Entering service as a brigadier general, he distinguished himself as a superb military tactician in several major battles, including First Manassas (July 21, 1861), after which he was promoted to major general.
Soldier. Longstreet was born on January 8, 1821, in Edgefield District, the son of James Longstreet and Mary Anne Dent. He spent his formative years in Georgia and Alabama. He entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1838 and graduated in 1842 near the bottom of his class. His service record after graduation, especially during the Mexican War, was highly commendable, and by 1858 he had achieved the rank of major. On March 8, 1848, he married Maria Garland of Virginia. The marriage produced ten children. Following Maria’s death in 1889, Longstreet married Helen Dortch on September 8, 1897.
In June 1861 Longstreet resigned his U.S. Army commission and joined the Confederate army. Entering service as a brigadier general, he distinguished himself as a superb military tactician in several major battles, including First Manassas (July 21, 1861), after which he was promoted to major general. His service in the Army of Northern Virginia included participation in the Peninsular campaign of 1862 and Second Manassas (August 29–30, 1862), where his tactical skill played a key role in the Confederate victory. When Robert E. Lee took charge of the army in June 1862, he made Longstreet his second in command. He became Lee’s closest confidant and military adviser, and was made a lieutenant general in October 1862. Longstreet’s command fought with distinction at the battles at Sharpsburg (September 17, 1862) and Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862). Longstreet’s opposition to Pickett’s Charge and accusations of foot-dragging on the second and third days of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863) garnered criticism, largely unjustified, from many postwar historians. Detached for service in the west after Gettysburg, he scored an impressive tactical victory at Chickamauga (September 18–20, 1863), but his 1863–1864 siege of Knoxville, Tennessee, was unsuccessful, and he subsequently rejoined the Army of Northern Virginia. He served brilliantly at the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5–6, 1864), where he sustained a serious wound from friendly fire. He rejoined the army later that year and served until Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.
After the war Longstreet settled in New Orleans and alienated many postwar southerners by joining the Republican Party. After Lee’s death in 1870, some of his former subordinates launched a concerted effort to deify their former commander, blaming Longstreet in speeches and writings for the Confederate failure at Gettysburg. He defended his actions in his memoirs, From Manassas to Appomattox (1896), which criticized the actions at Gettysburg of Lee and the flamboyant cavalry leader J. E. B. Stuart. Longstreet’s political decisions, coupled with his criticism of Lee, effectively eclipsed his standing among surviving Civil War icons. However, this social ostracism did not preclude a life of public service for Longstreet, and he obtained a series of federal posts in the United States and abroad. In 1886 he arrived, uninvited, on horseback and in his Confederate uniform at a meeting of Civil War veterans in Atlanta, where he was embraced by former Confederate president Jefferson Davis. But the gesture did little to rescue his reputation among his fellow southerners. He died on January 2, 1904, in Gainesville, Georgia, where he was buried.
Piston, William Garrett. Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.
Tucker, Glenn. Lee and Longstreet at Gettysburg. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.
Wert, Jeffrey D. General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.