The son of a farmer, Longstreet much of his childhood in Augusta, Ga. Upon his father's death in 1833, he moved with his mother to Somerville, Ala. Admitted to West Point in 1838, he attended with U.S. Grant, Henry W. Halleck, Irvin McDowell, George H. Thomas, and William T. Sherman, graduating in 1842, 54th in a class of 62. Brevetted 2nd lieutenant of the 4th Infantry for tours in Missouri and Louisiana, he served with the 8th Infantry in Florida.
Longstreet participated in the Mexican War, serving under Gen. Zachary Taylor up to and including the Battle of Monterey, then joined the forces under Gen. Winfield Scott for the expedition to Mexico City. At Chapultepec, he was wounded, and brevetted major, a rank he would maintain until his resignation on June 1, 1861. Joining the Confederate Army, he was commissioned brigadier general on June 17, 1861, in spite of his desire to assume an administrative rather than military role.
At First Bull Run, Longstreet commanded troops, where he did an excellent job of deployment. As a result of his skillful leadership, he received a promotion to major general on October 7, 1861 and was given command of a division under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Longstreet distinguished himself in the rearguard action at Williamsburg on May 5, 1862, as Johnston's forces pulled out of Yorktown and headed toward Richmond. His lateness on the field and misunderstanding of orders, however, contributed to the failure at Seven Pines, May 31, 1862.
Longstreet redeemed himself somewhat during the Seven Days' Battles, June 25–July 1, 1862. In fighting around Richmond after Gen. Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Confederate army, Longstreet displayed courage and willingness to fight. Favorably impressed, Lee entrusted Longstreet with greater than half of his infantry forces. On August 13, he was sent to aid Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, who was engaged with a Federal force under Maj. Gen. John Pope near Orange Court House. The maneuver marked the beginning of the Second Bull Run Campaign. Longstreet, crossing the Rapidan River slowly, made up for it by skillfully moving up the Rappahannock. On the morning of August 29, 1862, he joined Jackson, who had just completed his march to Manassas Junction. Though Lee had wanted Longstreet to take the offensive, Longstreet stalled until August 30, 1862 before entering the contest. Here emerged Longstreet's greatest flaw as a military commander: he was to slow to act on orders that he did not fully agree with.
Participating in the Antietam Campaign in September 1862, despite the fact that he did not fully agree that invasion was the best course of action, Longstreet fought skillfully. On October 11, Lee recommended Longstreet for a promotion to lieutenant general, with his division grouped as the I Corps. His unit sustained heavy fighting at Fredericksburg on December 13, where his men held a formidable position along Marye's Heights.
On February 17, 1863, Longstreet moved southeast with Maj. Gens. George E. Pickett and John B. Hood to guard Richmond. Known as the Suffolk Campaign, it was Longstreet's first experience with a relatively independent command. When he initiated no significant action, however, Lee suggested he either fight or rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia. Finally, on April 11, he advanced on Suffolk.
Longstreet's relationship with Lee strengthened after Jackson's death on May 10, 1863. In planning the Gettysburg Campaign, Longstreet supported a plan of defensive tactics as part of an overall, offensive strategy. Lee, however, chose to attack Maj. Gen. George Meade at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, resulting in the bloodiest battle in American history, and an agonizing defeat for the Confederacy. On July 2, Longstreet, under orders to assault Cemetery Ridge at dawn, decided instead to delay, waiting for reinforcements. Marching and countermarching his men west of Seminary Ridge, he finally sent his troops into battle at about 4:30 p.m. His men fought courageously for four hours, holding their ground until the battle was halted for the day. Longstreet's initial delay, however, had allowed Union commanders to bring up reinforcements. When the attack resumed on the 2nd, it resulted in tremendous loss of life. Years after the war, Longstreet would still be blamed, not altogether fairly, for costing Lee the battle.
In September 1863, Longstreet was reassigned to Georgia, serving well at Chickamauga but running into difficulty against opposing forces at Knoxville in November, marking a low ebb in his career; despondent, he considered resignation.
His proposed plans for offensive action in Tennessee and Kentucky were not adopted by Pres. Jefferson Davis. Longstreet and his troops were sent back to Virginia in April 1864, arriving in time to effectively assist Lt. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill's Corps on the second day of the battle at the Wilderness, in May 1864. During the fighting, Longstreet was severely wounded. He would resume service in November 1864, this time in defense of Richmond. He and the remainder of his corps fought on throughout the rest of the war, when Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
Longstreet, a superior corps commander, lacked the prowess in strategy to bring him success in independent command. Though often slow or reluctant to take the offensive, he was, nonetheless, a brave soldier when engaged in battle. Lee would affectionately refer to him as "My Old War Horse," while his men called him "Old Pete."
In the postwar years he entered business as an insurance agent, supervised the Louisiana State Lottery, and held various Federal appointments, finally settling in Gainesville, Ga. He alienated Southerners when he became a Republican, yet was instrumental in loosening tensions between "Old" and "New South" Democrats. Longstreet wrote extensively during his postwar days, usually in defense of his actions at Gettysburg. On January 2, 1904, James Longstreet, the last surviving member of the Confederate high command, passed away in Gainesville. His autobiography, From Manassas to Appomattox (1896), is one of the finest memoirs written by a member of the Confederate high command.