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General James Longstreet

The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier

About The Book

General James Longstreet fought in nearly every campaign of the Civil War, from Manassas (the first battle of Bull Run) to Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, and was present at the surrender at Appomattox. Yet, he was largely held to blame for the Confederacy's defeat at Gettysburg. General James Longstreet sheds new light on the controversial commander and the man Robert E. Lee called “my old war horse.”




The column of men marched up the street in the warmth of a late spring day. Numbering perhaps fifteen thousand and stretching back out of view, the marchers came on without a cadence in their strides or a symmetry, to their ranks. Many of them wore tattered old clothes; no two seemed to be dressed alike. At one point in the procession, the shredded remains of a battle flag, held together by red mosquito netting, rose above their heads. The huge crowd of onlookers, however, needed no flag: The sight of these marchers was enough. Everyone sensed that beside each man in the column walked a ghost.

The day was May 29, 1890, in Richmond, Virginia, a time for memories and ghosts. The previous week, the former capital of the Confederacy had been gripped with a "frenzy of Southern feeling," according to a newspaper reporter. Drygoods stores sold Confederate emblems; a huge Confederate flag draped across the facade of city, hall; residents decorated their homes; portraits of the South's greatest soldier, Robert E. Lee, hung conspicuously throughout the city; and thousands of invited guests and visitors spilled from railroad cars. The city seemingly resonated with the sounds of the past.

The occasion, long planned and anticipated, was the unveiling of an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee. Sculptor J. A. C. Mercie had designed and created the monument to the former commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and a coterie of Lee's lieutenants in the army -- Jubal A. Early, Fitzhugh Lee, John B. Gordon, and others -- assisted in the preparations. Invitations were extended to former officers, units, and veterans of the Confederacy's most famous army. In the capital of the long-dead Confederacy, the justness of the Lost Cause and the greatness of Lee's military genius would be affirmed.

At noon on the 29th, the chief marshal and the general's nephew, Fitzhugh Lee, mounted on an iron-gray horse, led the parade down Broad Street. Behind him came bands playing music and ranks of young men in uniform, striding forth with the assurance of their years and with the dreams of untested warriors. The crowds of spectators lining the street watched this passage of youth closely, but they were there to see and honor the veterans of Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Appomattox.

As the old soldiers -- the youth of an earlier generation who had christened the Confederacy with their sacrifices for four long years -- appeared, the onlookers cheered. At the head of the column rode John Gordon, the ramrod-straight Georgian who had led Lee's army in that final march on the road at Appomattox. Behind him and interspersed among the ranks of the veterans came other generals -- Early, Joseph E. Johnston, Wade Hampton, Cadmus M. Wilcox, Joseph Kershaw, Charles Field, Joseph Wheeler, and E. Porter Alexander. The crowd greeted each of them with additional cheering.

But as the carriage of one former general passed, the response of the people increased, rippling along the parade route and rising in volume like a volley of musketry, fired from one end of a battleline to the other. When former soldiers in the column recognized their old chief, they broke ranks, stopping the procession. A few of the men volunteered to lead the horses throughout the route. At the platform near the covered monument, the general, assisted by one of his former aides, stepped from the carriage and took his place on the stand. The assembled veterans emitted a yell, that eerie Southern battle cry, that had echoed across numerous bloody fields.

James Longstreet, former lieutenant general and commander of the First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, had arrived. His journey to this place and time had been long. For the better part of the past two decades he had been an apostate, a scapegoat for the majority of Southerners. His record in the war had been vilified and falsified, his devotion to the Confederacy had been questioned. He defended himself in print, but did it poorly and only enhanced the efforts of his detractors. The organizers of this event had not invited him until some of his former artillerymen insisted that he attend as their escort, and he accepted. As he sat down, he knew that to many of his former comrades on the platform he was an unwanted presence.

On this day for memories, however, the veterans of the army remembered James Longstreet as a soldier and saluted him. They knew he belonged there, for he had earned their respect and devotion from the beginning at First Manassas to the end at Appomattox. Although he now looked "old, feeble, indeed badly broken up" to one of his former staff officers, they recalled him as a robust, powerful, and tireless man whose battlefield courage and sincere concern for their welfare had few equals in the army. He had the soul of a soldier, and they never forgot it.

So he sat before the men he cared most about, at the foot of a monument dedicated to the general who had called him "my old war-horse." It was as it should have been -- a day for memories, a day for ghosts, a day for soldiers.

James Longstreet was born in the Edgefield District, South Carolina, on January 8, 1821, the third son and fifth child of James and Mary Ann Dent Longstreet. His parents owned a cotton plantation in the Piedmont section of northeastern Georgia near what would become the village of Gainesville. Neither parent was a native of the South Carolina-Georgia border region -- James was born in New Jersey; Mary, in Maryland. Both belonged to families whose ancestry in America dated from the colonial period.

The first Longstreet in the New World was Dirck Stoffels Langestraet, who emigrated to the Dutch colony of New Netherlands in 1657. Three generations later the family name had been anglicized, and on October 6, 1759, William Longstreet, James's grandfather, was born in Monmouth County, New Jersey. William inherited the independent and roving spirit of the Longstreet males. In the mid-1780s, he married Hannah Fitz Randolph, born on March 23, 1761, the daughter of James and Deliverance Coward Fitz Randolph. The Fitz Randolphs, whose ancestors first settled in Puritan Massachusetts in 1630, had lived in New Jersey for over a century. Following their marriage, William and Hannah moved to Augusta, Georgia, on the Savannah River. Regarded in the family as a "genius," William was a tinkerer and inventor with a keen interest in steam engines.

Within two years of his arrival in Augusta, William had constructed a steamboat and launched it on the nearby river. The craft had no paddle wheel, but a series of long poles driven by the engine against the river's bottom. He utilized the principle subsequently adopted by keelboatmen, but his steamboat was too mechanically complex to be reliable. When he failed to secure local financial backing, he wrote to Georgia Governor Thomas Telfair on September 26, 1790, requesting state funds for his invention. Telfair rejected the proposal, and William's experiment ended.

In his letter to the governor, William wrote: "I make no doubt but that you have often heard of my steamboat, and as often heard it laughed at." In fact, his steamboat had become the subject of numerous jokes and doggerel poetry in Augusta. His fellow townsmen called him "Billy Boy, the dreamer." But despite being regarded as an eccentric, William served as a city commissioner and as justice of the peace.

He continued his tinkering with steam engines, eventually building a steam cotton gin in St. Mary's, Georgia. About 1800, William and Hannah crossed into South Carolina and purchased land for a cotton plantation in the Edgefield District, fourteen miles north of Augusta. They prospered as planters, with William buying a second residence in Augusta that the family lived in periodically until William's death on September 1, 1814.

During their thirty, years of marriage, Hannah bore five children. James, their eldest son, was born in New Jersey, while the four other children were born in Georgia. Although devoted parents, William and Hannah fostered in their children the family tradition of independence, self-reliance, and a roving nature. Sometime after the family moved to South Carolina, James struck out on his own, heading north and west to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. There he purchased land and began raising cotton.

During the next decade James worked his farm and occasionally visited his parents' home and Augusta. In the latter place, he met Mary. Ann Dent. Her father was Thomas Marshall Dent, a cousin of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, and her mother was Ann Magruder Dent. Native Marylanders whose ancestors had settled in the colony in the 1670s, Mary Ann, her parents, and grandparents -- George and Anna Maria Truman Dent -- had relocated to Augusta in 1812. How long James and Mary Ann courted is uncertain, but they married in 1814, the year William Longstreet died.

James brought Mary to his growing plantation, and before year's end she gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Anna. Three years later, in 1817, a son, William, was born. During the next three years, another daughter, Sarah Jane, and another son, John, were born, but both of them died in infancy. Then, in 1820, Mary was pregnant for a fifth time. Probably after Christmas, she traveled to her mother-in-law's home in South Carolina and there gave birth to the couple's third son, James. Although the future soldier would be a native South Carolinian, he always regarded Georgia as his home. His mother brought him to that state within weeks of his birth.

The Piedmont section of northeastern Georgia, where the Longstreet farm lay, retained many vestiges of the frontier area that it had been only a few years before. It was a land of few farms, few inhabitants, and fewer towns amid a sea of forests and wilderness clearings. It was a land that required physical labor, patience, and resilience on the part of the settlers who went there to carve a farm or cobble together a village. It was a land that changed adults and shaped children.

Here the newborn son, named for his father, spent the first nine years of his life. With sister Anna and brother William as guides and mentors, young James romped and explored across the family's fields and into the nearby woods. Farm chores shared the children's time with hunting, fishing, riding, and other playful activities. Although young James would not write of his childhood in his memoirs, these early years in northeastern Georgia fostered the characteristics of the future man and soldier. He grew tall, strong, and rugged with a love of the outdoors and of physical activity. From his lineage he inherited independence of thought and self-confidence; from his surroundings, self-reliance, tirelessness, and a work ethic. Although reserved in speech and manner, he learned the value of blunt talk and expressing his opinions in a forthright manner. He possessed little refinement or education.

By the time James was nine years old, the Longstreet children numbered seven. From 1822 to 1829, Mary gave birth to four daughters -- Henrietta (1822), Rebecca (1824), Eliza Parke (1828), and Maria Nelson (1829). The elder James provided well for his growing family. In a region where most of the farmers grew tobacco and corn without slave labor, James Longstreet earned a respectable income with cotton, worked by his modest force of slaves. But with such a number of children, the father had to plan ahead for their future education. In 1830, the father decided that his second and namesake son needed a good education if he was to pursue his father's chosen goal -- admittance to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Young James, whom the family called Peter or Pete, spoke often of a military career. Childish dreams of glory filled his head as he read books about Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon, and George Washington. To his practical father, such youthful longings could be gratified with an education at little expense to the family if the nine-year-old warrior gained acceptance to West Point. With this in mind, father and son traveled in the fall of 1830 to Augusta, where James's younger brother and family resided. Here the boy could live with his aunt and uncle and attend Richmond County Academy, the state's finest preparatory school.

The Augusta that welcomed the youthful newcomer had changed measurably since the mid-1780s when grandfather William amused onlookers with his peculiar steamboat. Its population numbered five thousand, making it the second largest city in the state. It bustled with activity, from the numerous commercial establishments along the streets to the noise and sweat found on the Savannah River wharfs. Young James had probably visited the city before, but to live in it, away from his parents, brother, and sisters, must have been daunting for a nine-year-old. Perhaps even more daunting was the knowledge that he would be living with his uncle, Augustus B. Longstreet.

Of all of eccentric William's children, Augustus B. Longstreet was the most remarkable. He was even exceptional from the very beginning of his life, weighing a reported seventeen pounds at his birth on September 22, 1790. After the family moved to South Carolina, his father, William, sent Augustus back to Augusta where he enrolled in the Richmond County Academy. A precocious lad, Augustus did not like the rigid atmosphere at the academy and eventually was expelled. In 1811, he entered Yale University as a junior, graduating two years later with a bachelor of arts degree. From New Haven he went to Litchfield, Connecticut, spending over a year studying at Judge Tapping Reeve's renowned law school. He returned to Georgia and in 1815 was admitted to the bar of Richmond County. His father had died the year before.

A gifted conversationalist with a keen sense of humor, Augustus drew clients to his law practice. On March 3, 1817, he married Frances Eliza Parke of Greensboro, Georgia. Eventually, Augustus and Frances had three children, a son and two daughters. In 1821, he was elected to the state legislature; the following year, he was appointed a judge on the superior court and given a master of arts degree by the University of Georgia. Elective politics still attracted Augustus, and in 1824 he ran for the United States House of Representatives. During the campaign, however, his son was stricken with an illness and died. A deeply grieved Augustus withdrew from the race.

Augustus Longstreet was an enormously talented, well-educated, and personable man. His intellect, perception, and humor, combined with an intense earnestness, made him a formidable presence in a courtroom or on a political stump. A devout individual, he even found time to serve as a licensed lay speaker in the Methodist Church. Into such a man's house, young James Longstreet arrived in the fall of 1830. The nephew would spend the next eight years of his life at "Westover," his aunt and uncle's plantation located at the city's edge. Augustus, Frances, and their two daughters embraced the boy as a member of their family. Although an education at the academy brought him to Augusta, when he departed as a young man, much of the learning he carried with him occurred within the walls of Westover.

Young James Longstreet entered Richmond County Academy on October 7, 1830. Since 1802, the school had occupied a two-story brick building with attached wings on Telfair Street between Centre and Washington streets. During the fall and winter, the school began at 8:30 A.M and concluded at 5:00 P.M. In the warmth and heat of spring and summer, students reported an hour earlier and stayed an hour later. The only vacation from the academic year lasted roughly seven weeks, from mid-August to early October.

The academy had acquired its reputation with a tested curriculum and a strict discipline code. Classes were divided between lower and upper levels. Instruction embodied the accepted course of study of the era -- mathematics, grammar, composition, Latin, Greek, and oratory. Breaches of conduct brought stern punishment; teachers even regulated activities outside the classroom. But the academy's regime attracted parents, and by 1830 over three hundred students filed daily into the brick school on Telfair Street.

Like his uncle before him, James Longstreet did not like the school. For an active nine-year-old recently removed from the freedom of his family's fields and woods, the atmosphere of the academy must have been smothering. He was not alone among the students in this attitude, but he never seemed to adapt and his classwork reflected this. He preferred the outdoors where the physical, not the intellectual, counted.

Westover thus beckoned to James every day upon his release from the academy. There he could romp across his uncle's acres, enjoying the company of his cousins or that of the slave children on the plantation. He grew taller and muscular, with a stamina that seemingly had no bounds. These campaigns in the foothills of the Appalachians and on the fields of Westover prepared him for future campaigns. By the time he left for West Point in 1838, he had nearly attained his adult height of six feet two inches, on a sturdy, powerful frame.

Before then, however, other lessons were absorbed at Westover, none more important, perhaps, than the one Uncle Augustus taught him in the fall of 1832 and the winter of 1833. For a few years tensions between the sections of the nation had been simmering over the question of a tariff. Southerners opposed a duty on imported goods, arguing that it imposed financial burdens on them while it protected Northern manufacturers. In the waning months of 1832, the issue boiled over in South Carolina.

The guiding spirit and principal architect of this so-called Nullification Crisis was the former vice president of the United States, John C. Calhoun. Fifty years old in 1832, Calhoun had served in government in various elective and appointive positions for over two decades. An outspoken nationalist during his early years, Calhoun's views narrowed into sectionalism during the 1820s. As South Carolina's cotton economy appeared to stagnate during that decade, the Palmetto State citizens blamed the federal government's tariff policy. When Congress passed another duty act in 1828, Carolinians denounced it as a "tariff of abominations." Many of them advocated secession from the Union if the measure was not overturned. For the ambitious Calhoun, it was a challenge to maintain his leadership among Carolinians while not jeopardizing his opportunity to secure the prize he coveted -- the presidency.

In 1828, the state legislature published his work The South Carolina Exposition and Protest anonymously. In it Calhoun argued that the Constitution had created a compact of sovereign states with the federal government as their "agent." If Congress passed a law of dubious constitutionality, such as the tariff, each state had the right to nullify that statute. To Calhoun the rights of the individual states had not been subordinated to the power of the federal government with the adoption of the Constitution.

Finally, in 1832, as extremists in South Carolina, persuaded by Calhoun's theory, clamored for action, he resigned as Andrew Jackson's vice president and was elected by the legislature to the U.S. Senate. In the state, "nullifiers" won a referendum on the issue, held a special convention, and voted the tariff law null and void as of February 1, 1833. In Washington, President Jackson erupted in a fury, blaming Calhoun. He called the act of the Carolina convention treason and sought authority from Congress to use the army and navy to enforce the law if necessary. Behind the scenes, Jackson sought a compromise on the tariff, and when Carolinians failed to secure the support of any other Southern state, the crisis ended as South Carolina accepted the law in March 1833.

The controversy gripped the nation and was a portent of civil war. Few if any Americans outside of South Carolina or Washington, D.C., watched the events more closely than Augustus Longstreet. He was a friend of Calhoun; both men had attended Yale and had studied under Judge Reeve, and both were inflamed by the doctrine of states' rights. Westover served as the meeting place for fellow states' rights Georgians in the city. Augustus began publishing a newspaper, the Augusta State's Rights Sentinel, in 1833. Although the intensity of the issue subsided, Augustus remained a fervid advocate of the ominous doctrine.

At Westover his nephew surely heard the political arguments and witnessed his uncle's passion. Political theories and constitutional nuances never appealed to him. But what twelve-year-old James imbibed from his uncle was the pure stuff, the states' rights argument undiluted with the countervailing view of the indissolubility of the Union. Years later when James, the man and the officer, faced the choice, he did not hesitate.

Most important for James, however, 1833 brought a personal tragedy. While on a visit to Augusta, his father died during a cholera epidemic. His family -- a sixth sister, Sarah Jane, had been born in 1831 -- briefly resided in Augusta, and then his mother, for reasons unexplained, decided to live permanently in Morgan County in northern Alabama. James had evidently returned each August to the farm near Gainesville, but his mother's decision to move hundreds of miles away almost precluded such visits. Increasingly, Westover became his home, and his mother passed out of his life -- he barely mentioned her in his memoirs. Uncle Augustus and Aunt Frances received his affections.

James remained at Westover for another five years. During that time he attended the academy, enjoyed the bustle and color of the city and the plantation, and matured into a fine young man. Uncle Augustus kept active in politics and in the church and published his renowned humorous look at the common folk of the state, Georgia Scenes. In 1837, Augustus tried to secure an appointment to West Point for James. The vacancy in the congressional district that included Augusta had already been filled, so Augustus turned to a kinsman, Reuben Chapman, whose First District of Alabama included Morgan County where Mary Longstreet lived. John Calhoun and Governor George McDuffie of South Carolina used their influence, and in December, Congressman Chapman recommended James Longstreet to Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett. The appointment was offered, and in March 1838, James accepted.

Three months later, in June 1838, James Longstreet left Westover and traveled north to New York and the career he had sought since he was a young boy fascinated by the stories of earlier warriors. Reporting to the academy during the first week of July, he was mustered in as a member of the class of 1842, one of over eighty whose ranks would be depleted during the next four years by the disciplinary and academic rigors of the academy.

The United States Military Academy was one of the finest colleges in the country, but when Longstreet arrived in 1838, it was an institution in transition. Since 1794, a school for the instruction of engineers and artillerists had been located on the bluff above the Hudson River, thirty-seven miles north of New York City. In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson created the Corps of Engineers, directing that it be based at West Point and that the army's chief engineer serve as superintendent of a military academy to be established there.

The academy floundered during its early years, with modest appropriations and few cadets. The War of 1812 demonstrated the need for a trained officer corps, however, and in 1817, Sylvanus Thayer became superintendent. A former instructor at the academy and an engineer during the conflict, Thayer had studied military operations in Europe before returning to West Point. An austere man, his uniform always impeccable, Thayer raised the standards of instruction and instituted a rigid code of conduct. Although the cadets came to have a thorough dislike for the superintendent, he transformed the academy. Unfortunately, Thayer's reforms lapsed under his successor, Major Rene D. DeRussy. When the fourth classmen reported in the summer of 1838, the academy was awaiting a new superintendent.

To novice cadets and first-time visitors, West Point initially appeared as a place of stone, brick, and mortar. Thayer had not only addressed the instructional and disciplinary needs of the academy, he had overseen the construction of new buildings. A library, laboratory, chapel, two barracks that housed the corps of over two hundred cadets, and an enormous mess hall that could feed them all at one sitting comprised the core of the academy. Nearby, small wooden houses served as the residences of the superintendent, professors, and instructors. Within the barracks, cadets shared rooms, sleeping on the floor until 1838 when cast-iron beds were provided. Small fireplaces in each room warmed the residents during the cold Hudson Valley winters.

Cadet life was strictly regimented. Routine characterized the days, weeks, and months. "At West Point all is monotony," wrote a cadet of the era. "What is said of one day will answer for it almost years after."

Nothing typified the sameness of academy life more than the meals. Beef was the staple -- boiled, baked, or roasted for dinner; smoked or cold sliced for breakfast and supper. Twice a week the cooks served beef soup. Boiled potatoes, pudding, bread, and coffee supplemented the diet. The quality of the food was so abysmal, however, that cadets often went hungry. They dipped cockroaches from the soup, picked bugs out of the sugar, spread rancid butter on the bread, and covered it with sour molasses.

The menu at the mess hall drove countless cadets to risk punishment by sneaking off the post to the adjacent village of Highland Falls. There, since 1824, Benny Havens and his wife operated a tavern that catered to the cadets. Mrs. Havens's specialities of buckwheat cakes and roast turkey, washed down with liquor, lured the young men. They could relax, carouse, listen to Benny's stories, and purchase their meals and drinks on credit. To academy authorities, the tavern was the source of evil, and when Thayer caught Benny smuggling liquor onto the post, he banished him and his wife from the grounds. They were the only citizens in the country, specifically banned from West Point. But Benny Havens outlasted Thayer and a number of successors, remaining in business until after the Civil War.

Academy authorities regulated cadet conduct with a system of demerits. Called "crimes" during this period, demerits were issued to the cadets for various offenses that regulated every aspect of their behavior. The fledgling officers earned demerits for tardiness or absence at roll calls for meals, chapel, drill, and inspections; for dirty quarters or equipment; for visiting after taps; for disturbances during study hours; for unshaven faces and uncut hair; for smoking in the barracks during the evening; for improper behavior toward cadet officers and academy officers; and for altercations or fights. If a cadet earned two hundred demerits in a year, he faced expulsion from the academy. The system was so encompassing that only one cadet had passed through the four years at West Point without a demerit -- Robert E. Lee of Virginia, class of 1829.

Although the demanding regime installed by Thayer had waned during the mid-1830s, half of the new cadets who reported in the summer of 1838 would probably be gone before graduation in four years. But the class of 1842 proved to be an exception to the normal attrition rate. In fact, the class proved to be one of the better ones of the decade. Its ranks held ten future Confederate generals, including Longstreet, Daniel Harvey Hill, Richard H. Anderson, Lafayette McLaws, Alexander P. Stewart, Gustavus W. Smith, and Earl Van Dorn; and seven future Union commanders, including William S. Rosecrans, John Pope, Abner Doubleday, George Sykes, and John Newton. Not all of them were brilliant officers in that conflict, but several attained army, corps, or district command.

Longstreet and his fellow classmates' introduction to academy life was the annual summer camp held during July and August. The corps moved from the barracks to the academy plain, where the cadets lived in wall tents during the encampment. The instructors maintained a rigorous daily schedule of artillery and infantry drills, interspersed with fencing and dancing lessons. Dignitaries from Washington, D.C., visited. Parades by the cadets in their gray coats, white pantaloons, and black bell-crowned leather caps attracted throngs of civilians, especially young women. Every Saturday night the female visitors enjoyed the company of the cadets at a weekly ball. At the end of the summer encampment, the young warriors in gray danced with their dates in the candlelight of a grand ball. It was a night long remembered, for within days life at the academy resumed its challenging rhythm.

September ushered in the academic year at West Point, and in 1838 it brought a new superintendent, Major Richard Delafield. A short, pudgy man with an enormous nose, Delafield was devoted to the academy and to the Corps of Engineers. He was appointed to reinvigorate the academic curriculum and to restore the old Thayer code of conduct. Within weeks of his arrival, the corps came to have an abiding distaste for the fidgety superintendent who enjoyed ferreting around, sniffing out delinquent cadets and alleged troublemakers. The cadets soon called him Dicky the Punster because of the sarcasm he frequently used with the corps members.

"Major Delafield," groused cadet Richard S. Ewell, "seems to pride himself upon having everything different from what it used to be." The new superintendent's major innovation in the curriculum was the introduction of cavalry instruction in 1839, with the assignment of a sergeant, five dragoons, and a dozen horses to the academy. A year later Delafield secured thirty horses and harness for a battery of light artillery. The trained engineer's appreciation for the role of the mounted arm and mobile artillery would add measurably to the skills of academy graduates and to the future army.

Delafield also brought his nervous energy to bear on the basic curriculum of the academy and imposed higher standards for classwork. The curriculum for the first two years focused on mathematics, French, drawing, and English grammar. As second classmen, the cadets struggled with philosophy, chemistry, and advanced drawing. Only in a cadet's final year did the instruction address military science, with additional classes in ethics, mineralogy, and geology. Each January and June the cadets endured lengthy examinations that determined their class rank. Failures in the examinations meant expulsion.

The academic demands challenged James Longstreet from the outset, and he struggled in the classroom throughout his four years at West Point. By his own admission in his memoirs, he "had more interest in the school of the soldier, horsemanship, sword exercise, and the outside game of foot-ball than in the academic courses." Longstreet reacted to the course of study at West Point much as he did to his preparatory schooling at the Richmond County Academy -- with dislike.

Longstreet ranked in the bottom third of his class in every subject during the four years. In a few subjects he stood near the bottom. At the end of his second year, for instance, he stood seventy-first in drawing and seventy-second in French in a class of seventy-six members. It was not much better in mathematics or English grammar. During his second class year, 1840-41, he ranked sixtieth in chemistry, with only one member of the class below him. In the January examinations of that year, he failed mechanics, arguing later in his memoirs that he saw no sense in pulleys. Two days after he failed, he took a second test and passed. In the June examinations, he scored the highest grade in the use of pulleys.

During his final year at the academy, Longstreet earned mixed grades in the courses devoted to military science -- artillery, engineering, and infantry tactics. In artillery he finished the year ranked fifty-first in a class of fifty-six. In engineering he fared slightly better, standing forty-eighth. The engineering course was taught by Dennis Hart Mahan, the academy's most renowned instructor. An academy graduate, ranking first in the class of 1824, Mahan was a "slim skeleton of a man," said a cadet, who was "the most particular, crabbed, exacting man that I ever saw." In his shrill voice, Mahan taught the science of military engineering, devoting only one week to the art of war. To his students, Mahan stressed swiftness of movement, maneuver, and the use of interior lines of operation. He emphasized the capture of strategic points instead of the destruction of enemy armies. Hundreds of cadets left the academy with Mahan's principles, carrying them into campaigns of the Civil War. Although Longstreet's grades in Mahan's class indicated only a modest grasp of engineering principles and the art of war, he had listened and learned.

Longstreet achieved his highest ranking in the course on infantry tactics, standing fortieth in the class that year. In contrast, he stood next to last in ethics. By any measure, Longstreet was a poor to mediocre student at West Point. He never enjoyed the strictures or demands of the classroom; he relished physical activities. When he graduated in 1842, he ranked fifty-fourth in a class of fifty-six.

His disciplinary record was little better than his academic standing. "As I was of a large and robust physique," Longstreet said many years later, "I was at the head of most larks and games." He committed nearly all the common sins of West Point cadets -- visiting after taps, absences from roll calls, dirty room, long hair, making a disturbance during study hours, and disobeying orders. He compiled only 58 demerits during his first two years, but as a second classman, he accumulated 164 demerits, ranking 211th in conduct in a corps of 219 cadets. He improved his behavior during his final year, earning only 102 demerits. Longstreet was neither a model student nor a gentleman.

Longstreet was popular with his fellow corpsmen. His leadership in pranks, his sense of humor, his exuberance for the rough-and-tumble, and his open disregard for academy rules made him an appealing companion to his youthful classmates. They came to call him Old Pete, after his family's nickname, and according to his second wife, he was voted the most handsome cadet in the class.

The closest friendships he forged at the academy, in most cases, endured for a lifetime and had profound effects on his career as a soldier. Among upperclassmen, Virginian George Thomas, class of 1840, became a valued companion for two years. Within his own. class, his inner circle of friends included William Rosecrans, John Pope, Alexander Stewart, Harvey Hill, and Lafayette McLaws. At one time or another, Longstreet roomed with Rosecrans, Pope, and Stewart. Rosecrans was a studious Ohioan who assisted Longstreet with classwork. Of this group, Longstreet compiled the lowest grades and the most demerits. And of this group, except for Pope, all had a future rendezvous on a terrible battlefield in northern Georgia.

Longstreet found his best friend, however, among the class of 1843 -- Ulysses S. Grant. An Ohioan, Grant was a reluctant cadet, admitting in his memoirs that "a military life had no charms for me"; he did not expect to remain in the army if he graduated from the academy. What attracted the two cadets to each other is uncertain, and they were an unlikely pair. Grant was reserved and serious; Longstreet was fun-loving and carefree. Grant never joined Longstreet in the pranks and games because, as Longstreet argued, he had a "delicate frame." Despite his physical size and strength, Grant excelled at horsemanship and was regarded as the finest rider in the entire corps of cadets. In his memoirs, Longstreet described Grant, whom his friends called Sam, as "of noble, generous heart, a lovable character, a valued friend." Although they would choose opposite allegiances in 1861, their friendship never wavered. Irony walked with many friends across the grounds of West Point.

James Longstreet was twenty-one years old when he was graduated from the academy on July 1, 1842. Brevetted a second lieutenant of infantry, he had fulfilled a father's hope and a young boy's dreams. It had not come without a struggle, and the training he had received was only a beginning. When he left West Point, he headed home on furlough to Georgia to spend some time with Uncle Augustus and Aunt Frances before reporting to his assignment with the Fourth Infantry at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. A soldier's journey had begun.

Copyright © 1993 by Jeffry D. Wert

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Jeffry D. Wert is the author of eight previous books on Civil War topics, most recently Cavalryman of the Lost Cause and The Sword of Lincoln. His articles and essays on the Civil War have appeared in many publications, including Civil War Times Illustrated, American History Illustrated, and Blue and Gray. A former history teacher at Penns Valley High School, he lives in Centre Hall, Pennsylvania, slightly more than one hour from the battlefield at Gettysburg.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (December 1, 1994)
  • Length: 528 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780671892876

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Raves and Reviews

John Eisenhower The New York Times Book Review For those who cut their teeth on such historians as Douglas Southall Freeman and Bruce Catton, General James Longstreet provides insights and viewpoints well worth the time and effort to read it.

Stephen B. Oates author of Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths A brilliant, provocative, riveting life, so much so that I found it impossible to put down. If I had to recommend just one biography of a Confederate military figure, this would be it.

Edward Colimore The Philadelphia Inquirer The best biography to date on this controversial soldier's life: thoroughly researched, fair and totally convincing.

Lynwood Abram Houston Chronicle A solid and richly detailed piece of military history. It casts strong light on a talented, complex and fascinating figure.

Gary Anderson The Washington Times A "must read" for Civil War buffs.

John J. Hennessy author of Return to Bull Run This provocative, well-written study should stand in the front rank of Confederate military biography.

Albert Castel author of Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 By far the best biography yet to be written of Lee's "old war horse."

Alan T. Nolan author of Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History Jeffry D. Wert gives us a historian's view of the general....[An] excellent addition to Civil War literature.

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