Power  /  Book Review

The Conquered General

The back-and-forth life of Confederate James Longstreet.

Unsurprisingly, most white Southerners bitterly rejected Longstreet’s entreaties and condemned him as a traitor on par with Judas Iscariot and Benedict Arnold. Several critics said it would have been better for the general had he died of his wartime wounds. “Demonizing Longstreet,” Varon notes, became an essential element of the Lost Cause project to regain white power in the South. Longstreet’s prominence made his apostasy an especially dangerous threat.

Longstreet devoted his life after the war to building up the multiracial Republican Party in the war-torn South. He enthusiastically endorsed Grant’s bid for presidency in 1868. (In Varon’s canny assessment, “Grant provided Longstreet the very approval that Lee withheld.”) He took a patronage job as surveyor of ports in New Orleans—there, he was widely criticized by fellow whites for hiring Black employees—then agreed to serve as the general in charge of state militia and police forces in the city, where white Democrats were organizing, as elsewhere in the South, to violently overthrow the popularly elected government. In the liveliest and most distressing pages of Varon’s book, we follow Longstreet into vicious street battles with these rebels as they launch a briefly successful coup against the state government, one which, though reversed with the arrival of federal reinforcements, sounded the death knell for Reconstruction in Louisiana.

Reminded of these showdowns and massacres—such as the murder of hundreds of Black activists in Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873—one is forced to the recognition that there was indeed a second American civil war. It came only a few years after the first one. It was scattered and dispersed, bloodcurdlingly violent at the local level, yet never quite congealed into a nationwide struggle. Still, it determined the country’s political future: Reconstruction ended; the Confederates won.

For the only prominent Confederate who switched sides for that second fight—thus earning himself not one, but two, lost causes to mourn—the reversal of Reconstruction was almost too much to bear. Ousted from office, Longstreet took refuge in relitigating his Civil War record, contending in interviews, essays, and eventually a mammoth-sized memoir, against uncontrite ex-rebels who wanted to pin the blame for the South’s military defeat on the man who had also brashly disavowed its essential ideas. As it is today, arguing over the Civil War was then another way of doing politics: Longstreet hoped that emphasizing the military aspects of the conflict would eventually cool the sectional animosity that had brought all the bloodshed in the first place.