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The day fire destroyed Longstreet’s home in Gainesville

POSTED: January 26, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Picture Gainesville in the late 1800s. It was billed as one of the South’s great health resorts because of its numerous nearby mineral springs. It had a dozen lodging places, including the Piedmont Hotel operated by famed Confederate Gen. James Longstreet.

The railroad’s arrival a decade earlier had energized a community that already had begun to thrive after the Civil War. A street car plied from the depot south of town to past what is now Riverside Military Academy. The town was home to Georgia Baptist Female Seminary, predecessor to Brenau University, and a military school.

Shoe manufacturer J.G. Hynds Co. was becoming so successful it couldn’t keep up with orders, as was well-known wagon maker Bagwell and Gower. Gainesville was the retail center of Northeast Georgia and ahead of most Georgia towns of its size in several aspects.

The Garner-Norton house that today still stands next to the Post Office on the corner of Green Street Place is one of the few that at the time graced the town’s signature Green Street.

Longstreet’s home and farm on the hills where the city water tower and Green Street Pool once stood were considered “out in the country” outside the city limits. His vineyards and orchards spread across what is now Longstreet Hills neighborhood. Sheep grazed and turkeys scratched their way through the property, which some called “Inspiration Point,” others disparagingly “Gettysburg.” The Longstreets had bought the 100 acres after moving to Gainesville in 1875.

War wounds and other ailments nagged at the general’s 68-year-old body, but he enjoyed operating the hotel and piddling around the farm.

Longstreet and his first wife Louise were at the hotel just before lunch April 9, 1889, when a fire alarm sounded. Everything Gainesville could manage from its three fire companies, including a newly acquired steam engine and hook and ladder rig, had rushed to the Longstreet homeplace, which was engulfed in flames 2 miles distant. Hundreds of people followed on foot and horse and buggy to help, but as an Atlanta newspaper wrote, “could only stand and watch the terrible conflagration.”

Longstreet, described as “quite unwell,” watched smoke from the fire from the upper balcony of the Piedmont Hotel.

A man in the kitchen of the home at the time reported the fire started where a chimney went through the roof. Two men climbed to the roof and vainly tried to put the fire out with buckets of water before city firefighters arrived.
Not only did the general and his wife lose their beloved two-story, 12-room hilltop home, but much of their belongings, including his library. Volunteers did salvage some furniture, books and papers. Longstreet had been writing a book on his war experiences, but the manuscript was believed recovered.

Among his Civil War relics lost to the fire were his Confederate uniform worn when he left the service, the sword he carried during the war, a highly prized sash presented him by Confederate Cavalry Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and spurs that he wore in the Mexican War.

Longstreet’s farm produced wine, and a large quantity of it, some of it years aged, was destroyed.

All totaled, the loss was estimated at $6,000 to $8,000, and “not one dollar of insurance,” a newspaper reported.

Gen. and Mrs. Longstreet had stayed the winter in the hotel, but were planning to spend the summer in their home before it burned. They were able to settle for a time in a cottage on the home place.

It would be a bad year for the general. By fall, his wife of 40 years became ill and died Dec. 29 at the age of 62. They had 10 children together.

Today the Longstreet Hills residential area covers much of his former farm; a monument marks the site of his home place, near Park Hill Drive and Longstreet Circle. The Longstreet Society and United Daughters of Confederacy added a statue on the hill in recent years. The Longstreet Society also restored a part of the old Piedmont Hotel, which still stands on Maple Street.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.


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