OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Lesley J. Gordon

Portrait of Lesley J. Gordon

Lesley J. Gordon holds the Charles G. Summersell Chair of Southern History at the University of Alabama. A former editor of Civil War History, she is the author of General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend (1998) and A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War (2014) and a coeditor of Inside the Confederate Nation: Essays in Honor of Emory M. Thomas (2005) and This Terrible War: The Civil War and its Aftermath (3rd edition, 2014). She is currently at work on a book manuscript entitled "Battlefield Cowardice: Violence and Memory in the American Civil War."

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

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.