OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Lesley J. Gordon

Portrait of Lesley J. Gordon

Lesley J. Gordon earned her BA with High Honors from the College of William and Mary, and her MA and PhD in American History from the University of Georgia. She presently holds the Charles G. Summersell Chair of Southern History at the University of Alabama. Her publications include General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), Intimate Strategies of the Civil War: Military Commanders and their Wives (Oxford University Press, 2001), Inside the Confederate Nation: Essays in Honor of Emory M. Thomas (Louisiana State University Press, 2005), and A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2014). She has published numerous articles, book chapters and book reviews, and her public talks have been featured on C-Span. She was editor of the academic journal Civil War History (2010-2015), and is President of the Society for Civil War History (2022-2024). Her current book project explores accusations of cowardice and their lasting effects on Civil War regiments.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

The man who gave his name to the greatest failed frontal attack in American military history, George E. Pickett is among the most famous Confederate generals of the Civil War.  But there is a contrast between his public persona and private life.  Dr. Gordon’s talk, based on her 1998 book of the same title, will highlight Pickett’s formative years as a native, white Virginian, West Point cadet, and Mexican War veteran. When the Civil War began, Pickett rose quickly to become a major general, leading his division at the battle of Gettysburg. However, the charge that bears his name ended up haunting him until his death.  His story is not really one of valor and sacrifice; but one of bitterness and resentment, a sharp contrast to the public image that emerged after the war ended. Dr. Gordon further will discuss the central role that Pickett’s wife Sallie (or LaSalle as she liked to call herself) played in seeking to shape his postwar reputation.  Appointing herself her husband’s official biographer, LaSalle Pickett became a self-proclaimed authority on the war and an apologist for slavery.  Her imprint on his legacy, and the prevalence of the Lost Cause, still lingers.

While recent Civil War scholarship has brought a new level of complexity to our understanding of its military and cultural dimensions, surprisingly little has been done in terms of illuminating one of the key, and most disconcerting, moral concepts used to evaluate battlefield action and character: cowardice. For those so charged with faltering in the battlefield, the impact could be devastating and long-lasting, extending well past the end of the war. Gordon utilizes both primary and secondary sources to trace the ways in which various conceptions of cowardice impacted military consciousness and the war’s cultural legacy.
Rather than reciting the accolades of a famed fighting unit, "A Broken Regiment: The Sixteenth Connecticut’s Civil War" focuses on a single group of Northern men struggling in wartime, grappling over questions of cowardice and heroism, patriotism and purpose, and ultimately the “true” history their military experience. This particular unit, once called by their lieutenant colonel “an unfortunate regiment,” began their Civil War service by breaking under enfilade fire at the battle of Antietam, and essentially ended it by suffering capture at Plymouth, North Carolina in 1864. Some 400 members of its ranks became inmates at the Confederacy’s infamous Andersonville prison. Competing stories of who they were, why they endured what they did and how they should be remembered began before the war ended. By the turn of the century, the “unfortunate regiment” became the “Brave Sixteenth,” individual memories and accounts altered to fit a more triumphant, heroic narrative of the war. Gordon’s "A Broken Regiment" uncovers the fascinating tale of this hapless group of men, but further probes the processes and often conflicting debates over a unit’s shared memory and identity among northern soldiers.
It is only relatively recently that scholars have begun to study and consider Civil War veterans on their own terms—separately or tied directly to the soldier experience. We are starting to understand better the uneven process of readjustment and how those experiences varied by region, class, race or ethnicity (or even army). This lecture highlights the spectrum of experience veterans endured, emphasizing the complex and often strained relationship between these men and their postwar families and communities.