Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South
- By Elizabeth R. Varon
- Simon & Schuster
- 480 pp.
- Reviewed by Eugene L. Meyer
- November 15, 2023
An absorbing look at the brave soldier who rejected the original “Big Lie.”
Imagine a political maverick rejecting the leader and crusade he’d long supported, along with the mythology that sustained a lie some continued to cling to as if truth were irrelevant. I refer, of course, to “the Lost Cause,” a credo subscribed to by millions (and generations) of, not to mince words, losers.
One might substitute the “rigged…stolen” U.S. presidential election of 2020 for the Civil War that some still insist was a battle over states’ rights and not slavery. Such comparisons come to mind when reading Longstreet, a new and impressive biography of James Longstreet, the Confederate general who not only accepted defeat but also its logical aftermath: Reconstruction of a rebellious South forced to reform its racist ways.
The author of six previous books on the Civil War years, Elizabeth R. Varon, a professor of American history at the University of Virginia, is well suited to the task of reintroducing us to “one of the Civil War era’s best-known — but least understood — figures.”
Longstreet was a complicated man, devoted fully to preserving slavery and promoting the secessionist cause during the war, even rallying his troops by attacking Yankees who tried “to make the negro your equal by declaring his freedom.” Yet, in the war’s aftermath, he just as fully fought for Black freedom and enfranchisement and the reunification of the country.
A slaveholder raised in Georgia, Longstreet had been Robert E. Lee’s top general, a man whom the commanding general admiringly called his “old war horse.” He was loyal to Lee during the war but critical of some of his battlefield decisions. Most notably, Longstreet faulted Lee’s aggressive tactics at Gettysburg, arguing instead for a defensive position that would invite Union forces into a fight he believed the South could win. But Gettysburg turned into a Confederate defeat, and unreconciled Rebels blamed Longstreet.
Critics would interpret his dissent as disloyalty both to Lee and to the Confederate cause. For accepting defeat and Reconstruction — even becoming a Republican and working with newly enfranchised Black politicians — Longstreet was reviled. While other Confederate commanders were portrayed as noble warriors, meriting marble statues and even U.S. military bases named for them (and only recently changed), Longstreet was persona non grata.
Ironies abound in this complex, compelling drama. Lee, for his part, was not as angry at Longstreet for his dissents as were postwar promoters of the Lost Cause. When friendly fire severely wounded Longstreet during the late defense of Richmond, Lee was distraught.
Longstreet and Union general Ulysses S. Grant were West Point cadets together, both served in the Mexican War, and they remained close friends; Longstreet even attended Grant’s wedding. At Appomattox Courthouse, where Lee surrendered in April 1865, Grant extended his hand to Longstreet in friendship, “with his old-time cheerful greeting,” Longstreet recalled later. “Grant acted as though nothing had happened to mar the ties that had existed between us before the war.”
During Reconstruction, Varon recounts, Longstreet returned to the South but not to his home state. Instead, he settled in New Orleans, where he went into business brokering cotton and investing in railroads and development. He also, in the spring of 1867, published four letters supporting congressional reconstruction acts and urging unreconstructed Rebels to “accept the ends involved in the struggle…[to] accept the terms.” In 1880, he reflected:
“To me, the surrender of my sword was my reconstruction. I looked upon the ‘Lost Cause’ as a cause totally, irrevocably lost.”
Longstreet’s concession to that reality did not endear him to white Southerners, and his public writings, speeches, and memoir did little to turn the tide in his favor. His greatest defender was his second wife, Helen Dortch, a journalist nearly 40 years younger whom he married in 1897. She would live to 99, advocating for him — almost to her death in 1962 — during the Civil War centennial and protests over the conflict’s legacy, which continues to roil the nation.
Six months after the general’s death, in January 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote of Longstreet’s “high-souled patriotism” which had made him “as staunchly loyal to the Union as he had been loyal to the cause for which he fought during the war itself.” That August, Union general O.O. Howard, who led the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction, lauded Longstreet “for his noble qualities as citizen of the reunited nation.”
An equestrian statue of Longstreet was at last dedicated in 1998 at Gettysburg. It was commissioned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans Longstreet Memorial Fund, whose slogan was, “It’s About Time.” But the dedication ceremony was “redolent with Lost Cause imagery,” Varon reports. The purpose was to honor Longstreet’s wartime service, not his postwar about-face.
The contrarian Confederate general has inspired no other monuments. A 2021 proposal for a Longstreet statue in his home state, put forward by former Georgia governor Roy Barnes, has so far come to naught. Meanwhile, a 1907 statue of another former governor and a leader of the state’s Ku Klux Klan, John Brown Gordon, in full Confederate regalia, remains in its honored place at the capitol in Atlanta.
“We like to bestow praise on historical figures who had the courage of their convictions,” Varon writes. “Longstreet’s story is a reminder that the arc of history is sometimes bent by those who had the courage to change their convictions.”
Despite the regional rejection of this apostate Southerner, she concludes, “He commands our attention as one of the most enduringly relevant voices in American history.”
Eugene L. Meyer, a member of the board of the Independent, is a journalist and author of, among other books, Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army and Hidden Maryland: In Search of America in Miniature. Meyer has been featured in the Biographers International Organization’s podcast series.