Part 1 of 2. Political Background and the War, 1861-1865.
In the southeastern corner of the Georgia Capitol grounds in Atlanta stands and equestrian statue of Confederate Lt. General John Brown Gordon. His record as a Confederate officer was one of the most courageous, noble, and distinctly Christian in the Civil War. Gordon was also a distinguished governor of Georgia from 1886 to 1890.
He had also distinguished himself as a U.S. Senator from 1873 to 1880 and again from 1891 to 1896. He was a conservative Democrat—Democrat and conservative were practically synonyms in those days—but enjoyed much bipartisan admiration and friendships in Congress. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt admired him as a soldier and a statesman, saying,
“A more gallant, generous, and fearless gentleman and soldier has not been seen by our country.”
Yet today, there are those in Georgia and elsewhere, who would remove his statue from the state capitol grounds claiming Gordon was a “white supremacist.” This is a dangerous embrace of a now frequent historical error called “presentism.” Presentism self-righteously judges history only in the terms of current context and values. However, context is all important in language and history, and not knowing or ignoring its differences invites serious error and distortions. Judging history on the basis of currently fashionable values is also fraught with the possibility of arrogant folly. Yet presentism has become a foundational political tool of the new “liberal world order,” now manifesting itself in identity politics, Critical Race Theory, various domains of political correctness, and cancel culture.
John Brown Gordon was born in 1832 on his parents’ farm in Upson County, Georgia. His parents, Zachariah Gordon and Malinda Cox Gordon, were of Scottish descent. John Brown Gordon was the fourth of 12 children. By 1840, they had moved to Walker County, Georgia. The 1840 census there showed that the family owed 18 slaves. Young Gordon went to the University of Georgia but quit to “read law” and was admitted to the Georgia Bar in 1853. In 1854, Gordon married Rebecca “Fanny” Haralson. They would eventually have 6 children. The 1860 Census showed that John Brown Gordon and Rebecca owned one slave, a 14-yer-old girl. His father, Zachariah owned just four slaves and was invested in mining as well as farming.
At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Gordon was involved in mining in North Alabama and was elected Captain of an infantry company that became part of the 26th Alabama Infantry Regiment. In May 1862, Gordon was elected regimental commander with the rank of colonel. His first combat was a few weeks later at Seven Pines. During the Seven Days Battles, he was wounded in the eyes in an assault on Malvern Hill.
Having recovered by September 17, 1862, General Lee assigned Gordon to hold the vital sunken road, or “Bloody Lane” during the Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam), where Gordon’s valor resulted in multiple wounds. First, a Minnie 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. He was sent to Virginia, where his wife near miraculously nursed him back to health. At Lee’s request, Congress promoted him to Brigadier General upon recovery, ranking from May 7, 1863.
When now Confederate Brigadier General Gordon entered the town of York, Pennsylvania, during the Gettysburg campaign of 1863, he found the population in a state of panic, fearing retaliation for Union atrocities against Southern civilians. He gathered a large crowd of women in the street and addressed them with sharp but chivalrous words:
“Our Southern homes have been pillaged, sacked, and burned; our mothers, wives, and little ones driven forth amid the brutal insults of your soldiers. Is it any wonder that we fight with desperation? A natural revenge would prompt us to retaliate in kind. But we scorn to war on women and children. We are fighting for the God given rights of liberty and independence as handed down in the Constitution by our fathers. So fear not. If a torch is applied to a single dwelling or an insult offered to a female of your town by a soldier of this command, point me out that man and you shall have his life.”
To fully understand John Brown Gordon, it is necessary to understand the deep sincerity of his Christianity. In this, he was much like Robert E. Lee, and in his statement after Lee’s death on October 12, 1970, he reveals much about himself in what he admired in Lee.
“Intellectually, he was cast in a giant mold. Naturally, he was possessed of strong passions. He loved the excitement of war. He loved grandeur. But all these appetites and powers were brought under the control of his judgment and made subservient to his Christian faith. This made him habitually unselfish and ever willing to sacrifice on the altar of duty and in the service of his fellows…He is an epistle, written of God and designed by God to teach the people of this country that earthly success is not the criterion of merit, not the measure of true greatness.”
On July 1, at Gettysburg, Gordon’s Brigade smashed into the Union’s XI Corp under Major General Francis Barlow. Barlow was wounded, but Gordon assured medical treatment and safe return for Barlow. They continued to oppose each other during the rest of the war but became great friends after the war.
Gordon also distinguished himself during the Wilderness Campaign May 5-7, 1864, and General Lee wrote Confederate President Jefferson Davis that Gordon was one of his best brigadiers “characterized by splendid audacity.” He was given a division and promoted to Major General on May 8. Six days later, Gordon turned back a massive assault at Spotsylvania Court House (The Bloody Angle) that prevented a Confederate rout. Gordan served under Jubal Early during the Valley Campaigns from May through October and returned to Richmond as commander of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia and defended the Confederate line during the Siege of Petersburg. He was wounded again in the leg on March 24, 1865. Not long after at Appomattox Courthouse, Gordon’s dwindling forces made the last charge of the Army of Northern Virginia, capturing some Union trenches and artillery pieces. But Lee’s surrender to Grant came on April 12.
It was Gordon’s Corp at Appomattox that was present for the surrender ceremony to Grant’s troops under Union Major General Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Remarkably, Chamberlain, who had a Christian worldview similar to Gordon, ordered his troops to salute the Confederates as they passed in review. Gordon ordered his men to return the honor of Chamberlain’s gallant gesture. Chamberlain knew he risked censure by some in Washington for doing this. Chamberlain’s explanation was also a gallant salute to the Confederate soldiers he had fought so valiantly against. It is worth noting for its lessons to future generations of Americans:
“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?”