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Civl War general’s lasting influence remembered

Longstreet seminar provides background, tour of sites in Gainesville

POSTED: October 10, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Ever wish you knew more about Gainesville's past?

Attendess had the opportunity to learn a little more about Gainesville's history at a seminar titled "From Manassas to Appomattox: James Longstreet, Civil War General," held Saturday at the Holiday Inn Lanier Centre Hotel in Gainesville.

The seminar was organized by The Longstreet Society and will continue today.

The event, which is the first in a series of seminars to commemorate next year's 150th anniversary of the Civil War, featured expert presentations and lectures, a tour of Longstreet sites in Gainesville, a silent auction and evening social.

Speakers included William Garrett Piston, Rich DiNardo, Richard Pilcher and Col. Blackjack Travis.

Participants were able to take a bus tour of Gainesville which led them to the site of Longstreet's former home, and to Roosevelt Square, which is close to the site of the old courthouse where Longstreet's funeral was held.

"They held that funeral on a cold day in January," said Pilcher, president of the Longstreet Society. "They held it at the courthouse because it was the biggest assembly room in the county."
Pilcher said that there were more than 5,000 people at Longstreet's funeral and most of them had to stand outside.

After the funeral, Longstreet was buried in Alta Vista Cemetery, another stop on the bus tour.

"The 5,000 people that attended his funeral apparently followed the hearse to the gravesite," Pilcher said. "It was the biggest funeral we have ever had in Gainesville."

The participants also made a stop at the historic Piedmont Hotel, which Longstreet owned from 1876 until the time of his death. Sometime in the 1890s, it ceased operations as a hotel.

Pilcher believes that it is important for locals to learn about Gainesville history so we can see our mistakes from the past and try not to repeat them.

"With the economy today, I see some of the mistakes that we made during the Great Depression," Pilcher said. "It is necessary for people to be familiar with their history, and not just Gen. Longstreet and Civil War history, but any history."

Pilcher said that Longstreet, who lived in Gainesville for about the last third of his life, was the city's most famous resident.

"After the war, he became a champion of peace," he said. "He traveled the country telling people that there was a better way to solve our differences than by sending our young men off to kill each other, and he carried that message everywhere he went."

Pilcher said that the participants of the seminar are already admirers of Longstreet, but he hopes that after the seminar they will walk away feeling even closer to the general, his family and his legacy.

Pilcher said that Longstreet wasn't popular in the South during his last years and some even considered him a traitor because he joined the Republican Party, which was connected with ending slavery.

"Longstreet was criticized for that, but in response, he told people that slavery benefited nobody, and the best thing that we could do was give our former slaves citizen rights and let them do the things we were obligated to do," Pilcher said. "His reputation has only in the last 30 or 40 years started to recover."

Pilcher said that Longstreet's reputation has recovered because of people like Piston, a Missouri State University history professor who believes Longstreet was a great military commander.

Piston was the keynote speaker Saturday and spoke about how well-prepared Longstreet and his fellow commanders were to fight when the war began in 1861.

"Specifically, I will look at some of the people who were in command in Virginia in 1861 and look at their background and Longstreet's, particularly in connection with the Mexican War," Piston said.
Piston said that Longstreet was one of the best-prepared military commanders largely because of his battlefield experience.

"I'm certainly not arguing that he was more prepared than Robert E. Lee and some of the other people who were older than he was, but among people in their 40s, very few people had more actual battlefield experience than he did," Piston said.

Piston said that we have an opportunity in Gainesville and every town to confront what happened in the past and decide what to make of it.

"It is very easy for people to have their past be a source of bitterness, hatred, and division, but to me, what is amazing is that for all of the violence of the American Civil War and for all the things that may still remain controversial about it, we have managed to make it something that fascinates Americans and brings them together," he said.

Piston said that as we approach the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it will be something that Americans from all corners of the nation will be interested in.



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