Part of the USA Today Network

Road trip! Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery: Part 2

The name John Brown Gordon will forever be linked here in York County, Pennsylvania, with the Gettysburg Campaign during the Civil War. Confederate Brigadier General Gordon led a brigade of nearly 2,000 Georgia infantrymen into York in mid-morning, Sunday, June 28, 1863, en route to Wrightsville in an attempt to seize the covered bridge over the broad Susquehanna River.

Gordon, a pre-war attorney and businessman, had risen in rank from private to general and had survived multiple wounds at the Battle of Antietam. He had led his brigade at Chancellorsville and Second Winchester, and then marched down Market Street through York’s array of brick and wooden storefronts and homes. State militia would thwart his efforts to capture the bridge, and the 31-year-old Gordon would lose a third of his men at Gettysburg. He survived the war and went on to the U.S. Senate and Georgia governorship, as well as becoming a popular author and public lecturer. He died in Florida and is buried in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery.

Here are more photos of General Gordon’s grave, as well as his description of his entry into York and passage from a letter written by an eyewitness to one of Gordon’s speeches he made made to a group of residents.

Gordon’s burial place is a popular spot with tourists visiting Oakland Cemetery; a cemetery official mentioned that it is among the most visited graves. I paused on the bench for awhile to recall Gordon’s story in York, a subject of a book I wrote some time ago.

John Gordon paused his horse in front of the P.A. Small house on Market Street in York, across from today’s Hotel Yorktowne. There he delivered a brief, but passionate speech to “a bevy of young ladies” gathered on the porch. Small’s daughter Cassandra mentioned the incident two days later in a letter to her cousin.

“Then they came up the street; General Gordon stopped his horse at our door, came up to the pavement and said, ‘Ladies, I have a word to say. I suppose you think me a pretty rough looking man, but when I am shaved and dressed, my wife considers me a very good looking fellow. I want to say to you we have not come among you to pursue the same warfare your men did in our country. You need not have any fear of us, whilst we are in your midst. You are just as safe as though we were a thousand miles away. That is all I have to say.’ He bowed and turning his horse rode away.”

This undated image of Gordon is believed to be from the 1863-1864 time frame and is credited to Matthew Brady’s staff. It is courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. Gordon suffered a shattered cheekbone while defending the Sunken Road at Antietam.

Gordon’s correspondence during the Gettysburg Campaign with his beloved wife Fanny is a treasure trove of information. One of his surviving letters describes his concerns on the night of July 1, 1863, on hearing the sounds of Yankees entrenching on Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg, knowing he and his men may have to storm the position the next day. Fanny often accompanied the general on campaign, but not the summer of 1863.

Gordon later recalled his passage through York on the last Sunday morning in June 1863:

“We entered the city of York on Sunday morning. A committee, composed of the mayor and prominent citizens, met my command on the main pike before we reached the corporate limits, their object being to make a peaceable surrender and ask for protection to life and property. They returned, I think, with a feeling of assured safety. The church bells were ringing, and the streets were filled with well-dressed people. The appearance of these church-going men, women, and children, in their Sunday attire, strangely contrasted with that of my marching soldiers.

Begrimed as we were from head to foot with the impalpable gray powder which rose in dense columns from the macadamized pikes and settled in sheets on men, horses, and wagons, it is no wonder that many of York’s inhabitants were terror-stricken as they looked upon us. We had been compelled on these forced marches to leave baggage-wagons behind us, and there was no possibility of a change of clothing, and no time for brushing uniforms or washing the disfiguring dust from faces, hair, or beard. All these were of the same hideous hue. The grotesque aspect of my troops was accentuated here and there, too, by barefooted men mounted double upon huge horses with shaggy manes and long fetlocks. Confederate pride, to say nothing of Southern gallantry, was subjected to the sorest trial by the consternation produced among the ladies of York. In my eagerness to relieve the citizens from all apprehension, I lost sight of the fact that this turnpike powder was no respecter of persons, but that it enveloped all alike–officers as well as privates. Had I realized the wish of Burns, that some power would “the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us,” I might have avoided the slight panic created by my effort to allay a larger one,”

“Halting on the main street, where the sidewalks were densely packed, I rode a few rods in advance of my troops, in order to speak to the people from my horse. As I checked him and turned my full dust-begrimed face upon a bevy of young ladies very near me, a cry of alarm came from their midst; but after a few words of assurance from me, quiet and apparent confidence were restored. I assured these ladies that the troops behind me, though ill-clad and travel-stained, were good men and brave; that beneath their rough exteriors were hearts as loyal to women as ever beat in the breasts of honorable men; that their own experience and the experience of their mothers, wives, and sisters at home had taught them how painful must be the sight of a hostile army in their town; that under the orders of the Confederate commander-in-chief both private property and non-combatants were safe; that the spirit of vengeance and of rapine had no place in the bosoms of these dust-covered but knightly men; and I closed by pledging to York the head of any soldier under my command who destroyed private property, disturbed the repose of a single home, or insulted a woman.”

Gordon many times later repeated an interesting story which he included in his memoirs and in several speeches given at locations across the country well after the War Between the States. After bidding farewell to Cassandra Small and her friends and family members, he continued eastward on Market Street toward the edge of York.

“As we moved along the street after this episode, a little girl, probably twelve years of age, ran up to my horse and handed me a large bouquet of flowers, in the centre of which was a note, in delicate handwriting, purporting to give the numbers and describe the position of the Union forces of Wrightsville, toward which I was advancing. I carefully read and reread this strange note. It bore no signature, and contained no assurance of sympathy for the Southern cause, but it was so terse and explicit in its terms as to compel my confidence.

The second day [actually later the same day] we were in front of Wrightsville, and from the high ridge on which this note suggested that I halt and examine the position of the Union troops, I eagerly scanned the prospect with my field-glasses, in order to verify the truth of the mysterious communication or detect its misrepresentations. There, in full view before us, was the town, just as described, nestling on the banks of the Susquehanna. There was the blue line of soldiers guarding the approach, drawn up, as indicated, along an intervening ridge and across the pike. There was the long bridge spanning the Susquehanna and connecting the town with Columbia on the other bank. Most important of all, there was the deep gorge or ravine running off to the right and extending around the left flank of the Federal line and to the river below the bridge.

Not an inaccurate detail in that note could be discovered. I did not hesitate, therefore, to adopt its suggestion of moving down the gorge in order to throw my command on the flank, or possibly in the rear, of the Union troops and force them to a rapid retreat or surrender. The result of this movement vindicated the strategic wisdom of my unknown and–judging by the handwriting–woman correspondent, whose note was none the less martial because embedded in roses, and whose evident genius for war, had occasion offered, might have made her a captain equal to Catherine.”

The identity of the girl who delivered the flowers, which in some of Gordon’s talks he described as red roses, was Mary Ann Small, according to research by the York County Heritage Trust.

This photo, courtesy of Wikipedia, is of an equestrian statue of John Brown Gordon which is located on the northeastern part of the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol. Famed sculptor Solon Borglum designed the statue.