James Longstreet, Dutch in descent, was born in the home of his paternal grandparents in Edgefield District, South Carolina, on 8 January 1821. The third child of James and Mary Anne Dent Longstreet, the young Longstreet, known to friends and family as “Pete”, spent the first half of his childhood on the Longstreet cotton plantation in northeastern Georgia. At the age of nine, however, Longstreet left home to live with his Uncle Augustus and Aunt Francis in Augusta, Georgia where he would attend the Richmond County Academy, which had an excellent reputation for its curriculum and its strict disciplinary code. However, Longstreet was never a good student, preferring physical activity, and his grades demonstrated this preference.
Longstreet’s uncle, a politician and former judge on the supreme court of Georgia, had a profound effect on Longstreet’s life, infusing into Longstreet, among many other things, a strong support for states’ rights. When, in 1833, Longstreet’s father died in a cholera epidemic, Augusta took on the role of Longstreet’s father, seeking for him an appointment to West Point in 1837. However, Georgia’s allotment for that year was already exhausted, forcing Longstreet to wait until his mother, now remarried and living in Alabama, was able to secure a position for him in 1838.
Longstreet struggled with the academics at West Point throughout his four years, ranking near the bottom of his class in nearly all subjects and doing little better in his disciplinary record, eventually graduating fifty-fourth in a class of fifty-six. Yet despite these difficulties with his professors, Longstreet got along quite well with his classmates, his sense of humor and leadership in pranks making numerous friendships that would endure many years.
Following his graduation in 1842, Longstreet received an assignment to Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. Here he met his future wife, Louise Garland, daughter of his post commander, John Garland, and cousin to his best friend, Ulysses S. Grant.
However, in the fall of 1844, Longstreet was removed from Jefferson Barracks and, after tours of duty in Louisiana and Florida, joined the Eighth Infantry in Texas. In this regiment, Longstreet served with distinction during the Civil War, eventually receiving a brevet major. Following the war, Longstreet returned to Jefferson Barracks where he finally married Louise Garland. In May 1849, he returned with his wife and newly born son to the Eighth Infantry in Texas where he served until the outbreak of civil war.
Though Longstreet was no supporter of secession, he was a southerner, as was his family. There was no hesitation on his part when the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter: on 9 May 1861, Longstreet turned in his resignation from the United States Army, accepting a position as lieutenant colonel in the Confederacy. He was not to remain in this position for long, soon receiving a brigade of Virginia volunteers, along with the rank of brigadier general, from President Davis, who was anxious to find military leaders of any experience.
Longstreet led this brigade at First Manassas, where he demonstrated that he fully possessed the qualities needed to lead troops in battle. Fearless in battle, Longstreet possessed a personal courage that inspired his troops to hold and fight on. In camp, though described by some as short and crabbed, Longstreet possessed a hearty sense of humor and enjoyed sitting around the campfire with his men, telling stories, drinking, and playing cards. These were happy times as Longstreet rose rapidly through the ranks, promoted to major general on 7 October 1861.
But then, tragedy struck. In January 1861, scarlet fever swept Richmond, claiming the lives of his one-year-old daughter Mary Anne, his four-year-old son James, and six-year-old Augustus. The deaths of his children left Longstreet devastated and changed. The gregarious, easygoing westerner with his hearty sense of humor disappeared, replaced by the somber soldier. No longer did he drink, or play cards, or tell stories around the campfire. His work as a soldier became his sole purpose in life.
As McClellan advanced into Virginia, Longstreet fought hard and bitterly, often serving as rearguard. Here he was in his element, performing brilliantly as he fought to buy General Johnston’s army time to retreat to the next line of defense. After the Battle of Williamsburg in May 1862, Johnston reported, “I rode upon the field, but found myself compelled to be a mere spectator, for General Longstreet’s clear head and brave heart left me no apology for interference.”
Yet, on 31 May, Longstreet demonstrated clearly that he did not possess the skill on the offensive that he did on the defensive. At the Battle of Seven Pines, Longstreet bungled his attack, first directing his division down the wrong road, and then offered unclear orders which only served to create confusion and prevent his full force from being engaged at one time. After the battle, Longstreet did nothing to explain his mistakes but simply cast blame on others as though he had done no wrong. This was often the case with the bluntly stubborn Longstreet who often refused to acknowledge a mistake.
However, during the next phase of the Peninsula campaign, there was no need for blame-casting, for Longstreet performed flawlessly, winning Lee’s praise, and perhaps of even more importance, his confidence. Longstreet rewarded this confidence at Second Manassas, when his wing of 28,000 men counterattacked the Union forces in the largest, simultaneous mass assault of the war. Longstreet drove in the Union flank and sent them back to Bull Run. Yet in this battle, he demonstrated a slowness to attack which many have claimed prevented Lee from gaining an even greater victory.
At Antietam, Longstreet performed brilliantly, coolly sending in his reserves as Union forces broke through his overextended and heavily outnumbered lines at one place after another. After he had exhausted all of his reserves, Longstreet then proceeded to personally inspire his men on to heroic efforts which held off McClellan’s army until the arrival of A.P. Hill. Longstreet’s tactical brilliance served only to deepen Lee’s already great trust of his “Old Warhorse”.
Though “Stonewall” Jackson drew headlines and public adoration, Longstreet was Lee’s trusted second-in-command and close friend. Ironically, as Lee’s trust in Longstreet deepened day by day, Longstreet began to doubt the wisdom of Lee’s strategy and tactics.
Yet he found no reason to complain about the course of the next major battle. At Fredericksburg, Longstreet had the opportunity to fight his kind of battle, taking advantage of the topography to create a nearly impregnable defensive position against which the numerically superior Army of the Potomac dashed itself. On 13 December the Union assault, though marked with great bravery, suffered nearly eight thousand casualties before Marye’s Heights with comparatively little gain. Longstreet lost only one thousand men, dead or wounded, while making such effective use of his artillery on the heights above as to prevent any Union forces from advancing any nearer than thirty yards from the dreaded stone wall beneath the Heights.
The Battle of Fredericksburg was the culmination of Longstreet’s success. By the end of the battle, he had fought in five major campaigns, performing satisfactorily if not brilliantly in each. All who served under him regarded his remarkable coolness under fire and his seemingly inexhaustible energy with ever growing awe. Yet they also looked upon him with love, knowing that his first concern would always be for his troops. Indeed, once, when asked why he took so long to dig his gun emplacements, Longstreet is supposed to have responded, “If we only save a finger of a man, that’s good enough.” This love he bore for his troops earned for him his men's devoted willingness to follow him wherever he led.
Following the Battle of Fredericksburg, Longstreet led two of his divisions to Southeast Virginia to counter the threat posed by the Union IX Corps on vital ports on the mid-Atlantic coast. This campaign was not without success, resulting in the capture of Suffolk, Virginia, and, of more significance, the large amounts of provisions stored there. Longstreet’s absence, though producing significant results, was badly missed by Lee, who had to fight the Battle of Chancellorsville, which has been described as his greatest battle, without his most trusted commander.
When Longstreet returned to the Army of Northern Virginia in early May, he found himself the only remaining experienced corps commander in the army. “Stonewall” Jackson had been wounded, and would die just days later. Now, in the coming campaign, Lee would rely on his “Old Warhorse” more than ever.