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James Longstreet’s Lessons in Leadership
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James Longstreet’s Lessons in Leadership

How a Confederate general who turned on the South helps distinguish leaders from wannabe figureheads.

Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images.

Leaders fail in different ways. Some are leaders in name only. They have followers aplenty yet live by the mantra of the 19th-century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin (oft-cited by Jonah Goldberg), “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” Any casual observer of modern American politics is depressingly familiar with these “leaders.” 

But other leaders fail to attract followers to a cause or idea, even a worthy one. In her new biography Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South, University of Virginia historian Elizabeth Varon recounts the story of one such leader: James Longstreet, a top brass Confederate leader who, as the title suggests, tried to convince his fellow Southerners to reject the Lost Cause. 

Like many others, Longstreet chose to betray his nation and take up arms against the Union. Moreover, the West Point graduate and close friend of Ulysses S. Grant (he attended Grant’s wedding) had no illusions as to what the war was about: slavery. As he recounted in his memoirs, the Emancipation Proclamation “at once put the great struggle outwardly and openly on the basis where it had before only rested by tacit and covert understanding.” When Lincoln offered full political rights to white Southerners who pledged loyalty to the Union, Longstreet wrote that, “If they desert their cause, they disgrace themselves in the eyes of God and of man.” He ordered executions of black spies and helped devise the Confederacy’s strategy. He was fully on board with secession, and he was well-regarded by the Confederate elite and rank-and-file alike. Robert E. Lee once remarked of him, “Longstreet fought the Civil War to win it.” 

But events—namely, the Union’s triumph—intervened. And so began a striking, rather quick change of heart on the general’s part. Once the loyal, hard-headed Southern soldier, he soon was a steadfast supporter of Reconstruction. Helped in part by Grant’s personal kindness to him (at the Appomattox Courthouse, Varon writes that the Union general “extended his hand in friendship” and the two “embraced”), Longstreet “accepted the war’s verdict as final.”

While his colleagues delegitimized the North’s victory as a “might-over-right” injustice, Longstreet’s willingness to openly acknowledge defeat attracted the ire of former Confederates. Southerners once lauded Longstreet for his bravery on the battlefield; now they blamed him for the South’s surrender. A group of Confederate veterans led this charge, as they “worked relentlessly to scapegoat him for the South’s defeat and to immortalize Robert E. Lee as a faultless saint.”

Longstreet, however, was not swayed. Spurred in part by spates of racially motivated violence in Louisiana, he published a series of public letters in the spring and summer of 1867 in support of Reconstruction. They were eye-popping. “We have made an honest, and I hope that I may say, a creditable fight, but we have lost,” he wrote. “Let us come forward, then, and accept the ends involved in the struggle. … Let us accept the terms, as we are in duty bound to do.” He proceeded to admonish Southerners to “abandon ideas that are obsolete.” As Varon puts it, Longstreet—the very same man who had impressed northern blacks into slavery during the war just a few years prior —even cast black suffrage “as a fait accompli.” Indeed, Longstreet mused after the war that “an overruling Providence had ordained that slavery in these states should cease forever in the year 1865.” 

Having taken a patronage job courtesy of President Grant, Longstreet threw himself into Reconstruction “with gusto,” even attending a celebration of the ratification of the 15th Amendment. Though most Southerners grew to hate him, many in the North recognized Longstreet’s valor. The Philadelphia Inquirer praised “the courage and manliness” needed “to again become a faithful servant of the Union” after having been “a prominent Rebel.” Much of this praise was born of grace. To cite one example, the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s mouthpiece wrote, “Of our white fellow-citizens, we ask not the question, ‘What were you? Union or rebel? We simply ask, ‘What are you? Are you for Union? For Liberty?” Longstreet’s answer had become “yes.”

Longstreet even led black members of Louisiana’s militia in fighting against a white supremacist mob in 1874. In the aftermath of the skirmish, as even some allies blamed the militia’s failures on Longstreet, he sat for a newspaper interview. Echoing James Madison’s insights from Federalist No. 10 (“As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”), Longstreet mused: 

Men can’t all think alike, and the trouble with the Southern people always has been that they won’t tolerate any difference of opinion. … My opinion is that the only true solution for Southern troubles is for the people to accept cordially and in good faith all the results of the war, including the reconstruction measures, the acts of Congress, negro suffrage, etc., and live up to them like men.

After a brief stint as U.S. minister to Turkey, Longstreet was appointed U.S. marshal for Georgia by President James Garfield. The job allowed him to dole out patronage and, most importantly, build up a Republican Party apparatus in the South. But in the face of Democratic resistance and what Varon describes as “Republican factionalism,” the party floundered. Frustrated with some black voters’ support for Democrats and party infighting that had ousted him from his marshal position, Longstreet would go on to flirt with the concept of a Whiggish “white man’s party” focused on economic modernization. After the gambit failed, he course-corrected and regained favor with black Republicans—though he spent his final years as a strong proponent of post-Reconstruction reconciliation. “He had at times been a valuable ally to the freedom struggle, but not a fully committed one,” writes Varon. 

Yes, Longstreet was a deeply flawed man to the end, one who journeyed through a complicated and winding life. But he displayed fortitude and did his best to lead at a critical juncture. As Varon reflects—with painstaking detail and careful attention to nuance—“Longstreet’s story is a reminder that the arc of history is sometimes bent by those who had the courage to change their convictions.” 

Longstreet’s willingness to accept defeat and push the South forward after the Civil War points to the essential difference between two sorts of failed leaders. The one who is in fact a follower and the one who fails to garner followers are both failures in some sense. But the former’s destiny is dictated by others—he leaves no legacy of his own behind. Not so with the latter. Arguments that lose today can win tomorrow. Present failures can inspire future accomplishments. Leaders like Longstreet stand a chance to prove successful—to lead—after all. 

Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Harvard Law School.