This is the grave of John B. Gordon.
Born in 1832 in Upson County, Georgia. John Brown Gordon (hilarious name given the future of this awful person) grew up in the slaveholding elite. His father owned 18 slaves in the 1840 census so this might not have been the biggest slaveholder in the South, but 18 slaves was a lot. Gordon went to the University of Georgia, though he did not graduate. He dropped out to read for the law. He would have his slaves too of course. But he wasn’t very good as a lawyer really and ended up working for his father running the family coal mines in the late 1850s.
Gordon might not have been the biggest slaveholder in the world, but he had no problem with committing treason in defense of slavery. Like so many officers, he got placed in this position based not on military experience at all, but because of political connections. The political officers were a curse on both sides really, but nepotism is how the 19th century operated. Gordon was named a captain and he volunteered quickly, as he was at First Manassas, though he did not actually fight there. Still, he was promoted to colonel in 1862, just because the colonel of the unit resigned. He hadn’t even seen combat by that point. That would come at Seven Pines. He was wounded there. In fact, he was wounded several times. At Antietam, Robert E. Lee had Gordon’s men defend what became known as the Bloody Lane. Gordon spilled his blood all over the place in that lane. He was shot twice in the leg and once in the arm. But he continued to fight. Then he was shot in the shoulder. Then he was shot in the cheek. At that point, he fell onto his face. He probably would have drowned from the blood loss pooling in his cap, but there a hole in the cap that drained it out. Somehow he survived all of this. Really, it’s too bad.
Lee really liked Gordon, finding him the rare political general who actually was good at the job, which is another reason I wish one of those bullets had offed him before he could kill more loyal members of the United States. So Lee lobbied for Gordon to get promoted to brigadier general, although it took until 1863 before the Confederate Congress approved it. He was commanding troops on the farthest east flank of Confederate forces in Pennsylvania during the invasion of the North in 1863. At Gettysburg, he was at Barlow’s Knoll. He kept gaining Lee’s trust, largely due to his aggression and audacity. He was at the Wilderness and then went with Jubal Early to the Shenandoah Valley campaigns in 1864, including the last invasion of the North, when they went into Maryland. Gordon was wounded again on this, being grazed over his eye. Now, Gordon traveled with his wife. This is lunacy, but it wasn’t uncommon for high ranking officers to have their wives with them. Quite often, as studies of Confederate women have demonstrated, the wives were a lot more intensely for treason in defense of slavery than their husbands. So at the Third Battle of Winchester, which was a Union rout where Phil Sheridan just kicked the hell out of the traitors, Gordon’s wife actually got in the middle of the battle to scream at retreating troops to be men and fight. Gordon ran across her doing this and grabbed her and got her out of the line of fire.
It was Gordon who told Lee that he had no room to run after Appomattox and that is what led Lee to finally surrender. Gordon himself surrendered to Joshua Chamberlain. Good. Should have spent the rest of his life in prison. Alas, no one wanted that less than moderate northern whites.
So Gordon went back to Georgia. He decided to get involved in politics, launching the fight for white supremacy in a new front. So long as Black men could vote in Georgia, he couldn’t win. He lost his 1868 campaign for governor to a Republican. Gordon was deeply involved with the Ku Klux Klan as well. He denied it, but he was considered the leader of the paramilitary thugs in Georgia. He wasn’t shy about his views either. Speaking to a Black audience in Charleston during his campaign, he threatened them directly, stating, “If you are disposed to live in peace with the white people, they extend to you the hand of friendship” but “if you attempt to inaugurate a war of races you will be exterminated. The Saxon race was never created by Almighty God to be ruled by the African.” Unfortunately, by 1872, Georgia had been “redeemed,” a horrible term that meant reclaimed for white supremacy. The legislature thus sent Gordon to the Senate in 1873.
Gordon was close to Henry Grady, the white supremacist articulator of the New South. They pushed for pro-business and development policies alongside white domination. Grady was heavily involved in the dispute over the 1876 election, which was given in the end to Rutherford Hayes in exchange for ending Reconstruction entirely, ultimately a huge victory for the South, especially because Hayes’ interest in enforcing civil rights was basically zero anyway. Gordon served that one term, but his association with Grady meant he was one of the most powerful figures in Georgia politics of the late nineteenth century. He could have any office he wanted when he wanted it and when he didn’t, he was a huge figure in the background. He won another term in 1878, but left in early 1880 to become a railroad lawyer. There were allegations of corruption here in that the governor then named Joseph Brown, the railroad’s president to the office. Probably was corrupt, this was standard fare for railroads and politicians in the Gilded Age. He decided to become governor in 1886, serving four years there, and then went back to the Senate for another term in 1891.
At the end of his life, Gordon was a huge purveyor of Confederate nostalgia, which was sweeping not only the South but the nation. He gave the keynote address at the unveiling of the grotesque Confederate monument in Montgomery. He became the first commander of the United Confederate Veterans. He then published his memoir about the war, Reminiscences of the Civil War, in 1903. It mostly considered a very unreliable book. It’s the memory of an old man who thought he was the most important figure in the war and so he exaggerated everything about himself in it.
Gordon died in 1904. He was 71 years old.
John Gordon is buried in Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia.
If you would like this series to visit other senators elected in the 1872-73 cycle, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Simon Conover is in Port Townsend, Washington (he was a senator from Florida, so not sure the story here) and George Dennis is in Princess Anne, Maryland. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.