CITIZEN JOURNALISM: Last Rebel to concede gets his due

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Brig. Gen. John Crawford Vaughn of East Tennessee was the last Confederate general to surrender to Union Forces east of the Mississippi River in the main theater of the Civil War. Vaughn led the 3rd Tennessee Regiment into battle on June 8, 1861. He did not surrender until May 10, 1865.

“Like the fictional Forrest Gump, Vaughn seemed to be everywhere the action was,” said Retired Army Col. Charles Larry Gordon, author of “The Last Confederate General: John C. Vaughn and His East Tennessee Cavalry,” published in March. Col. Gordon recently presented his book at the Centreville Public Library to the Bull Run Civil War Round Table, a club that shares knowledge of the Civil War.

Col. Gordon was born and raised in Texas. He graduated from Texas A&M University and spent 26 years on active duty, specializing in tactical and strategic communications and foreign intelligence. He has been a longtime student of the Civil War and for the past 14 years has been a volunteer interpretive guide at Manassas National Battlefield Park. He became interested in Vaughn when asked a question about him by a descendent of the Civil War general.

Vaughn grew up in Madisonville, Tenn. In his youth, he was ambitious and had a great sense of adventure. He had no military training or experience, yet he joined the Army during the 1846-48 Mexican-American War. He then tried his luck at the California gold rush. When he did not strike it rich, he returned to his beloved East Tennessee with visions of creating a prosperous and commercialized agricultural economy. He opened several local businesses, became a lawyer, participated in local politics and was elected sheriff.

When the Civil War erupted, Vaughn “aligned himself with the agricultural South and never looked back,” Col. Gordon says. Vaughn was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention of 1860 and witnessed the Rebel attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. His success in June in a battle near Romney, Va. (now West Virginia) attracted the attention of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In July 1861, he was part of the Confederate victory in the first major land battle of the war known as First Bull Run or First Manassas.

Vaughn’s own home region of East Tennessee was a hotbed of Unionism even though it was under Confederate control during the first two years of the war. His brigade included both Southern loyalists and conscripted Union sympathizers; they were sent out of the area. This had dire consequences for Vaughn that haunted him the rest of his life. Following the Battle of Chattanooga in November 1863, he left his family at the mercy of a Union Army leader, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman ordered Vaughn’s wife, three daughters and father arrested and imprisoned in Jeffersonville, Ind. This was the only known incidence of this type of psychological warfare against a general officer on either side during the war.

When the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, Gen. Robert E. Lee, surrendered on April 9, 1865, Vaughn escorted Davis into Georgia and finally surrendered on the day Davis was taken prisoner. He was not allowed to return home until 1870, by which time, his wife was dead. He believed her incarceration was the cause of her early death and bitterness over that remained with him.

Vaughn lived most of his life as a principled and honest man, “but the horrors of war changed him, and, as with many Southerners, the war also bankrupted him,” Col. Gordon said. He participated in a pension scheme and was convicted of fraud. He eventually returned to Georgia, where he died in 1875.

Col. Gordon said some lessons may be drawn from Vaughn’s life and character. Greed and bitterness are often the result of great trauma. Vaughn was tenacious, steadfast and committed to his cause, and he exerted tremendous will to win even in the face of overwhelming odds. He was totally committed to protecting his family, home, comrades and way of life, and he never quit. He was a man who had to wrestle with many exceptional and complex issues. Col. Gordon said Vaughn did the best he could: He was a remarkable man who, despite his flaws, has much to teach us.

• Linda Bartlett is a writer in Annandale. Her husband is a retired Army colonel.

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