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Longstreet, Gettysburg Scapegoat Part Two: Postwar
James Longstreet’s hotel in Gainesville was a popular spring resort in the late 19th century. The general lived out his years there while writing his memoirs. VIEW THE CIVIL WAR IN GEORGIA INTERACTIVE MAP
Unfortunately for his personal well being, Longstreet proved to be the Confederate most interested in reuniting the country, advising Southerners to accept Northern imposed conditions for Reconstruction. Other notable Southerners, including Lee, offered similar counsel, but Longstreet took his views a step further-he joined the hated Republican Party and endorsed his old friend Grant for president in 1868.
After Grant's election, Longstreet was appointed to the civil service position of New Orleans surveyor, the first in a series of patronage posts, which many other former Confederates accepted. However, his party membership earned him the worst name that could be laid upon a Southerner-scalawag, a collaborator with the Republicans. When Louisianans rebelled against Reconstruction policy, Longstreet led black troops against the insurgents, then was ignominiously captured by the rebels when his soldiers broke and ran. Some of Longstreet's captors advocated shooting him. Longstreet was expelled from "proper" Southern society.
As the South squirmed under occupation by Federal troops, the history of the Civil War underwent radical revision. The belief arose that the Confederacy had not been defeated in battle; it had been overrun by hordes of barbarian Yankees and their unholy technology. The Civil War was draped in religious garb, with Southern soldiers assuming the role of martyred saints and its leaders archangels. Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart died martyrs and had been canonized before the war ended, their military shortcomings buried with them. But now every leader, no matter how incompetent or maligned during the war, was elevated into the pantheon.
When Lee died in 1870 his fellow Virginians systematically began to venerate him as the supreme leader of the Lost Cause and the greatest military genius in history. But Lee, and the Confederacy, had failed. How could this nation, endorsed by God and blessed with superior soldiers and generals, have lost? Lee's propagandists, among them Jubal Early, Lee's nephew Fitzhugh Lee, Lee's staff officers, and Jefferson Davis, whose imprisonment had redeemed his reputation, informally conspired to appoint a Judas. With Longstreet despised by Southerners, what better choice could be found? And where did Longstreet betray Lee? Gettysburg, they decided. By juggling facts about the battle and fabricating some "evidence," they declared that on the second day at Gettysburg Lee had directed Longstreet to attack immediately, but Longstreet deliberately delayed and the opportunity for victory was lost.
This "gospel" was propagated in all the media available to its proponents, published in newspapers, magazines, novels, and histories of the war. It was also a popular topic on the lecture circuit. At first Longstreet refused to dignify the charges with reply, but that tactic only allowed the lies to gain credibility. By the time he responded with the truth, few would listen. The South, led by the Virginians but endorsed even by John B. Gordon, Georgia governor and U.S. senator, who had served under the sainted Lee, condemned Longstreet.
Ironically, in his later years only his former enemies appreciated Longstreet. Northerners admired his approach to Reconstruction, and recognized his unparalleled military skills. He made numerous appearances in Chicago, New York, and reunions at Gettysburg.
In 1881 Longstreet returned to his childhood haunts in Gainesville. He purchased the three story Piedmont Hotel and a farm outside town that he stocked with books and mementos.
Unfortunately, tragedy continued to stalk Longstreet. His old friend and benefactor, Grant, died in 1885, and in 1889 his beautiful home burned, destroying his papers and treasured remembrances. The home was uninsured, forcing Longstreet to move into his hotel. Only a year later his wife of three decades, Louise, died. As the years passed, Longstreet was increasingly troubled by his war wounds and illnesses. He wrote a friend, "I feel as if I wish the end would come; but I have some misrepresentations of my battles that I wish to correct, so as to have my record correct before I die."
Longstreet's finances were also precarious. The Atlanta Constitution reported that he was poverty stricken, but although he had lost considerable money in a business swindle, Longstreet received pensions from the Federal and Georgia governments, and he lived modestly. He also gained the lucrative position of Railroad Commissioner and used his privileges to travel extensively.
While playing hostler, Longstreet worked on his memoirs, a 697-page book that appeared under the title, From Manassas to Appomattox. When seventy-six years old, the general married Helen Dortch, a woman in her early thirties who had been no older than two when the Civil War ended. Longstreet took his new bride on a tour of his battlefields, and she accompanied him to reunions. Helen became Longstreet's ablest defender, vigorously working to redeem her husband's reputation in the fifty-eight years she lived following his death.
By late 1903 Longstreet's weight had dropped from 200 to 135 pounds, and he suffered terribly from rheumatism. Cancer was found in his right eye, and in early 1904 he developed pneumonia and hemorrhaged copiously from the mouth, then slipped into a fatal coma.
Thousands of veterans and ordinary citizens paid their respects to Longstreet as his body lay in state in Gainesville. Eulogies from across the country praised his military record and pragmatic post-war actions, but many Confederate veterans' organization refused Longstreet any honor.
Longstreet's coffin was covered by United States and Confederate flags. When his coffin was lowered into the earth, a nondescript gray blouse lay atop it. An old Confederate soldier, proud to have served under Longstreet, requested it be buried with the "Bull of the Woods." Longstreet's men had never forgotten the greatness of a general who knew when to stop fighting a lost war, even as Southern leaders continued to maliciously ruin his reputation.
Longstreet's grave, marked by a monument which details his distinguished career in both the United States and Confederate States armies, is found at Alta Vista Cemetery in Gainesville. A portion of his hotel has been restored and a statue at the site of his home has been erected.
James Longstreet is belatedly receiving the recognition that was so long denied him. The popular novelization of the battle, The Killer Angels, by Jeff Shaara, and the movie made from it, Gettysburg, portrays Lee as the man responsible for the Southern defeat, and Longstreet's role is vindicated. Also, the North Carolina Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, has dedicated an equestrian statue of Longstreet at Gettysburg. The honor was long overdue. Read Part One: The War.
Read about Longstreet's ghost haunting the Piedmont Hotel on Weird Georgia.t's ghost haunting the Piedmont Hotel on Weird Georgia.
VISITING JAMES LONGSTREET'S GAINEVILLEA portion of Longstreet's hotel is preserved at 827 Maple Street. For information on visiting, contact The Longstreet Society, P.O. Box 191, Gainesville, GA 30501. http://www.longstreet.org/On The Longstreet Society's website is an article titled "The Historic Piedmont Hotel," which describes the restoration of the structure and other houses in Gainesville with a Longstreet connection.A bronze statue of Longstreet is located at 959 Longstreet Circle, where the general's home stood before its destruction by fire.Longstreet and his two wives are buried at Alta Vista Cemetery, 521 Jones Street.Displays regarding Longstreet are found at the Northeast Georgia History Center, 322 Academy Street, Gainesville, GA 30501 770-297-5900 http://www.negahc.org/ Ticket prices are $3.00 for students and $5.00 for adults.
Jim Miles is the author of nine books about the Civil war and two Weird Georgia books. See Jim's books.