Yet if valor and sacrifice are the benchmarks for memorialization, where are all the statues to James Longstreet?
Take Gettysburg: Nearly every soldier who shouldered a musket or drew a saber during that battle is represented in some form there. But before 1998, there was no likeness of Longstreet, one of the Confederacy’s greatest generals, in the 6,000-acre park. Only after a grass-roots campaign raised sufficient money was a statue erected. The finished product was then tucked behind a screen of trees at the far edge of the park. And unlike virtually every other major monument at Gettysburg, the Longstreet statue rests on the bare earth without a pedestal.
Longstreet’s monument is significant precisely because it lacks grandeur and prominence. In fact, few pieces of Civil War statuary have as much to tell about the politics of historical memory (and amnesia), especially in the wake of events at UNC. That’s because, while Longstreet was a remarkable soldier, he was also an agent of federal Reconstruction — and black suffrage — in the postwar South. For that, his former comrades purged him from memory, thereby reinforcing the link between white supremacy and Confederate iconography.
Unless you’re a military buff, Longstreet is likely the greatest Civil War commander you’ve never heard of. During the early years of the war, “Lee’s Old War Horse,” as he was known, played a decisive role in several major Confederate victories, including his brilliant flanking maneuver at the second Battle of Bull Run.
After a stint in the Western theater, where his assault on Union lines carried the field at Chickamauga in 1863, Longstreet returned to service under Lee. At the Battle of the Wilderness, he provided a crucial bulwark against the tenacious advance of Ulysses S. Grant before being gravely wounded by a bullet through the shoulder and throat. He returned to command six months later, his paralyzed arm in a sling, and served ably until the last days of the war.
“By the soldiers, he is invariably spoken of as ‘the best fighter in the whole army,’ ” recalled Col. Arthur Fremantle, a British observer of the conflict. After Stonewall Jackson’s death in 1863, he was probably Lee’s most trusted lieutenant.
Ironically, it was Longstreet’s postwar conduct that determined how his wartime record has been remembered. During Reconstruction, Longstreet refused to adhere to the Democratic, white supremacist orthodoxy of the unreconstructed South, and his former comrades made him pay dearly for it.
Longstreet’s greatest sin, in the eyes of most former rebels, was his affiliation with the Republican Party. He endorsed his old friend and Union commander, Ulysses S. Grant, for president in 1868, and was subsequently appointed surveyor of customs in New Orleans, and later the commander of all militia and state police forces within the city. At a time when former Confederates were attempting to undo the program of federal Reconstruction under Republican oversight, this was apostasy of the highest order. Longstreet thus became a poster child for the Southern “scalawag” — a pejorative for those who refused to toe the party line of the white South — and “the leper of the local community,” in the words of one of his former friends.
Longstreet’s reputation suffered an irreversible blow in 1874 at the so-called Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans, where he commanded a mixed-race force in defense of the government. When an armed mob of some 5,000 vigilantes from the White League descended on the statehouse in New Orleans to contest the narrow electoral victory of the Republican governor, Longstreet marched his men to meet the insurgents. The mob scattered the outnumbered militia, took Longstreet prisoner and seized control of the city until finally driven off by federal forces three days later.
That some of these vigilantes served under Longstreet during the war mattered little to them. Their old general had committed irredeemable sins in the eyes of the unreconstructed South: Not only did he support the suffrage rights of black men, he even armed some of them in his New Orleans militia.
As he made peace with Grant, Longstreet was decidedly less generous to his former commander. In his lengthy 1896 memoir of the war, “From Manassas to Appomattox,” he criticized the leadership of Robert E. Lee, the closest thing to a saint in white Southern culture. These ill-advised writings provided additional ammunition for those who considered Longstreet anathema to the rebel cause.
Jubal Early, master propagandist of the Lost Cause school of history, turned Longstreet into the prime scapegoat for Confederate defeat. Because Lee was forever blameless according to the tenets of the Lost Cause, Longstreet was made to shoulder responsibility for the blunder at Gettysburg. His quarrel with Lee over the deployment of rebel forces during that battle has been transformed into the Judas kiss of Confederate mythology.
Thanks to more recent reassessments — several biographies, as well as Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Killer Angels” and “Gettysburg,” the movie based on that novel — Longstreet’s reputation has undergone a slow rehabilitation. Yet no book or movie can fully overturn the verdict of over a century of Lost Cause propaganda. Longstreet’s postwar politics have forever barred him from the Confederate pantheon.
But Longstreet’s story does give the lie to the central neo-Confederate defense of rebel statuary — that these monuments are tributes to military heroism, rather than totems of white supremacy. Why else would one of the Confederacy’s greatest military figures be hidden in the woods?