Neely Young: Lee’s Tarnished General
My friend, Randy Jones of Americus, has often wondered why so little has been written about the Reconstruction period after the War Between the States – as others have. So, as part of the sesquicentennial commemoration of Georgia’s role in the Civil War, we begin here a series of portraits of Georgians who were key figures in that conflict; the portraits will look at what happened to them afterwards. No man’s story is more powerful than that of General James Longstreet and his feud with fellow General Jubal Early after the war.
For the first few years of his life, Longstreet was raised on his father’s farm outside Gainesville, Ga. When he was nine, his family decided a military career was in Longstreet’s future and sent him to live with his uncle in Augusta so he could be better educated at the Richmond County Academy. His uncle, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, was almost as famous as the general. Augustus was a lawyer, judge, Methodist minister, educator, college president, newspaper editor and author. He was Emory University’s (then Emory College) second president and was a nationally known humorist and author of the classic Georgia Scenes.
Through his uncle’s influence, James received an appointment to West Point in 1838. During his college days, his best friends were men who became famous Union generals, including Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, George Pickett and William S. Rosecrans. After West Point he fought alongside Pickett during the Mexican-American War.
Longstreet enlisted in the Confederate Army after Fort Sumter and soon rose through the ranks to become Robert E. Lee’s best general. His battle plan was typically to pick a higher ground position, dig in and let the enemy charge uphill. The Yankees would soon wear themselves out. At that point Longstreet would counterattack with powerfully destructive results. After many victories, including Fredericksburg, James Longstreet was known by his soldiers as “the best fighter in the whole army.” He was never far from General Lee, who called him his “Old War Horse” and relied heavily on his judgment.
After many Union losses, a victory at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 proved to be the turning point in the war for the federal troops and set them on their path to victory. In the South, debate has raged for 150 years over who was responsible for the loss at Gettysburg.
During the second day of battle, General Jubal Early’s troops were at the base of Culp’s Hill next to Cemetery Ridge and should have taken the position. This would have given the Confederates the higher ground for the main battle the next day. But Union troops retained possession of East Cemetery Hill, and Early hesitated and then withdrew – an action that would have devastating results.
Earlier that day, Robert E. Lee ordered one of Longstreet’s divisions, led by General George Pickett, to charge Cemetery Hill. Lee felt that a Confederate victory at this position in enemy territory, near Washington, D.C., could end the war. Longstreet disagreed and wanted to move Con-federate troops into a position that would put Union fighters on the defense. He told Lee that a charge up Cemetery Hill would be disastrous.
On the third day of battle, when Lee ordered Longstreet to have Pickett charge the middle of the Union lines, Longstreet tried to resign. Lee refused his friend’s resignation. Pickett’s Charge failed, resulting in a decisive Union victory that changed the course of the war. Lee retreated back into Virginia, and the Confederacy never recovered, even though the war lasted another two years.
After the war, the South’s devastation was intensified by Northern exploitation during the Reconstruction period. President Abraham Lin-coln had been a member of the liberal Republican Party, which was founded on the principle of freeing the slaves. The South was solidly Democratic, conservative and protective of slavery.
Anyone who was a Republican was considered a traitor or “on the other side” by 98 percent of Southern people. A movement called the Lost Cause was formed, and the people below the Mason-Dixon Line came to believe the South’s defeat was honorable. Those supporting the Yankees were called “Scalawags.”
Longstreet believed that his fellow Southern-ers should put the war behind them and accept African Americans as equals. He did the unthinkable and joined the Republican Party. The Governor of Louisiana appointed him the adjutant general of the state militia. Southerners were shocked when Longstreet used black troops to put down a white rebellion in New Orleans.
Jubal Early was elected the head of the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia, a veterans’ group, in 1870 and wrote a long newspaper column expressing his view that Longstreet was a disgrace to the Lost Cause. As a consequence, Longstreet’s family faced social ostracism.
Then Early pulled out the long knives. In a speech in Vir-ginia, he accused Longstreet of being responsible for the loss at Gettysburg. He said Longstreet delayed the uphill charge, and this delay gave the Union troops time to reinforce the center.
His words were false. If anyone was responsible for the loss, it was Jubal Early and his failure to take Culp’s Hill the first day of the battle.
This is a political trick that is used even today – attack your opponent’s reputation in a manner that defies rebuttal. Robert E. Lee had passed away by the time of Early’s speech, but he must have been turning over in his grave to hear the false claim against his best general.
For the next 40 years, Longstreet was a Judas for many in the South. He and Early battled it out in newspaper columns and books on the subject. Many historians at the time believed Early, and some wrote histories blaming Longstreet for the loss at Gettysburg.
Longstreet retired back to a farm near Gainesville and operated the large Piedmont Hotel until his death in 1904. He outlived all of his fellow generals. Yet it took more than 100 years for the truth to come out and help restore Longstreet’s reputation. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Killer Angels written by Michael Shaara in the 1970s told the real story. Several years later, the movie Gettysburg, produced by another famous Georgian, Ted Turner, helped set the record straight.
Today there is a Longstreet Society, based in Gainesville, that tracks the general’s legacy. In 1998, the group led a successful effort to place a statue of General Longstreet at the Gettysburg National Military Park – one of the last monuments erected in the park. They have also restored the remaining section of the Piedmont Hotel in Gainesville.
In more modern times in the 1960s, another famous Georgian who shares the Longstreet name, the late Charles Longstreet Weltner, then a Georgia congressman and later chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, was an outspoken opponent of segregation. He made a national name for himself when he chose to give up his seat in Congress rather than sign a Democratic Party loyalty oath that required him to support segregationist Lester Maddox for governor.
As an aside, General George Pickett, who led the charge up Cemetery Ridge, never believed Early’s accusation that Longstreet lost the Battle of Gettysburg. Asked why the South lost at Gettysburg, Pickett replied, “I think the Yankees had something to do with it.”