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Civil War at 150: Longstreet left his mark on Gainesville

Famed Civil War general stands as a key local figure, past and present

POSTED: April 17, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Interview with Longstreet descendant

/Library of Congress

A painting depicting Gen. Longstreet and Gen Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg.

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He became a Republican during the GOP-led, post-Civil War Reconstruction in the South.

He advocated civil rights, including the right to vote, for blacks.

And perhaps the greatest sin in the eyes of his detractors was taking to task the tactics of the revered and widely beloved Gen. Robert E. Lee at the Civil War's bloody Battle of Gettysburg.

From pariah to man of courageous conviction, from scapegoat to shrewd battlefield commander, Gen. James Longstreet has made quite the turnaround - at least for many - as a figure in American history.

Longstreet, who spent much of his postwar years in Gainesville, was largely reviled by political and military contemporaries, although cherished by the Confederate troops who served under him.

"He was cast as sort of a Judas Iscariot of the South," said Douglas Young, a Gainesville State College history professor and avid Longstreet admirer.

"I think it's funny that Longstreet was, by far, the most politically incorrect Confederate general in Dixie in the late 19th century, but now, he's by far the most politically correct ... for having been so far ahead of his time on race."

Young added, "I really believe that now, the general is far more appreciated than he has ever been. I think there has been a real restoration of his reputation, militarily, politically and personally."

Reputation aside, Longstreet is Hall County's most notable connection to the Civil War, which began 150 years ago Tuesday.

He was Lee's second in command, known as Lee's "Old War Horse." He and Union commander and future U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant were lifelong friends. He also held various presidential appointments late in life, including minister to Turkey, then the Ottoman Empire.

Longstreet owned and operated the Piedmont Hotel at Maple and Main streets and served as postmaster general in Gainesville.

Before Longstreet's arrival in 1875, Hall County was a relative backwater, far from Civil War battlefields or even railroad lines that nourished and supplied armies.

Area farmers became soldiers, enlisted and deployed from Northeast Georgia, but deserters also fled to the mountainous region.

A soldier's life

As for Longstreet, his birth on Jan. 8, 1821, was in South Carolina or North Georgia near present-day White County, depending on the source.

He grew up near Augusta and, after his father's death, the family moved to North Alabama. There, he earned an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Longstreet, who details his life in his memoirs, "From Manassas to Appomattox," graduated from West Point in 1842 and would go on to lead a long and rich Army career, including a stint in the 1846-48 war with Mexico.

He resigned the U.S. Army on June 1, 1861, to accept a Confederate States of America commission as brigadier general.

"He was a U.S. Army major who did not want to leave the U.S. Army (when the Civil War began)," said Garland Reynolds, a Gainesville architect and founding member of the Longstreet Society, a group aimed at preserving the history and legacy of the general.

"He was pressured into it by family members from Alabama and Georgia, and he had no choice."

Longstreet would go on to lead action in Virginia, including the battles of Second Manassas (also known as Second Bull Run), South Mountain, Antietam and Fredericksburg.

His star continued to rise in October 1862, becoming Lee's second in command of the Army of Northern Virginia.

With Lee and Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson also on its side, the Confederate Army had what many experts regard as one of the most feared group of military leaders in war history.

Longstreet, who was famously known as "Old Pete," alone "was quite remarkable in terms of defensive tactics and trench warfare," Young said.

Then came the Gettysburg campaign of May-September 1863.

Lee's plan was ambitious and bold: Invade the North and with a victory, inspire the rattled and discouraged Union to pressure its government to end the Civil War.

He encountered stout opposition at Gettysburg, Pa., from well-prepared Union forces and, perhaps more unlikely, from his second in command, Longstreet. As the story goes, the generals disagreed on a direct frontal assault.

Blame for the Southern defeat in that campaign would fall largely on Longstreet, as many saw his actions as disobedience and forsaking the Confederate cause.

Later, Longstreet commanded the Army of Tennessee, fighting in battles at Chattanooga and Knoxville, as well as Chickamauga at the Tennessee line.

In the spring of 1864, he was accidentally shot in the neck by one of his men in the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia.

He returned to defend Richmond in the fall of 1864 and was with Lee at the surrender to the Union at Appomattox Courthouse, Va.

Postwar controversy

After the war, Longstreet first settled in New Orleans, home of other Confederate generals.

Longstreet's postwar infamy in the South perhaps began in March 1867, when he wrote a letter saying that Southerners were "duty bound" to submit to new Reconstruction laws.

A month later, in a letter published by the New York Times, he supported voting rights for blacks.

In 1868, he joined the Republican Party of President Abraham Lincoln and advised Southern states to extend civil and voting rights to freed slaves.

He led black militia troops in opposing the White League, which opposed "carpetbagger" Louisiana Republican Gov. William Kellogg.

Longstreet, who was shot in the leg during the melee, later picked up and moved to Gainesville.

"He was run out of New Orleans and couldn't live there any more. ... He would have been killed had his old vets not respected him so much," Reynolds said.

Home to Georgia

Gainesville didn't openly embrace Longstreet at the beginning. The story goes that when he attended services at the Episcopal church, worshippers moved to pews on the other side of the church.

Longstreet left the church, converted to Catholicism and started the area's first Catholic congregation, now St. Michael Catholic Church.

He would go on to accept several federal posts, included an appointment by President Rutherford B. Hayes as deputy collector of internal revenue.

Interesting stories and information about Longstreet stream constantly from different sources, including historians and descendants.

"It's just hard to keep up with all this stuff," said Richard Pilcher, president of the Longstreet Society, which runs the Piedmont as a museum and sponsors annual seminars about the general.

With a grin, he added, "We stay confused a good part of the time."

Off the battlefield and outside the political arena, Longstreet's personal life was filled with tragedy.

Only five of his 10 children with wife Louise had survived to adulthood and only two of those would go on to marry and have children, according to Clark T. Thornton of Baldwin.

Thornton, a Longstreet descendant, has written a book, "General James Longstreet: A Family Portrait," tracing his ancestor's roots to the early part of the second millennium and through British royal lineage.

In 1889, fire destroyed Longstreet's Gainesville home and the family's belongings, including war memorabilia.

His wife of more than 40 years died in December that year.

Longstreet later wrote his memoirs, publishing them in 1896. By then, broad white whiskers had replaced the long, flowing beard he wore on Civil War battlefields.

In September 1897, he married 34-year-old Helen Dortch at the governor's mansion in Atlanta. The couple moved to Washington, where Longstreet renewed his federal career, serving as U.S. commissioner of railroads under President William McKinley.

He then faced a battle he couldn't lick: cancer. The malignancy was in the same area of his old war wounds.

During his illness, he contracted pneumonia and started coughing.

"His throat just tore open and he bled to death," Pilcher said. "Newspapers of the day liked to say that the old general died of his wounds - just a catchy thing they liked, and I kind of like it, too."

He died on Jan. 2, 1904, at his daughter's Gainesville home, and is buried in Alta Vista Cemetery.

After his death, Helen Longstreet, a Carnesville native and a student at what is now Brenau University in Gainesville, became a strident defender of her late husband's war record. She died in 1962, buried in West View Cemetery in Atlanta.

Longstreet had "decided that people in Gainesville had mistreated her and the general, and she didn't want to be buried here," Pilcher said. "Basically, that was untrue. He was treated pretty well here."

The legacy lives on

Today, Longstreet's name abounds in Gainesville.

Businesses and streets are named after him.

Thornton said he only became interested in his family tree when he entered middle age.

"My aunt Martha, who is the general's oldest great-grandchild, wrote me a letter and briefly outlined some of the history of that side of our family, back to the general," he said. "And I thought that was really interesting."

After thorough research, Thornton said he has come to envision Longstreet "as an extremely bright person, who was driven."

"He had a knack for being a soldier. ... It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if he had decided to stay in the Union and fight on the side of the North. I think the war would have been over a lot sooner."

Longstreet's reputation remained largely tarnished until the 1970s, when the historic novel "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara was published.

"All living memory of the Civil War is gone at this point," said Glen Kyle, managing director of Gainesville's Northeast Georgia History Center, which is planning a display dedicated to Longstreet.

"People have really started taking another look at (him) and ... fixing his reputation. And to a certain extent, that's been done."

Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel inspired the four-hour movie "Gettysburg," featuring actor Tom Berenger as Longstreet.

Lee's regretting the frontal assault - going as far as blaming himself for the failure to retreating Confederate troops - has become widespread knowledge.

Longstreet's fears about the South's devastating Pickett's Charge were realized.

"It's interesting to speculate that, had it not been for his postwar political controversies ... he might have his image carved on Stone Mountain today," Young said.

"People couldn't blame Lee for the loss at Gettysburg and so they blamed Longstreet."

For the past dozen years, the Dahlonega-based Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp 1860, Blue Ridge Rifles, has held an annual memorial service for Longstreet at his gravesite.

The group also holds its annual Lee-Jackson-Longstreet dinner within the first few weeks of February. All three generals' birthdays are within 13 days in January.

"These people are important to us because they are our history, our heritage and our past," Ragland has said.

"We do all that we can to keep them remembered, put them in front of people's faces and to keep their memories alive."

As for Longstreet, military historians now "are able to take a fresh look" at him, Young said.

"We're no longer in the segregationist era, so no longer are people holding his enlightened views on race against him. That's an asset now, so people are able to cast a more objective eye on his military record."

He said his Gainesville State students, regardless of race, view Longstreet "as a real hero" after they have learned about his life and politics.

Toward the end of his life, Longstreet found that Southerners began to soften toward him, forgiving him for his GOP alliance.

Not that the criticism mattered. His skin was maybe thicker than his beard.

"I do think that Longstreet was sensitive to the charge that he had failed his troops at Gettysburg," Young said. "That bothered him light years more than charges he was pro-black, pro-Yankee."

Reynolds views Longstreet as a "profile in courage."

"Here is a man who didn't want to do what he did, but he did his duty and performed magnificently," he said.

"He (Longstreet) advocated conciliation, black rights.

What a life. Think how things might had been different if most Southerners would have been like him."

Keith Albertson contributed to this report



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