible decline during the past year. The strain of WWII had taken a huge toll. He had lost weight. His face looked drained and haggard. When he returned from his recent meeting in Yalta, he was seated while addressing Congress – something he had never done before. They were all aware of FDR’s disabilities, but this was different. And worrisome.

FDR’s “Little White House” in Warm Springs, GA

They did not know about his dangerously high blood pressure, and his heart condition. His doctors were alarmed and insisted on immediate rest. As usual, FDR pooh-poohed, but agreed to some down time.

FDR: Warm Springs

Young FDR prior to being stricken with polio.

At 39, Franklin D. Roosevelt was stricken with polio, and spent the better part of a decade vainly trying to find a remedy to restore strength to his withered legs. In the 1920s, the most promising treatments demanded warm water exercise therapy.

A rare photograph of FDR showing his withered legs.

In 1924, FDR discovered the buoyant waters in Warm Springs, a depressed rural town about an hour from Atlanta, whose only attribute was a spring of water that maintained its soothing temperature year round. It seemed so beneficial, that Roosevelt purchased the area in 1926, turning it into a viable treatment center for polio patients.

The well-known photo of FDR and another polio patient.

Roosevelt loved Warm Springs and all its residents, whether they were “polios,” local residents or part of the medical therapy team. With his infectious optimism and political gifts of remembering names and faces and all their pertinent information, that love was returned.

Even as President, he periodically came to his “Little White House” to refresh his body and spirit. After Yalta, when his doctors counseled rest, this is where he came.

The President Dies

It was almost fitting that death would come for FDR at Warm Springs. The Little White House was small cottage. It could easily fit inside the White House in Washington a dozen times. He had gone there accompanied by his valet, secretary, two cousins, a few friends, his doctors and personal staff. Most were lodged nearby. He was sitting for a portrait when he complained of a violent headache and collapsed. It was a fatal cerebral hemorrhage.

Headlines all over the world brought the news.

Word was secretly sent to Washington. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been at a speaking engagement, and Vice President Truman were urgently summoned to the White House. Both feared the worst.

Within hours, telephone and telegraph wires had spread the sorrowful news across the country. Cables were sent abroad to heads of state and to the Armed Forces. Mrs. Roosevelt personally wired her sons serving overseas. Then she flew to Georgia to accompany the President’s body back to the capital. By the time she returned to Washington, the White House had been flooded with condolences from all over the world.

The Private Goodbyes, The Public Goodbyes

Warm Springs residents, both patients and locals, were devastated, perhaps more than any other American citizens. They not only lost a President they deeply admired, they lost a dear friend. They knew him in a way no one else did. He was one of them. They saw him in his bathing suit, in the water, his withered legs in view. They alone understood the limitations he had to face, and they alone understood the nearly impossible heights he had reached despite everything.

Graham Jackson, a Warm Springs resident, had frequently entertained at The Little White House.

The following day a funeral cortège lined up outside the Little White House. In front of Georgia Hall, all the residents, on crutches, canes and in wheelchairs turned out to pay their final respects as the hearse and its entourage slowly made its way along the route the President always drove whenever he vacated the premises. Usually everyone waved and smiled. But this time, children and adults sobbed uncontrollably.

Graham Jackson, a local resident played a sorrowful Going Home on his accordion. He had entertained FDR and the other patients dozens of times over the past two decades. The aging Negro had tears running down his cheeks.

The funeral train.

By the time the casket was lifted onto the train to Washington, black-bordered headlines proclaimed the sad news. Flags everywhere flew at half-staff. Houses of worship were filled as prayerful eulogies were offered. Shops and stores were closed. Schools were closed. Congress adjourned.

It is more than 700 miles between Warm Springs, Georgia and Washington, DC. About a 12-hour drive. But the train carrying the President’s body chugged very slowly. All along the way, day and night, people lined up along the tracks, heads bared and bowed, sobbing as if they had lost their best friend. Some even placed pennies on the track to let the funeral train run over it as a souvenir.

The FDR home at Hyde Park, NY

As Commander-in-Chief, FDR was a casualty of war, like the thousands of American servicemen who had already died, and would continue to die before the War ended. His casket laid in state both at the White House, and later at Congress, as people from all stations in life came to pay their respects. . Representatives from every state – and even from foreign countries came to march in his funeral procession along with thousands of military personnel.

A small private funeral was held at Hyde Park, the place where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born, and the place he loved best.

He had been a part of the American family.


Bishop, Jim – FDR’s Last Year – Wm.. Morrow, 1974

Gallagher, Hugh – FDR’s Splendid Deception – Dodd, Mead, 1984


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Mrs. Adams Goes to Paris

Source: Mrs. Adams Goes to Paris

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U.S.Grant and the U.S. Mail

Source: U.S.Grant and the U.S. Mail

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U.S.Grant and the U.S. Mail

Ulysses S. Grant was one of the first supporters of systematic wartime mail service.

Mail call has always been one of the key ingredients of soldier morale and  frequently the high point of his day.

A Literate War

The Civil War is considered by most historians as the “first modern war” for a variety of reasons. Not the least of those reasons, is because it was the first “literate” war. An estimated 90% of Union soldiers, and more than 80% of Confederates could read and write. This meant an abundance of letters, diaries, reports and newspaper articles. Thus “mail call” was arguably the high point of the average soldier’s day, apart from battle. Receiving and sending letters to loved ones provided incalculable comfort to both the soldiers and their families.

The telegraph had been around for nearly two decades. Both sides used it constantly to transmit messages both internally (among commanders) and externally (to administrative and political leaders).  But personal mail was something else.

US Grant: Correspondent

Ulysses S. Grant never fancied himself much of a writer, yet his correspondence was voluminous, even before the Civil War. His style in personal letters, was unique for his time: singularly lacking in popular Victorian sentimentality and florid prose. He said what he meant, and he meant what he said, directly and to the point.

It is said infrequent letters from Julia made Lt. Grant despondent.

He courted Julia Dent mostly by correspondence during their four-year secret engagement, and wrote frequently, she sporadically. In the 1840s, during Lt. Grant’s service in Mexico, and later, in the California-Oregon Territory, mail delivery was glacial in speed and daunting in difficulty. Weeks and months passed without hearing from his beloved. It made him despondent.

According to author-historian Candice Shy Hooper, it may have been this intensely personal observation that encouraged him to help develop an army postal service branch of the United States Post Office.

Absalom Markland: Childhood Friendship Rekindled

Frequent mail delivery was vital to the morale of Civil War soldiers.

When Ulysses Grant was fourteen, he attended the Maysville Academy in Kentucky, where he met Absalom Markland, a lad three years his junior. While they both had occasion to observe each other, the difference in their ages would likely have precluded any more than superficial acquaintance. Grant went to West Point; Markland became an attorney, and a senior official in the U.S. Postal Service.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the office of Postmaster General was a cabinet position (and would be until the Nixon Administration), and the most political office of all. Hundreds, and even thousands of postmasterships and other positions were at the disposal of the Postmaster General, who could discharge and replace practically at will.

Montgomery Blair, Lincoln’s Postmaster General, arguably had the most political influence of his cabinet members.

At the outset of the Civil War, it became necessary to weed out “disloyal” postal employees, and in late 1861, Absalom Markland was dispatched to undertake the assignment starting in Cairo, IL. Coincidentally, Grant had recently been named Brigadier General, assigned to Cairo.

Two decades had passed before the two met again. As Markland remembered, he was walking past Grant’s office window, where Grant saw and recognized him. Grant summoned his old school chum, and they renewed their acquaintance and became friends for life.

Upon learning of Markland’s position, he and  his old friend discussed the potential of a quick and efficient means of sending and receiving mail to the army. Markland believed such a system was indeed possible, andGrant enlisted Markland as a special agent of the Postal Service – along with an honorary rank of “Colonel.”

Problems.  And Solutions.

Mail call was always the happiest part of a soldier’s day.

By the 1860s, railroads had become a superior means of transportation. The cobbled-together stagecoaches on a simple track between two cities that had begun some quarter-century before had become thousands of miles of steel track connecting nearly every major northern city in the United States – and territories.  Southern railroad capability was substantially less, due to the agrarian nature of the South. Mail delivery via the railroads had been in place for two decades prior to the Civil War, but by 1861, it had matured. Railroad cars resembled today’s counterparts, at least in essence.

Troops no longer had to march and haul wagons vast distances; everything could now be moved by rail directly to the battlefield areas. Markland quickly determined that if troops and supplies could travel quickly by rail, a little ingenuity and organizational procedure  could move the mail likewise.

In-camp post offices allowed soldiers a central place to post their letters home.

There was one important hitch.  There were tens of thousands of Union soldiers from all parts of the country. They originated usually by state, into units, companies, regiments and brigades, and  seldom in one place very long. There were promotions and new companies; reorganized brigades formed regularly. There were also hundreds of thousands of casualties during those four years, which in effect necessitated combining several of those units. For instance, a decimated 7th Indiana might merge with an 35th Indiana if possible. If not, those remnants of the 7th Indiana might become part of the 12th Pennsylvania. Keeping up with the ever-changing status and location was daunting.

Postal workers could sort mail in moving railway cars.

Postal officials realized that it was possible to sort mail in railroad cars, or even on top of railroad cars going 30 miles an hour. And, Markland added, “In wagons, ambulances, and even on horseback, mails were frequently distributed and delivered under the murderous fire of the enemy, and it may be said that the perfect railway mail service of to-day [Marklands comments are from 1885, shortly before Grant’s death] is the outgrowth of the army mail service.”

According to Absalom Markland, “from that beginning sprang the great army mail service of the war…and to General Grant the credit of originating that service belongs.”


The Ulysses S. Grant Association Newsletter, X, 3 (April, 1973).

Hooper, Candice Shy – Lincoln’s General’s Wives: Four Women Who Influenced the Civil War – for Better and for Worse, Kent State University Press, 2016

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Caroline Harrison: White House Artist

Source: Caroline Harrison: White House Artist

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