restricted access John Brown Gordon: Soldier, Southerner, American (review)
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184erra war history John Brown Gordon: Soldier, Southerner, American. By Ralph Lowell Eckert. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989. Pp. xvii, 367. $32.50.) The immense popularity that John Brown Gordon enjoyed in the South during the late nineteenth century resulted primarily from his Civil War record. Without previous military training, Gordon entered the war as a captain of the Raccoon Roughs, a company of volunteers from the tri-state region of Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. He quickly proved to have the qualities of an outstanding leader who fired his troops for bold, aggressive action. He did not shy from combat and rarely failed to seize opportunities to strike the enemy. But his main virtue rested with his coolness under fire and his courage on the battlefield. Nowhere did he demonstrate that better than at the Battle of Sharpsburg. Even after two shots had pierced his right leg, a third had ripped through his left arm, and a fourth had lodged in his shoulder, he continued to lead his troops. Not until a Minié ball struck him squarely in the face did he leave the battle. By the time he returned to active duty six months later, he had received promotion to brigadier general, thus becoming one of only five Confederate soldiers who entered the war as amateurs and rose to corps command. During the remainder of the war, he continued to serve with distinction and became one of Robert E. Lee's most trusted lieutenants. Only thirty-three when the war ended, Gordon lived for almost forty more years and devoted that time to three major goals: promoting the interests of white Southerners, encouraging nationalism, and advancing his own financial interests. Determined from early in Reconstruction that white Southerners would redeem their region, Gordon became a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and probably served as the Grand Dragon in Georgia. On winning election to the Senate in 1873, he worked hard to have federal troops removed from the South. After he saw that goal achieved in 1877, he lost interest in his senatorial duties and resigned from that body in 1880. But Gordon continued to serve as a spokesman for his region and became for many a living embodiment of the Lost Cause. Through his lectures and writings, as well as his leadership of the United Confederate Veterans, Gordon filled a vital need of the postwar generation by helping to enkindle a fierce pride in the heritage of the Old South and the Confederacy. His role as Southerner did not conflict with his role as American. He realized that the North's victory in the Civil War meant the nation would remain united, and he worked to heal sectional divisions. Gordon demonstrated his acceptance of the postwar order by encouraging the South to follow the North's lead in developing an economy that embraced industrial and commercial developments. There his actions spoke as BOOK REVIEWS185 loudly as his words, for he became personally involved in a wide array of activities that included insurance, publishing, lumbering, textile mills, and railroads. His ambition to make money led him at times into actions that his critics believed were unethical. A poor businessman, he piled up debts for which creditors took him to court to secure payments. He also used his public offices to promote his personal interests. Although no one ever proved that he broke the law, he sought confidential information that could benefit him, and he lobbied to protect his interests. In the eyes of his critics, he shamelessly abused his public trust. But the critics always constituted a minority, and until his death in 1904, Gordon remained one of the South's best-loved men. That popularity enabled him to serve a term as governor in the 1880s, and return to the Senate for a final term in the 1890s. Ralph Lowell Eckert has written an able study of a complex man who influenced his era as well as reflected many of its values. Gordon represented the epitome of a New South Bourbon who failed to address the pressing needs of his constituents. He followed an approach to government that had the hallmarks of fiscal conservatism, which bordered...


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