Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was famous among the ranks for the camaraderie, poker games and whiskey that were featured at his camp headquarters during Civil War campaigns.
So it was in remembering that spirit that Richard Pilcher left a cigar at the general’s resting place in Gainesville, Ga., about 35 years ago. It was the anniversary of Longstreet’s death – Jan. 2 – and Pilcher spoke with the sexton at Alta Vista Cemetery.
“He told me there was never any service there and I resolved not to let that happen again,” said Pilcher, former president of the Gainesville-based Longstreet Society, which promotes the controversial officer’s legacy.
The society and a couple of Sons of Confederate Veterans camps for several years sponsored the annual graveside memorial service. About nine years ago, SCV Camp 1860, Blue Ridge Rifles, took over. The Longstreet Society hosts a reception at the Piedmont Hotel (Longstreet’s residence and hotel), featuring hot chocolate and cookies, following the service.
This year’s event is scheduled for 2 p.m. Jan. 15.
The SCV camp customarily has speakers, a prayer and a volley fired by re-enactors. On occasion, music is performed.
“One year they re-enacted the whole funeral from the site of the old courthouse to the cemetery with the ancient, glass-sided, horse-drawn hearse bearing a casket with police blocking streets along the way,” said Pilcher, who today is a society director.
“Old Pete” Longstreet spent the last decades of his life in Gainesville. He lost one wife, a home to fire and married again in his last years. He died at 82 in 1904.
The general's story is, well, complicated.
Controversy about his conduct at the Battle of Gettysburg and his postwar support of the Republican Party, Reconstruction and suffrage for blacks dogged him to his grave. Longstreet in postwar years voiced his opinion that Gen. Robert E. Lee should not have launched the disastrous Day Three attack at Gettysburg.
Advocates of the “Lost Cause” lashed out at him, and said he failed Lee at Gettysburg by delaying the execution of orders.
But many Confederate veterans lionized him and he was popular at reunions, including a notable gathering at Gettysburg in 1888. As Civil War blogger John Banks recently wrote, he attended many events there featuring former Union foes. “No man now in Gettysburg, the New York Sun wrote of Longstreet, “is more honored nor more sought than he.”
|The Piedmont Hotel in 2009|
As the Picket wrote in 2009, Longstreet’s reputation, especially among military historians, has been more positive in recent years.
William Piston, a history professor at Missouri State University, published “Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant” in 1987. The book “reveals how Longstreet became, in the years after Appomattox, the Judas of the Lost Cause, the scapegoat for Lee's and the South's defeat.”
Many historians and family members portray Longstreet, who was born in South Carolina, as a proud and stubborn warrior who was a truly loyal lieutenant to Lee.
The general became Lee’s “right hand” during the war and led victorious assaults at Second Manassas and Chickamauga. He may be best known for his notable defensive use of terrain, such as at Fredericksburg.
Alta Vista Cemetery is at 521 Jones St. Longstreet’s grave is in Lot 36. The Piedmont Hotel is at 827 Maple St, also in Gainesville.