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.