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Generals met off battlefield after the war

POSTED: February 20, 2011 1:00 a.m.

Gen. James Longstreet, the Confederate officer who lived out his life in Gainesville, met one of his old foes years after the Civil War.

Gen. Daniel Sickles was among Union officers Longstreet fought at Gettysburg. The second day's fight there was mostly between soldiers under the commands of Longstreet and Sickles. Sickles's troops lost, and he lost a leg to a cannonball.

The former Union general came by train to Atlanta from Washington in March 1892 at the invitation of several friends and stayed at the Kimball House. He and the friends were talking in his hotel room when they heard a feeble knock on the door. In came Longstreet, who said he wanted to see his former foe.

As the Sunny South newspaper described the meeting of the two old former enemies, " ... Gen. Longstreet, Lee's old warhorse, put his arms fondly around Gen. Daniel Sickles and drew him close to his soldier heart - both men speechless with that joy which comes to warriors long after the bugle has sung truce and with hairs frosted with years they meet again."

Many in the South still were embittered by the war's outcome and the oppressive years of Reconstruction. Longstreet tried to put that behind him and at times was roundly criticized for what some believed to be consorting with the former enemy.

"The war has not been forgotten," the newspaper wrote, "but let the affectionate embrace that Longstreet gave Sickles and the fond response that came from the one-legged warrior who wore the Blue tell to a reunited Republic that such bitterness as caused Longstreet to shoot off Sickles's leg at Gettysburg has long since died away.

"When the two men had stood for several seconds, Gen. Sickles, standing on his one leg, his head buried on Gen. Longstreet's shoulder, they again grasped hands most cordially, and their friends who stood by were profoundly impressed."

After Longstreet left, Sickles was quoted as saying, "Do you know it? There's a man that is a hero among men. He shot off my right leg at Gettysburg, but, bless his old heart, I have forgiven him long ago in my utter admiration and respect for his generalship and his manliness. We were on opposite sides, that's true, and on sides we each believed to be right, but what does that count now, when, without a bitter thought, I can look into his face and say to him, ‘Longstreet, you're a man.'"

Sickles' nickname was "Devil Dan," apparently because of personal scandals he was involved in. In 1859, he shot and killed Phillip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key, composer of "The Star-Spangled Banner," in front of the White House. He had married a 15-year-old when he was in his 30s, and later accused Key of being her lover. A jury acquitted Sickles, who used the "temporary insanity" defense for the first time. His military career was equally as tumultuous.

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 Longstreet owned the Piedmont Hotel, remnants of which have been restored by the Longstreet Society on Maple Street in Gainesville. His son John managed it for a time. "It is now in flourishing condition," an Atlanta newspaper reported. "It is one of the best constructed buildings in Northeast Georgia. Being built mainly for the conveniences for pleasure seekers and invalids, the architect succeeding admirably in the undertaking."

John G. Longstreet was involved in an incident that resulted in the death of a friend in 1883, according to the Weekly Constitution. He and John T. Bird, 23, a Gainesville merchant, were rabbit hunting when the gun Longstreet was carrying accidentally discharged, wounding Bird in the temple.

Bird's last words to Longstreet were, "I am shot." Longstreet stuffed a scarf into the wound and ran to a nearby house for help. However, when he and others returned, Bird lay dead, his dog guarding his body. The dog bit two people before it could be lured away from his master's remains.

A coroner's jury ruled the death accidental with no fault assigned to Longstreet. Longstreet testified that he was carrying a breech-loading shotgun that Bird wanted to try out at the first opportunity. When a rabbit ran by them, Bird reached for Longstreet's shotgun, and the cocked weapon went off.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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