Longstreet was born in Augusta, Georgia in 1821, but moved to Alabama as a boy and was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point representing that state. He graduated from West Point in 1842, in time to serve with distinction in the Mexican War and rise to the rank of major. He resigned from the U.S. Army in June of 1861 to cast his lot with the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Longstreet was already highly regarded as an officer, and he was almost immediately appointed as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. He fought well at Bull Run, and earned a promotion to major general. When Gen. Robert E. Lee took command of what had become known as the Army of Northern Virginia that summer, Longstreet's career took off. During the Seven Days Campaign, Longstreet had operational command of nearly half the Confederate Army.
As a general, Longstreet showed a clear preference for defensive fighting, preferring to position his troops in strong defensive positions and compel the enemy to attack him. Once the enemy had worn itself down, then and only then would Longstreet contemplate an attack of his own. In fact, troops under his command never lost a defensive position during the war. His record as an offensive tactician was a mixed bag, however, and he often clashed with the highly aggressive Lee on the subject of the proper tactics to employ in battle.
Ironically, one of his finest hours came in August 1862, when he commanded what had become known as the First Corps at Second Bull Run. Here, he and his counterpart in command of the Second Corps, Lieut. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, switched their normal roles, with Jackson fighting defensively on the Confederate left, and Longstreet delivering a devastating flank attack on the right that crushed a slightly larger Union army. The next month, at the Battle of Antietam, Longstreet held his part of the Confederate line against Union forces twice as numerous. On October 9, a few weeks after Antietam, Longstreet was promoted to lieutenant general.
He only enhanced his reputation that December, when his First Corps played the decisive role in the Battle of Fredericksburg. There, Longstreet positioned his men behind a stone wall and held off a half-dozen assaults by Union forces. About 10,000 Union soldiers fell; Longstreet's men lost but 500.
In the winter and early spring of 1863, Longstreet bottled up Union forces in the city of Suffolk, Virginia, a minor operation but one that was very important to Lee's army, still stationed in devastated central Virginia. By conducting a siege of Suffolk, Longstreet enabled Confederate authorities to collect huge amounts of food--food that had been under Union control--and send it to feed Lee's hungry soldiers. However, this operation caused Longstreet and 15,000 men of the First Corps to be absent from the Battle of Chancellorsville in May.
Longstreet rejoined Lee's army after Chancellorsville and took part in Lee's Gettysburg campaign, where he clashed with Lee about the tactics Lee was using. This campaign marked a fundamental change in the way Longstreet was employed by Lee. In the past, Lee had preferred to use Longstreet in defensive roles, which were his strength, and use Jackson and the Second Corps to spearhead his attacks. But Jackson had been killed at Chancellorsville, and now Lee wanted Longstreet--his best remaining lieutenant--to fill that role.
Longstreet was willing and capable of doing so, but he argued with Lee a number of times during the battle of Gettysburg, essentially telling Lee that his tactics were going to lead to defeat. On July 2, the second day of the battle, Longstreet's assault on the Union left nearly succeeded, but on July 3, when Lee ordered Longstreet, against his wishes, to attack the Union center in what became known as "Pickett's Charge", the Confederates lost 7,000 men in an hour. Longstreet was right, and Lee was wrong and immediately admitted as much, but to many of Lee's admirers, the lost battle was Longstreet's fault.
Lee never blamed anyone but himself for the defeat, and in fact dispatched Longstreet to Georgia that fall in response to a desperate appeal for help from the Confederate Army of Tennessee. That resulted in Longstreet and 14,000 of his First Corps veterans taking part in the Battle of Chickamauga that September. Longstreet led an attack of his men and some of the Army of Tennessee men that routed the Union Army of the Cumberland and won the greatest Confederate victory ever in the western theatre.
Alas, Longstreet soon clashed with the bumbling Army of Tennessee commander, Gen. Braxton Bragg, when Bragg failed to capitalize on the victory by finishing off the Union army and recapturing the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The government offered Longstreet command of the entire army in Bragg's place, but Longstreet turned it down, citing his unfamiliarity with the army. Bragg not only stayed in command, he sent Longstreet and his men on a disastrous campaign into east Tennessee, where in December, he was defeated in an attempt to recapture the city of Knoxville. After Bragg was driven back into Georgia, Longstreet and his men returned to Lee.
Longstreet helped save the Confederate Army from defeat in his first battle back with Lee's army, the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, where he drove back a powerful Union attack column and nearly drove it from the field. But he was wounded in the process, and missed the rest of the 1864 spring campaign, where Lee sorely missed his skill in handling the army. He rejoined Lee during the siege of Petersburg from June 1864 to March 1865, commanding the defenses in front of the capital of Richmond. He surrendered with Lee at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
After the war, Longstreet became friends with his old adversary, Lieut. Gen. and future President Ulysses S. Grant, and became the only major Confederate officer to join the postwar Republican party. For this, he lost favor with many Southerners, but nevertheless enjoyed a successful second career. Grant appointed Longstreet as his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and later on, he served as commissioner of the United States of America Pacific railroad system.
Late in life, after bearing criticism of his war record from other Confederates for decades, he refuted most of their arguments in his memoirs entitled From Manassas to Appomattox. He had the good fortune of outliving most of his enemies, and died on January 2, 1904, once again respected as an outstanding general by both friend and foe alike.