“Old Pete” – A Confederate Apostle or Apostate?

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Evan Portman…

General James Longstreet (LC)

In one of the final chapters of Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, a dispirited General Robert E. Lee and a brooding General James Longstreet share a poignant moment after the bloody repulse of Pickett’s Charge. In a rare moment of vulnerability, Lee remarks to Longstreet, “Peter, I’m going to need your help.” In Shaara’s depiction, Longstreet is startled by Lee’s use of his childhood nickname.[1] But was this really Longstreet’s nickname?

In short, the answer is yes—Longstreet’s close friends and relatives often referred to him as “Peter” or “Old Pete.” But how did he receive that nickname? That’s where the answer becomes more complicated. Family tradition holds that Longstreet earned the nickname in his boyhood by working on his parents’ plantation in Gainesville, Georgia. His father, allegedly struck by young James’s stoic, rocklike personality, began calling the boy “Peter” in reference to the apostle Simon Peter.[2] In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus proclaims to Simon, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,” referring to Peter’s rocklike dependability.[3] (Peter is traditionally derived from the Greek word Petros or petra meaning “rock”.) However, no primary record indicates that Longstreet received his nickname in this manner.

Helen Dortch Longstreet

Helen Dortch Longstreet, the general’s widow, recalled a different story regarding the origin of her husband’s nickname. She wrote that he received the name “Old Pete” during his time at West Point, but “no one ever knew why.”[4] The general’s trusted chief of staff Moxley Sorrel concurred that the nickname somehow originated at the academy. “This was his West Point sobriquet,” Sorrel wrote, “much used for him by his army friends and to this day not forgotten.”[5] Though both Helen Longstreet and Sorrel attribute the “Old Pete” nickname to the general’s days at West Point, neither elaborate on its symbolic meaning. Regardless, the name stuck. By the time of the Civil War, almost all of Longstreet’s Confederate friends and comrades referred to him as Peter.[6]

Longstreet’s identity as Old Pete only grew in prominence as the war persisted due to his steadfastness and persistence in battle.[7] Eventually his own troops of the First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia adopted the appellation as an expression of their affection for him. They embodied their commander’s staunch reputation, for Longstreet wrote that “the First Corps was as solid as a rock—a great rock.”[8] But the troops under his command simply followed their general’s example.

In fact, Longstreet’s stubbornness and desire to lead from the front gave way to several more nicknames. Of course, the most famous is “Lee’s Old War Horse,” which General Lee coined himself. As the sun set on the battlefield of Antietam, Lee allegedly greeted Longstreet by exclaiming, “Here comes my old war horse just from the field he has done so much to save!”[9] The Austrian Captain Fitzgerald Ross, a foreign observer attached to the Army of Northern Virginia, wrote that Longstreet was “generally called ‘Old Peter,’ sometimes the ‘Old War-Horse.’ Since the battle of Chicamauga [sic], which was fought in a dense forest, the men out here have christened him ‘Bull of the Woods’.”[10] However, the rocklike persona of Old Pete endured—particularly among the general’s close friends.

Was Longstreet’s sobriquet actually a religious allusion to Peter the Apostle? This is generally where the paper trail ends cold. None of Longstreet’s contemporaries elaborated on the meaning of his nickname. They only maintained that it probably originated from his West Point classmates.[11] Old Pete himself remained quiet on the subject too. The general spent little time chronicling his childhood in his memoir, which he primarily devoted to redeeming his wounded military and political reputation. But the traditional story attributing the Peter nickname to his father is plausible, even if no documentation confirms its veracity. Young James Longstreet bore the exact same name as his father. With the absence of a middle name, the elder James might have resorted to calling his son “Peter” to differentiate between them.

Arthur Fremantle in the 1890s.

Longstreet’s character as a resolute commander and reliable subordinate officer during the Civil War also supports the biblical origins of his nickname. Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Fremantle, a British observer during the Gettysburg Campaign, noted the “iron endurance of General Longstreet,” which afforded the general the peculiar ability to “require neither food nor sleep.”[12] In 1861, soon after his assignment to Longstreet’s staff, Lieutenant Thomas Goree wrote that the general’s “forte as an officer consists […] in the seeming ease with which he can handle and arrange large numbers of troops, as also with the confidence and enthusiasm with which he seems to inspire them.” The Texan added that Longstreet displayed a “coolness and daring” in battle despite commanding from “more exposed and dangerous positions then any of his troops.”[13] General Ulysses S. Grant, who developed a close friendship with his future foe during their days at West Point, lauded Longstreet as a dependable officer. “He was brave, honest, intelligent, a very capable soldier, subordinate to his superiors, just and kind to his subordinates,” Grant wrote in his memoirs. “He was never on the lookout to detect a slight, but saw one as soon as anybody when intentionally given.”[14] Fremantle, Goree, and Grant’s observations align with the “rocklike” character that young Longstreet allegedly exhibited as a boy on his family’s plantation.

Lee doubtless recognized such qualities when he appointed Longstreet his second-in-command on October 9, 1862.[15] While other subordinate officers, even Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, produced mixed results in the early months of Lee’s command, James Longstreet proved the most dependable. Lee valued Longstreet’s advice and often traveled with him and his staff. “The relations between him and Longstreet are quite touching—they are almost always together,” wrote Fremantle.[16] If Lee was the Christ figure of the Army of Northern Virginia, then Longstreet was indeed his loyal and dependable apostle, Peter. Regardless of the nickname’s origins, Old Pete certainly lived up to his nickname in Lee’s eyes.

The biblical relevance of the nickname Peter could also have grown from post-war recollections and religious allusions of the Lost Cause. The emergent god-like stature of Robert E. Lee relegated the status of his second-in-command to that of an apostle, at best. In his book Death of a Nation: The Story of Lee and His Men at Gettysburg, historian Clifford Dowdey compared Longstreet’s rejection of Major General John Bell Hood’s request to flank the Union army at Gettysburg on July 2 with Peter’s denial of Christ. “As with Peter’s ‘I know not the man’,” Dowdey argued, Longstreet betrayed Lee’s discretionary command by failing to adapt his orders to the enemy’s changing front and unforgiving terrain.[17]

However, if Dowdey saw Longstreet as the faithful but fallible apostle Peter, men like Jubal Early viewed him as a full-fledged Judas Iscariot. Early’s postwar writings and speeches championed Lee as an American hero, but denigrated Longstreet as the betrayer of the South and one of the primary reasons the Confederate army lost at Gettysburg.[18]

Of course, such accusations followed Longstreet’s alliance with his friend and president, Ulysses S. Grant, during a tenuous time between the Southern states and Northern Republicans. In the spring of 1867, Old Pete wrote a series of letters to a New Orleans newspaper in support of the Reconstruction Acts and the Republican Party. The letters marked a turning point after which Longstreet’s fellow Southerners forsook him as Lee’s loyal lieutenant and viewed him as an apostate to the Lost Cause.[19] “Religion served as the cornerstone of the myth as the cause became righteous, the living became heroes, and the fallen, martyrs,” wrote Longstreet biographer Jeffry D. Wert.[20] Former Confederates regarded Longstreet as a Southern Judas for having denied that religion.[21]

Lee and Longstreet portrayed in Gettysburg (IMDB)

While Longstreet’s wartime character and Lost Cause biblical allusions provide insight into his nickname, the true origin of Old Pete is likely lost to time. Whether he garnered the name at West Point or in the farm fields of his family’s plantation, James Longstreet displayed a noteworthy dependability that probably inspired his lifelong sobriquet. Even during Reconstruction, Old Pete remained loyal to his friend Grant amidst the censure of his former Confederate comrades. Such character is doubtless the true origin of the moniker “Old Pete”.


Evan Portman is a fledgling historian from Export, Pennsylvania. He is currently an intern with the American Battlefield Trust as well as a continuing education instructor with the Penn-Trafford Area Recreation Commission. Evan is also a guest contributor of Emerging Civil War and has his own channel on Youtube dedicated to exploring lesser known sites and of the Battle of Gettysburg. A recent graduate of Saint Vincent College, he is currently pursuing a master’s degree in history at Duquesne University.


[1] Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels (Toronto: Ballantine Books, 1974), 338.
[2] Jeffry D. Wert, General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 22; Alexander Mendoza, Confederate Struggle for Command: General James Longstreet and the First Corps in the West (United States: Texas A&M University Press, 2008), 2.
[3] Matthew 16:18.
[4] Helen D. Longstreet, Lee and Longstreet at High Tide (Gainesville, GA: Helen D. Longstreet, 1904), 285.
[5] G. Moxley Sorrel, Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1905), 103.
[6] Lieutenant Thomas Jewett Goree, an aide-de-camp on the general’s staff, observed that “nearly one half of the old officers have nicknames.” See Thomas J. Goree to Sarah Williams Kittrell Goree, December 14, 1861, in Longstreet’s Aide: The Civil War Letters of Major Thomas J. Goree, ed. Thomas W. Cutrer (United States: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 60.
[7] Thomas J. Goree, Longstreet’s Aide: The Civil War Letters of Major Thomas Goree, ed. Thomas W. Cutrer (United States: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 8.
[8] James Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1896), 334.
[9] Sorrel, 116.
[10] Fitzgerald Ross, A Visit to the Cities and Camps of the Confederate States (United Kingdom: W. Blackwood, 1865), 146.
[11] Helen D. Longstreet, Lee and Longstreet at High Tide, 285; Sorrel, 103.
[12] Fremantle, 273-287.
[13] Goree to Sarah Williams Kittrell Goree, December 14, 1861, in Longstreet’s Aide: The Civil War Letters of Major Thomas J. Goree, ed. Thomas W. Cutrer (United States: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 60.
[14] Ulysses S. Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, ed. John F. Marszalek, (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017), 451.
[15] Wert, 204-205,
[16] Arthur Fremantle, Three Months in the Southern States, (1864. Reprint: Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1991), 254.
[17] Clifford Dowdey, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation (New York: Knopf, 1958), 207.
[18] Jubal A. Early, “The Campaigns of Gen. Robert E. Lee” (speech, Washington and Lee University, January 19, 1872), Lee Family Digital Archive, https://leefamilyarchive.org/reference/addresses/early/index.html.
[19] Wert, 412-413.
[20] Wert, 414.
[21] Wert, 414.

11 Responses to “Old Pete” – A Confederate Apostle or Apostate?

  1. Nice article. It’s a shame that neither Longstreet nor anyone else ever explained the origin of the nickname.

  2. Lee had the utmost respect for Longstreet’s view on how to conduct operations during the heat of battle. With one of the few exceptions being how the Battle of Gettysburg was to be fought. But the relationship endured to the very end of the conflict when in April of 1865 Grant offered a note of surrender to Lee and he showed the document to Old Pete, and he famously said “not yet.” Lee accepted Longstreet’s opinion.

    1. And you could make a strong case that had Lee lived he would NOT have stood by silently as former Confederate officers (Early and Pendleton to name two) struck out on a campaign against Longstreet. Most likely, those attacks would never have surfaced as Lee would have quickly and strongly refuted them.

  3. Well done Evan! Very detailed and documented. For a different take on Old Pete, check on Harold Knudsen’s James Longstreet and the American Civil War, published by Ted Savas.

  4. Well, his wife and his Chief of Staff both say it all oriented at West Point. So much for any religious connections. I was recently reading an account of the life of the great baseball pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. Interestingly, he had the nickname “Old Pete” as well. In his case, he had gone on a hunting trip with his team’s catcher, and ended up absolutely filthy. He was thus named by that catcher (Bill Killefer) “Alkali Pete”, and that in turn morphed into “Old Pete” in a rather short time. When it’s all said and done, Longstreet seemed to like the name.

    Hey, maybe it was like the scene in the movie “Animal House” where the frat pledges were accepted into the fraternities they has pledged. “Your name is now….Pinto”. “You’re gonna be called….Flounder!”. “From now on, you will be called Old Pete!”. Who knows?

  5. I enjoyed the post, though with some caveats.

    Longstreet being continually described as stoic, steadfast and rock like make him seem the Confederate equivalent of The Fantastic Four’s Ben Grimm. In fact, his offensive strokes- at Second Manassas, Gettysburg’s Second Day, Chickamauga, and the Second Day of the Wilderness were among the best delivered of the war.

    And his personality was equally prickly – look at all of the disputes he actually had with subordinates, from A P. Hill to Evander Law. I like the selective memory that Grant displayed in his Memoirs on this matter, one of many. I tend to think that Longstreet’s wartimes actions were actually greater than the man himself. Had he not penned his ill-tempered Memoirs in an effort to refute the choleric Early, the latter’s spleen may not have taken as much purchase.

  6. Really appreciated this article, Evan. Very interesting backstory that hasn’t raised much attention but does make one curious! Thank you. Ed

  7. Thank you for this thoughtful article, Evan. Longstreet’s memoirs were one of the original works that drew me into the Civil War, and 20+ years later, he’s still one of the most interesting characters to me.

  8. Thank you for this interesting read. General Longstreet has been a favorite figure from the beginning of my interest in the Civil War.

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