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Old Joe’s history as complicated as current debate
Historical accounts show persistent attempts to relocate statue
08272017 OLDJOE 0003.jpg
The Confederate Memorial monument, commonly referred to as, "Old Joe," is pictured on the downtown Gainesville square. - photo by David Barnes

Moving Old Joe, a complicated task, has been a goal around Gainesville for 100 years.

Talk of relocating the monument stirs up emotions, but following through could even stir up ghosts.

The revived debate about the 108-year-old Confederate statue in the center of the city square is just the latest fight over the future of the monument. Old Joe has survived both rhetorical and very real storms since his unveiling in 1909.

According to The Times’ records, the Confederate monument has been a target for relocation for one reason or another every couple of decades going back to at least the 1950s.

The statue was funded and is still owned by the local Longstreet Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It sits on about an acre of land owned by Hall County in the heart of Gainesville.

That acre of land has been the county’s since the 1800s and was the site of the first county courthouse. An account from the 1930s written by William Henry Hosch states there were three courthouses on the land before the statue. The last courthouse on the plot burned in 1885.

In the first decade of the 20th century, the Hall County Board of Commissioners gave the Daughters a 99-year lease for the acre plot downtown.

Fundraising for the statue took more than a decade and was led by women of the UDC. Records at The Times list most of them with only their husband’s names: Mrs. C.C. Sanders, Mrs. Will Mealor, Mrs. H.H. Dean, Mrs. Judge Dorsey, Mrs. Howard Thompson, Mrs. A.D. Candler, Mrs. H.J. Pearce, Mrs. A.W. Van Hoose, Mrs. S.C. Dunlap, Mrs. Dave Welchel, Mrs. W.C. Ham, Helen Estes and Nell Murphy.

Sanders was a 25-year president of the Longstreet Chapter and is credited with securing the land for Old Joe.

A lease lasting almost a century gave the Daughters functional ownership of the lot and ignited a court battle between Hall County and Gainesville about whether the county had the power to give the property over to a third party. 

Hall County and the UDC won in 1911. Hall still owns the land and the Daughters the statue. 

The group’s lease was renewed in 2008 in the run-up to Old Joe’s centennial celebration and lasts until 2033. 

The lease and state law make it difficult for anyone to legally remove the Confederate statue — as does the ghost of Helen Dortch Longstreet.

Helen Longstreet
Helen Dortch Longstreet - photo by Times file

“As long as my heart continues to beat, I will defend the legal and moral right of the Longstreet Chapter U.D.C. to hold the Confederate Monument on the public square of Gainesville under a 99-year lease, dating from date of erection of the Monument,” Helen Longstreet wrote in a 1953 letter to the Gainesville News.

But it’s what came next in her letter that matters now.

“After I am dead, my released spirit will come back to stand guard beside the heroic figure in Gainesville’s square and say to all coming betrayers of a people’s honor, ‘You shall not pass!’” Longstreet wrote.

Who was this woman, who cared so much for Old Joe and the Daughters? She was the second wife of Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, who ruined his reputation in the South after the Civil War by taking up the cause of equal rights for freed slaves.

Longstreet’s deeds in the war — he was Robert E. Lee’s chief lieutenant and is now regarded as the driving force of the Confederate army beyond Lee himself — and his efforts afterward for equality have in the past couple of decades been recognized, in part because of the work of the Longstreet Society in Gainesville.

Longstreet went so far as to organize an African-American militia in 1874. For that, and for his conversion to the Republican Party, many of the Confederate Army’s losses were pinned on Longstreet.

Gen James Longstreet
Gen. James Longstreet

Gainesville was his adopted home, and he died on College Avenue in his daughter’s home a few blocks from his own. He’s buried in Alta Vista Cemetery, site of a monument. The local UDC chapter is named in his honor.

Richard Pilcher, head of the Longstreet Society, told The Times the group has never found evidence that Longstreet owned slaves, and that the group is satisfied that he never did. In his own writings, Longstreet references slave owners as separate from himself.

One of Longstreet’s most well-known statements is inscribed on a stone at the foot of the Piedmont Hotel at 827 Maple St., which was owned and operated by Longstreet and his family. “Why do men fight who were born to be brothers?” the stone reads.

Pilcher said it was his and his wife’s support for civil rights that brought them together and led to their marriage.

Born April 20, 1863, Helen Dortch married Longstreet when she was 34 and he was 76. They never had children. She lived to age 99 and died in May 1962.

She was nicknamed the “Fighting Lady” for her work on several causes in Georgia, including civil rights. Even at 90, she lived up to the name in her 1953 letter to the Gainesville News.

In writing, Longstreet mentioned a movement “some years back” to remove the statue. She said the movement was “despicable” and “supported by nobodies” and was defeated. She called for whatever movement that was building in 1953 to similarly fail.

“It beggars the expectation of reasonable prophecy, that a similar fight would have to be made in this hour when more than a hundred thousand American boys, the flower of American chivalry, dead and wounded, have fought on tortured Korean fields in defense of the dignity of human rights,” Longstreet wrote.

But even with all of this Confederate fervor, Old Joe is no Confederate soldier, as architect and historian Garland Reynolds discovered when researching the statue in the early 2000s.

The limitations of the period and the vast expense of forging a custom statue led the UDC to compromise with the American Bronze Foundry in Chicago. The group settled on a Spanish American War soldier with some changes to make him look like a fighter for the Confederacy.

While she supported and fought for civil rights, Longstreet’s views were complicated.

She subscribed to the “Lost Cause” theory of the Civil War in her letter to the News. The Lost Cause is the idea the war was fought over a larger notion of states’ rights rather than over the specific right to own slaves.

Yet the second sentence of Georgia’s lengthy declaration of secession from 1861 notes, “For the last 10 years, we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.”

The rest of the document makes repeated references to Africans as property. The word “slave” appears in the document 35 times. Georgia was the fifth state to secede from the Union.

Longstreet’s late husband took a different view of the Confederacy. He directly addressed the question of slavery and the Confederacy in a letter to the New Orleans Times:

“The surrender of the Confederate armies in 1865 involved: 1. The surrender of the claim to the right of secession. 2. The surrender of the former political relations of the negro. 3. The surrender of the Southern Confederacy,” Longstreet wrote in 1867, two years after the war’s end. “These issues expired on the fields last occupied by the Confederate armies. There they should have been buried. The soldier prefers to have the sod that receives him when he falls cover his remains. The political questions of the war should have been buried upon the fields that marked their end.”

Confederate statuary honoring specific men — Gen. Robert E. Lee, who had to be forced by a court order to follow a family will and give up his slaves; or Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and a founder of the Ku Klux Klan, along with others — are being toppled around the South because of the actions and beliefs of the men they represent. 

But more general Confederate statues are being removed as well. Old Joe’s brother in Gainesville, Fla., was removed Aug. 14. That statue, 113 years old, was raised to honor fallen Confederate soldiers.

Longtime president of the local UDC chapter, Jeane Parker, has told The Times in previous years that Georgia’s Old Joe is supposed to represent the Confederate soldier, not any specific person. 

Wording on the monument itself states it is in honor of “Our Confederate Soldiers,” and of “the defenders of the Confederacy” and was “dedicated to Southern convictions” and “consecrated to Southern valor.”

Defenders of Confederate statues in general have argued that it’s important to remember the Civil War and its effect on the United States. 

More than a million people fought in the Confederate Army, more than 2 million for the Union. Approximately 620,000 soldiers died during the war, though modern estimates put the figure closer to 850,000.

Defenders of Old Joe specifically argue his history in Gainesville, especially his survival of the 1936 tornado that obliterated much of the town, warrant his protection.

In a column for the Atlanta Georgian just after the tornado, newspaperman Tarleton Collier connected Gainesville’s future to Old Joe’s survival of that vicious storm.

The monument “has looked upon nothing more terrible than the sight of Gainesville today, but it has seemed never so sturdy and indomitable as now,” Collier wrote. “If that statue in the city square had toppled, then Gainesville indeed might have reason to despair.”

As Collier reflected on the storm and the lives it took and damage it caused to Gainesville, and the effort that would be put into rebuilding Gainesville, he likened it to the war itself.

“Of all people, the people of the South who set up that monument and many another like it, and who once rebuilt their own region from the wreckage of a cause which took everything, must recognize that spirit,” he concluded.

Old Joe, like the Fighting Lady and history itself, is complicated.

Gen. Longstreet's widow writes letter about Old Joe
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