Lieutenant General James Longstreet was one of Robert E. Lee's most trusted subordinates. However, his action -- or inaction -- at the Battle of Gettysburg created controversy that tarnished his military legacy in the eyes of many Southerners.
James Longstreet was born in Edgefield District, South Carolina, on January 8, 1821, while his mother was visiting his mother-in-law. He was the fifth child and third son of James and Mary Ann Dent Longstreet. Longstreet’s parents owned a cotton plantation in northeast Georgia. When Longstreet was a boy, his father nicknamed him “Pete.” After Longstreet’s father died in 1833, his mother moved the family to Alabama. Longstreet spent some of his youth living with his uncle’s family in Augusta, Georgia, where he attended the prestigious Richmond County Academy.
United States Military Academy Cadet
In 1838, Longstreet received an appointment to the United States Military Academy, where he was not an outstanding student, graduating 54th out of 56 cadets in his class in 1842.
After graduating from West Point, Longstreet received a brevet promotion as a second lieutenant assigned to the 4th U.S. Infantry on July 1, 1842. He then spent four years in the American West before serving with the 8th U.S. Infantry in the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). While in Mexico, the army promoted Longstreet to first lieutenant on February 23, 1847. He also received brevet promotions to captain and major for his service in the war. On September 13, 1847, Mexican troops wounded Longstreet in the thigh during the Battle of Chapultepec.
Antebellum Career and Marriage
After the Mexican-American War, Longstreet returned to duty at various places in the American West. On March 8, 1848, Longstreet married Maria Louisa Garland in Lynchburg, Virginia. During the same year, Longstreet took part in the wedding of his fourth cousin to his West Point friend, Ulysses S. Grant.
For over a decade, from 1847 to 1861, Longstreet served at various army outposts in the American West, including Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, Fort Lincoln, Texas, Fort Martin Scott, Texas, Camp Johnston, Texas, Fort Chadbourne, Texas, Fort Bliss, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. During that time, the army promoted Longstreet to captain on December 7, 1852, and to major on July 19, 1858.
Civil War Officer
When the Civil War erupted, Longstreet was serving as a paymaster in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He resigned his commission in the United States Army on June 1, 1861, and returned to Alabama where he offered his services to the Confederacy. He received a commission as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army on June 25, 1861 (dating to June 17).
A few weeks later, Longstreet and his brigade played a minor role in the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861). On October 7, 1861, Confederate officials promoted Longstreet to major general, and he assumed command of a division of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Battles of Bull Run and Antietam
During the spring and summer of 1862, Longstreet served under General Joseph Johnston and then Robert E. Lee during Union General George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. Although he did not perform well at the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31, 1862–June 1, 1862), Longstreet was instrumental in Lee’s victories during the Seven Days Battles (June 25–July 1, 1862).
When Lee turned his attention to General John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia later in the year, Longstreet’s forces delivered a crushing flank attack at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862).
In September, Longstreet’s troops held their part of the Confederate defensive line in the face of a much larger Union force at the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862).
Lieutenant General and Battle of Fredericksburg
On October 9, 1862, at Lee’s request, the Confederate government promoted Longstreet to lieutenant general. One day later, officials promoted Stonewall Jackson to the same rank. Lee deliberately set the date of Longstreet’s promotion one day before Jackson’s, thus making Longstreet his senior corps commander. Lee often referred to Longstreet as his “Old War-Horse.” In November, Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia, placing Longstreet in charge of the 1st Corps and Jackson in charge of the 2nd Corps.
Later that year, Longstreet’s corps repulsed Union assaults against Marye’s Heights during the Confederate victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862).
In the spring of 1863, Lee detached Longstreet from the Army of Northern Virginia and sent him, along with two divisions, to protect threatened ports in the Carolinas. Longstreet’s absence caused him to miss the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863).
Battle of Gettysburg
Longstreet returned to the Army of Northern Virginia in time to take part in Lee’s second invasion of the North in June. As second-in-command at the Battle of Gettysburg, Longstreet opposed Robert E. Lee’s decision to attack General George Meade’s well-positioned Army of the Potomac on the third day. Instead, Longstreet favored maneuvering around the Federals, forcing them to fight on ground more favorable to the Rebels.
Some of Longstreet’s contemporaries, along with later historians, maintain that Longstreet’s misgivings about Lee’s battle plan affected his performance at Gettysburg. They contend that Longstreet was dilatory in starting an assault Lee planned for the second day of battle, setting the stage for the disastrous Confederate defeat on the third day. Arguments about Longstreet’s performance at Gettysburg have continued to rage for nearly 150 years.
On September 5, 1863, Longstreet led a large detachment from the Army of Northern Virginia west to reinforce Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee near Chattanooga. Longstreet arrived just in time to contribute to one of the greatest Confederate victories of the Civil War at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863).
Bragg’s failure to support Longstreet’s rout of the Union army created a rift between the two generals. Confederate President Jefferson Davis resolved the conflict by sending Longstreet’s corps north in the autumn of 1863 to engage Union General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio and capture the city of Knoxville, Tennessee. Unable to draw Burnside’s forces into a major battle, Longstreet dug in a besieged Knoxville. When the siege eventually failed, Longstreet moved his troops east and established winter quarters in western Virginia.
Overland and Appomattox Campaigns
In 1864, Longstreet rejoined the Army of Northern Virginia as his old friend, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, launched his Overland Campaign. On May 6, 1864, during the Battle of the Wilderness, Longstreet received severe wounds in the neck and right shoulder from friendly fire, only a few miles from where Stonewall Jackson suffered the same fate a year earlier. Unlike Jackson, Longstreet survived his wounds and returned to action in time to take part in the Appomattox Campaign. Longstreet was present when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
Post-Civil War Career
After the Civil War, Longstreet first settled in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he co-owned the Longstreet, Owen & Company, a cotton brokerage firm. He also served as president of the Great Southern and Western Fire, Marine and Accident Insurance Company.
In 1867, Longstreet authored two published letters supporting Negro suffrage and acceptance of Federal Reconstruction laws, which earned him the enmity of many Southerners. In 1868 he joined the Republican Party and supported his old friend Ulysses Grant for the presidency, alienating him even further from the Southern majority.
In 1870, Longstreet secured an appointment as Adjutant General of the State of Louisiana. Two years later, he received a commission as a brigadier general in the Louisiana State Militia. On September 14, 1874, white supremacists attempted to overthrow the government of Louisiana. During the Battle of Liberty Place, they shot and held Longstreet captive.
Longstreet moved from New Orleans to Gainesville, Georgia in 1875, where he purchased the Piedmont Hotel and a farm outside town. In 1877, he converted to Catholicism. From 1878 to 1879, Longstreet served first as deputy collector of internal revenue in Georgia, and later as the postmaster of Gainesville.
In 1880, ex-President Grant used his influence to have President Hayes appoint Longstreet as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. In 1881, Longstreet secured a federal appointment as U.S. Marshal for Georgia. He held that position until 1884 when charges of corruption involving deputies led to his removal.
Longstreet’s wife of forty-one years, Maria Louisa Garland Longstreet, died on December 29, 1889. For the next few years, Longstreet worked on his memoirs, From Manassas to Appomattox, which he published in 1896. In that work, Longstreet responded to the “Lost Cause” critics of his performance at Gettysburg.
On September 8, 1897, at seventy-six years of age, Longstreet married his second wife, thirty-four-year-old Helen Dortch. Longstreet spent the last few years of his life defending his military reputation and attending Civil War reunions where he has warmly received despite the indictments of his critics.
Death and Burial
James Longstreet died from pneumonia on January 2, 1904, at Gainesville, Georgia. He was buried at Alta Vista Cemetery, in Gainesville on January 6, 1904.