By Allan S. Shikhvarg
James Longstreet was born on January 8 th , 1821 at his grandmother''s house in Edgefield District , South Carolina . He was the 5 th child of James and Mary Ann Longstreet, neither of whom was a South Carolina native: James'' side of the family came from New Jersey , while Mary''s was from Maryland .
By the time younger James was born the Longstreets made their way into Georgia , where James the father had a cotton plantation. So although the future general was a native South Carolinian, he would always think of Georgia as his true home.
It was here, at his parent''s plantation that James spent the next 9 years of his life. While there were some work chores for him to do, there was also plenty of time when James , along with his older siblings- sister Anna and brother William- would hunt, fish & play. James grew tall and strong and soon received a nickname ‘Peter'' – meaning ‘Rock'' in Greek- that would stay with him for the remainder of his life.
In 1830 James went to live with his uncle and his family. Augustus B. Longstreet ( Uncle Gus ) was a well-educated man, who was very much responsible in shaping his nephew''s views on life, and especially on the subject of States'' Rights.
James would spend the next 8 years of his life living with his Uncle Gus while attending Richmond County Academy . By the time he graduated in 1838, his mother moved to Alabama (his father died in 1833). So, young James, who by then dreamed of becoming a soldier one day, accepted an Appointment to West Point Military Academy that was available from Alabama .
Although West Point Academy was the finest Military Academy in the country, if not in the world, for the students, called cadets, life there was no picnic. The regime was routine – from classes to the meals. It was in this environment that James spent the next 4 years. While he was not a good student in a classroom, he did well in “physical” subjects – horseback riding, shooting and such. He also was a known prankster and these pranks along with his sense of humor made him popular with his fellow classmen. Most of these young men would go on to the Greatest Fame of becoming Civil War Generals, but one of them merits a special attention.
A young man, one year younger than James, entered the Academy in 1839 and soon after the two became best friends. Ulysses S. Grant, who would rise to become the President of United States, even married James '' cousin – Julia Dent. And even when the two friends found themselves on the opposite sides of conflict in 1861, their life-long friendship was true and sincere.
James graduated West Point in 1842 (52 nd in the class of 54) and soon found himself in General Zachary Taylor ''s Army during the Mexican War. There the young 2 nd Lieutenant performed well enough to receive a promotion to Captain. He even got wounded during the Battle of Chapultepec and got a promotion to Brevet Major (“brevet” means ‘temporary'' rank). Although the young soldiers of the Mexican War did not know it at the time- this conflict became their school and training ground for the much greater conflict in which they would take place- the American Civil War.
Soon after the end of the Mexican War James Longstreet married Mary Louise Garland – daughter of his Garrison ''s Commandant. The marriage would last for over 40 years and see both joy and sorrow. Meanwhile James'' career as a soldier took him West and by July 1858 he was a Paymaster in the US Army with a rank of Major. The family (by now James and Louise had 3 children) settled in Fort Leavenworth , Kansas until the elections of 1860 brought the secession of the Southern States and the possibility of Civil War.
Although James Longstreet spent most of his adult life being a Soldier in the US Army and the Army was responsible for his education and livelihood, when South Carolina , Georgia and Alabama (all the States that he had close ties with) left the Union , he had little choice. He would later comment that it was not an easy choice, but he did not think about it too much once it was made.
As he was about to resign from the US Army, Longstreet was ordered to take over the job of two Paymasters who quit for the same reasons that he was going to – to go South. A dutiful Soldier, Longstreet complied. Since Paymaster''s job required dealing with money, it took Longstreet some time to square things, but he did it saying later that “I would rather have my right hand cut off then leave the service owing a cent”. Truly, James Longstreet was a man of Integrity and Principles.
Finally on May 9 th 1861, he submitted his letter of resignation. By that time he had a commission of Lieutenant-Colonel in Confederate Army, which he accepted. Making sure that his wife and children were safe in Texas , Longstreet hurried on to Richmond – the Capital of Confederate States of America – his New Country. When he reached Richmond , he was informed by the Confederate President Jefferson Davis himself that his rank has been elevated to that of Brigadier-General, a high Military Rank indeed.
Longstreet received a command of “Longstreet''s Brigade” shortly before the opening battle of the Civil War – Manassas also known as Bull Run . During that battle he proved to be a good leader capable of handling large units of force. It was also noted that he was ‘very cool'' under fire. Soon after the battle he was promoted Major-General. His soldiers soon began to feel a great affection toward their General and called him Old Pete.
In appearance, James was a tall burly man with clear blue eyes and a big beard. In the social life he enjoyed a good laugh, some partying and was an excellent poker player. However, in January of 1862 tragedy struck. His family which by now resided in Richmond became victim of a scarlet fever epidemic and within a week''s time his 1 year-old daughter Mary Anne and his sons, 4 year-old James and 6 year-old Gus died. 13 year-old Garland somehow pulled through. But the death of 3 children (the couple already lost 2 in the years before) was just too much for James and Louise. They could neither arrange for the funerals nor attend the ceremony, once it was arranged by George Pickett – Longstreet''s old pal from the Mexican War and George''s fiancée Sally Corbell. When James Longstreet returned to duty on February 5 th 1862, he was a changed man forever. The partying stopped and his appearance became somewhat gloomy.
Longstreet''s ‘boss'' was General Joseph Johnston. He was in charge of the Confederate forces that were operating in Northern Virginia against Federal or Union troops under command of Major-General George McClellan. In spring of 1862 McClellan started what became known as ‘The Peninsula Campaign'' during which James Longstreet constantly showed his superiors that he had all the qualities of a good soldier and fine general. He was learning well from his experiences and Johnston commented that he had so much confidence in Longstreet that he did not have to look over his shoulder.
But even the best people make mistakes sometimes. What can be thought of as Old Pete''s poorest performance happened during the Battle of Seven Pines which took place in late May, 1862. Longstreet was ordered to take command of an ‘Army Wing'' – usually couple of divisions (around 15,000 men total) - and attack the right flank (side) of the Union Army. Too many things went wrong almost from the beginning and Longstreet , who usually attended to every detail, let the events take their course here. Joseph Johnston, placing his trust in Longstreet, did very little as well. There were misunderstandings of everything: orders – verbal & written, directions, positions and even command. The result was that the Confederates gained nothing in military objectives while losing over 6,000 men – the most notable of whom was the Commanding General himself – Joseph Johnston (wounded). Jefferson Davis immediately dispatched his most trusted general to take the command of the army. That man was none other, but Robert E. Lee.
Lee wasted no time. He relentlessly & repeatedly attacked the Union Army over the period of 7 days (so it became known as ‘The Seven Days Campaign''). It seems that James Longstreet shook off whatever happened to him at Seven Pines and was his usual self. His conduct was now noticed by his new boss who remarked at the end of Campaign: “Longstreet was the right staff in my hand”. So highly did Lee think of Longstreet that when he re-organized the Army (from now on to be known as Army of Northern Virginia) and divided it into 2 Corps – Longstreet received the Command of I Corps (another famous Confederate General – Thomas ‘Stonewall'' Jackson commanded the II Corps).
In August of 1862 the Confederates attempted their first invasion of the North. Somehow, Longstreet rubbed one of his heels almost raw (probably a bad pair of boots) and now was forced to wear a night slipper – a sight indeed comical for anyone, never mind a GENERAL! While marching toward Maryland , the Army of Northern Virginia fought the Union Army of Virginia on the fields of old Manassas or Bull Run battlefield. While Jackson ''s Corps fought all day long, Longstreet took his time planning and preparing. Most likely it is from this moment on that his enemies would call him ‘slow'', but he was more methodical then just ‘slow''. Once Old Pete let his Corps loose on unsuspecting Union soldiers – it was like a tremendous hit of a huge hammer. The Army of Northern Virginia won the day and Longstreet''s star never shone so brightly.
On September 17 th the Army of Northern Virginia met its old foe – George McClellan''s Army of the Potomac on the fields near a small sleepy town in Maryland called Sharpsburg . A small creek called Antietam quietly ran nearby. Nobody could imagine that by the day''s end Antietam will give its name to the Battle that will go into history as the Most Bloodiest Day in the Civil War (over 24,000 casualties from both sides). Longstreet''s Corps defended the middle ground including the now-famous Sunken Lane . At one point he and his staff actually replaced killed artillerists at one of the big cannons. One of the aides noted that ‘the General was as cool and composed as if on a dress parade''. He performed so well, that Lee that night exclaimed upon seeing him: ‘There goes Longstreet- my Old War-Horse''. A better compliment could have not been paid a soldier. But in the end - the battle was a technical tie, the Confederate invasion was stopped and this occasion gave Abraham Lincoln his ‘victorious moment'' to announce the Emancipation Proclamation. Now there was another meaning to the Union side of the conflict.
Upon returning from the Maryland Campaign both Longstreet & Jackson were promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-General, Longstreet on October 9 th and Jackson – the 10 th . That made James Longstreet 2 nd Senior Ranking Officer in the Army of Northern Virginia after Robert E. Lee. He would hold that rank and Seniority position until the end of the War.
Slowly the two Great Armies moved back onto Virginia soil. The Army of the Potomac was now commanded by Major-General Ambrose Burnside who finally brought it to the banks of the Rappahannock River across the town of Fredericksburg . Having beaten Robert E. Lee and his Boys on the march, Burnside, however, chose not to cross the river until his pontoons – special boats designed to have temporary bridges build on them - arrived. The delay was just long enough for Lee to catch up and assume a strong defensive position beyond the town on the hills that were called Marye''s Heights. Old Pete Longstreet was in charge of the defenses in this sector, which also included a sunken road behind the stone wall – a very good position. He placed a lot of artillery on the hills and manned the wall with his best Mississippi Troops.
The Union attack started early on December 13 th . Wave after wave of brave Union Soldiers crossed much of an open field between the town and the hills while the Confederate Artillery took one shot at them after another. Those who made it closer to the wall – received more deadly fire from the Infantry. The line of defenders was never broken, despite Burnside''s loss of almost 13,000 men. The day prompted Robert E. Lee to say: “It is well that war is so terrible, least we grow too fond of it”.
For the remainder of the year until mid-spring there was a lull in the fighting – the men settled in their winter quarters. James Longstreet was able to enjoy the company of his wife for New Year''s (they have not seen each other in months) and sometime there-after. In February 1863 rumors reached General Lee that Union troops were moving down the Potomac River on steamer transports. 2 divisions of Longstreet''s Corps were immediately detached to cover Richmond from the South and Longstreet himself was dispatched to the area to take overall control.
Longstreet established his headquarters in Petersburg and on February 25 th 1863 he was officially assigned the Command of Department of Virginia and North Carolina . He served in this capacity, protecting the capital on the Southern side and collecting supplies, until early May. By the time he returned, the Army of Northern Virginia had fought their masterpiece – the Battle of Chancelorsville. Against huge odds Lee''s small army of 30,000 defeated 90,000 men of Army of the Potomac . But the victory came with a heavy price as brilliant and trustworthy ‘Stonewall'' Jackson was mortally wounded during the battle (mistakenly shot by his own men) and died a week later. This prompted General Lee to re-organize the Army again and this time he broke it into 3 Corps, Longstreet retaining his command of the I Corps. The rest of the month was spent in planning the 2 nd Confederate Invasion of the North.