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James Longstreet: Hero, Scapegoat or Traitor?

Speaker: Basil Larkin

 

James Longstreet grew up on a family farm. Little educated and not expecting to inherit the farm, James - known as Peter - decided to follow a military career. Following the death of his father and having lost touch with his mother, Longstreet was adopted by an uncle. Longstreet failed to get into West Point in 1836 but did do so in 1837. He was good at sports. He excelled at pranks and was 'anti-establishment'. He got 324 demerits in 4 years in contrast to RE Lee, who had none. However, he struggled academically and graduated 54th out of his class of 56.

 

 


After service in the Mexican war where he was wounded, Longstreet was married in Lynchburg, Virginia. Although not in favour of secession, he threw in his lot with the South. He resigned from the US army and went to Richmond.

 

Having been dispatched to join Beauregard, Longstreet drilled his men well. At Bull Run (First Manassas) his men repelled early Union advances as a result of which McDowell delayed his main attack, allowing crucial reinforcements to arrive in time.

 

Longstreet was promoted to Major General. Full of self-importance, he had threatened to resign because others had been promoted above him. During Johnston's retreat up the Peninsula, Longstreet was in charge of the rearguard at Williamsburg and de facto second in Command.

After losing several of his children from scarlet fever in Richmond - George Pickett organised the funerals - Longstreet's character changed. The one-time foul-mouthed drinker and card-player turned to God. And then returned to the army.

 

Having been wounded at Seven Pines, Johnston suggested that Longstreet take his place. However, Robert E Lee was appointed commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. The relationship between Lee and Longstreet would last from 1862 to 1870. Lee would describe Longstreet, his "old war horse", as a "capital soldier".

 

Although the Army of Northern Virginia fought well at Second Manassas, a key battle, the success was not followed up. Longstreet let the Federals exhaust themselves against Jackson's troops before launching his attack. Jackson then did nothing for 2 hours enabling the Federals to reform and avoid a rout and so a great opportunity was lost.

 

Basil described the campaign that resulted in the battle of Antietam, a battle that in his view should never have been fought. Lee and Longstreet disagreed about whether to adopt the tactical offensive or tactical defensive. Longstreet thought that the primary object was to influence northern opinion, not destroy the enemy on the battlefield. At one point in the battle, Longstreet who would often be close to the front line, held the reins of the horses of his staff as they took over and fired a cannon.

 

After the battle at Fredericksburg, Lee sent Longstreet to the Virginia/North Carolina border to get supplies. Longstreet missed the battle at Chancellorsville. He rejoined Lee who once again planned to fight in the North. Longstreet, although concerned about what was happening in the west, supported Lee and wrote to Richmond to say so.

 

Basil described the battle of Gettysburg where the Army of Northern Virginia had stumbled into battle. On the second day, as Longstreet (4 brigades down on the 12 he should have had) moved forward, Lee intervened to change the positioning of McLaws. Why did Lee do this? First, Lee was ill. Secondly, McLaws had for 2 months reported directly to Lee. Lee forgot the line of command. As a result there was a further 2 hours' delay in Longstreet's assault. According to Basil, the intention had been to repeat Second Manassas. Myth regarding Hood has him suggesting the same approach (a movement to the right of and behind the Federal positions) on day 2 as Longstreet had done on day 1 of the earlier battle. Whereas Longstreet's suggestion was strategic, in Basil's view, Hood's was tactical.

 

Following the disappointment of Gettysburg, Longstreet went west and Basil described his efforts at Chickamauga and later at Knoxville. Back east, Longstreet fought at the Wilderness where he was wounded and he was present at the surrender at Appomattox.

 

After the war, Longstreet recognised it was time for reconciliation and he became a Republican. He was branded a traitor, a scallywag. After time in New Orleans and in Georgia, he became Ambassador to Turkey. Longstreet died on 2 January 1904. Although he had become somewhat bitter and twisted and attacked the memory of Lee, he was, in Basil's view, genuinely humane, a genuine American hero, only belatedly so recognised in the US.

 

ACWRT (UK) 2000 & 2001