Thursday, December 13, 2012

James Longstreet

Gainesville, GA   Visited June 2008

Reader's note:  In doing posts on the Civil War I will include both Union and Confederate figures.  I would appeal that these posts be read as human interest stories, not as commentary on that difficult period in American history and the slavery that required such a tragic war to be fought for its eradication.

In honor of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, December 11-15, this post is dedicated to one of the major figures in the battle - Confederate General James ‘Old Pete’ Longstreet.

James Longstreet was born in South Carolina near the Georgia line and later moved with his family to Augusta, GA. His father had aspirations for him in a military career and worked to get him an appointment to US Military Academy, which finally resulted in admission to the class of 1842. This class was noted for a number of cadets who would later serve as generals on both sides of the Civil War. Longstreet, however, didn’t exactly show a lot of promise among the group, graduating 54th out of 56th in his class.

During his initial deployment following his West Point commission in Missouri Lieutenant Longstreet met Ulysees Grant, with whom he would form a life long friendship. It was here that he also met his wife Louisa. The Longstreet’s had ten children over a 40 year marriage. His pre-Civil War career was highlighted by exceptional service in the Mexican-American War, where he was wounded in the decisive Battle of Chapultepec in 1847. When the Civil War broke out in 1861 Longstreet was not in favor of succession, but since he had been sent to the Academy by a southern state he believed he was obligated to fight for the Confederacy. He began his Confederate military career at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. This action led to his promotion to the rank of major general over a division of the Army of Northern Virginia. However Longstreet’s success on the battlefield was tragically interrupted by the death’s of three of his children during one week in January 1862 in a scarlet fever epidemic. The normally jovial soldier was devastated by this loss and somewhere in his grief appears to have experienced a life transforming religious conversion experience.

Great painting of Longstreet and his staff circa 1863 by
my favorite Civil War artist Mort Kunstler

Confederate Commanding General Robert E. Lee developed a unique trust in General Longstreet. While Lee’s other trusted subordinate Stonewall Jackson was the master of the audacious and aggressive offensive maneuver, Longstreet was the consummate tactician, able to fight both defensively and offensively as the ground and situation warranted. Lee appointed Longstreet to corps command following the Battle of Antietam, dubbing him affectionately, ‘My Old War Horse’ and calling him ‘the staff in my right hand’. Longstreet’s brilliance as a tactical commander was fully shown at the Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862, when he used a combination of superior ground, entrenchments and artillery placement to create kill zone at Marye’s Heights. From this position his troops were able to fend off 14 Union assaults and inflict 8,000 casualties at the loss of 1,000 men.

Battlefield map of the Union attack against Longstreet's
defenses at Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg,
December 13, 1863

Longstreet statue at his observation point for
Pickett's Charge, Gettysburg Battlefield
In some ways, James Longstreet’s career is defined unfairly by his participation in the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. It was under his command that the disastrous Pickett’s charge was mounted on the third day of the battle. The defeat at Gettysburg was truly the turning point in the war. Longstreet’s dilemma is that he is blamed on the one hand for allowing the attack to take place, though he had registered significant disagreement with Lee over the plan. Conversely, some southerners came to believe that the failure of the attack was due to Longstreet’s lukewarm support of the plan. In any case, the loss at Gettysburg dogged him for the rest of his life.  This scene from the movie "Gettysburg" movingly depicts Longstreet's conflicted perspective on the ill-fated Pickett's Charge

Following Gettysburg Longstreet’s corps was transferred to the Army of Tennessee. His experience there was mixed – a great tactical victory at Chickamauga (September 1863) which was not followed up on by the confederate command, but also strife and dissension among the senior command of that army. Longstreet’s corps rejoined the Army of Northern Virginia just prior to the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. A severe wound from friendly fire in this battle removed him from action till just before the Siege at Petersburg, and he remained in significant field command until the surrender at Appomattox.

A portlier Longstreet during his
ambasador days.

Following the war Longstreet moved to New Orleans where he cooperated with the Union occupation. His friendship with now-President Grant secured for him a favorable status during Reconstruction. This didn’t sit well with the Lost Cause southerners, who vilified the former war hero. In 1875 he moved his family to Gainesville, Georgia. During the Hayes administration (1877-81) Longstreet was named Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and at the turn of the century was serving as US Commissioner of Railroads.

Longstreet late in life - the man
liked his facial hair!

His wife died in 1889, but Longstreet remarried at the age of 76 in 1897 to a second wife, who was 34 at the time. Battling cancer, he died at the age of 82 in Gainesville, January 1904. His second wife Helen outlived him by 58 years, dying in May 1862, one hundred years after her husband led Confederate soldiers into action in the Battle of Seven Pines.

James Longstreet is buried in the Alta Vista Cemetery in Gainesville, GA. I was able to swerve off of I-85 with my unsuspecting family to visit his grave on a trip back from the Mall of Georgia to my mom’s house in Toccoa. My family won’t let me drive them to the Mall of Georgia anymore.

Your blogger at Longstreet's grave in Gainesville, GA