Even in this more tolerant time, eyebrows are raised when a much older guy or gal marries a much younger gal or guy.
So you can imagine how the tongues were wagging up and down Green Street during the more uptight Victorian Age in 1897 Gainesville when it was announced Confederate Gen. James Longstreet at age 75 would marry 34-year-old Helen Dortch, his daughter Louisa’s former roomie at Georgia Baptist Female Seminary (now Brenau University). Longstreet’s first wife, Louise, had died eight years earlier.
The bride and groom apparently were sensitive to the gossip about their romance as both, in separate newspapers, wrote long letters explaining their love for each other.
The general wrote in the New York World about “my happy marriage to one of the most charming ladies of Georgia” in an article titled “Why May Not Men Grow Young Instead of Old.” Longstreet waxed poetic: “Youth is a relative term and is not correctly expressed by years ... I ask myself if I am really old, or am I just beginning to be young? ... The man who, in the crowning years of his life, takes to wife a fair young girl invites her, not only to the condition of wifehood, but to the dignity of partnership.”
He went on to explain that he had vineyards and sheep to tend on his farm “and other rural interests,” a book he needed to market, along with considerable correspondence.
“All this was very heavy to me alone,” he said, adding that his bride’s experience in business and as an editor would be valuable to their marriage.
“I feel lonely for want of company,” Longstreet wrote, “but excuse me, I do not feel old! There is too much bounding of the pulse, too strong a pumping of the heart, too great a wealth of affection to allow me drying up like an old mummy, to be set aside in some mausoleum.
“I found a pretty face and was attracted. I sought acquaintance of the owner and was charmed; I read her heart and found it pure. I looked into her soft blue eyes and found that love was twinkling there. ... If she thinks me young, what need have I to care what others think?”
Not to be outdone, Helen Longstreet wrote defensively in the New York Journal that she married the aging general, “Because I loved him for sure, for no true woman would ever marry a man whom she did not love, though there are always envious persons ready to draw conclusions and ascribe motives.”
Ahead of her time, but considered a rabble-rouser in her day, she went on to eloquently pitch for women’s rights, pointing out she had paved the way for women in state government by pursuing her job as assistant state librarian.
“Do you know, Mr. Editor,” she asked, “that women are born with ideals and ambitions just as men are, but that our social condition, while giving free vent to the one, crushes down or restrains the other. I could tell you of scores of women with bright minds, laudable ambitions and high hopes who might have shown in the world had they but the chance.”
Saying that it was expected of women in that day to marry a man of their own age as soon as they finished school, “By custom they are restricted to company of their own age and marry young and undeveloped men, who afterwards prove to be nothing but the veriest clods of clay. ... How many young women I know who would have chosen older husbands, but for social tradition. ... Such a husband might leave her a widow early; is it not better to have been the wife of one acceptable and companionable man than to be the lifelong slave of one whom her soul held in aversion?”
Gen. Longstreet, she wrote, “ ... would regard me as a companion and helpmate rather than as a mere housekeeper.”
The general and his bride were married Sept. 8, 1897, in the Georgia governor’s mansion, Gov. W.Y. Atkinson gave the bride away as her parents were deceased and a brother unavailable. The governor had been a friend of Helen Dortch since she was a teenager. Judge J.B. Gaston of Gainesville was best man.
After a reception, the couple returned to Gainesville by train, and he drove her to their home in his horse and buggy. A honeymoon followed at Porter Springs near Dahlonega.
Mrs. Longstreet outlived the general by 58 years, he dying in 1904 and she in 1962.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.