Longstreet Becomes Target of Lee's Admirers; Critics Blame Him for Loss at Gettysburg

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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. …