James Longstreet: After the Civil War

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

After the Civil War, former Confederates moved forward with their lives. They returned to their homes, many in tatters, their plantations and farms, now without slaves, and their businesses, now in ruins. Over the following decades, many ended up working for the government of the country from which they had attempted to break. Among them was former Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet.

Born in South Carolina, although largely raised in Georgia, and an 1842 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Longstreet fought in the War with Mexico and against Indians on the frontier. He resigned from the Army in June 1861, and joined the Confederacy. He led troops in critical battles in the eastern theater – First Manassas, the Peninsula Campaign, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg. In October 1862, having led a wing of the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee, he was made a Lieutenant General to lead the First Corps of that army. Detached with part of his corps to go west, he helped secure the September 1863 Confederate victory at Chickamauga Creek in Georgia. He then led an unsuccessful effort to capture Knoxville, Tennessee. He and his troops returned to Virginia for the spring 1864 campaign. He was seriously wounded by his own men during the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. Out of action for several months, he returned to duty in October to take part in the defense of Richmond and Petersburg. He was with the Army of Northern Virginia at the time of the surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

After the war he became a partner in a cotton brokerage in New Orleans and the president of an insurance company. He involved himself in postwar Reconstruction politics and became a vocal Republican. He was perhaps the highest-ranking and most famous former Confederate officer to make such a move. Because of that act, he became a social, business, and political outcast and his business ventures collapsed. He further alienated former Confederates by criticizing some of Robert E. Lee’s decisions and actions during the war. He supported his old friend U.S. Grant for president in 1869 and subsequently secured a number of appointments from Republican political patrons. These included periods of employment as Surveyor of Customs for the Port of New Orleans, a short stint as U.S. minister to Turkey (1880-1881), and U.S. Marshal for Georgia (1881-1884). During the Democratic interlude of President Grover Cleveland, Longstreet received no patronage, but with the election of Republican Benjamin Harrison in 1888, opportunities once again presented themselves. As Harrison put together his administration, Longstreet’s name was put forward by supporters and he himself requested another diplomatic assignment.

The following are a few of the letters in the file accumulated by the Department of State as part of its responsibilities for handling appointments. In the following transcripts, some minor editing has been done to clarify paragraphs or otherwise make reading easier.

Letter 1: Stephen W. Parker to President-elect Benjamin Harrison

 Americus Ga.                                                                                                                                                        Jany 5, 1889


Hon Benjm Harrison                                                                                                                                  President elect                                                                                                                                                        Sir.

     Knowing that your Cabinet will be about arranged before you go to Washington, I ask permission to urge the claims of true Southern Republicans. who as true men stood with the South until Slavery became extinct on the memorable 9th day of April at Appomattox and since that time have been true to the Union and Reconstruction. Now I know that they are as brave and true as any friends you have in the Union. Your enemies cannot buy them at any price. And allow me to say Genl James Longstreet is the noblest “Roman of them all”. You could not please your true friends in the South better than to put him in your Cabinet. May the Good Lord abundantly bless you and make your Administration a grand success.

                         Your Friend,                                                                                                                           Stephen W. Parker                                                                                                                                           Mem. Bar Supreme                                                                                                                                          Court United States

Letter 2: William Miller Owen to President-elect Benjamin Harrison

                              NEW ORLEANS, February 1st, 1889.


HON. BENJAMIN HARRISON,                                                                                                                  President Elect,                                                                                                                                   Indianapolis, Indiana.


     Having learned that General Longstreet will probably be urged for a Cabinet position, I am one of the many thousands of old soldiers of his Army Corps, who receives the report with pleasure and enthusiasm, and beg leave, modestly, to add my tribute to his praise, and to assure you that his appointment would meet with the universal approval of the old Southern Soldiers, and have the happiest effect, I sincerely believe, upon the Southern people generally.

     The career of General Longstreet is well known.  During the Civil War he served the cause, under Lee, with great distinction, and was styled by his commander his “Old War Horse”, and from the beginning to the end, his Corps regarded him with the greatest affection and admiration, and won for him the appellation of “the right hand of Lee”.  The War over, he accepted his parole in good faith and both by word and deed urged his people to a frank and prompt acceptance of the result of the struggle.

     As Adjutant of the Battalion Washington Artillery of New Orleans, I served with General Longstreet at the First Bull Run – afterwards, was Adjutant General of his Artillery Division, – later on, as Major of Artillery, was with him at Chickamauga, and at the end, as Lieutenant Colonel of Artillery, surrendered my Battalion of Artillery with him at Appomattox.

     From my military service and intimate association with General Longstreet during the four years’ war, and afterwards, when we were associated as partners in business pursuits in New Orleans, I learned to love, esteem and admire his many noble qualities of heart and mind, and I again assure you that if you, in the discretion exercised in such matters, should see fit to honor him by appointment to a place in your Cabinet, it will be heartily appreciated and meet with the enthusiastic approbation of the Veterans of the Southern Armies, whose unanimous choice he would be; and the whole people would hail with satisfaction the appointment to such exalted station, “one native and to the manor born”.

I remain, Sir, with sentiments of respect,                                                                                                     Your obedient servant,                                                                                                                                         /s/ W. Miller Owen

Letter 3: Lafayette McLaws to President-elect Benjamin Harrison

Savannah Georgia                                                                                                                                      February 6, 1889


Genl Benjamin Harrison                                                                                                                           President U.S. Elect                                                                                                                            Indianapolis Indiana

     I was a Major General C.S.A. Army of Northern Va in the Corps Commanded by Genl James Longstreet, under Gen R E Lee; was a classmate of Gen Longstreet at West Point, and his intimate friend since childhood.  Thus knowing the man, and his family and connections I take the liberty of presenting Genl Longstreet, as one deserving of high consideration from your administration.

     He is one, identified with the State of Georgia, from its earliest history, through his ancestry, and himself from his childhood has lived among the people, knowing and in Sympathy, with their habits, their home prejudices, their impulses, and their political opinions.

     He is thus, far removed from, and above, the political Adventurers who by their selfishness and greed for office and want of delicacy, in thrusting themselves among and upon, an unwilling people, have done more to keep up sectional prejudices, than all other causes combined.

     He allied himself with the Republican party when he was at the height of his popularity in the South and at a time when to do so, was to commit social suicide and as he had something to lose by doing this- he deserves more consideration for maintaining his consistent attachment to that party. Than any other Republican in Georgia.

     It is needless to dwell upon his Military Career as that is a part of the History of the War, and it is also useless to dwell upon the confidence reposed in him by our two greatest Generals. Gen R E Lee & Gen Joseph E Johnston as that is also a part of that history.  But I know and can bear witness that the confidence was full and complete.  Which is of itself ample evidence the Gen Longstreet has, a high order of Executive ability, Sound judgment, courage, and independence of character, qualities fitting him for the highest position.

I have the Honor to be                                                                                                                                        Very Respectfully                                                                                                                                                 Your obedient Servant                                                                                                                                         /s/ L McLaws

Letter 4: J. W. Fairfax to President-elect Benjamin Harrison

New Orleans, La., Feb. 6, 1889


General Benj. Harrison                                                                                                                           President-elect of the U.S.                                                                                                                   Addressed.

Respected Sir:-  As a Louisianan, and ex-Confederate soldier, and more especially as a Republican who has passed through the trying ordeals of the party’s existence in this State preserving the good will and confidence of his fellow citizens of all classes; also as an active journalist (for many years) with unsurpassed opportunities of gauging public sentiment, I respectfully pray, if the South is to receive political recognition through an appointment in your Cabinet, that the choice may fall upon Gen. James Longstreet.

     I believe that none can better serve in the great work of rehabilitating the Republican party, or more certainly lead it to victory.  His selection would at once give courage to thousands, in every Southern State to at once openly, boldly enlist under the Republican banner.

     Begging pardon for this intrusion on your valuable time, I am Respectfully yrs,

                                /s/ J. W. Fairfax


Letter 5: W. B. Merchant to President-elect Benjamin Harrison

El Paso, Texas, February 13th, 1889


Gen. Benjamin Harrison.                                                                                                                    Washington D.C.                                                                                                                                                  Dear sir:-

     Having had the pleasure of knowing General James Longstreet during the late Civil War, and served under his command, and having known him well as a Republican in Louisiana when it cost a Southern man his local reputation to be a pronounced Republican among the bourbon Democracy of that state, and having confidence in his honesty integrity, ability, and Republicanism I take great pleasure in respectfully requesting you to give him some positon under your administration where he can be of service to the party in assisting to bring about a change of sentiment, and policy on the part of the Southern people on the question of a free ballot, and fair count at elections.

     General Longstreet knows the disposition of the Southern people and if he is in a position to do so can be of great assistance to you in shaping and carrying out a satisfactory Southern policy.

     Wishing you, and your incoming administration of the affairs of this great country that success which your great ability warrants.

I am with great respect,                                                                                                                                     Your friend,                                                                                                                                                         /s/W. B. Merchant


Letter 6: James Longstreet to Secretary of State James G. Blaine

Washington DC                                                                                                                                                     20th March 1889


Hon                                                                                                                                                                        James G Blaine                                                                                                                                            Secretary of State


I have the honor to offer my services as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Brazil.

I am somewhat conversant with that language, and hope that I may be useful to our government in forming closer relations of amity and more extended commercial relations.

With High Respect I am                                                                                                                                      Your Mt Obt Servant                                                                                                                                  /s/James Longstreet

Longstreet did not receive a position in the Harrison Cabinet, nor did he become U.S. minister to Brazil. He continued his support of the Republican Party and was rewarded with the job of U.S. Commissioner of Railroads in 1897, and served in that job until 1904. James Longstreet died in Gainesville, Georgia, on January 2, 1904.


All letters come from the James Longstreet file in the Letters of Application and Recommendation During the Administrations of Cleveland and Harrison, 1885-1893, Entry A1-760, Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.

Further reading:

James Longstreet From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America

Jeffrey D. Wert General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier

Caroline E. Janney Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation    

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