Friends of Bear Paw, Big Hole & Canyon Creek Battlefields
General John Gibbon -- Biography
General John Gibbon -- At the peak of his career
On the night of August 9, 1877, Colonel John Gibbon led a mixed command of soldiers and civilians against Chief Joseph's band of the Nez Perce Indians. Stars were visible in the darkened sky as the column advanced carefully across the rugged slopes surrounding the Indian camp at Big Hole, Montana Territory. Colonel Gibbon paused for a moment in a clearing and turned to his adjutant, Lieutenant Charles A. Woodruff. Pointing to one particularly bright star, Gibbon whispered, "Old Mars is smiling upon us to-night, that's a favorable omen." Although Gibbon and Woodruff were both wounded in the ensuing attack, "Old Mars" did indeed smile upon the colonel's plan. But then Mars had always seemed to smile upon the military career of General John Gibbon.
John Oliver Gibbon was born at ten o'clock in the morning on April 20, 1827, near Holmesburg, Pennsylvania, now within the boundaries of the city of Philadelphia. He was the third son and the fourth of seven children that blessed the marriage of Dr. John Heysham Gibbon and Catherine (Lardner) Gibbon. Although the family name was originally "Gibbons," the doctor dropped the final "s" upon attaining his majority, so that by the time Doctor Gibbon had married and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, the change was permanent. Catherine and the children followed Doctor Gibbon to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he had accepted an appointment as chief assayer at the United States Mint. While living in Charlotte, young John Gibbon was selected to be a cadet at the United States Military Academy, thus beginning a career in the United States Army that would last until his forced retirement almost fifty years later.
Officially entering the Military Academy at West Point, New York, on September 1, 1842, Cadet Gibbon was an average student who soon proved deficient in the study of English grammar. Paced with the choice of being dismissed or repeating a year, Gibbon chose the latter and consequently did not graduate until July 1, 1847, ranking twentieth in a class of thirty-eight and receiving a commission as a brevet second lieutenant in the 3rd Artillery. Sent off to Mexico City and Toluca in the waning months of the Mexican War, the new officer missed the battles in which other West Point graduates won praise and fame. While graduates of the class of 1846-his original classmates--emerged with brevets to the ranks of first lieutenant, captain, and even major, John Gibbon's only promotion was to the permanent rank of second lieutenant in the 4th Artillery on September 13, 1847. However, the young lieutenant did learn an important lesson one night at a card table. As the story went, "He had joined with a few dollars, a horse, equipments, and pistols, and was urged to take a hand, 'just to make up a game.' The next morning, going on detached service, he was compelled to borrow a horse, saddle, bridle, spurs, pistols, and money for his expenses, but never again played cards for a stake”.
After a brief assignment to Fort Monroe, Virginia, in 1848, Lieutenant Gibbon was transferred to Fort Brooke, Florida, where he spent several years with the force assigned to keep the Seminole Indians in check. While stationed at Fort Brooke, the lieutenant had the good fortune to serve with Captain John C. Casey, whose fair and considerate treatment of the Florida Indians made a lasting impression on the younger officer. Gibbon would later write of his mentor, "He never deceived them; never told one of them a lie; and never made a promise he did not fulfill, if within his power."
Promoted to first lieutenant on September 12, 1850, Gibbon joined Light Battery B of the 4th Artillery and spent the next two years on the Texas frontier, first at Ringgold Barracks and then with the garrison at Fort Brown. Following an extended leave of absence and a stint on court-martials duty, he was again ordered to Florida to assist in the removal of the remaining Seminoles.
On September 25, 1854, First Lieutenant John Gibbon began his duties as assistant instructor of artillery at the Military Academy, an indication of his demonstrated ability in that military art. The new instructor had also demonstrated his affection for Miss Frances North Moale, daughter of Samuel Moale of Baltimore, and the two were married October 16, 1855, the bride from a Roman Catholic family and the groom a member of no formal church, despite professing "a strong religious feeling.” Returning to classes at West Point, Gibbon assumed the additional duties of post quartermaster on September 16, 1856, and performed dual assignments throughout that school year. He continued to act as quartermaster until August 31, 1859, with one brief absence to serve on a board testing the merits of new breech-loading rifles. Although his career as an instructor of artillery tactics ended on July 5, 1857, Gibbon reworked his class notes into a definitive artillery textbook that was widely used for several decades. Published by D. Van Nostrand in 1859, The Artillerist's Manual quickly went into a second edition and was adopted by the War Department, which purchased and issued hundreds of copies. The New York Herald had kind words in a notice of the publication, concluding, "The book may well be considered as a valuable and important addition to the military science of the country."
On November 2, 1859, John Gibbon was promoted to captain and assigned to command Battery B, 4th Artillery, then stationed at Camp Floyd in Utah Territory as part of the peacekeeping force in the Mormon country. When the nation and the army were torn apart by the secession crisis and the surrender of Fort Sumter, Captain Gibbon was forced to decide between honoring his oath of allegiance to the United States or respecting the beliefs of his family in North Carolina. While at Fort Crittenden-the name of the post was changed after Secretary of War John B. Floyd resigned and joined the secessionists-Gibbon was accused by several fellow officers of disloyalty after he allowed the band to play "Dixie," a charge the captain vigorously refuted. Captain Gibbon was exonerated, owing in part to the support of his commanding officer, and he soon severed relations with the Gibbon family in Charlotte.
Members of the Gibbon family were loyal Democrats and apparently owned a few slaves, so three of John's brothers chose to join the rebel army. More than three years later, one of his sisters made her way to the Federal lines, where she met John and was escorted north. John had sent a message to his younger brother to come along with her on the flag-of truce boat, but the younger Gibbon responded with the curt message, "It would not be agreeable."
After John Gibbon decided to oppose the views of his family and to remain in the United States Army, the troops at Fort Crittenden were ordered to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, some twelve hundred miles to the east. The march to Kansas was mostly uneventful, and the column arrived there on October 8, 1861. But Gibbon and his battery were ordered to continue on to St. Joseph, Missouri, where the men and guns were loaded on railroad cars and sent to the nation's capital. Upon arrival at Washington on October 29, Captain Gibbon was appointed chief of artillery for Brigadier General Irvin McDowell's division, a post he would hold until the following May. His responsibilities included not only training his own Battery B, its depleted ranks soon filled with volunteers from infantry regiments, but also instructing three volunteer batteries-the 1st New Hampshire Battery; Battery D, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery; and Battery L, 1st New York Light Artillery. Captain Gibbon demonstrated "a natural talent for dealing with the volunteer soldier, whose possibilities, as well as limitations, he appreciated from the first," and the four batteries soon won reputations for dependability unsurpassed in the Army of the Potomac.
Talented officers were desperately wanted to fill vacancies in the volunteer force, which had been recruited independently of the established Regular Army. To fill this need, qualified Regular officers were detached from their companies and assigned to command volunteers at a higher rank. Gibbon's initial success in organizing and training artillery volunteers led to a nomination as brigadier general of volunteers, a step which many other West Point graduates had already made. But Gibbon's confirmation was held up because he had no political friends in Washington. Finally, on May 2, 1862, after intercession on his behalf by some prominent New Yorkers, the artillery captain received a commission as brigadier general of United States Volunteers and was assigned to command an infantry brigade composed of four regiments-the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin and the 19th Indiana. General Gibbon made an enviable name for himself and his brigade, subsequently called the Iron Brigade, in hard-fought battles at Brawner Farm on August 28, 1862, Bull Run on August 3, 1862, South Mountain on September 14, 1862, and Antietam on September 17, 1862. Although he left the Iron Brigade to command a division of the First Corps in November of 1862, the relationship between the general and his brigade remained strong for more than thirty years.
While commanding the Second Division of the First Corps at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, Gibbon was struck by a shell fragment which broke a bone in his hand and inflicted a painful wound in the wrist. After a period of convalescence, he returned to the army and was assigned to command the Second Division of the Second Corps, which he led at Chancellorsville and in the Gettysburg Campaign. During the fighting at Gettysburg, General Gibbon commanded the Second Corps when Winfield S. Hancock assumed other temporary duties, but he was with his division during the climax of the battle when "Pickett's Charge" was repulsed in his front. As he hurried reinforcements to relieve his threatened regiments, Gibbon was struck by a bullet in the left shoulder, which broke the scapula and inflicted a wound that would disable him for several months.
Lieutenant Frank A. Haskell, an aide on Gibbon's staff at Gettysburg, described the general as he appeared in July of 1863:
Haskell concluded his description with the statement, "He always looks well dressed." The lieutenant failed to mention a few of Gibbon's personal habits which he shared with many in the army-his fondness for pipe smoking, an appreciation of good whiskey, and his occasional use of "bad words."
After four months of convalescence, Gibbon returned to duty as commander of the Draft Depot at Cleveland on November 15, 1863, but within a week he was transferred to command the Draft Depot at Philadelphia, a post much closer to his wife and children, who were then living in Baltimore with the Moale family. The general resumed command of his division on March 21, 1864, and participated in the bloody campaign against Richmond, leading his men at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Totopotomoy, Cold Harbor, and various operations around Petersburg.
On June 7, 1864, John Gibbon was promoted to major general of United States Volunteers, a rank which would normally entitle him to command a corps, but despite a few weeks in command of the Eighteenth Corps, that honor did not come until January 15, 1865. On that day he was assigned to command the Twenty-fourth Corps in the Army of the James, and he led that unit in the final operations against the Petersburg defenses, including the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia to Appomattox Court House. At that place Gibbon was one of three commissioners selected by General Ulysses S. Grant to arrange details of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. After the successful conclusion of the war, he commanded the District of Nottoway, Virginia, from August 18, 1865, until his muster out of the volunteer force on January 15, 1866.
In summing up John Gibbon's service during the Civil War, it is obvious that his steady advancement was due to merit rather than political influence, and for this reason his promotions often lagged behind those of well-connected officers of lesser ability. If he had managed to gain a few influential friends in 1861, there is little doubt that Gibbon would have been elevated to corps command much earlier, and perhaps even to army command before the end of the war. Although he had his detractors--one man referred to him as "A Dm squirt of a Brig Gen’l.”
General John Gibbon had a solid reputation in the Army of the Potomac. Colonel Theodore Lyman, an aide at army headquarters, wrote two descriptions of the general that show how he was perceived during the campaign of 1864. In a letter describing affairs after the fighting in the Wilderness, Lyman wrote, "By the roadside was Gibbon, and a tower of strength he is, cool as a steel knife, always, and unmoved by anything and everything." Colonel Lyman again noticed the general as he appeared on May 9, 1864, writing that "thither came steel-cold General Gibbon, the most American of Americans, with his sharp nose and up-and-down manner of telling the truth, no matter whom it hurts."
When he was mustered out of the volunteer service on January 15, 1866, General John Gibbon suddenly reverted to captain, the highest rank he had attained in the Regular Army. On January 30 Captain Gibbon began a seven-month assignment as a member of an artillery board which worked to restructure that arm of the service after the muster our of the volunteers. As a consequence of that reorganization, Gibbon was promoted to colonel of the 36th Infantry on July 28, 1866. When the list of brevet promotions in the Regular Army for Civil War service was announced in 1866, he found that he had received five major, to date from September 17, 1862, for Antietam; lieutenant colonel, to date from December 13, 1862, for Fredericksburg; colonel, to date from July 4, 1863, for Gettysburg; brigadier general, to date from March 13, 1865, for Spotsylvania; and major general, to date from March 13, 1865, for Petersburg. (These brevets for his Civil War service were simply honorary and carried no additional pay, although officers were often addressed by their brevet rank.)
On December 1, 1866, Colonel Gibbon was ordered west to take command of the post at Fort Kearny, Nebraska, beginning a career in the West that would last until his retirement. He served at a number of posts during the remainder of his military service: Fort Kearny until May 1867; Fort Sanders, Dakota Territory, until December 1868; transferred to the Seventh Infantry on March 15, 1869; Camp Douglas, Utah, until 1870; Fort Shaw, Montana Territory, until 1872; superintendent of the recruiting service in New York City during 1873; Fort Shaw again (commanding the District of Montana and, briefly, the Department of Dakota) until 1879; Fort Snelling, Minnesota, until 1883; Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory, in 1883; commander of the Department of the Platte in 1884; promoted to brigadier general, United States Army, on July 10, 1885; Vancouver Barracks, Washington Territory, as commander of the Department of the Columbia; and San Francisco, California, as commander of the Division of the Pacific until his forced retirement on April 20, 1891. In addition to his official duties at regimental, departmental, and divisional headquarters, Gibbon testified before congressional committees and army boards, addressed the graduating class at West Point on June 12, 1886, and even served as a member of the Board of Visitors of the United States Naval Academy.
John Gibbon's name was closely associated with two major Indian campaigns during his frontier service: the Sioux Campaign of 1876 and the Nez Perce Campaign of 1877. In the former, Gibbon commanded the Montana Column which rescued the survivors and buried the dead of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer's 7th Cavalry after the battle with Teton Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Indians on the Little Bighorn River. In the latter, although his force was outnumbered, Gibbon attacked Chief Joseph's band of Nez Perce at Big Hole, Montana Territory. The battle was actually a tactical defeat for Gibbon's small force, but the losses inflicted on the Nez Perce helped bring the campaign to a swift conclusion.
Joseph and Gibbon, late 1880s / early 1890s -- photo courtesy of General Gibbon descendant, Mary L. Hallett
Throughout his post-Civil War career, John Gibbon devoted much of his spare time to writing. By 1885 he had completed a manuscript of his wartime experiences, although the volume, entitled Personal Recollections of the Civil War, was not published until 1928, and then only after some editing by his daughter, Frances Moale Gibbon. The book has since become accepted as a classic account of the war. The general also wrote more than two dozen articles for various magazines on a number of topics ranging from his Indian fights to women's rights. Only in his description of the wonders of the Yellowstone National Park did Gibbon seem at a loss for words to adequately describe the sights of the region. Those West Point instructors who had declared him deficient in grammar would have been proud of his literary legacy.
While John Gibbon would be remembered primarily for his military campaigns, Charles A. Woodruff recalled some of the traits displayed by John Gibbon the man:
Children always looked upon him as their personal friend, and for woman he had a respectful admiration, and was her earnest champion. A better husband and father I never knew. He was a model of faithful devotion, tender, thoughtful, and most considerate. He was of a very social disposition, loved to be in the midst of friends, old or young, and while he could keep up his end of the conversation with anecdote, reminiscence, or argument, was also a good listener.”
Gibbon was portrayed as a man who "positively abhorred deceit" and whose motto could be summed up in three words- "Tell the truth."
Following his retirement in 1891, John Gibbon settled into the family home at 239 West Biddle Street in Baltimore. At 3:40 P.M. on February 6, 1896, a few months short of his seventieth birthday, the soldier who had survived Confederates and Indians finally succumbed to pneumonia. His remains were conveyed to Arlington Cemetery, where he was buried on February 10, near the old camps where he had drilled his batteries in 1861. Survivors of the Iron Brigade, the only brigade he had ever commanded, took up a collection for his monument. Although probably modest by some standards, it overlooks the capital of the country to which he had devoted his life.
Webmaster Note: This brief biography and photo of John Gibbon appears in "Adventures on the Western Frontier" written by Gibbon, edited by Alan & Maureen Gaff and published by Indiana University Press.
Gibbon's monument, as erected by the Iron Brigade, at Arlington National Cemetery -- photos © Robert Luppi