American Civil War: Lieutenant General James Longstreet

"Old Pete" Longstreet
General James Longstreet, CSA. Photograph Source: Public Domain

James Longstreet - Early Life & Career:

James Longstreet was born on January 8, 1821 in southwest South Carolina. The son of James and Mary Ann Longstreet, he spent his early years on the family's plantation in northeast Georgia. During this time, his father nicknamed him Peter due to his solid, rock-like character. This stuck and for much of his life he was known as Old Pete. When Longstreet was nine, his father decided that his son should follow a military career and sent him to live with relatives in Augusta to obtain a better education. Attending Richmond County Academy, he first attempted to gain admission to West Point in 1837.

James Longstreet - West Point:

This failed and he was forced to wait until 1838 when a relative, Representative Reuben Chapman of Alabama, obtained an appointment for him. A poor student, Longstreet was also disciplinary problem while at the academy. Graduating in 1842, he ranked 54th in a class of 56. Despite this, he was well-liked by the other cadets and was friends with future adversaries and subordinates such as Ulysses S. Grant, George H. Thomas, John Bell Hood, and George Pickett. Departing West Point, Longstreet was commissioned as a brevet second lieutenant and assigned the 4th US Infantry at Jefferson Barracks, MO.

James Longstreet - Mexican-American War:

While there, Longstreet met Maria Louisa Garland whom he would marry in 1848. With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, he was called to action and came ashore near Veracruz with the 8th US Infantry in March 1847. Part of Major General Winfield Scott's army, he served in the siege of Veracruz and the advance inland. In the course of the fighting, he received brevet promotions to captain and major for his actions at Contreras, Churubusco, and Molino del Rey. During the assault on Mexico City, he was wounded in the leg at the Battle of Chapultepec while carrying the regimental colors.

Recovering from his wound, he spent the years after the war stationed in Texas with time at Forts Martin Scott and Bliss. While there he served as the paymaster for the 8th Infantry and conducted routine patrols on the frontier. Though tension between the states was building, Longstreet was not a avid secessionist, though he was a proponent of the doctrine of states' rights. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Longstreet elected to cast his lot with the South. Though he was born in South Carolina and was raised in Georgia, he offered his services to Alabama as that state had sponsored his admission to West Point.

James Longstreet - Early Days of the Civil War:

Resigning from the US Army he was quickly commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army. Traveling to Richmond, VA, he met with President Jefferson Davis who informed him that had been appointed a brigadier general. Assigned to General P.G.T. Beauregard's army at Manassas, he was given command of a brigade of Virginia troops. After working hard to train his men, he repelled a Union force at Blackburn's Ford on July 18. Though the brigade was on the field during the First Battle of Bull Run, it played little role. In the wake of the fighting, Longstreet was irate that the Union troops were not pursued.

Promoted to major general on October 7, he was soon given command of a division in the new Army of Northern Virginia. As he prepared his men for the coming year's campaigning, Longstreet suffered a severe personal tragedy in January 1862 when two of his children died from scarlet fever. Previously an outgoing individual, Longstreet became more withdrawn and somber. With the beginning of Major General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign in April, Longstreet turned in a series of inconsistent performances. Though effective at Yorktown and Williamsburg, his men caused confusion during the fighting at Seven Pines.

James Longstreet - Fighting with Lee:

With the ascent of General Robert E. Lee to army command, Longstreet's role increased dramatically. When Lee opened the Seven Days Battles in late June, Longstreet effectively commanded half the army and did well at Gaines' Mill and Glendale. The remainder of the campaign saw him firmly cement himself as one of Lee's chief lieutenants along with Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. With the threat on the Peninsula contained, Lee dispatched Jackson north with the Left Wing of the army to deal with Major General John Pope's Army of Virginia.Longstreet and Lee followed with the Right Wing and joined Jackson on August 29 as he was fighting the Second Battle of Manassas. The next day, Longstreet's men delivered a massive flank attack which shattered the Union left and drove Pope's army from the field. With Pope defeated, Lee moved to invade Maryland with McClellan in pursuit. On September 14, Longstreet fought a holding action at South Mountain, before delivering a strong defensive performance at Antietam three days later. An astute observer, Longstreet came to grasp that the weapons technology available gave a distinct advantage to the defender.

In the wake of the campaign, Longstreet was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of the newly-designated First Corps. That December, he put his defensive theory into practice when his command repulsed numerous Union assaults against Marye's Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg. In the spring of 1863, Longstreet and part of his corps were detached to Suffolk, VA to collect supplies and defend against Union threats to the coast. As a result, he missed the Battle of Chancellorsville.

James Longstreet - Gettysburg & the West:

Meeting with Lee in mid-May, Longstreet advocated for sending to his corps west to Tennessee where Union troops were winning key victories. This was denied and instead his men moved north as part Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania. This campaign culminated with the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3. In the course of the fighting, he was tasked with turning the Union left on July 2 which he failed to do. His actions that day and the next when was charged with overseeing the disastrous Pickett's Charge led many Southern apologists to blame him for the defeat.

In August, he renewed his efforts to have his men transferred west. With General Braxton Bragg's army under heavy pressure, this request was approved by Davis and Lee. Arriving during the early stages of the Battle of Chickamauga in late September, Longstreet's men proved decisive and gave the Army of Tennessee one its few victories of the war. Clashing with Bragg, Longstreet was ordered to conduct a campaign against Union troops at Knoxville later that fall. This proved a failure and his men rejoined Lee's army in the spring.

James Longstreet - Final Campaigns:

Returning to a familiar role, he led the First Corps in a key counterattack at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 6, 1864. While the attack proved critical in turning back Union forces, he was badly wounded the right shoulder by friendly fire. Missing the remainder of the Overland Campaign, he rejoined the army in October and was placed in command of the Richmond defenses during the Siege of Petersburg. With the fall of Petersburg in early April 1865, he retreated west with Lee to Appomattox where he surrendered with the rest of the army.

James Longstreet - Later Life:

Following the war, Longstreet settled in New Orleans and worked in several business enterprises. He earned the ire of other Southern leaders when he endorsed his old friend Grant for president in 1868 and became a Republican. Though this conversion earned him several civil service jobs, including US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, it made him a target of Lost Cause advocates, such as Jubal Early, who publically blamed him for the loss at Gettysburg. Though Longstreet responded to these charges in his own memoirs, the damage was done and the attacks continued until his death. Longstreet died on January 2, 1904 at Gainesville, GA and was buried at Alta Vista Cemetery.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Lieutenant General James Longstreet." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Lieutenant General James Longstreet." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).