General ponders –
“Slaves people? Lee fallible?”
During the controversies over statues of Confederate generals, I couldn’t help but be reminded of General James Longstreet. Why, you might ask? I’ll explain.
Longstreet was born in South Carolina in 1821. ‘Longstreet’ was actually an anglicized version of ‘Langestraet’, his ancestor having immigrated to New England way back when it was still New Netherland. In 1830, he was sent to live with his Uncle Augustus in Augusta, Georgia, to get an education that would get him into West Point. His uncle was kind of a big deal, being a loudmouth booster of ‘STATES’ RIGHTS!!!’ with a newspaper to tell the world about it. James managed to get into West Point in 1838 (through the efforts of another political relative) and… er…
He didn’t do so well, either on the academic or discipline front, and ranked 54th out of a class of 56. Ouch. But you know what he WAS good at during his school days? Making chums! Including some guy named Ulysses Grant, maybe you’ve heard about him.
As it happens, after graduation, the two were both posted to Jefferson Barracks. Longstreet’s roommate, Fred Dent, was a distant cousin of his. Dent’s family lived not far away. Said family included unmarried sisters. From this connection, Grant met, fell hard for, and married Julia Dent. Longstreet probably was a groomsman, possibly even the best man, at the event. (Some years later, Longstreet came across a clearly financially strapped Grant proceeded to pay back an old $5 debt because his conscience didn’t allow otherwise.)
He was one of the many future Civil War generals who participated in the Mexican-American War. He did all right, got wounded, then got married to Maria Louisa Garland.
Years passed, Civil War happened. Longstreet privately thought that secession was probably a Bad Move, but, well, that ‘STATES’ RIGHTS!!!’ line he’d heard since childhood kept pounding in his brain. So to the Confederacy he went. He swiftly rose through the ranks to become major general and Lee’s ‘Old War Horse’. Then in January 1862, three of his ten children died in the space of a week. His headquarters had been known as a lively place to hang; that ended after the triple funeral.
But he acquitted himself very well throughout the war, the occasional wound notwithstanding. True, Gettysburg went badly… But there, he followed Lee’s orders despite his stated misgivings. In years to come, Lost Causers would pin the defeat on Longstreet, never you mind St Lee’s tactical fuck ups.
It was Longstreet who urged Lee to meet with Grant at Appomattox, assuring him that he’d treat him fairly. (Grant did. Maybe too fairly?) When Longstreet and Grant met up, the latter offered the former a cigar.
But oh man, after the war, he did some terrible, terrible things. Like become a Republican. And endorse Grant for president. And accept President Grant’s appointment of surveyor of customs of New Orleans. And say that slavery, not states’ rights, was the actual cause of the war. And commanded Black troops against the White League, who were bent on attacking the State House on account of a Republican being elected governor. (How dare Black men be given the vote!) What a complete asshole, right?
Nevertheless, Longstreet continued to to hold various government posts, including a stint as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. His wife, Maria Louisa, died in 1889. He married his 34-year old second wife, Helen Dortch, in 1897, to the consternation of his children. (Helen was actually pretty cool beans, in my estimation, and you will see her here again.) But old age, with the help of cancer and pneumonia, claimed him in 1904.
Longstreet, unlike every other Confederate general, has barely any statues depicting him. Theoretically, if all those Confederate general statues were all about remembering history, he’d have a whole lot more statues, right? Especially given his high rank and brilliance in combat?
Well, yeah, but all those statues were put up during times when Black people were expressing uppity notions like, “I have money and would like to eat in this restaurant,” and “It would be nice not to be lynched for accidentally making eye contact with a white person.” And Longstreet didn’t fit with the ‘intimidation by statue’ strategy.
It’s almost like the purpose of those statues was not about honoring history at all.