Saturday, January 07, 2017

'The Fighting Lady': Longstreet's remarkable second wife

James Longstreet with his second wife, Helen. (The Longstreet Society)
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Nearly eight years after his first wife died, the man who once played matchmaker for Ulysses Grant was eager again for steady female companionship. "Old men get lonely," 76-year-old James Longstreet told a newspaper reporter in late summer 1897, "and must have company."

Mary Louisa, Longstreet's 
first wife, died 
in 1889.
(The Longstreet Society)
Vilified throughout much of the South after the Civil War, Robert E. Lee's "Old War Horse" led an almost solitary existence in his mansion set among an extensive vineyard in Gainesville, Ga. The former Confederate lieutenant general's sons left after their mother Mary Louisa's death, and his daughter later married a local school teacher, leaving Longstreet in the house with only the company of a servant.

In late July 1897,  Longstreet became smitten with Helen Dortch -- his daughter's friend and 42 years his junior -- whom he had met in Lithia Springs, Ga. Soon, the press caught wind of rumors that the well-known ladies' man might take another bride. Longstreet played coy with a persistent New York reporter before he finally confirmed the news.

"The General crossed his legs, looked out over the fields again, and replied: 'Oh, pshaw! Well, I suppose I might as well give in,' " the New York Times reported. "I am to be married to Miss Dortch at noon on Wednesday in the Governor's residence in Atlanta. The honeymoon is to be spent in Porter Springs, where I hope you newspaper men will leave an old man to the happiness he has acquired."

James Longstreet married Helen Dortch
in 1897. He was 76. She was 34.


On Sept. 8, 1897, Longstreet and Dortch -- described as "pretty, piquant and sympathetic," with blue eyes, blond hair and fair skin -- exchanged vows in the parlor at the governor's executive mansion. Among those in attendance were the Gainesville mayor, a large group of Longstreet's friends and the general's four sons and daughter. "They all warmly congratulated their new stepmother," an account noted, "which should dispose of the story that there was any friction because of the marriage." Dortch picked the wedding date as homage to her husband, who, as an officer 50 years earlier, had heroically led his regiment at Molina Del Rey during the Mexican War.

Governor William Atkinson served as best man for Longstreet, who had converted from Episcopalian to Catholic in 1877. "When the officiating priest, after having asked the groom the question of assent, turned to Miss Dortch to know if she would take James as her husband," a newspaper reported, "it carried the suggestion to the groom's heart that he was a boy again, paddling in the Savannah River."

Newspapers were quick to point out the disparity in ages between the former general and the accomplished young woman, characterizing it as a "May and December" union. A Louisiana newspaper noted that although Longstreet was "a gallant and distinguished Confederate officer during the war ... his apostasy since has lost him the respect and esteem of the Southern people." (Few Southerners forgave Longstreet for becoming a Republican and taking a position in Grant's administration, among other "sins.")

Another publication mentioned the general's varied interests, and believed that his new bride, "a bright young woman," could help manage them. In addition to a large hotel in Gainesville, Longstreet owned a vineyard and winery, raised sheep and turkeys and had authored two books. And President William McKinley, himself a Civil War veteran, had recently called on Longstreet to head the U.S Commissioner of Railroads.

From her wedding in 1897 to Longstreet until well after his death at 82 in 1904, Helen would do much more than help "manage" her husband's interests.  Fiercely protective of James Longstreet,  she defended his reputation and memory the rest of her life -- especially against critics who argued he failed to do his duty at Gettysburg. And the woman nicknamed "The Fighting Lady" led a remarkable life herself, living well into the 20th century.

Helen Dortch Longstreet in 1913, nine years after her husband's death.
(The Longstreet Society)
Born April 20, 1863 -- less than five months before Longstreet led a Rebel army at Chickamauga -- Helen Dortch was a woman years ahead of her time. In an account of her wedding to Longstreet, she was described as "one of the most conspicuous among the progressive women of the new south."

At 15, she became a newspaper reporter and editor at the weekly Carnesville (Ga.) Tribune -- employment that was almost exclusively limited to men at the time. "Her early journalistic experiences were not pleasant," an account noted, "but she pluckily went forward ..." She later became editor and publisher of the Milledgeville (Ga.) Daily Chronicle.

Helen Longstreet in 1941.
(The Longstreet Society)
A champion for women's rights, Longstreet led an effort to open the Normal Industrial Training School for girls in Georgia. In 1894, she became the first woman to hold office in Georgia when she was appointed assistant state librarian.

"I had to get the legislature to change the law before I could assume office," she said of  so-called " Dortch Bill." "A hundred thousand women signed petition that the law be repealed so I could be appointed."

Shortly after her husband's death, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Longstreet postmaster of Gainesville, a big-time position during the era. "It is safe to say," the Atlanta Constitution reported, "President Roosevelt could have made no appointment that would have proved as universally popular."

Throughout her life, Longstreet was active in environmental and political causes big and small. In 1910, she was founder of a movement to erect a monument to the slaves of the Confederacy -- a long-shot effort if there ever was one. In an eloquent speech, she said:
"I shall pray that I may live to see a monument at every capital in the south to the slaves of the confederacy. They wrote a story of devotion and loyalty that has no parallel in the history of man. While their masters were engaged in that struggle, the results of which would leave a helpless race free or in shackles, they worked for, guarded and defended the children of the confederacy with a fidelity that should be recorded in letters of gold across the bosom of stars."
Not surprisingly, the monuments were never built.

For years after her husband's death, Longstreet also backed efforts to have a monument placed in her husband's honor in Gettysburg. That effort, too, failed during her lifetime.

In 1943, Helen Longstreet started work
as a riveter in a B-29 plant in Marietta, Ga.
She was 80.
During the height of World War II in 1943, Longstreet took a job as a riveter at a B-29 aircraft factory in Marietta, Ga. Described as "frail but vivacious," she was 80 at the time.

"This is the most horrible war of them all," she told a reporter. "It makes General Sherman look like a piker. I want to get it over with. I want to build bombers to bomb Hitler." She refused to give her age to the reporter, only saying she was "older than 50."

"Never mind my age. I can handle that riveting thing as well as anyone," Longstreet said. "I'm intending to complete in five weeks three courses which normally take three weeks." She lived in a trailer camp near the factory and spent long hours in training to learn her craft.

"I could stay out of this war," she said. "It's not the soldiers fighting soldiers like it used to be. It's a war on helpless civilians, on children and the infirm. They are the ones who suffer.

"Lee, my husband, and many another southerner proved that Americans surrender only to Americans, so we are bound to come out victorious."

Her work was praised by plant officials, but a union, with which she had some difficulty, called her a "very old lady" and accused the company of hiring her as a publicity stunt. Nevertheless, Longstreet stuck it out for nearly two years, and a foreman said her work ranked among the best done at the plant.

A tad eccentric, Longstreet touted the benefits of eating the residue of bee hives to live longer. In 1946, she tried to persuade a Confederate veteran who had recently celebrated his 100th birthday to eat the odd food. (No word if the old soldier lived until he was 150.)

After the war, Longstreet was also a vocal supporter of civil rights for blacks, and, in 1950, she ran for governor of Georgia as a write-in candidate. In challenging incumbent Herman Talmadge, the "scrappy widow" vowed to stand up for blacks and "unhood the ruffians" of the Ku Klux Klan.

"I'll make this state a place where the humblest Negro can go to sleep at night," the 87-year-old candidate said, "and be assured of waking up in the morning, unless the Almighty calls."

Naturally, Longstreet ran as an independent, but she lost badly. Talmadge won the election with 98.44 percent of the vote.

In 1950, Helen Longstreet challenged incumbent Herman Talmadge for Georgia governor.
An 87-year-old write-in candidate, she lost badly.
In the last 10 years of her life, Longstreet's health gradually declined, and by her early 90s, she was completely deaf.  After a visit to a relative in Georgia in 1956, she took a bus trip back to a health resort in Danville, N.Y., where she often lived. During a stopover in Pottsville, Pa., she told stories of "her husband's exploits and was given a big hand when she left." Donning her best hat, she posed for photographers.

"I'm just 39," she said as she departed, "... still a young belle."

Probably suffering from dementia, Longstreet was removed from the bus in Elmira, N.Y., after the driver told authorities she was annoying passengers. Taken in by the Travelers Aid Society, she wandered away and later was taken into custody by police for her own protection. A city health officer said Longstreet seemed "irrational and incoherent." She was hospitalized in New York and sent back to Atlanta.

Six years later, on May 3, 1962, Helen Dortch Longstreet died in Milledgeville (Ga.) State Hospital, once the largest insane asylum in the world. According to doctors there, she seemed "perfectly happy." The woman who defied convention and never liked to reveal her age was 99.


Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.
Go here for my post on James Longstreet's 1888 Gettysburg visit.


NOTES AND SOURCES

-- James Longstreet introduced Julia Dent, his cousin, to Ulysses Grant, who married her in 1848.

-- Atlanta Constitution, Oct. 26, 1904, Nov. 13, 1910.
-- Baltimore Sun, Sept. 7, 1897.
-- Hagerstown Daily Mail, May 4, 1962.
-- The Gettysburg Times, May 3, 1956.
-- The Louisiana Democrat, Sept. 15, 1897.
-- The Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Sept. 9, 1897.
-- New York Times, Sept. 7, 1897.
-- The News-Review (Roseburg, Ore), June 6, 1946.
-- The Pittsburgh Courier, May 13, 1950.
-- Pittston (Pa.) Gazette, May 3, 1956.

6 comments:

  1. Excellent & intriguing, thanks for sharing.

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  2. What a fascinating account. Reminds me about a good friend of mine who grew up in Brooklyn & told me about a Confederate officer's widow- who lived until the 1950's-she apparently would unfurl a big Rebel battle flag in her 2nd story brownstone residence every 4th of July. I can't recall her name-but was well known in that part of NYC for being an unreconstructed 'seccesh'.

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  3. What a fascinating lady. Her nickname "Fighting Lady" really suits her. she lived during the Civil War, WWI, WWII and Korea. The most fascinating she helped in the WWII war effort making B-29!! At 80 years old.

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  4. One of those people I would like to have known. Thank you Mr. Banks for many good reads, studies, and photos. Ron

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    Replies
    1. We're just keepin' history alive. :)

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