His Eye Was Dark, Calm, and Thoughtful: A Pen Portrait of General John B. Gordon

ECW welcomes back guest author Dan Masters

Thomas Goode Jones was scarcely 18 years old when he went to work on the staff of General John B. Gordon in the days following the 1862 Maryland campaign. The former Virginia Military Institute cadet and native Georgian had been in the Confederate service since May 15, 1862, serving first with the V.M.I. Battalion, then briefly in Co. K of the 53rd Alabama Partisan Rangers. General Gordon remembered the occasion well, as recorded in his memoirs.

“After the Battle of Sharpsburg, there was sent to me as an aide on my staff a very young soldier, a mere stripling,” Gordon wrote. “He was at that awkward, gawky age through which all boys seem to pass. He bore a letter, however, from Hon. Thomas Watts of Alabama, who was the Attorney General of the Confederate States and who assured me that this lad had in him all the essentials of a true soldier.  It was not long before I found that Mr. Watts had not mistaken the mettle of his young friend, Thomas G. Jones.”

General Gordon found in Jones a daring top-notch aide, and the two served side by side through the end of the war. Gordon’s memoirs warmly cite numerous occasions of Jones’s heroism in battle. “It is simple justice to say of this immature boy that his courage, his coolness in the presence of danger, and his strong moral and mental characteristics gave promise of his brilliant future,” the general stated.

How young Jones felt about his general is clear from an extraordinary letter he wrote in September 1863. The Army of Northern Virginia, still licking its wounds after the disappointments of the Gettysburg campaign, was then encamped near Orange Courthouse when Jones took the occasion to write to the grandmother of his old V.M.I. roommate John K. Mason.

Maj. Gen. John Gordon

According to Jones’s son, Judge Walter B. Jones, Mason and Jones “were devoted friends and attended the Virginia Military Institute together when Thomas J. Jackson was professor of mathematics and military science there. Prior to that, they were little boys together where the grandmother lived with Dr. George Mason,” John Mason’s father. Cadet Jones became “very devoted” to Grandmother Mason which led to him writing her this letter on September 11, 1863.

After briefly describing his recent adventures with trying to obtain a horse in war-torn central Virginia, Jones offered her some insights into General Gordon and his staff. “You will most naturally ask me about the general and his staff,” Jones said. “The general is a fine specimen of Southern gentleman. Physically, he is tall, square shouldered, imposing, and soldierly in bearing. His eye is dark, calm, and thoughtful, but in it you see no indiscretion or hesitancy, on the contrary it is somewhat fierce, but you forget the fiercefulness in the cordial blink of the eyes that light up his face when he meets you. He is my beau ideal of a soldier.

“His dealing and intercourse with others are founded on the famous Roman motto, ‘Never be humble to the haughty or haughty to the humble,’” Jones continued. “He is the best brigadier in the service and of course is the idol of his brigade. He is a real, true, consistent member of the Baptist church and in all meetings of the church, sets the example to his men and never asks them to follow when he does not lead.”

“He was formerly colonel of the 6th Alabama regiment and commanded his regiment and, part of the time, Rodes’ brigade during the battles around Richmond,” the letter states. “At Sharpsburg, he retired from the field after being struck seven times and only then from loss of blood. His gallant conduct and skillful maneuvers on that field caused him to be made brigadier general as his commission dates from that day.”

Jones went on to describe the rest of the staff. “The assistant adjutant general of the brigade is Captain James Mitchell, son of John Mitchell of Richmond, editor of the Richmond Enquirer. He is quite a good moral young man, the very soul of gallantry who has been wounded three times. Captain James M. Pace, a brother-in-law of General Gordon, is the brigade inspector. He is a very good man but quite reserved. The other members of our mess include Lieutenant Eugene Gordon, the brother of General Gordon [aged 18] who is absent in Georgia. The two first named captains and myself constitute the general’s staff. Eugene Gordon, as I call him, is a member of the church, a nice genuine young man and every way worthy of the confidence and trust anyone will naturally bestow on him after any acquaintance with him.”

Despite the setbacks bedeviling the Confederacy that momentous summer of 1863, Jones looked confidently to the future. “General Lee’s army is concentrated between this place and Fredericksburg,” he wrote. “It is as strong in number and spirits as it ever was. The army has recruited immensely since it arrived here and numbers about 85,000 effective men. Meade had better remain quiet, if he don’t, we will, God be willing, give him such a thrashing that he will be glad to be quiet as long as we will let him. It is rumored that the corps will be ordered to Tennessee but whether it is true or not, I don’t know, but it has a semblance of truth in it. I see no cause for despondency. Let Charleston fall, and Mobile, too. The Yanks will only be getting at the beginning of their troubles.”

“If the people are true to themselves, they can never be subjugated,” Jones opined. “Who could reunite with the enemy now? Who would live on terms of equality with the slaves? Who would be disenfranchised? Who would be ruled by the Yankee despot? Who would give up home, property, and honor, for a few short years of life in shame, degradation, and slavery? For one, I had rather fight it out to the bitter end than submit to such a fate.”

Jones continued to ride at Gordon’s side, suffering wounds at both Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 12, 1864, and again at Kernstown on November 11, 1864. How ironic and bitter it must have been for Thomas Goode Jones to be tasked with carrying one of the flags of truce upon his sword at Appomattox 18 months later in one of his last acts of service to the Confederacy. Thomas Goode Jones enjoyed a successful post-war career as a newspaper editor, attorney, jurist, author, and as the 28th governor of the state of Alabama.

Dan Masters holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Toledo and has been actively engaged in Civil War research for more than twenty years. Dan lives in Perrysburg, Ohio with his wife and five children, while his oldest son is currently serving in the U.S. Air Force. His work has been featured in America’s Civil War, Maryland Historical Magazine, The Western Tennessee Historical Society Papers, and Northwest Ohio History. Dan is the author of six books about the Civil War, the latest being The Seneachie Letters: A Virginia Yankee in the 32nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry published by Columbian Arsenal Press. He also frequently posts articles to his blog: https://dan-masters-civil-war.blogspot.com/



Gordon, John B. Reminiscences of the Civil War. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903, pgs. 112, 277

“A Confederate Soldier’s Letter,” Montgomery Advertiser (Alabama), August 12, 1935, pg. 4

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