Wood engraving of the Virginia Military Institute from the 1863 Register of the Officers and Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute.
A lot of folks don't realize how much financial trouble General Longstreet suffered after the Civil War ended. He was unable to pay his son Garland's tuition at the Virginia Military Institute. Letters and the financial ledgers of the Virginia Military Institute that pertained to the Longstreet account and overdue balance are in the archives of the New Orleans Public Library. General Longstreet wrote to Francis Smith, the head of the institute, in December of 1868 saying, “I regret to say…that I am entirely out of resources and offer no assurances that I should have any soon.”
Francis Smith was forced to reply to Longstreet, whom it appears he held in high regard, with repeated requests for the tuition payment. Smith wrote, “I would again call your attention to the heavy balance due to this institution on account of your son.” For someone like General Longstreet to go so long without paying for his son’s military education you know his financial situation must have been dire. In October 1870 the ledger of the Virginia Military Institute showed Longstreet’s balance at $1407.90. At one point the debt was paid down to $1107.90 accompanied by a written explanation stating Mrs. Longstreet had forgotten to mail the check.
On July 24, 1871 Francis Smith once again wrote to General Longstreet, “The pressure upon us at this time, since instances involving legal process, compels my appeal to you to close the balance for your son’s education.” Sadly, the General could not afford to close the balance and eventually legal proceedings were brought in State of Virginia v. Longstreet with a court date set for May 23, 1872. Fortunately after suffering seven years of hardship General Longstreet's finances had finally begun to improve around this same time and he was able to pay off the debt for Garland's education before the trial date.
It is evident that General Longstreet believed there would be some economic opportunities in New Orleans after the Civil War ended, but this proved incorrect. While the city was not a “bombed out husk,” it did not rebound as a bustling port city. Most of the New Orleans cotton trade was taken by the railroads resulting in many residents remaining poor as the Reconstruction effort moved forward.
The General’s forays into the cotton brokerage of Longstreet, Owen and Company (located at 27 Union Street) and the insurance business as a member of Southern and Western Life and Accident Insurance Company (located at 21 Carondelet Street) did not go well. In addition General Longstreet suffered with a number of physical ailments during his years in New Orleans that hampered his civilian efforts. These were a result of his years of military service in both the US and CSA and his severe wounding at the Wilderness.
The abject poverty of the era is well illustrated in a Longstreet family anecdote demonstrating the General’s generosity:
“For several years after the war, Confederate veterans would come by the General’s house and tell him they’d just shot a Yankee. The General knew what they were up to. They were poor and thought this would win his favor. The General would play along and give them handouts of food.”
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