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The Confederate General Whom All the Other Confederates Hated

James Longstreet became a champion of Reconstruction. Why?

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.