“Oh yes, I knew John Gordon, and his daddy too.” – a comrade of John and Charles Gordon
During the early nineteenth century, the tobacco industry in the Upper South declined as the cotton industry in the Deep South grew. To meet the growing demand for labor, an estimated one million enslaved people were forced to migrate across the American South.
Charles and John Gordon were two of these people. Charles, an enslaved man in his forties, traveled with his family (likely on foot) from North Carolina to Mississippi, a journey of about six hundred miles. They ended up on the George Fall plantation, planting, tending, and picking cotton, where young John grew into a teenager.
Charles, later, would give his occupation as “engineer,” so it’s possible that he had worked on the engine of the cotton gin during the harvest time. John hadn’t yet learned a trade when the Union Army came.
Regulations allowed the Army to confiscate property that could be used in the war effort against them. As the Confederacy considered enslaved people to be property, the Union Army could bring those people with them as “contraband of war.” The Gordons were taken from the plantation by the Army and joined other liberated slaves at Milliken’s Bend, likely as part of a “contraband” camp.
On May 8, 1863, father and son both enlisted in Company B of the 11th Louisiana Infantry Regiment (African Descent). Fifteen-year-old John, nominally too young for the Army, enlisted as a private, not as a drummer boy like some other young soldiers. Charles was 54 and in ill health due to the hard life he had led, but enlisted anyway. It’s easy to see how he would want to stay with his young son during this time.
The Gordons soon saw combat.
Modern Army combat training lasts more than two months. Just one month after John and Charles Gordon enlisted, the Confederates attacked the Union supply area at Milliken’s Bend in an effort to lift the Siege of Vicksburg. The Union suffered 652 casualties, including the captain of Company B, but both of the Gordons survived the battle. With some gunboat support, the force of underprepared, undersupplied black soldiers was able to drive off the Confederates’ attack. This battle was a strong factor in convincing Union generals and the Secretary of War that African Americans were vital to the war effort.
In September of 1864 Charles Gordon was discharged from the Army due to general disability. His certificate of disability reads: “Was broke down at hard labor before enlistment. Should never have been enlisted.”
John remained in the 11th Louisiana (later organized into the 49th U.S. Colored Infantry), which stayed on garrison duty at Vicksburg. After the war, John went out to scout with several other soldiers and became lost in the thick vegetation of the Mississippi River wetlands. He eventually found his way—back to the Fall plantation, where his family had moved back to.
John stayed there with his family for about a year. He married sixteen-year-old Lucindy Dorsey on the Fourth of July, 1866. Not long afterward, they went to Vicksburg with Charles Gordon. This trip to Vicksburg may have been a way for Charles to ensure that his son learned a trade so he would be better able to make a living. Later in life John would be a blacksmith and run the engine in the gin house–probably the same work his father had done while enslaved.
The Gordons—John, Lucindy, and Charles—lived in Greenville, Mississippi, for a few years while John practiced the blacksmithing trade, and in 1871 they moved to the Swiftwater plantation. Charles lived with his son and daughter-in-law until the end of his life.
The Gordons’ story is a touching tale of a dedicated father and son. The Gordons could have been separated at many points in John’s life. In a place and time that were so hostile to family bonds, it’s remarkable that Charles and John were able to stay together as long as they did. Their story only highlights how many other families were torn apart by the institution of slavery.
This story comes from the pension file of John Gordon and was digitized in the Innovation Hub by Jesse Wilinski. The Archives holds thousands of not-yet-digitized pension files of soldiers who served in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. If you’re interested in scanning one, email firstname.lastname@example.org.