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James Longstreet, Traitor to the Lost Cause

Each week, historian Sean Michael Chick will highlight some of the country's unsung heroes or pivotal figures during the Civil War era who could serve as replacements following the takedown of New Orleans' Confederate monuments. This week, learn about James Longstreet, the controversial Confederate general who later became a noted Republican and key figure in the Battle of Liberty Place. 


Few generals, blue or gray, had as long and controversial a career as James Longstreet. Born in South Carolina, he grew up on a cotton plantation until he was nine and was sent to live with relatives in Georgia. He attended the elite military academy West Point (where he was roommates with future Union General William Rosecrans) and became lifelong friends with Ulysses S. Grant while they were in school and, later, stationed in Jackson Barracks, Missouri. Grant ended up marrying Longstreet’s cousin, Julia Dent, where Longstreet was likely a groomsman at the wedding. In 1848, Longstreet married Louise Garland and had ten children with her. Before the Civil War, Longstreet was a veteran of the Mexican-American War, serving in the 8th U.S. Infantry. He led the charge at Chapultepec, and was injured in his attempt to carry the American flag across the warring countries’ parapet.


When the war came, Longstreet was not enthusiastic about the secession from the Union but ultimately sided with the Confederacy, resigning from the U.S. Army in June 1861. Although born on a plantation, Longstreet was not a hardcore pro-slavery advocate and was likely drawn to the Confederacy for reasons of localism. In our modern age of globalization and easy travel, it is hard to understand the importance of locality and family ties. George Thomas, a Virginia General who stayed loyal to the Union, was disowned by his family. E.M. Forster once wrote, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” For many blue and gray, it was less a question of slavery, union, and state’s rights, and more about community.


Longstreet fought in nearly every major battle in the eastern theater, becoming Robert E. Lee’s right hand man (Lee’s nickname for Longstreet was his “Old War Horse”). He was most noted for his role in the Confederate victories at Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and the Wilderness. Even in defeats such as Antietam and Gettysburg, Longstreet proved to be a superb commander. He could be difficult though, and he carried on bitter feuds with several fellow generals, in particular Braxton Bragg, Evander McIvor Law, and Lafayette McLaws. At Appomattox Court House, Longstreet advised Lee to surrender, assuring him that Grant would give them good terms. Longstreet did add “General, if he does not give us good terms, come back and let us fight it out.”


After the war Longstreet resumed his friendship with Grant and moved to New Orleans, becoming President of the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad. Among Confederate officers, there was much debate on how to respond to Reconstruction. Some took up neutrality, others resistance, both legal and illegal and often a mix of the two. Another type sought reconciliation with the new order. Most prominently, Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard denounced violent opposition to Reconstruction and were open to some reform in Southern politics and society.


Longstreet went a step further. He became a Republican and surveyor of customs in New Orleans in 1873. He aligned himself with Henry Clay Warmoth, P. B. S. Pinchback, and Algernon Sidney Badger in the more conservative wing of the Republican Party, against Oscar J. Dunn. Grant and Warmoth hoped Longstreet’s old army comrades, particularly in the Washington Artillery, would defect — and for a time they did.


Longstreet, never one for tact, had begun to question some of Lee’s decisions during the war, particularly at Gettysburg. Jubal Early, a Confederate General and the creator of the Lost Cause mythos, attacked Longstreet mercilessly. Lee died in 1870 and his deification was underway. It was not that Longstreet did not hold Lee in high regard; he named his son Robert E. Lee Longstreet. Yet, he had the temerity to point out that Lee was not flawless. Daniel Harvey Hill, himself a critic of Lee, hated Longstreet for switching political sides. Both men made him into a kind of Confederate Benedict Arnold, a traitor to cause, comrades, and the South. Early and Hill effectively destroyed Longstreet’s reputation.


In 1874, Longstreet took command of the outnumbered Metropolitan Police as they prepared to fight the Crescent City White League in what would become the Battle of Liberty Place. Longstreet arranged his men on the French Quarter side of Canal Street. Although he had artillery and Gatling guns, the White League was able to utilize snipers to pick off the police. Longstreet tried to stop the fighting but he was wounded. Longstreet, in bad health and under constant threat, left New Orleans in 1875.


The rest of Longstreet’s career was anticlimactic. He held minor posts under Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt, including as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He converted to Catholicism during an 1877 visit to New Orleans and married 34-year-old Helen Dortch when he was 76 years of age. He also wrote his memoirs, but they were bitter and earned him a whole new generation of enemies.


Longstreet remained a man without friends after the war. To anyone with a Unionist, and particularly an Emancipationist, vision of the war, he was just another traitorous Southerner who got off easy. To the Lost Cause he was the man who, despite his talents, betrayed the Confederacy, first by losing at Gettysburg and then by joining the Republicans. Only Longstreet’s soldiers and the reconciliationists had much love for him. As their vision took center stage in the 1960s-2000s, Longstreet became a hero, or at least a respected figure. In 1998 a statue was erected to him at Gettysburg; it is one of the only honors he has received.


Longstreet defies easy categories. He was among the Confederacy’s best generals, but his heart was not in the cause and after the war he embraced Reconstruction. This is not to say Longstreet was for true racial equality. He saw blacks as inferior and their votes as a means to an end, a position rather similar to that held by Warmoth and many Republican politicians.


Longstreet’s place in history is as a spoiler. He cannot be assigned a single stereotype. In his time, Early and Hill could not see how honest criticism of Lee was not the same as condemnation. In our time he does not conform to a rising moralistic and Manichean vision of America’s past. Whether or not Longstreet should be honored in New Orleans is debatable; he was a Confederate general and not a radical Republican. Yet, it should not be forgotten that at the Battle of Liberty Place he chose to side not with his former comrades, but with the very people the Confederacy sought to keep enslaved. In doing so, he risked death, was nearly killed, and lost many friendships and his reputation among white Southerners. He paid a price far higher, and with graver consequences, than many of us will ever know in our more “enlightened” age.


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