Longstreet was born in edgefield district, south carolina. He was the fifth child and third son of james and mary ann dent longstreet, originally from new jersey and maryland respectively, who owned a cotton plantation close to where the village of gainesville would be founded in northeastern georgia. James’s ancestor dirck stoffels langestraet immigrated to the dutch colony of new netherland in 1657, but they became anglicized over the generations. James’s father was impressed by his son’s “rocklike” character on the rural plantation, giving him the nickname peter, and he was known as pete or old pete for the rest of his life.James’s father decided a military career for his son, but felt that the local education available to him would not be adequate preparation. At the age of nine, james was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in augusta, georgia.
His uncle, augustus baldwin longstreet, was a newspaper editor, educator, and a methodist minister. James spent eight years on his uncle’s plantation, westover, just outside the city, while he attended the richmond county academy. His father died from a cholera epidemic while visiting augusta in 1833; although james’s mother and the rest of the family moved to somerville, alabama, following his father’s death james remained with uncle augustus.In 1837 augustus attempted to obtain an appointment for james to the united states military academy, but the vacancy for his congressional district had already been filled so james was appointed in 1838 by a relative, reuben chapman, who represented the first district of alabama (where mary longstreet lived).
James was a poor student academically and a disciplinary problem at west point, ranking 54th out of 56 cadets when he graduated in 1842. He was popular with his classmates, however, and befriended a number of men who would become prominent during the civil war, including george henry thomas, william s. Rosecrans, john pope, d.H. Hill, lafayette mclaws, george pickett, john bell “sam” hood, and his closest friend, ulysses s. Grant of the class of 1843. Longstreet was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 4th u.S. Infantry. Longstreet spent his first two years of service at jefferson barracks, missouri, where he was soon joined by his friend, lieutenant grant.
Longstreet introduced grant to his fourth cousin, julia dent, and the couple eventually married. Longstreet would serve as grant’s “best man” at the wedding. Soon after that introduction longstreet met maria louisa garland, called louise by her family. She was the daughter of longstreet’s regimental commander, lt. Col. John garland. They were married in march 1848, after the mexican-american war. Although their marriage would last for over 40 years and produce 10 children, longstreet never mentioned louise in his memoirs and most anecdotes about their relationship came to historians through the writings of his longstreet served with distinction in the mexican war with the 8th u.S. Infantry. He received brevet promotions to captain for contreras and churubusco and to major for molino del rey.
In the battle of chapultepec on september 12, 1847, he was wounded in the thigh while charging up the hill with his regimental colors; falling, he handed the flag to his friend, lt. George e. Pickett, who was able to reach the summit. After the war and his recovery from the chapultepec wound, longstreet and his new wife served on frontier duty in texas. He performed scouting missions and also served as major and paymaster for the 8th infantry from july 1858. Longstreet was not enthusiastic about secession from the union, but he had learned from his uncle augustus about the doctrine of states’ rights early in his life and had seen his uncle’s passion for it. Although he was born in south carolina and raised in georgia, he offered his services to the state of alabama, which had appointed him to west point and where his mother still lived. Furthermore, he was the senior west point graduate from that state, which implied a commensurate rank in the state’s forces would be available. He resigned from the u.S. Army in june 1861 to cast his lot with the confederacy in the civil war.
Longstreet arrived in richmond, virginia with a commission as a lieutenant colonel in the confederate states army. He met with confederate president jefferson davis at the executive mansion on june 22, 1861, where he was informed that he had been appointed a brigadier general with date of rank on june 17, a commission he accepted on june 25. He was ordered to report to brigadier general p.G.T. Beauregard at manassas,at manassas he was given command of a brigade composed of three virginia regimentsthe 1st, 11th, and 17th virginia. Longstreet assembled his staff and trained his brigade incessantly. They saw their first action at blackburn’s ford on july 18, resisting a union army reconnaissance in force that preceded the first battle of bull run. When the main attack came at the opposite end of the line on july 21, the brigade played a relatively minor role, although it endured artillery fire for nine hours. Longstreet was infuriated that his commanders would not allow a vigorous pursuit of the defeated union army. On october 7, longstreet was promoted to major general and assumed command of a division in the confederate army of the potomac.
Tragedy would befall the longstreet family in january 1862. A scarlet fever epidemic in richmond claimed the lives of his one-year-old daughter mary anne, his four-year-old son james, and six-year-old augustus (“gus”), all within a week. His 13-year-old son garland almost succumbed. The losses were devastating for longstreet and he became withdrawn, both personally and socially.
In 1861 his headquarters were noted for parties, drinking, and poker games. After he returned from the funeral the headquarters social life became more somber, he rarely drank, and he became a devout episcopalian. Longstreet turned in a mixed performance in the peninsula campaign that spring. He executed well as a rear guard commander at yorktown and williamsburg, delaying the advance of union major general george b. Mcclellan’s army toward richmond. At the battle of seven pines he marched his men in the wrong direction down the wrong road, causing congestion and confusion with other confederate units, diluting the effect of the massive confederate counterattack against mcclellan. His report unfairly blamed fellow general benjamin huger for the mishaps. General joseph e. Johnston was wounded during the battle and he was replaced in command of the army of northern virginia by general robert e. Lee.
During the seven days battles that followed in late june, longstreet had operational command of nearly half of lee’s army15 brigadesas it drove mcclellan back down the peninsula. Longstreet performed aggressively and well in his new, larger command, particularly at gaines’ mill and glendale. Despite this criticism, the following day, august 30, was one of longstreet’s finest performances of the war. Pope came to believe that jackson was starting to retreat and longstreet took advantage of this by launching a massive assault on the union army’s left flank with over 25,000 men. For over four hours they “pounded like a giant hammer”[ with longstreet actively directing artillery fire and sending brigades into the fray. Longstreet and lee were together during the assault and both of them came under union artillery fire. Although the union troops put up a furious defense, pope’s army was forced to retreat in a manner similar to the embarrassing union defeat at first bull run, fought on roughly the same battleground.
Longstreet gave all of the credit for the victory to lee, describing the campaign as “clever and brilliant.” it established a strategic model he believed to be idealthe use of defensive tactics within a strategic offensive. Longstreet’s actions in the final two major confederate defensive battles of 1862 would be the proving grounds for his development of dominant defensive tactics. In the maryland campaign of september, at the battle of antietam, longstreet held his part of the confederate defensive line against union forces twice as numerous. After the delaying action longstreet’s corps fought at south mountain, he retired to sharpsburg to join stonewall jackson, and prepared to fight a defensive battle. In december, longstreet’s first corps played the decisive role in the battle of fredericksburg. Since lee moved longstreet to fredericksburg early, it allowed longstreet to take the time to dig in portions of his line, methodically site artillery, and set up a kill zone over the axis of advance he thought the union attack would come.
Remembering the slaughter at antietam, in which the confederates did not construct defensive works, longstreet ordered trenches, abatis, and fieldworks to be constructed, which would set a precedent for future defensive battles of the army of northern virginia. Additionally, longstreet positioned his men behind a stone wall at the foot of marye’s heights and held off fourteen assaults by union forces. About 10,000 union soldiers fell; longstreet lost only 500. His great defensive success was not based entirely on the advantage of terrain; this time it was the combination of terrain, defensive works, and a centralized coordination of artillery.
In the early spring of 1863, longstreet suggested to lee that his corps be detached from the army of northern virginia and sent to reinforce the army of tennessee, where gen. Braxton bragg was being challenged in middle tennessee by union maj. Gen. William s. Rosecrans, longstreet’s roommate at west point. It is possible that longstreet believed that an independent command in the west offered better opportunities for advancement than a corps under lee’s shadow. Lee did detach two divisions from the first corps, but ordered them to richmond, not tennessee.
Seaborne movements of the union ix corps potentially threatened vital ports on the mid-atlantic coast. The division of george pickett started for the capital in mid-february, was followed by john hood’s, and then longstreet himself was ordered to take command of the detached divisions and the departments of north carolina and southern virginia. In april, longstreet besieged union forces in the city of suffolk, virginia, a minor operation, but one that was very important to lee’s army, still stationed in war-devastated central virginia. It enabled confederate authorities to collect huge amounts of provisions that had been under union control. These events proved that the army of northern virginia could manage with fewer troops for periods of time, and units could be shifted to create windows of opportunity in other theaters.
Longstreet advocated the first strategic movements to utilize rail, interior lines, and create temporary numerical advantages in mississippi or tennessee prior to gettysburg. Following chancellorsville and the death of stonewall jackson, longstreet and lee met in mid-may to discuss options for the army’s summer campaign. Longstreet advocated, once again, detachment of all or part of his corps to be sent to tennessee. The justification for this course of action was becoming more urgent as union maj. Gen. Ulysses s. Grant was advancing on the critical confederate stronghold on the mississippi river, vicksburg.
Longstreet argued that a reinforced army under bragg could defeat rosecrans and drive toward the ohio river, which would compel grant to break his hold on vicksburg. Lee was opposed to a division of his army and instead advocated a large-scale offensive or raid into pennsylvania. Longstreet’s actions at the battle of gettysburg would be the centerpiece of the controversy that surrounded him for over a century.
Ahead of his troops he arrived on the battlefield late in the afternoon of the first day, july 1, 1863. By then, two union corps had been driven by ewell and hill back through the town into defensive positions on cemetery hill. Lee had not intended to fight before his army was fully concentrated, but chance and questionable decisions by a.P. Hill brought on the battle, which was an impressive confederate victory on the first day.
Meeting with lee, longstreet was concerned about the strength of the union defensive position and advocated a strategic movement around the left flank of the enemy, to “secure good ground between him and his capital,” which would presumably compel the union commander, major general george g. Meade, to attack defensive positions erected by the confederates. Instead, lee exclaimed, “if the enemy is there tomorrow, we must attack him.” lee’s plan for july 2 called for longstreet to attack the union’s left flank, which would be followed up by hill’s attack on cemetery ridge near the center, while ewell demonstrated on the union right.
Longstreet was not ready to attack as early as lee envisioned. He received permission from lee to wait for brigadier general evander m. Law’s brigade, hood’s division to reach the field before he advanced any of his other brigades; law marched his men quickly, but did not arrive until noon. Three of longstreet’s brigades were still in march column, and some distance from the attack positions they would need to reach. All of longstreet’s divisions were forced to take a long detour while approaching the enemy position, mislead by inadequate reconnaissance that failed to identify a completely concealed route.
Postbellum criticism of longstreet claims that he was ordered by lee to attack in the early morning and that his delays were a significant contributor to the loss of the battle. However, lee agreed to the delays for arriving troops and did not issue his formal order for the attack until 11 a.M. Although longstreet’s motivations have long been clouded by the vitriol of the lost cause partisans (see legacy), many historians agree that longstreet did not aggressively pursue lee’s orders to launch an attack as early as possible. Biographer jeffry d. Wert wrote, “longstreet deserves censure for his performance on the morning of july 2. He allowed his disagreement with lee’s decision to affect his conduct.
Once the commanding general determined to assail the enemy, duty required longstreet to comply with the vigor and thoroughness that had previously characterized his generalship. The concern for detail, the regard for timely information, and the need for preparation were absent.” on july 3, lee ordered longstreet to coordinate a massive assault on the center of the union line, employing the division of george pickett and brigades from a.P. Hill’s corps. Longstreet knew this assault had little chance of success.
The union army was in a position reminiscent of the one longstreet had harnessed at fredericksburg to defeat burnside’s assault. The confederates would have to cover almost a mile of open ground and spend time negotiating sturdy fences under fire. The lessons of fredericksburg and malvern hill were lost to lee on this day. In his book, longstreet claims to have told lee:general, i have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.
During the artillery barrage that preceded the infantry assault, longstreet began to agonize over an assault that was going to cost dearly. He attempted to pass the responsibility for launching pickett’s division to his artillery chief, col. Edward porter alexander. When the time came to actually order pickett forward, longstreet could only nod in assent, unable to verbalize the order. The assault, known as pickett’s charge, suffered the heavy casualties that longstreet anticipated. It was the decisive point in the confederate loss at gettysburg and lee ordered a retreat back to virginia the following day. In mid-august 1863, longstreet resumed his attempts to be transferred to the western theater.
He wrote a private letter to secretary of war james seddon, requesting that he be transferred to serve under his old friend general joseph e. Johnston. He followed this up in conversations with his congressional ally, senator louis wigfall, who had long considered longstreet a suitable replacement for braxton bragg. Since bragg’s army was under increasing pressure from rosecrans outside of chattanooga, lee and president davis agreed to the request on september 5. In one of the most daunting logistical efforts of the confederacy, longstreet, with the divisions of lafayette mclaws and john hood, a brigade from george pickett’s division, and porter alexander’s 26-gun artillery battalion, traveled over 16 railroads on a 775-mile (1,247 km) route through the carolinas to reach bragg in northern georgia. Although the entire operation would take over three weeks, longstreet and lead elements of his corps arrived on september 17. The first corps veterans arrived in the early stages of the battle of chickamauga.
Bragg had already begun an unsuccessful attempt to interpose his army between rosecrans and chattanooga before the arrival of longstreet’s corps. When the two met at bragg’s headquarters in the evening, bragg placed longstreet in command of the left wing of his army; lt. Gen. Leonidas polk commanded the right. On september 20, 1863, longstreet lined up eight brigades in a deep column against a narrow front. By chance, a mistaken order from general rosecrans caused a gap to appear in the union line and longstreet took additional advantage of it to increase his chances of success. The organization of the attack was well suited to the terrain and would have penetrated the union line regardless.
The union right collapsed and rosecrans fled the field, as units began to retreat in panic. Major general george h. Thomas managed to rally the retreating units and solidify a defensive position on snodgrass hill. He held that position against repeated afternoon attacks by longstreet, who was not adequately supported by the confederate right wing. Once night fell, the battle was over, and thomas was able to extricate the units under his control to chattanooga. Bragg’s failure to coordinate the right wing and cavalry to further envelope thomas prevented a total rout of the union army. Bragg also neglected to pursue the retreating federals aggressively, resulting in the futile siege of chattanooga. Nevertheless, chickamauga was the greatest confederate victory in the western theater and longstreet deserved a good portion of the credit. Longstreet soon clashed with the much maligned bragg and became leader of the group of senior commanders of the army who conspired to have him removed. Bragg retained his position, relieving or reassigning the generals who had testified against him, and retaliated against longstreet by reducing his command to only those units that he brought with him from virginia.
Despite the dysfunctional command climate under bragg, and the lack of support from the war department and president davis concerning bragg’s removal, longstreet did the best he could to continue to seek options in the chattanooga campaign. While bragg resigned himself and his army to the siege of the union army of the cumberland in chattanooga, longstreet devised a strategy to prevent reinforcement and a lifting of the siege by grant. He knew this union reaction was underway, and that the nearest railhead was bridgeport, alabama, where portions of two union corps would soon arrive. After sending his artillery commander, porter alexander, to reconnoiter the union-occupied town, he devised a plan to shift most of the army of tennessee away from the siege, setting up logistical support in rome, georgia, go after bridgeport to take the railhead, possibly catching major general joseph hooker and arriving union troops from the eastern theater in a disadvantageous position.
The plan was well-received and approved by president davis, but it was disapproved by bragg, who objected to the significant logistical challenges it posed. Longstreet accepted bragg’s arguments and agreed to a plan in which he and his men were dispatched to east tennessee to deal with an advance by union maj. Gen. Ambrose burnside. Longstreet was selected for this assignment partially due to enmity on bragg’s part, but also because the war department intended for longstreet’s men to return to lee’s army and this movement was in the correct direction. Longstreet was criticized for the slow pace of his advance toward knoxville in november and some of his troops began using the nickname peter the slow. Burnside evaded him at the battle of campbell’s station and settled into entrenchments around the city, which longstreet besieged unsuccessfully.
The battle of fort sanders failed to bring a confederate breakthrough. When bragg was defeated by grant at chattanooga on november 25, longstreet was ordered to join forces with the army of tennessee in northern georgia. He demurred and began to move back to virginia, soon pursued by major general william t. Sherman in early december. Finding out that his old friend ulysses grant was in command of the union army, he told his fellow officers that “he will fight us every day and every hour until the end of the war. Longstreet helped save the confederate army from defeat in his first battle back with lee’s army, the battle of the wilderness in may 1864, where he launched a powerful flanking attack along the orange plank road against the union ii corps and nearly drove it from the field.
Once again he developed innovative tactics to deal with difficult terrain, ordering the advance of six brigades by heavy skirmish lines, which allowed his men to deliver a continuous fire into the enemy, while proving to be elusive targets themselves. Longstreet was wounded during the assaultaccidentally shot by his own men only about 4 miles (6.4 km) away from the place where jackson suffered the same fate a year earlier. A bullet passed through his shoulder, severing nerves, and tearing a gash in his throat. The momentum of the attack subsided without longstreet’s active leadership and gen. Lee delayed further movement until units could be realigned. This gave the union defenders adequate time to reorganize and the subsequent attack was a failure. E.P. Alexander called the removal of longstreet the critical juncture of the battle: “i have always believed that, but for longstreet’s fall, the panic which was fairly underway in hancock’s corps would have been extended & have resulted in grant’s being forced to retreat back across the rapidan.” longstreet missed the rest of the 1864 spring and summer campaign, where lee sorely missed his skill in handling the army. He was treated in lynchburg, virginia, and recuperated in augusta, georgia, with his niece, emma eve longstreet sibley, the daughter of his brother gilbert. He rejoined lee in october 1864, with his right arm paralyzed and in a sling, initially unable to ride a horse. He had taught himself to write with his left hand; by periodically pulling on his arm, as advised by doctors, he was able to regain use of his right hand in later years.
For the remainder of the siege of petersburg he commanded the defenses in front of the capital of richmond, including all forces north of the james river and pickett’s division at bermuda hundred. He retreated with lee in the appomattox campaign, commanding both the first and third corps, following the death of a.P. Hill on april 2. As lee considered surrender, longstreet advised him of his belief that grant would treat them fairly, but as lee rode toward appomattox court house on april 9, 1865, longstreet said, “general, if he does not give us good terms, come back and let us fight it out.” after the war, longstreet and his family settled in new orleans, a location popular with a number of former confederate generals. He entered into a cotton brokerage partnership there and also became the president of the newly created great southern and western fire, marine and accident insurance company.
He actively sought the presidency of the mobile and ohio railroad but was unsuccessful, and also failed in an attempt to get investors for a proposed railroad from new orleans to monterrey, mexico. He applied for a pardon from president andrew johnson, endorsed by his old friend ulysses s. Grant. Johnson refused, however, telling longstreet in a meeting: “there are three persons of the south who can never receive amnesty: mr. Davis, general lee, and yourself. You have given the union cause too much trouble.” the united states congress restored his rights of citizenship in june 1868. Longstreet was the only senior confederate officer to become a scalawag and join the republican party during reconstruction. He endorsed grant for president in 1868, attended his inauguration ceremonies, and six days later received an appointment as surveyor of customs in new orleans. For these acts he lost favor with many southerners. His old friend harvey hill wrote to a newspaper: “our scalawag is the local leper of the community.” unlike a northern carpetbagger, hill wrote, longstreet “is a native, which is so much the worse.” the republican governor of louisiana appointed longstreet the adjutant general of the state militia and by 1872 he became a major general in command of all militia and state police forces within new orleans.
During riots in 1874 protesting election irregularities, longstreet rode to meet protesters but was pulled from his horse, shot by a spent bullet, and taken prisoner. Federal troops were required to restore order. Longstreet’s use of african-american troops during the disturbances increased the denunciations by fellow southerners. In 1875 the longstreet family left new orleans with concerns over health and safety, returning to gainesville, georgia. By this time louise had given birth to ten children, five of whom lived to adulthood. He applied for various jobs through the rutherford b. Hayes administration and was briefly considered for secretary of the navy. He served briefly as deputy collector of internal revenue and as postmaster of gainesville. In 1880 hayes appointed longstreet as his ambassador to the ottoman empire, and later he served from 1897 to 1904, under presidents william mckinley and theodore roosevelt, as u.S. Commissioner of railroads.
On one of his frequent return trips to new orleans on business, longstreet converted to catholicism in 1877 and was a devout believer until his death. He served as a u.S. Marshal from 1881 to 1884, but the return of a democratic administration ended his political careers and he went into semiretirement on a 65-acre (260,000 m2) farm near gainesville, where he raised turkeys and planted orchards and vineyards on terraced ground that his neighbors referred to jokingly as “gettysburg.” a devastating fire on april 9, 1889 (the 24th anniversary of lee’s surrender at appomattox) destroyed his house and many of his personal possessions, including his personal civil war documents and memorabilia.
That december louise longstreet died. He remarried in 1897, in a ceremony at the governor’s mansion in atlanta, to helen dortch, age 34. Although longstreet’s children reacted poorly to the marriage, helen became a devoted wife and avid supporter of his legacy after his passing. She outlived him by 58 years, dying in 1962. After louise’s death, and after bearing criticism of his war record from other confederates for decades, longstreet refuted most of their arguments in his memoirs entitled from manassas to appomattox, a labor of five years that was published in 1896. His final years were marked by poor health and partial deafness. In 1902 he suffered from severe rheumatism and was unable to stand for more than a few minutes at a time. His weight diminished from 200 to 135 pounds by january 1903. Cancer developed in his right eye, and in december he had x-ray therapy in chicago to treat it. He contracted pneumonia and died in gainesville, where he is buried in alta vista cemetery. He outlived most of his detractors, and was one of only a few general officers from the civil war to live into the 20th century