Gallant Soldier and Advocate against Reconstruction Tyranny
Part 1 of 2. Political Background and the War, 1861-1865.
In the southeastern corner of the Georgia Capitol grounds in Atlanta stands an 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?”
Part 2 of 2. John Brown Gordon, Reconstruction 1866-1877
In 1866, Gordon made substantial contributions in the form of money and materials to help build churches and schools for blacks in Brunswick, Georgia. Speaking to a banquet meeting of former slaves there, he advised them to educate themselves and their children, to be industrious, save money and purchase houses, and thus make themselves respectable as property holders, and intelligent people. “With submission to the laws, industry and economy, with union among yourselves, and courtesy and confidence toward the whites, you will reach these ends, and constitute an important element in the community.”
These comments were given to help ease the tensions between the blacks and whites in coastal Georgia. Gordon was concerned about many instances of black Federal troops mistreating white Georgians. Moreover, he was particularly concerned that unscrupulous members of the Freedmen’s Bureau and Union League were reported to have been inciting newly freed slaves to use violence.
Union League Terrorism
The Union League, also known as the Loyal League, was originally formed in the North to bolster Union support for the war. After the war, Union League companies were formed in the South to assure the success of carpet-bagger Republican governments. These evolved into mostly black militia units composed predominantly of former Union soldiers. These militia units terrorized blacks and whites opposing Republican candidates. Although today’s politically-correct-chained historians tend to coverup their existence, the Union League perpetrated far more violence than the Ku Klux Klan. The Union League numbered about 250,000 in ten Southern States. North Carolina’s scalawag Governor, William W. Holden, had 80,000 at his bidding. In the summer of 1870, Holden’s abuse of habeas corpus and other civil rights in pursuing KKK arrests became known as the Kirk-Holden War. In August, a newly elected Democrat majority in the North Carolina Legislature impeached him for abuse of power. The NC Senate found him guilty in 1871. In 2011, the NC Senate posthumously pardoned him.
Gordon made a speech in Charleston, South Carolina, published on September 23, 1868, in Columbia by the Daily Phoenix, that was partly addressed to the new African-American voters in the crowd. Gordon was concerned about keeping racial peace and public order because of Union League threats of racial war. He discouraged this as insanity. This has been used as the usual heavy-handed “presentism” for cancel-culture attacks on Gordon. Some of the speech, however, should be educational to those who know only the standard politically correct false narrative of the Civil War. Some is a blunt and frankly uncomfortable warning against making war for black supremacy against white supremacy.
“The carpet-baggers will tell you that the North brought on the war to free you….I say that they did not wage the war to free you, and no honest soldier who participated in it will say so. General Grant himself at one time threatened to quit the service if you were freed. They set you free because they wanted to use you—not from any love they bore you. And now they tell you that we are enemies.”
“Now, I speak plainly. 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 to be ruled by the African. These are truths. We want peace with you. We cannot live as enemies.”
[Yet the U.S. government is in 2022 is using Critical Race Theory to set black against white, even in the Armed Forces. “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.]
Gordon strongly opposed the corruption and tyranny of the “carpet-bagger” state governments during Reconstruction. This frequently included, confiscatory taxes, disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of white Southern voters, making Southerners and Southern businesses open prey for government and carpet-bagger oppression and swindling, and Union League violence against largely powerless and impoverished Confederate veteran families and sympathizers. Three of the Minority Report conclusions of the 1871 Congressional Committee investigating the Ku Klux Klan were:
“The KKK arose as an inescapable response to Union League brutality and lack of legal redress under corrupt occupation governments.”
“Had there been no wanton oppression and tyranny against Southern whites by corrupt
carpetbagger and scalawag governments, there would have been no KKK.”
“From the oppression and corruption of the carpetbagger governments and the violent
actions of the Union League sprang the outrages of the KKK and its successors.”
An excerpt from this Congressional Minority Report stated the situation well:
“…when the courts were closed and Federal officers, who were by Congress absolute rulers and dispensers of what they called justice, ignored, insulted and trampled upon the rights of the ostracized and disenfranchised white men while officials pandered to the enfranchised negro on whose vote they rallied, in short, when people saw that they had no rights which were respected, no protection from insult, no security, even for their wives and children, and that what little they had saved from the ravages of war was being confiscated by taxation…many of them took the law into their own hands and did deeds of violence which we neither justify or excuse. But all history shows that bad government will make bad citizens.”
Gordon, speaking of the violence perpetrated by the largely black Union League, explained to Congressional Committee concerning the Klan that:
“The first and main reason (for the Klan) was the organization of the Union League.”
“The Klan was therefore necessary to protect our families from outrage and preserve our own lives, to have something that we could regard as a brotherhood---a combination of the best men of the country to act purely in self-defense.”
“We never had any apprehension from the conduct of the negroes until unscrupulous men came among them and tried to stir up strife.”
“But to say to our people, ‘you are unworthy to vote; you cannot hold office…your former slaves are better fitted to administer the laws than you are…this sort of dealing with our people has emphatically alienated us.”
General Gordon also commented that Reconstruction was a betrayal of the terms of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and of Johnston’s surrender of the Army of Tennessee. He further stated that there was far more bitterness in the South over Reconstruction than the destruction during the war.
The Union League and Freedman’s Bureau had failed in their purpose but succeeded in doing tremendous damage to race relations in the South. Thus they were a strong contributory cause in retarding rather than advancing black political and economic progress. Donn Piatt, Washington newspaper editor, Union Brigadier General during the war, and personal friend of Lincoln editorialized that:
“All race antagonism in the South came from carpetbaggers using the Negro votes to get their fingers in the treasury.”
Piatt was very pessimistic that the damage to race relations could ever be repaired. He believed race relations in the South had been permanently poisoned by Reconstruction.
White supremacy was not a political idea that was confined to the South. In fact, Southern white supremacy retained a paternalistic view of blacks, whereas the equally prevalent white supremacy of the North was simply anti-black. Most Northern states did not want blacks within their borders, and Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Oregon had strict laws to enforce this bias.
Gordon loved the South and its people and was tireless in every effort to rescue and redeem them from the ravages of war and Reconstruction. He once made this statement, with which many Southerners can identify:
“No people in the history of the world have been so misunderstood, so misjudged, and so cruelly maligned as the people of the South.”
Gordon worked cordially but hard in the U.S. Senate to educate Northern political leaders about the injustices of Reconstruction and how those injustices caused Southerners to turn in desperation to the KKK, which did not immediately manifest its capability for wanton abuse of regulatory justice. But human nature is such that unchecked and unaccountable regulatory justice becomes increasingly lawless, arbitrary, unjust, and violent. A similar pattern was found in the Union League, which went from patriotic goals to terrorism. As always, unchecked power corrupts and becomes tyranny.
Gordon was a United States Senator during the Presidential Election crisis of 1876-1877 and helped to negotiate the controversial compromise that elected Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as President and ended Reconstruction. He was the first Commander-in-Chief of the United Confederate Veterans organized in 1890. As a Governor, citizen, and Senator, he worked to make Georgia an important commercial and industrial state as well as an important agricultural state.
Was Gordon the Grand Dragon of the Georgia KKK? He probably never went to a KKK meeting and was not inclined to lawless violence. But he certainly had an influence on them and identified with the desperation that turned people to the KKK during a lawless and unjust Reconstruction. The Klan intended to be an invisible empire, and their discipline was tight. It is near impossible to confirm accusations or speculations about Klan membership. Many good people believed they had no recourse to justice and family safety except the Klan. Those tended to leave the Klan as lawless tendencies became evident. Gordon always advocated and worked for peaceful solutions to problems.
John Brown Gordon died on January 9, 1904, at the age of 71, while visiting a son in Miami. Over 75,000 people viewed and took part in his memorial ceremonies. He was a great soldier, Southerner, and American. His memory, accomplishments, and equestrian statue on the State Capitol grounds should long continue to be honored.