Although it was highly unusual for combatants, he rarely went into battle without his wife nearby. They were devoted to each other, and she enjoyed his sense of humor except on one occasion. After suffering five bullet wounds in a previous battle, one which scarred his face severely, he wrote: “My face was black and shapeless—so swollen that one eye was entirely hidden and other nearly so…I saw at once that I must reassure her.” Hoping to calm her he mused, “Here’s your handsome (?) husband; been to an Irish wedding.” As if on cue, she let out the equivalent of a new widow’s scream. Later she enjoyed referring to her husband’s scar as “John’s Yankee Dimple.”
His vision of an independent South was communicated on the field with such rhetorical eloquence that his men approached him with an extraordinary request. They asked him to refrain from making any more stirring speeches before a battle. One soldier gave this astonishing reason: “Because he makes me feel like I could storm hell.” Not surprisingly his unit had the highest casualty rate of any other Rebel unit on the first day. A wounded Rebel remarked: “He’s most the prettiest thing you ever did see on a field of fight. It [would] put fight into a whipped chicken just to look at him!” Another recounted that he was “standing in his stirrups, bareheaded, hat in hand, arms extended, and, in a voice like a trumpet, exhorting his men. It was superb, absolutely thrilling.” In the saddle he was a monument of inspired oratory.
Gordon succeeded in pushing the enemy back towards town. He wanted to complete the destruction of a beaten foe by following up on his gains. Convinced that complete victory was at hand, his orders were not to engage the enemy further until all of Lee’s troops were massed. Gordon would later remark:
“No battle of our Civil War—no battle of any war—more forcibly illustrates the truth that officers at a distance from the field cannot, with any wisdom, attempt to control the movements of troops actively engaged.”
He was also cautioned by a fellow officer’s misinterpretation of a new Union position that would threaten at any time. Gordon waited for an enemy attack that never came. Although tempted to disobey orders because of the certainty of his position, his time and talent were wasted, and for the rest of the battle he did virtually nothing. With the same verbal skills he used to inspire troops before a battle, he could neutralize the impact of an event by downplaying its importance. In his official report of the fight, he offered an extraordinary if not bitter observation of the remaining two days of the battle, “I do not consider of sufficient importance to mention.” Frustration came naturally to being sidelined.
After the war, Gordon was asked frequently to speak all over the country about an unusual personal incident he said took place on the battlefield, that he took the time on the ground to fulfill the last wishes of Union General Francis Barlow before he died, only to discover him in a dining room in Washington, D.C. eleven years later. It was a moving and entertaining story as only a great orator like Gordon could tell it. The event about which he spoke so often, for which he received many accolades, and with which he inspired the reuniting of a nation, helped win him the governor’s seat of Georgia and a US Senate seat. Today, the Gettysburg National Park Service has an actual glass display that depicts the “Gordon-Barlow Incident.”
Don’t waste your talents.
Superiors do not always use the abilities of their employees. Like the Biblical Samson who had slain thousands with the jawbone of an ass, Robert E. Lee may have done the same with the jawbone of a Gordon. Gordon’s rhetorical skills to influence outcomes were not employed in the remaining two days. For a group to excel, the talent of each individual needs to be encouraged frequently. Otherwise, good talent will search elsewhere to find someone who will reward ability.
Verify before acting.
Though Gordon had to wait for further orders to proceed, he received misinformation that came from only one source. Before attempting to influence a superior on a decision, confirm your information more than once. Seek information you can verify to better determine your actions and lessen your risks.
Be part of the action.
Gordon’s words remind us of the difficulty of managing any activity when you are not physically present to influence the outcome.
Copyright 2012 Paul Lloyd Hemphill