Lately, there’s been a lot of debate about how we should treat Confederate history. I live in Georgia so it hits pretty close to home.
I’m not going to discuss Charlottesville or statues or protests. Many others have done so. I write about cemeteries and the people buried in them.
However, today I’m sharing the story of the most famous man buried in Gainesville, Ga.’s Alta Vista Cemetery: the controversial and often forgotten Confederate General James Longstreet. How did a man once greatly revered by his peers for his military shrewdness come to live in a sort of exile in a little known Georgia town?
Visiting Alta Vista was not planned. While our son was at Camp Grandma/Grandpa in Knoxville back in July, my husband and I decided to enjoy a quick getaway to the Beechwood Inn in Clayton, Ga. Our anniversary was coming up (Aug. 16) so why not celebrate it a little early?
On the way home, Chris generously offered to stop at any cemetery I wanted to visit. Since we weren’t far from Gainesville, I knew Alta Vista was where I wanted to go.
Originally named Mule Camp Springs, Gainesville got it current name in 1821 from General Edmund P. Gaines. He was a hero of the War of 1812, in addition to a noted military surveyor and road builder.
A nearby gold rush in the 1830s brought more settlers and the beginning of a business community. In 1849, Gainesville became established as a resort center, with people attracted to the springs. Unfortunately in 1851, much of the small city was destroyed by fire.
After the Civil War, the Georgia Southern Railroad began stopping in Gainesville, stimulating business and population growth. From 1870 to 1900, the population increased from 1,000 to over 5,000. Newly built textile mills increased revenues at the turn of the century. A tornado in 1936 nearly wiped out the town again, a topic I’ll discuss in more detail in Part II next week.
Life changed in Gainesville after World War II when businessman Jesse Jewell started the poultry industry in north Georgia. Chickens have since become the state’s largest agricultural crop. This $1 billion-a-year industry has given Gainesville the title “Poultry Capital of the World”. They even have a statue of a chicken atop a 25-foot high marble obelisk in the downtown business district.
The words Alta Vista may send some of you flashing back to the 1990s when the Internet search engine Alta Vista was all the rage. The words Alta Vista are actually a Spanish/Portuguese expression meaning “a view from above.” That’s probably what the founders had in mind when they named the cemetery that.
Established in 1872, Alta Vista currently makes up about 75 developed acres. It consists of the original cemetery, a private cemetery (formerly known as Woodlawn Cemetery) and at least one family cemetery. Thanks to a recent expansion, the cemetery is still active.
While Alta Vista is the burial place for a number of notable people, the most prominent is Confederate General James Longstreet. You’ve probably never heard of him but ask any Civil War historian and they’ll have plenty to say.
Longstreet’s initial tie to Gainesville was that his family owned a plantation there. Born in South Carolina, Longstreet was one of the most prominent Confederate generals of the Civil War. General Robert E. Lee, under whom he served as a corp commander, called Longstreet his “Old War Horse”.
After graduating from West Point, Longstreet served in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and was wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec. Afterward, he married his first wife, Louise Garland. During Longstreet’s marriage to Louise, they had 10 children but only five would survive to adulthood. A scarlet fever epidemic in Richmond, Va. would devastate the couple when three of their children died within eight days of each other.
Throughout the 1850s, he served on frontier duty in the Southwest. In June 1861, Longstreet resigned his U.S. Army commission and joined the Confederate Army. He served with Lee with the Army of Northern Virginia in the Eastern Theater but also with Gen. Braxton Bragg in the Amy of the Tennessee.
Longstreet’s talents made significant contributions to the Confederate victories at Second Bull Run (Second Manassas), Fredericksburg and Chickamauga. His most controversial service was at the Battle of Gettysburg, where he openly disagreed with Lee on the tactics employed and reluctantly supervised the disastrous infantry assault known as Pickett’s Charge. His criticism of Lee would be only one of many reasons he drew the ire of his comrades after the Civil War.
Following the Confederacy’s defeat, Longstreet moved to New Orleans where he worked as a cotton broker. He also joined the Republican Party, a move that provoked many to call him a traitor or “scalawag”. Longstreet also endorsed former Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant for President, a classmate of Longstreet at West Point that married one of Longstreet’s cousins.
In September 1874, Longstreet commanded the largely black Louisiana state police that went up against the Crescent City White League during a riot later called the Battle of Liberty Place. He was shot and briefly held prisoner during the violence. The Crescent City White League was a white supremacist organization attempting to overthrow the government of Louisiana. Federal troops eventually restored order.
Longstreet’s role in the riot, along with his continued wish to move forward into reuniting the country, only further branded him an enemy in the eyes of his former Confederate supporters.
Fearing for his family’s safety, Longstreet and Louise moved to Gainesville to live out the rest of their days in a sort of exile. The Longstreets lived as respected citizens of Gainesville, and he continued to deflect accusations from Confederate Army general, lawyer and politician Jubal Early, and other former Confederates, intent on casting the blame for the loss at Gettysburg on Longstreet.
Longstreet was appointed deputy collector of internal revenue in Georgia in 1878 and later he was appointed postmaster. In 1880, Longstreet was nominated ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) by President Rutherford B. Hayes, a position he held until June 1881. After that, he was appointed U.S. marshal for Georgia until 1884.
The return of a Democratic administration ended Longstreet’s political career and he went into semi-retirement on a 65-acre farm near Gainesville, where he raised turkeys and planted orchards and vineyards on terraced ground that neighbors referred to jokingly as “Gettysburg.” His home in Gainesville, called Parkhill, burned to the ground in 1889. Louise Longstreet died that same year.
At the age of 76 in 1897, Longstreet married Helen Dortch, who has quite a history of her own worth reading. Only 34 when she married Longstreet, Helen lived until 1962. Together, they managed the Piedmont Hotel. On January 2, 1904, Longstreet died and was buried at Alta Vista. Louise is buried beside him. Helen is interred in the Westview Cemetery Abbey Mausoleum in Atlanta.
As far as I know, there are only two statues of James Longstreet in existence. One stands on the site of his former Gainesville home, Park Hill and was installed in the 1990s. The other one, installed in 1998, is at Gettysburg National Military Park and is an equestrian statue by sculptor Gary Casteel. He is shown riding his favorite horse, Hero, at ground level in a grove of trees in Pitzer Woods.
Longstreet is remembered in Gainesville through a few places that bear his name, including Longstreet Bridge and a portion of U.S. Route 129 that crosses the Chattahoochee River (later dammed to form Lake Lanier). Located in the restored Piedmont Hotel, the Longstreet Society is an organization and museum in Gainesville dedicated to the celebration and study of his life and career.
Next week, I’ll spend time sharing the stories of other folks buried at Alta Vista. From a circus performer to an astronaut to a poultry pioneer, there’s plenty more to discover about this special place.