A Political Convert in the Long Shadow of the Civil War

LONGSTREET: The Confederate General Who Defied the South, by Elizabeth R. Varon

“Bad as was being shot,” the former Confederate general James Longstreet said years after he took a bullet in the neck from a fellow soldier in 1864, “being shot at, since the war, by many officers, was worse.” In the decades after being hit by friendly fire at the Battle of the Wilderness, Longstreet was pilloried and hounded by unreconstructed white Southerners who said it was a shame the wound he received during the war hadn’t been mortal.

Shockingly, this indefatigable fighter, Robert E. Lee’s second-in-command — Lee called Longstreet his “old war horse” — had accepted the Confederacy’s defeat; after Appomattox the war was essentially over, the South lost, there was no longer a Confederacy. Longstreet celebrated the passage of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed Black men the right to vote and helped form a multiracial Louisiana State Militia.

In word and deed, then, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet refused to perpetuate the romantic myth of the “Lost Cause,” the idea that the way of life the South was fighting to preserve, a way of life that included chattel slavery, was genteel, humane and noble and would someday be vindicated.

All this seemed an incredible turnaround for the soldier who once warned his troops that the Yankees were hellbent on making “the negro your equal.” Such a man could only be a traitor — a “Confederate Judas” — as the historian Elizabeth R. Varon points out in “Longstreet,” her impassioned biography, arguing that the arc of Longstreet’s life embodies “American culture’s unfolding contest over the Civil War’s legacies.”

Truly, his is a fascinating, but not altogether explicable, life. Born in 1821 in South Carolina to slave-owning planters, Longstreet was sent to Augusta, Ga., as a young boy to live with his uncle Augustus, a prominent jurist and ferocious disunionist who implored fellow Southerners to ban “polluted” Northern books, avoid Northern schools and cultivate their own pro-slavery books and institutions that would “elevate and purify the education of the South.”

Augustus also made sure that young Longstreet would attend West Point, where he distinguished himself by finishing near the bottom of his class. He also met the fellow cadet Ulysses S. Grant, a lifelong friend who married Longstreet’s distant cousin and whom Longstreet later called “the man who was to eclipse all.”

After the battle of Fort Sumter in 1861, Longstreet resigned from the United States Army and joined the Confederacy, first as a brigade commander and then as a major general, leading his own division. He crushed Union soldiers at the Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chickamauga.

But at Gettysburg, he disagreed with Lee about the wisdom of a frontal offensive and suggested a maneuver that would force the Federal troops to attack first. “The enemy is here,” Lee replied, “and if we do not whip him, he will whip us.”

Longstreet obeyed but, years later, to some observers and angry commentators, he seemed deliberately to have dawdled and cost the Confederates a knockout victory. In retrospect, this was the beginning of what Varon calls a “struggle over Civil War memory,” in which Longstreet became an easy scapegoat.

By the end of the 1860s, he was endorsing Black suffrage and imploring fellow Southerners to abandon “ideas that are obsolete” in order to recreate and rebuild the devastated South. Varon suggests that Grant’s liberal terms of surrender at Appomattox and his message of reconciliation motivated Longstreet’s political conversion. Perhaps; Grant helped secure his old West Point friend amnesty from Congress and got him a plum job as surveyor of customs for New Orleans. From that point on, Longstreet was in the employ of the country he’d so fiercely fought.

In 1870, the Republican governor of Louisiana appointed Longstreet to the command of the state’s multiracial militia. The apostate Longstreet led and supported Brig. Gen. Alexander E. Barber, a Black Army veteran and state senator, as a brigade commander, and under Longstreet’s leadership, all militia members had to pledge that they would “accept the civil and political equality of all men.” His stature nose-dived among former Confederates.

Varon does a nice job of combing through the tangled web of Louisiana’s postwar politics. Longstreet’s strong commitment to racial inclusion meant he would have to battle many of the men who had once fought under him. Intending to topple the Republican government in Louisiana, Confederate veterans and white supremacists were forming paramilitary groups, called White Leagues, to massacre white Republicans and Black citizens.

In September 1874, the Crescent City White League opened fire on the multiracial police force and broke their line. Reinforcements arrived too late. Federal troops eventually restored the besieged government, but Longstreet’s militia had been humiliated.

Longstreet and his family moved back to Georgia, and as a loyal Republican, he served as deputy collector of internal revenue and then as postmaster. President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him minister to Turkey in 1880, which, though not a prestigious posting, afforded Longstreet an opportunity to improve diplomatic relations. This, Varon notes, was also part of Longstreet’s political conversion: To him, Republicans could improve domestic and international trade by expanding markets, which would eventually help the beleaguered South.

Predictably, the appointment was controversial and Longstreet was caricatured as the unfit tool of the Republicans, who were rebuked for rewarding a traitor. Still, he performed as well as he could, given that the U.S. government, as Varon explains, had no real influence over the Ottoman Empire.

Soon called home in 1881 when President James A. Garfield appointed him U.S. marshal in Georgia, Longstreet attempted to bolster the local Republican Party in the face of vigilante violence and internal wrangling. And though many Black Republicans distrusted Longstreet, they respected his willingness to fight for Black voting rights and to make interracial alliances. During the McKinley administration, with the assistance of several Black Republicans in Georgia, Longstreet was appointed U.S. railroad commissioner. By now, though, Civil War veterans, Federal and Confederate, were being “swept up,” Varon writes, “in the burgeoning cult of sectional reunion.” The purpose of this reunion, she implies, was to paper over the real cause of the war — slavery, and its pernicious legacy — so that both sides “could share the moral high ground in American memory.”

Though Longstreet continued to refute the myth of the Lost Cause in articles and interviews, he gave up on Reconstruction. Once again, Varon notes, Longstreet managed a “political balancing act.” In the 1890s, he broadly condemned white supremacist violence, but he compared lynching, which he considered deplorable, to the labor strikes and disorder in the North — an echo of the comparison trotted out by the advocates of slavery before the war to justify the peculiar institution. In this new equivocal spirit of comity and negligence, North and South, radical and conservative, could thus join hands presumably to bury the bloody past and ignore the present.

While Varon brilliantly creates the wider context for Longstreet’s career, she leans, alas, far more toward historiography than biography. Quoting extensively from the 19th-century press and modern historians, Varon contends that Longstreet’s recent biographers depict him as politically inept and ignore the complexity of a brave man whose very “legacy would prove to be a battlefield of its own.”

Her book, then, is not so much about Longstreet’s character or his motivations or even how he came to possess the “courage to change,” as she poignantly observes, but about a symbolic Longstreet who embodies incompatible postwar narratives.

Caught in the snares of propaganda that still echoes today, when the meaning and legacy of slavery are being vigorously debated, the iconoclastic, fallible and human Longstreet, Varon acutely concludes, is more tabula rasa than marble man. Marble monuments enshrine the Lost Cause, which General Longstreet, whoever he was, valiantly knew to be a cause well lost.

LONGSTREET: The Confederate General Who Defied the South | By Elizabeth R. Varon | Simon & Schuster | 441 pp. | $35

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