VIENNA, Va., June 21, 2012 — Confederate General John B. Gordon was said to live a charmed life, and in fact it took a number of injuries for him to finally succumb. He was one of the boldest officers ever to wear the uniform, and his deeds have gone down in history as a result. (This will be a two-part column with the second part coming next Wednesday, June 27, 2012.)
Gordon came from strong Scottish stock and was born on the family plantation in Upson County, Georgia on February 6, 1832. When he was still young, the family moved to Walker County, Georgia in the northwest corner of the state, where his father had operated a coal mine in the past.
He attended the University of Georgia, attaining a high point average, but the historians differ on the outcome. Some say he inexplicably dropped out before graduation; others say that he graduated in two years. His intention was to become a lawyer and after marrying Rebecca “Fanny” Harralson, he moved to Atlanta where he “read for the law” and passed the bar examination. A young man just beginning in the legal profession did not attract many clients, and he soon returned to the coal mine, which he managed at the time the Civil War began.
Spectacular Rise in the Military
His military odyssey begins with the fact that he possessed no formal training in that life – no West Point or any military educational background – and he began his Confederate service as a completely untrained captain of the “Raccoon Roughs,” a group of mostly mountain men from Alabama and Georgia. His career escalated at an amazing pace, and soon he was a Major General. He would reach the apex of his career a brief four years later as a General in charge of General Robert E. Lee’s Army.
He saw considerable action in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 and during the Seven Days Battles, as he walked fearlessly (and recklessly) among his troops, enemy fire shattering the handle of his pistol, putting a hole in his canteen and tearing away part of the front of his uniform coat.
When his career concluded as he led the Army in a formal surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia in 1865, the young general was only thirty-three years old.
He was one of those few self-made combat leaders, whose tall, lanky frame towered over some of his troops and seemed to inspire confidence and undeniable bravery in those beneath his rank. If he looked a general and acted a general, it became obvious that he soon would become one.
He also was almost a foolhardy leader as his boldness and aggressiveness that frequently brought him into areas where he was lucky to escape alive, resulting in his numerous wounds.
Antietam Is Pinnacle
If Napoleon had his Waterloo, Gordon almost had his Antietam or Sharpsburg. Lee had told him to hold the extremely important Sunken Road (later to be known as Bloody Lane) and had asked Gordon if he felt this would be possible. Gordon quickly replied that his troops could hold it “until the sun goes down or victory is won,” but with that heartfelt promise to Lee, it seemed Gordon’s lucky days were coming to an end.
First a “Minie” ball passed through his calf, then a second one also found its target, higher on his leg, just before a third ball went through his left arm. He was lucky to survive this shot as it mangled tendons and muscles and one small artery was severed, resulting in considerable bleeding.
Remembering his promise to his commander, Gordon could not be stopped from leading his men as a fourth missive struck him in the shoulder, but soon thereafter, a ball hit him in the face going through his left cheek and then coming out through the jaw. This brought him to the ground on his face, his cap under it, but a previous bullet hole in the cap allowed the accumulating blood to drain out, and he survived the battle. It was then that he left the field of honor.
In Gordon’s Own Words
In 1903, Gordon wrote his book entitled “Reminiscences of the Civil War,” and he set out for the first time his thoughts and feelings during the ongoing period of injuries:
“My extraordinary escapes from wounds in all the previous battles had made a deep impression upon my comrades as well as upon my own mind. So many had fallen at my side, so often had balls and shells pierced and torn my clothing, grazing my body without drawing a drop of blood, that a sort of blind faith possessed my men that I was not to be killed in battle. This belief was evidenced by their constantly repeated expressions: ‘They can’t hurt him.’ ‘He’s as safe one place as another.’ ‘He’s got a charmed life.’
“If I had allowed these expressions of my men to have any effect upon my mind, the impression was quickly dissipated when the Sharpsburg storm came and the whizzing Minies, one after another, began to pierce my body.
“The first volley from the Union lines in my front sent a ball through the brain of the chivalric Colonel [Charles C.] Tew, of North Carolina, to whom I was talking, and another ball through the calf of my right leg. On the right and the left, my men were falling under the death-dealing crossfire like trees in a hurricane.
“The persistent Federals, who had lost so heavily from repeated repulses, seemed now determined to kill enough Confederates to make the debits and credits of the battle’s balance-sheet more nearly even. Both sides stood in the open at short range and without the semblance of breastworks, and the firing was doing a deadly work.
“Higher up in the same leg, I was again shot; but still no bone was broken. I was able to walk along the line and give encouragement to my resolute riflemen, who were firing with the coolness and steadiness of peace soldiers in target practice.
“When later in the day the third ball pierced my left arm, tearing asunder the tendons and mangling the flesh, they caught sight of the blood running down my fingers, and these devoted and big-hearted men, while still loading their guns, pleaded with me to leave them and go to the rear, pledging me that they would stay there and fight to the last. I could not consent to leave them in such a crisis.
“The surgeons were all busy at the field-hospitals in the rear, and there was no way, therefore, of stanching the blood, but I had a vigorous constitution, and this was doing me good service.”
In an effort to make this account as thorough as possible, we will break here and finish the story up next Wednesday, June 27. Plan to be back with us then for Part 2 of General Gordon’s remarkable story.
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