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Southerners turned down charity offers

POSTED: January 22, 2012 1:00 a.m.

Many Confederate soldiers, even their officers, were in dire straits the years after the Civil War.

Gen. James Longstreet, who lived out the latter part of his life in Gainesville, did all right, what with various military and government assignments. But in his and his wife's waning years, some thought that he needed some financial help. Some of his supporters through the Atlanta Constitution started a fund-raising appeal to help the general and his wife.

Louise Longstreet, his first wife, wanted no part of it. In 1888, she wrote the editors: "I see in your Sunday's issue an article headed ‘General Longstreet,' which startled and pained me ... placing him before the public as an object of charity. With thanks for your intended kindness ... I beg you will withdraw his name at once ... and if any among his old soldiers have sent their mite to their old chief, I beg you to return the same, with many thanks for their love and devotion, which to him is worth more than gold or silver. The general, though far from rich, is able, with what he owns, to live in comparative comfort for the remainder of his life. Respectfully, Mrs. James Longstreet."

The general also wrote newspapers declining any donations.

Some of his former troops already had offered their help. The Gainesville Eagle printed a letter from Richard Williams, a South Carolinian who served with Longstreet during the war.

"I was the private whose gun was shot in two at Gain's Mill and kept on till a comrade fell and got another," he wrote reminding his general who he was. "I was the private you sent to the front at Seven Pines to see what the federals were up to, when J.E. Johnson was wounded. I am the private that clubbed his gun and rescued the colors of the Palmetto Sharp Shooters at Frazer's Farm and brought them back, and took command of his company and carried them on - every officer being killed or wounded. There my right arm was broken by a Minié ball, but stayed with my boys until the enemy retreated.

"I am the private that went over Lookout Mountain barefooted in the night fight before you started through Tennessee. I am the private that lifted you up in the Wilderness the time you and Gen. Jenkins were both wounded."

Williams noted that he was wounded five times altogether, and his leg was 4 inches shorter than the other.

Hearing of Longstreet's supposed plight, Williams told his former commander that he was getting by all right, having killed three hogs that winter. "So, dear General," he wrote, "if you'll come over to Anderson County and stay with me awhile, I will board you and Mrs. Longstreet, too."

The New Orleans Time-Democrat newspaper praised Mrs. Longstreet for refusing to accept charity. The paper noted that all the leaders and heroes of the Southern cause had declined financial contributions, though acknowledging and thanking those who had responded. This despite the fact that many actually were impoverished.

Mrs. Jefferson Davis, wife of the Confederacy president, had written a letter similar to Mrs. Longstreet's refusing an apparent large fund that had been raised on behalf of her and her husband.

"It was the same story as to Gen. (Robert E.) Lee after the war, for he in his proud and manly spirit, would neither ask nor accept anything that bore the slightest resemblance to charity," the New Orleans newspaper wrote. "It was the same with the widow of Stonewall Jackson ... "

Suggesting that Northern charity heaped wealth upon Union officers, the newspaper said "the survivors of the ‘Lost Cause' are left in comparative poverty ... although the war has cost them heavily, they have without exception shown the proud Southern spirit, which ... will accept nothing in charity."

The newspaper concluded, "The South appreciates and exults in the spirit of her Lees, Jacksons, Davises and Longstreets. If they are poor, it is an honorable and glorious poverty. If they are poor in worldly goods, they are opulent in the love and admiration of a devoted people."

The per capita national debt at the close of the Civil War was $78.25. It had fallen to $19.85 in 1887. Today it is $44,900.

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 at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.



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