Archives For civil war

A unique and compelling character, John Brown Gordon was one of Georgia’s most consequential political and military leaders of the nineteenth century. He studied at the University of Georgia, though he dropped out shortly before graduation to read law. He possessed no formal military training, yet he rapidly ascended through the officer ranks of the Confederate army to where, by the end of the war, he commanded a corps in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Apart from the protagonist in my Civil War historical novel That Deadly Space, John B. Gordon’s role is one of unequalled importance. His fictionalized involvement in the novel is that of a mentor to, and the commander of, the central character Conor Rafferty. Conor serves with John Gordon in the battles at Antietam, Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Petersburg, and at the close of the war near Appomattox Court House.

What made John Gordon so unique? For starters, he was a gifted military commander with astonishing bravery.

At Antietam, the audacious Gordon led his regiment in the desperate struggle at an old eroded farming road that would thereafter be referred to as Bloody Lane. He was shot twice in the same leg, once in the arm, then the shoulder, and finally in the face. He was eventually nursed back to health due in large measure to the efforts of his wife, who travelled with him throughout the war.

During the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania, Gordon’s brigade occupied Wrightsville, on the Susquehanna River. When Union militia burned the long covered bridge spanning the river to thwart Gordon’s crossing, embers from the fire quickly spread to Wrightsville. Gordon formed his Confederate troops into a bucket brigade and managed to prevent the fire from destroying much of the town.

At the war’s end, as the defeated Confederate soldiers were turning in their muskets and other associated military equipment, Union General Joshua Chamberlain, who earned the Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, called for his men to salute their conquered foe. Seeing Chamberlain’s salute, Gordon sat upon his horse, drew his sabre, and returned Chamberlain’s salute. It was an impressive display of mutual respect that would never be forgotten by either general, nor by those who close enough to witness it.

After the war, John B. Gordon served as a United States Senator and later as Governor of Georgia. Gordon opposed Reconstruction, and was thought to be the titular head of the Ku Klux Klan though his role there was never conclusively determined. However, as a politician he shaped a vision of national unification, an economic vitality of a South free of slavery, and care for veterans. He died in 1904 at the age of 71 and was buried in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery. A crowd estimated at 75,000 attended the service.

A man of many talents, John B. Gordon was indeed a unique and consequential figure of his time.

It’s a Gold Medal for That Deadly Space! Heartfelt thanks to the Military Writers Society of America for their selection of my Civil War novel for their Gold Medal award. I am grateful to MWSA for their selection of my book for this prestigious award. You might notice a second Gold Medal in the picture. The first was awarded in 2011 for my historical novel Shall Never See So Much. I’m deeply honored to be a two-time recipient. I might add that Michael Phelps, with his 23 Olympic Gold Medals, has little to worry about.

 

 

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Maryland battlefield at Antietam (or Sharpsburg, to the Confederates) where, on September 17, 1862, the bloodiest single-day battle of the Civil War took place. At the conclusion of the day’s fighting, over 22,000 combined casualties were incurred. The battle pitted Confederate General Robert E. Lee against Union General George B. McClellan in what became a standstill by the end of the battle. The fighting took place in a cornfield, at a bridge crossing, and at a sunken road worn down by years of wagon traffic. The carnage was horrific all across the battle area, but it was at this bloody lane that best illustrated to me the slaughter that occurred at Antietam.

The fighting began at Bloody Lane with Confederates firing into successive Union lines of attack with devastating results. By the time the Union soldiers finally flanked the embattled Confederates, the road was so thick with bodies that it would have been possible to walk its length without setting foot on the ground. Colonel John B. Gordon, commanding a Confederate regiment, suffered five serious wounds, one to his face. Gordon would recover and eventually lead an entire Corps near the end of the war. The Union suffered 3,000 casualties, the Confederates 2,600. The fight lasted from 9:30 am until 1:00 pm. When the last of the Confederates finally peeled away from Bloody Lane, the exhausted Federals no longer had the momentum to pursue.

Here is a description of my main character in my novel That Deadly Space, Conor Rafferty, awakening in a converted hospital in Sharpsburg:

Conor awakened several hours later in a house in Sharpsburg that was being utilized as a field hospital. A doctor saw him attempt to sit up and walked over to check on him.
“I’m Doctor Whitmire, one of the regimental surgeons. Your wounds have been dressed, Captain, and your wrist has been immobilized. You should be fine in due course.”
“Did you have to amputate anything?” Conor asked as he began taking an inventory of his extremities.
“No, nothing that wasn’t already missing,” he said with a point toward his hand, which was heavily bandaged. “You were only minutes away from expiring due to blood loss. And no, we didn’t take your arm or leg off, and your scalp wound was sufficiently minor that we didn’t take your head off.”
“Sufficiently minor. All right, then,” Conor said, feeling the bandage on his head. “With all due respect, Doctor, I find your humor so sufficiently minor that you’ll forgive me if I don’t laugh myself into a coma. Do you have any word from the field on the outcome?”
“It’s stopped. Appears to be a stalemate, and a damned bloody one, at that. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“Where is Colonel Gordon? Do you have any word on his condition?”
“I haven’t seen him here. I don’t know where he is.”
The surgeon then heard his name called and abruptly left.

By 5:30 pm, the battle was over. The wounded were treated in makeshift hospitals throughout the region. Wounded Confederates who could not be transported by wagon back across the Potomac into Virginia were left to the mercy of the Union doctors. McClellan did not pursue the battered Confederates, angering President Lincoln, who would soon replace him. Lincoln, incidentally, used the standoff as enough of a victory to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. The United States’ war aims thus changed from preserving the Union to preserving the Union and freeing the slaves.

Antietam, thus, was a battle of major importance.

 

The removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces in several Southeast cities has sparked a vigorous debate. At its crux is the efficacy of paying homage to soldiers who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and with it the Confederacy’s association with slavery.

I will add my two-cents worth, but first a bit of disclosure: I’m a Southerner whose ancestors fought on the side of the Confederacy. I’m also an American who proudly served this nation as a United States Marine. And I’m a novelist whose latest book, That Deadly Space, A Civil War Novel, makes this debate especially interesting to me.

Several years ago there was a heated debate over the Confederate flag, and its image as part of the design of several state flags in the South, including Georgia, my own state. In historical terms, the Confederate flag was a battle flag, but in a more contemporary context it has often been used as a sign of defiance, an in-your-face symbol that can easily be understood to have racial overtones. I get that. I fully understand the need to remove such divisive symbols from state flags, and I was pleased to see Georgia remove the image of the Confederate flag from our state flag to its present form.

Monuments, on the other hand, were typically erected not in defiance, but as a way of honoring soldiers. And not just famous generals, but in many cases and in many town squares, honoring common soldiers—scared, homesick, brave young men who did their duty as best they could. The Civil War changed this country forever and established what we are as a nation, and what we are not. The Confederacy was defeated, slavery was abolished, and the Union was preserved. That is our history. So, if all of the monuments honoring Confederate soldiers are removed, then what has really been accomplished? Would it make us any less divided? How much bitterness would be mollified, how much created? And, importantly, where does it all end?

The Civil War period, both the good and the bad, was a chaotic, bloody four-year chapter in a young nation’s story. Pushing it out of sight does not change it. Attempting to re-write it likewise does not alter it. Failing to teach it, all of it, in the name of political correctness, is disgraceful. And removing monuments to soldiers 152 years after the last shots were fired seems of a piece with the efforts of some to rename buildings and dishonor other historical American figures with an assumption, I suppose, that in doing so, all perceived wrongs will be righted and paradise will suddenly break out.

Hundreds of thousands of people protested the Vietnam War as being oppressive or immoral or racist, even to a point of cursing at and spitting on returning veterans. Many of the protestors viewed the war as criminal. Will there therefore be a movement to have the Wall in Washington D.C. dismantled and the names of 58,000 American servicemembers tossed aside?

Good luck with that.

It would be impossible to learn the full span of American history if parts of that history are deemed by some as too toxic or too politically incorrect, and end up as either blank pages in history books or revised to represent a version that has little historical accuracy or context. That would not be helpful. Leave the monuments. Teach the history, all of it. Give the vast majority of the American people credit for being strong enough to see the full sweep of the nation’s history without becoming convulsive. This nation has survived a revolution, a civil war, a depression, world wars, regional wars, and 9/11. It can deal with Southern monuments to Southern soldiers.

 

In researching certain particulars of the Battle of Gettysburg for my new novel, That Deadly Space, I came across a familiar figure who might very well have been the most consequential Union officer on the field during those historic three days in July, 1863. General Winfield Scott Hancock was that familiar figure. A battle-tested veteran of Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, Hancock’s performance had earlier been described by General George McClellan as “superb.”

On the first day at Gettysburg, Hancock assumed temporary command of the Union I, II, III and XI Corps after General John Reynolds had been killed in action. While in command of the entire left wing of the Army of the Potomac, Hancock provided critically needed leadership while skillfully deploying his troops along the high ground at Cemetery Hill. He set in motion the “fishhook” position that spanned from Culp’s and Cemetery Hills to the Round Tops, and then recommended to the overall commander, General George Meade, that the fight should be made on the excellent defensive ground at Gettysburg.

On the third day, Hancock’s II Corps absorbed the brunt of the massive Confederate assault known as Pickett’s Charge. Hancock’s courageous personal example, even under heavy artillery fire, was inspirational to his soldiers. Again and again, Hancock was superb. When told by a subordinate that he was risking his life by calmly riding among his troops, Hancock was said to have replied, “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count.” Hancock’s leadership did much to gain the Union victory, but not without cost. Hancock was seriously wounded in the thigh and refused to be evacuated from the field until the battle had been decided. He would be bothered by that wound for the duration of the war. In a strange twist of fate, Confederate General Lewis Armistead, a dear friend, was also wounded in the assault and died two days later. The two close friends, on opposite sides of that deadly struggle, were less than one-hundred yards apart when both were struck down.

The statue of the mounted Hancock at Cemetery Hill is impressive, all the more when the thoughts of Hancock’s uplifting presence among the dispirited Union troops on that hard first day are remembered. A marker also shows the location where Hancock was wounded on the third day. His presence can still be felt on the field at Gettysburg, even with the passage of 154 years. Winfield Scott Hancock is unquestionably one of the finest military officers this nation has produced.

He was, and still is, Hancock the Superb.