Ambrose Burnside, Battle of the Wilderness, Braxton Bragg, Centreville, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, Civil War in East Tennessee, Civil War in Knoxville, Fredericksburg, Ft. Sanders, George McClellan, Gettysburg, James Longstreet, Jefferson Davis, Joseph Hooker, Manassas Junction, Robert E. Lee. George Pickett, Rutherford B. Hayes, T.J. "Stonewall" Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, United States Military Academy, West Point
By J. C. Tumblin, O.D., Past President, Knoxville Civil War Roundtable
Copyright 1998 by J. C. Tumlbin All rights reserved.
CHILDHOOD, YOUTH, AND WEST POINT YEARS (1821- 1842)
James Longstreet was born the fifth child of James and Mary Ann Dent Longstreet, on January 8, 1821, in the Edgefield District of South Carolina. His mother had traveled to her mother-in-law’s home for his birth. Both of his parents, owners of a cotton plantation near present-day Gainesville in the Piedmont section of northeastern Georgia, were descendants of families dating to the colonial period — James born in New Jersey, Mary Ann in Maryland. The future general always regarded Georgia as his home, as he came there within weeks of his birth and spent the first nine years of his life there. It had required hard physical labor and resilience to carve a farm out of the forest and wilderness that had been the frontier only a few years previous. Under the tutelage of his older brother and sister, William and Anna, young James rode horseback, hunted, fished, and developed the strong physique that would characterize him throughout life. He also developed self-confidence, self-reliance, and a work ethic.
By the time he was nine, James had four more sisters. Dreams of glory filled his head as he read of Caesar, Napoleon, and George Washington. To a practical father with a profitable farming operation but a large family, such youthful longings could be fulfilled only with the admission of his son to the United States Military Academy at West Point. In 1830, with that long-term goal in mind, “Pete” (as he was called at home) traveled with his father to Augusta, site of the state’s finest preparatory school. He would live with Uncle Augustus B. Longstreet and his wife, so that he could enter Richmond County Academy. A graduate of Yale University and a practicing attorney, Uncle Augustus was enormously talented, a gifted conversationalist, and a licensed lay speaker in the Methodist Church. The nephew would spend the next eight years embraced as a member of the family. The formal education he received at the Richmond County Academy was enhanced by the informal one he received in the home of his aunt and uncle. Schooling never took precedence over his outdoor activity. He romped his uncle’s acres and developed a stamina that had no bounds even as he grew taller and more muscular. Pete had been at Augusta only three years when his father died of cholera during a visit to Augusta. His mother decided to live permanently in Morgan County in northern Alabama. Increasingly, Westover, Uncle Augustus’ plantation, became his home and Uncle Augustus and Aunt Frances received his affections. He barely mentioned his mother in his memoirs.
By 1837 the politically astute Augustus Longstreet was seeking an appointment to West Point for his nephew. The vacancy in the Augusta district was already filled, so they turned to the First District of Alabama where his mother lived. John C. Calhoun and South Carolina Governor George McDuffie helped to influence the appointment that was offered in March 1838.
James Longstreet entered West Point in 1838. It was one of the finest colleges in the country, but it was in transition at the time. Cadet life was highly regimented. Academics challenged him from the outset, but James excelled in horsemanship, sword exercise, and “football.” He admitted to being the leader in “larks and games,” and his demerits reflected such common cadet sins as visiting after taps, absence from roll call, dirty room, long hair, and disturbance during study hours. When he graduated in 1842, he ranked 54th in a class of 62. However, one can ask whether he redeemed himself at the Brotherton house on September 2, 1863, when his troops met those of classmate William Rosecrans, fifth in the class, and turned the tide in the Battle of Chickamauga. It was unfortunate that Longstreet failed to make the most of his academic opportunities, but fortunate that he continued to attend the “School of Life” and to learn from it after graduation.
PRE-WAR YEARS (1842-1860)
At graduation he was brevetted a second lieutenant and served tours in Missouri, Louisiana, and Florida. He participated in the Mexican War (1846-1848) under General Zachary Taylor, up to and including the Battle of Monterey. Then he joined the forces of General Winfield Scott for the expedition to Mexico City. In front of his troops carrying the flag of the 8th Infantry, Longstreet was wounded in a charge at Chapultepec. With a musket ball in the thigh, he staggered and fell, and handed the colors to Lieutenant George E. Pickett (later to become famous at Gettysburg), who carried the colors over the wall. Longstreet was brevetted a major. For him and his fellow officers, the Mexican War served as a training ground for the Civil War. His physical stamina, skill under fluid conditions on the battlefield, and bravery under fire offered unique lessons in his trade — that of a soldier.
All during the war James Longstreet had carried a daguerreotype of Louise Garland, the daughter of Lieutenant Colonel John Garland. When he returned to the states, they were married during the first week of March 1848 at her relatives in Lynchburg, Virginia. After an assignment to recruiting duty in Poughkeepsie, New York, he reported to Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, where their first child, James Garland Longstreet, was born in 1848. He was the first of 10 children born to James and Louise.
By 1849 he had been transferred to San Antonio, Texas, where the army’s main role was to protect settlements and wagons of immigrants moving into the state. Not long thereafter he was appointed chief of commissary, and paperwork filled most of his workday. He gained valuable experience in the administration of an army detachment for 16 months. Then for three years he was reassigned to scouting duties on the frontier in Texas, while Louise and the two boys (Augustus Baldwin having been born in 1850) remained in San Antonio. William Dent Longstreet, the third son, was born there in 1853. William became ill and died the next year. In 1854 he was assigned to Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas, and 600 miles from San Antonio. Here the garrison was responsible for protecting ranchers, farmers, and townfolks from marauding Indians. On one expedition, Longstreet’s column traveled for 16 days toward the Guadeloupe Mountains in ice storms with extremely frigid temperatures as they pursued the Mescalero Apaches. Longstreet soon assumed the command at Fort Bliss and held that post until the spring of 1858.
Harriet Margaret Longstreet, their fourth child and first daughter, was born in 1856 but lived only five months. Their fifth child, James Longstreet, was born in 1857. James and Louise were concerned for the education of their oldest children, nine-year-old Garland and seven-year-old Gus, and this prompted James to write the adjutant general’s office in Washington to request recruiting duty back East, preferably in Pennsyslvania, citing his 16 years of service on the frontier. He received a six-months leave and they visited Uncle Augustus, now the president of the College of South Carolina in Columbia, and then traveled northward to New Jersey. Late in 1859, leaving the boys in a boy’s preparatory school in Yonkers, New York, Longstreet reported for duty at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he served as paymaster for a year and was then transferred to his father-in-law’s department in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This reunion with Louise’s parents was brief, for her mother died in 1860 and her father, General John Garland, died on June 5, 1861. The veteran of nearly a half century of service lived long enough to witness the dissolution of the Union and the onset of a civil war.
WAR YEARS (1861-1865)
With the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, the disruption of the Union began with South Carolina’s secession in December, followed by six other states in the next six weeks. The fall and winter of 1860-61 was a time of suspense for the Longstreeets as mail service to Albuquerque was irregular at intervals of a month or six weeks. Longstreet made his decision early. He decided his allegiance belonged to the South. He did not embrace secession, but he remembered his uncle’s passion for states’ rights. It was a difficult choice, as he said later, but he wrote the War Department in December to request an escort for him and his family through Indian territory to San Antonio. Louise was in the final month of a pregnancy — Mary Anne Longstreet was born on December 31, 1860. His request was denied. On April 12-14, 1861, the firing on and surrender of Fort Sumter signaled the beginning of the war.
Knowing that he was the senior officer in the Army appointed by the State of Alabama to West Point and because his mother still lived there, he wrote his friend, Congressman Curry, and Governor Andrew Moore and offered his services. Events of the next few months are marked by confusion, and there are indications his resignation from the Union Army and his acceptance as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Confederate Army overlapped by several months — if so, an uncharacteristic lapse in his ethics. His family was now able to travel. It entailed an arduous overland trip of 600 miles through Indian country to San Antonio, from there to Galveston, on shipboard through the blockade from there to New Orleans, then via train through Mississippi and Alabama to Chattanooga, and finally on the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad to Richmond. He reported for duty there on June 21, 1861. In a meeting with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Longstreet learned he was appointed a brigadier general. Within days he was ordered to report to General P.G.T. Beauregard at Manassas Junction. Beauregard’s army did not lack fervor, but their level of training was very poor. Longstreet was assigned the command of three Virginia regiments and set about training them. Three times each day he coached his troops in the intricacies of regimental and brigade maneuvers. By the Battle of First Manassas (July 21, 1861) he and his regiments were sufficiently trained to acquit themselves well as they defended Blackburn’s Ford in a prelude to the battle. Beauregard said of Longstreet, “by his presence at the right place at the right moment, by the exhibition of characteristic coolness, and by his words of encouragement to the men of his command, he infused a confidence and spirit that contributed largely to the success of our arms on that day.” On the 21st Longstreet’s regiments were ordered to hold their position on the ford. Late in the day, noting the disorder among the Federals after the decisive repulse at Henry Hill in the center of the line, he asked for permission to attack. When he was refused and, in fact, was ordered to withdraw, he dashed his hat furiously to the ground and said, “Retreat! Hell, the Federal army has broken to pieces.” Although he halted his brigade, Longstreet did not cool down until after he had eaten supper and received a second order to withdraw.
After the battle the victorious Southern armies were as incapacitated as the Federals. They were too disorganized for offensive movements against Washington. Mismanagement of the railroads resulted in insufficient supplies and some were complaining they were being starved. Additionally, farm boys who had never been exposed to measles and typhoid were experiencing epidemics that swept through the ranks. Longstreet’s brigade was increased to four regiments that were encamped at Centreville. He reinstituted brigade drill and, by August 8, they would participate in a grand review ordered by Beauregard to honor the visiting Prince Jerome Napoleon, cousin of Napoleon III of France. Soon thereafter they marched to Fairfax Courthouse as a part of a general concentration ordered by Beauregard, ostensibly to prevent an attack by the North. President Lincoln had recently appointed General George McClellan to assume command, and he was too busy with a major reorganization to contemplate attack. The stalemate in northern Virginia stretched into the winter.
At one point during this period Longstreet supervised operations in the area centered on Fairfax Courthouse and extending to the Northern defenses beyond Alexandria. He had authority over the movements of seven infantry brigades during this period, including his own and the cavalry. During the final weeks of August, Longstreet extended his lines toward the capital, occupying the high ground in the vicinity of Annandale and Falls Church. With his appointment to major general in October, Longstreet assumed command of a division, consisting of four infantry brigades and the Hampton Legion, a mixed command of infantry and artillery. They returned to Centreville and, in the words of one Confederate, life consisted of “monotony, miserable inactivity, measles and typhoid fever.” 1861 ended with all these difficulties and, unfortunately, with Longstreet sometimes cast in an anti-administration role in the difficulties between President Davis and his top generals, Johnston and Beauregard.
1862 was a devastating year for the Longstreets. They had previously lost two children. In January the general was called to Richmond, where his four remaining children were grievously ill with scarlet fever that was raging through Richmond. One-year-old Mary Anne died on January 25th and four-year-old James the next day. Six-year-old Gus and 13-year-old Garland fought on, then Gus succumbed on February 1st. Only Garland survived. The depth of sorrow of the General and his wife had no limit. Lee would later call Longstreet “My Old War Horse.” Leaving his personal problems behind, he returned to duty in February. The tragedy affected him deeply. He turned more to the church and gave up gambling. When he returned to duty in late February, the army was removing provisions and equipment and sending them south by rail in preparation to withdrawing from Centreville. Confederate General Johnston had perhaps 40,000 troops to confront Union General McClellan’s 100,000 or more, and he felt his positions at Centreville were not tenable. He felt it prudent to move southward behind the Rappahannock River. By March, McClellan was landing the first of his 105,000 men on the Virginia Peninsula about 100 miles southeast of Richmond. Colonel John Magruder’s Confederate force had grown to perhaps 17,000 men in opposition to McClellan’s lead Union corps, numbering 60,000. By marching units back and forth, the daring Magruder was able to make McClellan think he had more Confederates than he actually did.
The cautious McClellan decided on a siege operation and began using his artillery to bombard the defenses on April 3. Davis decided to defend the Peninsula with Johnston’s entire army. By the first week in May, Johnston had approximately 70,000 confronting 100,000 Federals. Longstreet’s six brigades, about 13,800 strong, manned the army’s center. Then Johnston decided he was engaged in a type of warfare in which he could not win and ordered a withdrawal. After sunset on May 3 the ordeal began — thousands marching along two muddy roads with mired wagons and artillery pieces shouldered out of the mud by infantry. The march took all night. Longstreet’s duty was to bring up the rear and to secure the passage of the wagons by keeping McClellan at bay. On May 5 he distinguished himself in the rearguard action at Williamsburg when he fought a sharp battle with advance units of the Federal army. Johnston himself reached the field at 3:30 p.m. He reported later, “General Longstreet’s clear head and brave heart left me no apology for interference.”
A misunderstanding of orders resulted in lateness to the field and a failure at Seven Pines (May 31, 1862); but his courage and willingness to fight impressed Lee during the Seven Days battles around Richmond (June 25-July 1, 1862). Because of this, Lee entrusted him with more than half of his infantry and, on August 13, he was sent to aid General T. J. (“Stonewall”) Jackson in pursuit of Pope near Orange Court House. This maneuver marked the beginning of the Second Manassas Campaign and the Battle of Second Manassas (August 29-30, 1862), where he led his 30,000 soldiers in a furious counterattack on the last day and the Union line crumbled. By September 17, 1862, he was again involved in heavy action at Antietam.
Lee recommended Longstreet for a promotion to lieutenant general on October 11, 1862, and his division was grouped as the I Corps. On December 13, the corps manned Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, where Burnside’s Grand Divisions under Generals Edwin Sumner and Joseph Hooker were ordered to make seemingly suicidal frontal attacks. From the initial assault at daylight until dark descended, 11 attacks had resulted in most of the 12,653 Federal casualties in the Battle of Fredericksburg, compared to 5,309 Confederates (killed, wounded, and missing). Burnside was almost overcome by grief, but ordered new attacks the following day. During the night his Grand Division commanders convinced him another attack would be futile. Both armies went into winter quarters. By December 1862 Longstreet had been in the Confederate army for a year and a half. Seven Pines had represented a colossal blunder; but Blackburn’s Ford, Williamsburg, the Seven Days, Second Manassas, and Antietam gave him a reputation any soldier would envy. The loss of his children early in the year and the physical and mental stress of six major battles had tested even Longstreet’s stamina.
If 1862 had been devastating in both his personal and his military life, Longstreet would find 1863 just as rigorous militarily. He was 42 years old on January 8, 1863. In early February, along with Generals George Pickett and John B. Hood, he had been assigned to guard Richmond and secure supplies in his first relatively independent command — the Suffolk Campaign. Suffolk was 17 miles from Portsmouth and about 100 miles southeast of Richmond. After a month with no significant action, he advanced on Suffolk on April 11, 1863. With the 17,000 Federals bottled up in their eight strategically placed forts, Longstreet impressed every wheeled vehicle he could find and began the collection of foodstuff and supplies. By the end of April he had collected enough bacon and grain to feed Lee’s hungry army and animals for approximately two months.
When Union General Joseph Hooker, now in command of the Federals in Virginia, began crossing the Rappahannock south of Fredericksburg on April 29, Longstreet was ordered to rejoin Lee by moving north by foot and by rail with “all possible dispatch without incurring loss of train or unnecessary hazard of troops.” The Battle of Chancellorsville had occurred 50 miles north of Richmond on May 1-4, 1863, while Longstreet was in transit. The commander of the other Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia — General Thomas J. (“Stonewall”) Jackson — had been mortally wounded there. Longstreet reached Lee’s headquarters on May 9 and conferred with Lee from May 11 to 13, during which time the summer campaign was planned. The basis of the disagreement in strategy that came to a head at Gettysburg in July began in this conference.
The Battle of Gettysburg began with some Confederate success on May 1, 1863. Lee directed Longstreet to renew the assault on Cemetery Ridge at dawn on May 2, but he hesitated — awaiting General Evander Law’s reinforcements. On July 3, Lee ordered 11 brigades of veteran troops, spearheaded by three brigades of Longstreet’s Corps, one commanded by General George Pickett, to make the assault on Cemetery Ridge by marching a mile-long line of Confederates (some 13,000) into the bore of the 118 Union cannon across almost a mile of open field. It had been against Longstreet’s judgment — he had tried to persuade Lee to use a flanking movement instead. His brigades were decimated. Lee could only utter, “The task was too great.”
In the Western Theater, the Second Campaign for Vicksburg was raging. Between April 1 and July 4, 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant lay siege to Vicksburg — the lone obstacle to capture of the Mississippi River and division of the Confederate states. As Lee retreated from Pennsylvania following the defeat at Gettysburg, Confederate General John C. Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg on July 4 and, as President Lincoln said, “The Mississippi River now flows unvexed to the sea.” On September 9, 1863, in one of the most dramatic troop movements of the War, Longstreet transferred five brigades of his men from Virginia to Chattanooga by rail. By this time in the war it was impossible to use the more direct rail lines from Richmond to Bristol to Chattanooga, so he transported some 15,000 men from near Richmond, through Wilmington to Charlotte, to Atlanta, and finally to Chattanooga. It took nine days and involved 16 different interrupted railroad lines, often with different gauges of rails and on open flat cars. He arrived in time to participate in the Battle of Chickamauga, in which his corps penetrated the Federal line at the Brotherton house in one of the most significant actions of the war, and made an important contribution to the defeat of General Rosecrans on September 19-20, 1863.
After the battle of Chickamauga, General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate forces around Chattanooga, felt that chasing General Ambrose Burnside from Knoxville back to Kentucky would ease the pressure on him at Chattanooga. He dispatched an expeditionary force to Knoxville under Longstreet, with his 12,000 infantry and General Joe Wheeler’s 5,000 cavalry. Burnside had about 23,000 troops in East Tennessee, of which 14,000 were stationed at Knoxville. Two battle-scarred generals — Burnside and Longstreet — faced one another in the Knoxville Campaign. One can only imagine Longstreet’s state of health, fatigue level, and state of mind at this point of the war. His decisions during the impending Battle of Knoxville would reflect them. No doubt Burnside was tired too, but on this occasion he was to have the advantage of strong defensive positions. In an attempt to buy time for his engineers to put the final touches on fortifications in Knoxville, Burnside planned an orderly withdrawal of about 5,000 troops he had detached to Loudon, southwest of the city. They were to march to Lenoir Station (now Lenoir City), through a crucial road crossing at Campbell’s Station, and into the protection of his positions in Knoxville. Longstreet with about 12,000 combined infantry and artillerymen advanced northward from Chattanooga on a parallel route. The race was on, made more difficult by the heavy rain that was falling and mud — mud again. The Federal troops won the race to the crossing by some 15 minutes. The sharp contest that occurred there on November 16, 1863 resulted in the loss of 318 Federals and 174 Confederates killed and wounded. In a forced night march, the Federal troops retired to their defensive positions in Knoxville. After much delay in reconnaissance and the preparations for battle, and because of the terrible weather, Longstreet scheduled the assault on Fort Sanders, where he thought Burnside was most vulnerable. The fort was constructed on an eminence near downtown Knoxville with a ditch 6-8 feet deep, but it appeared to be only 3-4 feet deep from Confederate observation posts. Some planks were placed across the ditch and troops were observed crossing easily, but they were using the planks. The earthen walls were 13-feet high in most places and had cotton bales piled on top to protect the riflemen, and were wrapped in rawhide to prevent fire. Water was poured down the side of the earthen fort. It froze overnight and created ice on its sides and in the ditch. Longstreet was forewarned he would need scaling ladders, but he was deceived by the apparent shallow depth of the ditch and did not prepare them. For perhaps 30 to 80 yards in front of the northwest bastion, which was selected for the assault, there were 18-inch tree stumps between which the engineers had stretched telegraph wire to trip and delay the attackers.
In the Knoxville area, Confederate General Porter Alexander had 34 guns, Union General Burnside 51, not all of them in the fort. Inside the fort, First Lieutenant Samuel Benjamin had 335 riflemen and 105 Union artillerymen manning 12 cannons. Longstreet’s men, 4,000 Confederate veterans of Lee’s campaigns in the East (almost a 10-to-1 ratio), crouched low and approached the fort. Seymour (p. 193) describes the scene at dawn on November 29, 1863:
With a rush and a yell the surging gray column advanced up the hill toward Ft. Sanders. As they neared the fort the leading lines crashed through brush barriers and bowled them aside like tenpins, but in the darkness the men tripped and stumbled over the telegraph wires stretched between the stumps. As the lead troops began tearing and kicking at the wires, they were knocked over by the sheer weight of numbers of the rest of the onrushing troops. At the moment of delay and confusion, one cannon…in the fort fired two quick rounds of canister into the storming party, but quickly closing their ranks the Confederates reached the ditch and chased away the gunners exposed on the platform. The rapid advance in almost complete darkness over terrain filled with obstacles and converging furrows brought the attacking force in a packed mass whose officers could no longer distinguish their own men. Hesitating only momentarily, the men swarmed into the ditch which they had been told was no more than four feet deep. They expected to get a toe hold on the berme and scale the parapet with one leap. But as they surged into the ditch they discovered to their horror that in places it was more than eleven feet deep, the embankment was slippery and icy, the berme had been cut away, and the parapet had been built up very high with cotton bales. Many of the men, not knowing what else to do, fired into the embrasures at any of the Federals foolish enough to show their heads.
In 20 minutes the battle was finished. There was nothing for the troops in the ditch to do but surrender. Longstreet had lost over 800 men, Burnside only 13. Longstreet took a few days to assemble his wounded men and retreated through Strawberry Plains and Mossy Creek (present day Jefferson City) to Russellville, where he spent two miserably cold months before he proceeded back to the battlefields of Virginia. The Union army controlled Knoxville for the remainder or the war. The armies had stripped East Tennessee of its foodstuffs and livestock. Guerrilla warfare, hunger, and deprivation marked the period.
The East Tennessee campaign would mark the low tide of Longstreet’s career, and he considered resigning. Instead, he and his troops arrived back in Virginia in time to join Lee’s other corps commanders — Generals Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill — in a strategy session following the spring thaw. Lee’s army, numbering some 65,000, was encamped south of the Rapidan. General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac contained almost twice that number. General Ulysses S. Grant was now in the East and accompanied Meade. Although Lee wanted to avoid a general engagement until all his units were on the field, Grant forced the issue and the struggle began in the nightmarish terrain of deep woods and swamp with entangling lines of battle. The Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-7, 1864) was underway. The first day’s engagements ended at nightfall with each army entrenching in anticipation of another day of slaughter. Longstreet’s veterans arrived between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on the second day. They did not yet know it, but they were in a race to save the Army of Northern Virginia. At 5:00 a.m., nine brigades of Federal troops (approximately 20,000) attacked General Cadmus Wilox and General Henry Heth of Hill’s III Corps and routed them. Sorrell wrote later, “I have always thought that the forming line, in the dense brush, under fire of the enemy amid the routed men of A.P. Hill, and the beating of the enemy under these circumstances was the steadiest and finest thing the corps ever did. To their chief was due that steadiness as always.” The battle ended in a draw; however, it was a strategic victory for the North as they turned south unimpeded by Lee.
While he was aligning his troops on that second day, Longstreet was fired on by his own men as he rode through the dense undergrowth. A minie ball struck him in the throat, exiting from his right shoulder, severing several nerves in his arm. Stiles later recounted the extreme grief displayed by Longstreet’s staff:
I never on any occasion during the four years of the war saw a group of officers and gentlemen more deeply distressed. They were literally bowed down with grief. All of them were in tears. One, by whose side I rode for some distance, was himself severely hurt, but he made no allusion to his wound, and I do not believe he felt it. It was not alone the general they admired who had been shot down — it was, rather, the man they loved.
As he recovered first in Lynchburg, Virginia, and later in Augusta and Union Point, Georgia, he took great delight in his 10-month-old son’s antics, for Louise and the family were with him. Robert Lee Longstreet had been born the previous October. Lee wrote him, “Take care of my namesake…Do not let Sherman capture you, I will endeavor to hold Grant til you come.”
While Longstreet recovered, Grant and Lee engaged in a classic contest between the Rapidan and the James — Lee now the master of maneuver and defense, Grant unrelenting on the attack. By September, Longstreet boarded a train for Richmond. He resumed command of the First Corps in October, despite his concern for his physical limitations, including a paralyzed arm and diminished voice that would become almost a whisper in his later years. Lee assigned him to command the forces north of the James, and General George Pickett’s division on Bermuda Hundred. He had approximately 21,000 effectives to man 20 miles of breastworks, artillery emplacements, and forts. They endured the winter with hunger, casualties and desertions slowly degrading their effectiveness. The enemy was well fed and well clothed, and new recruits were filling their ranks. The spring thaw was foreboding. Longstreet wrote to Lee, “I believe that we are better able to cope with him [Grant] now than we ever have been, if we will profit by our experience and exert ourselves properly in improving our organizations.” A month later, he would write, “We shall fight him [Grant] of course, as long as we have a man, but we should fight with much better heart, if we could have hope of results.”
Lee struck boldly and valiantly on March 25, 1865, at Fort Steadman, but there were not enough men and Grant’s reserves sealed the breach. Lee lost 4,000 men. The Federals struck Lee’s right flank on April 1 at Five Forks, inflicting another 5,000 casualties and routed the Confederates, including General George Pickett’s division. On April 2, the Federals attacked along most of the Confederate line around Petersburg. They fought valiantly against four times their numbers, but they gained only one more day. They abandoned Petersburg at eight o’clock, crossed the Appomattox River, and turned westward. In Richmond, President Davis and his officials boarded a train in the darkness. Lee’s leadership had extended the Confederacy beyond all reasonable expectations, but a series of rearguard actions culminated in the inevitable — surrender negotiations with Grant. On Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, Lee met Grant at the McLean House in Appomattox to discuss the terms. The formal surrender ceremony occurred on April 12, 1865, when, as a Union general noted, Southern troops marched past silent lines of Federals in an “awed stillness, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead.”
POST-WAR YEARS (1865-1904)
Why Longstreet decided to make New Orleans his first post-War home is uncertain. He found business opportunities there to suit him, first in a cotton brokerage firm organized by Edward and William Owen, former members of the Washington Artillery. Longstreet, Owen and Company opened on New Years Day, 1866. He did not limit himself to the cotton business, but soon assumed the presidency of the Great Southern and Western Fire, Marine and Accident Insurance Company. He sought the presidency of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, but was unsuccessful. He also served as president of the Southern Hospital Association.
Active in politics during the Reconstruction period, he publicly urged “moderation, forbearance and submission.” The New Orleans Times solicited the views of prominent citizens, and Longstreet wrote, “We are a conquered people…but one course [is] left for wise men to pursue, and that is to accept the terms that are now offered by the conquerors.”….If “the constitutional government shall be reestablished,” the only course of action for Southerners is “to comply with the requirements of the recent Congressional legislation.”….”Let us accept the terms as we are in duty bound to do, and if there is a lack of good faith, let it be upon others.”
Other former Confederate officers echoed him, but those sentiments were unpopular nonetheless. Longstreet finally concluded that the best solution was cooperation with the Republican Party. It was a matter of principle with him, but his political naivete cost him friends and business. He departed New Orleans in August 1867 to remove himself from death threats, the criticism he was receiving, and also to escape the dangers of yellow fever and cholera for his family. Louise and the children moved back to Lynchburg. He returned to New Orleans periodically, but for much of the next two years he traveled in New England, New York City, and Washington. He visited his West Point friend Ulysses S. Grant, now in New York, and John Fairfax, the prosperous former Confederate, at his estate near Leesburg, Virginia.
Ulysses S. Grant, his old West Point colleague and former Union general, was inaugurated president on March 4, 1869, and by March 10 had appointed Longstreet the position of surveyor of customs for the port of New Orleans. In June 1873 he was named to a lucrative four-year position on the Levee Commission of Engineers. The family spent the summer of 1873 in Lynchburg so Louise and the younger children could avoid the yellow fever season. By 1878 Rutherford B. Hayes had appointed him deputy collector of internal revenue. He retained the position for only a few months, when he was offered the postmastership in Gainesville, Georgia.
In May 1880, President Hayes appointed Longstreet ambassador to Turkey, and he accepted with the understanding that when the Federal marshallship became available in Georgia he would resign. He sailed for Europe on November 1, 1880. His only accomplishment during his short time in the position seems to have been that he persuaded the Sultan to allow American archaeologists to work in Turkey, although that had previously been denied. The cost of living was very high in Constantinople and he felt he could not take his family there. In April 1881 he asked for a 60-day leave of absence and toured extensively in Austria, Prussia, and France. He probably included the battlefields of the Franco-Prussian War (1870- 71), a conflict that he had followed with interest in the newspapers. When he was recalled to the States, he had no regrets. This was especially true when he learned President Garfield, another former Union general, had nominated him to a fouryear term as U.S. Marshall for Georgia, a position he had long desired. He served slightly over three years, a tenure plagued by controversy and political intrigue. With the election of President Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat in 24 years, Longstreet had no prospects of another political position and went into semiretirement in Gainesville. The next few years were among the most pleasurable of his life. He operated the Piedmont Hotel, enjoyed the time on his farm raising turkeys, tending an orchard, and nurturing his vineyard. On December 29, 1889, Louise died of an unknown illness. To allay his grief, he immersed himself in writing his memoirs, although the task was made more difficult by the fire that had destroyed his farmhouse the previous April. His papers, his library, and precious relics of both the Mexican and the Civil War had been destroyed. The labor was to require five years. When the memoir was published in 1896, it engendered both praise and censure. Despite its shortcomings, the 690-page work, From Manassas to Appomattox, remains a classic memoir of the war, as it was when it was published. On September 8, 1897, at age 76, Longstreet married Helen Dortch, a native Georgian and assistant state librarian at the time of the marriage. She was 34 years old and would outlive him by 58 years. She died in 1962, 100 years after his triumph at Fredericksburg. The newlywed Longstreets relocated to Washington, D.C., when he secured an appointment as U S. Commissioner of Railroads by newly-elected President William McKinley, another Union veteran. It was a choice assignment with nominal responsibility for the old Confederate veteran. The couple took advantage of travel on the railroads by touring Mexico, including the sites of his Mexican War service, and they criss-crossed the western United States. He still attended reunions, including the 100th Anniversary of the U.S. Military Academy in 1902.
Longstreet was in constant pain with rheumatism and was so deaf that he had to use an ear horn at this point in his life. By the summer of 1903, he was afflicted with an unspecified serious illness. He traveled to Chicago later in that year for Xray treatment of a cancerous right eye. His weight had dropped from 200 pounds to only 135. By Christmas he and Helen had returned to Gainesville and he had rallied. Then, on the morning of January 2, 1904, he visited his daughter’s home in Gainesville and, while there, became gravely ill with pneumonia. He died on that day, only six days before his 83rd birthday. At the end, he confused his second wife Helen with Louise. His final words were, “Helen, we shall be happier in this post.” His mind had wandered back to the pleasant times on the Texas frontier.
Faust, Patricia L.: Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.
Fink, Harold S.: The East Tennessee Campaign and the Battle of Knoxville in 1863. The East Tennessee Historical Society Publication No. 29, 1957.
Hampton, Brian: The Longstreet Chronicles at URL http://www.longstreetchronicles.org.
Longstreet, James: From Manassas to Appomattox. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1896.
Piston, William G.: Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.
Seymour, Digby G.: Divided Loyalties: Fort Sanders and the Civil War in East Tennessee. Nashville: East Tennessee Historical Society, 1990.
Wert, Jeffrey D.: General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.