Saturday, July 8, 2017

Longstreet (and fried chicken) on my mind: Road trip brings me back to Gainesville, Ga.

Entrance to family plot at Alta Vista Cemetery
Stones in back of Historic Piedmont Hotel list campaigns (Picket photos)

You know the questions: Who’s your favorite Civil War general? Or which do you find the most fascinating?

I don’t recall when I came up with James Longstreet. But something about the controversial Confederate general spoke to me. A man of seeming contradictions – adored by his soldiers, loathed by others for his postwar Republican politics and what they consider his failures at Gettysburg. He was a stalwart corps commander and defensive genius in the Army of Northern Virginia -- Lee’s “Old War Horse.” But in the last decades of his life he dared to criticize Lee’s strategy and spoke of national reconciliation, not exactly endearing words to Southern society at the time. While living in Louisiana, he led a militia that protected blacks from unruly white supremacists. 

Not long after I started this blog in 2009, I wrote two parts about his adopted home of Gainesville, Ga., and his rebounding reputation. I traveled back to Gainesville today. It was hot and sunny and a perfect time to revisit Longstreet sites in the North Georgia city about an hour northeast of Atlanta. The stops are organized by their chronology in Longstreet’s story.

ORIGINAL LONGSTREET HOME (959 Longstreet Circle)

A statue of a pensive Longstreet was dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 2001. He bought the 120-acre farm near downtown not long after moving to Gainesville in 1875. The general pruned muscadine vines on property that featured an old colonial-style home. The home burned in 1889, and the general’s wife, Louise, died a few months later. 

Among his Civil War relics lost to the fire were his Confederate uniform worn when he left the service, the sword he carried during the war, a highly prized sash presented him by Confederate Cavalry Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and spurs that he wore in the Mexican War, according to the Gainesville Times. Longstreet's great-grandson told the Picket that family members still have some of the general's surviving furniture and marble-top tables.

Today, a residential neighborhood covers most of the farm. On the edge of the small park is a grape arbor.

PIEDMONT HOTEL (827 Maple St.)

The Piedmont Hotel is the centerpiece of the Longstreet Society, which was formed in 1994 to honor the life of Longstreet, who died here at age 82 in 1904. The one-story building is a remnant of the imposing, 36-room Piedmont, which was torn down in 1918.

Longstreet opened the hotel in 1876 a couple blocks from the railroad, and he drew famous and everyday guests. He was known to give apples to children and help out former Confederate and Federal soldiers who stopped by. He lived in two homes a couple miles away.

The society uses the old hotel rooms to tell his story. One has artifacts and paintings. Another has period furniture from the time of future President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, Ellen, whose daughter Jessie was born in the hotel in 1887. The main hallway has copies of documents on Longstreet’s appointment to federal offices, including postmaster, U.S. marshal and minister to Turkey. A wooden chair is one of the few items that can be traced to the hotel.

Richard Pilcher (left) and Joe Whitaker

The real treasures of the site may be the volunteers who share stories about the general and his performance during the Civil War.

Richard Pilcher, former head of the society, said he grew up in the area and knew little about the general's reputation and abilities. That changed when he went to college and learned about Longstreet's defensive acumen. "Maybe he had amounted to something," Pilcher said.

Pilcher and Joe Whitaker said in recent years they hear less criticism, as the pendulum in military scholarship has shifted more toward Longstreet's favor.

In later years, Longstreet would travel to reunions and events, and others would operate the hotel. He was known to keep chickens and serve them fried and battered to guests (more about that later).

The well house was installed in early 2017.


Longstreet was 76 and a widower when he married 34-year-old Helen Dortch. He was living here at the time of his death. The house, across from First Baptist, is operated by a chiropractic and well center. Helen Dortch Longstreet lived a long life. The spry environmental activist even served as a riveter at the Bell Bomber plant in Marietta during World War II. She led the unsuccessful fight to stop the damming of the Tallulah River to form what are now known as the Georgia Power lakes. She had to sell the house to pay legal fees.

The home was part of a 2016 Christmas event in the historic district. Mrs. Longstreet converted the basement into one of the city's first Catholic churches. A member of the Hall County Historical Society told the Gainesville Times that the house is unique for its gold crown molding in five rooms on the first floor.

WHELCHEL HOUSE (207 College Ave., vacant lot)

In early January 1904, Longstreet, suffering from cancer, went to the house of his daughter, Maria Louise Longstreet Whelchel and her husband, Esten. During a coughing spasm, his old neck wound from the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness reopened, and he bled to death. His last words were, “Helen, we shall be happier in this post.”

The house is gone; now it's a vacant lot near a bank.


According to the Longstreet Society, the general's funeral was held in a county courthouse building destroyed by the 1936 tornado.

"The funeral is thought to be the largest ever held in the county." His remains were carried nearly two miles to Alta Vista Cemetery.

The procession included the Queen City Band, Candler Horse Guards, Governor's Horse Guards, Confederate veterans, family and friends.

ALTA VISTA CEMETERY (1080 Jesse Jewell Parkway)

Two Georgia governors are buried not far from several members of the Longstreet family. Longstreet’s remarkable grave marker is made of granite and cites his Civil War and Mexican War exploits.

Some 5,000 people attended his Catholic services in town and streamed to the cemetery. An aged veteran placed his gray jacket on the casket. Helen Dortch Longstreet erected the marker several decades after Longstreet’s death.

Interestingly, a U.S., rather, than Confederate, flag flies over the plot. And to reflect the family’s belief in reconciliation, the American flag is crossed over the Confederate battle flag on the marker. Great-grandson Dan Paterson of Virginia told the Picket today that the choice of the banner for the flagpole is “what the general would want.”

The cemetery contains the remains of Paterson's mother, Jamie Louise Longstreet Paterson, who died in 2014. He said the Longstreet Society is planning to name a garden at the Piedmont Hotel in her honor.


Chickens are big business in Gainesville. So it was no small addition to local lore when the Georgia Poultry Federation several years back claimed that the Piedmont Hotel was the first area poultry processor, albeit out of a hotel kitchen, in the area.

Joe Whitaker, of the Longstreet Society, said while there may have been fried chicken served first elsewhere, the Piedmont Hotel may have been the first to use batter. Here’s what he said during my 2009 visit: “I can’t prove that. But I won’t deny it, either.”

Guests included newspaperman Henry Grady, author Joel Chandler Harris and former Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston. They enjoyed the fried chicken, green lawn and other amenities provided by the Longstreets.

Of course, once I left the hotel today after revisiting the topic, I had fried chicken on my mind. But I had stops to make and passed by wings places, Popeyes and Church's Chicken. And the Longstreet Cafe, which includes the battered-up bird on its menu, was closed for a couple hours.

I left town hungry, but satisfied with my time with Longstreet.

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