A Political Convert in the Long Shadow of the Civil War

Longstreet and his family moved back to Georgia, and as a loyal Republican, he served as deputy collector of internal revenue and then as postmaster. President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him minister to Turkey in 1880, which, though not a prestigious posting, afforded Longstreet an opportunity to improve diplomatic relations. This, Varon notes, was also part of Longstreet’s political conversion: To him, Republicans could improve domestic and international trade by expanding markets, which would eventually help the beleaguered South.

Predictably, the appointment was controversial and Longstreet was caricatured as the unfit tool of the Republicans, who were rebuked for rewarding a traitor. Still, he performed as well as he could, given that the U.S. government, as Varon explains, had no real influence over the Ottoman Empire.

Soon called home in 1881 when President James A. Garfield appointed him U.S. marshal in Georgia, Longstreet attempted to bolster the local Republican Party in the face of vigilante violence and internal wrangling. And though many Black Republicans distrusted Longstreet, they respected his willingness to fight for Black voting rights and to make interracial alliances. During the McKinley administration, with the assistance of several Black Republicans in Georgia, Longstreet was appointed U.S. railroad commissioner. By now, though, Civil War veterans, Federal and Confederate, were being “swept up,” Varon writes, “in the burgeoning cult of sectional reunion.” The purpose of this reunion, she implies, was to paper over the real cause of the war — slavery, and its pernicious legacy — so that both sides “could share the moral high ground in American memory.”

Though Longstreet continued to refute the myth of the Lost Cause in articles and interviews, he gave up on Reconstruction. Once again, Varon notes, Longstreet managed a “political balancing act.” In the 1890s, he broadly condemned white supremacist violence, but he compared lynching, which he considered deplorable, to the labor strikes and disorder in the North — an echo of the comparison trotted out by the advocates of slavery before the war to justify the peculiar institution. In this new equivocal spirit of comity and negligence, North and South, radical and conservative, could thus join hands presumably to bury the bloody past and ignore the present.

While Varon brilliantly creates the wider context for Longstreet’s career, she leans, alas, far more toward historiography than biography. Quoting extensively from the 19th-century press and modern historians, Varon contends that Longstreet’s recent biographers depict him as politically inept and ignore the complexity of a brave man whose very “legacy would prove to be a battlefield of its own.”

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