James Longstreet: Early Life
The son of a successful farmer, James Longstreet was born on January 8, 1821, in Edgefield District, South Carolina. He was raised primarily in Augusta, Georgia, and Somerville, Alabama, and while in school lived for some time with his famous uncle, the humorist Augustus Baldwin Longstreet. Longstreet attended the United States Military Academy at West Point from 1838 to 1842 and was part of a class that included the future Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and George Pickett. While he was known as an affable cadet, Longstreet was not a particularly good student, and finished 54th in his class of 56.
James Longstreet: U.S. Military Career
Following his graduation from West Point Longstreet was commissioned as a brevet second lieutenant in the 4th U.S. Infantry. He spent his first two years of service stationed in Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, where he met Maria Louisa “Louise” Garland, the daughter of a wealthy lieutenant colonel. The two would marry in 1848 and go on to have 10 children, only five of whom survived past childhood.
Longstreet first saw combat during the Mexican-American War (1846-48), where he participated in several significant battles including Palo Alto, Monterrey and Vera Cruz, and was repeatedly cited for bravery. He returned from the war after receiving a serious leg wound and spent the next several years in uneventful peacetime service. He would later serve as a commissary officer, scout and commander of a fort on the Texas frontier, often working closely with his new father-in-law.
James Longstreet: Early Civil War Service
Although he had reservations about secession, Longstreet was devoted to serving the interests of the South. At the start of the Civil War in 1861 he resigned from the Army and offered his services to Alabama. He was sent to Richmond, Virginia, and commissioned as a brigadier general under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard.
Longstreet commanded his brigade with distinction in the Battle of First Bull Run, and in October 1861 he was promoted to the rank of major general and given control of a division. His first significant action in this capacity came during the Peninsula Campaign in the summer of 1862, when the Confederate Army halted Union General George B. McClellan’s march toward Richmond during the Seven Days Battles.
Many of Longstreet’s most famous victories came in the months after Robert E. Lee assumed command of Confederate forces in mid-1862. At the Battle of Second Bull Run, Longstreet’s forces executed a devastating flank attack that nearly destroyed Union General John Pope’s Army of Virginia. During the Battle of Antietam—the single bloodiest day of the Civil War—Longstreet mounted a defensive stand in which his army repelled a Union force nearly two times its size. This performance saw Longstreet promoted to the rank of lieutenant general. Along with General Stonewall Jackson, he became one of the most trusted field commanders in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Longstreet’s skill at fighting from defensive positions was again showcased during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862. By making creative use of the terrain, digging trenches and constructing fieldworks, Longstreet’s forces were able to withstand repeated offensives from the Union Army, resulting in a convincing Confederate victory.
James Longstreet: The Battle of Gettysburg
Longstreet was unenthusiastic about Lee’s planned invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863, believing that supplementing Confederate forces in the West was a more prudent option. He later wrote that he endorsed the strategy only after confirming that the campaign would be based around fighting from defensive positions—the same tactic that had been so effective at Fredericksburg.
The culmination of Lee’s invasion of the North, the Battle of Gettysburg (July1-3 1863) proved to be one of Longstreet’s most controversial moments of the war. Long known for his slowness in readying his armies for combat, Longstreet delayed his offensive on the battle’s second day in order to coordinate his forces, a move that his detractors would later argue allowed Union General George Meade to prepare for the attack.
On the third day of the battle, Longstreet reluctantly oversaw the infamous offensive known as “Pickett’s Charge,” an attack by over 12,500 Confederates on the center of the Union lines. Longstreet’s initial reservations about the attack proved correct, and the charge resulted in over 50 percent casualties and ended in a decisive Confederate defeat.
James Longstreet: Later Civil War Service
After the loss at Gettysburg, Longstreet received permission to move the majority of his corps to the Western Theater of the war to support the forces of General Braxton Bragg. In this capacity, Longstreet won a crucial victory at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863. A personality clash with Bragg later saw Longstreet’s forces moved to east Tennessee, where he unsuccessfully tried to take the city of Knoxville from Union General Ambrose Burnside.
Longstreet was reunited with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in early 1864. During the Battle of the Wilderness in May of that year, Longstreet was accidentally wounded by his own men. Despite an injury that paralyzed his right arm, he returned to duty in October 1864. Late in the war, Longstreet protected critical railroad lines while in command of forces entrenched between Richmond and the James River. In 1865 he surrendered along with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.
James Longstreet: Postwar Career
After the war, Longstreet settled in New Orleans and went into private business. He supported the Republican Party, and in 1868 endorsed former Union commander Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential run—a move that sullied his reputation in the South. Throughout his later life, Longstreet was one of the popular targets of the Lost Cause movement, a literary and cultural crusade that condemned Reconstruction efforts and sought to shift blame for the Confederate defeat away from Robert E. Lee. Longstreet would spend much of his later life defending himself against repeated attacks from these critics, who argued that his slowness in mobilizing his troops and his disagreements with Lee represented a betrayal of the Confederacy.
Longstreet later briefly served as the adjutant general of the state militia of Louisiana in the early 1870s. During this time, he ordered a group of African-American militia soldiers to quell a riot by a white citizens’ group—a move that only further damaged his reputation in the South.
Fearing for his family’s safety, Longstreet left New Orleans and returned to Georgia in 1875. He would go on to serve in a variety of government positions, including a stretch as the U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 1880-81. Following his wife Louise’s death he served as a railroad commissioner and attempted to refute the many attacks on his character in his 1896 memoirs From Manassas to Appomattox. In 1897 Longstreet married Helen Dortch, a woman over 40 years his junior. Longstreet died seven years later in 1904 at the age of 82.