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 the death of his first wife, James Longstreet eagerly sought steady female companionship. "Old men get lonely," the 76-year-old former Confederate lieutenant general told a newspaper reporter, "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. Longstreet's sons had left after their mother Mary Louisa's death, and his daughter later married a local school teacher, leaving the former general 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 — a "pretty, piquant and sympathetic" woman with blue eyes, blond hair and fair skin — exchanged vows in the parlor at the governor's executive mansion. The Gainesville mayor attended along with 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 pointed 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." (Many white Southerners never 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. President William McKinley, himself a Civil War veteran, had recently called on Longstreet to serve as 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.

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 seemed years ahead of her time. An account of her wedding to Longstreet described her 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 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 after her appointment as assistant state librarian.

"I had to get the legislature to change the law before I could assume office," she said of the 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 supported environmental and political causes big and small. In 1910, she founded a movement to erect a monument to the slaves of the Confederacy — a long-shot effort if there ever was one. In a 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."
Unsurprisingly, 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 [William] 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."

Plant officials praised her work, 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. A foreman said her work ranked among the best done at the plant.

An 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 unusual food. (No word if the old soldier lived until he was 150.)

After the war, Longstreet strongly supported 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 Dansville, 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."

During a bus ride in New York, the driver had her removed in Elmira for annoying passengers. Taken in by the Travelers Aid Society, she wandered away, and for her own protection, police took her into custody. A city health officer said Longstreet seemed "irrational and incoherent," so authorities had her hospitalized and subsequently 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, 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.

  • 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


  1. Excellent & intriguing, thanks for sharing.

  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'.

  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.

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

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

  5. Amazing article. Guess I could wonder why none of Longstreet's children took their step mother in, to care for her. What an amazing life she led!

    1. Julie2:31 PM

      Most likely she outlived them all!

    2. The last three of his children died in 1940, 1951, and 1957.

  6. Anonymous7:13 AM

    Great piece. Thanks for bringing her to my attention.

  7. I recently discovered Helen while volunteering at the "Marietta Museum of History" and the more I read the more I'm taken by her story!
    I think that she's one of the more remarkable and fascinating women of the 20th century!

    1. I agree. I enjoyed reading some facts I had never seen before. I became interested in Longstreet after visiting Gettysburg and seeing his monument. I think all these people were remarkable in the ways they continued on with their lives after the Civil War. Helen would be delighted to see the very kinetic monument on the battlefield.

  8. Excellent article. Thanks for writing it!

  9. I didn't know anything about this remarkable woman and great American! She was ahead of her time, and her story makes me proud to be a Georgian. Thank you, John, for sharing.

    1. Me, too, makes me proud to be a native Georgian...and sad at how the last years of her life were lived with no family and no friends to intercede for and care for her.

  10. Jennifer Longstreet10:30 PM

    I wish had the opportunity to know such a fierst woman who lived her life strongly and setting a great example for equality and equity for gender and race. Thank you Mrs. Longstreet, I hope to live as fiercely and to fight for progress beyond what was achieved in your lifetime, maybe some lifetime in the future we will see the success we look for.

  11. The span of history. Wow.

  12. You are to be commended for publishing this account of a truly remarkable lady, though unknown to most people today.

  13. Anonymous8:59 AM

    Great story about a great lady. Longstreet was undeservedly bombarded with so much nonsense after the war. Some recent books tell the correct story about Longstreet, and Lee. Authors Pfarr and Knudsen come to mind.

  14. Anonymous12:51 PM

    An extraordinary woman. When you first mentioned Milledgeville, I somehow figured she would end up at the Milledgeville Asylum, being a progressive and outspoken female in "those parts" and in those days!! Great article, thank you!

  15. Anonymous5:54 PM

    She reminds me of my Great Great Grandmother Elen McDermott , she was a member of the UDC in St Louis Missouri. She was at a UDC meeting, they were wanting to ban Marian Anderson from singing in St louis to which my Great Great Grandma stood up in front of them all and told them that she had a God given voice and she had every right to sing the National anthem there . whether or not she ever sang in St Louis i cant confirm either way .