With no formal military training, John Brown Gordon rose through the ranks of the Confederate Army to serve as general alongside Robert E. Lee, proving his grit most proficiently at the Battle of Antietam.
On Feb. 6, 1832 Zachariah and Malinda Gordon gave birth to their fourth child of 12. John Brown Gordon was born in Upson County, Ga., but the family moved after a few years to Walker County, where Zachariah established a fine resort at a medicinal spring. In a fateful twist, Zachariah’s resort was located in the same valley that the Battle of Chickamauga would be fought decades later.
John was a quick learner and did well in school. He was head of his class at the University of Georgia, but before graduating he moved to Atlanta and studied law under one of the most prestigious law firms in the city. In Atlanta, John met and married Fanny Haralson, the sister-in-law of one of his law firm’s partners. It was to be a strong union, filled with love and enduring devotion.
Gordon was not happy with the law practice, so he tried his hand at journalism. Later, he decided to join his father in a coal mining venture in northwest Dade County. At the onset of the Civil War, Gordon was in Dade County and organized a group of mountain boys into a company where he served as captain. The company then joined a regiment in northern Alabama; they wore raccoon skin caps and called themselves the “Raccoon Roughs,” and indeed were a pretty rough group.
Gordon had no military training, but he was very bright and had a commanding presence that inspired the men he was leading. Contemporary accounts describe Gordon as ramrod straight, dark of countenance, and having a voice like a trumpet. In the actions of Seven Pines and the consequent Seven Days Battles, Gordon’s men suffered heavy casualties because they were always in the thick of the fighting. Gordon himself had multiple holes shot in his clothing; his pistol butt was hit, and his canteen was shot through, but his person had no wounds. His men began to think of him as “charmed.”
On Sept. 17, 1862, Gordon was promoted to colonel. In this role, he stood alongside Gen. Robert E. Lee on the banks of Antietam Creek, just outside Sharpsburg, Md., on the bloodiest day in American military history.
Tremendously outnumbered, Gordon’s men were in the terrible thick of things, but he exhorted them to stay the field. During the battle, Gordon was wounded in the calf, then his right thigh, then his left arm and shoulder. A fifth bullet smashed him on the left side of his face, exiting through his throat. Gordon was thrown to the ground, facedown into his hat, and would have drowned in his own blood had not a sixth bullet made a hole in the hat to drain the blood.
After months of recuperating with his wife in constant attendance, Gordon was able to recover in time to be present at the next major engagement, the Battle at Chancellorsville. After the victory at Chancellorsville, Gordon was promoted to brigadier general.
Perhaps Gordon’s finest hour was at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. When it looked as if Lee’s army would be lost, and Lee wanted to personally take command into battle, Gordon physically sent Lee to the rear, made a rousing speech to the men, and led them to victory on the field.
By April of 1865, Lee’s forces are down to two corps, one commanded by Longstreet and the other commanded by Gordon. Gordon’s attempt to break out at Appomattox Courthouse is futile, and the army is starving, so Lee arranges the surrender. Acting for Gen. Grant, Union Gen. Joshua Chamberlain — the hero of Gettysburg — is to receive the surrender of Gordon and his men. Chamberlain is greatly moved by the event and describes it in his own words:
After the Civil War, Gordon had a great political career, and was widely acclaimed as a hero. He was three times elected to the United States Senate and two times elected governor of Georgia. He, and his horse Marye, are immortalized in statue on the grounds of the state capital, and Gordon sleeps peacefully in a place of honor at Historic Oakland Cemetery.
“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!”
— Joshua L. Chamberlain, The Passing of the Armies, pp. 260