Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

JAMES LONGSTREET
(January 8, 1821–January 2, 1904)

Jon L. Wakelyn

“He served the rebel cause from Bull Run to the last day of Appomattox and ended his career as the respected senior corps leader of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia,” stated Thomas L. Connelly and Barbara L. Bellows in 1982 in their reappraisal of famous general James Longstreet. But those authors’ support for Longstreet’s role in the war flies in the face of the near universal negative evaluations of his performance. Few Civil War military leaders who had served so well and so long have received the criticism from military historians that Longstreet has. Even despite the recent Longstreet revival, many scholars continue to insist that he failed the Southern cause when it counted. Some have attributed his shortcomings to an excessively defensive posture in a world of romantic and audacious Cavaliers. Others have claimed that Longstreet’s postwar thoughtless attacks on General Robert E. Lee (q.v.) revealed his wartime insubordination. Still others have mingled what they believed was a lack of enthusiasm for the Confederate cause with his realistic yet naive acquiescence to the plans for Reconstruction of the Northern conquerors. In short, those who have analyzed his career have done so by judging Longstreet’s flawed personal character and his loyalties and generally have dodged an assessment of his accomplishments. In order to give Longstreet’s activities just reconsideration, the life of that great leader requires exploration.

In some ways the story begins before Longstreet was born, during the Revolutionary War era, when William Longstreet, the headstrong Dutchman and failed inventor, stubbornly took his family from New Jersey to unfamiliar South Carolina. William’s son James, the father of the future Confederate general, was born in New Jersey. Young James, born in South Carolina’s Edgefield district on January 8, 1821, was quite obviously destined to come under the influence of those stern Dutchmen. But his father died when he was young, and James’s mother and his father’s cotton-planter brother, the famous humorist and college president Judge Augustus B. Longstreet, together raised him. (Curiously, in his

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