Book Review: Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South


by Elizabeth Varon

New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023. Pp. xviii, 459+. Illus., notes, biblio., index.. $19.47. ISBN: 1982148276

The Confederacy’s Most Controversial General

Prof. Varon (UVa) has an impressive body of work on the Civil War, including Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War, which received the 2014 NYMAS “Eugene Feit Award.”

In this new volume, she gives us a ground-breaking, compelling, balanced, and altogether remarkable look at what she calls “the most remarkable political about-face in American history, James Longstreet’s post war effort to help the South turn the page from the conflict, not as an act of defiance, but because he thought restoring peace and prosperity for Southerners, meant moving away from their grief and hatred of the North, and accepting the end of slavery and freedom for African American freedman.

Varon begins by reviewing Longstreet’s Civil War record, from Second Bull Run Manassas, through Fredericksburg, Knoxville, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, and on to Appomattox. She then looks at his postwar role as a civilian working with the Republicans and the Grant Administration, during Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow and the Gilded Age.

Following the war, Longstreet was well thought of and neither Robert E. Lee nor Jefferson Davis nor the press, blamed him for the defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg and the outcome of the war.

However, his willingness to work with the Republicans and even accept government posts during Reconstruction, led to criticism by such former Confederate officers as Jubal Early, William Pendleton, and John Gordon. This criticism increased following the death of Lee, as the “Lost Cause” clique falsely claimed that that Longstreet had failed to obey Lee’s orders at Gettysburg, causing the loss of the battle, and by extension the war. Although Longstreet gained some support from former comrades such as P.T. Beauregard, George Pickett, D.H. Hill, and Porter Alexander, the champions of the “Lost Cause” built upon the general’s support for Reconstruction. For example, in 1874 a large mob of Confederate veterans calling themselves the “White League” staged a coup against the elected government of New Orleans, unsuccessfully opposed by Longstreet, leading a smaller mixed-race force of police and militiamen, which required intervention by federal troops. In this regard, Varon describes Longstreet as someone who had evolved on race relations, perhaps not by the standards of the Radical Republicans and abolitionists such as Thaddeus Stevens and Frederick Douglass, but certainly to a degree unacceptable to most Southern whites.

Varon brings James Longstreet out of the realm of myth – the Lost Cause doctrine – and into the much more interesting domain of history. She offers us a man who was a secessionist, plantation slave owner, diehard Confederacy supporter during the war, a Republican, a scalawag-pariah, a New Orleans school board member, a U.S. Marshall, an ambassador to Turkey, a railroad commissioner, and a hotel owner post bellum. Finally, Varon depicts Longstreet as a relevant voice during the 19th century postbellum, and President Theodore Roosevelt believed the general to be patriotic and loyal.

Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South is a groundbreaking, compelling, balanced and altogether remarkable book about Lee’s “Old War Horse.”

Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include A House Built by Slaves, They Came Only To Die, General Grant and the Verdict of History, Gettysburg In Color, Vol 2, Man of Fire, To the Last Extremity, Hood's Defeat Near Fox's Gap, "If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania", Vol. 2, Outwitting Forrest, All That Can Be Expected, Force of a Cyclone, Lincoln and Native Americans, Detour to Disaster, Lincoln in Lists, A Wilderness of Destruction, Twelve Days, The Civil War Memoirs of Captain William J. Seymour, Stay and Fight it Out, Calamity at Frederick, John T. Wilder, The Sergeant: The Incredible Life of Nicholas Said, Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks, Brigades of Antietam, Lee Invades the North, From Antietam to Appomattox with Upton’s Regulars, Our Flag Was Still There, Never Such a Campaign, and The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, from the Gettysburg Retreat through the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864.



Note: Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South is also available in paperback, audio, and e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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