James Longstreet carried his wounds with him until the day he died at age 82.
He carried the memory of his five young children who died more than four decades before. Three of them passed away in Richmond, Va., while he was away at the battlefront.
The aging warrior also contended with the effects of a wound to his throat, the result of friendly fire during the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864.
That wound reopened after pneumonia set in during a visit to his daughter’s Gainesville, Ga., home in January 1904. He bled to death.
But perhaps the most enduring wound has been the one to his reputation.
The controversy about his conduct at the Battle of Gettysburg and his postwar support of the Republican Party, Reconstruction and suffrage for blacks dogged him to his grave at Gainesville’s Alta Vista Cemetery and for years afterward.
And while the debate continues, it now appears that the brilliant military tactician, may be winning the war — thanks in part to scholars and pop culture.
First came Michael Shaara’s historical novel “The Killer Angels,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Shaara’s book is character-driven, looking sympathetically through the eyes of commanders at Gettysburg.
Longstreet is shown as a father still grieving over the death of his children. His tactics are generally defensive, and he believes Lee’s momentous attack, known as “Pickett’s Charge,” is doomed before it begins on a hot July afternoon in 1863.
William Piston, a history professor at Missouri State University, published “Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant” in 1987.
The book “ reveals how Longstreet became, in the years after Appomattox, the Judas of the Lost Cause, the scapegoat for Lee’s and the South’s defeat.”
Six years later, the Ted Turner-backed movie “Gettysburg” came out. Based on “The Killer Angels,” the film featured Tom Berenger as “Old Pete” Longstreet.
The movie and books, along with a more recent study by historian Jeffrey D. Wert, have put Longstreet back in positive territory.
“I think he [Longstreet] is much less tarnished,” Piston says, referring to the title of his book.
Piston’s work, which details the attacks on Longstreet’s military skills and politics, ended with a statement that the general would forever be found wanting.
“I am happy to say I was wrong,” Piston states.
Longstreet’s most masterful moments were at Chickamauga and Second Manassas.
The veteran of Indian wars and the Mexican-American War was devoted and loyal to Gen. Robert E. Lee, who leaned heavily on Longstreet and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The latter was killed at Chancellorsville only a few months before Gettysburg.
Longstreet was a “rough gem” compared to the patrician Lee, says Joe Whitaker of the Longstreet Society. “He wasn’t polished.”
Vocal critics during his lifetime excoriated the Confederate general for perceived failures at Gettysburg and in eastern Tennessee.
This cabal, which included former generals Jubal Early and John Gordon, claimed Longstreet stubbornly resisted Lee’s plans, resulting in the loss of the battle – and perhaps the war.
They said Lee’s “War Horse,” his principal subordinate, was insubordinate at Gettysburg. That he wouldn’t support the attacks. That he moved his 14,000 troops in a slow manner.
Longstreet’s supporters counter this. Although Gettysburg may not have been his best effort, they say, the general fought effectively on Days 2 and 3.
“I think Longstreet did well on the second day,” says Piston. “I do not think he did a good job on the third day.” The scholar believes Longstreet should have had George Pickett’s division in proper position to support the day’s events.
Historian Robert K. Krick has long been a Longstreet critic, claiming the general sulked when forced at Gettysburg to go on the offensive rather than his preferred defensive stance.
Krick wrote that Longstreet was not prompt in organizing vital troop movements to attack on Day 2. The march was without vigor or leadership.
“The spectacle of a corps under arms, groping its way without a commander . . . makes one of the most pathetic vignettes in the army’s annals,” argues Krick, stating the loss of Jackson a year earlier left Lee without his best corps commanders.
Piston counters, saying Longstreet “could attack very powerfully when he thought it was appropriate.”
It’s the “appropriate” part of Longstreet that divides scholars. Did he underperform when he was overruled by Lee (above)?
According to the late historian Douglas Southall Freeman, author of the classic “Lee’s Lieutenants,” when Lee disagreed with Longstreet’s suggestion to flank federal troops and ordered him to attack the hill, a sullen Longstreet moved so slowly against Little Round Top that it gave the Yankees time to “dig in” and repulse his assault.
“Longstreet did not set a record for speed but he was not as slow as people would argue,” Piston says.
His supporters have claimed that Longstreet was correct in his reluctance to attack Little Round Top, and that Lee should have taken Longstreet’s advice. They also say Freeman re-evaluated his criticism of Longstreet later in life.
Dan Paterson, the general’s great-grandson, defends his ancestor’s conduct at Gettysburg.
“It’s wrong to blame one person” for the loss, says Paterson, a 50-year-old network engineer living in Centreville, Va. “Lee was culpable for the army group being spread out.”
And Piston says Longstreet was scrutinized when some wondered whether the war’s outcome would have been different if Jackson lived.
“The Civil War is seen as the everlasting ‘if’ search for alternate history,” says Piston.
Paterson dislikes Krick’s “personal attacks” on his great-grandfather and says Longstreet never disliked Lee, as Krick asserts. Krick did not return a message for comment on this article.
“My great-grandfather was not jealous” of Jackson, says Paterson. “He did have some envy when the legend began.”
Interestingly, Paterson, who gives talks about his ancestor, is a Civil War re-enactor who portrays both Union and Confederate soldiers. He has other kin who fought for the Union.
He scoffs at the “mythology” of those who demonized his great-grandfather.
“He was not a Virginian. There was favoritism” toward Lee and Jackson, says Paterson.
Joe Whitaker, Richard Pilcher and 200 others are the keepers of the general’s flame through the Gainesville-based Longstreet Society, housed in a hotel the general ran after the war.
Pilcher, the society’s president, says visitors to the Piedmont Hotel are a mixture of Longstreet admirers and detractors, particularly the former.
“The people we have are not your normal tourists,” says Pilcher, who, like Whitaker, learned about Longstreet’s tactics while a student at North Georgia College.
Longstreet’s principal admirers, according to Paterson, are military historians. Harold Knudsen says the flexible warrior was the Confederacy’s “most modern general.”
“We don’t seem to defend him any more. People understand what happened,” says Pilcher, who insists Longstreet was a better battlefield commander than Jackson. Longstreet understood the value of high ground and a clear line of fire, supporters say.
Whitaker says the general’s reputation has been “partially salvaged” in recent years.
The society’s treasurer, like many others, believes Longstreet was a bit naïve about how his post-war politics would play with fellow Southerners.
“He did not understand. He thought everyone was a pragmatic, having the common sense he had,” Whitaker says of Longstreet’s backing Reconstruction and joining the Republican Party. “What he did not take into account was that it was the party of Lincoln.”
“He led the charge and no one followed.”
Historians and family members portray Longstreet, who was born in South Carolina, as a proud and stubborn warrior who was a truly loyal lieutenant to Lee. He had a bit of a temper and, according to Shaara, worked to keep his drinking under control at Gettysburg.
“He was not a perfect man,” Pilcher says. “But he was not as bad as he was made out to be.”
After the war, Longstreet held several federal offices and was a friend of President Ulysses S. Grant and Dan Sickles, former foes on the battlefield.
While living in Louisiana, he led a black militia against unruly white supremacists.
Southerners did not forget that affront, or his Republican loyalties. While there is no evidence he was progressive on race, Longstreet thought giving blacks full citizenship and voting rights was the practical thing to do.
In his autobiography, “From Manassas to Appomattox,” Longstreet was at times combative, lashing back at his critics. Sometimes he overstated his case.
He attended several military reunions, including a few at which he was not invited. He was called a scalawag and traitor. Some residents of Gainesville would not sit near him at the Episcopal Church. Longstreet later converted to Catholicism.
Because of the controversy, monuments to Longstreet (Gainesville, Gettysburg and his birthplace) have been erected only in the past few years.
Deaf in later years, Longstreet also had eye cancer. His suffering came to an end while he and his second wife, Helen Dortch Longstreet, were visiting his daughter, who lived a few blocks away.
While despised by a generation of Southerners, Longstreet was lionized by soldiers and other loyalists.
Some 5,000 people thronged to his funeral. Several trains rolled up from Atlanta.
“I don’t think it was all out of curiosity,” says Whitaker.
Piston argues the country would have united much earlier if more Southerners were as “practical” as Longstreet, when it came to moving forward at the war’s end.
“I think he was brave,” Piston says.
More information on the Longstreet Society.
This article first appeared on Phil Gast’s blog: The Civil War Picket.