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John Brown Gordon

John Brown Gordon

American businessman and politician John Brown Gordon (1832-1904), a distinguished Confederate officer, was one of the politicians who dominated Georgia after the Reconstruction period.

John B. Gordon was born on Feb. 6, 1832, in Upson County, Ga. He attended the University of Georgia and was developing coal mines in north-western Georgia when the Civil War began. He went on to an outstanding career as a Confederate Army officer. He rose to the rank of lieutenant general and took part in the last military operations near Appomattox. In the minds of fellow Georgians he shared with Robert E. Lee the tragic glory of the surrender.

After the war Gordon became active in a number of business enterprises, including railroads and life insurance. He also opposed the Republican party, and his name has been linked with Ku Klux Klan terrorism in his state. After the Democrats regained control of Georgia, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1873 as a "New Departure Democrat." In the Senate his name was associated in an unfavorable way with congressmen who were attempting to obtain government subsidies for certain railroad builders. In 1880, about halfway through his second term, he suddenly resigned. Charges of "bargain" were made when Georgia governor Alfred H. Colquitt immediately appointed Joseph E. Brown in Gordon's place. These three men dominated Georgia politics until 1890 by controlling the positions of senators and governor.

Upon his return to Georgia, Gordon again engaged in business activity, especially transactions dealing with railroads and real estate. A distinguished-looking man with a fine figure and manner, he gained popularity as a Confederate war hero and speaker on the "Lost Cause" of the South. In 1886 he was elected governor.

During Gordon's administration the small farmers, increasingly unhappy because the New Departure Democrats were ignoring their needs in favor of business interests, formed the Farmers' Alliance; in the election of 1890 they won the governorship and control of the legislature. Gordon, who wanted to become senator again, now endorsed most of the proposals of the alliance. The legislature sent him to the Senate in 1891, where, contrary to the expectations of his new constituency, he continued to support business interests. At the end of his term he retired from politics and traveled around the country lecturing on the last days of the Confederacy, stressing the view that both sides had been "right." He died in Miami, Fla., on Jan. 9, 1904.

Further Reading

A full and laudatory account of Gordon's life is Allan P. Tankersley, John B. Gordon: A Study in Gallantry (1955). A brief but more critical sketch of him can be found in C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel (1938). See also Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command (3 vols., 1942-1944).

Additional Sources

Eckert, Ralph Lowell, John Brown Gordon: soldier, southerner, American, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989. □

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Gordon, John Brown

John Brown Gordon, 1832–1904, U.S. public official and Confederate general, b. Upson co., Ga. Gordon began his Civil War service as an infantry captain and so distinguished himself through four years of campaigning in the Virginia area that at Lee's surrender he was a lieutenant general commanding a corps. His fighting in the Wilderness campaign and in the Shenandoah Valley under J. A. Early in 1864 was particularly brilliant. After the war he became an outstanding leader in Georgia politics. With Alfred H. Colquitt and Joseph E. Brown, he dominated the state government for many years. He was U.S. Senator (1873–80, 1891–97) and governor (1886–90). Despite charges that he mixed politics and railroad affairs, he remained the idol of his state.

See his Reminiscences of the Civil War (1903); D. S. Freeman, Lee's Lieutenants (3 vol., 1942–44); biography by J. B. Gordon (1955).

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Gordon, John Brown

1 John Brown Gordon

Excerpt from Reminiscences of the Civil War Covering events from April 1865; published in 1903; reprinted on
Documenting the American South (Web site)

An ex-Confederate general remembers the end of the Civil War

"They knew that burnt homes and fenceless farms, poverty and ashes, would greet them on their return from the war."

The American Civil War (1861–65)—a bloody struggle described by Northerners as a rebellion, and by Southerners as a fight for independence—drew to a close April 9, 1865, with the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) and his troops in Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The Southern troops were surrounded and outnumbered, and in many ways they were too weak to continue fighting. About twenty-five thousand Confederates were gathered at Appomattox, and Southern general John Brown Gordon (1832–1904) later wrote in his memoirs, "but two thirds of them were so enfeebled [weakened] by hunger, so wasted by sickness, and so foot-sore from constant marching that it was difficult for them to keep up with the army."

Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) allowed generous terms of surrender. He permitted the Southern soldiers to keep their horses, for example, because he realized many of them had a long journey home and a farm that would need to be tilled (plowed) when they got there. The soldiers on both sides saluted each other as the Confederates stacked their guns on the ground. While the surrender ended the military conflict, however, a larger political question remained: Under what terms would the North bring the Southern states back into the Union?

Both sides also wondered how they would recover from a war that had taken such a devastating toll. The North lost about 110,100 soldiers in battle and 224,580 more to disease. The South lost 94,000 in combat and 164,000 more to disease. Another 277,401 Union soldiers and 194,026 Confederates came home wounded. Particularly in the South, many soldiers came home to scorched fields and cities left in ruins. The famed "march to the sea" by Union general William T. Sherman (1820–1891) cut a 60-mile-wide path of destruction through Georgia, as troops took whatever food and supplies they could carry and demolished everything else. When Confederate troops evacuated cities such as Atlanta, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia, they set fire to arsenals and destroyed railroad lines to keep those assets from falling into the hands of Northern troops. Sometimes the flames spread to factories, flour mills, and other shops before Union forces arrived.

Perhaps most jarring to the Southern soldiers heading home, the war had freed about four million African Americans from slavery. Whites had lost the forced labor pool that had made the South so prosperous. They would have to find a new way to run their large farming operations. They would also have to accept a new social order with African Americans as freed men, not slaves. This would prove to be a challenge for whites who clung to ignorant, racist views of African Americans as inferior people.

Faced with a destroyed homeland and an uncertain future, the ex-Confederates had several choices. Some fled to Mexico, British Honduras, or Brazil. There they "tried to preserve their Southern agricultural society," as noted in Out of the Storm, "but it was not long before internal squabbling, coupled with the harsh external realities of Mexican [and other foreign] politics, put an end to the experiment." Most soldiers made the tough trek home, stopping at strangers' houses to beg for food, even stealing from warehouses. Arthur Peronneau Ford, a Confederate soldier from South Carolina, joined a pack of soldiers who stormed a military supply house in Salisbury, North Carolina, just ten days after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. He described the scene in his memoirs, Life in the Confederate Army:

The warehouse was guarded by about a dozen boys of the home guard, who protested violently; but they were just swept [to] one side, and the door was broken open, and every man helped himself to what he wanted or needed. I got a handful of Confederate money, a pair of shoes, some flour and bacon, a pair of socks, and a small roll of jeans. This roll of cloth I carried clear home across my shoulders, and when I reached Aiken, in May, exchanged it with the baker for one hundred bread tickets, which provided our family with bread for the rest of the summer.

For a few months after the war, the South was in a state of near lawlessness. Some of the discharged soldiers, deserters (soldiers who abandoned their units), and newly freed slaves turned into vandals and thieves, taking what little remained to the Southerners after the war. George Cary Eggleston (1839–1911), a Confederate soldier from Virginia, described the robbers in his memoirs, A Rebel's Recollections. "They moved about in bands, from two to ten strong, cutting horses out of plows, plundering helpless people, and wantonly destroying valuables which they could not carry away," Eggleston wrote. He described one group that descended on a mansion "where only ladies lived" and demanded dinner. After they were fed, the men poured molasses over the carpets and furniture, and left. Eggleston continued:

Outrages were of every-day enactment, and there was no remedy. There was no State, county, or municipal government in existence among us. We had no courts, no justices of the peace, no sheriffs, no officers of any kind invested with a shadow of authority, and there were not men enough in the community, at first, to resist the marauders [robbers], comparatively few of the surrendered soldiers having found their way home as yet.

As the details of surrender were negotiated at Appomattox, General Gordon saw the sadness, anxiety, and dread among his troops. They did not know what they would find when they got home, or what the coming years of Reconstruction would hold. As he later recounted in his 1904 memoirs, Gordon told his men their duties did not end with the war. They would have to show their strength and courage in rebuilding the South and forging new ties with the North.

Things to remember while reading an excerpt from Reminiscences of the Civil War:

  • The Civil War had freed the slaves, leaving whites to wonder how they would interact with freed African Americans and how they would run their plantations without forced labor.
  • The destruction was not limited to the battlefield. Sherman's march through Georgia brought the war to the people by destroying their homes and farmlands. As Confederate troops fled certain cities, they burned their own armories and railroad lines (with flames sometimes spreading to neighboring buildings) to leave nothing to the Union troops.
  • Faced with a home front in ruins and an uncertain political future, some war-weary soldiers thought about moving to Mexico or South America, where they believed they could set up their own slave-holding civilizations.

Excerpt from Reminiscences of the Civil War

During these last scenes at Appomattox some of the Confederates were so depressed in spirit, so filled withapprehensions as to the policy to be adopted by thecivil authorities at Washington, that the future seemed to them shrouded in gloom. They knew that burnt homes and fenceless farms, poverty and ashes, would greet them on their return from the war. Even if the administration at Washington should be friendly, they did not believe that the Southern States could recover in half a century from thechaotic condition in which the war had left them. The situation was enough todaunt the most hopeful andappall thestoutest hearts. "What are we to do? How are we to begin life again?" they asked. "Every dollar of ourcirculating medium has beenrendered worthless. Our banks and rich men have no money. Thecommodities and personal property which formerly gave us credit have been destroyed. The Northern banks and money-lenders will not take assecurity our lands,denuded of houses and without animals andimplements for theircultivation. The railroads are torn up or the tracks are worn out. The negroes are freed and may refuse to work. Besides, whatassurance can we have of law and order and the safety of our families with four million slaves suddenlyemancipated in the midst of us and the restraints to which they have been accustomed entirely removed?"

To many intelligent soldiers and some of the officers the conditions were so discouraging, the gloom soimpenetrable, that theyseriously discussed theadvisability of leaving the country and beginning life anew in some other land.

While recognizing thedire extremity which confronted us, I was inclined to take a more hopeful view of the future. I therefore spoke to the Southern soldiers on the field at Appomattox, in order tocheck as best I could theirdisposition to leave the country, and tocounteract, if possible, the paralyzing effect of the overwhelming discouragements which met them on every side.

As we reached the designated point, thearms were stacked and the battle-flags were folded. Those sad and suffering men, many of them weeping as they saw the old banners laid upon the stacked guns liketrappings on the coffin of their dead hopes, at once gathered in compact mass around me. Sitting on my horse in the midst of them, I spoke to them for the last time as their commander. In all my past life I had neverundertaken to speak where my own emotions were so literally overwhelming. Icounselled such course of action as I believed mostconducive to the welfare of the South and of the whole country. I told them of my own grief, which almoststifled utterance, and that I realized mostkeenly the sorrow that was breaking their hearts, and appreciated fully the countless andstupendous barriers across the paths they were to tread.

Reminding them of thebenign Southern climate, of thefertility of their lands, of the vastly increased demand for the South's greatstaple and the high prices paid for it, I offered these facts aslegitimate bases of hope and encouragement. I said to them that through therifts in the clouds then above us I could see the hand of Almighty God stretched out to help us in theimpending battle withadversity; that He would guide us in the gloom, and bless every manly effort to bring back to desolated homes the sunshine and comforts of former years. I told them the principles for which they had so grandly fought and uncomplainingly suffered were not lost,—could not be lost,—for they were the principles on which the Fathers had built the Republic, and that the very throne ofJehovah was pledged that truth should triumph and liberty live. As to the thought of their leaving the country, that must be abandoned. It was their duty as patriots to remain and work for therecuperation of our stricken section with the same courage, energy, and devotion with which they had fought for her in war. I urged them to enter cheerfully and hopefully upon the tasks imposed by the fortunes of war, obeying the laws, and giving, as I knew they would, the same loyal support to the general Government which they had yielded tothe Confederacy. I closed with a prophecy thatpassion would speedily die, and that the brave andmagnanimous soldiers of the Union army, when disbanded and scattered among the people, would become promoters of sectional peace andfraternity .…

As the Confederates were taking leave of Appomattox, and about to begin their long and drearytramp homeward, many of the Union menbade themcordial farewell. One of Grant's men said good-naturedly to one of Lee's veterans:

"Well,Johnny, I guess you fellows will go home now to stay."

The tired andtried Confederate, who did not clearly understand the spirit in which these playful words were spoken, and who was not at the moment in the best mood forbadinage, replied:

"Look here, Yank; you guess, do you, that we fellows are going home to stay? Maybe we are. But don't be giving us any of yourimpudence. If you do, we'll come back andlick you again."

What happened next …

Most of the soldiers returned to their homes. Unless they had a horse or caught a ride on one of the few still-running trains, they had to make the trip on foot. Some were lucky enough to return to areas untouched by fighting or looting. Some found their former slaves would still work for them, this time as paid employees.

The memoirs of several Southern soldiers say the Reconstruction period that followed was, in many ways, more difficult than the war. Resentment grew among many ex-Confederates as they watched the freed slaves vote, hold elected office, and even go to school as part of the North's plan to rebuild the South. Most Southerners had to take a "loyalty oath" in order to be pardoned, or forgiven, for participating in the "rebellion." They had to pay higher taxes to rebuild the roads and cities ruined by the war. Many soured at the thought of their taxes paying for African American schools or going to African American legislators whom, they believed, were incompetent or corrupt.

Jefferson Davis in a Dress?

In the weeks after Southern troops surrendered to the North, Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) became a fugitive—a man on the run. Many Northerners wanted to see him charged with treason, the crime of betraying one's country. Davis fled the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and headed west, possibly to join the effort to recreate the Confederacy in Texas. Union troops followed him, and a $100,000 reward was offered for Davis's capture, as President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69) suspected Davis was involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), a charge that later turned out to be untrue.

Union troops surrounded Davis's camp near Irwinsville, Georgia, early on the morning of May 10, 1865. In his book, The Capture of Jefferson Davis, Colonel Henry Harnden (1823–1900), commander of the First Wisconsin Cavalry, described Davis as a "tall, elderly, and rather dignified-looking gentleman" who surrendered without a fight. Davis's wife, four children, and several other Confederate officials were also taken into custody.

Harnden wrote that Davis had been awakened by the approaching soldiers, quickly threw on his wife's shawl, and stepped outside his tent to see what was happening. A couple of soldiers saw Davis wearing the women's garment. The description of Davis's clothing quickly became exaggerated as the story of his capture spread through the North. Political cartoons showed Davis wearing a dress and a bonnet. Some soldiers told wild stories about Davis trying to escape while dressed as an old lady. In the transcript of a speech given to the Loyal Legion of Connecticut (now published on the Web site of the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry Descendents Association), Colonel C. L. Greeno described how "the cloak of the old lady caught on a bush, which lifted it just enough to disclose a pair of cavalry boots and spurs.… Davis threw off his disguise" and surrendered.

The descriptions of Davis fleeing in women's clothing became a powerful image of the desperate, defeated South. But the story was not true, according to Harnden. "When I saw him, (Davis) wore a common slouched hat, fine boots, no spurs, coat and trousers of light-blue English broadcloth," Harnden wrote in his book. Davis was eventually taken to Fort Monroe, Virginia, and charged with treason in 1866, but the case never went to trial. Shortly before the end of his term, Johnson pardoned Davis and other ex-Confederates through the Christmas Day presidential proclamation of 1868.

The bitterness of many Southerners was summed up in the lyrics to the song "O, I'm a Good Old Rebel," reprinted in The Confederate War:

Three hundred thousand Yankees is stiff in Southern dust

We got three hundred thousand before they conquered us.

They died of Southern fever and Southern steel and shot

I wish they was three million instead of what we got.

I can't take up my musket and fight them now no more,

But I ain't gonna love them, now that is certain sure.

And I don't want no pardon for what I was and am

I won't be reconstructed, and I don't care a damn.

Did you know …

  • The Confederacy created its own form of paper money, but as that government crumbled, the money became almost worthless. At one point, it took $60 or $70 in Confederate money to equal one gold dollar.
  • In the South alone, half of the white men of military age were killed or maimed (disfigured or handicapped) by the war.
  • Gordon became a prominent Georgia politician after the war. He served as U.S. senator (1873–80, 1891–97) and governor (1886–90). He was shot in the face at the Battle of Antietam in 1862, the bloodiest day of the Civil War, and collapsed face-first into his cap. He later claimed the only thing that kept him from drowning in his blood was another bullet hole in the cap from earlier that day, which allowed the blood to flow out.
  • Determined to preserve the memory of the Confederacy's so-called "Lost Cause," many Southern white women formed groups to maintain soldiers' graves, build monuments, and organize events honoring their war heroes. In many Southern states, the birthdays of Lee and Jefferson Davis (1808–1889), the first and only president of the Confederacy, became official holidays.

Consider the following …

  • What did the freedom for African Americans mean for Southern whites?
  • Why did some Confederates consider moving to Mexico or South America at the end of the war? Why did General Gordon think it was better for the soldiers to stay?
  • What caused the looting after the war ended?

For More Information

Eggleston, George Cary. A Rebel's Recollections. New York: Hurd and Houghton; Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1875. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

Ford, Arthur Peronneau, and Marion Johnstone Ford. "Life in the Confederate Army." Documenting the American South: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries.http://docsouth.unc.edu/ford/ford.html (accessed on September 14, 2004).

Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Gordon, John Brown. Reminiscences of the Civil War. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993. Also available at Documenting the American South: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries.http://docsouth.unc.edu/gordon/gordon.html (accessed on September 14, 2004).

Greeno, Col. C. L. "The Capture of Jefferson Davis." The Sabre Regiment: 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry.http://personal.lig.bellsouth.net/7/t/7th-pacavalry/davis.htm (accessed on September 14, 2004).

Harnden, Henry. The Capture of Jefferson Davis. Madison, WI: Tracy, Gibbs & Co., 1898.

Trudeau, Noah Andre. Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April–June 1865. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.

Apprehensions: Fears.

Civil authorities: Political officials.

Chaotic: Extremely disorganized.

Daunt: Frighten.

Appall: Horrify.

Stoutest: Most courageous.

Circulating medium: Currency.

Rendered: Made.

Commodities: Belongings.

Security: A pledge for repayment.

Denuded: Stripped.

Implements: Tools.

Cultivation: Use as farm land.

Assurance: Guarantee.

Emancipated: Freed.

Impenetrable: Impossible to understand.

Advisability: Wisdom.

Dire extremity: Most terrible situation.

Check: Block.

Disposition: Inclination.

Counteract: Act against.

Arms: Guns.

Trappings: Decorative coverings.

Undertaken: Tried.

Counselled: Advised.

Conducive: Likely to lead.

Stifled utterance: Left me speechless.

Keenly: Deeply, strongly.

Stupendous: Astonishing.

Benign: Favorable.

Fertility: Ability to produce.

Staple: Main crop, such as cotton.

Legitimate: Reasonable.

Rifts: Openings.

Impending: Imminent.

Adversity: Difficulty.

Jehovah: God.

Recuperation: Recovery.

Passion: Intense emotions.

Magnanimous: Generous.

Fraternity: Brotherhood.

Tramp: Hike.

Bade: Expressed.

Cordial: Friendly.

Johnny: Generic name for a soldier.

Tried: Tested.

Badinage: Teasing.

Impudence: Rudeness.

Lick: Whip.

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