A woman ahead of her time

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By Shane Scoggins 

From the winter edition of Lake Living magazine: Helen Dortch Longstreet was one of the first newspaper editors in Georgia, married a Civil War general, defended his legacy, fought for the environment and women's rights, helped win World War II as a Rosie the Riveter and ran for governor.

  • Helen Dortch was born in Carnesville in 1863.
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Helen Dortch Longstreet was no stranger to controversy or fighting for the causes she believed in by the time the Georgia Railway and Power Company began work to dam Tallulah Falls in the 1910s.

By that time, Longstreet had fought and won a change to state law to allow women to be state employees, taken on the mission to restore her famous late husband’s good name, lobbied for the right to vote for women and been an outspoken Republican in the Democrat-dominated South.

So when the hotel and business owners around Tallulah Falls failed to fight the dam, Longstreet stepped up with her own time and money to try to stop it.

She “feared that [the dam’s] construction would destroy the falls and detract from the area’s beauty,” a Georgia Encyclopedia entry on the history of Tallulah Falls says. “In 1911, she organized the Tallulah Falls Conservation Association to stop the dam’s construction and turn the area into a state park.”

She lobbied to get the state attorney general to file suit, which he did, but Georgia Power won at trial and appeal and built the dam.

But even Longstreet’s loss became a win years later.

“In 1992, nearly 80 years after the completion of the dam, the state, in partnership with Georgia Power, created Tallulah Gorge State Park, one of the most popular in the state park system,” the Georgia Encyclopedia reads. “In 1999, the trail around the gorge was named for Helen Dortch Longstreet.”

That was just one of many honors given to the woman known as “The Fighting Lady” during her life and posthumously.

Helen Dortch – who was also known as Ellen Dortch – was born April 20, 1863, in Carnesville to James Speed and Mary Pulliam Dortch.

The Dortch family was one of Carnesville’s most prominent. Helen’s father operated one of the first general stores in the city and members of the family were reportedly also a town lawyer, newspaper editor and postmaster.

Her own newspaper career began early. Some reports have her editing the Carnesville newspaper by age 15. Along with the paper in Carnesville, she was also reportedly editor of a paper in Milledgeville and Gainesville.

She attended Georgia Baptist Female Seminary (now Brenau University) in Gainesville and later Notre Dame Convent in Maryland.

While in college, she met Gen. James Longstreet, then married to his first wife, through the family of a roommate.

She was editor of the Franklin County Register and the Carnesville Reporter in the 1880s and a confirmed bachelorette.

In a newspaper clipping displayed in the Longstreet Society museum in Gainesville, she wrote, “I am past thirty; I have a good home; I think you know I have had plenty of opportunities to marry; I have been bridesmaid a score of times; I ask myself, with which one of the beautiful girls I have seen take the marriage vow would I exchange today? Not one. Some are living apart from their husbands; some are divorced; some are the wives of drunken men; some are hanging on the ragged edge of society endeavoring to keep up appearances; some tread the mysterious land, and some have gone out in the darkness and unknown horrors, and some are dead. A few there are who are loved and honored wives, with happy homes – but, alas! Only a very few.”

She made history outside Franklin County in the 1890s by breaking the state’s glass ceiling.

Helen became the state of Georgia’s first female employee in 1894 when she was hired as assistant state librarian.

Richard Pilcher of The Longstreet Society said when she first applied for the job, she was laughed at because women didn’t work for the state.

She worked to pass what became known as the “Dortch Bill,” which allowed women to be hired.

Georgia Gov. William Yates Atkinson then asked Dortch to come to work for him.

She initially refused, saying that her fight to get her job as a state librarian was too hard to give it up.

Atkinson told her being an assistant to the governor brought with it the rank of major in the Georgia National Guard, Pilcher said.

Dortch took the job, thus becoming the first female officer in the state’s National Guard.

Atkinson wasn’t the only one impressed by Dortch’s exploits.

Longstreet, by then the owner of the Piedmont Hotel in Gainesville and a widower, asked the governor to introduce him to Helen.

“He had come to admire her a great deal,” Pilcher said.

On Sept. 8, 1897, Helen and Longstreet were married in the Governor’s Mansion.

She was 34 at the time. The general was 76.

On the day Helen was born in 1863, Longstreet was overseeing Confederate troops at the Seige of Suffolk, Va. Just a couple of months later, he would be one of the key figures in the Battle of Gettysburg.

“His children were not pleased,” information in The Longstreet Society museum in Gainesville reads, “but James said ‘an old man gets lonely and must have companionship.’”

Pilcher said it was plain that it wasn’t a marriage of convenience.

“She was definitely in love with the General,” he said.

The couple was married for seven years until Longstreet’s death in 1904.

But Helen’s dedication to him and his legacy would continue for the rest of her life.

She never remarried and dedicated herself to “correcting inaccurate information about the general, publicizing his military prowess and humanitarian efforts,” information in The Longstreet Society says.

By the time he married Helen, Longstreet had been vilified by his fellow Southerners as a traitor to the Confederate cause.

Longstreet’s sins included being a Republican – the party of Lincoln that fought the war and freed the slaves – and that he urged Southerners to cooperate with Reconstruction.

As consequences for those sins, Longstreet’s military record was besmirched. Lee’s loss at Gettysburg was blamed on him, along with a host of other failures.

Not long after Longstreet’s death, Helen published Lee and Longstreet at High Tide: Gettysburg in the Light of the Official Records, a book defending Longstreet’s service at Gettysburg.

“Throughout the remainder of her life, she continued to defend her husband's military career both in print and on the lecture circuit,” her entry in the New Georgia Encyclopedia reads. “She also organized the Longstreet Memorial Association and the Longstreet Memorial Exhibit at the New York World's Fair in 1939 and at the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco, California, in 1940.”

Helen also led efforts to honor Longstreet at the Gettysburg battlefield.

She commissioned a six-and-a-half-foot painting of her husband by artist Howard Chandler Christy.

The painting was unveiled at the New York World’s Fair on Sept. 20, 1939, and later acquired by the National Park Service and hung in the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center.

It was later moved to the visitor center at Chickamauga. A print of the painting hangs for right now in The Longstreet Society museum in Gainesville, though it must be returned to Gettysburg at some point.

Helen took on many other challenges and causes.

She would often write pamphlets, Pilcher said. They consisted of collections of essays.

Her pamphlets concerned things like civil rights, women’s suffrage, the establishment of the Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville (now Georgia College and State University) and Progressive causes of the day.

She was named Gainesville’s first postmaster in 1898. Her husband had held the same position.

Though a Republican, Helen supported Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party in the presidential election of 1912 and was a delegate to the party convention.

It was about that time that she took on Georgia Power’s Tallulah Falls plans.

She spoke plainly, calling Georgia Power “pirates and buccaneers.”

It is obvious that Helen was not afraid to speak her mind or take care of herself.

A newspaper clipping in The Longstreet Society details an incident in which a would-be robber broke into her home.

“Mrs. Helen G. Longstreet, widow of the Confederate general and postmistress of Gainesville, Ga., was awakened about 2 o’clock in the morning by a noise in the house. Securing a pistol she went to investigate. When she entered the dining room she saw a man trying to open a closet in which table silver was kept. She called to him and man turned and ran for a window. Mrs. Longstreet opened fire and the robber drew a pistol and fired once. Mrs. Longstreet continued firing at the fleeing man until her revolver was empty. She thinks she hit the man, as after one shot he staggered and nearly fell. The firing alarmed the quarter of the city in which Mrs. Longstreet resides and caused a crowd to gather.”

As men volunteered or were drafted to serve in World War II, Helen was one of the women who stepped into manufacturing as a Rosie the Riveter at the Bell Aircraft Plant – now Lockheed – in Marietta.

By then near 80 years old, Helen commuted each day from her home near Atlanta and worked an 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. shift. She was featured in Life Magazine for her service.

In 1950, she staged an independent campaign against Herman Talmadge – a man she said “didn’t have the brains of a goat,” according to Pilcher – for governor.

A newspaper account of her campaign said that Helen advocated for upholding civil rights, unmasking the Ku Klux Klan, for minimum educational standards, support of the state welfare system and abolishing the county unit system.

“I’ll make this state a place where the humblest Negro can go to sleep at night and be assured of waking up in the morning, unless the Almighty calls,” she told the newspaper. “I will unhood the hooded ruffians of the Ku Klux Klan. It Is almost universally conceded that Governor Talmadge cannot be defeated by anyone now in the race, and I feel that the obligation falls on the women of Georgia to furnish the type of Governor the state deserves.”

Pilcher said it is believed Helen had a stroke while visiting upstate New York when she was about 97 years old. She was found wandering town, not knowing who she was or where she was.

She was brought back to Georgia and lived the rest of her years in the state mental hospital in Milledgeville because there was no other facility for her.

Upon her death at age 99, she was buried in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta, the nearest cemetery to her only living relative, Pilcher said, instead of next to Longstreet in Gainesville.

The Longstreet Society museum in Gainesville contains items about Gen. Longstreet, including an impressive collection of Presidential signatures on the many Army promotions and public service appointments granted to him.

But Pilcher said that the museum – including the library – also contains much about Helen.

“We’ve discovered she’s as important as Gen. Longstreet, especially in Georgia history,” he said.

Each year, the society presents the Helen Dortch Longstreet Award to “the person who best exemplifies the courage, determination and dedication of Helen Dortch Longstreet in her lifelong effort to defend the reputation of her husband, General James Longstreet.”

When Helen was named a Georgia Woman of Distinction, a spokesperson for Georgia Power said “she was a woman way ahead of her time.”

Surely, he wasn’t the only person to ever describe her that way.

But the truth is that Longstreet was a woman who saw what could be accomplished in her own time and set out to make that vision happen.

And in her 99 full years, she did see much of it.

 

In addition to the sources cited in the article, information for this story included the Georgia Historical Society website and an article in the March 7, 1996, issue of the Franklin County Citizen.