By Kenneth Hucks
The Longstreet Society, an organization founded in dedication to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, showcased documents and historical re-enactments at the Historic Piedmont Hotel on Saturday, all in the name of educating locals on the general’s legacy.
Longstreet, a Confederate general during the Civil War, became a pariah in the south following his conversion to the Republican Party and change in favor for the end of slavery. This negative perception is something the Longstreet Society aims to dispel through education and modern context, according to President C.J. Clarke IV.
“The elephant in the room is that he’s a Confederate general,” Clarke said. “But when people find out what he did after the war, he’s actually been said to have a lot of Abraham Lincoln in him. Abraham Lincoln didn’t initially want to end slavery but as time went on that’s where everything led him. General Longstreet wasn’t against slavery, but as time went on he had relationships with African-Americans and became really strongly aligned with civil rights and women’s rights.”
At the time, Longstreet’s support of civil rights issues he fought against as a Confederate general was viewed as a betrayal among Americans in the south, resulting in political isolation. However, Clarke says Longstreet’s change in values is an example of a changed perspective due to education and new information, leading the general to advocate for the freedom of slaves.
Despite Longstreet’s shift in support, the Longstreet Society doesn’t aim to cover up his past as a Confederate general, instead it uses it to underscore how the man changed as time went on.
“We don’t fly a Confederate flag here and there’s not one at General Longstreet’s grave,” Clarke said. “But we do have Confederate flags here because we’re a museum. We’re not here to erase, we’re here to tell the story of the Civil War. We know General Longstreet because he’s a Confederate general, and that’s how we recognize him, but he’s much more. He became the man that he became.”
Among the relics found in the Piedmont Hotel are mementos from the Civil War, including firearms and other weaponry, paintings depicting key moments of the war, copies of documents from Longstreet’s career, and a bullet-hole-ridden flag. The hotel also acted as a stage for a historical re-enactments by Living Historian Curt Fields and Longstreet Society Member Thomas H. Rasmussen portraying United States President Ulysses S. Grant and General Longstreet respectively.
Those in attendance were able to ask questions about Longstreet and Grant’s relationship, one spotlighted at the Piedmont Hotel, with Fields and Rasmussen responding in-character.
The history of the items on display at the hotel culminates in what Clarke believes to be “the most historical thing in Gainesville and maybe Hall County,” and what the Longstreet Society hopes will be a place people will be able to turn to to learn more about the Civil War.
“We want this to be a community center and for people to learn about history,” Clarke said. “We have probably the biggest collection of Civil War books in Hall County. There’s also some World War II and Gainesville history over here. We have some really incredible items from union people as well.”
The Piedmont Hotel opened in 1876, acted as Longstreet’s political base and was owned by the general until his death in 1904. In 1918 the two-wing, three-story building was nearly demolished entirely until a last-minute decision saved the ground floor of one wing, which was bought and repurposed by the Longstreet Society in 1994. According to Longstreet Society founding member and Piedmont Hotel Museum Manager Richard Pilcher, the building took a total of 15 years and a quarter million dollars in loans to renovate to its current state.
“When we first got it we borrowed enough money to buy the property and replace the roof,” Pilcher said. “The roof was falling in and we put the porches back on it. Then we had to stop because we were out of money. It was probably 12 or 13 years before we came up with enough money to start again. In total I guess we borrowed $250,000 to do this. We’re completely out of debt now and as long as I’ve got anything to do with it we’re gonna stay out of debt.”
When the Piedmont Hotel isn’t hosting a Longstreet event, it can be rented for gatherings such as weddings and parties.