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James Longstreet

By John T. Marck

Another of the Confederacy's finest generals, Longstreet was born in Edgefield District, South Carolina on January 8, 1821. His father a farmer, James grew up in Augusta, Georgia until 1833 when his father died. He then moved to Somerville, Alabama, with his mother. In 1838 he entered West Point, and had as classmates such famous figures as Ulysses S. Grant, Henry W. Halleck, Irvin McDowell, George H. Thomas, and William T. Sherman. Quite a class!

James graduated only fifty-fourth in this class of sixty-two in 1842, and entered the army as a 2nd lieutenant in the 4th Infantry. He served with the 4th in Missouri and Louisiana, then moved to the 8th Infantry where he served with them in Florida.

During the Mexican war, Longstreet served under General Zachary Taylor up to the Battle of Monterey, then served under General Winfield Scott for the Mexico City expedition. At the Battle of Chapultepec, Longstreet was wounded, and promoted to the rank of major, where he remained until June 1, 1861 when he resigned to join the Confederate army.

During the Civil War at the First Battle of Bull Run, Longstreet excelled at his command, and thus was promoted to major general on October 7. He then was given a divisional command under General Joseph E. Johnston. He again excelled at the Battle of Williamsburg, but did not exist well at the Battle of Seven Pines, due in part to the fact that he arrived late on the battlefield, and misunderstood his orders.

During the fighting around Richmond, now under the ultimate command of General Robert E. Lee, Longstreet showed great determination in battle. This impressed Lee so he gave him command of about half of his infantry. On August 13, Longstreet was sent to assist Major General "Stonewall" Jackson who was fighting Union General John Pope at Orange Court House. Longstreet moved cautiously up the Rappahannock River, joining Jackson on August 29, 1862. Lee was hoping that Longstreet would immediately take an offensive posture, but he hesitated until August 30 before he entered the fight. Because he did not fully agree with the orders from Lee, he would hesitate, thus bringing out probably his greatest flaw.

In September 1862 during the Battle of Antietam, once again Longstreet did not agree with Lee's battle plan, yet in spite of this, he did serve with great skill. Following Antietam, General Lee then recommended that Longstreet be promoted to lieutenant general, as well as placed his division in the I Corps.

After enduring heavy casualties at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, Longstreet moved southeast with the divisions of Generals Pickett and Hood to guard Richmond. This would be known as the Suffolk campaign and was the first time Longstreet was acting as an independent command. However, when he took no offensive action, General Lee became frustrated and advised Longstreet to either attack or return to him to rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia. Longstreet decided to stay and fight, advancing on Suffolk on April 11, 1863.

When "Stonewall" Jackson died, this gave Longstreet the opportunity to become closer to General Lee. When the two talked over their plans for Gettysburg, it was Longstreet who leaned toward taking a defensive position, while Lee chose to attack the Union forces under General George Meade. On the second day of battle, Lee ordered Longstreet to attack Cemetery Ridge at dawn, however, Longstreet decided not to until reinforcements under Brigadier General Evander Law had arrived. For most of the day while he waited, Longstreet marched his men back and forth on Seminary Ridge until finally at 4:40 p.m., he attacked. Fighting a horrendous battle for four hours, Longstreet's men held their ground until the fighting ceased this day. By his delay in attacking, against the orders of Lee, Longstreet had permitted the Union reinforcements to arrive, resulting in a much higher death toll for his men. Consequently, it was Longstreet who was blamed, at least in part, for Lee losing the Battle of Gettysburg.

In September 1863, Lee reassigned Longstreet to Georgia where he served well at the Battle of Chickamauga. However, he ran into more trouble and problems at Knoxville, which was the lowest point in his career. Disheartened and depressed over his failures, he thought of resigning his commission. To get himself back on track, he devised plans for an offensive action in Tennessee and Kentucky and submitted his ideas to Jefferson Davis, but he rejected them. Then called back to Virginia, he successfully assisted General Ambrose P. Hill's Corps at the Battle of the Wilderness. Wounded here in April 1864, he recovered and returned to duty in November, serving in the defenses of Richmond.

Longstreet became an outstanding commander, but lacked in strategic ability and did not do well as an independent command. Although he was slow to take offensives actions, he was, nonetheless a fearless fighter in battle. Consequently, Lee nicknamed him "My Old War Horse."

After the war, Longstreet entered the insurance business as well as served as the supervisor of the Louisiana State Lottery. Additionally, he held many Federal appointments. He settled in Gainesville, Georgia, yet became a Republican, alienating himself from the Southern Democrats. In spite of this, he was skillful in bringing together the "old" and "new" South Democrats and easing tensions between them.

Longstreet spent a lot of time writing, much of which was in defense of his actions at Gettysburg. His memoirs titled: From Manassas to Appomattox was published in1896 and is considered by many to be one of the finest memoirs written by a member of the Confederacy's command staff. His book was republished in 1960.

James Longstreet died in Gainesville, Georgia on January 2, 1904.

Copyright 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.