John Brown Gordon

Last updated
John Brown Gordon
Gordon in uniform, ca. 1862
United States Senator
from Georgia
In office
March 4, 1873 May 26, 1880
Preceded by Joshua Hill
Succeeded by Joseph E. Brown
In office
March 4, 1891 March 3, 1897
Preceded by Joseph E. Brown
Succeeded by Alexander S. Clay
53rd Governor of Georgia
In office
November 9, 1886 November 8, 1890
Preceded by Henry D. McDaniel
Succeeded by William J. Northen
Personal details
BornFebruary 6, 1832
Upson County, Georgia
DiedJanuary 9, 1904(1904-01-09) (aged 71)
Miami, Florida
Spouse(s)Rebecca (Fanny) Haralson
Military service
AllegianceFlag of the Confederate States of America (1865).svg  Confederate States
Branch/serviceBattle flag of the Confederate States of America.svg  Confederate States Army
Years of service1861–1865
Rank Confederate States of America General-collar.svg Major-General
Commands Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia
Battles/wars American Civil War

John Brown Gordon (February 6, 1832 January 9, 1904) was an attorney, a planter, general in the Confederate States Army, and politician in the postwar years. By the end of the Civil War, he had become "one of Robert E. Lee's most trusted generals." [1]


After the war, Gordon strongly opposed Reconstruction during the late 1860s. A member of the Democratic Party, he was elected by the state legislature to serve as a US Senator, from 1873 to 1880, and again from 1891 to 1897. He also was elected as the 53rd Governor of Georgia, serving from 1886 to 1890.

Early life

John Brown Gordon was of Scots descent and was born on the farm of his parents Zachariah Gordon and his wife in Upson County, Georgia; he was the fourth of twelve children. Many Gordon family members had fought in the Revolutionary War. His family moved to Walker County, Georgia by 1840, where his father was recorded in the US census that year as owning a plantation with 18 slaves. [2] Gordon was an outstanding student at the University of Georgia, where he was a member of the Mystical 7 Society.[ citation needed ] He left before graduating and "read the law" in Atlanta, where he passed the bar examination.

Gordon and his father, Zachariah, invested in a series of coal mines in Tennessee and Georgia. He also practiced law. In 1854 Gordon married Rebecca "Fanny" Haralson, daughter of Hugh Anderson Haralson and his wife. They had a long and happy marriage [3] and six children. [4]

In 1860, Gordon owned one slave, a 14-year-old girl. His father owned four slaves in that same census. [5]

American Civil War

Although lacking military education or experience, Gordon was elected captain of a company of the 6th Alabama Infantry Regiment. He was present at First Bull Run, but did not see any action. During a reorganization of the Confederate army in May 1862, the regiment's original colonel, John Siebels, resigned and Gordon was elected the new colonel. Gordon's first combat experience happened a few weeks later at Seven Pines, when his regiment was in the thick of the fighting and he took over as brigade commander from Brig. Gen Robert Rodes when the latter was wounded. Shortly after the battle, the 26th Alabama was transferred to Rodes' brigade as part of an army reorganization. Its commander, Col. Edward O'Neal, outranked Gordon and thus took command of the brigade until Rodes resumed command just in time for the Seven Days Battles. Gordon was again hotly engaged at Gaines Mill, and he was wounded in the eyes during the assault on Malvern Hill. On June 29, Rodes, still suffering from the effects of his wound from Seven Pines, took a leave of absence, with O'Neal commanding the brigade once again. During the Northern Virginia Campaign, Gordon and his regiment were kept in the Richmond area.

Gordon portrait by Mathew Brady John Brown Gordon - Brady-Handy.jpg
Gordon portrait by Mathew Brady

Assigned by General Lee to hold the vital sunken road, or "Bloody Lane", during the Battle of Antietam, Gordon's propensity for being wounded reached new heights. 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. Gordon continued to lead his men, despite the fact that the muscles and tendons in his arm were mangled and a small artery was severed. A fourth ball hit him in his shoulder. Ignoring pleas that he go to the rear, Gordon remained on the front lines. 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. A Confederate surgeon thought that he would not survive, but after he was returned to Virginia, he was nursed back to health by his wife. [6]

Lee, impressed with Gordon's services, requested a promotion to brigadier general on November 1, 1862; however, this was not confirmed by congress due to his wounding. After months of recuperation, Gordon returned to service, receiving the command of a brigade of Georgians in Jubal A. Early's division. When he returned to duty, Lee requested a promotion again, which was approved this time by congress, ranking from May 7, 1863. [7] During the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania, Gordon's brigade occupied Wrightsville on the Susquehanna River, the farthest east in Pennsylvania any organized Confederate 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 on July 1, Gordon's brigade smashed into the XI Corps on Barlow's Knoll. There, he aided the wounded opposing division commander Francis Barlow. This incident led to a story (which many people consider apocryphal) about the two officers meeting later in Washington, D.C., Gordon unaware that Barlow had survived the battle. The story was told by Barlow and Gordon and published in newspapers and in Gordon's book.

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.

John B. Gordon, Reminiscences of the Civil War

Some historians choose to discount this story, despite contemporary accounts and the testimony of both men, because of Gordon's purported tendency to exaggerate in post-war writings [ citation needed ] and because it is inconceivable to them that Gordon did not know that Barlow subsequently fought against him in the Battle of the Wilderness. [ citation needed ] (Barlow, recently returned to service in April 1865, would also pursue Gordon and his troops during the Battle of High Bridge.)

At the start of the 1864 Overland Campaign, in the Battle of the Wilderness, Gordon proposed a flanking attack against the Union right that might have had a decisive effect on the battle, had General Early allowed him freedom to launch it before late in the day. Gordon was an aggressive general and 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". On May 8, 1864, Gordon was given command of Early's division in Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell's (later Early's) corps, being promoted to major general on May 14. Gordon's success in turning back the massive Union assault in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (the Bloody Angle) prevented a Confederate rout. His division was held in reserve at the Battle of North Anna and was positioned in the Magnolia Swamp, north of where the major fighting occurred at the Battle of Cold Harbor.

Gordon left with Early for the Valley Campaigns of 1864, participating in the Battle of Lynchburg and in Early's Invasion of Maryland at the Battle of Monocacy before being wounded August 25, 1864, at Shepherdstown, West Virginia upon their return across the Potomac. After having a wound over his right eye dressed, he returned to the battle. [6] Confederate cartographer Jedediah 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." At the Third Battle of Winchester, Gordon's wife, Fanny, accompanying her husband on the campaign as general's wives sometimes did, rushed out into the street 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. Gordon continued to lead a division in Early's Army of the Valley, fighting at the Battle of Fisher's Hill and at the Battle of Cedar Creek, where he led an overnight flanking maneuver around the northern base of Massanutten Mountain followed by an early morning assault that he had devised while previously surveying the Union position from Signal Knob. [8] The assault nearly crushed the Federal line at the Belle Grove Plantation before a "fatal halt" turned the tide of battle and doomed Gordon's successes made earlier in the day.

Returning to Lee's army around Richmond after Early's defeat at the Cedar Creek, Gordon led the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia until the end of the war. In this role, he 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).

In April 1865 he would be pursued by Francis Barlow (who had just returned to service days before) during the Battle of High Bridge in Virginia. At Appomattox Court House, Gordon 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 Bvt. Maj. Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain, acting for Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, recorded in moving detail by Chamberlain:

The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. 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!

John Brown Gordon postbellum.jpg
Postbellum engraving by Campbell Brothers, New York
Caroline Gordon Brown.jpg
Caroline Gordon Brown, of Berlin, New Hampshire, was Gordon's daughter

Though Gordon himself often claimed he was promoted to lieutenant general, there is no official record of this occurring. [7]

Postbellum career

As the government of the State of Georgia was being reconstituted for readmission to the Union, Gordon ran as the Democratic candidate for governor in 1868, but was defeated by Republican Rufus Bullock in a vote of 83,527 to 76,356. [9] He was a firm opponent of Reconstruction and endorsed measures to preserve white-dominated society, including restrictions on freedmen and the use of violence. Gordon was thought to be the titular head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, [10] but the organization was so secretive that his role was never proven conclusively. During congressional testimony in 1871, Gordon denied any involvement with the Klan, but did acknowledge he was associated with a secret "peace police" organization whose sole purpose was the "preservation of peace." [11]

Gordon was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1873, and in 1879 became the first ex-Confederate to preside over the Senate. He was a strong supporter of the "New South" and industrialization.

Gordon resigned as U.S. senator on May 19, 1880. Word of his unexpected resignation had barely reached back to Georgia before Governor Alfred H. Colquitt had appointed Joseph E. Brown to succeed Gordon. Almost instantly, cries of corruption were heard when it was discovered Gordon resigned to promote a venture for the Georgia Pacific Railway. [12]

It will be found, I trust, that no injustice has been done to either section, to any army, or to any of the great leaders, but that the substance and spirit of the following pages will tend rather to lift to a higher plane the estimate placed by victors and vanquished upon their countrymen of the opposing section, and thus strengthen the sentiment of intersectional fraternity which is essential to complete national unity.

—General John B. Gordon, Reminicences of the Civil War

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. [13]

He engaged in a series of popular speaking engagements throughout the country. [14] These lectures, entitled "The Last Days of the Confederacy", were very well received in both north and south, and tended to focus on anecdotes and incidents that humanized soldiers from both sides.

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. [15] He died while visiting his son in Miami, Florida, at the age of 71, [16] and was buried in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia; upwards of 75,000 people viewed and took part in the memorial ceremonies.

Racial Views

It is exceedingly difficult to determine Gordon's exact role in the Klan, but given the nature of his testimony, his almost constant travel throughout Georgia and the South, and his desire to maintain peace, social order, and white supremacy, one can conclude with reasonable certainty that he was at least titular head of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan. Even so, he probably had little knowledge of and little control over the local klaverns, as this terrorist association was never fully organized. Although it is remotely possible that Gordon was unaware of the threats and violence southern whites so often employed against southern blacks, it seems more plausible that Gordon simply "looked the other way" and countenanced such excesses as the price that had to be paid if social peace—a peace determined and defined exclusively by southern whites—was to be regained and preserved. Gordon may not have condoned the violence employed by Klan members, but he did not question or oppose it when he felt it was justified. In this sense, Gordon typified the upper levels of Southern society: he would do what had to be done to assure a white-controlled social order, but he hoped it could be accomplished without violence.

—Ralph Lowell Eckert, John Brown Gordon: Soldier, Southerner, American, p. 149.

Author Ralph Lowell Eckart (among many others) have concluded that Gordon was a member of the Ku Klux Klan based on evasive answers during an 1871 hearing. Gordon's detractors have perpetuated these theories without definitive proof of his involvement and the conclusion should be considered theoretical at best.

In the midst of Reconstruction, a variety of organizations cropped up in the south, each dedicated to different causes. They range from groups that agreed to mobilize to quell uprisings or other disturbances of the peace to the more extreme, which existed to outright defy reconstruction (i.e. the Ku Klux Klan, White League, and Red Shirts). As many of these groups (even the more peaceful ones) feared reprisals for the simple act of organizing themselves while under occupation by Federal troops, they generally operated as secret organizations. While many make the assumption that Gordon was the head of the Ku Klux Klan, his postbellum conduct suggests otherwise.

In 1866, Gordon made substantial contributions in the form of money and materials to help build churches and schools for blacks in Brunswick, Georgia, and advised them to:

"educate themselves and their children, to be industrious, save money and purchase houses, and thus make themselves respectable as property holders, and intelligent people. With submission to the laws, industry and economy, with union among yourselves, and courtesy and confidence toward the whites, you will reach these ends, and constitute an important element in the community.” [17]

These types of comments, coupled with the reconciliatory tone of his many lectures are in direct conflict with the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, which sought to maintain racial and regional animosities. A product of his time and locale, Gordon, like most southern whites, believed in white superiority, but unlike many of his peers, seemed to have a more benevolent attitude toward recently freed slaves as indicated from public comments such as the one above. Gordon seems to have been most concerned with incidents such as black Federal troops mistreating white Georgians as well as unscrupulous members of the Union League and Freedmen's Bureau that were reported to have been inciting newly freed slaves to use violence. [18] In 1867, Gordon told blacks:

"He who teaches you to regard our interest as conflicting, is not a friend to your race. Our interests are identical. If the white man is oppressed, his colored neighbor must suffer with him. They are embarked together, the one cannot swim if the other sinks." [19]

Gordon's statue by sculptor Solon Borglum is located on the northeastern part of the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol Gordonstatue crop.JPG
Gordon's statue by sculptor Solon Borglum is located on the northeastern part of the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol
Gordon's grave, Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia Tombstone of John B. Gordon.JPG
Gordon's grave, Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia


See also


  1. Wyrick, William. The Confederate Attack and Union Defense of Fort Stedman: March 25, 1865. Chapter 4 in Bearss, Edward C. with Bruce Suderow. The Petersburg Campaign: The Western Front Battles. Savas Beattie: El Dorado Hills, CA, 2014. ISBN   978-1-61121-104-7. p. 241.
  2. 1840 United States Census, United States Census,1840;Walker County, Georgia;. Retrieved on 6 March 2016.
  3. "Gordon, Mrs. John B." Georgia Archives. Retrieved 3 June 2016.
  4. Gordon, Caroline Lewis (1960). "Plantation Life with General John B. Gordon". The Georgia Review. 14 (1): 17. JSTOR   41395658.
  5. "1860 United States Census, Slave Schedules", United States Census,1860;Jackson County, Alabama; page 432,. Retrieved on 6 March 2016.
  6. 1 2 Welsh, Jack D. Medical Histories of Confederate Generals. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1995. ISBN   978-0-87338-505-3. Retrieved June 20, 2015. p. 83.   via  Questia (subscription required)
  7. 1 2 Eicher, p. 260.
  8. "Signal Knob". National Park Service. Retrieved 2019-10-20.
  9. Bragg, William Harris (19 October 2016). "Reconstruction in Georgia". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 23 August 2018.
  10. New Georgia Encyclopedia. Biographical sketches in the references by Deserino, Eicher, and Warner make no mention of Klan involvement. Foner, p. 433, cites Gordon as a "prominent Klansman." George W. Gordon, another Confederate general with a similar name, but unrelated, is one whose involvement with the Klan is not in dispute.
  11. Eckert, pp. 145–49.
  12. Eckert, Ralph L. (1985). "The Breath of Scandal: John B. Gordon, Henry W. Grady, and the Resignation-Appointment Controversy of May 1880". The Georgia Historical Quarterly. 69 (3): 315. JSTOR   40581392.
  13. Gordon, John B. "Reminiscences of the Civil War". Hathi Trust Digital Library. Retrieved 3 June 2016.
  14. Dorgan, Howard (1974). "A Case Study in Reconciliation: General John B. Gordon and 'The Last Days of the Confederacy". Quarterly Journal of Speech. 60 (1): 83. doi:10.1080/00335637409383210 . Retrieved 3 June 2016.
  15. Gordon, John B. "The Old South : addresses delivered before the Confederate Survivors' Association in Augusta, Georgia, on the occasion of its ninth annual reunion, on Memorial Day, April 26th, 1887". Digital Library of Georgia. Retrieved 3 June 2016.
  16. "Newspaper clipping about John B. Gordon published January 14, 1904". Gordon County, GA Obituaries, Calhoun-Gordon County Library. Digital Library of Georgia. Retrieved 3 June 2016.
  17. Eckert, Ralph Lowell. John Brown Gordon: Soldier, Southerner, American. Louisiana State University Press. p. 130. ISBN   0-8071-1888-5.
  18. Eckert, Ralph Lowell. John Brown Gordon: Soldier, Southerner, American. Louisiana State University Press. p. 146. ISBN   0-8071-1888-5.
  19. "Newspaper". Weekly Progress. Raleigh, North Carolina. May 9, 1867. p. 2.
  20. "John B. Gordon Hall, Lafayette, Georgia". Historic Postcard Collection, RG 48-2-5. Georgia Archives. Retrieved 3 June 2016.
  21. "Photograph of participants in class play at John B. Gordon Elementary School, Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia, 1936". Vanishing Georgia. Digital Library of Georgia. Retrieved 3 June 2016.

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Political offices
Preceded by
Henry Dickerson McDaniel
Governor of Georgia
Succeeded by
William J. Northen
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Joshua Hill
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Georgia
Served alongside: Thomas M. Norwood, Benjamin H. Hill
Succeeded by
Joseph E. Brown
Preceded by
Joseph E. Brown
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Georgia
Served alongside: Alfred H. Colquitt, Patrick Walsh, Augustus O. Bacon
Succeeded by
Alexander S. Clay