Unless you are a student of Civil War military history, you’ve probably never heard of Confederate general George Washington Gordon. Yet, he was a seminal figure in the early years of the Ku Klux Klan and an important voice in the construction of the Lost Cause ideology. The debate over Confederate monuments the past few days prompted me to bring his life to the public’s eye as an example of why many historians see these memorials to the past as so problematic.
Born in 1836 in Giles County, Tennessee, Gordon attended the Western Military Institute in Nashville. He enlisted in the Confederate Army as drillmaster of the 11th Tennessee Infantry following the state’s secession in June 1861. Gordon rose rapidly through the ranks; by 1864, he had been promoted to brigadier general. He served in every battle in which the Army of Tennessee participated, including Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Atlanta, and Franklin. Gordon was captured at Franklin and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Massachusetts, from which he was paroled during the summer of 1865.
Following the Civil War, Gordon became a lawyer in Pulaski, Tennessee. He was one of the earliest members of the Klan that formed in that Middle Tennessee town, quickly rising to the position of Grand Dragon of the Realm of Tennessee in 1867, a position second only to the Grand Wizard. Gordon also allegedly wrote the Klan’s revised Prescript, the handbook that governed its activities.
This background is interesting, but what has fascinated me most about Gordon is his role in shaping the Lost Cause, the set of beliefs that argued, among other things, that the Civil War was not about slavery and that the Confederacy was a noble cause. As a member of the United Confederate Veterans (UCV), he gave speeches at the unveiling of the Nathan Bedford Forrest memorial in Memphis and the Sam Davis memorial in Pulaski.
Gordon’s speeches at these two events were quintessential Lost Cause rhetoric. In his speech in Memphis, he called the Civil War an “unavoidable and defensive war.” He ignored Forrest’s career as a slave trader, saying only that he “actively engaged in live stock trading and mercantile pursuits” and “successfully established himself as a dealer in live stock and real estate” prior to the war. He denied that the Fort Pillow massacre occurred and skipped completely Forrest’s involvement in the Klan. Gordon concluded that Forrest was an “American Mars” who “accomplished more with the resources at his command than any commander developed by the war.” At the dedication of the Sam Davis memorial, he called the young man a “hero” and told the audience that “every schoolboy in the land should hear the story of Samuel Davis, and learn therefrom the beauty of fidelity, the glory of honor, and the grandeur of courage.”
When the United Daughters of the Confederacy proposed building a memorial to loyal slaves, Gordon, who by this time was head of the UCV, lent his endorsement and encouraged UCV members to support the women’s efforts. He told his fellow veterans that while they were off fighting the Union army, “slaves attended with the usual care to the duties of the plantation and looked after the comfort and well-being of the defenseless family with fidelity and devotion.”
The rewriting and erasure of history, which many of those who defend Confederate monuments today attribute to liberals, was largely done during the Jim Crow era over a century ago, by white men and women who wanted to construct a past that reinforced the nation’s racial caste system and protected their political power. This revisionism is what historians have been criticizing since long before Charlottesville. Gordon’s perspective–Forrest as a noble military hero whitewashed of his oppression of African Americans, Davis as an honorable Confederate martyr, enslaved African Americans as loyal family servants, the war as an unjustified invasion of southern territory–was indicative of the Lost Cause.
For all of the awfulness of the events of recent days, I can only hope that we as a nation take an honest look at what these memorials signify and whether they should continue to have a place in the public space.
An interesting postscript to Gordon’s life came via his widow, Minnie. After winning election to Congress, George W. Gordon died in 1911. Several years later, Minnie Gordon wrote an unpublished manuscript that claimed that her husband, not Forrest, was the Klan’s first Grand Wizard. In that manuscript, she also went even further than her husband in Lost Cause rhetoric. “I make bold to lay down this proposition,” she wrote, “that those in authority in the Southern States during Reconstruction, in affiliating with that element of camp followers and carpet-baggers who came south to pilfer and prey upon a conquered people, in protecting them in instigating the negroes to violence and outrage, became themselves the lawbreakers.” In the face of this chaos, the Klan, in her view, “became the enforcers and conservators of the law and came to the defense of social and civil order.” She concluded, “The proposition is not asserted in contentious spirit or to accuse, but because the facts attest it and because it is absolutely true.”
1. Much of this post is derived from Mark R. Cheathem and Emily J. Taylor, “Confederate General George Washington Gordon and the Ku Klux Klan,” West Tennessee Historical Society Papers 67 (2013): 36-57.
2. Stanley Horn, who was not a trained historian and whose research was sometimes unreliable, wrote the first “scholarly” history of the Klan. Historians since have relied heavily on his work, which makes the entire scholarship on the Reconstruction-era Klan problematic, in my opinion. See Stanley F. Horn, Invisible Empire: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan: 1866-1871 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939).
3. Forrest Monument Association, The Forrest Monument: Its History and Dedication; A Memorial in Art, Oratory and Literature (N.p., 1905), 28.
4. Ibid., 31.
5. Ibid., 43, 55.
6. Ibid., 55.
7. Confederate Veteran 15 (January 1907): 21-23.
8. Confederate Veteran 18 (August 1910): 355-356.
9. Minnie Gordon, “The First Complete and Authentic History ever written of this Weird and Mystical Order of The Knights of the White Armor who, without bloodshed saved and restored to the South the White Man’s Civilization. Completed from notes and documents of the late General George W. Gordon, first Grand Wizard of the Invisible Empire and other trustworthy sources, by his wife, Mary Hannah Gordon.” Manuscript provided by Robert Moses.
7 thoughts on “George Washington Gordon, the Klan, and the History of Confederate Memorials”
Mr. Cheathem….read the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution, the Corwin Amendment, the Morrill Tariff Act, the 1860 U.S. Census comparing number of free people of color in the Southern states to free people of color in the Northern states, all the tyrant’s versions of his EP & then tell us poor, ignorant Southerners that the War for Southern Independence main reason was to keep & promote slavery while the tyrant’s goal was to free the slaves so he could turn around, after having his freed slaves grovel at his feet & kiss his coat-tails, to load them on a ship bound for Liberia.
Thanks for your comment, Becky.
Regarding slavery as the main cause of the Civil War, see this post: https://jacksonianamerica.com/2013/06/25/were-tariffs-the-cause-of-the-civil-war/
Regarding Lincoln, most historians agree that Lincoln was concerned primarily about ending the war; ending slavery was a secondary objective. Lincoln was a long-time supporter of colonization; for a scholarly, if dated, take on this topic, see https://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0014.204/–abraham-lincoln-and-the-politics-of-black-colonization?rgn=main;view=fulltext
Don’t forget to include the secession declarations where the leaders of the southern states stated they were seceding over slavery so that everyone, not just the poor ignorant southerners could have a clear understanding of what secession was about.
I would hate for you to not include those documents along with the others that prove that slavery was the cause of secession as you stated, Becky.
Thank you for your thoughtful article about this Confederate general. He also gave a powerful speech at the unveiling of the Confederate Monument in Franklin on Nov. 30, 1899 in the town courthouse. The contents of his speech supports your argument about him being an important architect of the Lost Cause ideology. I’m currently doing research and writing about the Franklin monument.
Appreciate your insight on this matter as it gives people a broader understanding about the connection between the Lost Cause ideology and these Confederate monuments.
Thanks, Terrence. I hope to get back to him at some point, but Old Hickory keeps getting in the way!
Most Confederate memorials, those at Southern County Court Houses to be exact, were done to honor the Confederate dead from that county. Funding starts for these memorials, more often than not, were started well before the speech givers showed up to give speeches at their dedications. Historians shouldn’t link the “Lost Cause” speeches to the memorials because the people that donated to those memorials, weren’t donating to them to be “Lost Cause” memorials as you proclaim them to be.
The Vietnam war was a “wrong war” too, but yet we can and should have Vietnam Veteran memorials now. Will our descendants tear these down because of the errors in our ways then?
As for the “Lost Cause” subject matter, I am in agreement that the War was fought over Slavery. I am in complete disagreement that this was the only reason for the war. To say the Civil War was only about Slavery does a complete disservice to the historical record and shows a lack of understanding in the “context” of that time. Likewise, to say it wasn’t about slavery, is an even worse misalignment of the facts.
It amazes me that the debate in this country is always in a digital context vs an analog one. Analog analogies are much more accurate. Digital ones only reflect a decision, yes/no, left/right, war/peace. Digital contexts reflect non-compromising, combative, lack of progress towards constructive means.
The “Lost Causers”, as you call them, made their case about a “Nobel Cause”, which really wasn’t the case. They missed the target. But, when I read what you write above, in my mind it’s no different than what they did, just on the other side. So, if I’m not knowledgeable, I’m left to pick, one side or the other.
The only good that came from the Civil War was the elimination of Slavery. The loss of American life was not good. The consolidation of power to one part of the Country was not good. The way slaver was ended, and the political turmoil in the South, led to 150 years of civil strife, that isn’t over today.
Unfortunately, what’s lost is Patrick Cleburne’s vision of what America stood for in a Constitutional sense. The “Lost Causers” by not acknowledging the fact that their leaders took them to war to protect an evil institution, lost the debate about their “Nobel Cause”. So, there is no debate today about checking the ever growing Federal Power. Anyone who starts a State Rights discussion is immediately branded a White Supremacist, White Nationalist, or whatever the new fashionable term that has come out.
So, my question to you, a person very knowledgable about history, why can’t historians present the complexities of any subject and educate? Isn’t it more helpful to completely educate rather than joining the political realm, and promoting one side over the other?
Thanks for your comment.
I won’t address everything you mentioned, but let me touch on a couple of points:
1. Slavery was not the sole reason for the Civil War, but it was the main reason driving southern secession. I wrote about it here, with links to some relevant primary sources: https://jacksonianamerica.com/2013/06/25/were-tariffs-the-cause-of-the-civil-war/
2. I’m absolutely in favor of “present[ing] the complexities of any subject and educat[ing].” It’s unfortunate that you didn’t get that sense from my post.
I would encourage you to read some of the historians who have worked on Civil War memory, the Lost Cause, and Confederate monuments. You may not end up agreeing with them, but you’ll have better context for understanding why some (maybe many) historians would like to see the monuments removed and/or contextualized.