RUSSELLVILLE — Clark Thornton of Baldwin, Ga., says his great-great grandfather, Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, became the scapegoat for the Lost Cause after the end of the Civil War when a cabal of officers worked to undermine "Old Pete's" reputation.
Thornton, who researched his illustrious ancestor's family and military history for 15 years, was the featured speaker Thursday morning at the dedication of the Gen. Longstreet Museum in Russellville on East Andrew Johnson Highway.
The museum was a house owned by the Nenney family during Longstreet's occupation of Morristown and Russellville in the winter of 1864. The home was built in 1820.
Five years ago, the home was about to be destroyed when a group of concerned citizens formed a non-profit association to save it. It has since been restored and is getting ready to open to the public.
Thornton, who has written a genealogy of his family, said he wanted to help straighten out some "misconstrued aspects of my noted ancestor's career."
He dismissed Longstreet's critics who faulted the general for not showing enough support for Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.
"Longstreet's reputation declined precipitously after the war owing to the efforts of an underhanded effort of a cadre of Southern officers, termed by historians as a 'Lee' cult," Thornton said.
Longstreet's criticism of Lee in newspaper accounts after the war also worked against Old Pete's reputation. He also joined the Republican Party and that "made him a convenient scapegoat for the South's defeat," Thornton said.
The two-story home in Russellville was saved by the Lakeway Civil War Preservation Association, which bought the property from a private owner.
Volunteers and the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, a statewide program administered by the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University, have helped with the restoration.
The museum dedication drew state, federal and local political officials including Carroll Van West, director of the MTSU preservation center, and Susan Whitaker, commissioner of the state Department of Tourist Development.
About 100 people huddled inside two tents due to rain and another 30 or so stood outside in the drizzle. West and Whitaker praised the museum, which they said is one of a kind for the state.
West said the development of the Longstreet Museum is important in telling the story of the Civil War in Tennessee because Longstreet's role in East Tennessee has been overlooked. The general died in 1904 and is buried in Gainesville, Ga.
Whitaker said that the museum is the only one in the state that served as a Civil War general's headquarters.
She said the museum would now be placed on Tennessee's Civil War Trails, part of a five-state trails system to help in the exploration of the Civil War's 150th anniversary that began in April of this year.