John Brown Gordon lay face down in the dust and smoke swirling along a sunken farm road in Maryland. It was midafternoon on September 17, 1862. Only moments before, the tall, slender colonel had used his booming voice to rally his 6th Alabama Infantry in their defense of the Sunken Road at the Battle of Sharpsburg, despite being slowed by two gunshot wounds to his right leg and one each in his left arm and left shoulder. As his men held the road that would later be re-christened Bloody Lane, a Yankee bullet had slammed into Gordon’s face, knocking him senseless and pitching him face-down into his hat.
To this point the 32-year-old rising star of the Confederacy had been an inspiring leader with a seemingly charmed life. He had entered the war as captain of a group of mountain men from northwest Georgia, southwest Tennessee and northeast Alabama. The group, known as the Raccoon Roughs because of their coonskin caps, had marched from Georgia to Montgomery, Ala., to join the 6th Alabama. Although Gordon lacked any formal military training, his natural command presence and quick-thinking coolness under fire at the First Battle of Manassas had quickly earned him respect and the eventual promotion to colonel in April 1862.
Even though he was only a colonel, Gordon assumed command of his brigade off-and-on during the fighting on the Virginia Peninsula. He had learned how to lead men into battle at Seven Pines, riding ramrod straight ahead of his men, bullets piercing his clothes but not his body; at Malvern Hill, where a bursting artillery shell blinded him temporarily; and at South Mountain, where his regiment alone remained intact during a fighting retreat from overwhelming Union forces.
At Sharpsburg, two brigades under Brig. Gens. Robert E. Rodes and G.B. Anderson held the center of the Rebel line along the Sunken Road. Gordon’s 6th Alabama Regiment, part of Rodes’ Brigade, held the ground closest to the Yankees, who were advancing southwest toward the road. Gordon ordered his men to wait until the Yankees were within 30 paces. Then he hollered, “Fire!”
“My rifles flamed and roared in the Federals’ faces like a blinding blaze of lightning accompanied by the quick and deadly thunderbolt,” Gordon wrote in his memoir. “The effect was appalling.” Three more times the Yankees charged and three more times a Confederate volley stopped them. Now the Union soldiers lay down and opened fire. But Gordon’s men, who had seen so many fall at their commander’s side, felt secure with their leader and his seeming invulnerability.
“My extraordinary escapes from wounds in all the previous battles had made a deep impression upon my comrades as well as upon my own mind,” Gordon wrote. “If I had allowed these expressions of my men to have any effect upon my mind, the impression was quickly dissipated when the Sharpsburg storm came and the whizzing Miniés, one after another, began to pierce my body.”
A ball struck Gordon in the leg, passing through his right calf. A second ball hit him in the same leg. An hour later another ball tore through his left arm, tearing tendons and muscles. A fourth struck his shoulder. Weak from loss of blood, Gordon struggled to lead his men. Seeing the right of his line in jeopardy from enfilading fire, he started to walk there but was struck by a fifth ball that slammed through his left cheek and shattered his jaw. Gordon fell face down into his hat. He noted later that he might have drowned in his own blood had not a “thoughtful Yankee” earlier given the hat a bullet hole that allowed the blood to drain out.
Gordon told a friend later that as he lay on the battlefield, he imagined that half of his head had been shot away and that he was dead, but then he figured a dead man couldn’t move his limbs. Gordon biographer Ralph Lowell Eckert said that the colonel crawled about 100 yards to the rear, where the Confederates were forming a new line, and passed out again.
Gordon was carried on a litter to a barn where 6th Alabama Assistant Surgeon Thaddeus J. Weatherly dressed his wounds. When Gordon revived late that night he found himself lying on a pile of straw.
“My faithful surgeon, Dr. Weatherly, who was my devoted friend, was at my side, with his fingers on my pulse,” Gordon recalled. “As I revived, his face was so expressive of distress that I asked him: ‘What do you think of my case, Weatherly?’ He made a manly effort to say that he was hopeful. I knew better and said: ‘You are not honest with me. You think I am going to die; but I am going to get well.’ Long afterward, when the danger was past, he admitted that this assurance was his first and only basis of hope.”
Gordon’s spirited young wife Fanny, who followed her husband throughout his military campaigns, came to the barn as soon as she learned her husband had been wounded. When she reached him, she suppressed a scream as Gordon struggled to joke with her, saying he had been to an Irish wedding.
Fanny nursed her husband for seven months. She dressed his wounds, fed him brandy and beef tea because his jaw was wired shut, and provided long hours of bedside care and devotion. When Gordon contracted erysipelas, a serious bacterial infection, in his left arm, she kept the wounds painted with iodine. With Fanny’s care and his own strong will, Gordon miraculously recovered.
Gordon returned to duty in March 1863 and was given command of a brigade of six Georgia regiments in Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s Division. After leading a successful assault on Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg during the Battle of Chancellorsville in May, Gordon was promoted to brigadier general. As General Robert E. Lee restructured his army, Early’s Division was absorbed into Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps and marched into the Shenandoah Valley as part of Lee’s second attempt to invade the North. At Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, Gordon’s brigade of 1,200 Georgians rolled up the Federal right flank north of the town and was driving the Yankees until ordered to halt by Early and Ewell, which Gordon later contended was a mistake that cost the Rebels the battle.
It would be 10 months before Gordon fought again, this time at the Battle of the Wilderness near the grounds of the Chancellorsville battlefield. As Ewell’s corps was being pushed west along the Orange Turnpike, Ewell rode up to Gordon and told him, “General Gordon, the fate of the day depends on you, sir.” Gordon wrote in his memoir that he replied, “These men will save it, sir,” although he wondered to himself how they would accomplish the feat.
Gordon’s men charged into the Union line, only to find themselves part of that line. Thinking quickly, Gordon ordered half his command to face right and the other half to face left and attack. The unprecedented move worked, the Federal advance was shattered, and Ewell’s men recaptured their lost ground. The next morning Gordon discovered that the Federal right flank was completely unprotected, but Early and Ewell were skeptical, mistakenly fearing that Yankee reinforcements had to be nearby. When Gordon finally received permission to attack late that afternoon, the assault succeeded until halted by darkness.
The Yankees pulled away and began a march to Spotsylvania Court House, where Gordon—now in command of Early’s former division while Early led the Third Corps—again proved to be a superb leader. Inside the Mule Shoe salient, he skillfully moved his brigades to counter attacks by Colonel Emory Upton on May 10 and Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock on May 12. As Gordon rode to find the exact location of the Federals, a Minié ball whizzed through his coat, grazing his back. When an aide asked Gordon whether he had been hit, Gordon scolded the young officer for slouching in his own saddle: “Sit up or you’ll be killed!”
As Gordon returned to his men, he found General Robert E. Lee riding his horse Traveller to the center of the line, preparing to join the charge. Gordon shouted, “General Lee, this is no place for you. These men behind you are Georgians and Virginians. They have never failed you and will not fail you here. Will you boys?” Gordon’s men yelled, “No, no, we’ll not fail him.”
Gordon took Traveller’s bridle and handed it to two soldiers to escort Lee to the rear. Gordon’s charge into what he later called “a fire from hell itself” pushed the Yankees out of the eastern side of the salient. Fighting raged into the next day, but the Confederates held on and established a new line. Gordon was promoted to major general.
Two months later Gordon again displayed his brilliance as a leader, in the little-known but crucial Battle of Monocacy, which took place four miles south of Frederick, Md., on a blistering hot July 9, 1864. Gordon’s Brigade was part of Early’s corps, sent by Lee to rid the Shenandoah Valley of Union troops, and then cross into Maryland and threaten Washington, D.C. Early was about to do the latter when Union Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace forced him into battle at the Monocacy River, just 40 miles from the nation’s capital.
Early’s forces outnumbered Wallace’s troops about 14,000 to 6,400, but Early did not want to fight and kept many of his troops in reserve. But when the going got tough, Gordon led his division to a decisive but bloody victory. Following an ill-advised and disastrous dismounted cavalry charge by John McCausland, Gordon led three brigades of Georgia, Louisiana and Virginia infantry regiments into the teeth of two brigades of Brig. Gen. James Ricketts’ division of battle-hardened VI Corps troops.
The fighting, Gordon later said, “was desperate and at close quarters. To and fro the battle swayed across [a] little stream, the dead and wounded of both sides mingling their blood in its waters.” When the fighting concluded, he said, “a crimsoned current ran toward the river. Nearly one half of my men and large numbers of the Federals fell there.”
The battle ended when Gordon, aided by massed artillery, flanked the remnants of Ricketts’ line on the Georgetown Pike. As Confederate Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge observed, “Gordon, if you had never made a fight before, this ought to immortalize you!”
A month later, on August 25, 1864, Gordon received another serious wound, this time in a skirmish near Shepherdstown, W.Va. He suffered a head wound that bled extensively, though accounts differ on how the wound occurred. Early’s topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, wrote in his journal that Gordon’s wound was from a saber cut.
Three weeks later, as Union Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan moved on Winchester, division commanders Gordon and Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes found themselves with 6,000 men facing Sheridan’s 30,000. As they conferred on what to do, Rodes was mortally wounded when a shell fragment struck him in the back of the head. Gordon took command of both divisions and ordered a charge that halted the Federal cavalrymen and pushed them back. Gordon’s men thought they had won the battle, but Sheridan re-formed his men and routed the Confederates, even as Fanny Gordon, caught up in the retreat, pled for them to make a stand.
On October 19 Gordon, commanding the Second Corps in Early’s army, struck Sheridan’s men, routing two-thirds of them at the Battle of Cedar Creek southwest of Middletown, Va. Gordon’s plan for a final assault to sweep the Union VI Corps from the field was overruled by Early, who said the Yankees were beaten. But Sheridan re-formed the men and pushed the Confederates from the field—a victory that spelled the end for Confederate campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley.
In December 1864, Gordon was ordered to rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia as commander of the bulk of the Second Corps while Early remained in the valley. Lee’s army faced a siege at Petersburg, Va., by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac—and after study and consultation, Lee ordered Gordon to find a spot to attack. Gordon chose Fort Stedman on the Union lines east of Petersburg.
Gordon’s attack early on March 25, 1865, started well but within three hours Union reinforcements had contained Gordon’s breakthrough, which the exhausted Confederates lacked reserves to support. By 8 a.m. Gordon began to withdraw his men as a vicious Federal barrage of fire swept the no-man’s land between the lines. Some 3,500 Confederates were captured, killed or wounded, including Gordon, who suffered a flesh wound in the leg.
That all but marked the end for the Army of Northern?Virginia. Six days later, Union forces turned Lee’s right flank at Five Forks and forced the Rebels out of their Petersburg defenses and into a retreat that ended with them bottled up west of the Appomattox River. Lee had no choice but to surrender to Grant, on April 9.
Gordon had the bittersweet honor of leading the Confederate troops in the surrender ceremonies at Appomattox Court House. As the defeated Rebels filed past their Federal counterparts, with Gordon riding at the head of the Second Corps, Union Brig. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain ordered his assembled soldiers to snap their muskets from “order arms” to “carry arms” in a show of respect. Gordon instantly wheeled his horse and touched it with a spur so that the horse’s head bowed, and Gordon touched his swordpoint to his toe in salute. He ordered his men to also shift to “carry arms” to return the gesture.
The men who served with him, enlisted and officers, also sang Gordon’s praises. “Gordon always had something pleasant to say to his men, and I will bear my testimony that he was the most gallant man I ever saw on a battlefield,” wrote John W. Worsham, a foot soldier with the 21st Virginia Infantry Regiment, who also had served under Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. He wrote that Gordon “had a way of putting things to the men that was irresistible, and he showed the men, at all times, that he shrank from nothing in battle on account of himself.”
Gordon went back into private business in Georgia after the war. In 1868 he ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic candidate for governor. Despite that defeat, Gordon soon launched a successful political career.
He was elected in 1873 as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, where he became a voice for reconciliation between the North and South. At the same time, he worked assiduously to remove Federal troops from the South and, wanting to maintain prominence for Southern whites, he became active in the budding Ku Klux Klan.
Gordon was re-elected to the Senate in 1879 and served until May 1880, when he resigned to go into private business once again. Gordon was elected governor of Georgia in 1886, served two terms, and returned to the U.S. Senate in 1891. He became the first president of the United Confederate Veterans in 1889.
John Brown Gordon died in Miami at age 71 on January 9, 1904, three months after his memoir, Reminiscences of the Civil War, was published. The general even received a tribute from President Theodore Roosevelt, who summed up what many felt by saying, “A more gallant, generous, and fearless gentleman and soldier has not been seen by our country.”