It’s said that winners write the history books.
But in the opinion of historian Nick Hollis, the losers of the Civil War most shaped the reputation of Lt. Gen. James “Pete” Longstreet.
For decades after the war, it was held that Longstreet, who grew up in Augusta and attended the Academy of Richmond County, was responsible for the Confederates’ loss in the battle of Gettysburg in 1863. He was subjected to death threats, spurned by old friends and publicly called a “scalawag” and “traitor.”
The 100th anniversary of the Civil War passed before Longstreet’s record was revisited by historians. But now, in the second year of the sesquicentennial anniversary, Hollis and other historians are pushing to restore Longstreet’s reputation and place him in the pantheon of Confederate heroes.
“I’d like to see a little honesty in history,” said Hollis, who has traveled to Augusta and around the South on behalf of the Gen. Longstreet Recognition Project.
Longstreet was born in South Carolina’s Edgefield District, not far from North Augusta, on Jan. 8, 1821. When he was 9, he moved to Westover Plantation to stay with his uncle, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet. The plantation included portions of modern-day Westover Cemetery and the 11th green of Augusta National’s Amen Corner.
Augusta in the 1830s was still a rural town, but it was rapidly growing, thanks to bustling commerce from the Savannah River. Longstreet soaked up Southern culture and wisdom from his uncle, who would later become president of Emory College, South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina) and the University of Mississippi.
Fiery politicians such as John C. Calhoun passed through his uncle’s parlor, and Longstreet no doubt listened in on these conversations, Hollis said.
“I think that’s central to the theme” of Longstreet’s Augusta life, Hollis said.
Studies at Richmond Academy led him to West Point, where he made several lasting friendships, including that of future president and Union Gen. Ulyssess S. Grant.
Longstreet got his first taste of combat in the Mexican-American War and was wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec.
Like many generals in the Civil War, he never commanded groups much larger than 200 men.
“Longstreet began the Civil War on a par with everyone else,” William Garrett Piston wrote in Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant.
Longstreet was 40 when he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army in 1861 and accepted a position as brigadier general in the Confederate Army. One of his aide de camps, Thomas Jewett Goree, said many thought of Longstreet “short and crabbed,” which he was except in three places: in the presence of ladies, at the table and on the field of battle.
“At any one of these places he has a complacent smile on his countenance and seems to be one of the happiest men in the world,” Goree wrote.
From his first battle at Blackburn’s Ford, Longstreet took his men of the First Corps to the battles of Williamsburg, the Seven Days battles, Second Manassas and Antietam, largely meeting with success.
It was Gettysburg that sealed Longstreet’s place in history. The controversy rests in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s orders, which led to a full frontal assault by 12,000 Confederate soldiers across an open field nearly a mile long. The soldiers were decimated by artillery fire, and the defeat set the tone for the remainder of the war.
Longstreet gave the order to Gen. George Pickett to make the charge under orders from Lee. In his official report, Longstreet wrote: “The order for this attack, which I could not favor under better auspices, would have been revoked had I felt that I had that privilege.”
After Gettysburg, Longstreet was wounded by friendly fire at the battle of the Wilderness. He came to Augusta to recover and stayed at the home of Josiah Sibley, for whom Sibley Mill was named in 1880. The home stood at Bay and Elbert streets, now Fourth Street, until it was destroyed by fire in 1916.
Longstreet remained an esteemed soldier and general for years after the war, eventually settling in New Orleans. During his stay, he wrote several letters to the New Orleans Times, urging peaceful reconstruction.
When he showed one of the letters to his uncle Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, who was living in Oxford, Miss., his uncle predicted, “It will ruin you, son, if you publish it.”
Longstreet’s Republican sympathies, and a federal pardon, coincided with a rise in what some historians call the “Lost Cause,” essentially elevating Lee to near-sainthood. One of the leading “Lost Causers” was Longstreet’s old nemesis, Gen. Jubal Early, who had aligned himself with several organizations, including the Lee Monument Association and the Confederate Burial and Memorial Association.
“(Early’s) version of Gettysburg, which blamed Longstreet, provided an explanation for the Confederacy’s defeat, which neither entailed the loss of God’s grace nor questioned the superiority of Southern civilization,” Piston wrote.
It wasn’t until Piston’s book was published in 1987 that Longstreet’s place in history was re-evaluated. Longstreet was portrayed in a more favorable light in the 1993 film Gettysburg and received a statue at Gettysburg in 1998.
Hollis recognizes that 150 years have passed since the Civil War, but he fully believes that restoring honor and correcting history is still relevant. He makes that point on his Web site:
“Moreover, we as a nation are nullifying, even negating the enormous sacrifices made by our ancestors, particularly the noble soldiers like Longstreet, if we permit the erasure from history of their lives and achievements – the actions which have created our current bounty.”