American Myth: 20 Myths from American History We're Here to Debunk
20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk

20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk

Larry Holzwarth - May 28, 2019

20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk
Men serving under Robert E. Lee (seated) were more likely to become casualties than those who served under his adversaries throughout the Civil War. National Park Service

12. The myth of Robert E. Lee and Butcher Grant

During the American Civil War and the emergence of the Lost Cause in its wake the contending commanding generals, Lee and Grant, found themselves with reputations neither wholly deserved. Grant is often presented as a butcher, indifferent to casualty lists, who ground down the gallant Lee, the Confederate general being much more solicitous of his troops. The numbers do not bear this out. Throughout the war, Lee’s armies inflicted casualties (killed and wounded, disregarding captured or deserted) of 15.4% on his enemies, while the troops under his command suffered 20.2% casualties. Lee’s casualty rate not only exceeded Grant’s, but all of the other major commanders of the Confederacy as well.

By the end of the war, Lee’s armies suffered casualties which exceeded those of Grant by over 55,000 men – again considering only killed and wounded, desertions increase the number significantly. And while it is true that during the bloody march down the peninsula in the spring of 1864 the Army of the Potomac suffered horrendous casualties, as a percentage of his fighting strength Lee’s were worse. The Confederate Army bled itself out before withdrawing into the trenches at Petersburg and Richmond, from which Lee surely knew there would be no escape. The casualties were grisly for both sides of the American Civil War, but that Grant was a butcher in comparison to Lee is a myth according to the numbers.

20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk
Confederate commerce raider Shenandoah in drydock, Victoria, Australia, in 1865. Wikimedia

13. The Civil War ended when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House

When Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865, receiving generous terms for the treatment of his men from the Union commander, major combat operations of the Civil War were at an end. At least in the Eastern Theater of the war, fighting continued in several regions. General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to William T. Sherman at the end of April, with Sherman following Grant’s lead and offering generous terms to his beaten enemies. Across the South, resistance continued for a few weeks, as one Southern department after another conceded defeat. The last land battle of the Civil War, other than some guerrilla raids, occurred at Palmito Ranch in Texas, a two-day engagement in which John J. Williams, the last combat fatality of the war, was killed.

On May 10, 1865, Andrew Johnson declared the armed rebellion to be at an end, and Jefferson Davis was taken into Union custody the same day. Still, the war was not declared to be over. The Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah was still at large at sea, where the vessel had captured or sunk 38 Union ships in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. Shenandoah continued to raid Union ships until the end of June 1865, when it learned of Lee’s surrender while cruising in the Pacific. Shenandoah then embarked on a three-month cruise from the Pacific to Liverpool, England, where it surrendered to the Royal Navy on November 6, striking for the last time the flag of the Confederate Navy. The following August Andrew Johnson declared the war was officially over.

20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk
No authenticated record of Horace Greeley announcing “Go west young man” has ever been found. Wikimedia

14. Horace Greeley and “Go west young man, go west and grow up with the country”

Following the American Civil War and the passage of the Homestead Act the American Western Plains were open for expansion. There is no disputing that Horace Greeley was a proponent of western expansion, and that he wrote editorials, articles, and speeches recommending the veterans of the war make a new life to the west. But the famous quotation attributed to him, today usually shortened to simply “Go West, young man”, has never been found in any of the documents cited as containing it. Some scholars attribute the quote to Greeley more than thirty years earlier, but they too have not been able to locate its source. In short, unless it was uttered in private conversation, Greeley never said it.

Greeley denied using the phrase, let alone coining it, and it has been attributed to other, lesser-known writers, but a copy of the newspaper or other periodical in which it first appeared has never been found. Many of the editions of newspapers cited as containing the phrase have been scoured by scholars with no trace of the comment. When and how it appeared is a mystery, but there is no evidence Greeley ever uttered the phrase, and there is also his denial of being its author to consider. Horace Greeley counseling the young of America to “Go West” is an American myth, at least as far as his use of the full quotation so often attributed to him is concerned.

20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk
Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch in Fort Worth, Texas around 1900. Wikimedia

15. Western wear was usually not the famous Stetson hat

The great Stetson hat featured in film and television as the favored headwear of western settlers was not as common as believed. Especially among the men who made their living either through gambling or enforcing their will through the use of their guns, hats more often associated with the cities of the east were far more common. Bowlers and top hats were the preferred covers for gunslingers, who weren’t called gunslingers at the time. They were commonly referred to as shootists. Nor did the majority of them wear their guns in holsters slung low about their hips. Most carried their weapons in their belts or in shoulder holsters.

The Stetson hat didn’t become popular until near the end of the 19th century, and the headwear known to modernity as the cowboy hat wasn’t worn by most of the men in the cattle drives across the plains before that time. Slouch hats, kepis left over from wartime service, and even sombreros were what was worn by most. Another myth of the west was that men walked about town wearing their firearms. In reality, most towns quickly established areas in which firearms were off-limits, and visitors were required to check their weapons at the so-called gun line before conducting their business in town. Unable to carry openly, many fearing trouble carried smaller weapons concealed somewhere on their persons.

20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk
Abner Doubleday became known as the inventor of baseball, to his surprise, because of the actions of an anglophobe. Library of Congress

16. Abner Doubleday and the birth of American baseball

Baseball was a highly popular game in the 19th century, including among the troops of both sides during the Civil War, and shortly after the war ended professional baseball clubs emerged, starting with the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869. Numerous scholars and writers covering the growing popularity of the game speculated that the sport was derived from an old English bat and ball game called rounders. As the rounders theory gained support, Albert Spalding was aghast at the idea of an American sport being in fact the distant cousin of a British game. He organized the Mills Commission, on which he served, to determine the true origins of the American game.

Abner Doubleday was a Union officer during the American Civil War whose men, mostly from New York, played the game of baseball extensively in their encampments. Doubleday may or may not have provided written rules for the games played by his men during the war, depending on the source one chooses to believe, but the Mills Commission decided that based on his alleged actions he was the father and inventor of the game of baseball, which thus was relieved of the taint of British parentage. Doubleday was surprised to find himself described as the inventor of the game, which was still played according to largely local ground rules when he was elevated to his new status. The invention of baseball by Abner Doubleday is an American myth.

20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk
Joseph Swan’s patent for an improved light bulb preceded Edison’s by more than a year. Wikimedia

17. Thomas Edison and the light bulb

It is considered a gospel of American history that Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb after years of studying the subject. In fact, the light bulb had existed for some time, and Edison was just one of several others trying to find a way to make the existing lightbulb a practical source for illumination. His patent was for an improved electric light bulb, using materials for filaments which allowed the bulb to burn for several hours, and it was achieved almost simultaneously with another inventor, Joseph Swan of England. To avoid a lengthy and expensive patent litigation, Edison and Swan joined forces to marketing light bulbs in Great Britain.

One of the first facilities to be wired for and equipped with Edison’s new lighting systems was a ship, the steamer Columbia, which had the electric lighting installed in 1880. By then Edison was already awash in litigation over patent infringements, and his patent was ruled invalid in 1883, and later found to be valid after six more years of court fights. Swan held a patent which was issued over a year earlier than Edison’s, which led to the two reached an agreement to create a company they named Ediswan to market the lighting systems in Great Britain. More than two dozen light bulbs were invented prior to Edison’s, who created the first viable electric lighting system based on the work of predecessors which he improved and marketed to the public.

20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk
The stock market crash led to the Great Depression, but not to a rash of suicides as was commonly reported. Wikimedia

18 Mass defenestration following the stock market crash

In October 1929 the decade known as the Roaring Twenties came to an abrupt end, or at least that is how the history books tell it, with the stock market crashing, ushering in the Great Depression. In truth, the American economy had been exhibiting signs of problems throughout that spring and summer, and the collapse was foretold by the collapse of British markets a month earlier. The collapse of the New York Stock Exchange began on Thursday, October 24, was widely covered in the newspapers that weekend and nose-dived on Monday and Tuesday of the following week. Almost immediately sensationalist news reports told of mass panic in New York, with financiers, brokers, and bankers, leaping to their deaths from office windows as their fortunes were wiped out.

The tales of a dramatic increase of suicides during the collapse of the markets in 1929 were untrue, for the most part, and are part of the myth of the Great Depression today. Many brokers actually made money as the rich and large banks increased stock holdings to both boost public confidence in the markets and expand their shares. In fact, the reported suicide rate in New York decreased during the crash and for weeks following the financial disaster. Despite the florid accounts of people leaping from windows to the streets below, there were but two suicides by defenestration in New York between October 24 and the end of the year 1929, and one of those was challenged as being more likely a homicide.

Also Read:

20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk
Orson Welles meets with reporters in the aftermath of the War of the Worlds broadcast. Wikimedia

19. Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds broadcast induced widespread panic in 1938

According to a popular story, when Orson Welles broadcast an episode of The Mercury Theatre of the Air based on H.G. Wells popular science fiction story The War of the Worlds, the live presentation caused a nationwide panic, as listeners were unable to ascertain that the broadcast was entertainment and not a live news broadcast. No doubt some listeners were fooled, and since commercial breaks were infrequent (that the story was fiction was aired during the first break, about thirty minutes into the broadcast) the tale presented as evolving news of a Martian invasion was frightening. The broadcast creating a widespread panic is a myth, however. For one thing, there just weren’t that many people tuned in. Four different times during the broadcast listeners were reminded that the show was a play.

The newspapers of the time exaggerated the level of the panic, far beyond the phone calls into CBS stations of listeners demanding more information. Radio was an emerging competitor for newspaper advertising markets, and the papers stressed first the irresponsibility of the airwaves inducing panic among the people for commercial gain. According to polls taken at the time, only about 2% of the radio audience listened to the CBS broadcast, and in many markets, CBS affiliates substituted local programming that Halloween night. The War of the Worlds broadcast did happen, and it did frighten some listeners, but the extent of the panic it created was wildly exaggerated, to the point it became another American myth, one which Orson Welles exploited for years.

20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk
A 1947 planning map for the proposed Interstate Highway System, prepared five years before Eisenhower was elected President in 1952. Federal Works Agency

20. Dwight David Eisenhower and the Interstate Highway System

One of the myths of the American Interstate Highway System is that Dwight Eisenhower, impressed with Hitler’s autobahn, wanted a similar system for the United States. Except that it wasn’t Hitler’s autobahn at all, it was largely in existence in 1931, two years before the Fuhrer became Chancellor of Germany and the Nazi party assumed control of the German government. Hitler did expand the project upon assuming power, under the leadership of Fritz Todt. The autobahns were not built to facilitate the movement of troops, as most of Germany’s war machines moved long distances by train or air. They were built as a public works project. Eisenhower, who had traveled across the United States by car and truck in the 1920s, was well aware of the need for a better road system there.

In the 1930s the US government began extensive studies of what eventually became the Interstate Highway System, as well as improvements to the existing US Highway System. As President, Eisenhower, no doubt recalling the months-long cross-country trip of the 1920s became a champion of the project, influenced by both General Motors and Standard Oil, both of which saw the benefits to their business models. Construction began in 1956. The original system was declared complete in 1992, after 35 years of work and more than $500 billion dollars spent. As the interstates grew America’s passenger and interurban rail systems faded. Large sections of the interstate system are functionally obsolete today, carrying traffic well beyond their design loads, especially on bridges across the country.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Washington: A Life”. Ron Chernow. 2010

“Ice Cream”. Article, The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“American Myths: Benjamin Franklin’s Turkey and the Presidential Seal”. Jimmy Stamp, January 25, 2013

“Molly Pitcher, A.K. A. Mary Ludwig Hays”. Entry, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“The General, the Corporal, and the Anecdote”. J. L. Bell, Journal of the American Revolution. Online

“Declaration of Independence”. Entry, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“Religion and the Founding Fathers”. John P. Kaminski, National Historical Publications and Records Commission, National Archives. March 2002

“Louisiana Purchase”. Article, The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“The Causes of the War of 1812”. Paul J. Springer, Foreign Policy Research Institute. March 31, 2017

“The Beginnings of American Railroads and Mapping”. Article, Library of Congress. Online

“Confronting slavery and revealing the ‘Lost Cause'”. James Oliver Horton, National Park Service. Online

“Civil War Casualties in Lee’s Battles and Campaigns”. Article, History on the Net. Online

“Why the Civil War Actually Ended 16 Months After Lee Surrendered”. Sarah Pruitt, Online

“Go West Young Man – An Elusive Slogan”. Thomas Fuller, Indiana Magazine of History. September, 2004

“The Evolution of Western Wear”. G. Daniel DeWeese, True West Magazine. June 28, 2009

“Myth of Baseball’s Creation Endures, With a Prominent Fan”. Tim Arango, The New York Times. November 12, 2010

“Edison: The Man who Made the Future”. Ronald William Clark. 1977

“The Jumpers of ‘29”. Bennett Lowenthal, The Washington Post. October 25, 1987

“75 Years Ago, ‘War of the Worlds” Started a Panic. Or Did It?” Mark Memmott, National Public Radio. October 30, 2013

“Highway History”. Articles, Federal Highway System, US Department of Transportation. Online