Reviewed by Andrew F. Lang
James Longstreet’s civil war did not end at Appomattox. For decades thereafter, the Confederacy’s Number Three—behind Jefferson Davis and R. E. Lee—battled the Civil War’s verdicts and its contested narratives of memory, including his own role in the conflict’s storied campaigns. Searching to exonerate their beloved Lee, Lost Cause authors hunted for a scapegoat whom they could blame for Confederate defeat. They found in Longstreet the perfect heel. He was a Georgian, not a Virginian. He defied Lee’s orders at Gettysburg, leading somehow to inevitable Confederate defeat. And most damnable of all, after the war he became a Republican, a vocal supporter of Reconstruction, a defender of Black suffrage, and a fierce critic of white southern intransigence.
Elizabeth R. Varon’s brilliant biography confronts the decades-old conventional wisdom about Longstreet’s legacy. She poses a straightforward yet complex question: “How did Longstreet, a man who had gone to war in 1861 to destroy the Union and perpetuate slavery,” come to renounce all for which the Confederacy stood and champion a new postwar biracial order (xv)? The answer is found in the most striking of places: in the picture of Longstreet gracing the book’s dustjacket. There, we see the former Confederate not donning his general’s uniform, but rather his civilian dress. He gazes not backward to an idyllic past, but forward toward a better future.
Varon’s wonderful analysis reminds us that Longstreet dedicated much of his public life (he lived from 1821 to 1904) not in defending slavery or serving the Confederacy (though he had been a proslavery apologist and staunch Confederate). Varon offers a not-so-subtle cue that one’s life is not the sum-total of four years of war, much less several days spent on a battlefield at Gettysburg. That is why she dedicates two-thirds of her book to the years after 1865. And that is the way Longstreet would want it.
Though he long defended his military record, Longstreet came to repudiate the Confederacy. He insisted that his fellow white southerners abide the terms at Appomattox. Secession was dead, slavery was vanquished, emancipation was a reality. Those were all good things, Longstreet concluded. Confederates lost the war, he believed, not because of the Union’s industrial might or ranks overflowing with mad conscripts. Defeat came from simpler sources: ill-conceived military decisions and, as Varon puts it, Confederate “hubris” (305). Herein lay the wellspring of Lost Cause ire. Longstreet was a dissenting postwar voice in a region bound by rigid conformity. He embraced a new South liberated from the impossible grip of slaveholding genuflection. And he practiced what he preached, as custom surveyor in New Orleans appointed by his dear friend President Ulysses S. Grant; as an officer in the biracial Louisiana State Militia which he led against white paramilitary insurgents; as an active member of Georgia’s Republican Party; and as the United States minister to Turkey from 1880 to 1881. All the while, he advocated “radical” Republican Reconstruction policies, especially the Fifteenth Amendment and Black political equality.
With deft sensitivity, Varon implies that Reconstruction could have turned out very differently, that it was not doomed from its inception. Longstreet was proof of this. During the war to be sure, he was “sustained by his fervent ideological commitment to the Confederate cause” (28). However, in the long wake of Appomattox, he believed that dignified honor required all white southerners acquiescing to Abraham Lincoln’s vision for a “new birth of freedom.” Lincoln anticipated that with the death of slavery, white Americans would be liberated from their deceitful vanity about humanity, politics, nationhood. With remarkable humility, Longstreet took seriously the new way of things. He insisted that societies can change, that democracy is based on majority rule, minority consent, and grace for one’s fellow citizens. Here, Varon poses her most provocative inference of all: what might have happened had more former Confederates followed Longstreet’s postwar example?
Longstreet was the raw proof that change could have happened. He practiced the kind of “self-reinvention” that Union victory and emancipation necessitated (291). Yet purveyors of the Lost Cause insisted on ideological though fanciful purity. They aimed to destroy anyone who dissented. Longstreet welcomed the fight. “The most his southern critics treated him as an apostate on the issue of race,” Varon explains, “the more receptive he became to Republican ideology” (157). For more than two decades, he published popular articles and his massive memoirs, critiquing the Lost Cause, laying blame where he saw fit, defending biracial politics, and promoting sectional reconciliation. Longstreet was hardly a progressive and never perfect. His own complexity underscored the complexity of his era. And Varon’s triumphant book provides the vindication that he always sought.
Andrew F. Lang is associate professor of history at Mississippi State University. A recipient of the Society of Civil War Historians’ Tom Watson Brown Book Award and a finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, he is now writing on the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.