Longstreet rides again at Gettysburg

For more than a century, James Longstreet has been the Confederate general Southerners love to hate

Longstreet rides again at Gettysburg

As you drive along Confederate Avenue on the Gettysburg battlefield, down past the evocative state monuments for North Carolina and Virginia, do not be startled by the sight of a Confederate general reining in his horse behind a grove of tall trees. It is only Lieutenant General James Longstreet wheeling around his horse Hero to face the enemy on Cemetery Ridge off in the distance. The Longstreet Memorial, a strikingly detailed equestrian statue in bronze, now occupies an important place along the Confederate line of monuments on Seminary Ridge at the Gettysburg National Military Park. Its dedication on July 3, 1998, the 135th anniversary of Pickett's Charge, marked not only an important event in the monumentation of the battlefield but also a possible turning point in Longstreet's reputation as a Confederate general.

For more than a century, James Longstreet has been the Confederate general Southerners love to hate. Blamed for the defeat of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Gettysburg, and denounced by generations of Southerners for his criticism of Lee after the war, Longstreet was even vilified by his own Confederate compatriots as a snake-in-the-grass and a traitor. Jubal Early, a former Confederate general who served in Lee's army and became Longstreet's most ardent adversary in the postwar years, declared, in 1872.

As time went on Early and a host of other Virginians, whom historians now refer to as "the Lee Cult," became more determined and vicious in their attempts to elevate Lee's reputation at the expense of Longstreet's good name. Longstreet did not help his cause after the war when he became a Republican, embraced Northern reconstruction policies, exaggerated his own role in the Civil War, and thought that African-Americans should be included in the politics of the postwar South. Lee had called Longstreet his "old war horse," but to Southerners who struggled to rebuild their region in the years after the Civil War. Every defense he wrote got him into deeper trouble and provided his enemies with ample grist for their mills. Former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who was an icon of the Lost Cause movement in the postwar South, minced no words in calling Longstreet a "viper" and a "renegade."

In the twentieth century, numerous historians continued the criticism of Longstreet and nearly succeeded in removing him from the pantheon of Confederate military heroes. One Virginia writer, Thomas Nelson Page, asserted that Longstreet's "slowness and surliness" at Gettysburg "probably cost Lee this battle and possibly cost the South, if not its independence, at least the offer of honorable terms." Longstreet became, in most Southerner's eyes, a Judas.

Not everyone agreed with this picture of Longstreet. In the 1950s and 1960s, journalist and historian Glenn Tucker took up Longstreet's cause. Tucker's hopes were dashed, however, when publishers repeatedly rejected his proposal out of lack of interest. Ultimately it was a novelist who helped to shed new and more favorable light on Longstreet. In his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Killer Angels, published in 1974, Michael Shaara created a sympathetic portrait of Longstreet as a general caught in a web of frustration as he tried to persuade Lee to adopt a defensive strategy at the Battle of Gettysburg. Based on primary and secondary sources, the historical novel emphasized that Longstreet's military advice at Gettysburg was probably sound and that Lee, for his own reasons, disregarded the warnings of his second-in-command.

Shaara's characterization of Longstreet was incorporated in the film version of the novel, Gettysburg, released in 1993 to good reviews and huge audiences. Actor Tom Berenger portrayed Longstreet as an experienced warrior who disagreed with his commanding officer, but who loyally and proficiently obeyed every order given him. Shaara's novel and its cinematic counterpart helped to boost Longstreet's public image, although the controversy surrounding the man and his deeds refused to disappear.

At about the same time, a U.S. Forest Service employee in North Carolina began to hear about the injustices done to Longstreet and about his low historical reputation. Robert C. Thomas of Sanford, North Carolina, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, read William Garrett Piston's book Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History (1987) and was astonished to learn that Longstreet, for all the victories he had won fighting for the Confederacy, had no monument to his accomplishments on any Civil War battlefield, in any Civil War town, or anywhere at all in the United States. With the approval of the North Carolina Division of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, the Longstreet Memorial Fund Committee was formed in May 1991 to reverse the lack of recognition the general had received.

Working with a few hundred dollars as seed money, the Longstreet Committee, under Thomas' able direction, began reaching out to public and private sources for donations. Meanwhile, the committee selected Gary Casteel, a talented sculptor of Civil War subjects, to create an equestrian statue of the general. Casteel called the job "the commission of a lifetime," and he sketched out working drawings and designs for the committee to review.

The committee itself chose Gettysburg as the site of the memorial. They knew the location would be controversial but were determined to right the wrongs that had put on Longstreet's shoulders so much of the blame for Lee's defeat there.

Now the really hard work began. Money had to be raised to pay for the monument, and the committee devised a fund-raising strategy that would educate the public about Longstreet's Civil War career and procure the needed dollars. "To be successful," says Bill Johnson, who served as Robert Thomas' right-hand man on the Longstreet Memorial Fund. Early on, the Longstreet Committee decided that all donations would be used to offset the cost of the memorial; not one penny would be used for operating or overhead expenses.

At the 130th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg re-enactment, in July 1993, the committee received tent space, and the public responded warmly and generously to the idea of a memorial for Longstreet. In the wake of this success, several members of the committee formed a traveling team that attended Civil War events up and down the East Coast. The committee also established a network of state representatives in twenty-two states--individuals who spread the word about the proposed Longstreet memorial in their own locales and raised money for the project by talking to interested groups and civic organizations.

The committee also sponsored special national events, including a seminar on Longstreet at Gettysburg that won support from Gettysburg College's Civil War Institute. With the success of the first seminar in September 1995, other Longstreet symposia were organized and conducted in Jacksonville, North Carolina (May 1996); Richmond, Virginia (September 1996); and again in Gettysburg (September 1997). Each of these events made more and more people aware of the memorial campaign and brought more volunteers into the ranks of the Longstreet Memorial Fund Committee.

From the start, the fundraising campaign was a grassroots effort involving hundreds of people, from North and South. Almost every dollar donated to the memorial came from individual contributions. Government money was not sought; corporations consistently, but politely, turned down the committee's solicitations.

On July 3, 1998, in a morning ceremony under bright blue skies, Casteel's dramatic sculpture of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was unveiled to the public. About three thousand people attended the event, which featured a parade of Confederate re-enactors portraying Longstreet's First Corps color guard, Confederate camp music performed by the Second South Carolina String Band, Civil War songs sung by the Sons of Dixie, and speeches by Thomas, Johnson, Piston, Casteel, and John Latscher, the superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park. In the audience were Longstreet's granddaughter, Jaime Longstreet Patterson; his great-grandson, Daniel Patterson; and another direct descendant, William Longstreet IV. Off in the distance, over the heads of the assembled crowd and through the trees of Pitzer's Woods, the white tents covering the hillside of the 135th Anniversary Gettysburg Battle Re-enactment site could be plainly seen.

During the music and speeches, the statue remained covered by a gigantic Confederate flag. Despite all the pomp and circumstance of the occasion, there was a simple flavor to the ceremony. At one point, Robert Thomas, impatient with some delays that had slowed the program, promised the crowd that he would no longer "dollywoggell" and would get on with the unveiling. With eloquent simplicity, as he signaled to a group of dignitaries who clutched the border of the flag draped over the statue, Thomas declared, "To you, General Longstreet, who has waited so long, we dedicate this monument." The flag was then pulled off the memorial, and the statue was greeted by the loudest Rebel yell heard in those woods since the summer of 1863.

Immediately the strains of "Bonnie Blue Flag" could be heard floating over the cheers, and an enthusiastic applause went on and on, refusing to fade away. People in the crowd, men and women alike, were crying. Although the press had been promised the first opportunity to take pictures of the monument, there was no holding the audience back and the media had to wait. In a rush, people thronged around the statue, touched it, leaned against it, and posed before it. Meanwhile, a Scottish highlander played "Amazing Grace" on his bagpipes, and a soft hush came over the woods.

The statue is a masterful work of art. Longstreet sits on his horse, which faces south, and tugs fiercely at the reins as he gazes off in the direction of Cemetery Ridge, toward the sound of the guns. Casteel has succeeded in capturing Longstreet in action, while also conveying something of the general's own tendency to be fiercely independent. The statue itself does not sit upon a stone pedestal, as most equestrian monuments do, but directly on the ground, making the sculpture appear more realistic in its placement amid the trees of Pitzer's Woods. Casteel has sculpted a true measure of the man himself. Standing back from the statue, one can look almost directly into Longstreet's piercing eyes. The experience is eerie. "Old Pete," as his men and fellow officers called him, is not a figure to be stared down.

Casteel caused a furor by having raised one hoof of Longstreet's horse off the ground. This artistic decision produced a storm of controversy when the design was first made public. According to some Gettysburg enthusiasts, a tradition exists that calls for the bronze horses of wounded generals to have one hoof up in the air and the horses of killed generals to have two hooves up; those generals who were unhurt in the battle ride bronze horses with all four hooves firmly planted on their pedestals. Ignoring enthusiasts, Casteel decided to portray Longstreet's horse with one hoof off the ground, despite the fact that Longstreet was not wounded at Gettysburg. This depiction, some insist, violated the equestrian tradition of the battlefield and constituted a Gettysburg heresy in its own right.

Yet if one takes a close look at the seven previous equestrian statues erected on the field, the conclusion that no tradition exists at all is unavoidable. Only one general who was killed at Gettysburg is portrayed riding a horse (Union Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds) and only one who was wounded (Union Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock). One example of each statuary design does not a "tradition" make. Casteel, in the end, made the right decision to illustrate the horse as he deemed best. Some Civil War buffs have criticized other artistic elements in the Longstreet statue, such as the fact that the figure of Longstreet seems small in stature and his horse appears downright puny, but the issue of the horse's hoof now seems dead and buried.

So at last, Longstreet has returned to Gettysburg. Even more satisfying than the erection and dedication of the memorial, say the monument's organizers, is the fact that Longstreet's good name is restored. The general has now assumed his rightful place in the history of the Confederacy and the Civil War. The renewed interest in Longstreet, which accounts for the new memorial at Gettysburg, is not, in William Garrett Piston's estimation, neo-Confederate or just Southern, although the crowd's wild Rebel yells might have convinced some spectators at the dedication otherwise. Piston believes that the modern redemption of Longstreet's reputation rests--like the Longstreet statue itself--not "on the pedestal of myths of marble, but on the solid ground of reality."

Nevertheless, there were plenty of people in Gettysburg this July 3 who purposely boycotted the ceremony and who still believe that Longstreet was responsible for the Confederate defeat there. "He deserves a statue," says one Alabamian who spent July 3 marching across the fields of Pickett's Charge rather than attending the statue's unveiling, "but not here in Gettysburg." Other tourists and Civil War enthusiasts expressed the opinion that Longstreet should not have been honored with any statue at all. It remains to be seen if the Longstreet Memorial will, in the long run, enhance the general's reputation or simply stoke the fires of controversy that have now been burning around him for 135 years.

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