Governors of Oakland: John Brown Gordon
Oakland Cemetery is home to many important mayors, celebrities, and public officials. Among these individuals are six governors who today reside inside its hallowed grounds. This blog series will explore these six men: their successes, their failures, and their impact on the people of Georgia.
John Brown Gordon was born in 1832 in Upson County, Georgia. He attended the University of Georgia, but left before completing his degree. Gordon moved to Atlanta to become a lawyer and passed the bar. The law business was slow in a small city, so Gordon invested in coal mining. Gordon later recalled that “my mines were in Georgia, my house in Alabama, and my post-office in Tennessee.”
Despite his lack of military experience, Gordon was elected captain of a cavalry company of Confederate recruits. Not needed on the front lines, these mounted soldiers became infantry. Gordon served in the Army of Northern Virginia. He saw action at the First Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Seven Pines. Gordon was shot five times at Antietam but managed to survive. He returned to the field of battle several months later. By the end of the Civil War, Gordon had earned a reputation as a capable military commander and reached the rank of major general. His final military action of the war was an attack on Union troops near Appomattox.
After Gordon’s return to Georgia, it is widely believed that he became the leading figure in the state’s Ku Klux Klan. A secretive organization, the original Klan emerged after the end of the Civil War and lasted until the 1870s. Members of the Klan used threats and violence to intimidate people of color and political enemies. Their primary goals were to stop African Americans from exercising their newly gained freedoms and to reinforce a white racial hierarchy.
Gordon’s Reminiscences of the Civil War was published in 1903. He blamed the Civil War on “the foundation of our political fabric,” but recognized slavery as the immediate cause of the conflict. He admitted, “it is fair to say that had there been no slavery there would have been no war.” Gordon, a former enslaver, retained his white supremacist views on race for the rest of his life.
In 1868, Gordon entered politics when he unsuccessfully ran for governor. Undeterred, he was elected a U.S. Senator in 1873 and emerged as a congressional leader. In 1877, Gordon was one of several senators who helped arrange the Compromise of 1877. In an act of political wheeling and dealing, Gordon met with other political players at Wormley’s Hotel in Washington, D.C. The main issue at stake was the presidential election. Both major candidates, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, claimed they were the president-elect because of contested Electoral College votes. The Compromise of 1877 guaranteed Hayes’ inauguration if federal troops were removed from the South. By helping to broker the deal, Gordon played a key role in ending Reconstruction.
While serving in the Senate, Gordon owned a company that leased convicted prisoners from the state and then sub-leased them to other companies. Gordon’s convicts were not known for being treated well. Early in its history, the convict lease system used both white and Black prisoners, but it would later be known for disproportionately affecting African Americans. The system is often compared to slavery, or referred to as “slavery by another name.” Joseph E. Brown, another Georgia governor, similarly benefited from the convict lease system.
In 1880, Gordon suddenly resigned from the Senate. Governor Alfred Colquitt replaced him with Joseph E. Brown. The three men – Gordon, Colquitt, and Brown – were known as the Bourbon Triumvirate. Between 1872 and 1890, the three Democratic politicians occupied the offices of governor and congressional senators. They controlled state politics during and after Reconstruction. They promoted the concept of the New South, an industrialized South led by whites. Some claimed corruption in Gordon’s resignation and Brown’s appointment, while others argued all sides were innocent of wrongdoing.
Gordon ran a successful gubernatorial campaign six years after his resignation from the U.S. Senate. He entered office in 1886 and served two full terms. Gordon is best remembered for trying to reform the convict lease system (a system he had previously exploited) and for dedicating the new state capitol building. He was also known as a promoter of industry in Georgia. His time in office was a political calm with few reforms. William J. Northen, another Oakland resident, succeeded Gordon.
Gordon was elected to the U.S. Senate again in 1890 and served until 1897. At this same time, he founded the United Confederate Veterans (UCV). John Brown Gordon served as the group’s president until his death in 1904. Historian James F. Cook memorialized Gordon as both the “idol of [white] Georgians” and “the embodiment of the Lost Cause.” More than 75,000 people took part in Gordon’s memorial ceremonies. He is buried at Oakland beside his wife, Fanny Haralson Gordon.
Andrew J. Bramlett is a 15-year-old historian living in Kennesaw, the site of the start of the Great Locomotive Chase. He was elected vice president of the Kennesaw Historical Society in 2015. He volunteers at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, the Kennesaw Cemetery Preservation Commission, the Kennesaw Parks and Recreation Department, and the Friends of Kennesaw Mountain. In 2018, he won a Georgia Historical Records Advisory Council award for Local History Advocacy because of his work on presentations he gives about the history of the City of Kennesaw, Kennesaw Mountain, and his Kennesaw City Cemetery Walking Tour.
Andrew gives presentations, speaking to civic groups, senior centers, and community groups on a variety of topics ranging from local history to topics that can be used anywhere in the world. More info can be found on his website, ajbramlett.com.