Hattip to Pat McNamara of Patheos for his post on General Longstreet’s conversion which inspired this post.
General Lee referred to James “Pete” Longstreet as his “Old War Horse”. One of the more talented corp commanders of the Confederacy, Longstreet’s memory was long blackened in the South after the War due to Longstreet becoming a Republican and working as surveyor of customs at the port of New Orleans in the Grant administration, and by the efforts of a coterie of former officers of the Army of Northern Virginia, led by Jubal Early, who blamed Longstreet for the defeat at Gettysburg.
The vituperation that he received mattered little to Longstreet who throughout his life did what he thought was right no matter what other people might think. In 1874 he became adjutant general of the Louisiana militia. In an uprising of the White League he was wounded and taken prisoner in his own customs house. His captors gave the rebel yell. The wounded Longstreet looked at them with disdain and said, “I have heard the yell before.”
It was in New Orleans on March 7, 1877 that Longstreet converted to the Catholic faith. His conversion was brought about by Father Abram J. Ryan, the poet laureate of the Confederacy. An Episcopalian, Longstreet had noticed that the pews were vacant around him when he went to worship. Father Ryan assured him that in the Catholic Church people came to Mass to worship God and not to give vent to political animosities. Longstreet remained a devout Catholic until his death in 1904. At his funeral his Mass was said by Bishop Benjamin J. Keiley of Savannah, Georgia who had served in the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War.
After Longstreet’s death his memory was defended by his widow, the formidable Helen Dortch Longstreet, a Catholic. Longstreet married her in 1897, eight years after the death of his first wife, when he was 76 and she was 34. She survived him for 58 years and tirelessly spent those years defending his memory and his record in the Civil War. She was nicknamed “The Fighting Lady” and she earned the title, and not just in defense of her husband. The first female Assistant State Librarian of Georgia, she authored “The Dortch Bill” passed by the Georgia Legislature in 1896 which allowed a woman to serve as State Librarian. A firm supporter of Teddy Roosevelt, she was a delegate to the Bull Moose Party Convention in 1912.
Throughout her life she led battles against political corruption and for conservation. At a very advanced age, she served as a riveter at the Bell aircraft plant during World War II. In 1947 she became the first woman to have her portrait hung at the State Capitol in Georgia. At the age of 87 in 1950 she ran an unsuccessful write in campaign against Herman Tallmadge for governor of Georgia. She died in 1962 at age 99, and had never remarried. General Longstreet picked a fighter to be proud of indeed.
Watch Gettysburg movie deleted scene, featuring Longstreet and Fremantle.
Photography: See our Photographers page.