The Civil War: Gen. Gordon and the Battle of Antietam, bloodiest day in history

Gen. Gordon was wounded again and again and remained undaunted. Photo: Bucolic Antietam Battlefield today

VIENNA, Va., June 29, 2012 — Part 2: Anyone who has studied the Civil War to any extent realizes that that fateful day at Sharpsburg, September 17, 1862, is known as the day of the greatest casualties in any of the country’s wars. Confederate John B. Gordon’s telling of his experiences on that day reinforces the stories of many survivors of the battle of Antietam from the lowest private to a general. 

It is amazing how well those who did survive their injuries could recall and relive those tumultuous days of battle. Gordon’s narrative recounted that bloody day: 

“A fourth ball ripped through my shoulder, leaving its base and a wad of clothing in its track. I could still stand and walk, although the shocks and loss of blood had left but little of my normal strength. I remembered the pledge to the commander that we would stay there till the battle ended or night came. I looked at the sun. It moved very slowly; in fact, it seemed to stand still.” 

Vickers Is Killed, Gordon Again Hit

“I thought I saw some wavering in my line, near the extreme right, and Private [Benjamin F.] Vickers of Alabama volunteered to carry any orders I might wish to send. I directed him to go quickly and remind the men of the pledge to General Lee, and to say to them that I was still on the field and intended to stay there.

“He bounded away like an Olympic racer; but he had gone less than fifty yards when he fell, instantly killed by a ball through his head. I then attempted to go myself, although I was bloody and faint, and my legs did not bear me steadily. I had gone but a short distance when I was shot down by a fifth ball, which struck me squarely in the face, and passed out, barely missing the jugular vein. I fell forward and lay unconscious with my face in my cap; and it would seem that I might have been smothered by the blood running into my cap from this last wound but for the act of some Yankee, who, as if to save my life, had at a previous hour during the battle, shot a hole through the cap, which let the blood out.

“I was borne on a litter to the rear, and recall nothing more till revived by stimulants at a late hour that night.”

Gen. John B. Gordon, Confederate general

After several months of recuperation from the injuries he had sustained, it was back in gear for Gordon, who led a brigade of Georgia troops in Jubal A. Early’s division during the hard-fought period when the Confederates invaded Pennsylvania, which end up being called the high watermark of the war.

Gordon Saw Action at Gettysburg

His men occupied the small town of Wrightsville on the banks of the Susquehanna River, which would actually end up as the farthest point east in Pennsylvania held by Confederate troops. 

All this would lead up to a tremendous battle on July 3, 1863 at a small farming town called Gettysburg, in Adams County, Pennsylvania, a site and a battle that would definitely go down in history and, for the most part, signal the end of the Confederacy’s hope for a victorious result. 

Following that bloody debacle, Gordon was next with Early’s troops at the Battle of the Wilderness. His idea for a flanking attack could well have proved important, but he finally received Early’s agreement too late in the day for it to be effective. He later fought with Early’s men in the Valley Campaign of 1864, where once again his propensity for physical injury became evident. 

At Shepherdstown (now West) Virginia, engineering wizard and Jackson’s topographical expert, Jedediah Hotchkiss’s official report talked about “Quite a lively skirmish ensued, in which Gordon was wounded in the head, but he gallantly dashed on, the blood streaming over him.”

And Again! 

Gordon next led the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia following the defeat at the Battle of Cedar Creek until the end of the war, including leading the attack on Fort Stedman late in March 1865, when he again was wounded in the leg by enemy fire. 

At Appomattox Court House, Va., he was able to capture several artillery pieces just before the final surrender on April 12, 1865, when his troops officially surrendered to Bvt. Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain, who was acting for Lt. General Ulysses Grant. And it was all over for John B. Gordon. His rashness and aggressiveness had stood him in good stead, but it was now time to lay down his sword and go home.

A “New South” Idea 

Gordon returned home to Atlanta where he proved to be a totally unreconstructed Rebel and worked to undermine the entire idea of Reconstruction and reunification of the country. He and his good friend Henry W. Grady traveled all over the country raising support for the “New South Creed.”  Very simply, they felt that since the plantation/agricultural life of the South had been destroyed, and slavery ended, it was up to the South to develop a new economy that was more in tune with the industrialization, which seemed to define the rest of the country.

There was only one potential hitch in this idea: it was predicated upon the removal of all Federal Troops from the South, and along with the demise of slavery, he wanted a degree of homage and respect paid to the South and its Confederate heritage.

The strange thing was that Gordon remained extremely popular everywhere, and in many of his talks (embellishing and exaggerating certain aspects of his military participation), he also pushed for unification of the states. Maybe he had truly “seen the light.”

Head of the Georgia KKK

Site of Dunker Church battle, Antietam 1862

On the other hand, insofar as the State of Georgia is concerned, Gordon was head of the Ku Klux Klan there until he was said to have repudiated the Klan and what it stood for in late 1868. He was not the only Confederate leader to follow the Klan for brief periods of time; both Albert Pike and Nathan Bedford Forrest are said to have been members as well. They remain in good company since former President Harry S. Truman was a member as was Senator Harry Byrd and others too numerous to state.

Gordon’s participation and new attitude toward reconciliation in the country made it natural for him to be made the first Commander of the United Confederate Veterans in 1890, a position he retained until his death on January 9, 1904, at the age of 71. 

He was buried in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia and over 75,000 people came to take part in the funeral or just to see where he lay. 

A beautiful equestrian statue of Gordon by sculptor Solon Borglum is located on the northeast part of the grounds of the George State Capitol, and another large statue is found on his grave in Oakland.

Follow the column on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email it’s MBoltz2846@aol.com Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.


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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."

 

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