One of the four men who will feature prominently in the upcoming miniseries To Appomattox is a controversial figure in the history of the American Civil War. Blamed by some for the South’s defeat in the climactic battle of the war, and considered a traitor for his post-war connection with the Republican Party, he was also a man ahead of his time, but could also be critical of superior officers, and always believed himself to be right. Here, we shall examine this controversial figure, and the actor chosen to portray the man Robert E. Lee dubbed his “Old War Horse.”
James Longstreet is one of the most intriguing and controversial figures from the American Civil War. He was a brilliant man tactically, but a very outspoken critic of anyone he disagreed with, including his superior officers. Many historians have laid the blamed for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg at his feet. He would go on to be reviled by the very South he fought for in the war, supporting the Republican ideals held by his friend Ulysses S. Grant. But there is more to the man known as “Pete” Longstreet than what is seen.
For starters, Longstreet was a brilliant tactician. He was in favor of defensive strategies, with some of the ideas he had being used to great effect not in the American Civil War, but in the First World War some fifty years later. Like many of his time, he was trained at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and saw action in the Mexican War that waged from 1846-1848. Like many of his fellow southerners, he was not a major supporter of slavery, and loved the country for which he served with great distinction. But like his fellow southerners Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, he could not fight against his home states of South Carolina (Where he was born) and Georgia (Where he was raised). He was a man who also enjoyed having a good time. He enjoyed playing cards and smoking pipes. However, in January of 1862, he lost three of his four children to a Scarlet Fever epidemic that hit Richmond, Virginia. This tragic event mellowed him a bit, and he was not known to take part in much frivolity for several years to come.
He definitely favored staying on the defensive, and always cautioned against any idea of taking the offensive. The two most evident moments of this came when Lee planned to take the war north. When planning the push into Maryland in September of 1862, he feared the army might be cut off from supplies, and become vulnerable from the rear. And when taking the war into Pennsylvania in the Summer of 1863, he did not wish to engage the enemy in any offensive combat. Lee promised that no such action would take place, but changed his mind when the opportunity to attack the Union at Gettysburg presented itself. Even though he was critical of these offensives, he was ultimately proven right to an extent. He knew that taking the war into enemy territory might not work in their favor, and both times they were forced to retreat. At Gettysburg, he knew any assault would be repulsed, and he was right. It really isn’t fair to place the loss at Gettysburg upon him. He may have acted more cautiously, but he knew that any attack was prone to fail, especially the attack known as “Pickett’s Charge.” He argued against the attack on the Union center, and his fears proved correct.
However, these moments of caution did not make him a coward by any means. He was known to be too heroic at times, and move too far forward. Probably the most tragic example of this was at the Battle of the Wilderness, where some of his actions led to him being fired upon by his own men during the chaotic fighting that took place in the thick woods. Although seriously wounded, he would return to fight with his men. And even as the war turned against the South, and the Confederates forced to retreat, Longstreet was one of the few who cautioned Lee against surrendering until it proved to be the only possible solution. After the war ended, he became a supporter of the Republican Party, and of his friend Ulysses S. Grant, the main opponent of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in the last year of the war.
In truth, it is hard to be certain of who the real James “Pete” Longstreet really was. Like all of the men who became great leaders of the American Civil War, he was a man full of flaws and contradictions, as well as brilliance and compassion. He fought to defend the South and its institutions, then seemed to turn against it when supporting the Republican Party. But in the long run, he is definitely a character that will be debated as long as the war itself is taught.
Cast to play General Longstreet is Golden Globe and Emmy nominee Rob Lowe, star of such films as St. Elmo’s Fire, About Last Night… and The Outsiders, as well as television shows such as “The West Wing,” “Brothers and Sister” and “Parks and Recreation.” He has received countless accolades and awards for his work, and will have to bring all the talent he has learned over his many years in the business to play this very conflicted, courageous and cautious human being for the miniseries. But like the other men who have been cast, there is no doubt in my mind that Mr. Lowe will give nothing short of an outstanding performance, and I look forward to seeing what he brings to the character.