Last updated: December 20, 2021
Though he had no prior military training or experience prior to the Civil War, John Brown Gordon became one of the most successful commanders in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
From the Peninsula to Maryland: Gordon's role in the summer of 1862
Gordon was elevated to Colonel of the 6th Alabama in April 1862, just before serious campaigning began on the Peninsula. He distinguished himself admirably after being thrust into brigade command when Brigadier General Robert Rodes was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. Gordon led the brigade in a charge through murderous fire in which every one of his field officers was killed. He alone survived, with bullets shattering the handle of his pistol, piercing his canteen, tearing away part of his coat and killing his horse. Gordon also commanded Rodes' Brigade and led the costly charge at the Battle of Malvern Hill, where he was temporarily blinded when dirt from an exploding shell hit him in the eyes.
Although left in the Richmond area with the rest of D. H. Hill's division during the 1862 Northern Virginia Campaign, Gordon's regiment rejoined the Army of Northern Virginia for the Maryland Campaign in September.
Gordon was positioned on the Confederate left during the Battle of South Mountain. His leadership of the 6th Alabama appeared to be inspired. General Rodes said that on that day Gordon handled the 6th Alabama "in a manner I have never heard or seen equaled during this war."
During the Battle of Antietam, on September 17, Gordon was ordered to hold a vital portion of the sunken road, now known as the "Bloody Lane." When General Lee asked whether he could hold his ground, Gordon replied that his men could do so "until the sun goes down or victory is won."
Gordon fulfilled his promise and held the line against repeated Federal assaults, but this success came at a high personal cost for Gordon. Gordon received five wounds in the course of his successful repulse of repeated Union attacks before finally collapsing. The first ball passed through his right calf. The second struck higher up in the same leg, but as neither had struck the bone, he remained in the field. A third bullet pierced his left arm, but he remained with 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 fourth ball pierced his shoulder but he still remained on the line.
He was finally stopped by a ball that hit him in the face, passing through his left cheek and out his jaw. This ball pitched him forward unconscious, landing with his face in his cap. It is likely that the only thing that saved him from drowning in his own blood was that a bullet hole in his cap allowed the blood to drain out as he lay prostrate on the ground.
Gordon recovered from his wounds, and was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and given command of a brigade of Georgia regiments, which he led in the Gettysburg campaign the following July.
In June 1864, Gordon accompanied Jubal Early on his mission to clear David Hunter's army from the Shenandoah Valley and try to take Washington, DC. Gordon did not get on well with his superior officer, Jubal Early. He said Early was an able strategist and "one of the coolest and most imperturbable of men under fire and in extremity." Nonetheless, Gordon criticized him for ignoring subordinates' suggestions and discounting scouting reports.
On the way to sieze the Union capital, Early's army encountered Union troops at Monocacy Junction. Gordon and his troops were engaged in the heavisest fighting at Monocacy. His division confronted Ricketts's division on the Thomas and Worthington Farms, eventually forcing the Union forces to retreat.
At a White House reception more than thirty years after the war, Gordon was introduced to Lew Wallace, commander of the Union forces at Monocacy. Gordon was then a Senator from Georgia. Sitting together on a sofa, they talked about the battle of Monocacy- Gordon stated that Wallace was the only person who had whipped him during the war. Wallace demurred, arguing that Gordon had possession of the field; Gordon replied, "In that sense you are right; but you snatched Washington out of our hands- there was the defeat. ... The duty of driving you off the road fell to me; and I did it, but not until you had repulsed several attacks, and crippled us so seriously we could not begin pushing our army forward until next morning about ten o' clock."