Longstreet at last is cast as a hero Gettysburg: A statue returns to the ranks of honor a Confederate general reviled by Southerners for more than a century.


On hundreds of courthouse lawns and public parks North and South, statues of sword-waving generals and monuments to hometown heroes of the Civil War abound. But there has always been one conspicuous exception: Lt. Gen. James Longstreet.

A talented corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia, he was praised by Gen. Robert E. Lee as "my old war horse" and was one of the most important figures in the Battle of Gettysburg.

But for more than a hundred years, die-hard supporters of the Confederacy have reviled Longstreet because he was later critical of the tactics of the revered Lee, joined the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln and fought for black voting rights. And he was blamed -- incorrectly -- for the South's defeat at Gettysburg.

Now, the turn of history, the influence of pop culture and the inspiration of individual effort are combining to give the general his due -- and his statue. A monument to Longstreet, depicted astride his horse, will be unveiled July 3 at Gettysburg during the commemoration of the battle's 135th anniversary.

Dr. William Garrett Piston, a professor of Civil War and military history at Southwest Missouri State University, calls the monument fascinating.

"You're talking about the process of how history becomes history -- who becomes a hero, and why, and how this changes over time," said the author of the book that set things in motion.

"James Longstreet's negative image is not likely to change. His role in Southern culture has been that of villain, not hero, and cultural roles cannot be overturned by scholarship. ," reads the final paragraph of Piston's 1987 work, "Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History."

Piston's words haunted Robert C. Thomas of Sanford, N.C., a heavy-equipment operator for the state forest service. He shared the book with other Civil War enthusiasts, and in 1990, they decided the general's time had come.

Lacking any corporate support, Thomas and a band of activists began selling mugs, T-shirts, tote bags, pens and cross-stitch portraits of the general. They attended re-enactments and passed out fliers across the country.

"We had some miniatures of the monument, 3 inches high," Thomas said. "One lady in New York [made] about 100 of them, and she hand-paints them."

Their nonprofit General James Longstreet Memorial Fund hit its $190,000 goal last winter.

The general's granddaughter, Jamie Longstreet Paterson, 67, of Bowie, was named for her grandfather and will be honored at the dedication ceremony.

"I think it's about time that they did something about the poor old guy," she said. "I'm very happy, and I think they should have done something years and years ago. But better late than never."

Her son, 39-year-old William Daniel Paterson Jr. of Centreville, Va., said he has been "a Civil War nut" since the fourth grade.

"It's hard to explain what it's like to see him in a positive light. As a little kid growing up, you find out about the general, and all you hear about him is bad stuff."

But he said his grandmother had written in the margins of a book about Longstreet, " 'This is not true' and 'That is not true,' so I learned then to read between the lines."

Piston is amazed at the "unanticipated consequence" of his book. "I ended on what was considered by many people to be a negative note. I did not expect James Longstreet's reputation to change," said Piston, who will be the keynote speaker at the ceremony.

The general's reputation received a public relations boost from popular culture, historians said. Longstreet was a leading and sympathetic character in Michael Shaara's book "The Killer Angels" and in the resulting movie, "Gettysburg."

Shelby Foote, the author and Civil War historian, said Longstreet "did a hell of a job during the last month of the war. It was Longstreet, after the death of Stonewall Jackson, that Lee relied upon the most.

"There is a wonderful scene, on the 25th anniversary of Fort Sumter," Foote said. Longstreet was not invited to a huge ceremony in Atlanta, "but he put on his uniform as a lieutenant general, got a train, got on a horse and went there. Jefferson Davis was there, and everyone wondered what the reaction would be.

"Jefferson Davis hugged Longstreet -- and everyone cheered. It was a great moment."

Sculptor Gary Casteel said his statue, which will stand in Pitzer Woods, depicts Longstreet riding along his lines, reining in his horse, Hero, and looking toward Little Round Top.

If he had died in battle, Longstreet would have had monuments (( everywhere -- another martyr to the Southern cause, historians said. But after the death of Lee in 1870, he was blamed for the defeat at Gettysburg.

In 1874, Longstreet commanded black troops of the Louisiana militia and the New Orleans Metropolitan Police under martial law against the rioting Crescent City White League to enforce black voting rights.

"Longstreet's position was, 'We have been whipped and we have to take the consequences, follow the terms of surrender.' They didn't like to hear that," Foote said.

So, in a country dotted with statues of Civil War leaders, Longstreet had none: only a marker at his birthplace in Edgefield County, S.C. -- put up this year -- and his gravestone at Alta Vista Cemetery in Gainesville, Ga.

The gravestone is marked with American and Confederate flags.

"What we do with General Longstreet is try to present him as an American," said Garland Reynolds, chairman of the Longstreet Society Inc.

Shunned by society, General Longstreet "was still respected by his troops," Reynolds said. "He kept them fed, and he didn't take them uselessly into battle."

But a small group of Virginians who idolized Lee had to explain the loss at Gettysburg after the disastrous attack that came to be known as Pickett's Charge. Although Lee said it was his fault, soon after his death the blame was shifted to Longstreet.

"Virginia looks on Longstreet as the villain of the Civil War," said Foote. "I knew they were wrong then, and even they have admitted now that they were wrong, especially regarding Gettysburg."

Piston said records show the Virginians "were very overt about wanting to blame Longstreet -- whom they hated for suggesting that black people might have a role in American politics."

"This is a case of people who dislike Longstreet for his politics, so they adjust their memories" of the battle, he said.

"The study of James Longstreet is a lesson in the role of history and culture, history and society: that everything we know and understand about the past is filtered through the present," Piston said. "The past is not static."

Pub Date: 6/26/98

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