John Brown Gordon was born in Upson County, Georgia on February 6, 1832 to Zachariah and Malinda Cox Gordon. John was the fourth of twelve children. At the time of his birth his father was a prominent minister and plantation owner. Around 1840, Zachariah moved his family to Walker County near Lafayette, where he built a summer resort hotel to take advantage of the medicinal appeal of springs on the property. The Gordon's hotel subsequently became one of the State's most fashionable watering places. Over two decades later, the Battle of Chickamauga was waged around the Gordon's property.
Although John was an outstanding student at the University of Georgia, he left before graduating and shortly thereafter moved to Atlanta, where he studied law and passed the bar. He married the sister-in-law of a partner in the firm where he studied law, Rebecca Haralson, daughter of General Hugh Anderson Haralson of LaGrange. Theirs was a long and happy marriage.
Because his law practice did not prosper, he became a journalist in Milledgeville, which was then Georgia's capital. However, he soon gave this up to settle in Dade County, where he and his father formed the Castle Rock Coal Company.
Through his participation in political campaigns, he became known as a brilliant and captivating orator--a skill he put to effective use during the War to inspire his men, one of whom said that before going into action Gordon made him feel that he could storm hell. A Confederate officer at Gettysburg recalled that the sight of Gordon mounted on his magnificent, coal-black stallion as being "the most glorious and inspiring thing" he had ever seen. It was, he declared, an unforgettable "splendid picture of gallantry." Gordon "standing in his stirrups, bare headed, hat in hand, arms extended and, in a voice like a trumpet, exhorting his men" was "absolutely thrilling."
At the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Gordon's soldierly, erect posture saved his life, as a ball went through the back of his coat, just missing his spine. He told an aide riding with him that if he rode curved over like he did, he would be a dead man.
Although the backbone of the Confederate Army's officer corps was composed of professional soldiers, many officers,including generals, were civilians turned soldier. Only a few of them gained the admiration of their professional brothers in arms. Gordon was one of these. Characterized by splendid audacity, in 1864, he was described by General Robert E. Lee in a letter to Confederate President Jefferson Davis as being one of his best brigadiers. His rise, says his biographer, Ralph Lowell Eckert in John Brown Gordon, Soldier, Southerner, American, from captain to corps commander was unmatched in the Army of Northern Virginia.
When war broke out in 1861, Gordon was living in Jackson County, Alabama, working in Georgia, and picking up his mail in Tennessee. Therefore, it is not surprising that the volunteer company he recruited for the Confederacy was composed of men from the Tri-State region. The Company, which called itself the Raccoon Roughs, left Atlanta for Montgomery after Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown declared that Georgia had all the troops it needed and offered its services to the State of Alabama, which incorporated them into an extra large 6th Alabama infantry. In the 6th Alabama's first taste of combat at Seven Pines, the Raccoon Roughs suffered heavy casualties. During the subsequent Seven Days Battles, as Gordon strode fearlessly among his men, enemy balls shattered the handle of his pistol, pierced his canteen, and tore away part of the front of his coat. Assigned by General Lee to hold an essential position during the Battle of Sharpsburg, Gordon's luck ran out.
Gordon's men were tremendously outnumbered. Their only hope, he decided, was for his men to hold their fire until the enemy troops were practically on top of them and then all fire at once. It worked. Their first volley downed almost the entire Yankee front line. Subsequent lines of Yankees met a similar fate. However, many Confederates, too, went down at what came to be called the Battle of Bloody Lane (a sunken road), including Gordon. First, a mini ball passed through his calf. He soldiered on. Then, a second ball hit him higher in the same leg. He soldiered on. A third ball went through his left arm. He continued to lead his men despite the fact that the muscles and tendons in his arm were mangled, and a small artery was severed by this ball. A forth ball hit him in his shoulder. Despite pleas he go to the rear, he continued to lead his men. He was finally stopped by a ball which 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 there hadn't been a bullet hole in the cap. Nursed back to health by his wife, who stayed as near to him as possible until late in the war when, incapacitated by the birth of a baby, she ended up behind enemy lines in Virginia, he returned to duty and was put in command of six Georgia regiments. He was promoted to brigadier general after the Battle of Chancellorsville.
At the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse Lee's greatly outnumbered army was threatened with being cut in two. Only Gordon and his men could prevent this from happening. Lee was prepared to lead the charge of Gordon's men when Gordon rode up and said, in a voice loud enough for his men to hear: "General Lee, this is no place for you. These men behind you are Georgians and Virginians. They have never failed you and will not fail you here. Will you boys?"
"No, no, no, we'll not fail him," the men cried. Then they took up the chant, "Lee to the rear," and Gordon seized Lee's horse's bridle and ordered some men to take Lee to the rear.
Some believe that Gordon's success in turning back the Federals at this, the Bloody Angle, gave the Confederacy an additional year of life. Clearly, he inspired his men by his reaction to Lee's attempt to lead the charge.
Gordon's wife showed that she was made of similar stuff when she rushed out into the street at Winchester to urge Gordon's retreating troops to go back and face the enemy. Gordon was horrified to find her in the street with shells and balls flying about her.
Although he was never promoted to lieutenant general, when the War ended Gordon had both the responsibilities and authority of a corps commander and was, according to Lee's biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, "Lee's principal confidant--as far as any man every enjoyed that status."
Singularly fitted for attack, at War's end, he was "one of the most popular men in the South," claims Eckert. "In little more than a decade, he would be one of the most well known and respected Southerners in the United States."
Because fighting in North Georgia had damaged the Gordon's coal mines, and they lacked the money needed to reopen them, General Gordon had to look for a new occupation. After briefly owning and managing some sawmills near Brunswick, he moved to Kirkwood, an Atlanta suburb, and went into the insurance and publishing businesses. Unlike some other army officers whose military fame propelled them into the executive ranks of business firms after the War, he was active in the management of these firms.( He was president of the insurance company and vice president of the publishing company. The goal of the publishing company was "to create non-partisan school literature" that would help rid the nation and the South in particular of sectional hate. However, it also sought to promote Southern self-respect. In both letters and articles, Gordon pleaded for Southerners to "rid themselves of ternary bondage to the North in the school room."
Although he took meaningful steps to provide material help to blacks, he sought "a social harmony," claims Eckert, "in which whites were in control," and in 1871 he admitted to a congressional committee that he had once belonged to a secret organization whose purpose was to protect whites from a race war he believed the activities of carpetbaggers might stir up. The group had to be secret, he said, because, otherwise, the government might see it as a threat to it.
Before and during the War he had been urged to run for public office, but had not done so. After the War he was persuaded to do so. In his first race in 1868, in which he opposed Republican Rufus B. Bullock for the governorship of Georgia, he lost. In 1872, the Georgia General Assembly, which then selected the State's U.S. Senators, elected him to represent Georgia in Washington. Shortly after arriving in Washington, he became the first Confederate to preside over the U.S. Senate. The next day he obtained a promise from President U. S. Grant, with whom he been friendly with since Appomattox, to remove Federal officials in Georgia who had gained them through fraud or corruption.
In the Senate, he concentrated on economic issues and fostering national reconciliation. He was hailed by the New York Times as "the ablest man from the South in either House of Congress."
A frequent ploy by some Republicans at that time was to respond to any Southerner's position on an issue with diatribes about the South's culpability for the War, during which they called Southerners traitors, murders, and barbarians. Finally unwilling to tolerate any more of this in silence, Gordon rose to declare that, "when the people of my section are held up to the gaze of the civilized world as murders, assassins, and semi-barbarians, I feel that further silence will subject them to a more cruel misconstruction than can be extorted from any perversion, however gross and unjust, of my utterances here."
Denying that murder had become an "everyday occurrence in the South," he claimed that (white) Southerners had shown remarkable forbearance in the face of the overthrow of their state governments; the unconstitutional usurpation of their rights; military occupation; social disruption; and the incitement of the South's black population. "No people," he said, "in the history of the world have ever been so misunderstood, so misjudged, and so cruelly maligned" as the people of the South. During this speech, he was frequently interrupted by applause from the galleries.
Gordon labored mightily to get Federal troops removed and home rule restored in the last two Southern states so burdened, Louisiana and South Carolina, and he received much of the credit for the "redemption" of these states via the Democrats agreeing to the elevation of Hayes to the presidency in exchange for their redemption. (The Democrats' candidate, Tilden, was denied the presidency by the throwing out of the contested Tilden victory in Louisiana and South Carolina.)
Mistakes made by the Memphis branch of the insurance company whose Atlanta branch Gordon headed caused the company to go bankrupt. Gordon's financial status remained precarious for the rest of life and gave substance to claims that he exchanged political favors for money.
He obtained the gratitude of many North Georgians when he obtained presidential clemency for a large number of North Georgians convicted of selling illegal liquor. However, substantial North-Georgia-based opposition to him that persisted for years developed nonetheless. Union sentiment had been strong in North Georgia, and there was long standing resentment in North Georgia of the political domination of the State by its Black Belt counties, and in 1874, an Independence movement centered in North Georgia that Gordon opposed arose.
Gordon was recruited by the Democratic Party to stamp out this party-splitting movement. He campaigned extensively for the regular Democratic Party candidate in the Bloody Seventh district, where its Congressional candidate was opposed by Dr. William H. Felton of Bartow County. Despite Gordon's efforts, Felton was elected. It was during this campaign that what was to be a long and bitter conflict between Gordon and Felton's wife, Rebecca Latimer Felton, began.
Despite opposition from some North Georgians, Gordon was nearly unanimously reelected. The Independent movement and Mrs. Felton, however, continued to be a thorn in his side. Gordon's opposition to this movement was based on his belief that the formation of a third party would lead to the victory of the Republican Party, a party, he said was "conceived in passion, born of fanaticism and baptized in blood".
According to Mrs. Felton's biographer, "[F]ate could not have harassed Gordon with a more formidable opponent: a lady who insisted on being considered a lady even while she was employing all the bare-knuckled tactics of a belligerent man." She hated no other prominent Georgian "so long and wholeheartedly" as Gordon, and she vented it in the Felton's Cartersville Free Press, in which she accused him of a wide variety of personal and political sins.
Shortly after well-publicized conflict with Alexander H. Stephens, Georgians were shocked by the announcement that Gordon had resigned from the Senate. A second shock was soon to follow: Governor Alfred H. Colquitt appointed the controversial and unelectable Joseph E. Brown to replace Gordon. (Governor of Georgia before and during the War, after the War Brown, a North Georgian popular with the Independents, had become a Republican, but had by this time switched back to being a Democrat.)
Praise of Gordon was quickly replaced by accusations that the financially distressed Gordon had resigned in exchange for financial gain. (Unlike Gordon, Brown, president of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, was a successful businessman.) Gordon said he resigned out of concern for his family's well being and having tired of public life. Many Georgians believed him.
Recently discovered telegrams, some of which are in code, between middleman Henry W. Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution and promoter of railroad development, and Brown and others suggests there was a deal, although it does appear Gordon had decided to leave the Senate to improve his financial condition before the deal which, for Gordon, meant becoming the general counsel of the L&N Railroad and obtaining a charter for a proposed and subsequently built railroad connecting Atlanta and Birmingham, was arranged.
Although Gordon quickly made a lot of money, as one of his daughters admitted, "My father was a military genius, a man of imagination and creative ability, and a great statesman, but he was not a practical businessman." As aggressive and optimistic in business as he had in been in war, Gordon invested in a very wide variety of businesses and a white elephant plantation in Taylor County. He lost most of his money in a failed venture to build a railroad from Georgia to Key West and establish a steamship line to linking it to Latin America.
Having decided to return to politics and run for governor, he enlisted Henry W. Grady's aid in drumming up interest in a Gordon candidacy. Grady's stroke of genius was to persuade the B. H. Hill Monument Committee to invite Jefferson Davis to come to Atlanta after delivering an address in Montgomery, the Confederacy's first capital. Davis' presence, it was assumed, at Gordon's side would draw a huge crowd, and huge crowds did greet the train carrying Davis and Gordon from Montgomery to Atlanta at every stop. The frail Davis soon tired. So, putting his hand on Gordon's shoulder, he declared, "This is my Aaron; let him speak for me." Thereafter, Gordon spoke in place of "this dear old chief of ours." Davis' heart, Gordon explained, "as well as his tongue, is full of eloquence, but his years are almost gone, and it is enough for us to look upon his face."
After the dedication ceremonies Davis traveled to Atlanta to attend, a Gordon supporter jumped up among a crowd gathered at Atlanta's Kimball House and proposed that Gordon give a speech that night. Cries of Gordon for Governor rang out, and Gordon appeared on the balcony. He decline to speak, but said that "This is the happiest day of my life. My heart is full and it is all yours." Grady, who Gordon would later break with, bragged to friends that Confederate money would be good by midnight.
Up until then, courthouse meetings had been relied upon to select nominees for governor. Gordon proposed that this be changed and that the will of the people be determined by direct primaries in each county. This would slow down the nomination process; thus giving Gordon a chance to use his eloquence and display the scar on his face that reminded people he had fought and bled for the South to gain support. The heretofore leader in the race for the nomination, Augustus O. Bacon, opposed this proposal. Grady castigated in the pages of the influential Constitution as "conspirators and wirepullers" those who wished to retain the old system.
Grady instructed Gordon's supporters "to station one-armed or one-legged Confederate veterans at all the crossroads to enlist the attendance of other veterans in the county at a caucus one hour before the convention opened." If it looked as though the county convention was going to support Bacon, the veterans were told to disrupt the meeting and demand a primary.
Bacon and his supporters vilified Gordon, claiming he was part of an Atlanta Ring and a paid lackey of the railroads. His participation in the convict lease system and the "deal" that put Brown in the Senate were criticized. His failures as a businessmen, they said, meant he could not be trusted to manage Georgia's finances. (Gordon tried for years to get rid of his convict lease before succeeding, and he promised to work for the elimination of the convict lease system if elected.) Gordon won the nomination with 322 votes out of 332. ( By then, nomination by the Democratic Party was tantamount to election.) He ran unopposed in the general election.
In his inaugural address on November 9, 1886, Gordon concentrated, says Eckert, on what he considered to be the greatest danger facing Georgia and all the other states: the states' steady loss of "constitutional vigor or power of self-preservation...by gradual accretions to federal power and imperceptible absorption of state functions."
With Brown and Colquitt in the U.S. Senate, Gordon's election, says Eckert, "represented the height of the Bourbon Triumvirate's rule of Georgia". The Triumvirate: Gordon, Colquitt, and Brown, with Grady's help, were, he says, "the most conspicuous figures" in Georgia's political arena in the last decades of the nineteenth century. As New South leaders, they supported industrialization. They also "cut taxes, checked government spending, limited government services, and kept the forces of social change at bay."
After his proposal for abolishing the convict lease system was turned down by the General Assembly, Gordon inaugurated the most thorough investigation of the system ever conducted. His hands, however, were pretty much tied by the fact the leases did not expire until 1896, and he the state did not have the funds to take care of the prisoners if the leases were voided (on the basis of inhumane treatment of prisoners).
In 1888, he was reelected. (Governor's term in office was then two years.) In Eckert's opinion, Gordon accomplished nothing of importance during the four years he was governor. While in office, in partnership with his sons, he continued to invest in a variety of businesses, and when the United Confederate Veterans was organized in 1889, he was made the group's president.
In poor health, Joe Brown decided not to run for reelection, and Gordon decided to seek to fill the U.S. Senate seat thus left vacant. By that time, farmers agitated by their poor financial condition, had organized a Farmers Alliance that threatened to swallow the Democratic Party in Georgia. By opposing the sub treasury plan it supported, Gordon lost the backing of many farmers. (Under this plan farmers could store for later sale nonperishable commodities in government warehouses at a minimal cost. By enabling them to spread the sale of these commodities over the year, they expected to be able to sell at higher average prices.)
Nonetheless, Gordon was elected. Eckert explains his much lower level of activity than during his earlier service in the Senate to "his advanced age, frequent bouts of ill health, new business ventures, involvement with veterans organizations, and extensive lecture tours..."
The Democrats were in control of the national government when the Panic of 1893 hit; thus making the "Democracy the party of depression". Gordon responded by advocating the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890; the development of a more sound monetary system based on bimetallism (gold and silver); reducing tariffs; and the repeal of the federal tax on state bank notes. (At that time, banks issued paper currency: bank notes, and to force state chartered banks to convert to federal charters, a federal tax had been levied on any banknotes they issued.) These recommendations were consistent with Gordon's support of a more expansionary monetary policy to deal with depressed conditions in the 1870s. As happened then, however, they fell on deaf ears.
When Coxey's army descended upon Washington demanding government-sponsored work relief, Gordon explained that like movements were absent in the South because after the War the South, "Shut out from all hope of governmental relief...learned to lean not upon the legislative arm, but upon their right arm." Southerners, he said, did not look upon the government as a fostering mother from which to draw sustenance or relief in periods of depression.
Gordon won great praise when he supported President Cleveland's decision to sent troops to Chicago to put down a violent strike against the Pullman Company (manufacturer of railway sleeping cars). After a speech in which he supported the upholding of the law that some considered to be his greatest speech, senators from both sides of aisle, including some former Union generals, congratulated Gordon. Back home, he sought to blunt the growing popularity of the Populist Party, which he branded as radical and socialistic. Then, in 1896, he declared he was retiring from politics.
"During the last decade of his life," says Eckert, "Gordon remained extremely active in his efforts to vindicate the South and at the same time to establish a new spirit of nationalism" by embarking on a career as a lecturer. Three months before his death in 1904, he published a book, Reminiscences of the Civil War, which went through several printings in its first year. Eckert characterizes this book as a "charming, completely inoffensive account of his wartime experiences".