Who did Robert E. Lee Call “My Old War Horse” During the Civil War?

James Longstreet. Image Source: Wikimedia.

When the Civil War started, James Longstreet was serving as a paymaster for the United States Army in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He resigned his commission 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. On October 7, 1861, he was promoted to Major General and assumed command of a division of the Army of Northern Virginia. From then on, Longstreet was one of Robert E. Lee’s most trusted and reliable officers, which led Lee to call him his “Old War Horse.”

In 1896, Longstreet published his memoirs, From Manassas to Appomattox, and recalled how Lee referred to him as his “Old War Horse” during the Battle of Antietam.

Battle of Antietam, Union Soldiers Marching into Battle, Painting
This painting by Thure de Thulstrup depicts the Battle of Antietam. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Longsteet’s Account of Lee Referring to Him as His “Old War Horse”

NOTE: We have added section headings, quotes, and corrected spelling errors in order to aid comprehension of the events that took place during the Battle of Antietam, which Longstreet refers to as the Battle of Sharpsburg.

Union and Confederate Forces Prepare for Battle

At one or two points near our centre were dead angles into which I rode from time to time for closer observation of the enemy when his active aggression was suspended. General Burnside was busy at his crossing, but no report of progress had been sent me. One of my rides towards the Dunker chapel revealed efforts of the enemy to renew his work on that part of the field. Our troops were ordered to be ready to receive it. Its non-aggression suggested an opportunity for the Confederates, and I ordered McLaws and Walker to prepare to assault. Hood was back in position with his brigades, and Jackson was reported on his way, all in full supply of ammunition.

Battle of Antietam, Dunker Church, Gardner
Photograph of the Dunker Church at Antietam. Image Source: Library of Congress.

It seemed probable that by concealing our movements under cover of the wood from the massed batteries of Doubleday’s artillery on the north, and the batteries of position on the east, we could draw our columns so near to the enemy in front before our move could be known that we would have but a few rods to march before we could mingle our ranks with those of the enemy; that our columns massed and in goodly numbers, pressing severely upon a single point, would give the enemy much trouble, and might cut him in two, and break up his battle arrangements at the lower bridge; but just then General Jackson reported, with authority from General Lee, that he with the cavalry was ordered to march around and turn the entire position of the enemy by his right flank, and strike at his rear. He found that the march would be long and extremely hazardous, and abandoned his orders.

So it appears that counsels were divided on both sides, General McClellan disapproving the attack proposed by Franklin, and General Lee preferring a flank move.

Toombs at the Crossing of Burnside Bridge

We left General Toombs defending the crossing at the Burnside Bridge, with the Second, Twentieth, and Fiftieth Georgia Regiments, and a company of Jenkins’s brigade of South Carolina troops, against the Ninth Corps, commanded by General J. D. Cox, General Burnside, the commander of the right-wing present, commanding.

Battle of Antietam, Burnside Bridge, Photograph
Burnside Bridge over Antietam Creek. Image Source: National Park Service.

Toombs had in his line of infantry five hundred and fifty men partway up the swell of Sharpsburg Heights. Behind him he posted Eubank’s battery, and overlooking were J. B. Richardson’s and Eshleman’s to rake the bridge; others near.

The road on the Union side leading to the bridge runs parallel to the river about three hundred yards before it reaches the bridge, and turns upstream after crossing. On the parallel to this line of march on the Confederate side Toombs posted his infantry, the South Carolina company in a marginal woodland above the bridge.

Above and near the bridge was a fording-place for infantry; a thousand yards below was a practicable ford for infantry and artillery, by a country road. Toombs’s orders were, when dislodged, to retire south so as to open the field of fire to all the troops on the heights behind him, the fire of his batteries to be concentrated upon the bridge, and his infantry arranged for a like converging fire. The ravines cutting the swells of the foot-hills gave him fair ground for retreat when he found his position no longer tenable. He was to so maneuver as to have a flank fire on the advancing columns, and gradually encircle so as to join his division after passing the crest.

Burnside Advances and the Battle of Antietam Begins

Early in the morning, General Burnside had been ordered to prepare the Ninth Corps for attack at the bridge, but to await further orders. At eight o’clock orders were sent to carry the bridge, gain possession of the heights, and to advance along their crest upon Sharpsburg and its rear…Upon receipt of the first order General Burnside advanced his troops, General Crook’s brigade, supported by General Sturgis’s division, to the bridge and ford just above it…

…After a severe engagement of some hours, General Crook posted…guns in position to cover the bridge, and after some little time General Sturgis’s division approached the bridge, led by Naglee’s brigade. The Second Brigade, General Ferrero, was posted a little in reserve.

Union Forces Assault Burnside Bridge

The Second Maryland, Colonel Duryea, and Sixth New Hampshire Regiments were ordered forward in double time with bayonets fixed to carry the bridge. They made a gallant, dashing charge, crowding the bridge almost to its western débouché, but the fire concentrated a storm that stunned their ranks, thinned and cut them down until they were forced to retire.

General Burnside repeated the order to force the way at all hazards. Arrangements were made, and when concluded the Fifty-first New York and Fifty-first Pennsylvania Regiments were sent. They found a route better covered from the Confederate fire than that of the first column while marching for the bridge.

By a dashing charge on double time they passed it under exulting hurrahs and most gallant work, and gained the west bank. The crossing by Rodman’s division at the lower ford made our position at the bridge untenable, and General Toombs was prepared to retire the moment the west bank was gained in his rear.

Battle of Antietam, Illustration, Kurz and Allison
This illustration depicts Union troops crossing Burnside Bridge at Antietam. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Union Forces Prepare to Advance on Sharpsburg Heights

Union troops were hurried over, and organized for advance over Sharpsburg Heights, but Sturgis’s division had suffered, and, the ammunition getting low, it was found necessary to replace it by the division under General Wilcox, and Sturgis was ordered to hold position near the bridge in reserve. The brigades under Rodman made their crossing sooner, and waited a little for those at the bridge. As soon as the latter formed on the west bank, Rodman drew nearer. He was supported by the Scammon brigade of the Kanawha division, the brigade under General Crook to move with the troops from the bridge.

Clark’s, Durell’s, Cook’s, Muhlenberg’s, and part of Simmonds’s batteries crossed with the infantry. About four o’clock the troops were over and advanced under very severe fire of artillery and infantry, increasing in force as they ascended the heights, but the march was continued in bold, admirable style, the troops engaging in steady, brave fight as they marched. Overreaching my right, they forced it back, breaking off Jones’s right brigades under Drayton, Kemper, and Garnett.

Toombs, working his way to the rear, managed to encircle the advancing column and join the other brigades under D. R. Jones as they were forced back. Jones used some of them in organizing a stand on the flank of the Union columns. Toombs was joined in his rearward move by his regiments that had been sent off as train guards, by a battalion of the Eleventh Georgia under Major Little, and sent the regiments with him to replenish ammunition. Meanwhile, steady advancing battle was made by the Federals.

Batteries from all parts of our field drove to General Lee, as well as detachments of infantry, including some with fresh wounds from the morning battle, but the battle moved bravely on.

Lee Calls for Hill and Jackson

When General Lee found that General Jackson had left six of his brigades under General A. P. Hill to receive the property and garrison surrendered at Harper’s Ferry, he sent orders for them to join him, and by magic spell had them on the field to meet the final crisis.

He ordered two of them guided by Captain Latrobe to guard against approach of other forces that might come against him by bridge No. 4, Pender’s and Brockenbrough’s, and threw Branch’s, Gregg’s and Archer’s against the fore-front of the battle, while Toombs’s, Kemper’s, and Garnett’s engaged against its right.

McIntosh’s battery, sent in advance by A. P. Hill, was overrun and captured. Pegram’s and Crenshaw’s batteries were put in with Hill’s three brigades. The Washington Artillery, S. D. Lee’s, and Frobel’s found places for parts of their batteries, ammunition replenished. D. H. Hill found opportunity to put in parts of his artillery under Elliott, Boyce, Carter, and Maurin.

Confederates Stop the Union Advance on Sharpsburg Heights

Toombs’s absent regiments returned, as he made his way around to the enemy’s right, and joined the right of General D. R. Jones. The strong battle concentrating against General Burnside seemed to spring from the earth as his march bore him farther from the river. Outflanked and staggered by the gallant attack of A. P. Hill’s brigades, his advance was arrested.

The contention about the heights and suburbs of Sharpsburg was anxiously held. General Cox, reinforced by his reserve under General Sturgis, handled well his left against A. P. Hill; but, assailed in front and on his flank by concentrating fires that were crushing, he found it necessary to recover his lines and withdraw. A. P. Hill’s brigades, Toombs and Kemper, followed. They recovered McIntosh’s battery and the ground that had been lost on the right before the slow advancing night dropped her mantle upon this field of seldom equaled strife.

The Battle of Antietam Ends

When the Ninth Corps dropped back under the crest they had so bravely won, the Battle of Sharpsburg virtually ended, though the fire between the lines was continued till nine o’clock. The field made classic by a struggle of eighteen hours, too fearful to contemplate, was yet cumbered by the dead and wounded. After the firing ceased, parties from both sides, by mutual consent, went in search of fallen comrades.

Lee’s “Old War Horse” Returns

After riding along the lines, giving instructions for the night and morning, I rode for general head-quarters to make report, but was delayed somewhat, finding wounded men hidden away under stone walls and in fence corners, not yet looked after, and afterwards in assisting a family whose home had been fired by a shell, so that all the other officers had arrived, made their reports, and were lounging about on the sod, when I rode up. General Lee walked up as I dismounted, threw his hands upon my shoulders, and hailed me with, “Here is my old war-horse at last!”

Learn More About Lee’s “Old War Horse” James Longstreet

Early Life

  • James Longstreet was born in Edgefield District, South Carolina, on January 8, 1821, while his mother was visiting his mother-in-law.
  • Longstreet was the 5th child and 3rd son of James and Mary Ann Dent Longstreet.
  • His parents owned a cotton plantation in northeast Georgia.
  • Longstreet’s father gave him the nickname, “Pete,” when he was a boy.
  • He spent 8 years living with his uncle’s family in Augusta, Georgia.
  • Longstreet attended the prestigious Richmond County Academy in Georgia.

Early Military Career

  • James Longstreet attended the United States Military Academy and graduated in 1842, ranking 54th out of 56 cadets in his class.
  • Longstreet was brevetted as a Second Lieutenant assigned to the 4th U.S. Infantry on July 1, 1842.
  • He served with the 8th U.S. Infantry in the Mexican-American War (1846–1848).
  • Longstreet was promoted to First Lieutenant on February 23, 1847.
  • He was wounded in the thigh at the Battle of Chapultepec on September 13, 1847.
  • During the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), Longstreet was brevetted to Captain and Major.

Connection to Ulysses S. Grant

  • Longstreet introduced his friend, Ulysses S. Grant, to his cousin, Julia Dent, and later attended Grant and Dent’s wedding.
  • Longstreet married Maria Louisa Garland on March 8, 1848.

Longstreet in the West

  • James Longstreet served mainly in the West during the 1850s.
  • Longstreet was promoted to Captain on December 7, 1852.
  • He was promoted to Major on July 19, 1858.

Longstreet Joins the Confederate Army

  • James Longstreet resigned his commission in the United States Army on June 1, 1861, and joined the Confederate Army as a Lieutenant Colonel commanding infantry.
  • Longstreet was appointed as a Brigadier General, in the Confederate Army on June 25, 1861 (dating to June 17).

Longstreet in the Civil War — 1861

  • James Longstreet was a brigade commander of the Confederate Army of the Potomac during the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861).
  • Longstreet was promoted to Major General, in the Confederate Army on October 7, 1861, and assumed command of a division of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Longstreet in the Civil War — 1862

  • James Longstreet served under General Joseph Johnston and then Robert E. Lee during the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862.
  • Longstreet has been criticized for his delay in attacking the Union army at the Second Battle of Bull Run on August 29, 1862, despite direct orders from Robert E. Lee to do so.
  • Longstreet’s 1st Corps delivered a crushing flank attack at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862).
  • His 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).
  • Longstreet was promoted to Lieutenant General on October 9, 1862.
  • Robert E. Lee gave Longstreet command of the Army of Northern Virginia’s 1st Corps on November 6, 1862.
  • Longstreet’s 1st Corps repulsed Union assaults against the heights of Fredericksburg, during the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862).
Battle of Gettysburg, Longstreet Giving Orders
This illustration depicts Longstreet giving orders at Gettysburg. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Longstreet in the Civil War — 1863

  • In the spring of 1863, Robert E. Lee detached James Longstreet from the Army of Northern Virginia and sent him along with two divisions to protect threatened ports in the Carolinas, causing Longstreet to miss the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863).
  • As second-in-command at the Battle of Gettysburg, Longstreet opposed Robert E. Lee’s decision to attack Cemetery Ridge with a massive ground assault. Longstreet favored a strategy of maneuvering the Union Army out of its position.
  • On September 5, 1863, Longstreet led a large detachment from the Army of Northern Virginia west to reinforce Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863), leading to one of the greatest Confederate victories of the Civil War.
  • Braxton Bragg’s failure to support James Longstreet’s rout of the Union army at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863), caused a rift between the two Confederate generals.
  • Longstreet’s detached command failed to defeat Union General Ambrose Burnside’s army or capture the city of Knoxville, Tennessee during the fall of 1863.
Battle of Gettysburg, Longstreet and Pickett
This illustration depicts Longstreet giving orders to General George Pickett to assault Cemetery Ridge. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Longstreet in the Civil War — 1864

  • On May 6, 1864, during the Battle of the Wilderness, James Longstreet was severely wounded in the neck and right shoulder by friendly fire, only a few miles from where Stonewall Jackson suffered the same fate a year earlier.
  • Longstreet was present when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.

Longstreet After the Civil War

  • After the Civil War, Longstreet settled in New Orleans, Louisiana where he co-owned the Longstreet, Owen & Company, a cotton brokerage firm, and served as president of the Great Southern and Western Fire, Marine and Accident Insurance Company.
  • In 1867, Longstreet wrote two published letters supporting suffrage for former slaves and acceptance of Federal Reconstruction laws.
  • The United States Congress restored Longstreet’s rights to citizenship in June 1868.
  • Longstreet joined the Republican Party and endorsed Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1868.
  • He was appointed Adjutant General of the State of Louisiana.

Longstreet in Command of the Louisiana State Militia

  • Longstreet was commissioned as a Brigadier General in the Louisiana State Militia in 1872, which put him in control of the state’s militia and police force in New Orleans.
  • As head of the Louisiana State Militia and police force in New Orleans, James Longstreet was shot and held prisoner by the Crescent City White League in New Orleans during the Battle of Liberty Place, an attempt to overthrow the government of Louisiana on September 14, 1874

Longstreet in Georgia

  • James Longstreet moved from New Orleans to Gainesville, Georgia in 1875 where he purchased the Piedmont Hotel, as well as a farm outside town.
  • Longstreet converted to Catholicism in 1877.
  • He served as deputy collector of internal revenue in Georgia from 1878 to 1879.
  • Longstreet was appointed as postmaster of Gainesville, Georgia in 1879.
  • In 1880, ex-President Grant used his influence to have President Rutherford B. Hayes appoint Longstreet as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
  • Longstreet served as U.S. Marshal for Georgia from 1881 until 1884 when charges of corruption involving deputies led to his removal.

Longstreet’s Later Years and Death

  • James Longstreet’s wife of forty-one years, Maria Louisa Garland Longstreet, died on December 29, 1889.
  • Longstreet published his memoirs, From Manassas to Appomattox, in 1896.
  • At 76 years of age, Longstreet married his second wife, 34-year-old Helen Dortch, on September 8, 1897.
  • Longstreet died from pneumonia on January 2, 1904, in Gainesville, Georgia.
  • He was buried at Alta Vista Cemetery, in Gainesville on January 6, 1904.

Longstreet and the Lost Cause

  • After the Civil War, proponents of the Lost Cause theory made James Longstreet a scapegoat for the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg.