Civil War Wednesday: Major General John B. Gordon

        Major General John B. Gordon, Library of Congress LC-DIG-cwpb-06013

Major General John B. Gordon, Library of Congress LC-DIG-cwpb-06013

Approaching ten months of siege along the Richmond to Petersburg front in Virginia, General Robert E. Lee continued to seek a way to break the Federal lines opposing his Army of Northern Virginia. As the final days of March loomed, he turned to Major General John B. Gordon, a native of Upson County, Georgia, to develop a plan of attack. Gordon, a veteran of the fighting in the eastern theater, spent several days reconnoitering the various segments of Lieutenant General U.S. Grant’s defenses. He decided upon an area east of Petersburg as the point closest to the Confederate trenches; one across from a Federal position, which did not have as many obstacles guarding the approach as elsewhere along the front.

Meeting with Lee, Gordon explained his plan for capturing Fort Stedman. Lee queried his subordinate on how he would first get through their own obstacles just outside the trenches, and then asked Gordon how he expected to gain entry into the fort. Gordon proceeded to detail his design for a small element of his force to cut through the Southern defense system, under cover of darkness. Once they gained an opening, a squad of 50 soldiers carrying axes instead of rifles, would rapidly advance on Fort Stedman, break the log barriers, and create a passageway for the soldiers charging behind them.[1] Lee gave his approval, and Gordon readied his troops for the assault. During the early-morning hours of March 25, 1865, the initial stages of the attack unfolded like clockwork as the Confederates launched their advance from Colquitt’s Salient. Once clear of their own lines, Gordon could hear his butternut lumberjacks breaking the barriers at Fort Stedman. Soon, Gordon and his soldiers had possession of the fort and three adjoining batteries.

Fort Stedman, Library of Congress LC-USZ62-68634

Fort Stedman, Library of Congress LC-USZ62-68634

Brightening skies and a problem with guides who supposedly knew the area well, but did not, caused the next stage of Gordon’s plan to come unraveled. Officers leading three different units, each charged with capturing the same number of fortifications behind Stedman, encountered difficulty locating the positions. The delay afforded the Federals time to bring up reinforcements and open fire on the stationary Confederate troops. Lee, watching from a nearby observation point, ordered Gordon to withdraw from Fort Stedman.

Marking Lee’s final offensive action along the Richmond-Petersburg front, the failure to break through the Federal line at Fort Stedman, and then attack Grant’s forces from the rear, signaled, as Gordon remarked, “…the expiring struggle of the Confederate giant, whose strength was nearly exhausted and whose limbs were heavily shackled by the most onerous conditions.”[2]

Returning to his native Georgia after the war, Gordon served two terms in the U.S. Senate, and as governor from 1886-1890. The veteran lived until the age of 72, passing on January 9, 1904 in Miami.[3] Gordon rests in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery.

[1] John B. Gordon, Reminiscences of the Civil War (Alexandria, Va: Time-Life Books, 1981), 401–2.

[2] Ibid., 412.

[3] John H. Eicher and David J. Eicher, Civil War High Commands (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2001), 260.

MikeMichael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist, and lecturer. He can be contacted at:

Civil War Wednesday: Oakland Cemetery


Formed as the Atlanta Cemetery in 1850, today’s Oakland Cemetery stretches across 48 acres of beautiful grounds within sight of modern Atlanta. Numbering among the 70,000 interred at Oakland, 6,900 Confederate soldiers and others who held prominent positions during the Civil War.[1] Recently, this writer spent the better part of an afternoon strolling through the grounds of Oakland. Each step forward carries one back in time, affording a connection with the past, and providing a moment – amid the tranquil settings – to reflect upon the nineteenth-century conflict, which tore the nation apart.

Leaving Big Shanty in April 1862, the Andrews Raiders stole the locomotive General, and proceeded northward in hopes of disrupting Confederate supply lines in the region. James Andrews, the leader of the party, did not count on a determined individual who refused to just watch his beloved engine steam away. William Fuller, the conductor, began chasing the General on foot. Two of his crew, Jeff Cain and Anthony Murphy joined him in pursuit. Years later, on their respective passing, all three of these men received internment in Oakland, and a historical marker identifies a nearby spot, where seven of the raiders stretched a rope in June 1862.

3Fighting for possession of Atlanta intensified during July 1864, as Major General William T. Sherman’s forces attempted to capture the city; standing in their way, the Army of Tennessee under the command of General John Bell Hood. During the July 22 Battle of Atlanta/Bald Hill, Hood watched his troops engage from the home of James Williams. The site, now within the confines of Oakland, contains a Georgia historic marker.

Healing, in the form of remembrance, took place in many towns across the country, and Atlanta proved no exception. The Ladies Memorial Association worked tirelessly to raise funds to commission the design and sculpting of the Confederate Monument, which they dedicated in early 1874; 20 years later, the ladies arranged for the “Lion of Atlanta” to guard the fallen. During the war, many of the Federal soldiers killed during the Atlanta Campaign received internment in the cemetery. After the war, most of them found their final resting place at the National Cemetery in Chattanooga. Today, 16 of the boys in blue remain at Oakland, each providing a lasting reminder of the war’s cost, both North and South.

Lion of Atlanta

Lion of Atlanta

Several prominent politicians, civilians, and military leaders from the Civil War era call Oakland home. The original six acre section of the cemetery contains the gravesites of Atlanta’s wartime mayor, James Calhoun, along with diarist Carrie Berry.

Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederate States of America, briefly rested in the Cotting-Burke vault after his death in 1883. Eventually, he made his way home to Crawfordville.

One of Georgia’s most famous officers, Major General John Brown Gordon, fought in many eastern theater battles with General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. After the war, Gordon served his beloved state as a U.S. Senator and as governor.

The Confederate Memorial Grounds also contain the burial sites of Brigadier General Alfred Iverson and Major General Ambrose Wright.

Whenever your Civil War trails lead to Atlanta, visit historic Oakland Cemetery and walk the grounds of the past beneath the shadows of today. For more information, please visit

[1] Ren Davis and Helen Davis, Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery: An Illustrated History and Guide (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 4.

All photos courtesy of the author.

MikeMichael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist, and lecturer. He can be contacted at:

Civil War Wednesday: Blackshear

State historic marker at site, photo courtesy of the author

State historic marker at site, photo courtesy of the author

“After leaving the cars we were marched off into the pine woods, by the side of a considerable stream, and told that this was to be our camp.”[1] This Federal prisoner wrote of his new home in Pierce County, Georgia – Camp Blackshear. Major General William T. Sherman’s force continued to advance across the interior of Georgia on their way to Savannah, and Confederate officials realized they must relocate the prisoners held at Millen’s Camp Lawton before advance elements of Sherman’s troops arrived. On November 22, 1864, prisoners at Lawton began boarding trains bound for alternate holding facilities; eventually, 5,000 men traveled westward on the Atlantic and Gulf Railroad.

Colonel Henry Forno, the commander at Lawton, received orders to ready a new prison site in Blackshear. Pierce County, located in the southeastern part of the state, not far from the Florida line, seemed a logical location. The proximity to the railroad, and the remoteness of the region, should prevent Sherman’s forces from liberating any prisoners held there. At least one prisoner concurred with Forno’s choice, noting in his diary, “Blackshear is an out of the way place, and shouldn’t think the Yankee army would ever find us here.”[2]


Prisoner medal from Ralph Orr Bates, Billy and Dick: From Andersonville Prison to the White House

Many period sources indicate the holding area at Blackshear lacked stockades like the prisoners had left behind, first at Andersonville, and later at Camp Lawton. Penciling an entry into his diary shortly after arriving in Blackshear, Sergeant John Ransom with the 9th Michigan Cavalry wrote of the grounds surrounding him and the other prisoners, “There is no wall or anything around us here, only guards. Encamped right in the open air.”[3] Offering a different perspective, another prisoner indicated the area “…was completely commanded by military earthworks, with mounted cannon, and was guarded by seven hundred Confederate soldiers.”[4] Regardless of the actual condition of the prison, soon after arriving, Forno began making preparations for another facility in Thomasville, while relocating some of the prisoners from Blackshear to Savannah.

Guards from the Second and Fourth Regiments in the Georgia Reserves continued to keep watch over the 2,500 prisoners remaining at Blackshear, looking on as the Federals constructed shanties to protect themselves from the elements. After Sherman captured Savannah on December 21, 1864, and later began his Carolinas Campaign, the prisoners at Blackshear found themselves on the move once again. Some returned to Andersonville, and others went to Thomasville, Millen, or Florence, South Carolina.[5]

Blackshear prison site, photo courtesy of the author

Blackshear prison site, photo courtesy of the author

Given the horrible environments found in many overcrowded prisons during the Civil War – both North and South – an observation from a soldier in the 4th Vermont Infantry tells of better conditions in Pierce County. “Blackshear has always seemed like an oasis in the memory of those perilous times. Here we were removed from all apparent danger and the guards were more humane.”[6] Today, the Pierce County Historical and Genealogical Society works to protect, preserve, and interpret this site. Visit to learn more!

[1] John McElroy, Andersonville, a Story of Rebel Military Prisons (1879; repr., No. Scituate, MA: Digital Scanning, 1999), 32.

[2] John L. Ransom, Andersonville Diary; Escape, and List of Dead, with Name, Company, Regiment, Date of Death and Number of Grave in Cemetery, google books ed. (Auburn, NY: John Ransom, 1881), 131.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ralph Orr Bates, Billy and Dick: From Andersonville Prison to the White House, google books ed. (Santa Cruz, CA: Sentinel Publishing Company, 1910), 24.

[5] John W. Guss, The American Civil War in Blackshear, Georgia: The Story of a Prison Camp, brochure. (Blackshear, GA: Pierce County Historical Society, 1998).

[6] Francis J. Hosmer, A Glimpse of Andersonville and Other Writings, google books ed. (Springfield, MA: Loring & Axtell, 1896), 47.

MikeMichael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist, and lecturer. He can be contacted at:

Civil War Wednesday: Georgia’s Old Reliable

Lieutenant General William Hardee, Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-7972

Lieutenant General William Hardee, Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-7972

Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, born in Savannah in 1815, graduated from the United States Military Academy, served in the Mexican-American War, and authored a book on military tactics, which both sides consulted during the American Civil War. His manuscript – Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics for the Exercise and Maneuvers of Troops When Acting as Light Infantry or Riflemen – usually referred to as Hardee’s Tactics – provided basic training for young officers eager to learn the art of war.

Hardee served as commandant at West Point until shortly before his native Georgia seceded in 1861. He cast his lot with the Confederacy, and for most of the war he fought in the western theater, where he participated in the battles of Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro, and Chattanooga.[1] After the failure of General Braxton Bragg to take Chattanooga, President Jefferson Davis accepted his friend’s resignation and offered command of the Army of Tennessee to Hardee, who declined the position. Davis turned once again to his nemesis, General Joseph E. Johnston. During the Atlanta Campaign, Hardee led one of the army’s three corps, and performed satisfactorily in most engagements prior to the fall of Atlanta. When Davis removed Johnston, and replaced him with General John Bell Hood on July 17, 1864, Hardee felt somewhat slighted, despite the fact he had previously refused to take command of the Army of Tennessee. He and Hood never got along, and Hood blamed Hardee for several losses in the struggle to maintain Atlanta. During the final action of the campaign at Jonesboro, Hardee performed well, given the circumstances, yet again found himself on the receiving end of Hood’s blame game.

Requesting a transfer away from Hood, Hardee received the assignment to head the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. During Major General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea in November and December 1864, Hardee joined with other Confederate officers in the attempt to slow the advancing Federals. Operating from his headquarters in Savannah, Hardee garnered all available men to guard the outer and inner defense systems surrounding the city. On December 15 – five days after Sherman’s forces arrived at the doorstep of Savannah – Hardee dispatched Davis with his assessment of the situation. “Unless assured that force sufficient to keep open my communications can be sent me, I shall be compelled to evacuate Savannah.”[2] Two days later, Hardee received a reply from Davis, which set the plans for evacuation in motion. Davis, eager to protect a Confederate army in the field amid a dwindling supply of soldiers, instructed Hardee to maintain a vigilant observation of the Federal troop movements, while making “…the dispositions needful for the preservation of your army.”[3] On December 20, Hardee and his troops began evacuating Savannah, crossing hastily constructed pontoon bridges onto South Carolina soil.

For the balance of the war, Hardee attempted to slow Sherman’s progress during the Carolinas Campaign, and joined with Johnston in the last major battle in the western theater at Bentonville, North Carolina, where Hardee lost a son during the fighting. Moving to his wife’s plantation in Alabama after the war, Hardee served as president of the Selma and Meridian Railroad. Ill health prompted a visit to a sulphur spring in West Virginia, and during the journey, he died in Wytheville, Virginia, on November 6, 1873. ‘Old Reliable’ – a nickname his soldiers bestowed upon him during the war – rests in the Live Oak Cemetery in Selma, Alabama.[4] William J. Hardee proved a capable officer, one who sought to protect his native state against great odds.

[1] Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Gray; Lives of the Confederate Commanders (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 124–25.

[2] U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, reprint 1899 ed. Series I 44 (Harrisburg, PA: National Historical Society, 1971), 960.

[3] Ibid., 964.

[4] Michael R. Hall and Spencer C. Tucker, “William J. Hardee,” World at War: Understanding Conflict and Society, ABC-Clio, (accessed December 1, 2014).

Learn more about the Civil War in Kennesaw State University’s latest course, 1864-1865: The Conflict Draws to an End. Learn more and/or register for the class here.

imageMichael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist, and lecturer. He can be contacted at:

Civil War Wednesday: Sherman’s March to the Sea

Major General William T. Sherman, Library of Congress LC-DIG-cwpb-06583

Major General William T. Sherman, Library of Congress LC-DIG-cwpb-06583

Major General William T. Sherman began making final preparations for his advance through Georgia after he received approval from Lieutenant General U.S. Grant in early November. Sherman, working from his headquarters in Kingston, issued Special Field Orders No. 120; this plan dictated the composition of his forces during the march, and also specified instructions regarding the destruction of all things considered of military value. Splitting his 62,000 soldiers into two wings, Sherman named Major General Henry Slocum to command the left wing, or the Army of Georgia. Major General Oliver O. Howard would lead the right wing; this force carried the Army of the Tennessee banner during the campaign.

In offering instructions on the gathering of supplies during the campaign, Sherman noted, “The army will forage liberally on the country during the march.”[1] This phrase provided enough latitude for the Federal soldiers to take liberties, especially when operating out of the direct view of their commanding officers.

Preparing to “…make the march, and make Georgia howl,” Sherman’s troops began destroying the rails of the Western and Atlantic Railroad and cutting the telegraph lines running along the tracks.[2] Since he planned to break from his line of supply – the railroad – during the invasion, Sherman no longer needed to protect this vital lifeline for his army. Although the special order issued in Kingston granted only the army corps commanders the permission to order the destruction of certain structures, unchecked troops went beyond torching buildings possessing military value. Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalrymen set fire to the square in Marietta, leaving smoke and flames in their wake as they rode into Atlanta.

Major General Joe Wheeler, Library of Congress LC-DIG-cwpb-05988

Major General Joe Wheeler, Library of Congress LC-DIG-cwpb-05988

On November 14, troops destroyed Atlanta’s railroad depot, along with several other buildings. As the lead elements began marching out of the city the following day, Sherman observed what they left in their wake. “Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering [sic] and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.”[3] General John Bell Hood, having taken the Army of Tennessee into her namesake state, left only the cavalry force of Major General Joe Wheeler to impede Sherman’s advance. Wheeler, with a force of 3,000 horsemen harassed the Federals at every opportunity. The only major infantry battle of the campaign took place on November 22 outside Griswoldville, when Brigadier General Pleasant Philips ordered his 2,400 men – mostly local militia troops – to charge the fortified position of Brigadier General Charles Walcutt’s Federals. Despite fielding superior numbers, the Southern troops met with defeat as they bravely charged the high ground. Many of Walcutt’s men wielded repeating rifles, and this firepower, coupled with artillery support, proved too much for Philips’s force.

Sherman kept Confederate officials guessing as to his intended target. President Jefferson Davis, along with others in Richmond, took action to send various officers to Georgia in an attempt to safeguard her valuable military assets. Macon, home to a Confederate armory, arsenal, and laboratory, seemed a sure target as the right wing approached. Except for a feint from Kilpatrick’s force, which resulted in skirmishing outside the city, the infantry force continued their southeastern trek.

Arriving in the state capital of Milledgeville on November 22, members of Slocum’s left wing conducted a mock session of the Georgia legislature in the capitol building, while others destroyed irreplaceable books and documents housed in the state library. Sherman’s wings continued their advance on Savannah, where Lieutenant General William Hardee had responsibility for safeguarding the city. When the Federals neared the outer defenses of Savannah on December 10, Sherman began making preparations to open a conduit to the U.S. Navy vessels awaiting nearby with food and other matériel. Only one obstacle stood in Sherman’s way – Fort McAllister.

Some 200 men under the command of Major George Anderson garrisoned the earthen fortification. To take the fort, Brigadier General William Hazen, with nine regiments in support, received the charge. Most of Fort McAllister’s artillery faced the seaward approach, and when Hazen’s men began their advance shortly after 4:00 p.m. on December 13, a few cannon, whose gunners fired from an exposed position offered resistance. Land mines buried along the various land approaches to the fort slowed the advancing Federals and produced several casualties. After 15 minutes of hard fighting, Sherman had his prize. Opening a supply line for his soldiers allowed him to focus his attention on the capture of Savannah. Hardee, along with General P.G.T. Beauregard – the officer in charge of the entire theater of operations – continued to seek advice from Richmond on holding Savannah. On December 17, President Davis dispatched Hardee with a final decision. “Close observation will…enable you to know when the enemy shall send from your front any considerable force, that you may then provide for the safety of your communications and make the dispositions needful for the preservation of your army.”[4]

Heeding the instructions from Richmond, during the evening of December 20, Hardee began evacuating Savannah. His men crossed hastily constructed pontoon bridges of makeshift variety, and stepped onto South Carolina soil. Sherman entered the city on December 22 and sent his famous dispatch to President Abraham Lincoln. “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”[5] After marching for almost 300 miles through the interior of Georgia, and creating a 60 mile-wide swath of destruction, Sherman and his troops would quarter in Savannah for one month before beginning their next campaign, which would take them through the Carolinas.

[1] U.S. Government, The War of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, vol. 39 of pt.3 (Harrisburg, PA: National Historical Society, 1985), 713. Hereafter referred to as O.R.

[2] Ibid., 162.

[3] William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 544.

[4] O.R., 44, 964.

[5] Ibid., 783.

imageMichael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist, and lecturer. He can be contacted at: