Does James Longstreet Deserve a Monument?

longstreetThis past Wednesday Charles Lane authored an opinion piece for The Washington Post that called for a monument to be erected in New Orleans to Confederate General James Longstreet. The essay has now been re-printed in newspapers across the country.

Lane believes that Longstreet’s postwar alignment with the Republican Party and other exploits points to an important historical lesson in redemption that has all but been forgotten.

According to the author, the removal of monuments to Lee, Davis and Beauregard and the raising of one to Longstreet will serve to “correct the balance of honor in public spaces.”

Lane’s understanding of the relevant history comes down to the following:

But it was after Appomattox that Longstreet truly distinguished himself — as the rare ex-Rebel to accept the South’s defeat, and its consequences. He urged fellow white Southerners to support the federal government and help rebuild their region on the basis of greater racial equality. He joined Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party.

In the 1870s, he commanded a biracial state militia loyal to Louisiana’s Reconstruction government, aggravating an old war wound while fighting alongside his troops against violent white supremacists in the streets of New Orleans.

Lane goes on to point out the public attacks to his military record that Longstreet faced as a result of his postwar political choices and appointments by Republican presidents like Grant. It should be noted that Longstreet was not the only former Confederate general to make unpopular political choices and incur the wrath of Lost Cause writers like Jubal Early.

The problem with pieces like this is that they almost always simplify the history. Longstreet was never known as possessing a shrewd political mind. Yes, he did believe that defeat must be acknowledged and that former Confederates were obligated to work within the political framework of a reunited nation, but we ought to be cautious not to read too much into Longstreet’s alignment with the Republican Party.

Lane’s emphasis on Longstreet’s political alignment with the Republicans and his role in one of New Orleans’ street battles appears to suggest that he underwent something of a racial awakening. In the spring of 1866 Longstreet wrote the following in a private letter:

My politics is to save the little that is left of us, and to go to work to improve that little as best we may. It is all important that we should exercise such influence over that vote [black suffrage], as to prevent its being injurious to us, & we can only do that as Republicans. As there is no principle or issue now that should keep us from the Republican Party, it seems to me that our duty to ourselves & to all of our friends requires that our party South should seek an alliance with the Republican party…. If the whites won’t do this, the thing will be done by the blacks, and we shall do the work ourselves & have it white instead of black & have our best men in public office.

When we look at Longstreet’s postwar career with this in mind we see consistency with his military service to the Confederacy rather than a sharp break. Between 1861 and 1865 Longstreet served a government pledged to preserve and spread slavery and white supremacy. After the war he calculated that the best way to preserve what was left of the antebellum South was to acknowledge new realities. For Longstreet that meant, in part, working with the Republican Party to preserve white supremacy.

39 comments… add one
  • Pat Young Jan 30, 2016

    Kevin, I have read a couple of the books that seek to rescue Longstreet’s reputation from Early. They really did not go in-depth into his post-war politics except to say that his Republicanism angered the Lost Causers. Is there any serious study of his post-war career?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 30, 2016

      Others may disagree, but I think there is a real gap in our understanding of Longstreet’s life after the Civil War. Jeffry Wert’s biography is a good place to start, but it is more narrative than analytical and only skirts the surface. William G. Piston’s is more about how Longstreet has been remembered. Longstreet and William Mahone both desperately need new biographies for the very same reasons.

  • Brian W. Schoeneman Jan 30, 2016

    “For Longstreet that meant, in part, working with the Republican Party to preserve white supremacy.”

    I’m not sure this is either a fair representation of what Longstreet did, or a fair representation of the Republican Party’s efforts both during and after the war. Given that Longstreet was shot by white supremacists during the Battle of Liberty Place and taken hostage by them, it makes little sense to use one private letter to justify an argument that he was “working to preserve white supremacy.” Perhaps his opinions changed between 1866 and 1874?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 30, 2016

      Hi Brian,

      I am not making a claim about the Republican Party during Reconstruction.

      …it makes little sense to use one private letter to justify an argument that he was “working to preserve white supremacy.”

      Point taken. So how would you interpret this private letter?

      • Brian W. Schoeneman Jan 30, 2016

        It’s hard to say because the last sentence there doesn’t make a lot of sense. But based on that quote, it sounds like he’s saying that it’s in the best interests of former Confederates, if they wish to have any place in the governing of the reconstruction South, to join the Republican Party where they will have at least some say. Given that blacks voted as a solid bloc for Republicans during that time period, it makes sense for him to say that it’s in their best interests to join that bloc rather than stand as Democrats and likely either be beaten or disenfranchised legally, which happened a lot.

        But like you said, I wish there was more out there on Longstreet’s post-war doings, especially his political career.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 30, 2016

          I think it is clear that Longstreet is saying more than this. “My politics is to save the little that is left of us.” It seems to me that Longstreet was concerned about the impact of the black vote and everything it represents.

          All I am suggesting for now is that it is a mistake to see Longstreet’s postwar career as representing a new attitude on racial matters, which is what the author of the opinion piece is pushing toward. It is more complicated.

          • M.D. Blough Jan 30, 2016

            I think it WAS a new attitude in racial matters but NOT in the way you are defining it. I’ve read about everything there is to read on the subject, including William Garrett Piston’s doctoral dissertation which covers much more territory and is much broader in scope than “Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant”. You accurately set forth what Longstreet said about his motivations. However, his contemporaries correctly saw this as an extremely radical and very dangerous (to white supremacy) position and that is why the very successful effort to destroy his military and personal reputation occurred. For those pushing the Lost Cause, Longstreet’s position was heresy and their reaction was consistent with the position Howell Cobb took to the last-ditch move to enlist Blacks in the dying days of the Confederacy. For them, to give the blacks any role was to concede their humanity and their inalienable right to basic civil rights.

            It is quite true that Longstreet did not have a Saul of Tarsus on his way to Damascus moment and turn into the ex-Confederate version of William Lloyd Garrison. However, Longstreet accepted the reality of Reconstruction and was willing to cooperate with the introduction of newly freed blacks into the political process. Of course he did not anticipate or desire that this would give them full participation or even leadership in the process, but neither did the elites of the Northeast when they grudgingly allowed new immigrants to be ward heelers and do other minor party work. However, as those groups learned the political process, they moved up the ladder on their own initiative.

            In his landmark work “Black Reconstruction”, page 466, W.E.B. DuBois writes:

            “On March 18 General Longstreet, a Confederate General, published two open letters advising submission to Congress. “It becomes us to insist that suffrage be extended in all the states and fully tested.” [fn 38 in which DuBois gives as his source the June 6, 1867 “New Orleans Republican”] Other prominent Confederates agreed. Longstreet’s wife afterward declared that this was the noblest acts of her husband’s life.”

            I’m not sure this or his role in the Liberty Place merits a statue. I supported the Gettysburg statue but that was part of restoring his military reputation from the hands of the Lost Cause. I think talking about his postwar role is important in educating people, especially children, that not all white Southerners were Lost Causers and consider what the southern states could have become if they’d allowed full participation of all their citizens. It’s also important to understand the ruthlessness with which whites suppressed these voices as part of their overall effort to reinstate white Southerners’ control.

            • Kevin Levin Jan 30, 2016

              Hi Margaret,

              As I read your comment, we are pretty much in agreement.

              Longstreet did suffer at the hands of Lost Cause writers like Early for his decision to align with the Republican Party. And I agree that he accepted the new political realities. It appears that Longstreet took a very different approach, however, to maintaining racial dominance in politics with all of its implications.

              Let’s remember that I am not attempting to offer a new interpretation of Longstreet, but simply trying to move us beyond what I think is a rather shallow editorial.

              • M.D. Blough Jan 30, 2016

                Kevin-The column may be shallow but it does seem to have done a good job of sparking further discussion. In some ways, Longstreet’s situation bears interesting parallels to the fates of white Southerners who, during the antebellum period, had the effrontery to do anything but praise the institution of slavery, even when, like Hinton Helper, white Southerner under attack loathed blacks and was no abolitionist. Hell hath no fury like white supremacists towards someone they regard as a traitor to their race.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Jan 30, 2016

    Kevin, The Longstreet book by Di Nardo and Nofi book makes much the same case that you are. In fact, some of the same wording in the 1866 letter you referenced was used in an 1867 letter the authors referenced in their book.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 30, 2016

      Thanks for reminding me of the Di Nardon-Nofi book. I have not read it.

  • Kristoffer Jan 30, 2016

    I’m inclined to agree with Brian. Longstreet’s statements come across as simple self-interest for his ethnic group, much like Lincoln’s statement at the Lincoln-Douglas debate at Ottowa, Illinois, that “inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.” As I see it, these do not constitute white supremacy. Contrast Lincoln’s statement with Douglas’ white supremacist statements, and the conclusion becomes even more apparent.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 30, 2016

      What exactly do you mean by “ethnic group”? I think Lincoln’s statement at Ottowa is absolutely an expression of white supremacy, though it is clear that Lincoln evolved in his understanding of race by 1865.

  • Lyle Smith Jan 30, 2016

    If Longstreet gets a monument Beauregard will probably need to have his monument put back (it is asinine to remove it in the first place), because he actually supported equal rights as a member of the Reform Party in postbellum New Orleans.

    http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2015/09/a_confederate_generals_forgott.html

    Longstreet doesn’t deserve a monument, but certainly his participation in the Battle of Liberty Place deserves mention on any public display at the site.

    Also, the fact that Longstreet was on the the side of the Grant administration, and was in the position he was in during the Battle of Liberty Place, doesn’t preclude Longstreet from being a white supremacist to some degree himself.

  • Sandi Saunders Jan 30, 2016

    I think you have nailed the concern of putting up any new Confederacy related monuments. If that passage is available, what more might be “out there” to find after the fact? I think that if a monument is to stay, we owe it to posterity to contextualize it and tell the whole truth and we also owe it to posterity to be very careful who we choose to honor with a monument.

  • Kristoffer Jan 30, 2016

    I chose “ethnic group” to refer to what people normally refer as race, as race itself is an ill-defined word.

    As for Lincoln, pay careful attention to his words “inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference…” By “becomes a necessity that there must be,” he is subtly implying that the difference that denies equality is being artificially forced, otherwise he could have just said “that there is a difference”.

    In this context, “I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position” becomes a rational statement of self-interest and interest for his race/ethnicity, because who naturally wants the short end of the stick?

    Lincoln was playing a serious double game that day. He was trying to stay true to his views on black equality while not triggering a riot from a crowd that did not hesitate to applaud Douglas’ white supremacist statements. He did such a good job that to this very day, the vast majority of us still can’t spot his double game.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 30, 2016

      Thanks for the follow-up. I am still having trouble with your comparison given that Lincoln’s statement was made in public while running for office and Longstreet’s was shared in a private letter about how he hoped white Southerners would respond to the new political alignment during Reconstruction.

  • Andy Hall Jan 30, 2016

    Longstreet’s two letters appeared in March and June 1867. The letter arguing “that suffrage be extended in all the states and fully tested” was published in early June 1867. It was subsequently picked up by other papers, such as this example in the New York Commercial Advertiser of June 10.

    In the June letter, Longstreet writes,

    If I appreciate the principles of the Democratic Party, its prominent features opposed the enfranchisement of the colored man, and deny the right to legislate upon the subject of suffrage, except by the States, individually, These two features have a tendency to exclude Southern men from that party; for the colored man is already enfranchised here, and we cannot seek alliance with a party that would restrict his rights. The exclusive right of the States to legislate upon suffrage will make the enfranchisement of the blacks, whether for better or for worse, a fixture among us.

    It appears, therefore, that those who cry loudest against this new order of things as a public calamity are those who would fix it upon us without a remedy. Hence it becomes us to insist that suffrage should be extended in all of the States, and fully tested. The people of the North should adopt what they have enforced upon us; and if it be proved to be a mistake, they should remove it by the remedy under republican principles of uniform laws upon suffrage.

    Recall that this was before the passage of either the 14th or 15th Amendments; it was the latter, ratified in 1870, that guaranteed suffrage for all men, regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It seems to me that Longstreet’s argument in 1867 was substantially this: the former Confederate states are being forced to extend suffrage to the black man under their Reconstruction governments, while other states are not; the Democratic Party, with its insistence that states alone should make this decision independent of the national government, cannot fix this. Rather, ALL the states should adopt black suffrage uniformly, so that we should go forward together into this unknown territory.

    I think DuBois got it wrong, frankly. I don’t read this as any sort of real endorsement of the enfranchisement of African Americans; to the contrary, he’s calling out the Northern states for imposing something he saw as profoundly disruptive on the South that they’re not willing to adopt themselves.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2016

      Thanks for referencing this letter, Andy. It definitely complicates our understanding of Longstreet, but I think your reading is spot on. Longstreet emerges as a practical person concerned about the enforcement of black suffrage in the South. That he was able to express these concerns without the racial invective is all the more remarkable.

      • M.D. Blough Jan 31, 2016

        Andy-And that is where I believe that Longstreet’s actions were radical and regarded as such by his contemporaries even where he thought he was being reasonable. I don’t know what his subjective intent was but the fact is that he was willing to publicly discuss black suffrage as course of action. I don’t believe that the White League and similar groups EVER considered making loyal states provide for black suffrage as well as former rebel states being compelled to do so as anything other than anathema. What they rejected was ANY suffrage for Blacks.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2016

          I agree. It’s a really good point and a distinction that I struggled to come to terms with in regard to William Mahone. As you know, he went further than just about everyone to promote black civil rights through the Readjuster Party, but I have very little understanding of where he stood personally. And that I think is a distinction that needs to be dealt with if we are going to seriously consider a monument to someone like Longstreet.

  • Rob Orrison Jan 30, 2016

    I can fill pages when it comes to removing monuments (I tend to be against removing them). But when it comes to new Confederate monuments, I believe there shouldn’t be any new ones. We can interpret Longstreet’s life and his role in post war America through other means than a monument. I think we have learned recently, that monuments can be a touchy issue of public memory/heritage. I have never been a big fan of monuments honoring specific soldiers/leaders being put up by a generation that never knew those people directly.

  • Kristoffer Jan 30, 2016

    Fair enough, I did not think about that. After further thought, Longstreet’s context is not identical to Lincoln, as Lincoln is subtly describing what is, while Longstreet is talking about the need in the near future for white people to be politically more assertive in the Republican party. Indeed, Longstreet in your first highlighted segment is talking about working within the party that contains black people to secure to prevent political harm to white people, rather than rejecting the party outright. That is no conclusive, but it does cast a little doubt on his intent being white supremacist.

    What casts even more doubt on his being a white supremacist is his sentence “As there is no principle or issue now that should keep us from the Republican Party…” He was saying this and showing his support for the Republican Party as it was trying to establish black civil rights (correct me if this statement is inaccurate for spring 1866). This, combined with the leading the militia at the Liberty Place insurrection, establishes a track record of having no personal issue with black civil rights.

  • Dudley Bokoski Jan 31, 2016

    Well, he did contribute greatly to preserving the Union…but mostly during the war.

  • Dudley Bokoski Jan 31, 2016

    On a more serious note, I think if you take the totality of what is known about his character you’ll see someone who was tough minded and tended to look to his own place in the world. I think his post war embrace of the Republican Party was more a matter of calculation than ideology.

    As for monuments, I agree with an earlier poster we probably have most of the monuments that are needed already. Longstreet has one of the most recent at Gettysburg (1998). His widow led a move to have a monument to him there that didn’t come to fruition due to lack of funds and the coming of World War Two. After the war interest in the project lapsed.

    After spending a lot of time reading the Office Records (O.R.) and a great deal of his correspondence, I’ve formed a rather poor impression of him based on his own words. He was a consistent self-promoter and although clumsy at organizational politics he could generally be found knee deep in them.

    The idea that New Orleans needs more statues to figures from a bygone era seems odd to me. Just because some statues have come down doesn’t mean others have to replace them. Mainly, though, as long as there is no definitive memorial to the victims of Hurricane Katrina (although there are some smaller ones) I think erecting any other historical monuments is in poor taste. Considering the enormous scope of that tragedy there does need to be a monument to do what monuments were often constructed to do, which is to give public commemoration to singular events.

    • M.D. Blough Jan 31, 2016

      I’m actually not in favor of a statue to Longstreet in New Orleans. I was very much involved in the movement that resulted in the monument to Longstreet at Gettysburg in 1998 (I believe WW II was the overwhelming reason for the abandonment of the earlier project which had actually reached the groundbreaking stage. I don’t know if they’d have been able to reach all the money needed for a very ambitious project, particularly in wartime, but it didn’t come to that). Longstreet paid a very high price for his post-war positions although the veterans of the First Corps of the ANV remained loyal to him but I think the price that meant the most to him was the deliberate trashing of his military reputation, including his honor as a soldier. The Gettysburg statue represented a rejection of the Lost Cause’s poisonous influence, not only on Longstreet’s personal reputation but in the historical treatment of the Civil War in general. (Self-promotion was not exactly an unknown quality among career soldiers and I don’t know of anyone who thinks that he was uninvolved in organizational politics)

      I think an accurate, nuanced understanding of his post-war positions is the only recognition that James Longstreet needs in New Orleans. He doesn’t need a statue. Despite the price he paid, including the collapse of all of his business interests and having to leave New Orleans, there were many others who paid a far higher price, especially their lives, both during Reconstruction and after because of white supremacists and Jim Crow. I think an effort to erect a statue of him in New Orleans would come across as yet another example of interpreting Black experience through a white person, particularly when, as you point out, there are so many unrecognized in public monumentation.

      • Kevin Levin Feb 1, 2016

        Despite the price he paid, including the collapse of all of his business interests and having to leave New Orleans, there were many others who paid a far higher price, especially their lives, both during Reconstruction and after because of white supremacists and Jim Crow.

        Well said, Margaret.

  • Kristoffer Feb 1, 2016

    I don’t believe Margaret said it well at all. What she said is like saying (to use an extreme example) “despite the price in a forever changed life that Audie Murphy paid for his heroism, others paid with their lives.” It’s also like “despite all the people who endured the Bataan Death March, others who endured the march paid with their lives along the way or afterwards.”
    It’s a negation of the price people did pay, simply because they lived.

    Would she view Longstreet differently if he had been assassinated after the Liberty Place insurrection, a possibility that was there for all of those who opposed white supremacist terrorism?

  • Patrick Jennings Feb 1, 2016

    I have very much enjoyed the many comments above. As I go through them, however, I wonder if some are not confusing reformed beliefs (racism) with a reformed rebel?

    While I believe that Longstreet could see just far enough into the future to understand that universal (with reference to men) suffrage was going to happen and accepted that notion – I doubt he considered any black man his equal. John Mosby, another republican turncoat in the eyes of many in the south, was of the same voice. He was honest about the causes of the war, supported the right of black men to vote, but likely never saw those same men as his equal. The list could go on to include Governor Henry Wise of Virginia (the man that strung up John Brown and served as a BG in the rebel army) who later joined the republican ranks and backed Grant’s moves toward equality.

    We could easily swing the list “northward” and find a host of fine, dashing, brave union officers and political leaders of the republican stripe who were equally adamant toward voter equality but clearly lukewarm, if not downright cold toward the idea of actual equality.

    So, I think we could place Longstreet and his like in the camp of “reformed” rebels. They tried, they lost and they looked to a future WITH the union. Likely, their racism was as strong as it was before the war. So, does Longstreet deserve a statue for his actions after the war? I don’t think so, but he surely must be counted among those who move the nation forward rather than clinging bitterly to the past.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 1, 2016

      Hi Patrick,

      I like your formulation of the “reformed rebel.” We can certainly include Mahone in this list as well.

      So, does Longstreet deserve a statue for his actions after the war? I don’t think so, but he surely must be counted among those who move the nation forward rather than clinging bitterly to the past.

      I agree.

      My goal with this post was not to disparage Longstreet, but to caution people not to simplify one ex-Confederate’s postwar history in order to make it more palatable in 2016.

      • M.D. Blough Feb 1, 2016

        >>My goal with this post was not to disparage Longstreet, but to caution people not to simplify one ex-Confederate’s postwar history in order to make it more palatable in 2016.<<

        I think you've done that. To me, it's only possible to appreciate the significance of Longstreet's postwar actions if you first appreciate the complexities of the time and the risks that any white man, much less the former second ranking officer in the Army of Northern Virginia, took if he publicly diverged from the white supremacist orthodoxy in any way, no matter how small. I don't think creating another marble man to replace the original (Lee) solves anything or even does Longstreet justice.

  • Craig L. Feb 2, 2016

    Or maybe they could be put up a monument to Atticus Finch?

  • Michael Emett Sep 13, 2017

    I am trying to stay out of the debate over the pending monument in N.O., but I do have a question related to this issue. I see the Longstreet monument at Gettysburg, and I compare it to other CSA officers who also have monuments there and in other battlefields. His seem so hidden, plain, and, well, made to look humiliated comparatively. Has there been a work or some sort of study that attempts to connect the Longstreet Gettysburg monument with Lost Cause mythology/Ciivl War memory?

    • MARGARET D BLOUGH Sep 14, 2017

      His monument is not hidden in Gettysburg. The spot was carefully chosen of the sites available because of its significance to Longstreet at the Battle of Gettysburg as was the lack of a pedestal. I should know. I was very much involved in the grassroots movement that led to the statue being erected. The fact that the Longstreet statue is a modern one is one factor to take into account. Another is that the only other Confederate general with a statue at Gettysburg is Lee and his isn’t, officially at least, an official statue of him but is a part of the Virginia monument. As for why, except for a small one in his final home, Gainesville, GA, there are, so far as I’m aware, no other statues to Longstreet, I can highly recommend “Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant” by William Garrett Piston. Longstreet chose to accept Reconstruction and rejected the Lost Cause and he paid a very high price for it.

      • Kevin Levin Sep 14, 2017

        Thanks for chiming in on this one, Margaret.

      • Michael Emett Sep 15, 2017

        Much obliged.

    • Dudley Bokoski Sep 17, 2017

      Politics played a part in the lack of recognition for Longstreet but he was also a controversial figure in the military sense. Longstreet was highly capable in harness but when he was given responsibility beyond his role as a Corp commander he was much less effective. I believe his character played a role in that as he tended to a schemer. He impeded the attack at Seven Pines, delayed returning from Eastern Virginia during the Chancellorsville campaign, behaved in an extraordinarily petulant way at Gettysburg, and was a disaster in Tennessee (excepting Chickamagua). At a time when he was Lee’s trusted lieutenant he was scheming to try and return Johnston to command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Yes, his postwar actions and comments disposed his former comrades against him, but it is a mistake to think much of the scorn he experienced wasn’t warranted.

      • MARGARET D BLOUGH Sep 17, 2017

        That’s certainly the Lost Cause take on him. How much of this criticism came anytime before Lee’s death and before Longstreet led Black soldiers and police against the White League in the latter’s assault at Liberty Place? The Lost Cause had to have an explanation, other than the Yankees beat them, for losing despite claiming to have the perfect cause under the perfect general. Longstreet made a satisfactory scapegoat and he wasn’t very adept at defending himself.

  • James Simcoe Sep 17, 2017

    Man, I’m coming in very late to this thread. I highly recommend Helen Dortsch Longstreet’s ‘Lee and Longstreet at Gettysburg.’ Longstreet @ 1900 sounded a warning much like Du Bois’spoken around the same time concerning the Big State, led by the Big Man, with huge standing armies; even using the wording, “…as a prophecy…” Looking to a “…reign of natural justice..” No surprise he didn’t make it onto a coin or dollar bill – “…love one another…” Funny that that wasn’t taken up as an American ‘value.’

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