Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (1790-1870)
In 1835 Augustus Baldwin Longstreet published Georgia's first important literary work, Georgia Scenes, Characters, Incidents, Etc. in the First Half Century of the Republic. Because of this book he is remembered most often as a literary figure. Longstreet, however, only dabbled in fiction writing, just as he dabbled in many other careers, including roles as a lawyer, judge, state senator, newspaper editor, minister, political propagandist, and college president.
Augustus Baldwin Longstreet was born in Augusta in September 1790 to Hannah Randolph and William Longstreet. His father was a sometime politician and failed inventor. His mother was the driving force behind his education. He received his early schooling at Richmond Academy in Augusta and Hickory Gum Academy in Edgefield District, South Carolina. In 1808 he enrolled in Moses Waddel's famous academy in Willington, South Carolina, and in 1811 he matriculated at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. While in college Longstreet regaled his teachers and fellow students with stories that he would later publish in Georgia Scenes. In 1813 he began his legal studies at Tapping Reeve's law school in Litchfield, Connecticut.
In 1814 Longstreet returned to Georgia, where he passed the bar exam the following year. While tending to legal business in Greensboro, he met Frances Eliza Parke. They married in 1817 and remained married, by Longstreet's count, for "fifty years, seven months, and ten days." Of their eight children, only two—daughters Frances Eliza and Virginia Lafayette—lived to adulthood.
In 1821 Longstreet began a term in the Georgia General Assembly as a representative from Greene County. This term was cut short the following year when the assembly appointed him to serve for three years as the judge of the Superior Court of the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit. Two years later, however, in 1824, Longstreet was campaigning for the U.S. Congress when the death of his first-born child, Alfred Emsley, prompted him to withdraw from the race.
Longstreet had never been religious, but his acute grief over the death of his son led to a conversion. He began earnestly to read the Bible and to pray, and soon he was "a thorough believer in Christianity."
After the term of Longstreet's judgeship ended, he and his family moved to Augusta. He joined the Methodist church in 1827 and felt called to preach the following year. In the fall of 1828 he was licensed to preach locally. His full-time ministerial career began nearly a decade later in December 1838, when he became a traveling Methodist minister.
Longstreet's earliest publications have been lost. His first was a hoax letter to a newspaper, supposedly written by two escaped convicts who were awaiting death. The date of this publication is unknown. Lost as well is Longstreet's "Review of the Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Case of McCulloch vs. the State of Maryland" (1819). His earliest surviving publication, An Oration, Delivered before the Demosthenian and Phi Kappa Societies of the University of Georgia, did not appear until 1831.
By the time of the oration, Longstreet had probably begun to commit his "Georgia Scenes" to paper. The first to appear in print was "The Dance," published in the Milledgeville Southern Recorder in 1833. Seven additional scenes appeared in the Southern Recorder before Longstreet purchased the federalist North American Gazette, which he renamed the Augusta State Rights Sentinel. Scenes began to appear in the Sentinel in January 1834; the last was published in March 1835.
Longstreet's literary sketches would probably have been forgotten had he not collected them into a book. In September 1835 he published Georgia Scenes, Characters, Incidents, Etc. in the First Half Century of the Republic from the Sentinel office. The poet Edgar Allan Poe gave it a rave review, and in 1840 the book was reissued by a New York publisher, Harper and Brothers. Longstreet hoped that his book would not be forgotten, as his purpose in writing it was to preserve Georgia's social history. In his words, he wanted "to supply a chasm in history which has always been overlooked—the manners, customs, amusements, wit, dialect as they appear in all grades of society to an ear and eye witness of them."
Between 1838 and 1843 Longstreet published eight more "Georgia Scenes," and in 1864 he published his only novel, the poorly received Master William Mitten; or, A Youth of Brilliant Talents, Who Was Ruined by Bad Luck. Most of Longstreet's later writings were political, including two lengthy defenses of slavery, Letters on the Epistle of Paul to Philemon (1845) and A Voice from the South (1847). Shortly before his death, Longstreet completed a work of biblical scholarship, A Correction of the Canonized Errors in Biblical Interpretation. Unfortunately, this manuscript was lost in a fire at the home of his literary executor.
Longstreet's brief career as a full-time minister ended when he became president of Emory College in Oxford in January 1840. In 1844 he came to national prominence when he played a central role in the division of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Four years later, in 1848, he resigned his post at Emory, and the following year he served briefly as president of Centenary College in Jackson, Louisiana. He was president of the University of Mississippi from 1849 to 1856. After resigning his post in Mississippi, the sixty-five-year-old Longstreet considered himself retired. He left retirement in 1857, however, when he was offered the presidency of South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina).
Longstreet served South Carolina College until late 1861, by which time most of his students had left school to join the Confederate effort in the Civil War (1861-65). Longstreet then moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where his ill wife had been living with one of their daughters. In December 1862 Federal troops reached Oxford and, using Longstreet's papers as kindling, burned his house. The Longstreets relocated to Oxford, Georgia, and then to Columbus. Longstreet served the Confederacy as he could with his pen. His efforts included a leaflet of encouragement for Confederate soldiers and letters of advice to his nephew, the Confederate general James Longstreet. After the war Longstreet returned to Oxford, Mississippi, where he died on July 9, 1870.
In 2000 Longstreet was inducted as a charter member into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.