Originally created 07/19/04

Intentions of 'Ol' Pete' remain misunderstood



MERRIWETHER, S.C. - Traffic zooms down a narrow stretch of Martintown Road as Danny Francis stands on a grassy shoulder in the thick gray greatcoat and trousers of a Confederate general and explains why Lt. Gen. James Longstreet has never worn the untarnished halo of the South's greatest Civil War heroes.

As the Sons of Confederate Veterans commander speaks, his face reddens from the afternoon heat and the woolen clothes. He leans on the metal roadside marker that notes Longstreet was born a mile to the east on Jan. 8, 1821, while his mother was visiting her mother-in-law, making the future general an accidental South Carolinian.

Longstreet deserves better than history, until recently, has given him, Mr. Francis said.

"It's really coming to light that Longstreet was a Southern hero, right up there with Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson," said Mr. Francis, who lives in Warrenville. "He was one of the greats."

Raised on his father's cotton plantation near present-day Gainesville, Ga., and schooled at Westover in Augusta, Longstreet always considered the Peach State his home. But his birth record states otherwise, and his appointment to West Point came from Alabama.

Longstreet, who served as Gen. Robert E. Lee's senior and most trusted lieutenant and was the man who told the Southern leader when it was time to finally surrender at Appomattox, Va., was savaged in the 1870s and 1880s by ex-Confederate generals who sought to deify Lee and glorify the South's war for independence as the mythic and noble Lost Cause, said Mr. Francis, who heads the Confederate group's Gen. Barnard E. Bee Camp, the host of the annual Battle of Aiken re-enactment.

There are two other reasons why Longstreet isn't in the same hallowed rank as Lee, Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart, all Virginians.

Long after his commander was dead, Longstreet dared to publicly criticize Lee for his disastrous decision to make a frontal assault on Cemetery Ridge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Known as Pickett's Charge, the attack is considered the high-water mark of the Confederacy and the South's last, best chance of winning the war. Longstreet vehemently disagreed with Lee's decision to send 15,000 soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia across more than a mile of open ground to attack the heavily fortified Union line.

"Lee looks at his men and sees supermen, men who have been winning everywhere," Mr. Francis said. "Longstreet looked at the same men and said, 'We cannot do what you want to do with the men we've got.' He cannot say the words to start the charge. ... He was so upset about it because he thought his men were headed to a slaughter, and he was right."

The third reason for Longstreet's post-war infamy is rooted in the bitter politics of Reconstruction, when the South was occupied by Union troops, most ex-Confederates were disenfranchised and former slaves and black freemen held state and local office.

Republicans were seen as the enemy of all Southerners, but Longstreet, believing the South needed a voice in the party of Abraham Lincoln, joined the GOP and became President Grant's ambassador to Turkey. Grant, called Sam by his comrades, and Longstreet, called "Pete" by his father for his steadfast and hard-working habits and "Ol' Pete" by his fellow officers, were friends at West Point and renewed their bonds after the war.

This marked Longstreet for a vicious attack by the authors of the Lost Cause. Fellow generals such as Jubal Early and John Gordon blamed Longstreet for the loss at Gettysburg, saying he botched Lee's plan for a sunrise attack on that third, fateful day. Historians say there is no written evidence Lee had such a plan.

"The leaders of the Lost Cause wanted Lee to be without fault," said Mr. Francis, who notes that another Confederate camp unveiled a monument to Longstreet's birthplace on the grounds of the North Augusta Country Club in 1998. "It wasn't Lee who lost the Battle of Gettysburg - it had to be a subordinate. Since Longstreet disagreed with Lee at Gettysburg, he was the one who was demonized."

James Longstreet

Born: Jan. 8, 1821, in South Carolina

Hometown: Gainesville, Ga.

Nickname: Ol' Pete

Rank: Lieutenant general

Role in Civil War: Trusted adviser to Gen. Robert E. Lee, who told Lee it was time for the South to surrender at Appomattox, Va.

Politics: A rare Southern Republican, President Ulysses S. Grant's ambassador to Turkey

Reasons for criticism: Publicly censured Lee, blamed for Lee's loss at Gettysburg

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.