|James Longstreet with his second wife, Helen. (The Longstreet Society)|
|Mary Louisa, Longstreet's |
first wife, died
(The Longstreet Society)
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.
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)
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)
"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 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.
"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.
"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.
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NOTES AND SOURCES
-- 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.