John Brown Gordon (1832-1904)

John Brown Gordon (February 6, 1832 January 9, 1904) served as one of Robert E. Lee's most trusted generals during the American Civil War. After the war, he was a U.S. Senator, a railroad executive, and the Governor of Georgia from 1886 to 1890.

Gordon was descended from an ancient Scottish lineage, the fourth child of twelve, born on his father's plantation in Upson County, Georgia. Many Gordon family members fought in the Revolutionary War. He attended Franklin College in Georgia. Gordon and his father invested in a series of coal mines in Tennessee and Georgia. He also practiced law.

Gordon married Fanny Haralson, daughter of Hugh Anderson Haralson, in 1854. She represented Georgia in Congress for many years after the Civil War.

Civil War

Although lacking any military education or experience, Gordon was elected captain of a company of mountaineers and quickly climbed from captain to brigadier general (1862), to major general (1864). Though Gordon himself often claimed he was promoted to lieutenant general, there is no official record of this occurring. Gordon was an aggressive general who, when he was in command, or when he led a charge, was never defeated or repulsed. In 1864, Gordon was described by General Robert E. Lee in a letter to Confederate President Jefferson Davis as being one of his best brigadiers, "characterized by splendid audacity".

Gordon was a brigadier general and brigade commander in D.H. Hill's division in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. During the subsequent Seven Days Battles, as Gordon strode fearlessly among his men, enemy balls shattered the handle of his pistol, pierced his canteen, and tore away part of the front of his coat. He was wounded in the eyes during the assault on Malvern Hill.

Assigned by General Lee to hold the vital sunken road, or "Bloody Lane", during the Battle of Antietam, Gordon's affinity for being wounded reached new heights. First, a minie 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 hadn't drained out through a bullet hole in the cap.

After months of recuperation, in June of 1863 Gordon led a brigade of Georgians in Jubal A. Early's division during the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania. His brigade occupied Wrightsville on the Susquehanna River, the farthest east any organized CSA troops would reach. Union militia under Col. Jacob G. Frick burned the mile-and-a-quarter-long covered wooden bridge to prevent Gordon from crossing the river, and the fire soon spread to parts of Wrightsville. Gordon's troops formed a bucket brigade and managed to prevent the further destruction of the town.

At the Battle of Gettysburg, Gordon's brigade smashed into the Union XI Corps on Barlow's Knoll. There, he aided the wounded opposing division commander Francis Barlow. This incident led to an apocryphal story1 about the two officers meeting later in Washington, D.C., unaware that Barlow had survived the battle; most historians discount the story (because it is inconceivable that Gordon did not know that Barlow subsequently fought against him in the Battle of the Wilderness).

In the Overland Campaign, Gordon commanded a division in Richard S. Ewell's (later Early's) corps. He proposed a flanking attack against the Union right in the Battle of the Wilderness that might have had a decisive effect on the battle, had Early allowed him freedom to launch it before late in the day. Gordon's success in turning back the massive Union assault in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (the Bloody Angle) prevented a Confederate rout. He left with Early for the Valley Campaigns of 1864 and was wounded August 25, 1864, at Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Confederate engineer Jed Hotchkiss's official report of the incident stated, "Quite a lively skirmish ensued, in which Gordon was wounded in the head, but he gallantly dashed on, the blood streaming over him." His wife Fanny, accompanying her husband on the campaign as general's wives sometimes did, rushed out into the street at the Third Battle of Winchester to urge Gordon's retreating troops to go back and face the enemy. Gordon was horrified to find her in the street with shells and balls flying about her.

Returning to Lee's army after Early's defeat at the Battle of Cedar Creek, Gordon defended the line in the Siege of Petersburg and 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. On April 12, 1865, Gordon's Confederate troops officially surrendered to Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain, acting for Ulysses S. Grant.

Postbellum career

Gordon was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1873, and in 1879 became the first ex-Confederate to preside over the Senate. The next day he obtained a promise from President Ulysses S. Grant to remove Federal officials in Georgia who had gained their positions through fraud or corruption.

Gordon resigned in May, 1880, to promote a venture for the Georgia-Pacific Railroad. 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.

General 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. He died in 1904 in Miami, Florida, at the age of 71 and was buried in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia; upwards of 75,000 people viewed and took part in the memorial ceremonies.

Quotations

"A more gallant, generous, and fearless gentleman and soldier has not been seen by our country." — President Theodore Roosevelt

"He was a devout and humble Christian gentleman. I know of no man more beloved at the South, and he was probably the most popular Southern man among the people of the North." — Stephen D. Lee, Commander-in-Chief, United Confederate Veterans

The apocryphal story of Barlow and Gordon reunited by chance at a dinner in Washington: 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.