J.B. Gordon at Gettysburg
- July 1, 1863
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.'"