On the evening of May 13, Civil War history buffs gathered to hear author Larry Gordon talk about his new biography, The Last Confederate General: John C. Vaughn and His East Tennessee Cavalry, which outlines the life of Madisonville native and Confederate general John Vaughn. Vaughn was one of only three Confederate general officers from East Tennessee and was the only one still in command when hostilities ended.
General Vaughn’s story is a remarkable one, even in the context of the unrest of the Civil War. In late 1863, after the fall of Knoxville and the Battle of Chattanooga, the Confederacy lost control of most of East Tennessee and secessionists suffered the consequences of having the tables turned. General Vaughn’s wife, father, and three young daughters were arrested, imprisoned, and held hostage against him—the only such occurrence against a general on either side during the war. While the situation affected his performance, it also revealed his courage and dedication.
Vaughn was not a professional military man. His lack of military talent, schooling, and experience got him into trouble on some battlefields. When leading a cavalry brigade, he would often determine which side had the superior force by attacking boldly, then retreating only if it turned out that the enemy was much stronger. Unlike many generals on both sides of the war, Vaughn was always willing to engage in battle, even while recovering from recent defeat.
While General Vaughn is often associated with the Confederate failures at Vicksburg, Mississippi; Piedmont, Virginia; and Morristown, Tennessee; he was victorious in Virginia at First Manassas and Second Kernstown, and in many battles in East Tennessee.
Vaughn was no less passionate or inconsistent in his civilian life following the war.
He was the last general to surrender in the eastern theater, more than a month after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Financially ruined and accused of treason, he settled in southern Georgia and tried selling dry goods, with little success. He returned to Tennessee just five years after the war and was elected to the state senate, where he served as president for two years. However, he became involved in a pension scheme that resulted in a sensational Federal trial. Ultimately, he pled guilty and returned to Georgia, where he lived out the few remaining months of his life.
Larry Gordon, author of The Last Confederate General, has been a student of history all his life, and has worked as a volunteer interpretive guide at Manassas National Battlefield Park in Northern Virginia for the past 14 years. He and his wife Julia live in Fairfax Station, Virginia.
A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Gordon graduated from Texas A&M University with a Bachelor of Science degree in meteorology and entered the Regular Army of the United States as a second lieutenant. He served in the Army Signal Corps in the fields of tactical and strategic communications, and foreign intelligence, with tours of duty in Italy, Korea, Panama, Hawaii, and all over the mainland United States. He was awarded the Air Medal, Bronze Star, Defense Superior Service Medal, and the Legion of Merit before retiring from active duty as a colonel. For the past twenty years, he has worked in the Washington, D.C. area as a military information technology analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a not-for-profit center that conducts research for the Department of Defense.
Gordon earned a Master of Arts degree in Soviet and Slavic area studies from the University of Kansas. He is also a graduate of the Armed Forces Staff College and the Army War College. He has studied several languages, including Polish, Czech, Russian, Italian, and Spanish, and is a certified Master Scuba Diver and Rescue Diver.