Reminiscences of the Civil War

This is John B. Gordon’s memoir of the Civil War.  You can download it to read for free here, here, and here.

This is a very useful book for students of the war, but it has to be handled very, very carefully.  It’s very difficult to tell what is true and what isn’t true, and anything you wish to use must be corroborated by other sources.  Written in 1903, thirty-eight years after the end of the Civil War, Gordon’s book is simultaneously a lost cause document and a reconciliationist document.

John Brown Gordon was a lawyer in Georgia before the war.  He had no prior military experience or training, but he was a natural.  A brave, aggressive commander, he made a mark early and rose steadily until he assumed command of the II Corps, Army of Northern Virginia after Robert E. Lee relieved Jubal A. Early of command of that corps following the Battle of Waynesboro.

Gordon is a terrific storyteller, and the book is filled with really good stories one hopes are true.  They make the book fun to read.  In parts he has his own version of lost cause myth:  “The causes of the war will be found at the foundation of our political fabric, in our complex organism, in the fundamental law, in the Constitution itself, in the conflicting constructions which it invited, and in the institution of slavery which it recognized and was intended to protect. If asked what was the real issue involved in our unparalleled conflict, the average American citizen will reply, ‘The negro’; and it is fair to say that had there been no slavery there would have been no war. But there would have been no slavery if the South’s protests could have availed when it was first introduced; and now that it is gone, although its sudden and violent abolition entailed upon the South directly and incidentally a series of woes which no pen can describe, yet it is true that in no section would its reëstablishment be more strongly and universally resisted. The South steadfastly maintains that responsibility for the presence of this political Pandora’s box in this Western world cannot be laid at her door. When the Constitution was adopted and the Union formed, slavery existed in practically all the States; and it is claimed by the Southern people that its disappearance from the Northern and its development in the Southern States is due to climatic conditions and industrial exigencies rather than to the existence or absence of great moral ideas. Slavery was undoubtedly the immediate fomenting cause of the woful [sic] American conflict. It was the great political factor around which the passions of the sections had long been gathered–the tallest pine in the political forest around whose top the fiercest lightnings were to blaze and whose trunk was destined to be shivered in the earthquake shocks of war. But slavery was far from being the sole cause of the prolonged conflict. Neither its destruction on the one hand, nor its defence on the other, was the energizing force that held the contending armies to four years of bloody work. I apprehend that if all living Union soldiers were summoned to the witness-stand, every one of them would testify that it was the preservation of the American Union and not the destruction of Southern slavery that induced him to volunteer at the call of his country. As for the South, it is enough to say that perhaps eighty per cent. of her armies were neither slave-holders, nor had the remotest interest in the institution. No other proof, however, is needed than the undeniable fact that at any period of the war from its beginning to near its close the South could have saved slavery by simply laying down its arms and returning to the Union.” [pp. 18-19]  Those who actually read the secession documents and what was promulgated from the confederate national authorities during the war will recognize the unreliability of that claim.

His reconciliationist tendencies are very clear as well: “Doubtless wars of conquest, for the sake of conquest, for the purpose of despoiling the vanquished and enriching the victors, and all wars inaugurated from unhallowed motives, do demoralize every man engaged in them, from the commanding general to the privates. But such was not the character of our Civil War. On the contrary, it became a training-school for the development of an unselfish and exalted manhood, which increased in efficiency from its opening to its close. At the beginning there was personal antagonism and even bitterness felt by individual soldiers of the two armies toward each other. The very sight of the uniform of an opponent aroused some trace of anger. But this was all gone long before the conflict had ceased. It was supplanted by a brotherly sympathy. The spirit of Christianity swayed the hearts of many, and its benign influence was perhaps felt by the great majority of both armies” [p. 106]

I mentioned he has terrific stories in the book.  If you’ve seen the miniseries, The Blue and the Gray with Stacy Keach and Gregory Peck, you might recognize a similarity between one of the scenes of that show and this account: ” In 1896 an officer of the Union army told me the following story, which is but a counterpart of many which came under my own observation. A lieutenant of a Delaware regiment was officer of the picket-line on the banks of the Rappahannock. The pickets of the two armies were, as was usual at that time, very near each other and in almost constant communication. It was in midwinter and no movements of the armies were expected. The Confederate officer of pickets who was on duty on the opposite bank of the narrow stream asked the Union lieutenant if he would not come over after dark and go with him to a farm-house near the lines, where certain Confederates had invited the country girls to a dance. The Union officer hesitated, but the Confederate insisted, and promised to call for him in a boat after dark, and to lend him a suit of citizen’s clothes, and pledged his honor as a soldier to see him safely back to his own side before daylight the next morning. The invitation was accepted, and at the appointed hour the Confederate’s boat glided silently to the place of meeting on the opposite bank. The citizen’s suit was a ludicrous fit, but it served its purpose. The Union soldier was introduced to the country girls as a new recruit just arrived in camp. He enjoyed the dance, and, returning with his Confederate escort, was safely landed in his own lines before daylight.” [pp. 107-108]

We also have an account that is a usual staple of many Civil War miniseries: ” The talking and joking, the trading and ‘swapping,’ between the pickets and between the lines became so prevalent before the war closed as to cause no comment and attract no special attention, except when the intercourse led the commanding officers to apprehend that important information might be unwittingly imparted to the foe. On the Rapidan and Rappahannock, into which the former emptied, this rollicking sort of intercourse would have been alarming in its intimacy but for the perfect confidence which the officers of both sides had in their men. Even officers on the opposite banks of this narrow stream would now and then declare a truce among themselves, in order that they might bathe in the little river. Where the water was shallow they would wade in and meet each other in the center and shake hands, and ‘swap’ newspapers and barter Southern tobacco for Yankee coffee. Where the water was deep, so that they could not wade in and ‘swap,’ they sent the articles of traffic across in miniature boats, laden on the Southern shore with tobacco and sailed across to the Union side. These little boats were unloaded by the Union soldiers, reloaded, and sent back with Yankee coffee for the Confederates. This extraordinary international commerce was carried on to such an extent that the commanders of both armies concluded it was best to stop it. General Lee sent for me on one occasion and instructed me to break up the traffic. Riding along the lines, as I came suddenly and unexpectedly around the point of a hill upon one of the Confederate posts, I discovered an unusual commotion and confusion. I asked: ‘What is the matter here? What is all this confusion about?’

” ‘Nothing at all, sir. It ‘s all right here, general.’ I expressed some doubt about its being all right, when the spokesman for the squad attempted to connect some absurd explanation as to their effort to get ready to ‘present arms’ to me as I came up. Of course I was satisfied that this was not true; but I could see no evidence of serious irregularity. As I started, however, I looked back and discovered the high weeds on the bank shaking, and wheeling my horse, I asked: ‘What ‘s the matter with those weeds?’

” ‘Nothing at all, sir,’ he declared; but I ordered him to break the weeds down. There I found a soldier almost naked. I asked: ‘Where do you belong?’ ‘Over yonder,’ he replied, pointing to the Union army on the other side. ‘And what are you doing here, sir?’ ‘Well, general,’ he said, ‘I did n’t think it was any harm to come over and see the boys just a little while.’ ‘What boys?’ I asked. ‘These Johnnies,’ he said. ‘Don’t you know, sir, that there is war going on in this country?’ I asked. ‘Yes, general,” he replied; “but we are not fighting now.’ The fact that a battle was not then in progress given as an excuse for social visiting between opposing lines was so absurd that it overturned my equilibrium for the moment. If my men could have known my thoughts they would have been as much amused at my discomfiture as I was at the Union visitor’s reasoning. An almost irresistible impulse to laugh outright was overcome, however, by the necessity for maintaining my official dignity. My instructions from General Lee had been to break up that traffic and intercourse; and the slightest lowering of my official crest would have been fatal to my mission. I therefore assumed the sternest aspect possible under the circumstances, and ordered the Union soldier to stand up; and I said to him: ‘I am going to teach you, Sir, that we are at war. You have no rights here except as prisoner of war, and I am going to have you marched to Richmond, and put you in prison.’ This terrible threat brought my own men quickly and vigorously to his defense, and they exclaimed: ‘Wait a minute, general. Don’t send this man to prison. We invited him over here, and we promised to protect him, and if you send him away it will just ruin our honor.’ The object of my threat had been accomplished. I had badly frightened the Northern guest and his Southern hosts. Turning to the scantily clad visitor, I said: ‘Now, Sir, if I permit you to go back to your own side, will you solemnly promise me, on the honor of a soldier, that – – -‘ But without waiting for me to finish my sentence, and with an emphatic ‘Yes, Sir,’ he leaped like a bullfrog into the river and swam back.” [pp. 110-112]

Gordon does have some controversial parts to his memoirs.  Here we find his claim that he found Francis Barlow wounded on the field, thought that Barlow had died, and later, after the war, had dinner with Barlow where the two men reunited.  Many historians don’t think that episode happened.  He also claims, regarding JEB Stuart and the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge, “On the other flank, and with similar design, Lee had placed Stuart with his dashing Confederate riders. Stuart was to attack when Lee’s infantry had pierced Meade’s centre, and when the Union army was cut in twain and in rapid retreat.” [p. 170] There’s no real evidence of this plan.  He also claims, “It is one of the curious coincidences of the war that the results at Gettysburg furnished the occasion for the tender of resignation by each of the commanders-in-chief. Lee offered to resign because he had not satisfied himself ; Meade because he had not satisfied his Government. Lee feared discontent among his people; Meade found it with General Halleck. Relief from command was denied to Lee; it was granted at last to Meade.” [p. 175]  Meade didn’t resign and maintained command of the Army of the Potomac through to the end of the war.  This is also where he claims to have tried to get approval for a flank attack on the Union army at the Battle of the Wilderness and was denied for most of the day until it was too late to get a real advantage from it, and also where he charges Jubal Early with the “fatal halt” at the Battle of Cedar Creek.

One part is worth repeating in Civil War conversations, though: “It is much easier, however, to criticise [sic] a commander than to command an army.” [p. 194]

He goes a bit overboard in discussing Gen. David Hunter in the Shenandoah Valley: “Had he been a Virginian, however, his support of the Union cause would have engendered no bitterness toward him if he had worn his uniform worthily, remembering that he was an American soldier, bearing a high commission from the foremost and freest Republic of earth. General Lee’s own sister was a Union woman, the wife of a Union officer; but that fact did not deprive her of the affectionate interest of her family, nor of the chivalric regard of Southern soldiers. It did not obliterate or apparently lessen in any degree her devotion to her brother, Robert E. Lee, nor her appreciation of him as a great soldier. In expressing her loyalty to her husband and the Union cause, and her hope for the triumph of the Federal armies, she would usually add a doubt as to their ability to ‘whip Robert.’ General Thomas, one of the ablest commanders of the Union forces, was a Virginian, but he did not apply the torch to private homes or order the burning of his kindred’s barns. Hence the esteem with which he will always be regarded by the Southern people.”  Thomas was regarded as a “traitor” by many Virginians, including his own sisters who regarded him as dead to them and never spoke to him again. He makes the claim regarding R. E. Lee and the Burning of Chambersburg, PA, that: “This act of his subordinate was a great shock to General Lee’s sensibilities.” [p. 305]  That ignores the fact that Lee completely approved the action.  He also claims, “In all of General Grant’s triumphant marches I do not believe he ever directly ordered or willingly permitted the burning of a single home. And of his illustrious opponent, General Robert E. Lee, I am impelled to say in this connection that of the world’s great chieftains who have led armies into an enemy’s territory, not one has left a nobler example to posterity in his dealings with non-combatants and in the protection which he afforded to private property. When the Confederates crossed the Potomac into Maryland in 1862, he issued the most stringent orders against all plundering and all straggling through the country. On one of his rides in rear of his lines he chanced to find one of Jackson’s men with a stolen pig. This evidence of disregard of the explicit orders against pilfering so enraged General Lee that he ordered the soldier to be delivered to General Jackson and executed; but as Jackson was at the moment advancing in an attack, he directed that the soldier be placed in the front rank of his column, in order that he might be despatched by a Union rather than a Confederate bullet. The culprit went through the fire, however, unscathed, and purchased redemption from the death penalty by his conspicuous courage. The representatives of foreign governments who visited General Lee and accompanied him for a time on his campaigns were impressed by the manifestations of his solicitude for the protection of private citizens and private property in the enemy’s territory.” [p. 306] This, of course, ignores the fact that African-Americans in Pennsylvania were kidnapped and brought south into slavery by Lee’s army.

Gordon perpetuates the “happy slave” myth as well: “The Southern people from their earliest history had observed Christmas as the great holiday season of the year. It was the time of times, the longed-for period of universal and innocent but almost boundless jollification among young and old. In towns and on the plantations, purse-strings were loosened and restraints relaxed–so relaxed that even the fun-loving negro slaves were permitted to take some liberties with their masters, to perpetrate practical jokes upon them, and before daylight to storm ‘de white folks’ houses with their merry calls: ‘Christmas gift, master!’ ‘Christmas gift, everybody!’ ” [p. 378]  Additionally, he adds his contribution to the “faithful slave” mythology: “Again, it was argued in favor of the proposition that the loyalty and proven devotion of the Southern negroes to their owners would make them serviceable and reliable as fighters, while their inherited habits of obedience would make it easy to drill and discipline them. The fidelity of the race during the past years of the war, their refusal to strike for their freedom in any organized movement that would involve the peace and safety of the communities where they largely outnumbered the whites, and the innumerable instances of individual devotion to masters and their families, which have never been equalled [sic] in any servile race, were all considered as arguments for the enlistment of slaves as Confederate soldiers. Indeed, many of them who were with the army as body-servants repeatedly risked their lives in following their young masters and bringing them off the battle-field when wounded or dead. These faithful servants at that time boasted of being Confederates, and many of them meet now with the veterans in their reunions, and, pointing to their Confederate badges, relate with great satisfaction and pride their experiences and services during the war. One of them, who attends nearly all the reunions, can, after a lapse of nearly forty years, repeat from memory the roll-call of the company to which his master belonged.” [p. 383]  As my blogging colleague Andy Hall points out, this passage and the anecdote that follows it illustrates perfectly that the idea of there being thousands of “black confederates” prior to enlisting slaves in March of 1865 is nonsense, as both Gordon and Lee thought the idea laughable.

I can recommend the book for students of the war, but as I said above, be very careful in using it.  Ensure that whatever you use from the book is corroborated by reliable sources.

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2 comments

  1. Somewhere in Freeman’s bio of Lee there is a comment that it is difficult to tell where Gordon’s memory ends and his imagination begins. (You called him “Brown” at least once, BTW.)

    1. Thanks, Jim. Fixed.

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