American Civil War: Major General John B. Gordon

Major General John B. Gordon

The National Archives & Records Administration

The son of a prominent minister in Upson County, GA, John Brown Gordon was born February 6, 1832. At a young age, he moved with his family to Walker County where his father had purchased a coal mine. Educated locally, he later attended the University of Georgia. Though a strong student, Gordon inexplicably left school before graduating. Moving to Atlanta, he read law and entered the bar in 1854. While in the city, he married Rebecca Haralson, daughter of Congressman Hugh A. Haralson. Unable to attract clients in Atlanta, Gordon moved north to oversee his father's mining interests. He was in this position when the Civil War began in April 1861.

Early Career

A supporter of the Confederate cause, Gordon quickly raised a company of mountaineers known as the "Raccoon Roughs." In May 1861, this company was incorporated into the 6th Alabama Infantry Regiment with Gordon as its captain. Though lacking any formal military training, Gordon was promoted to major a short time later. Initially sent to Corinth, MS, the regiment was later ordered to Virginia. While on the field for the First Battle of Bull Run that July, it saw little action. Showing himself to be an able officer, Gordon was given command of the regiment in April 1862 and promoted to colonel. This coincided with a shift south to oppose Major General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign. The following month, he ably led the regiment during the Battle of Seven Pines outside Richmond, VA.

In late June, Gordon returned to combat as General Robert E. Lee began the Seven Days Battles. Striking at Union forces, Gordon quickly established a reputation for fearlessness in battle. On July 1, a Union bullet wounded him in the head during the Battle of Malvern Hill. Recovering, he rejoined the army in time for the Maryland Campaign that September. Serving in Brigadier General Robert Rodes' brigade, Gordon aided in holding a key sunken road ("Bloody Lane") during the Battle of Antietam on September 17. In the course of the fighting, he was wounded five times. Finally brought down by a bullet that passed through his left cheek and out his jaw, he collapsed with his face in his cap. Gordon later related that he would have drowned in his own blood had there not been a bullet hole in his hat.

A Rising Star

For his performance, Gordon was promoted to brigadier general in November 1862 and, following his recovery, given command of a brigade in Major General Jubal Early's division in Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's Second Corps. In this role, he saw action near Fredericksburg and Salem Church during the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. With Jackson's death following the Confederate victory, command of his corps passed to Lieutenant General Richard Ewell. Spearheading Lee's subsequent advance north into Pennsylvania, Gordon's brigade reached the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville on June 28. Here they were prevented from crossing the river by Pennsylvania militia which burned the town's railroad bridge.

Gordon's advance to Wrightsville marked the easternmost penetration of Pennsylvania during the campaign. With his army strung out, Lee ordered his men to concentrate at Cashtown, PA. As this movement was in progress, fighting began at Gettysburg between troops led by Lieutenant General A.P. Hill and Union cavalry under Brigadier General John Buford. As the battle grew in size, Gordon, and the rest of Early's Division approached Gettysburg from the north. Deploying for battle on July 1, his brigade attacked and routed Brigadier General Francis Barlow's division on Blocher's Knoll. The next day, Gordon's brigade supported an attack against the Union position on East Cemetery Hill but did not take part in the fighting.

The Overland Campaign

Following the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, Gordon's brigade retired south with the army. That fall, he participated in the inconclusive Bristoe and Mine Run Campaigns. With the beginning of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign in May 1864, Gordon's brigade took part in the Battle of the Wilderness. In the course of the fighting, his men pushed the enemy back at Saunders Field as well as launched a successful attack on the Union right. Recognizing Gordon's skill, Lee elevated him to lead Early's division as part of a larger reorganization of the army. Fighting recommenced a few days later at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. On May 12, Union forces launched a massive assault on the Mule Shoe Salient. With Union forces overwhelming the Confederate defenders, Gordon rushed his men forward in an attempt to restore the situation and stabilize the lines. As the battle raged, he ordered Lee to the rear as the iconic Confederate leader attempted to personally lead an attack forward.

For his efforts, Gordon was promoted to major general on May 14. As Union forces continued to push south, Gordon led his men at the Battle of Cold Harbor in early June. After inflicting a bloody defeat on the Union troops, Lee instructed Early, now leading the Second Corps, to take his men to the Shenandoah Valley in an effort to draw off some Union forces. Marching with Early, Gordon took part the advance down the Valley and the victory at the Battle of Monocacy in Maryland. After menacing Washington, DC and forcing Grant to detach forces to counter his operations, Early withdrew to the Valley where he won the Second Battle of Kernstown in late July. Tired of Early's depredations, Grant sent Major General Philip Sheridan to the Valley with a large force.

Attacking up (south) the Valley, Sheridan clashed with Early and Gordon at Winchester on September 19 and soundly defeated the Confederates. Retreating south, the Confederates were defeated again two days later at Fisher's Hill. Attempting to recover the situation, Early and Gordon launched a surprise attack on Union forces at Cedar Creek on October 19. Despite initial success, they were badly defeated when Union forces rallied. Rejoining Lee at the Siege of Petersburg, Gordon was placed in command of the remnants of the Second Corps in December 20.

Final Actions

As the winter progressed, the Confederate position at Petersburg became desperate as Union strength continued to grow. Needing to force Grant to contract his lines and wanting to disrupt a potential Union assault, Lee asked Gordon to plan an attack on the enemy's position. Staging from Colquitt's Salient, Gordon intended to assault Fort Stedman with the goal of driving east towards the Union supply base at City Point. Moving forward at 4:15 AM on March 25, 1865, his troops were able to quickly take the fort and open a 1,000-foot breach in the Union lines. Despite this initial success, Union reinforcements quickly sealed the breach and by 7:30 AM Gordon's attack had been contained. Counterattacking, Union troops forced Gordon to fall back to the Confederate lines. With the Confederate defeat at Five Forks on April 1, Lee's position at Petersburg became untenable.

Coming under attack from Grant on April 2, Confederate troops began retreating west with Gordon's corps acting as a rearguard. On April 6, Gordon's corps was part of a Confederate force that was defeated at the Battle of Sayler's Creek. Retreating further, his men ultimately arrived at Appomattox. On the morning of April 9, Lee, hoping to reach Lynchburg, asked Gordon to clear Union forces from their line of advance. Attacking, Gordon's men pushed back the first Union troops they encountered but were halted by the arrival of two enemy corps. With his men outnumbered and spent, he requested reinforcements from Lee. Lacking additional men, Lee concluded that he had no choice but to surrender. The afternoon, he met with Grant and surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia.

Later Life

Returning to Georgia after the war, Gordon unsuccessfully campaigned for governor in 1868 on a staunch anti-Reconstruction platform. Defeated, he achieved public office in 1872 when he was elected to the US Senate. Over the next fifteen years, Gordon served two stints in the Senate as well as a term as Governor of Georgia. In 1890, he became the first Commander-in-Chief of the United Confederate Veterans and later published his memoirs, Reminiscences of the Civil War in 1903. Gordon died at Miami, FL on January 9, 1904, and was buried at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta.

Selected Sources

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General John B. Gordon." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Major General John B. Gordon. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General John B. Gordon." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 6, 2023).