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A Traitor to the Traitors

Illustrations by Justin Jenkins

Editor’s Note: This article is part of “On Reconstruction,” a project about America’s most radical experiment.

During the summer of 1997, my wife and I picked up our 9-year-old daughter from a ballet camp in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and drove to the nearby Gettysburg National Military Park, which they had never seen and I barely remembered from a boyhood visit. The park’s presentation of history left much to be desired. The visitor center’s small museum and the numerous monuments scattered across the battlefield conveyed a great deal about how the battle had been fought in July 1863, while offering almost no explanation of why the combatants were fighting. The park commemorated the Union’s greatest military victory, but its emotional centerpiece was the disastrous southern assault known as Pickett’s Charge, identified, in the romantic glow of nostalgia, as the “high-water mark” of the Confederacy. In labels accompanying the display of historic artifacts and images, the words valor and glory were almost always applied to soldiers who fought for the South, not for the Union.

That the place where the Civil War reached its turning point had become a shrine to the courage of those who fought to destroy the nation and preserve slavery should not have been a surprise. It has long been a commonplace that the South lost the Civil War but won the battle over historical memory. For decades, almost from the moment of surrender, the ideology of the Lost Cause shaped both popular and scholarly understanding of the conflict.

As Elizabeth R. Varon observes in Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South, her compelling new biography of James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee’s second in command, the Lost Cause was far more than a military narrative. It provided a comprehensive account of the war’s origins, conduct, and consequences. The conflict, in this telling, had little to do with slavery, but instead was caused, depending on which book you read, by the protective tariff, arguments over states’ rights, or white southerners’ desire for individual liberty. Confederate soldiers were defeated not by superior generalship or greater fighting spirit but by the Union’s advantages in manpower, resources, and industrial technology. And the nation’s victory was marred by what followed: the era of Reconstruction, portrayed as a time of corruption and misgovernment, when the southern white population was subjected to the humiliation of “Negro domination.” This account of history was easily understandable and, like all ideologies, most convincing to those who benefited from it—proponents of white supremacy.

Just how widely and publicly memorialized the Lost Cause narrative remained more than 150 years later became glaringly clear in the fallout from tragic events such as the Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre in 2015; the deadly altercation in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017; and the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in 2020. The legacy of slavery was propelled to center stage in today’s culture wars. With unexpected rapidity, the Confederate battle flag came down from many public buildings. And dozens of monuments to southern military leaders—most of them erected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to help provide historical legitimacy for the Jim Crow system of racial inequality, then being codified into law—were removed from their pedestals.

[From the June 2021 issue: Why Confederate lies live on]

Of course, omission, not simply falsehood, can be a form of lying (as Alessandra Lorini, an Italian historian, noted earlier this year in an excellent survey of debates about historical monuments, titled Le Statue Bugiarde, or, roughly, “Statues That Lie”). For many years, the Civil War was remembered as a family quarrel among white Americans in which their Black countrymen played no significant role—a fiction reflected in the paucity of memorials indicating that enslaved men and women had been active agents in shaping the course of events. Lately, some historical erasures have begun to be remedied. For example, a memorial honoring Robert Smalls, the enslaved Civil War hero who famously sailed a Confederate vessel out of Charleston Harbor and turned it over to the Union navy, and later served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, is now on display in Charleston’s Waterfront Park.

Back when we visited, the Gettysburg battlefield was beginning to be swept up in changing views of history. The site is strewn with monuments, memorials, markers, and plaques—1,328 of them, according to the National Park Service, approximately a quarter of which memorialize Confederate officers and regiments. (Visitors sometimes ask guides whether all these monuments “got in the way of the battle.”) The Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation, which jointly administer the site, were raising funds to build a new museum and visitor center. And in 1998, an equestrian statue was installed of James Longstreet, one of the Confederacy’s most successful generals, present at the battle but never before memorialized at Gettysburg. Longstreet had warned Lee in vain that Pickett’s Charge courted disaster. (To Lee’s credit, after the attack, which left about half of the 12,500 Confederate troops dead or wounded, he declared, “All this has been my fault.”)

But the defeat at Gettysburg was not what explained Longstreet’s exclusion from the pantheon of southern heroes. Rather, his conduct during Reconstruction was the problem—an assessment that was endorsed by the branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans that commissioned his statue. The general, the group explained, was being honored for his “war service,” not his “postwar activities.” What were those activities? After the war, Longstreet had emerged as a singular figure: the most prominent white southerner to join the Republican Party and proclaim his support for Black male suffrage and officeholding. Leading the biracial Louisiana militia and the New Orleans Metropolitan Police, he also battled violent believers in white supremacy.

Among the challenges of writing the history of the Reconstruction period is avoiding the language devised by the era’s contemporary opponents as terms of vilification. One such word is scalawag, applied to a white southerner who supported Reconstruction. White-supremacist Democrats viewed scalawags, who could be found in many parts of the South, as traitors to their race and region. The largest number were small farmers in up-country counties where slavery had not been a major presence before the Civil War—places such as the mountainous areas of western North Carolina and northern Alabama and Georgia. There, many white residents had opposed secession and more than a few had enlisted in the Union army. Even though supporting Reconstruction required them to overcome long-standing prejudices and forge a political alliance with Black voters, up-country scalawags saw Black male suffrage as the only way to prevent pro-Confederate plantation owners from regaining political power in the South. All scalawags were excoriated in the white southern press, but none as viciously as Longstreet.

Longstreet’s life (1821–1904) spanned the era of sectional conflict, Civil War, and Reconstruction. Although unique in many ways, his postwar career illuminates both the hopes inspired by the end of slavery and the powerful obstacles to change. To write his biography requires a command of numerous strands of the era’s complex history. Varon, a history professor at the University of Virginia, is the author of a general account of the conflict. She has also written books about the coming of the war and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and is as adept at guiding the reader through the intricacies of Civil War military campaigns as she is at explaining the byzantine factional politics of Reconstruction Louisiana. Her knowledge of the historical context is matched by her balanced appraisal of Longstreet’s attitudes, personal and political.

Longstreet’s unusual postwar political career, Varon insists, did not arise from lack of enthusiasm for slavery or doubts about southern independence. The owner of several slaves, he was a true believer in the Confederate cause. His grandfather was a plantation owner in Edgefield District, South Carolina, widely known as a center of cotton production, proslavery ideology, and secessionism. He was brought up by his uncle Augustus Longstreet, a prominent jurist who made very clear his belief in Black inferiority. Educated at West Point, Longstreet resigned from the U.S. Army in 1861 to join the Confederate war effort. Varon points out that unlike Lee, who on occasion recklessly risked casualties that his army could not afford by attacking Union forces, Longstreet preferred to fight on the defensive. This is why he advised Lee not to send Major General George E. Pickett’s troops to assault the well-fortified Union lines at Gettysburg. But defenders of the Lost Cause—especially those who could never forgive Longstreet’s strong embrace of political rights for former slaves—would blame him retroactively for the defeat at Gettysburg, accusing him of sabotaging Pickett’s Charge by deliberately arriving late on the battlefield with his troops.

[Michel Paradis: The Lost Cause’s long legacy]

Longstreet was at Lee’s side in the tiny village of Appomattox Court House in April 1865 when a note arrived from Ulysses S. Grant demanding the surrender of Lee’s army to avert further bloodshed. Longstreet, who had known Grant since their West Point days, was impressed by the leniency of his old friend’s terms of surrender, which allowed Confederate soldiers to return home on “parole.” They would remain unpunished, and even keep their personal weapons, so long as they did not take up arms against the nation or violate local laws.

In her earlier work on the Appomattox surrender, Varon offered a provocative interpretation of the long-term consequences of Grant’s generosity, making a case that Lee’s officers and many ordinary soldiers saw it as a kind of homage to Confederate bravery. Indeed, a substantial number, she now writes, expected to receive another call to go to war for southern independence. They later argued that the radical expansion of Black rights forced on them during Reconstruction violated the terms of surrender. Those terms, they claimed, did not empower the Union to impose its will on the white South. Thus, resistance to Reconstruction did not violate the promise that paroled soldiers would obey the law.

Longstreet rejected any such interpretation of Lee’s surrender, seeing in it “the flaw of hubris.” He understood that Grant’s terms were an effort to facilitate reconciliation (among white citizens) in the reunited nation and in no way justified political violence. In urging the white South to accept the reality of defeat, Longstreet made the obvious point that the losing party should not expect to impose its perspective on the victor. The white South, Longstreet declared in 1867, had “appealed to the arbitrament of the sword,” and had a moral obligation to accept the outcome: “The decision,” he wrote, “was in favor of the North, so her construction becomes the law.” He believed Confederates should accept that the Union’s victory demonstrated the superiority of a society based on free labor over one based on slavery, and seize the opportunity presented by Reconstruction to modernize the South. Longstreet’s understanding of the lessons and consequences of Confederate defeat, Varon writes, helps explain the mystery of how a man who went to war to destroy the nation and protect slavery decided to join the Republican Party and work closely with Black political leaders during Reconstruction.

Soon after the surrender, Longstreet moved his family to New Orleans, where he established a cotton brokerage and became the president of an insurance company. Then, as now, New Orleans was a city with a distinctive history and an unusually diverse population. Occupied by Union forces early in the war, it harbored a large anti-secession white population. Its well-educated, economically successful free Black community was positioned to take a leading role in the Reconstruction project of revamping southern society, eliminating the vestiges of slavery, and establishing the principle of equal citizenship across racial lines. Many Black men—both those recently liberated and those already free before the war—were elected to public office after Congress, in 1867, ordered the creation of new governments in most of the former Confederate states. New Orleans, and by extension Louisiana, seemed to be a place where Reconstruction could succeed. But the newly created Republican Party was beset by factionalism as various groups jockeyed for political influence. The city was also home to a belligerent population of former Confederates willing to resort to violence to restore their dominion over Black residents.

Very quickly, Longstreet plunged into Louisiana politics, having applied for a pardon from President Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s successor. This would enable him to hold public office and retain his property, except for slaves. Johnson refused, but in 1868, as provided in the Fourteenth Amendment, Longstreet received amnesty from the Republican Congress. Lee, who had appealed to Grant personally for immunity from charges of treason but declined to condemn the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, chastised Longstreet for recognizing the legitimacy of Congress’s Reconstruction policy.

But Longstreet, as Varon relates, was adamant that he was anything but a traitor to the white South. The first requirement of reconciliation, he wrote, was to accept frankly that “the political questions of the war” had been settled and should be “buried upon the fields that marked their end.” There was no avoiding Black suffrage and the participation of Black men in southern government. In 1868, Governor Henry Clay Warmoth, a former Union-army officer, created the biracial Metropolitan Police Force, where Longstreet went on to play a leading role. The sight of armed Black men patrolling the streets of New Orleans outraged much of the local white population. Longstreet was also appointed adjutant general of the state militia, which was racially segregated but had Black and white officers.

Over the course of eight years, Longstreet was active on a remarkable number of fronts in Reconstruction New Orleans. Grant appointed him to the lucrative position of customs surveyor. He sat on the New Orleans school board, which began operating the city’s public-education system on a racially integrated basis. Meanwhile, the legislature enacted a pioneering civil-rights law, barring racial discrimination by transport companies and in some public accommodations. Louisiana Republicans split over this measure, with many white leaders—including Governor Warmoth, who vetoed it—opposing it as too radical, while Black officials embraced it. Realizing that Black voters constituted, to use a modern term, the Republican Party’s “base,” Longstreet aligned himself with the state’s activist Black leaders, including P. B. S. Pinchback, who served briefly as the country’s first Black governor after Warmoth was impeached. Uniquely among prominent ex-Confederates, Longstreet frequently spoke out in favor of Black voting rights, further eroding his reputation among white Democrats. Being condemned as a Judas only bolstered his support for Reconstruction.

[From the December 2023 issue: The Black roots of American education]

Violence was endemic in Reconstruction Louisiana, and Longstreet played a major role in trying to suppress it. Terrorist groups such as the White League and the Knights of the White Camellia flourished. In 1874, after a series of disputed elections in Louisiana, the White League launched an armed assault on the state’s Reconstruction government. In charge of defending the city, Longstreet took part in the fighting. But the militia and police were overwhelmed, and only the intervention of federal soldiers restored order. The event exposed a reality that recent scholars such as Gregory Downs have strongly emphasized: The presence of Union troops was essential to Reconstruction’s survival. In 1891, anti-Reconstruction Democrats erected a stone obelisk paying tribute to what they called the Battle of Liberty Place. The accompanying text, added in 1932, celebrated the insurrection as an attempt to restore “white supremacy.” The memorial was removed in 2017, two years after then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu had approved a city-council resolution to do so.

color drawing of man in Confederate uniform riding horse through tall grass with other cavalry and flag in background
Illustration by Justin Jenkins

By 1875, the persistent violence had convinced Longstreet that Reconstruction should proceed more slowly and try not to “exasperate the Southern people”—by whom he meant white people. Meanwhile, in response to what Varon calls a giant “misinformation campaign” by southern newspapers and Democratic politicians that depicted the South as mired in government corruption, northern support was on the wane, an ominous sign for the future of Reconstruction. Longstreet essentially abandoned participation in Louisiana politics and moved his family to Georgia, where he soon became a leader of that state’s Republican Party.

With Reconstruction ending, southern Republicans searched for ways to stabilize their party and maintain a presence in southern government. In Georgia, Longstreet pursued a strategy different from the course he had embraced in New Orleans. Instead of cultivating alliances with Black leaders, he now worked more closely with white Republicans, many of them scalawags, who urged northern Republicans to help “southernize” the party by boosting the power of its white members and limiting that of Black politicians. The “colored man,” Longstreet wrote to Thomas P. Ochiltree, a politician from Texas, had been “put in the hands of strangers who have not understood him or his characteristics.” By “strangers,” he was alluding to carpetbaggers (another of those tainted terms), northerners who took part in Reconstruction in the South and were derided by Democrats as merely seeking the spoils of office. Varon calls this letter “a blatantly racist piece of paternalist pandering.” Despite Longstreet’s efforts to reduce the political power of Black Republicans, white Democrats accused him of trying to “Africanize the South.” He remained popular, however, with Black Americans after Reconstruction ended, even winning praise from Frederick Douglass for his continued endorsement of Black suffrage and his condemnation of lynching. Longstreet also spent much of his time setting the record straight, as he saw it, regarding his wartime accomplishments. In 1896, he published a 690-page memoir, roundly denounced by adherents of the Lost Cause.

Varon offers a mixed verdict on Longstreet’s career. He could be arrogant and opportunistic, eager to bolster his own reputation. He benefited personally from the numerous positions to which he was appointed (in particular the patronage posts he enjoyed after the end of Reconstruction, including ambassador to the Ottoman empire and federal marshal for northern Georgia). But he also demonstrated remarkable courage, refusing to abandon the Republican Party, as many scalawags eventually did, or to change his mind about Black citizens’ political and civil rights.

Longstreet seems to have thought of himself, Varon writes, as “a herald of reunion.” And yet, she notes, his life exemplified the “elusiveness” of various kinds of postwar reconciliation—between white northerners and white southerners, between white and Black Americans, between upholders of the Lost Cause and advocates of a “New South.” His willingness to work closely with Black Americans, speak out in favor of their rights, and even lead them into battle in the streets of New Orleans overshadowed his military contributions to the Confederacy in the eyes of most white southerners. As a letter to a Georgia newspaper declared, when “it became a question of [the] negro or white man,” Longstreet chose the former and could never be forgiven. No statues of Longstreet graced the southern landscape.

Varon closes with a brief look at memorialization, focusing on the efforts of Longstreet’s second wife in the 1930s and ’40s to raise money to build a statue at Gettysburg. A formidable woman 42 years his junior, Helen Longstreet at age 80 worked as a riveter in a factory building bombers during World War II. The service of Black soldiers inspired her to defend Black voting rights, a stance much praised in the African American press. She died in 1962 at the age of 99. One wonders what she would have thought of the descendants of Confederate veterans who finally installed her husband on horseback at Gettysburg yet felt obliged as late as 1998 to dissociate themselves from his efforts to secure the equal rights of all Americans.

Longstreet believed that peaceful and just reunion would be possible only when the white South moved beyond the myth of the Lost Cause. The end of his erasure from historical memory highlights what a long and complicated evolution that has proved to be. Perhaps his restoration is also a sign that the time has come to shift attention from taking down old monuments to erecting new ones, including some to the Black and white leaders of Reconstruction, who braved white-supremacist violence in an effort to bring into being the “new birth of freedom” that Abraham Lincoln envisioned at Gettysburg.

This article appears in the December 2023 print edition with the headline “A Traitor to the Traitors.”


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