CAMPBELL’S SWAMP, Mississippi — We buried Gordon Cotton in a Confederate battle flag-draped coffin Tuesday afternoon in the shadow of Jordan’s Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church, South next to his best friend and two unknown rebel soldiers.
No more southern sentence could be written about the man who defined the best of the Old South and didn’t shy away from its history, warts and all.
Gordon was a friend, mentor and colleague who had an encyclopedic knowledge of people and places of Mississippi’s South Delta. He spent his life educating others as a teacher, journalist and the director of the Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg.
In that flag draped over his coffin — one of proportionate size and correct color and most definitely not the naval jack waved by the Ku Klux Klan and others who confuse it for the Southern Cross — I didn’t see hate. I saw Gordon’s love of all people from a bygone era.
“Dixie” was played three times at his funeral — once on guitar and twice on fiddle — not to make a statement but because, as our friend and former editor Karen Gamble said afterward, “that’s just what Gordon would have wanted.”
And when I said we buried him, I mean it. Gordon left instructions that his friends and family should fill in the hole dug by a backhoe in his private cemetery, covering his homemade coffin painted to look like his yellow checker-topped Mini Cooper. Karen was the first to throw a shovel full of dirt on top of the homemade coffin. It was a promise she’d made to him years ago.
All of us had a go, and then the younger boys finished the job, just like it was 1921 instead of 2021. The funeral directors were long gone while we continued to toss dirt in the void in the ground and stuffed ourselves with the finest southern food and beer to fill the ones in our hearts. It was an incredibly personal experience.
That was perfect because as a historian Gordon wasn’t interested in troop movements, economic drivers or politics like so many others are. He was inspired by people, their emotions and their characters. So he wrote book after book — not because there was a huge demand but because the stories needed telling. Gordon was the one to tell them.
He loved tales of great characters like Vicksburg attorney Walker Brooke who choked to death on an oyster after being bet he couldn’t swallow the massive shellfish in one gulp or Emma Balfour, a woman who kept a diary of life in the city during the vicious 47-day siege in 1863.
I think he connected with those who were long gone more than he did with almost anyone else. He flew their flags, sang their songs and wrote cookbooks so he and other people could eat their food. He knew their sacrifices and longed for a time when things seemed a lot simpler. I say seemed because Gordon knew that history never comes in black and white but murky shades of gray, just like the uniforms of the men buried beside him.
Like them, he led a pretty simple life. Gordon wasn’t much for technology. He never learned to use a computer. He typed his stories on a manual typewriter and delivered them to the newspaper office once a week or so. He lived without air conditioning most of his life. Eventually, he broke down a bought a cellphone but rarely used it.
Gordon obviously didn’t care for political correctness, and that was fine. He had the chops to prove when he was right and the humility to accept when he didn’t know the answers. He knew the answer more often than not.
Gordon spent 48 years writing about local history for the newspaper of a town that never truly recovered from the devastation the Civil War. He spent 30 at its nonprofit museum dedicated to the people who lived through the war and helped amass countless priceless artifacts. You’ve probably seen him on television at one point or another.
The four-plot cemetery where Gordon was laid to rest is a short walk from his house next to the church chapel he built with his friend and neighbor Hobbs Freeman. Together they held a service in that cemetery for the two unknown Confederate soldiers. Gordon stood with friends and family by the graveside when Hobbs died in 2009. Hundreds of us watched this week as Gordon’s casket was lowered into the ground.
Afterward, we gathered in Gordon’s house, just like in old times with a spread of food to rival any old southern church picnic. Out came the guitars, banjo, fiddle and accordion. Music filled the air as the sun started to recede and blanket the swampy woods in darkness.
I walked back to the cemetery just before dusk, said my last goodbye and met up at the house with another former co-worker, Eli Baylis.
“Well, he’s still in the ground,” I said. It was the kind of joke Gordon would have enjoyed. “I had to go check that he didn’t get back up.”
“Of all the people I’ve known, Gordon is the most likely to fake his death so he can watch his funeral from afar,” Eli said.
I told him I checked the outhouse and the chapel. Gordon wasn’t there.
“It’s too bad,” I said. “He would have loved this.”
“Absolutely loved it,” Eli said.
Now, I’ll close this with something else Gordon would have loved — a quote from Union Brig. Gen. James Birdseye McPherson about the residents of Gordon’s part of Warren County, Mississippi, during the summer of 1863.
“There is a class of persons in that section who require watching; although seemingly disposed to remain quietly at home and pursue their peaceful avocation, they are hostile in spirit,” McPherson wrote.
Gordon certainly required watching. He had his quirks and foibles, but he never was hostile in spirit. Well, maybe toward the Yankee army. He never cared for them much.
Josh Edwards is managing editor of The Daily Sentinel and a former staff writer for The Vicksburg Post and board member of the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg, Mississippi.