An authoritative biography of the second-highest-ranking and most controversial Confederate general, who rejoined the Union after the Civil War, advising other Confederate soldiers to put that war behind them. After joining an interracial government in New Orleans, Longstreet fought against white supremacists when they attacked these postwar elected officials, for which he was vilified and attacked by other Southerners, and blamed for the South's defeat in the Civil War.
His is a fascinating, but not altogether explicable, life ... Varon does a nice job of combing through the tangled web of Louisiana’s postwar politics ... While Varon brilliantly creates the wider context for Longstreet’s career, she leans, alas, far more toward historiography than biography ... Her book, then, is not so much about Longstreet’s character or his motivations or even how he came to possess the 'courage to change,' as she poignantly observes, but about a symbolic Longstreet who embodies incompatible postwar narratives.
It’s hard to see Elizabeth Varon’s new biography of James Longstreet becoming a runaway bestseller, and that’s a shame, because her study of the Confederate general...is insightful, well-executed, and sorely needed ... Varon’s narrative bears out this familiar portrait of a worrying, wounded commander, even if she rejects previous scholars’ contention that this attitude impacted his performance in the field ... While Varon’s biography sags somewhat in detailing Longstreet’s maneuvering during the war and in recounting the various political offices he held in the decades long after it, the book comes to life narrating Longstreet’s activities during Reconstruction and analyzing his possible motives for accepting the outcome of the war. Alone among leading Confederates, he bowed to the North’s right to dictate the terms of peace.
Longstreet has long deserved a full and balanced biography that treats both his crucial Civil War career and his perceived postwar apostasy in something approaching equal measure. Regrettably, the historian Elizabeth Varon’s Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South is not that book ... Varon’s study concentrates primarily on his post-Civil War activities and evaluates Longstreet’s significance in the context of today’s racial accounting ... It is perhaps not surprising that she devotes less than one-third of her biography to Longstreet’s Civil War years. But if her choice of emphasis offers the most comprehensive examination available of his postwar career, it comes at the expense of exploring his importance as one of the pre-eminent generals of the Civil War ... There is little in Longstreet for the student of Civil War history.