Statue of Gen. Longstreet in Gainesville, Georgia.
For my own part, I have started looking into the lives and characters of the generals of the Confederacy—and a more intriguing group of characters is seldom to be found. Having done some research into the Cherokee Confederate general, Stand Watie, I next moved on to another atypical rebel officer, General James Longstreet. As I was doing so, CNN published an article asking the question: “Where are the monuments to Confederate Gen. James Longstreet?” It's an interesting question. In truth, there are two that I was able to find. One at Gettysburg, and another in Gainesville, Georgia. Given his bio, however, the man deserves more recognition.
Most people’s familiarity with Longstreet stems from his role as Lee’s second-in-command at Gettysburg, and thus his prominent place in popular historical entertainment such as the movie Gettysburg and Michael Shaara’s novel, The Killer Angels upon which the movie was based. Longstreet’s virtues and flaws as a military leader have long been the subject of spirited debate. But his career on the battlefield is not primarily what interests me here. Longstreet’s life after the war is, if possible, even more interesting than his deeds as Lee’s lieutenant.
During Reconstruction, Longstreet became a pariah to his southern compatriots. In the election of 1868, Longstreet endorsed his old friend from West Point, Ulysses S. Grant, and became a Republican. After winning the election, Grant appointed Longstreet to a customs position in New Orleans, and he was subsequently made a general in charge of the Louisiana state militia. As a result, he was ostracized by many in the South, who considered him a scalawag and a collaborator with carpet-bagging Union profiteers.
It was in his role as head of the Louisiana militia that Longstreet participated in an action that caused his name to be blackened even further within former-Confederate circles. Following a contested election in 1874, a Democrat mob known as the White League attempted to remove the Republican administration from New Orleans by force. Descending on the city in numbers greater than 5,000, they were confronted by a smaller number of largely Black police and militia headed by General Longstreet. As the two sides lined up for battle, Longstreet rode out to meet the rioters in an attempt to quell the matter before the sides came to blows. One White League leader later claimed that it was only with the greatest difficulty that he restrained his men from shooting Longstreet dead on the spot. Instead, they pulled him from his horse and took him prisoner. In the resulting fight, known to history as the Battle of Liberty Place, the White League caused Longstreet’s men to retreat, with about 100 dead and injured on both sides.
Federal troops were later called in to suppress the White League, free Longstreet and restore order. But Longstreet’s days as a military officer were now over, and his role in the affair attracted even more vituperation from those still attached to the Lost Cause. This rancor from his countrymen wounded him. In 1877, he had a religious awakening, as recorded in the book, Lee and Longstreet at High Tide (1904), by his wife, Helen Dortch Longstreet:
“General Longstreet was a most devout churchman. In early life he was an Episcopalian, and he regularly attended that church in New Orleans until the political differences developed between himself and his friends. After that he noticed that even his church associates avoided him. They would not sit in the same pew with him. Cut to the quick by such treatment, he began to wonder if there was any church broad enough to withstand the differences caused by political and sectional feeling. He discovered that the Roman Catholic priests extended him the treatment he longed for. He began to attend that church, and has said that its atmosphere from the first appealed to him as the church of the sorrow-laden of earth. He was converted under the ministration of Father Ryan. After accepting the faith of the Catholic Church he followed it with beautiful devotion. He regarded it as the compensation sent him by the Almighty for doing his duty as he saw it. He clung to it as the best consolation there was in life. He went to his duties as devoutly as any priest of the church, and was on his knees night and morning, with the simple, loving faith of a little child.” [Lee and Longstreet at High Tide, page 118]
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“Having passed the span which Providence ordinarily allots as the term of human life, General James Longstreet has answered the roll-call of the great God. What a brilliant page in history is filled with his grand career….When the Southern States withdrew from the Union by reason of attacks on their reserved rights which were guaranteed by the Constitution, and were forced into the war between the States, James Longstreet offered his services and sword to the cause of self-government. No history of the war may be written which does not bear emblazoned on every page the story of his deeds…This seemed to sum up Longstreet in a nutshell. He was a man disappointed by political creeds offered to ephemeral temporal powers, who found fulfillment in loyalty to an eternal creed professed to an everlasting power.
“It is my duty as a priest of God to call your attention to the obvious lesson of this occasion—the vanity of mere earthly greatness and the certainty of death and the necessity of preparation for it. James Longstreet was a brave soldier, a gallant gentleman, but better still—a consistent Christian. After the war between the States, he became a member of the Catholic Church, and to his dying day remained faithful to her teaching and loyal to her creed…” [Lee and Longstreet at High Tide, page 219]
By way of a postscript, I will mention the two extraordinary women in General Longstreet’s life. His first wife, Maria Louisa Garland Longstreet, passed away in 1890 after 40 years of marriage and 10 children. Surprisingly, he married again in 1897 at the age of 76 to Helen Dortch Longstreet. It was Helen who recorded many anecdotes about the general in the abovementioned book, Lee and Longstreet at High Tide. Interestingly, Helen lived to be nearly 100 years old, surviving until 1962 – a full century after her husband’s famous exploits during the Civil War.
These are truly amazing people worthy of remembrance.