- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

He was, at the war’s end, the senior lieutenant general in the Confederate Army, Lee’s trusted friend and second-in-command of the Army of Northern Virginia — yet it was not until 1998 that a statue was erected anywhere to honor James Longstreet. This slight can be traced to his membership in the Republican Party during Reconstruction, but even more damaging to his reputation was the image created by his postwar enemies: He became a villain in Southern eyes, a scapegoat for the Confederate defeat, and one of the South’s most controversial figures.

In March 1867, the New Orleans Times appealed to prominent former Confederates to make public their views on Reconstruction. Longstreet, in business in the city as a cotton factor, called for patient submission to the harsh legislation. Looking ahead to full restoration of constitutional government under which the South’s traditional leaders would be returned to power, he argued, “Let us accept the terms as we are duty bound to do, and if there is a lack of good faith, let it be upon others.”

In a second letter, he argued that cooperation would reduce the unavoidable Reconstruction period to the minimal possible length, and in a third letter he maintained that because the principles of the Democratic Party stood in the way of reunion, the South should cooperate freely with the Republicans.

Not surprisingly, Longstreet started a firestorm. Republicans lauded his views and spoke of him as one of their own; the Democrats, who believed the “Black Republicans” were a threat to Southern civilization, were irate.

Democratic newspapers accused Longstreet of pushing his own political agenda at the expense of his comrades. Suspicions seemed confirmed when, after endorsing Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1868, he was appointed surveyor of the Port of New Orleans. At a time of social unrest and political turmoil, when Southerners looked to their wartime heroes as symbols of the Lost Cause, Longstreet’s loyalties were questioned and his wartime contributions were obscured by his escalating image as a scoundrel who had abandoned the cause. No longer a respected businessman, he became a social outcast and was branded a “traitor.”

Longstreet’s military reputation also was attacked. When Lee died in October 1870, he was catapulted to the status of an icon, his rise partly credited to former staff officers who championed his memory at the expense of Longstreet. William Pendleton, Lee’s former chief of artillery, and Jubal Early, one of Lee’s lieutenant generals, united around what some historians have called a “cabal” at once devoted to Lee and bent on character assassination against Longstreet. Its success depended upon their ability to convince the South that the Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the war and that Longstreet was responsible for the Confederate defeat.

When Early spoke at the commemoration of Lee’s birthday in 1872, he claimed that on the evening of July 1, 1863, in a conference with Gen. Richard S. Ewell, Gen. Robert Rodes and himself, Lee had said he wanted to attack at dawn on July 2 with Longstreet’s troops. Had Longstreet done so, Early argued, Lee would have won the battle and the South would be an independent nation.

When Early savaged Longstreet, his remarks resonated throughout the South. Longstreet was considered a “scalawag,” identified in the public mind with disloyalty and betrayal, the perfect scapegoat for the Confederate defeat.

Longstreet ignored the attack and focused his energies on Republican politics. He became adjutant-general of Louisiana, was appointed to the Levee Commission of Engineers and, in perhaps his most infamous job, in January 1872, just days before Early’s speech, he was commissioned brigadier general in the state militia in charge of all militia units and police forces in the city of New Orleans. In March 1873, the predominantly black police force of New Orleans was incorporated into the state militia, an event that caused rioting.

Pendleton, now a minister and friend of the Lee family, joined Early in condemning Longstreet. To raise money to enshrine the “sacred memory” of his former commander, Pendleton traveled throughout the South delivering eulogies extolling Lee’s virtues. In January 1873, at the Lee birthday commemoration, he stated that he had made a reconnaissance on the morning of July 2, 1863, because Lee had expected Longstreet to attack at sunrise. Although Pendleton’s 1863 report to Lee contradicts this later claim (as does Lee’s own battle report), Pendleton went so far as to accuse Longstreet of “culpable disobedience” and “treachery” in failing to attack at dawn and suggested that Lee’s acceptance of responsibility for the disaster was nothing more than a magnanimous coverup.

The Christ-like Lee, in the words of Pendleton, had assumed the sins of Longstreet, the Judas of Gettysburg. By denigrating Longstreet, the cabal removed Gettysburg as an obstacle to the idealization of Lee.

Longstreet’s defense was too little, too late. Despite his tarnished image, he had thought his military record would speak for itself. Thus, he stood idly by while former subordinates Lafayette McLaws, B.G. Humphreys and Thomas Walton tried to refute Early’s claims in local newspapers to which no one paid attention.

Longstreet’s reputation suffered further when in September 1874 the Crescent City White League tried to oust the carpetbag administration with violence and Longstreet led the state’s largely black troops against the insurgents, many of whom were Confederate veterans.

In April 1875, Longstreet himself finally challenged Pendleton to give a fuller account of the July 2 reconnaissance and to provide the names of the officers who supposedly witnessed Lee’s anger when the attack at dawn failed to occur. Pendleton derided the attempt, sarcastically referring to the recent turmoil in New Orleans and wondering whether Longstreet was glad that the South had lost the war.

Longstreet’s reply to what was irreversible damage demonstrated his arrogance and naivete. “School-boys may be misled by you, but even with them I fancy that only the most credulous may be temporarily misled. … Your abuse, so far from impairing my … reputation … will be more likely to enhance [it] in the estimation of honorable men. …The impertinent tone and language of your letter are in keeping with your disposition to propagate falsehood.”

In addition, Longstreet began to assemble evidence for an article on Gettysburg. Lee’s former staff members Walter Taylor and Charles Venable denied that Lee had given any orders to attack at dawn. Longstreet could not find a copy of his own Gettysburg report, but instead of waiting to complete his account, he took the first opportunity to rebut Early and Pendleton.

The February 1876 issue of Scribner’s Monthly printed an August 1863 letter from Lee to Jefferson Davis in which Lee accepted full responsibility for Gettysburg and offered to resign. To comment on this, Longstreet wrote to the New Orleans Republic, presenting some of his wartime correspondence and frankly expressing his belief that had his own plans been accepted, the Confederates would have won the battle.

This letter was followed by one he claimed to have received from Lee in January 1864. He offered only an excerpt: “Had I taken your advice [at Gettysburg] instead of pursuing the course I did how differently it might all have been.”

Some historians say Longstreet invented that letter — but that is odd because he did not have to manufacture evidence to prove his case. He had the word of Lee’s staff officers that no order had been given to attack at sunrise. In any case, the impact of this new evidence was lost completely when Longstreet inferred that he had been the brains behind Lee and that he deserved credit for Confederate victories. Longstreet’s fate was sealed; Lee’s subordinates were furious and no longer willing to support him.

By joining the “enemy” during Reconstruction, Longstreet failed to remain true to the cause; he lost his status as a Confederate hero just at the time the Southern people were transforming their heroes into saints. Lee became the dominant Southern hero in the wake of a campaign that made Longstreet publicly bear the blame for the defeat at Gettysburg. Moreover, Longstreet was his own worst enemy. He turned Lee’s staff officers against him and committed the ultimate transgression: He criticized Lee.

Longstreet had not ably defended himself, and he continued to pursue Republican politics. (President Hayes appointed him minister to Turkey in 1880.) He assumed that future generations would discredit the attacks on his military reputation. When he published his memoirs in 1886, he wrote of a war that had taken place 20 years before. He may have described the battles accurately, but his claims for himself were excessive and self-serving, the meanderings of an old man few in the South any longer trusted or admired. He wrote affectionately of Lee but remained unsparing in his criticism of his former commander.

Nevertheless, Longstreet remained popular with many of the common soldiers, North and South. Though often excluded from gatherings of Confederate veterans, he did attend those of Union soldiers as well as combined battlefield reunions, such as the 30th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

When he died in Gainesville, Ga., on Jan. 2, 1904, newspaper tributes were gracious if not generous. Fewer than 5 percent of the United Confederate Veterans chapters passed resolutions honoring him, and the Savannah Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy refused even to send flowers. Although recognized during the war as one of the South’s foremost combat commanders, Longstreet emerged as a sad, misunderstood figure.

More recently, historians have placed James Longstreet in a better light. Most acknowledge that his political ambition and exaggerated claims affected his military reputation, but they also recognize that he was a victim, unfairly blamed for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. Among efforts to redeem his reputation are Longstreet symposiums, at least two Web sites that try to set the record straight and something that never had happened before — the dedication on Jan. 10, 1998, of an 8-foot granite monument erected at his birthplace near North Augusta, S.C.

Ken Kryvoruka is a Washington lawyer who also teaches writing at the George Washington University School of Law. He lives in Northern Virginia.

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