Klansman John B. Gordon Justifies the KKK

On July 1, 1863, or so we are told, John B. Gordon came across a wounded Union general on a knoll north of the town of Gettysburg.  He directed that the officer be given such medical aid as could be spared, promised to communicate the wounded officer’s condition to his wife (a nurse in the Union army), and rode on.  We are told (by no less an authority than Gordon himself) that years later he would encounter the officer again.  It was Francis C. Barlow.  Gordon thought Barlow had died of his wounds (or so he claimed); Barlow had heard that a General James B. Gordon had died in 1864, and mistook that Gordon for the officer who had come to his assistance that July day at Gettysburg.  The two men shook hands.

There’s a great deal of controversy about whether the story is true.  There’s even a nice little film celebrating the story.  It fits nicely into a reconciliationist narrative of the conflict.

It also distracts our attention from Gordon’s activities as a leader of the Georgia KKK during Reconstruction.  Not that he wanted to be so forthcoming about that story.  Here’s a portion of Gordon’s testimony offered before a Congressional investigating committee in 1871:

Question. What do you know of any combinations in Georgia, known as Ku-Klux, or by any other name, who have been violating law?

Answer. I do not know anything about any Ku-Klux organization, as the papers talk about it. I have never beard of anything of that sort except in the papers and by general report; but I do know that an organization did exist in Georgia at one time. I know that in 1868—I think that was the time—I was approached and asked to attach myself to a secret organization in Georgia. I was approached by some of the very best citizens of the State—some of the most peaceable, law-abiding men, men of large property, who had large interests in the State. The object of this organization was explained to me at the time by those parties; and I want to say that I approved of it most heartily. I would approve again of a similar organization, under the same state of circumstances.

Question. Tell us about what that organization was.

Answer. The organization was simply this—nothing more and nothing less: it was an organization, a brotherhood of the property-holders, the peaceable, law-abiding citizens Of the State, for self-protection. The instinct of self-protection prompted that organization; the sense of insecurity and danger, particularly in those neighborhoods where the negro population largely predominated. The reasons which led to this organization were three or four. The first and main reason was the organization of the Union League, as they called it, about which we knew nothing more than this: that the negroes would desert the plantations, and go off at night in large numbers; and on being asked where they had been, would reply, sometimes, “We have been to tho muster ;” sometimes, ” We have been to tho lodge;” sometimes, “We have been to the meeting.”

Those things were observed for a great length of time. We knew that the “carpet-baggers,” as the people of Georgia called these men who came from a distance and had no interest at all with us; who were unknown to us entirely: who from all we could learn about them did not have any very exalted position at their homes—these men were organizing the colored people. We knew that beyond all question. We knew of certain instances where great crime had been committed; where overseers had been driven from plantations, and the negroes had asserted their right to hold the property for their own benefit. Apprehension took possession of the entire public mind of the State. Men were in many instances afraid to go away from their homes and leave their wives and children, for fear of outrage. Rapes were already being committed in the country. There was this general organization of the black race on the one hand, and an entire disorganization of the white race on the other hand. We were afraid to have a public organization; because we supposed it would be construed at once, by the authorities at Washington, as an organization antagonistic to the Government of the United States. It was therefore necessary, in order to protect our families from outrage and preserve our own lives, to have something that we could regard as a brotherhood—a combination of tho best men of the country, to act purely in self-defense, to repel the attack in case we should be attacked by these people. That was the whole object of this organization. I never heard of any disguises connected with it; we had none, very certainly. This organization, I think, extended nearly all over the State. It was, as I say, an organization purely for self-defense. It had no more politics in it than the organization of the Masons. I never heard the idea of politics suggested in connection with it.

Question. Did it have any antagonism toward either the State or the Federal Government?

Answer. None on earth—not a particle. On the contrary, it was purely a peace police organization, and I do know of some instances where it did prevent bloodshed on a large scale. I know of one case in Albany, Georgia, where, but for the instrumentality of this organization, there would have been, beyond all doubt, a conflict, growing out of a personal difficulty between a black man and a white man. The two races gathered on each side, but this organization quelled the trouble easily and restored peace, without any violence to anybody, and without a particle of difficulty with either tho black race or the white. They stopped one just as much as they did the other. This society was purely a police organization to keep the peace, to prevent disturbances in our State. That was the motive that actuated me in going into it, and that was the whole object of the organization, as explained to me by these persons who approached me. I approved of the object.

Note: in discussing this testimony, a contributor remarked:

How many people, even civil war buffs, have ever even heard of this terrorist group called the Union League?

(from the gift that keeps on giving.)

Gordon’s an interesting character.  Here he is, attempting to skirt around the issue of his career as a Klansman, being every bit as artful as Nathan Bedford Forrest, who also testified before the same committee.  And yet the history of the KKK in Georgia in 1868 is rather clear.  After the Republicans won state elections in the spring of 1868, the KKK went after Republican voters and officeholders, murdering several, and successfully returned the state to the Democratic column in the fall presidential contest … whereupon the state’s electoral vote was set aside and the state returned to federal supervision under the Reconstruction Acts.

In short, Gordon had a lot in common with Forrest.  Just remember that the next time you read about Gordon recalling helping Barlow at Gettysburg or returning Chamberlain’s salute at Appomattox.

20 thoughts on “Klansman John B. Gordon Justifies the KKK

  1. Ray O'Hara June 30, 2011 / 7:29 am

    Gordon’s answers read like what D.H.Griffiths might have said about what Birth of a Nation was trying to portray.

    Gordon is an interesting guy, He tells and embellishes great stories but clearly he was a lion on the battlefieldanmd clearly he is not a fraud, much like the Union’s JLC, in that respect,, add those traits together and it’s no wonder they became a successful post war politicians.

    While I’m familiar with the Gordon version of the Gordon-Barlow incident I’ve never seen anything from Barlow about it, Their commands did meet on July 1st and both were in Congress at the same time so the possibility exists that it is true if embellished a tad.

    My brother-in-law is a direct decedent of Gordon, his older brother was named Gordon in his honor, but he knows nothing and has no interest in the ACW.

    Nope, never heard of the Union League

  2. John Foskett June 30, 2011 / 7:36 am

    If i recall correctly, William Marvel debunked the Gordon-Chamberlain salute story as post-War fictionalized reunification spin. As Brooks points out with the link’ the similar Gordon-Barlow story may well be more imaginative puffery. I knew that ol’ JB was a bit of a novelist when it came to Civil War recollections. I didn’t know that he had bedsheets hanging in his closet fir special events..

  3. Daniel Weinfeld June 30, 2011 / 8:05 am

    I can’t say much about the Gordon-Forrest comparison, but I find Gordon’s testimony to be an interesting example of the Klan “denial” argument commonly made at the time. This argument had two levels: (1) even if there was an “organization” of local whites aimed at suppressing black/Republican political activity, it was not called “Ku Klux” or (2) even if whites perpetrated violence, it was disorganized and not guided by a formal body of local whites. The purpose of (1) was to defeat the purported goal of the 1871 Congressional Committee to investigate Klan violence in the South. There is focus on this semantic posturing in the testimony by white southerners and newspaper editorials. Consistent with Gordon, Klan-deniers pressed the point that while there may have been real organizations (even to the point of presenting to the congressional committee boilerplate county-level organizing instructions), these groups were defense leagues, or “Young Men’s Democratic Clubs” and were not “Klans.” Alternatively, the fallback position argued that violence committed by whites was not guided by a centralized organization but arose in response to carpetbagger/black provocations or was committed by young men who had a little too much to drink. (There is a third exculpatory position that contends that blacks were equally violent). Whatever the argument, the result was that prominent whites conveniently both distanced themselves from the violence while avoiding condemning it. This is significant because in some communities Southern whites risked social ostracism, or worse, if they broke ranks and openly opposed Klan-type violence during Reconstruction. A lot of this makes me wonder about the enormous social pressures in Southern white societies at the time to approve or at least acquiesce to racial/political violence.

  4. Charles Lovejoy June 30, 2011 / 8:31 am

    Keep in mind Gordon was a politician, that’s what many politicians often do “skirt around the issue”. The Klu Klux investigating committee in 1871 reminds me a lot of the 1960’s investigating committee that investigated the Mafia and organized crime. Person after person called to testify had lapses in memory and no knowledge of what was asked them and were very vague with the answers they did give. What I see in these type of official investigations is nothing more than people trying to covering their A– 🙂 I have known this information about Gordon for many years and it never has surprised me at all. Gorden became Governor of Georgia, and in his rise to political power he needed the backing of “very best citizens of the State” as he called them. I call them the people with the money and power. Gordon was their front man. John B Gordon also built Rail Roads in Georgia. He connected Atlanta to both Birmingham and Chattanooga with one line leaving Atlanta that ‘Y’ed at Austell Georgia. That later became part of the Southern Railway.

  5. Charles Lovejoy June 30, 2011 / 9:14 am

    This my sound a little unorthodox but want to find out who was behind John B Gordon and the Klu Klux in Georgia? Find out who was the most wealthy Georgians at the time , don’t leave out large out of state land owners or some out of state people or financial groups with large investments in Georgia and that will be the answer. People with wealth are never willing to give it up, they will do what it takes to keep it.

  6. Noma June 30, 2011 / 9:35 am

    Yes Gordon is quite a character. Chamberlain was an alumnus (and later college president) at Bowdoin College, where I work as a department coordinator. For years I would see the Don Troiani’s painting “The Last Salute” commemorating the exchange between Chamberlain and Gordon at Appomattox hanging in the hallway of the administrative building

    Naturally, the “Honor Answering Honor” theme was big. I have to say, I was a little shocked a couple years ago when I found out that Gordon went on to take a major role in founding the Ku Klux Klan. Possibly someone else found out about it, too. Haven’t seen Troiani’s painting for awhile.

    Sort of takes the punch out of it when you learn the full story. Kind of like finding out that the wonderful Dan Butterfield, composer of “Taps” was also the Secretary of the Treasury who just about crashed the entire U.S. economy on “Black Friday.” You can never quite hear “Taps” in the same way.


    Also, wasn’t it Gordon who commented to Grant on a tour through the South immediately after the war that things were going very well, and that most Southerners were ready to be reconciled with the Union — but the only possible problem was the former slaves who “could cause some problems”? Possibly it was someone else, but it seems like it was Gordon.

  7. TF Smith June 30, 2011 / 9:57 am

    Very agile – nice way to bring the rape theme up without any substantiation, as well.

    The more I read on the reconciliationist effort, the more it sounds like the “Good German” (and occasional “Good Japanese”) meme of the Cold War (sorry to bring Godwin in, but stll)…

  8. Andy Hall June 30, 2011 / 10:45 am

    “The Union League” was the standard response from Reconstruction-era klansmen when questioned about the Klan’s purpose in organizing, or whenever questioned about violence attributed to the Klan. All manner of intimidation and violence was blamed on the Union League, which worked alongside the Freedmen’s Bureau to register voters, to support Republican candidates, and to organize against white employers deemed to be taking unfair advantage of former slaves. It was almost a rote response by white Southerners sympathetic to the Klan — who, like Gordon, denied being members themselves, of course — to point to the Union League as being the perpetrator of violence against African Americans and their white supporters who challenged the political and cultural status quo.

  9. William Underhill July 1, 2011 / 5:54 am

    If I’m not mistaken, in D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”, there is a “Union League” made up of Blacks and white carpetbaggers. In the film this also becomes a reason for the formation of the KKK.

  10. John Foskett July 1, 2011 / 6:45 am

    On Chamberlain and Gordon, read Marvel’s book on Appomattox. Gordon was a capable fiction writer and Chamberlain wasn’t far behind. Just ask Captain Spears of the 20th…..

    • Noma July 1, 2011 / 9:54 am

      “Gordon was a capable fiction writer and Chamberlain wasn’t far behind.” Sad, but probably true. In the building where I work, Chamberlain’s name is among those on the brass plaques on the north side of the lobby, and Ellis Spears has his own separate plaque with profile on the opposite side. You mention Marvel’s book on Appomattox, what is his full name, the title? I had not heard of it before. The one I just started is “Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine” (on the 20th Maine) by Tom Desjardin, also supposed to debunk several Chamberlain myths.

      They say that “History is written by the victors,” but in general, I think it’s written by the best writers. Bowdoin did produce some good writers, including Hawthorne, Longfellow, and in some fashion, the author of the nations first million seller — Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote much of the book in her husband’s office on the other side of campus. Longfellow actually lived in Chamberlain’s house before Chamberlain bought it.

      In fact, both Longfellow and Hawthorne wrote for the Civil War. Longfellow, of course, was sympathetic to the Union, but Hawthorne was more sympathetic to the South. He was a good friend of an unknown president who graduated from Bowdoin, name of Franklin Pierce.

      Interestingly, there is no Franklin Pierce Hall at Bowdoin. Probably because of Pierce’s friendship with Jefferson Davis (Davis was awarded an honorary degree in 1858). After the war, when Davis was in jail, Pierce send him a letter of commiseration saying basically, “Sorry you had it so hard, because I think your side was right about the war after all…” — No Franklin Pierce Hall for you, buddy!

      • Bob Huddleston July 2, 2011 / 2:58 pm

        “You mention Marvel’s book on Appomattox, what is his full name, the title? I had not heard of it before.” Marvel has done two: _Lee’s Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox_ and _A Place Called Appomattox_, both well written. The Chamberlain-Gordon story is in the first. Take a look also at Ellis Spear, _Civil War Recollections of General Ellis Spear_ for a different view of JLC!

        • Noma July 2, 2011 / 8:46 pm

          Thanks for the info on Marvel’s books. Also, somehow I did not realize there was a book by Ellis Spear. I will have to take a look at it!

  11. Andy Hall July 1, 2011 / 3:31 pm

    Gordon’s whitewashing of the Klan here:

    It was therefore necessary, in order to protect our families from outrage and preserve our own lives, to have something that we could regard as a brotherhood—a combination of tho best men of the country, to act purely in self-defense, to repel the attack in case we should be attacked by these people. That was the whole object of this organization. I never heard of any disguises connected with it; we had none, very certainly. This organization, I think, extended nearly all over the State. It was, as I say, an organization purely for self-defense. It had no more politics in it than the organization of the Masons. I never heard the idea of politics suggested in connection with it.

    is very similar in tone to that of another Reconstruction-era klansman who made only a vague reference to his membership in the group, that could easily be missed of one didn’t know to look for it:

    Courts were all disorganized, and there was no law. I found out then that we need law to protect property; We do not need it to protect life; that is, among the American people. It does not take them long to organize and to deal out common justice to all evil doers, as any authorized court or organized law.

    That would be very easy to overlook, but at the time it was written, just after the turn of the 20th century, every Southerner, black and white, would know what it referred to.

    • Ankhanan July 2, 2011 / 6:12 am

      Mr. Hall,

      Out of curiosity, who was the speaker of the latter quote?

      • Andy Hall July 2, 2011 / 6:34 pm

        It was a relative of mine who I anticipate blogging about in the near future. I would prefer not to anticipate that post by identifying him just yet, publicly. The quote — as well as his affiliation with the Klan during Reconstruction — appears in a memorial book published after his death, but not reprinted since and somewhat hard-to-find.

        Although he talked around it, his family had no hesitation at all stating his membership in that group, and indeed seemed quite proud of it. I’m afraid I have no specifics of his involvement beyond that, however.

  12. Kathleen Wyer July 2, 2011 / 1:58 pm

    Hi Brooks:

    A few years ago I posted introductory comments and a link to the history of the Klan on Afrigeneas,com. The link is to the University of Florida’s digital collection, “Ku Klux Klan Constitution and Bylaws 1870.”

    Please ignore my deliberate non-capitalization of some words. I often retreat into a Zen-like state when reading/discussing the history of the KKK.

    Also thanks for this wonderful and insightful blog. I’m a descendant of two Florida soldiers who served in Louisiana’s Corps D’Afrique. Therefore, your discussion of Civil War history is very important to everyone seeking the truth about the war and its aftermath.

    You’ll find my posting and link at the address below.



    Kathleen Wyer

  13. Jon Carreker November 30, 2013 / 9:27 pm

    Are they going to change the name of Gordon collage now that he was known to be a member of the Klan?please I hope not.

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