From Raccoon Roughs to top-level command


Maj. Gen. John Brown Gordon commanded the three Confederate divisions in the devastating surprise attack at dawn on the Union army's eastern flank at Cedar Creek.

Unlike most high-ranking officers in the Confederate army, Gordon was not a West Point-trained professional soldier, but a Southern civilian volunteer who rose to the highest levels through strength of character and natural ability.

Gordon was born in Upson County, Ga., on Feb. 6, 1832. He was the fourth of 12 children born to Zachariah and Malinda Cox Gordon. Zachariah Gordon was a minister and plantation owner; in 1840 he moved his family to Walker County, where he built a summer resort hotel at Chicamaugua to take advantage of medicinal appeal of a mineral spring there.

Gordon attended the University of Georgia but did not graduate. After leaving the university he moved to Atlanta to study law. He was admitted to the bar, but his law practice proved unrewarding, and he soon gave it up to form the Castle Rock Coal Co. with his father.

According to Gordon's Reminiscences of the Civil War, published in 1903, three months before his death, "The outbreak of the war found me in the mountains of Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama, engaged in the development of coal mines. This does not mean that I was a citizen of three states; but it does mean that I lived so near the lines that my mines were in Georgia, my house in Alabama and my post office in Tennessee."

In September 1854, he married Rebecca "Fanny" Haralson, a sister-in-law of one of the partners in the firm where he studied law. Gordon said of his marriage, "I had married Miss Fanny Haralson, third daughter of General Hugh A. Haralson of La Grange, Ga. The wedding occurred on her 17th birthday, and when I was but 22. We had two children, both boys."

A devoted couple

The Gordons were a devoted couple. As the Civil War approached, Gordon said, "The struggle between devotion to my family on the one hand and duty to my country on the other was most trying to my sensibilities. ... What was I to do with the girl-wife and the two little boys? The wife and mother was no less taxed in her effort to settle this momentous question.

"But finally yielding to the promptings of her own heart and to her unerring sense of duty, she ended doubt as to what disposition was to be made of her by announcing that she intended to accompany me to the war, leaving her children with my mother and faithful 'Mammy Mary.' I rejoiced at her decision then, and had still greater reasons for rejoicing at it afterward, when I felt through every fiery ordeal the inspiration of her near presence, and had, at need, the infinite comfort of her tender nursing."

Not everyone was as positive about the presence of Mrs. Gordon as the general. She was a great annoyance to his commander at Cedar Creek, Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, "who was once heard to wish to God that the Federals would capture her," according to Mark M. Boatner 3rd in The Civil War Dictionary.

At the outbreak of the war, Gordon said, "My spirit had been caught up by the flaming enthusiasm that swept like a prairie-fire through the land, and I hastened to unite with the brave men of the mountains in organizing a company of volunteers. ... The mountaineers did me the honor to elect me their captain." This company, which called itself the Raccoon Roughs, volunteered as a cavalry unit, but was rejected, and in response, according to Gordon, "Reluctantly, therefore, we abandoned our horses, and in order certainly to reach the point of action before the war was over, we resolved to go at once to the front as infantry, without waiting for orders, arms or uniforms. Not a man in the company had the slightest military training, and the captain himself knew very little of military tactics."

After Georgia's Gov. Joseph E. Brown declared that the state had all the troops it needed, the Raccoon Roughs offered their services to Alabama, which incorporated the company into the 6th Alabama Regiment. The 6th Alabama hurried north for the war and was present for the first major battle at Manassas Junction, Va., but as part of Brig. Gen. Richard S. Ewell's 2nd Brigade, it did no fighting.

The regiment's first battle came the next year at Seven Pines.

According to Richard N. Current's Encyclopedia of the Confederacy, published in 1993, "Gordon fought valiantly whenever his command was engaged. At Seven Pines, where he lost 60 percent of his troops, he was placed in temporary command of Robert Rodes' brigade when that officer was incapacitated by wounds. Gordon's brigade led Robert E. Lee's vanguard into Maryland in September 1862 and engaged the enemy at South Mountain. In the words of Rodes, Gordon fought in a 'manner I have never heard of or seen equaled during the war.' D. H. Hill, the division commander, added, 'Gordon excelled his former deeds at Seven Pines and in the battles around Richmond. Our language is not capable of expressing a higher compliment.'

"Gordon's brigade was in the thick of the fighting at Sharpsburg, a battle in which the general was wounded five times, once in the head. Only a bullet hole in his hat prevented him from drowning in his own blood as he lay unconscious on the ground."

During the war he was wounded eight times, the wound received at Antietam, or Sharpsburg, being the most severe. He was promoted to colonel April 28, 1862; to brigadier general Nov. 1, 1862; and to major general May 14, 1864. Some sources indicate that he was promoted to lieutenant general in 1865, but, according to Boatner, he never held that rank.

Gordon commanded his Georgia brigade at Chancellorsville, Va.; Gettysburg, Pa.; the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, Va.

During Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's May 12, 1864, attack on the Confederate position at Spotsylvania, a famous incident took place involving Gordon's brigade. When the Union troops broke the Confederate line, Lee ordered a counterattack and headed up the center of Gordon's line, as if he intended to lead the charge himself.

According to Douglas Southall Freeman in Lee's Lieutenants, published in 1944: "Gordon rode and confronted his chief: 'General Lee, this is no place for you. Go back, General; we will drive them back!' His voice was pitched above the din of the fight; he spoke so that his men might hear. They gathered quickly around the two horsemen. Gordon continued in tones that always excited his troops: 'These men are Virginians and Georgians. They have never failed. They never will. Will you, boys?'" With the troops calling to him to "go back" and Gordon impeding his way, Lee finally relented.

Clash with Early

In June 1864, Gordon was sent to participate in Early's Shenandoah Valley campaign, where he led his division at Monocacy, Opequon, Fisher's Hill and Cedar Creek before rejoining Lee at Petersburg, Va. He was present during the surrender at Appomattox.

After the defeat at Cedar Creek, Gordon had a falling out with Early. In his book, Gordon writes, "General Early insisted, and so stated in his now published report, that the 'bad conduct' of his own men caused the astounding disaster; while I was convinced that it was due solely to the unfortunate halting and delay after the morning victory. I insisted then, and I still insist, that our men deserved only unstinting praise."

After the war, Gordon was a candidate for governor of Georgia on the Democratic ticket in 1868, but his Republican opponent, Rufus B. Bullock, got the office.

Gordon was a member of the national Democratic conventions of 1868 and 1872, and a presidential elector for the same years.

He was elected to the United States Senate in 1873; re-elected in 1879, and resigned in 1880 to promote the building of the Georgia Pacific Railroad. He was again elected in 1891, and after that term he declined to run for re-election.

He was governor of Georgia from 1887 to 1890. On May 31, 1900, he was elected commander in chief of the United Confederate Veterans.

Gordon attained wide popularity as a lecturer on the events of the Civil War. He died in Miami Jan. 9, 1904, and is buried at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta.

Although Gordon had no local ties to Maryland, the editors of The Sun acknowledged him as a national figure at the time of his death, publishing a sympathetic editorial on his passing and an extensive obituary with a photograph taken in 1896 during his final term in the Senate.

Schedule of Cedar Creek re-enactment events

Saturday, Oct. 20

10 a.m.: Camps open to public; formation of troops

10:30 a.m.: Pass and review

11:30 a.m.: Infantry drills

Noon: Cavalry demonstration

12:30 p.m.: Field music

1:30 p.m.: Signal demonstration

2 p.m.: Artillery demonstration

3 p.m.: Battle - Fishers Hill or Battle of the 19th Corps

4:30 p.m.: Hospital demonstration

7 p.m.: Candle-light tours

8 p.m.: Camps close to public Sunday, Oct. 21:

9 a.m.: Camps open to public

10 a.m.: Church service in camp

11 a.m.: Cavalry demonstration, Custer vs. Rosser

Noon: Field music

1 p.m.: Signal corps demonstration

1:30 p.m.: Artillery demonstration

2:30 p.m.: Battle of Cedar Creek

3:30 p.m.: Hospital demonstration

5 p.m.: Camps close to public

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