By John C. Fazio
The Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2006, All Rights Reserved
All right, I admit it. I’m an incurable romantic. I love those touching, poignant scenes that reflect the best that is in us, if not always the strongest. I’m talking about Spencer Tracy grabbing John Carradine’s shirt, under his neck, telling him that he’ll kill him if he lays a finger on the boy, Freddie Bartholomew (Captains Courageous), or Rod Steiger putting a gun into brother Marlon Brando’s ribs in the back seat of a car, pleading with him to “take that job,” the one that will save his life, followed by Brando’s plaintive lament that he could have been a contender (On the Waterfront), or Charles Boyer, Cary Grant and Warren Beatty realizing, at the last split second before walking out on their true loves forever (Irene Dunne, Deborah Kerr and Annette Bening, respectively), that the latter missed their appointment atop the Empire State Building because of an automobile accident (An Affair to Remember, a love story so gripping that it has been filmed three times), and countless others that jerk our tears and put lumps in our throats.
Well, the Civil War is filled with such scenes, not surprisingly, given the human drama that comprises this American Iliad. It is filled, too, with human interest stories of which such scenes are a part. Such a story is the story of John B. (for Brown) Gordon and his wife, Fanny Rebecca Haralson.
Theirs was a long and happy marriage, a rarity even in those days, though it wasn’t divorce and dissolution then that brought so many unions to a close, but death, which was often sudden.
They were married on September 18, 1854, at Myrtle Hill, the Haralson’s ancestral home near La Grange, Georgia. The marriage lasted until John’s death on January 9, 1904 — almost 50 years. The wedding was a small, private affair, in her father’s bedroom in deference to his health, which shortly before had taken a bad turn. In fact, one week later her father, General Hugh Anderson Haralson, died. He had represented Georgia in Congress for many years and was Chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs during the Mexican War. Shortly after the wedding, John and Fanny moved to Atlanta.
John was a chivalrous and high-minded man, a cavalier in a society that prized cavaliers. He was brave to a fault, courageous and strong in his convictions, but fair-minded and profoundly respectful of his adversaries. Complementing these qualities were a keen intellect and a sensitive spirit, both of which were reflected in a poem he wrote for Fanny on the occasion of their thirty-seventh wedding anniversary (her fifty-fourth birthday). Here it is:
The day of days I now remember,
The sweetest far was in September,
When woods and fields and star-light skies,
And mellow suns and Autumn’s sighs,
Made earth so fair and life so sweet,
As Heaven bowed this world to greet,
And threw its sheen o’er nature’s face,
And clasped all things in Love’s embrace.
‘Twas natal day to fair young bride,
‘Twas natal day to new-borne pride,
In him whose life and hope and care,
This fair young bride henceforth must share.
So young she was, so winsome, coy,
So lithe her form, so pure her joy,
So rare her grace, so e’er discreet,
So trusting, true, so fair and sweet,
That happy man ne’er won for wife,
To lift his aims and brighten life,
More helpful hand or mind, I ween
Than this sweet girl of seventeen.
Though birthdays come and years pass by,
Though clouds may dim September’s sky,
Though threads of gray may streak thy hair,
And roses fade from cheeks so fair,
Still Beauty’s seal is on thy brow,
No brighter, nobler, then as now,
My love’s still warm as ’twas when you
Were seventeen, I twenty-two.
There probably weren’t many North or South who could pen verse as good as that, and probably not many who could inspire it. And that tells us a lot about our subjects.
John was born on February 6, 1832, in Upson City, Georgia, the son of a minister and plantation owner. He attended Georgia State University, but, despite being an excellent student, did not graduate, opting instead to study law. In those days an undergraduate degree was not always a prerequisite to the study of law. In any case, he was admitted to the Bar in 1854, began a practice with Basil H. Overby and Logan E. Bleckly and through them met and married the love of his life, who was the younger sister of the wives of both partners. Like so many other freshmen lawyers, he threw in the towel early.
In 1855, he tried his hand at journalism in Milledgeville, then the state capital, but this career, too, came to an abrupt end. In 1856, he and his father started a coal mining business (the Castle Rock Coal Company) near the common borders of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, which is to say the scene of much of the fighting in the Western Theater of the war that was soon to come. Indeed, the Battle of Chickamauga was fought in part on the Gordons’ property.
John was a spellbinding orator, a talent he used to good effect in inspiring his men in battle. He was also ramrod erect in his saddle and was said to make a most striking appearance on his coal-black stallion. A born leader, he rose in rank, during the war, from captain to corps commander, a feat unmatched in the Army of Northern Virginia, and this despite the fact that he began the war with absolutely no military education or experience. He was adored by his men, who knew him to be fearless without being reckless. Lee’s biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, said that John was “Lee’s principal confidant — as far as any man ever enjoyed that status.” Gordon’s biographer, Ralph Lowell Eckert, described John as “six feet tall, slight of build, and straight as a ramrod. Gordon looked every inch a soldier.” President Theodore Roosevelt would later say that “A more gallant, generous and fearless gentlemen and soldier has not been seen by our country.” Robert E. Lee, in a letter to Jefferson Davis, said that John was characterized “by splendid audacity.”
It must be said, too, however, that John was a racist, believing very strongly in slavery and just as strongly in secession. Without minimizing these deficiencies, we should not judge him too harshly because of them. As for the first deficiency, he was a product of his time and of his region. What should we expect from the son of a plantation owner in the antebellum South? The fact that the plantation owner was also a minister meant nothing at that time and place. It is said that the Devil can quote Scripture. Clergymen of all faiths found justification in Scripture for the odious institution, which proves only that where economics are concerned, the human mind is infinitely warpable. As for the second deficiency, a Georgian opposed to secession in 1861 would have felt like a leper in a nudist colony. In any case, John’s pluses clearly outweighed these minuses and probably some others we don’t know about. There, I think, we should leave the matter.
That is quite enough, I think, to tell us what John B. Gordon was made of. How then shall we regard the woman who loved him and chose to make her life with him, and shall we be surprised then when we learn that throughout his many campaigns in the war she followed him whenever and wherever she could so that if and when he needed her (and he would!), she would be there? That meant covering a lot of territory, because John was soon all over the landscape with Lee and, later, with Early. Keeping up with him would have been an arduous task for anyone, but especially for a woman, unless she was an extraordinary woman, which, clearly, she was. Even her lifespan was extraordinary. She was born in La Grange on September 18, 1837, and lived almost into our own time, dying on April 28, 1931, at the age of 93 — an almost unheard of longevity in those days.
John fought in all the major battles, and in many of the minor ones, in the Eastern Theater, including First Bull Run, the Seven Days Battles on the Peninsula (Fair Oaks, Seven Pines, and Malvern Hill), Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and, in the Valley with Early, at Monacacy, Third Winchester, Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek. Despite many and serious wounds, he was with Lee at the end.
Fanny followed him. She left their children with relatives to free her up for what in her judgment was a higher duty. Because of Southern custom, she could not be a battlefield nurse, but she could and did stay in the camps while the battles in which John fought were raging nearby. During the Battle of Fair Oaks, on the Peninsula, she stayed at the home of an uncle in Richmond. When news was brought to her, at the end of the day, that John had survived the carnage, the sudden release of pent up tension caused her to collapse.
At Antietam, he took five minie balls (count them, five!) in his leg, arm and face, and, incredibly, survived. How? By the love and devotion of a very energetic and gutsy woman. The facial wound caused his face to blacken and swell and his eyes to narrow, so much so that he could barely see. None of this deterred her. His jaw had been wired shut, which made feeding an extremely difficult proposition, but she knelt at his side and managed to get a little liquid nourishment past his clenched teeth. To make matters much worse, a usually fatal infection developed in his arm. The doctors told her that daily application of iodine to the wound might cure it. She did it, in his words, “three or four hundred times a day” – an exaggeration, of course, but the point is made. It worked: The infection receded and after many months of patience and care, John was pieced together and ready to lead men into battle again, which he did.
After his recovery from his Antietam wounds, he told how a ball through his hat saved his life, because bleeding profusely from his head wound he would have drowned in his own blood if the blood had not drained out through the hole made by the ball. For his service at Antietam, John was named brigadier general on November 1, 1862, a promotion that was confirmed on May 11, 1863, and made retroactive to May 7, 1862, after Chancellorsville.
In late April, 1863, just before Chancellorsville, he wrote to Fanny, telling her how meaningful her letters were to him and invoking the Deity to assure their survival and reunion.
“How far we will go, no one seems to know. I doubt Genl Lee himself knows.…Fan, your letters are the most beautiful evidences of a wife’s devotion I have ever seen. Write them to me dear dear Fanny. They are so sweet to me, when I am so far away from you & on such a cheerless ‘jaunt’ as this….May God protect us and bring us together again. Pray that I may have His spirit always in my heart. Good bye darling, sweet wife.”
At Chancellorsville (May 5 and 6, 1863) he assumed temporary command of the Georgia Brigade, part of the 31st Georgia Infantry Regiment, and fought with distinction. Following the battle, his command was made permanent. He sustained no injury during this battle, and that was fortunate, because Fanny was not, in this instance, permitted to accompany him.
After Chancellorsville, he lost contact with Fanny for a period when she moved from Richmond to be closer to him. On June 7, 1863, he again poured out his heart to her:
“Oh Fanny, what shall I say to you? How shall I tell you what I feel tonight?…If I could only lay my arms around my dear wife & press her close to this heart–how it would relieve me. If down my sunburnt cheeks a tear, which I can’t control, steals when I write this, am I therefore unmanly & effeminate?
“Well then, let it be so. But it is only when my heart is overwhelmed by such reflections as I have had tonight, that I am guilty of such unmanliness–and but for a moment then–I am almost sorry I confessed this to you. I shall control myself in the future…Well rely on it, I shall shed no more tears soon.”
Prior to Gettysburg, John’s Georgians passed through York, Pennsylvania. The citizens viewed the unkempt invaders warily. But John quickly put them at ease, assuring them that his men would respect them and their property, which they did. York would be spared the fate of Chambersburg as long as he was in command. His orders to his men could not have been clearer: he would have the head of any one of them who destroyed private property or insulted a woman. They all kept their heads. After York, John’s Confederates occupied Wrightsville, on the Susquehanna River, the most easterly point that would be reached by organized troops of the Army of Northern Virginia. When Union troops there set the bridge on fire, the Georgians organized a bucket brigade to put it out.
At Gettysburg, on the first day, John, ordered to stem the advance of Howard’s corps against the Confederate left, overwhelmed the line posted to protect the Union right. During the melee that ensued, on what became known as Blocher’s Knoll, but which is now known as Barlow’s Knoll, he saw Francis C. (for Channing) Barlow, who was trying to rally his men, fall. With the knoll largely cleared of the enemy and now littered with Union dead, John rode up and saw Barlow lying on his back, the last thin reeds of life apparently slipping from his grasp. He dismounted to attend to his dying foe. But let’s hear him tell it:
“Riding forward with my rapidly advancing lines, I discovered that brave officer lying upon his back, with the July sun pouring its rays into his pale face. He was surrounded by the Union dead, and his own life seemed to be rapidly ebbing out. Quickly dismounting and lifting his head, I gave him water from my canteen, asked his name and the character of his wounds. He was Major-General Francis C. Barlow, of New York, and of Howard’s corps.
“The ball had entered his body in front and passed out near the spinal cord, paralyzing him in legs and arms. Neither of us had the remotest thought that he could possibly survive many hours. I summoned several soldiers who were looking after the wounded, and directed them to place him upon a litter and carry him to the shade in the rear.
“Before parting, he asked me to take from his pocket a package of letters and destroy them. They were from his wife. He had but one request to make of me. That request was that if I should live to the end of the war and should ever meet Mrs. Barlow, I would tell her of our meeting on the field of Gettysburg and of his thoughts of her in his last moments. He wished me to assure her that he died doing his duty at the front, that he was willing to give his life for his country, and that his deepest regret was that he must die without looking upon her face again.
“I learned that Mrs. Barlow was with the Union army, and near the battle-field. When it is remembered how closely Mrs. Gordon followed me, it will not be difficult to realize that my sympathies were especially stirred by the announcement that his wife was so near him. Passing through the day’s battle unhurt, I despatched at its close, under flag of truce, the promised message to Mrs. Barlow. I assured her that if she wished to come through the lines she should have safe escort to her husband’s side.
“In the desperate encounters of the two succeeding days, and the retreat of Lee’s army, I thought no more of Barlow, except to number him with the noble dead of the two armies who had so gloriously met their fate.”
Well, with the help of John’s safe passage, other Confederate officers and General Howard, she came, making her way through both lines. And, despite the doomful prognostications of Confederate doctors and at least one captured Union surgeon as well, all of whom examined him and predicted his imminent demise, she saved her husband from oblivion. Another angel of mercy. For reasons that are not clear from the record, Barlow was returned to Union control. Arabella took him to Somerville, New Jersey, her original home, where he completed his recuperation, returning to service in January, 1864. John forgot all about him, assuming that he had not survived, little realizing that he would soon be facing him again without knowing it.
After three days of carnage and defeat in south-central Pennsylvania, John once more sought solace in communication with his beloved Fanny:
“God has spared my life, I am yet alive. Thousands of as brave and good men as our country contains lie on the battlefields of Pennsylvania & yet I am spared. I, who so little appreciate God’s peculiar favors to me, I who am so sinful, so thoughtless so ungrateful for God’s goodness am spared. Oh Lord I pray to fill my heart and my dear wife’s with gratitude and praise.
“My Brigade has been greatly complimented. Genl Early & Ewell & others have paid me very high compliments; but Darling these things are worth very little to me. I rarely give them a second thought. My soul is too much burdened with the terror of this war to think much of such stuff. My separation from you…the soul of my happiness on this Earth…the awful uncertainty as to the future…the seemingly endless blood shed that is to take place…the thousands of noble lives lost in the last horrid battle, all conspire to render every personal compliment and idle talk of glory as exceedingly worthless to me.
“These times are too serious and my heart too deeply interested in the fate of our unhappy country and too burdened with the fact of my probable long separation from My Darling, to think much of personal considerations. But I have been peculiarly fortunate & have made without an effort to do it, some reputation as a commander.
“My dear girl, what shall I say to you, to give you an idea of my heart aching, when I think of our separation–I say when I think. Why Darling, except in the midst of battle, you are scarcely out of my thoughts. Indeed I am not at all sure that I do not think of you in battle. I am quite sure that the idea occurs to me, of the desolation which would reign in your heart if I should be killed. I think this occurred to me in the last battle at Gettysburg…
“Good bye. The Lord of Hosts bless you my dear dear wife & little boys. I am trying to rely upon the same protection I have felt in other battles. My Saviour I trust is my friend. If I am spared it is on His account.
“Good bye again my sweet angel wife.”
In the Wilderness, John led his Georgians in an attack that was said to be critical to Confederate success. Again he escaped unscathed, despite the ferocity of the combat and the frightful losses on both sides, many of whom burned to death when the woods caught fire.
At Spotsylvania John knew, perhaps, his finest hour. Grant ordered a concentrated charge against the apex of the Mule Shoe, giving the job to Hancock’s corps (i.e. division commanders Barlow, Birney, Mott and Gibbon). On May 12, they struck, overrunning almost a mile of Confederate lines with a blue tide that one Confederate soldier described as being like a “torrent over a broken mill dam.” The Federals, led by Barlow, Birney and Mott, with Gibbon in reserve, captured between 3000 and 4000 prisoners, 18 or 20 guns and 30 flags and threatened to tear Lee’s defenses wide open. Lee and Gordon saw the danger.
Lee wanted to lead the counterattack himself, but Gordon, with the help of his veterans, would not allow it. With cries of “General Lee to the rear,” John, on his coal-black charger, led his veterans into the breach, exhorting them, with his booming voice, to drive the enemy back. They did, all the way to the original line of Confederate entrenchments, where the men in blue held, thus forcing the men in gray to form a new interior line of defense and precipitating a 20-hour slugfest that surpassed in ferocity anything in the war. Again, despite the intensity of the struggle and the appalling casualties on both sides, John left the field unhurt and moved with Lee’s army to check Grant’s advance on the North Anna River and Cold Harbor.
After the latter bloody clash of arms, in which the Army of the Potomac lost 7,000 men in a doomed twenty-minute frontal assault that Grant later acknowledged was a serious error, John was detached from Lee’s command and put under the command of General Early in the Valley. Their purposes were to harass Washington, and thereby draw Federal troops away from Lee’s front, and to neutralize, to the extent possible, Sheridan’s attempt to deprive the Confederacy of one of its principal larders by laying it waste. In so doing, John participated in major engagements at Monocacy, Third Winchester, Fisher’s Mill and Cedar Creek.
Unbeknownst to John, Fanny followed him when on June 14, 1864, be began his Valley Campaign with Early. At one point, her carriage broke down and she was almost captured, but with the help of men from the command of Robert Rodes, she continued her pursuit unmolested. At Winchester, she took to the street to rally retreating Confederates. With bullets flying all around her, she shouted at them: “Go back to the front lines, you cowards. Turn around and fight.” John, witnessing this spectacle, was horrified. Fortunately, no harm came to either of them.
General Early had made known his opposition to wives following their husbands around and was said to have remarked, about Fanny, that he wished the Yankees would capture her and hold her until the war was over. If he said it, he said it in jest, because it was known that he admired her pluck (who could do otherwise?) and, in fact, it was reported that he said to her that when he issued orders that officers’ wives had to go to the rear, she was excepted, inasmuch as John was so much a better soldier when she was around than when she wasn’t. So she followed him and her presence on and near battlefields became so well known that the men in gray were said to remark that when she was seen going to the rear, they could be sure that the sparks were about to fly. In fact, Early was said to have remarked, upon learning of her presence in Winchester: “Well, I’ll be! If my men would keep up as well as she does, I’d never issue another order against straggling.” The campaign in the Valley failed, of course. The little cavalryman, with the ridiculous hat, from Somerset, Ohio, turned it into a moonscape, thereby depriving Confederate armies of the sustenance they had been taking from it, mostly grain.
After the failure of the Valley Campaign, John rejoined Lee at Petersburg and stayed and fought with him there and in the engagements leading inexorably to Appomattox. There, he was appointed by Lee to preside over the stacking of Confederate arms and standards. His Union counterpart was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who had survived about as many scrapes as John had. Let us hear Chamberlain describe the scene and the behavior of the erstwhile combatants:
“Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry” – the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual, — honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!”
The war was over for John and Fanny and for a torn and bereaved nation.
After the war, John went into business and then politics. He served in the United States Senate from 1873 to 1880 and from 1891 to 1896, and served as Governor of Georgia from 1886 to 1890. In 1889, the United Confederate Veterans was organized and John became its first President. Fanny never left his side.
It needs to be said too, sadly, that John played a major role in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. He prepared the Prescripts (Rules and Regulations) for the fledgling organization and presented them at a convention held in Nashville in April, 1867. It was at this convention that Nathan Bedford Forrest was named the first Grand Wizard of the KKK and John was named Grand Dragon (leader) of the KKK in Georgia. All of this childish nonsense was a serious error of judgment on John’s part and unquestionably diminishes his record, his reputation and his accomplishments. But it does not erase them.
Three months before his death, he published Reminiscences of the Civil War, said by those who have read it to be one of the most charming, lively, completely inoffensive, detailed and compelling first-person accounts of the war.
On Saturday, January 9, 1904, at 10:05 p.m., at Miami-Biscayne, Florida, and with Fanny at his side, he died. Despite his extremely debilitated state, poised as he was between works and rewards, he managed a last look, a smile and a touch for the one who had loved him and been loved by him almost from the day their eyes met, who had been with him in body and in spirit for half a century and who had been all things to him.
Fanny soldiered on without him for another 27 years, but her life was a pale copy of the life she knew with the knight known as John Brown Gordon, who, it was said, was the only Civil War commander who was never defeated or repulsed when he led a charge or when he was in command.