Power  /  Book Review

How a Die-Hard Confederate General Became a Civil Rights–Supporting Republican

James Longstreet became an apostate for supporting black civil rights during Reconstruction.

From Rebel to Republican

James Longstreet had all the makings of a die-hard rebel, certain to one day grace an exclusive pantheon of Confederate heroes. Born in cotton-rich Edgefield County, South Carolina, and raised in Gainesville, Georgia, he hailed from a family of relative wealth and middling slaveholders. Steeped in proslavery ideology and martial culture, Longstreet graduated from West Point, served in the Mexican War, and eagerly volunteered for Confederate military service after secession. Rather than a reluctant rebel, he was, according to Varon, a true believer in the Confederate project of slavery and secession.

As confirmation of his zeal, Longstreet rose to command the Army of Northern Virginia’s storied First Corps, earning a reputation as Lee’s “old war horse” following his exploits at the battles of Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Chickamauga. He also warned of slave resistance and alluded to race war to motivate his troops, ordering his armies to seize free African Americans and runaway slaves and return them to bondage. In word and deed, Longstreet embraced the Confederacy’s racial politics.

Then came Longstreet’s stunning second act. Believing that defeat entailed accommodation to the victors, and convinced of the folly of continued defiance, Longstreet quickly made peace with the new political order and accepted what he termed “reconstruction in full recognition of the law.” Seeking a fresh start, he partnered in a cotton brokerage firm in postwar New Orleans, a bustling hive of economic activity and a proving ground for Reconstruction policies. He became increasingly influenced by his long-standing friendship with West Point classmate Ulysses S. Grant, as well as by the party dynamics and interracialism of postwar New Orleans, and soon began to distance himself from his former comrades in arms. By the spring of 1867, he had evolved into a Republican and full-blown proponent of Reconstruction.

While Republicans celebrated his dazzling about-face, a mounting chorus of critics pegged Longstreet a “scalawag,” a derisive term for white Southerners who joined the party of Lincoln and, consequently, supported some level of multiracial political democracy. In response, Longstreet condemned the Democratic Party as a vehicle for violence and racial prejudice. Although Varon never quite puts it in these terms, Longstreet became an economic modernizer who endorsed liberal capitalist state-building and an interracial democratic vision of the New South — one eventually backed by tens of thousands of white Southerners, including former Confederate leaders John S. Mosby and, later, William Mahone, head of Virginia’s Readjuster movement.