Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon (Library of Congress)
Famed Rebel general revisited York in 1894
Though somewhat obscure today except to Civil War buffs, during his day John Brown Gordon received accolades as one of the very best Confederate generals. He was also an post-war important politician in the state of Georgia and a nationally known, world-class lecturer and best-selling author. In April 1865, General Robert E. Lee gave Gordon the symbolic honor of formally supervising the formal surrender ceremony of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House to his counterpart, Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain, who U. S. Grant had named to accept the surrender.
Gordon after the war was a railroad executive, multi-term U. S. senator, 53rd governor of Georgia, and accomplished speaker. Not without his flaws, he was also likely involved in the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia although his exact role remains uncertain according to biographer Ralph L. Eckert. Gordon published his reminiscences of his war-time service and toured a reunited America giving well-attended lectures on “The Last Days of the Confederacy.” He spoke in several towns in Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, Kutztown, and Lancaster. The transcripts of some of these lectures still exist.
On March 6, 1894, Senator John B. Gordon returned to York to speak that evening at the Opera House on S. Beaver Street. He had first visited York on Sunday, June 28, 1863, when he led his 1,800-man brigade through downtown on the way to try to seize the covered bridge over the Susquehanna River between Wrightsville and Columbia. Here is a brief summary of Gordon’s second visit to the White Rose City, as taken from the March 8, 1894, edition of the Baltimore Sun. Newspaper accounts of his visit to York are scarce, with little coverage in the local York Daily Gazette.
General Gordon at York
York, PA., March 7 — Gen. John B. Gordon, of Georgia, lectured to a large audience in the opera house last night. The band that accompanied the 87th Regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers through the war escorted the lecturer from the Colonial Hotel to the opera house. General Gordon described his visit to this place a day or two previous to the battle of Gettysburg as commander of the advance guard of the late General Early’s corps [division]. He also referred to the lady [Mrs. Mary Jane Rewalt] who entertained him at Wrightsville, and who, he said, proudly informed him that her husband and son [actually, her brother Frank Magee; the newlywed Rewalts had no children at the time] were in the Union army. A large number of citizens called upon the General, among them a man for whom General Gordon recovered two horses that had been taken by Confederate soldiers. After the lecture the visitor was entertained by the York Club.
Blogger’s Notes: The many Yorkers who called on Senator Gordon included the Reverend Samuel L. Roth, a Paradise Township Mennonite clergyman who had lost two horses to the 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry. He again thanked Gordon for his assistance in recovering the animals, which he needed to make his rounds as a country preacher. No transcript of Gordon’s talk in York remains, although it likely followed the general outline of his book and his previous speech in Kutztown, which was transcribed. Gordon, always prone to exaggeration and hyperbole, interspersed his comments with humor. He often told the story of a Rebel soldier who was fleeing a particularly intense battlefield. When Gordon asked the man why he was running, the terrified Confederate allegedly responded, “Golly, General. It’s because I can’t fly.”
After completing his tour of New York and Pennsylvania, Gordon traveled south by Northern Central Railway train to Baltimore and on to Washington, DC, for a sold-out lecture on March 10. He then went west to Ohio, where he lectured in Columbus, Akron, Cincinnati, and other localities to large crowds, including many former Union army veterans. Akron papers published a formal letter of thanks from some of Gordon’s former foes. He then lectured in Kentucky as he continued his westward swing. Gordon’s stirring speeches were not without controversy. After a talk in Charleston, South Carolina, an angry newsman sternly reproved Gordon in print for his “impassioned tribute to the old flag fetish,” referring to Gordon’s open re-embracing of the Stars and Stripes and his pleas for reconciliation between the North and South [Chicago Inter Ocean, March 13, 1894].