General J.B. Gordon at Gettysburg - July 1, 1863

July 1, 1863, unfolded in the outskirts of Gettysburg about as well as any Confederate could have hoped.  Although events of the next two days tend to overshadow July 1 in hindsight, that day might be adjudged among the most successful in all of the annals of the Army of Northern Virginia.

 

Confederates concentrating toward Gettysburg from points north and west arrived in timely fashion and unhinged a succession of Federal positions.  As the division under Robert E. Rodes cleared Oak Ridge, Jubal A. Early's division fell upon the exposed Union Eleventh Corps, on lower ground to the east, and drove it back into town.   The six Georgia regiments of Gordon's Brigade played a key role in that triumphant advance.

 

Brigadier General John Brown Gordon had come to the Civil War without the military education and experience that prepared so many of his contemporaries for their dreadful responsibilities in mortal combat.  His intelligence, leadership qualities, and bravery combined to make Gordon stand out as the best of R. E. Lee's high-ranking officers without a professional prewar background.

 

When Gordon and his hard-bitten veteran Georgian infantrymen approached the Northern position on July 1, they discovered that it stretched across a prominent knoll near the Blocher farmhouse and barn.  As they aligned to attack, the Confederates came upon the willow-lined course of Rock Creek, meandering between them and their foe.

 

John Gordon's ramrod military posture and clarion voice had made him a familiar focus for his brigade's attention on many a battlefield by the middle of 1863.  On July 1 he bestrode a striking horse that heightened his profile. His men had captured the "huge black horse…handsomely caparisoned" from Federal General Robert H. Milroy at Winchester a fortnight earlier.  The "immense" creature "of unusually fine proportions" made a "magnificent appearance" as Gordon rode him toward Rock Creek.  Although cannon fire did not bother the beautiful mount, he later proved to be terrified of musketry—but at Gettysburg as the general and his new horse approached battle, they were the cynosure of every eye.

 

An artillerist who watched Gordon trot forward marveled at the black horse:  "He must have been a direct descendant of…Bucephalus….I never saw a horse's neck so arched, his eye so fierce, his nostril so dilated."  The general's demeanor impressed the same observer:  "Gordon was the most glorious and inspiring thing I ever looked upon….Bareheaded, hat in hand, arms extended, and in a voice like a trumpet, exhorting his men.  It was superb; absolutely thrilling." 

 

Colonel Clement A. Evans, who eventually would succeed Gordon in brigade command, reported on the same scene:  "Gordon rode superbly that day…among and ever near the heroic men in the advancing line, and his bearing was every inch the incarnate spirit of chivalry."

 

The Georgians moved briskly out of the Rock Creek bottom and swarmed over the heavily defended knoll.  Beyond the crest, Gordon ran across a badly wounded enemy, Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow.  Their encounter became one of the famous small episodes of Gettysburg, generating controversy that continues today.

 

A staff officer at Confederate Second Corps headquarters called Gordon's attack "one of the most warlike & animated spectacles I ever looked on."  Gordon himself recounted the success in a letter to his wife written on July 7:  "We charged the heavy lines of the Enemy & had a desperate fight.  I consider the action of the Brigade as brilliant as any charge of the war – and it is so regarded by the officers of the army….It surpassed anything I have seen during the war. "

 

Six days after the stirring scenes near Rock Creek, a captain in Gordon's Brigade wrote home and described how the general shouted to his victorious men:  "'You are the finest Troops that ever were led into a fight.'  We replied, 'You are the best Genl who ever led men into a fight.'"

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