Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.
In 1941, Helen Dortch Longstreet, widow of Confederate general James Longstreet, and the the Longstreet Memorial Association were planning for the placement of a memorial to the general on the Gettysburg battlefield. That organization had been “organized on the Gettysburg field by the Veterans of Longstreet’s command during the seventy-fifth anniversary celebration of the battle” in 1938. They had won approval for placement of a memorial from the National Park Service, had decided on the design, and were raising funds when the United States became embroiled in World War II and the effort stalled. Although not based on the 1941 design, a monument to Longstreet was dedicated at Gettysburg in 1998.[i]
Less well known, if known at all, is that Mrs. Longstreet and the Association wanted to memorialize James Longstreet at Chapultepec, outside Mexico City, too. Longstreet was seriously wounded while fighting there in 1847 during the war with Mexico.
In a July 22, 1941, letter to Josephus Daniels, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Mrs. Longstreet announced that the association had “under consideration the erection of a marker on the heights of Chapultepec, to mark the spot where General Longstreet (then Major in the U.S. Army) was almost mortally wounded as he hoisted his regimental flag above the captured battlements.” Mrs. Longstreet asked Daniels to present the plan to the Mexican president, arguing that “the event would bind the two republics in closer bonds of friendship, which would be for the welfare of both nations, in an hour when war clouds darken the whole world’s horizon.” She closed her letter by reminiscing that she “went to Mexico City with General Longstreet on our honeymoon trip more than forty years ago, and the charm of the place still lingers with me, a fragrant memory.”[ii]
Mrs. Longstreet may have expected Daniels to sympathize with the idea because he was from a former Confederate state, but he did not. The ambassador, a North Carolinian, was by trade a newspaperman, active in the Democratic Party, and had served as Secretary of the Navy during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. He began his ambassadorship to Mexico in April 1933.
The letter traveled from Washington to Mexico City quickly, as Ambassador Daniels replied just three days later. In his July 25 letter, the ambassador recognized the “fine motive” behind the plan and acknowledged Longstreet’s service in Mexico. As a North Carolinian, he noted their common southern heritage, writing “[a]s a Southerner and an American I would love to see any and every honor paid to him.” Nevertheless, he wrote that “at this particular time I am sure that the suggestion would not meet with favor here and that it might embarrass the authorities either to accept or reject your kind offer.” He suggested waiting until the war was over “and the world is normal again, if it ever is,” before making the proposal. He cautioned “that at this time nothing should be done about it.”[iii] Daniels had couched his objections in the need for diplomatic propriety, but as we shall see, there was more to it than that.
Again, the mail was quick and just four days later, Mrs. Longstreet sent another letter thanking Daniels. She assured the ambassador that nothing further would be done regarding the monument at Chapultepec “without your whole-hearted approval.” She noted, however, that she was “going to ask some questions of Washington officials” and then might write to him again.[iv]
Indeed, on that same day, Mrs. Longstreet wrote to Secretary of State Cordell Hull. She explained the plan but also described a new element to the proposal. The project now included placing a monument “in honor of the gallant Mexican cadets who committed suicide at Chapultepec, preferring death to surrender.” She asked, “Would not such patriotic action at this time serve to strengthen bonds of friendship between the two republics?”[v]
The Secretary of State replied ten days later, acknowledging receipt of the letter and noting her courtesy in “consulting” with the Department of State. He wrote that he did not know whether placing the markers would be acceptable to the Mexican government. Not aware of Mrs. Longstreet’s correspondence with Daniels, he noted that the Department would bring the matter to the attention of the embassy in Mexico City.[vi]
On the same day that Hull wrote to Mrs. Longstreet, the Department sent an instruction to Daniels. It enclosed a copy of Mrs. Longstreet’s letter and summarized the Department’s contacts with her before turning to the what the embassy was to do: “Provided you see no objection to such action” the ambassador was directed to make an “informal inquiry” to Mexican officials to determine whether the placement of the markers was acceptable.[vii]
Daniels quickly replied with a formal despatch to the Department that he drafted himself. After describing his prior exchange of letters with Mrs. Longstreet, he wrote:
I can see no reason why a monument to General Longstreet should be erected unless at the same time similar honor were done to others who took part in the Mexican campaign. The Mexicans have built a beautiful Monument in Chapultepec in honor of the cadets who gave their lives for their country in that engagement. I think it would be resented if we should even suggest that we couple honors to them with a monument to an American General who distinguished himself in the Mexican War. I strongly urge that you say to Mrs. Longstreet that it would be inadvisable even to make the proposal. Our relations now with Mexico are on such friendly terms that I would deem it most unfortunate and most unwise to recall this campaign to the Mexicans.[viii]
At the same time that he sent the formal reply to the Department, Daniels sent the following unvarnished personal letter to Hull. In addition to further illustrating the situation vis-a-vis Mexican authorities, the letter reveals his personal feelings about General Longstreet and how some former Confederates interpret the general’s role in the Civil War; it is a good example of how history and memory are passed down through the generations.[ix]
After receiving the despatch and letter from Daniels, Hull replied to Mrs. Longstreet. He referred to the Ambassador’s earlier letter to her and fully supported the position taken therein writing that “I know the Ambassador has given the proposal careful and sympathetic consideration, and in view of the conclusion reached by him, I can only suggest that the matter be held in abeyance.”[x]
Mrs. Longstreet was not happy with Hull’s response. She quickly wrote to him that what had been proposed to Daniels was “wholly different” than what she had subsequently proposed to Hull as it included only a marker for her husband and the plan now included a marker to him and to the Mexican cadets. Thus, the plan would “give equal honors to the soldiers of Mexico and the United States in our war with Mexico.”
Mrs. Longstreet also addressed the controversy surrounding her husband’s actions during Reconstruction and later. She wrote:
General Longstreet made many enemies in the south, during the reconstruction period. He was fifty years ahead of his times in accepting the results of the war and in laboring for restoration of national unity, as the only way to peace prosperity and happiness for both north and south. The bitter, senseless animosity of that cruel period against General Longstreet has been handed on, from generation to generation in the south, constituting a very real bondage of hatred against the soldier who was second in command to Lee, and bore the brunt of battle in every victory won by the Army of Northern Virginia, with the single exception of Chancellorsville.
Perhaps sensing his hostility towards her husband because of his ties to the Democratic Party in the south, Mrs. Longstreet then castigated the ambassador, writing: “Whether or not Ambassador Daniels has been a fellow traveler with the besmirchers of General Longstreet’s military renown, is unknown to me. But if he has, it would unconsciously influence his attitude towards the dedication of the proposed markers.”
She closed by stating that without Department of State approval, the plan for markers in Mexico would be “thrown out of joint.” Furthermore, she asserted that was no doubt of Mexican approval “granted only, that the President of Mexico possesses a modicum of statesmanship and pride of country.” She did not believe he would be “unmoved in the presence of our living desire to honor his own countrymen” and enclosed a letter to him that she asked to be forwarded.[xi]
In a final letter to Mrs. Longstreet, which he sent on September 4, Hull corrected Mrs. Longstreet’s misapprehension about what Daniels knew. He wrote that that the Department had, in fact, brought to Daniels’s attention the plan for an additional marker to honor the Mexican cadets. He reported that he had “received a further communication from Ambassador Daniels in which he informs me that it would be unwise to present this matter to the Mexican Government,” and again suggested holding the proposal “in abeyance.” He closed by returning to her the letter to Mexico’s president stressing that “it is contrary to long standing practice of the Department of State to transmit communications from private individuals to foreign heads of state.”[xii]
[ii]Helen Dortch Longstreet to Ambassador Josephus Daniels, July 22, 1941, file 841.3-Longstreet, 1941 General Correspondence, U.S. Embassy Mexico (NAID 1127785), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.
[iii]Josephus Daniels to Helen Dortch Longstreet, July 25, 1941, file 841.3-Longstreet, 1941 General Correspondence, U.S. Embassy Mexico (NAID 1127785), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.
[iv] Helen Dortch Longstreet to Ambassador Josephus Daniels, July 29, 1941, file 841.3-Longstreet, 1941 General Correspondence, U.S. Embassy Mexico (NAID 1127785), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.
[vii]Department of State to the U.S. Embassy Mexico, Instruction No. 3997, August 8, 1941, file 812.413/25, 1940-44 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.
[viii]U.S. Embassy Mexico to the Department of State, Despatch No. 13457, August 12, 1941, file 812.413/26, 1940-44 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. The despatch enclosed typed copies of of the exchange with Mrs. Longstreet.
[ix]Josephus Daniels to Cordell Hull, August 12, 1941, file 812.413/27, 1940-44 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. For additional reflection on Longstreet at Gettysburg, see: Henry W. Pfanz Gettysburg: The Second Day (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987) and Carol Reardon Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
[x]Cordell Hull to Helen Dortch Longstreet, August 25, 1941, file 812.413/25, 1940-44 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. Hull sent a copy of this letter to Daniels, too. See Cordell Hull to Josephus Daniels, August 23 [sic], 1941, file 812.41.3/26, 1940-44 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.