Gainesville, Georgia, a town of 36,306 people at the last census, sits in North Georgia perched on the banks of Lake Lanier and straddling Interstate-985. Yet, in this Georgia town, lie the remains of James Longstreet, affectionately known during his life-time as “Pete” or during the American Civil War as Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s “Old Warhorse.”
As the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg unfolded over the last few days, Longstreet’s name certainly came up in discussion around the informational signs on the battlefield, in lectures, tours, and dinner conversations among military history enthusiasts.
Longstreet’s role in the Battle of Gettysburg left much to question as the years passed by and is outside the scope of this post. Yet, the reason those interested in the American Civil War can debate the merits or shortcomings of this native South Carolinian at Gettysburg is due to the fact that he was a stalwart and dependable officer that Lee had counted on numerous times during the prior year since he took command of the army in June of 1862.
Born on January 8, 1821, while his mother was visiting the in-laws, he grew up in Northern Georgia and graduated from West Point in 1842. During the Mexican-American War he was wounded at Chapultepec in 1847. After the war he married the daughter of General John Garland; Maria Louisa Garland in Lynchburg, Virginia on March 8, 1848. The marriage would produce ten children. He had risen to the rank of major when he submitted his resignation on June 1, 1861 to cast his lot with the Southern Confederacy.
His service in the Confederacy saw him rise to the rank of lieutenant general and he was present for many of the major campaigns both in the east and also during the Chickamauga-Chattanooga Campaign of late 1863. He also had a crack at independent command in two separate occasions during the war; in Suffolk, Virginia in the spring of 1863 and later that year at Knoxville, Tennessee.
Some argue that his wound on the first day of the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5, 1864 was more detrimental to the Confederate cause than Jackson’s accidental mortal wounding by Confederate fire the previous year. One of the reasons was the nature of the unfolding campaign. The Overland Campaign became more of a defensive and blocking strategy for Lee’s army. Secondly, because of his pre-war close relationship with the Union general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant. Longstreet had even served in the wedding party for the Grants.
After the war Longstreet advocated reconciliation for Southerners and joined the much reviled Republican Party. He quickly drew the ire and indignation of former Confederates. When he led African-American militia against anti-Reconstruction White League members in New Orleans at what became known as the Battle of Liberty Place, he further alienated himself. The scrutiny continued when he accepted an appointment to become Minister of Turkey during the Republican administration of James Garfield. The following year, 1881, he was appointed United States Marshall for the state of Georgia a post he held for the next three years.
He also wrote his memoirs, titled From Manassas to Appomattox, which was published in 1896 in an attempt to counter some of the vile that was written about him from the more Lost Cause perspective advocated by former Confederates in the previous decades.
Later in life and after the passing of his first wife, Longstreet remarried in 1897 to Helen Dortch of Atlanta, Georgia. In failing health the last few years, suffering from various ailments such as cancer of the eye and rheumatism, Longstreet died of pneumonia on January 2, 1904 in Gainesville, Georgia. He was still serving as United States Commissioner of Railroads. His remains were interred in Alta Vista Cemetery. One of the only Confederate general officers to live into the 20th century.
However, his role at Gettysburg and his disagreement with Lee have been told and retold numerous times. Thus, as the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg has just been honored again, it gave those interested and or inclined to do so, another opportunity to discuss Longstreet’s role on the fields of that Pennsylvania town and also his legacy in the pantheon of Confederate military leaders.
What’s your view?