The longest arc of any Confederate career was that of John Brown Gordon. A civilian coming from the coal industry in the northwest corner of his native Georgia, Gordon raised a company of mountaineers from his coal district--the "Raccoon Roughs"--in the opening weeks of the war. When Gordon's raw recruits, all wearing coonskin caps, reached Atlanta, they were told they were not yet needed, so Gordon fired off telegrams offering their services to all the southern governors. Alabama finally found room for them, and they boarded the train for Montgomery.
Married and with two children, Gordon arranged to leave his children in his mother's care so he could devote himself to campaigning. His wife came with him to the front, following so devotedly that it became a tradition in the army that when Mrs. Gordon was seen on her way to the rear, it was a signal that action was about to open. With no military experience whatsoever, but with the natural instincts of a born leader, the persuasive power of an orator, and incredible luck at escaping death, Gordon rose to from the head of his company to command a regiment, then a brigade, then a division, and finally an entire Confederate corps. Gordon was "the most prettiest thing you ever did see on a field of fight," testified one of his soldiers. "It 'ud put fight into a whipped chicken just to look at him."
After leading the Raccoon Roughs at First Manassas in July 1861, Gordon was elected colonel of the 6th Alabama regiment in April 1862, just before the serious campaigning began on the Peninsula. At Seven Pines, he was thrust suddenly into brigade command when Brig. Gen. Robert Rodes was wounded. There he distinguished himself, leading the brigade in a charge through murderous fire. Every one of his field officers was killed. He alone survived, with bullet holes in his coat; his horse was killed under him. After the battle of Gaines' Mill a month later, Rodes, exhausted and still suffering from his Seven Pines wound, again surrendered brigade command to Gordon. Two days later Gordon led the costly charge at Malvern Hill, where he was temporarily blinded when dirt from an exploding shell hit him in the eyes. There, four hundred of his brigade were casualties.
Left in southeastern Virginia with the rest of Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill's division during the Second Manassas Campaign, Gordon's regiment rejoined Lee's army for the Maryland Campaign in September. On the Confederate left at South Mountain, the brigade again plunged boldly into action. Although the other regiments were shattered, the 6th Alabama stayed put behind the flawless bearing of the inspirational Colonel Gordon. Rodes said that on that day Gordon handled the 6th Alabama "in a manner I have never heard or seen equaled during this war." At the climax of the campaign three days later at the Battle of Sharpsburg, Rodes's brigade defended the Bloody Lane in the Confederate center. While repulsing assault after assault, Gordon received five wounds. The first went through his right calf. The second struck higher up in the same leg, but neither bullet hit the bone. Later in the day, a third bullet pierced his left arm and tore the tendons and flesh, but he remained on the field, blood running down his fingers. A fourth bullet pierced his shoulder. The fifth, in the face, pitched him forward unconscious with his face in his cap, and only the fact that yet another Yankee bullet had put a hole in the cap kept him from drowning in his own blood. After the battle, division commander Hill styled Gordon the "Christian hero" and asserted that Gordon "had excelled his former deeds" at Seven Pines and Malvern Hill. "Our language," Hill concluded, "is not capable of expressing a higher compliment."
After he regained consciousness, Gordon was carried back across the Potomac, where his young wife promptly arrived to nurse him. He was so blackened and disfigured that he was afraid she would be shocked by the sight of him. To relieve her, he summoned all his strength and, as she entered the room, he cried, "Here's your handsome husband; been to an Irish wedding!" Years later he recalled, "The doctors told Mrs. Gordon to paint my arm above the wound three or four times a day with iodine. She obeyed the doctors by painting it, I think, three or four hundred times a day."
Promoted to brigadier general in November 1862 while he mended, Gordon returned to the army in April 1863 after seven months of convalescence. He was assigned temporarily to the command of Brig. Gen. Alexander Lawton's brigade of Georgians (Lawton had been wounded at Sharpsburg, then had resigned after despairing of receiving the promotion he thought he deserved). At the Battle of Chancellorsville in May, when Gordon was selected to lead an attack to retake Marye's Heights from the Union Sixth Corps, he assembled his new brigade and addressed them. He called on every man willing to follow him up the Heights to raise his hat. According to Henry Walker of the 13th Georgia, every man did so. "I don't want you to holler," Gordon told them. "Wait until you get up close to the heights. Let every man raise a yell and take those heights. . . . Will you do it? I ask you to go no farther than I am willing to lead!" Gordon had once again found the right note of inspiration--"We all stepped off at quick time," Walker wrote. Although they found Marye's Heights undefended, they were soon called upon to make another attack into the Sixth Corps lines. Gordon rode out in front of his troops again. This time, he said he wanted them "to charge some batteries and drive every Yankee into the river." Again, every man waved his hat. In the fighting that followed, the brigade lost 161 men. By the next morning the Yankees had retreated across the river.
So completely had Gordon won the hearts of his fellow Georgians at Chancellorsville that before the Gettysburg Campaign the officers of the brigade unanimously petitioned that Gordon remain their chief. The sole stipulation of one of the men was that Gordon should not again address them before they went into battle. When asked why, the soldier replied, "Because he makes me feel like I could storm hell."
| On July 1, Gordon's brigade was marching at the head of Early's
division as it approached the battlefield from the north by the Harrisburg
Road. About 3 o'clock in the afternoon, finding himself on the flank of Brig.
Gen. Francis Barlow's Union division around Blocher's Knoll a mile or so north
of Gettysburg, Gordon approached the enemy slowly. Then, when they were within
300 yards of the enemy Gordon's men rushed forward in one of the best executed
attacks of the war. Artilleryman Capt. Robert Stiles described the general as
the Georgians moved to the attack: "Gordon was the most glorious and inspiring
thing I ever looked on. He was riding a beautiful coal-black stallion,
captured at Winchester, that had belonged to one of the Federal generals in
Milroy's army--a majestic animal whose 'neck was clothed with thunder'. . . .
[The horse] followed in a trot, close upon the heels of the battle line, his
head right in among the slanting barrels and bayonets, the reins loose upon his
neck, [with General Gordon] standing in his stirrups, bareheaded, hat in hand,
arms extended, and, in a voice like a trumpet, exhorting his men. It was
superb, absolutely thrilling." Gordon's men crossed Rock Creek and scattered
Barlow's men with the fury of their charge. They drove forward a half mile to
the Almshouse, where division commander Early, seeing the Georgians
disorganized by their headlong assault, rested them and sent in his second
line--Hays's and Avery's brigades--to finish the rout of the Union Eleventh
Corps north of town.|
After the Federals had been sent reeling through town, Early received an alarm from Brig. Gen. "Extra Billy" Smith, who sent two dispatches that "a large force" of the enemy was approaching from the east on the York Pike. Early ordered Gordon and his men to reinforce Smith's men east of town to guard the approach. According to Gordon, he (Gordon) sensed total victory if he were allowed to make one more push against the beaten Yankees in his front, and protested bitterly, but after receiving three or four direct orders to join Smith, was finally forced to obey. The force Smith thought he saw never materialized. Gordon spent the rest of July 1 isolated with Smith's men out on the York Pike.
Gordon never reentered the battle. (In his official report he wrote, "The movements during the succeeding days of the battle, I do not consider of sufficient importance to mention.") At dusk on July 2, he was brought back to Gettysburg and put in reserve for Early's attack of Cemetery Hill, but when Rodes failed to support the attack of Early's two brigades, Early judged that to send Gordon's men into the fight would be a "useless sacrifice of life," and Gordon was held back.
Early commended Gordon in his Gettysburg report, and after another impressive show of initiative the next May at the Wilderness, Lee made Gordon a major general and put him in command of a division, one of only three non-professionals to be so honored by Lee (the others: Maj. Gens. J.B. Kershaw and Wade Hampton). By the end of the war, he was leading a corps.
For further reading:
Eckert, Ralph L. John Brown Gordon: Soldier, Southerner, American, Baton Rouge, 1989
Gordon, John B. Reminiscences of the Civil War, New York, 1903. Reprint, Baton Rouge, 1993
Tinkersley, Allen P. John B. Gordon: A Study in Gallantry, Atlanta, 1955