Longstreet: The Emo Confederate General Who Defied the South

Elizabeth Varon’s Biography Offers Insight into the Life of a Controversial Confederate General

In Elizabeth Varon’s new biography, “Longstreet,” she sheds light on the life of Confederate General James Longstreet, a figure who defied the post-Civil War South by embracing Black emancipation and civil rights. While the book may not be a runaway bestseller, it offers valuable insights into the complexities of Longstreet’s character and his controversial decisions. This article delves into the intriguing story of Longstreet’s life, his role in the Battle of Gettysburg, and his surprising embrace of Reconstruction.

Longstreet’s Role in the Battle of Gettysburg

Varon’s biography confirms the familiar portrait of Longstreet as a brooding and deeply pensive commander, as depicted in Ronald Maxwell’s film “Gettysburg.” Longstreet’s advice to General Robert E. Lee against a planned assault on the Union-held high ground at Cemetery Ridge proved prescient, but Lee’s overruling led to a devastating defeat for the Confederates. Longstreet’s emotional turmoil and foreboding in the face of impending disaster are vividly captured in the film.

Embracing Reconstruction and Defying the South

After the war, Longstreet shocked his fellow white Southerners by embracing Reconstruction and joining the Republican Party. Varon’s biography explores Longstreet’s activities during this period, analyzing his motives for accepting the outcome of the war and his understanding of the moral and military victory achieved by the Union. Longstreet’s break with his fellow white Southerners was met with condemnation and accusations of betrayal, but he remained steadfast in his belief that the South should accept the terms of peace dictated by the North.

Longstreet’s Transformation and Motives

Varon carefully examines the various explanations for Longstreet’s break with his fellow white Southerners, including the claim that he sought financial gain from federal patronage. However, she also suggests that Longstreet’s personal losses during the war, including the death of his children, may have contributed to his willingness to let go of his allegiance to the Confederacy. Longstreet’s transformation was a deeply personal and complex journey that defied easy categorization.

Longstreet’s Post-War Activism and the Second Civil War

Longstreet dedicated his post-war life to building up the multiracial Republican Party in the war-torn South. He endorsed Ulysses S. Grant’s bid for the presidency and took on roles that put him at odds with white Democrats who sought to overthrow the popularly elected governments. Varon vividly recounts Longstreet’s involvement in street battles against these rebels, highlighting the violent and ultimately successful efforts to dismantle Reconstruction in Louisiana. The second American civil war, though scattered and localized, determined the country’s political future.

The Complexity of Longstreet’s Legacy

Varon emphasizes that Longstreet’s legacy is far from straightforward. While some have suggested raising memorials to him in place of unapologetic Confederate monuments, Varon argues that Longstreet’s complex and contradictory views make him an unlikely candidate for such commemoration. Longstreet’s support for racial equality was conditional, and he even briefly advocated for a “white man’s party” in the South. Varon’s refusal to categorize Longstreet as a hero or villain challenges the simplistic narratives often associated with historical figures.


Elizabeth Varon’s biography of James Longstreet offers a nuanced and insightful exploration of the life of a Confederate general who defied the South. From his role in the Battle of Gettysburg to his embrace of Reconstruction, Longstreet’s story is one of complexity and contradiction. Varon’s analysis challenges us to reexamine our understanding of historical figures and reminds us of the messy and contingent nature of the past. While Longstreet’s biography may not become a bestseller, it is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the Civil War era and its aftermath.






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