From Raccoon Roughs to top-level command

Profile: John Brown Gordon commanded the successful surprise attack on the Union flank at Cedar Creek.

Cedar Creek 137th Anniversary Special Section

October 14, 2001|By Andrew D. Faith | Andrew D. Faith,SUN STAFF

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.'

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