James Longstreet’s Journey From Confederate General to Supporter of Civil Rights


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James Longstreet was General Robert Lee’s “old warhorse,” his top lieutenant in the battle to win Confederate independence and defend slavery. Nonetheless, Longstreet understood the South’s defeat to include a duty to accept the new political order. He supported Reconstruction, including leading a biracial state militia. Longstreet became a lifelong supporter of the Republican Party. He also continued to proclaim his version of the Civil War, joining many others who fought to determine the final meaning of that conflict. 

Antebellum Years 

James Longstreet was born in South Carolina on January 8, 1821. 

His father was a Georgian cotton planter and owned dozens of slaves. Longstreet’s uncle, a surrogate father figure, was a passionate defender of slavery and critic of any attacks on it until his death after the Civil War. James grew up with the typical racist views of his section.

Longstreet went to West Point military academy. He became best friends with Ulysses S. Grant, a fellow cadet from Ohio. They both fought in the Mexican War. Grant struggled with his postwar military career, ultimately resigning.  Longstreet continued to serve until the Civil War

“Confederate #3”

James Longstreet sought a military position in the Confederacy even before the war broke out at Fort Sumter. His home state seceded before Virginia, the home of Robert E. Lee. 

Longstreet quickly rose in rank and prestige. He became General Robert E. Lee’s most trusted lieutenant, commanding one of the divisions of Lee’s Army of North Virginia. Longstreet was considered “Confederate #3,” with only Lee and President Jefferson more senior.  

General Longstreet disagreed with General Lee on strategy. Most importantly, they disagreed on strategy at Gettysburg, the war’s turning point. Many Confederates placed a good deal of blame on Longstreet, who they believed fought poorly. On the other hand, Longstreet continued to accuse Lee of strategic failures and overconfidence. He dared to challenge the beloved Lee.  

Longstreet and his distractors would fight over the details for the rest of his life. 

Quid Pro Quo  

James Longstreet fought until the bitter end, surrendering along with the rest of Lee’s army to General Grant at Appomattox in April 1865. Grant had liberal surrender terms. The soldiers, including the highest-ranking generals, could go home in peace.  

Longstreet had an atypical understanding of these terms. He believed that there was an essential implied quid pro quo. The South fought hard. They lost. The North won fair and square. The generous terms of his old best friend implied a duty to accept civilian policy. 

Confederates “appealed to the arbitrator of the sword and now had to live with the results.” Most of his fellow soldiers did not agree. They lost the war because the Union had more men and resources. Nonetheless, the cause they fought for was still correct. 

Longstreet hoped that accepting the civilian policy of the victors would ultimately mean the right to local self-government. Other Southerners wanted self-rule. Nonetheless, they were not willing to support Republican Reconstruction policy.  

Longstreet in Louisiana 

James Longstreet moved his family to New Orleans after the war. He started a cotton brokerage firm with two brothers he served with in the war.  

Longstreet publicly supported Reconstruction, arguing the South’s defeat required them to accept the new policy. He joined the Republican Party, the most senior Confederate of the small group of white Southerners who fought in the war to do so. President Grant appointed him to the plum political appointment of surveyor of customs in New Orleans. 

The Louisiana governor appointed him chief of staff of the new state militia, now with African American soldiers. When an armed force attacked the legitimate state government, Longstreet guided the armed response against them.

Lee’s top lieutenant was now leading a biracial army supporting what the South fought against. Many Southerners thought Longstreet was a traitor to his section. They argued it would have been better if he died in the war. 

Longstreet supported black voting, believing African Americans were essential to the survival of the Republican Party. Longstreet also worked with African American politicians, including P.B.S. Pinchback, who later became the first African American state governor. 

After Reconstruction 

The conservative racist segment of Louisiana eventually won out over the Republican Reconstruction government. As this occurred, Longstreet moved to Georgia. 

The Republican Party in Georgia was often weak in the years after Reconstruction. Nonetheless, Longstreet was a Republican for the rest of his life. He was ambassador to Turkey, federal marshal, and railroad commissioner. As marshall, he oversaw a federal prosecution that protected voting rights. Civil rights victories were few and far between in the 1880s.  

James Longstreet supported a “New South” that would succeed by industry and good government. He was not as passionate about civil rights as some Republicans. Nonetheless, Longstreet continued to support the Republican Party, including a role for black voters.  

After his wife died, he remarried a much younger woman. Helen Longstreet would grow more supportive of civil rights and died at age ninety-nine in 1962.   

Fighting Over the Civil War 

The meaning of the Civil War became a major battle over the years. Accounts of the war from both sides became popular. Veterans also used their memoirs to justify and critique. Ulysses Grant wrote a popular memoir. He included a criticism of the Mexican War.  

James Longstreet continued to argue his point of view. In his book, published in the 1890s, Longstreet criticized others and defended his actions. He was combatant until the end. 
He died shortly afterward. The battle over Civil War memory continues until today.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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