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- John Brown Gordon: From the Battlefield to the State House
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If the Union had Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine, then the Confederacy’s version was John Brown Gordon of Georgia. These two famous generals followed parallel paths and in the post-war period actually became acquainted. In the end both would help to foster the reconciliation of the two sides.
John Brown Gordon was born on his father’s plantation in Upson County, Georgia in February of 1832. An outstanding student at the University of Georgia, he left before graduating to read law at an Atlanta law firm. He passed the bar examination and began to practice law. Gordon was a many of many parts and he invested in a number of coal mines in Tennessee and Georgia with his father.
Gordon’s Civil War Service: 1861-1863
At the start of the war, Gordon who lacked any military education or experience was elected captain of a company of mountaineers. He quickly rose to brigadier general in November 1862 and then to major general in May 1864. Gordon was an aggressive general as a brigade commander and then a division commander. He was highly valued by Robert E. Lee who described him as being one of his best brigadiers, “characterized by splendid audacity” in a letter to President Jefferson Davis.
Gordon was wounded eight times in the service of the Confederacy including an incredible five times in the Sunken Road at Antietam. He was wounded at Malvern Hill in the eyes while fearlessly leading his brigade. During the campaign, Gordon strode fearlessly among his men, enemy bullets shattered the handle of his pistol, pierced his canteen, and tore away part of the front of his coat.
At Antietam, he commanded the troops that held the Sunken Road in the center of the Confederate line. It was during this battle that Gordon was wounded an incredible five times. First, a Minié ball passed through his calf. Then, a second ball hit him higher in the same leg. A third ball went through his left arm.
He continued to lead his men despite the fact that the muscles and tendons in his arm were mangled, and a small artery was severed by this ball. A fourth ball hit him in his shoulder. Despite pleas that he go to the rear, he continued to lead his men. He was finally stopped by a ball that hit him in the face, passing through his left cheek and out his jaw. He fell with his face in his cap and might have drowned in his own blood if it had not drained out through a bullet hole in the cap.
After months of recuperation, Gordon led a brigade of Georgians in Jubal Early’s division at Gettysburg. During the assault on Barlow’s Knoll, he stopped to aid the wounded enemy division commander, Francis Barlow.
This incident led to a story considered apocryphal by many historians that the two men met after the war in Washington and Gordon asked if he was related to the Barlow who was killed at Gettysburg.
Seated at Clarkson Potter’s table, I asked Barlow: “General, are you related to the Barlow who was killed at Gettysburg?” He replied: “Why, I am the man, sir. Are you related to the Gordon who killed me?” “I am the man, sir,” I responded. No words of mine can convey any conception of the emotions awakened by those startling announcements. Nothing short of an actual resurrection from the dead could have amazed either of us more. Thenceforward, until his untimely death in 1896, the friendship between us which was born amidst the thunders of Gettysburg was greatly cherished by both.
The story was told by Barlow and by Gordon and was published in newspapers and in Gordon’s book.
The irony of this incident is that Francis Barlow led the 61st New York and the 63rd New York at Antietam. His combined units flanked the Sunken Road and created the famous pictures of the dead Confederates in the road, many commanded by Gordon. My own second great grandfather, Sgt. Michael Patrick Murphy, was among the Union troops who caused the carnage. In a later affidavit, he wrote how they forded the creek, organized themselves and proceeded to the attack. “We had it hot for some time.”
Gordon’s Civil War Service: 1864-1865
Gordon proposed a flanking attack at the start of the Overland Campaign at the Wilderness but his commander Jubal Early would not allow it. After the Wilderness Gordon was given command of Early’s Division when he was promoted. At Spotsylvania Court House his unit turned back the massive Union attack at the ‘Bloody Angle’ and prevented a Confederate rout. During the battle he was promoted to major general.
It was at the latter battle that Gordon found General Robert E. Lee riding his horse Traveller to the center of the line, preparing to join a charge. Gordon shouted, “General Lee, this is no place for you. These men behind you are Georgians and Virginians. They have never failed you and will not fail you here. Will you boys?” Gordon’s men yelled, “No, no, we’ll not fail him.” He then had two of his men escort General Lee to the rear and safety.
Gordon went with Early to the Valley when the latter was given command of the Army of the Valley. He was wounded August 25, 1864, at Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The incident was described by Confederate cartographer Jedediah Hotchkiss in his official report, “Quite a lively skirmish ensued, in which Gordon was wounded in the head, but he gallantly dashed on, the blood streaming over him.”
After the Confederate defeat Battle of Cedar Creek, Gordon returned to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia where he was given command of the Second Corps which he led until the surrender at Appomattox. His corps defended the line during the Siege of Petersburg. commanded the attack on Fort Stedman on March 25, 1865 where he was wounded again, in the leg.
At Appomattox Court House, he led his men in the last charge of the Army of Northern Virginia, capturing the entrenchments and several pieces of artillery in his front just before the surrender.
It was at the surrender ceremony that Maj. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain ordered a salute that at first startled Gordon who led the Southern infantry. Here is Chamberlain’s poignant account of the surrender ceremony.
My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured? Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry”—the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!
Gordon’s Postwar Career
Appomattox was not the end of John Brown Gordon’s career but the beginning of its next phase. He was a firm opponent of Reconstruction and endorsed measures to preserve white-dominated society, including restrictions on freedmen and the use of violence. It was thought that he was the titular head of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan, a charge that he denied. He did acknowledge he was associated with a secret “peace police” organization whose sole purpose was the “preservation of peace.”
He ran for governor in 1868 but was defeated. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1873 and in 1879 became the first ex-Confederate to preside of that august body.The day after he became President Pro Tem of the Senate he obtained a promise from President Ulysses S. Grant to remove Federal officials in Georgia who had gained their positions through fraud or corruption.
John Gordon was a strong supporter of the “New South” and industrialization. Gordon resigned from the Senate in May 1880 to promote a venture for the Georgia Pacific Railway. He was elected Governor of Georgia in 1886 and returned to the U.S. Senate from 1891 to 1897.
In 1903 Gordon published an account of his Civil War service entitled Reminiscences of the Civil War. He engaged in a series of popular speaking engagements throughout the country.
John Gordon was the first Commander-in-Chief of the United Confederate Veterans when the group was organized in 1890 and held this position until his death in 1904. He died while visiting one of his sons in Miami, Florida on January 9, 1904 at the age of 71. It was reported that 75,000 people attended his funeral in Atlanta where he was buried.
Gordon was a proponent of the ‘Lost Cause’ myth that sprang up after the war. Those who contributed to the movement tended to portray the Confederacy’s cause as noble and most of its leaders as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry, defeated by the Union armies through overwhelming force rather than martial skill.
Gordon often spoke at veteran’s gatherings. At one gathering of veterans from both armies, Gordon spoke after his friend, Joshua Chamberlain. He turned to Chamberlain, saying: “You were right but so were we.”