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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,597

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This is the grave of James Longstreet.

Born in 1821 in Edgefield, South Carolina, a center of the southern planter elite, Longstreet grew up in those traditions. His father, like many southern fathers, believed that the military was the place for his boy. This was a violent culture that romanticized killing. Don’t forget how many of these guys fought duels. This also helps explain the South overperforming militarily early in the Civil War–the South’s best young men went into the military while the North’s best men went into business and the law. Longstreet would certainly contribute to that.

Longstreet went to military schools and lived at times with his super elite southern extremist uncle. He passed on a lot of values to his nephew–especially drinking and gambling, things Longstreet would love for his whole life. He was then onto West Point. He was a terrible student who was in disciplinary problems his whole time there. Despite ranking 54th out of 56 students in his graduating class in 1842, he graduated, so was commissioned as a second lieutenant, with his first posting being out in Missouri. There, he got to know Ulysses S. Grant, who was about to marry his cousin. You may or may not know this, but the Dent family (which was also the Longstreets through marriage) gave Grant a slave as a wedding present.

Then the Mexican War happened, when James Polk sent troops in Mexico to steal the northern half of the country to expand slavery. Longstreet performed very well under Zachary Taylor’s command. He was at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma and then in Monterrey. In 1847, he was promoted to first lieutenant and shifted to Winfield Scott’s forces to capture Mexico City. In fact, he was at the Battle of Chapultepec and was shot in the thigh while carrying his regimental flag. This is also probably the single most important military battle in the entire history of Mexico in terms of national mythology, but Americans know absolutely nothing about Mexico, Mexican history, or America’s role in fucking up Mexico, so the story of the NiƱos Heroes is completely unknown here.

In the 1850s, Longstreet did various things–frontier postings mostly in Texas, some time as the paymaster as Fort Leavenworth. In fact, the factual knowledge of Longstreet in this period is thin. We know he really wanted to get back to the east and urged the Army to send him to DC, which it refused to do.

Then the South committed treason in defense of slavery. Longstreet was all-in, despite being genuinely uncomfortable with secession. His uncle was one of the architects of South Carolina’s insanity and so he grew up in that drunken states-rights to defend slavery atmosphere. So he really believed in the states being supreme to the federal government. Unfortunately, Longstreet proved to be a very good general under Robert E. Lee. He was a critical figure in the Seven Days Battle on the peninsula in the summer of 1862. He was really the architect of the charge that won Second Manassas for the Confederacy. He commanded mostly in defensive formations at Fredericksburg and Antietam, but his forces did very well at that too.

But he and Lee broke over Gettysburg. Longstreet really disagreed with Lee’s strategy there. First, he wanted more troops sent to protect Vicksburg from Grant, which he rightfully saw as an impending disaster for the Confederacy. Lee disagreed. Then he at least wanted the troops to be in a more defensive position instead of the open charging that saw the campaign fail and the Confederacy’s tide permanently turned. I don’t know enough about the details of military tactics, which bore me to tears, to really be able to evaluate these claims, but it at least seems to me that Longstreet was relatively correct through all of this. Then Lee ordered Longstreet’s troops to attack the Union flank but his troops really weren’t ready to do that. Longstreet knew that and tried to tell Lee, but he wasn’t having it. After the war, when Longstreet’s politics turned and he was seen as a traitor to the white race, it became very easy for Confederate nostalgists to blame Longstreet, but again, I can’t really evaluate these claims’ veracity.

In any case, after Gettysburg, Longstreet asked to be sent to the west and Lee was happy to do so. His troops won a big battle that was part of Chickamauga, but couldn’t stop Union advances in the end. But Longstreet and Braxton Bragg really didn’t get along and he was just pretty angry by this time, so Bragg had him shipped back to Lee. He was back under Lee at the Wilderness, where he was nearly killed by friendly fire. Then he was at Appomattox.

It is after the war where Longstreet gets interesting and somewhat recovers the damage he caused by committing treason in defense of slavery. He moved to New Orleans and went into the cotton merchant business while also investing in railroads. Andrew Johnson would pardon many men, but he would pardon Longstreet, for the president believed his crimes were too great. In fact, he wanted to prosecute Longstreet, but Grant personally intervened and threatened to resign.

Now, Longstreet and Grant were old friends and distantly related through marriage. So when Grant became president, Longstreet became a Republican before the election, endorsing his buddy. He urged the South to acquiesce to Republican rule and at least a certain amount of Black rights. Grant named him surveyor of customs for New Orleans, a nice post.

Many of Longstreet’s friends abandoned him, considering him a traitor to the white race. That was especially true when he took charge of the militia in New Orleans and worked to make sure that whites weren’t just killing former slaves for any reason. He actually sent troops to Colfax, Louisiana to stop whites from killing all the Black political leaders there, but the troops arrived one day too late to stop the horrifying Colfax Massacre, probably the single most important event in turning the tide of Reconstruction. After that, Grant basically gave up on enforcing Black rights. He also armed Black troops in his 1874 ad hoc army to stop the White League from advancing on the state house.

In 1875, fearing for their lives, Longstreet and family left New Orleans for their family home in Gainesville, Georgia. He spent much of the rest of his life defending his reputation, giving talks in the north, and seeking patronage jobs. Hayes gave him the role of Minister Resident to the Ottoman Empire, but the low pay plus the high cost of entertainment required in Istanbul meant he lost money on the deal. Garfield named him U.S. Marshal of Georgia and he had that position until Grover Cleveland named a Democrat to replace him in 1885. In 1897, McKinley named him U.S. Commissioner of Railroads and he held that job until 1904. He volunteered for the Spanish-American War, but was too old.

One last interesting bit here. Longstreet’s wife died in 1889, shortly after a house fire destroyed all their possessions. In 1897, he was 76 years old. He married a 34 year old librarian named Helen Dortch. His children were horrified. But Dortch is quite interesting in her own right–not only did she help take care of him as he aged, but she became a leading suffrage and then women’s rights figure in the South, though unfortunately also a pusher of Confederate nostalgia.

Longstreet’s last years were dominated by cancer. It was technically pneumonia that took him out in 1904, but it was kind of everything. He was 82 years old.

James Longstreet is buried in Alta Vista Cemetery, Gainesville, Georgia.

If you would like this series to visit other leading traitorous generals, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Charles Field is in Baltimore and Braxton Bragg is in Mobile, Alabama. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

Also, this is the rare case where the car in the picture is not mine or my rental.

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