Ten years after the end of the American Civil War, some Confederate veterans were back in action, fighting as mercenaries in Africa. One of them rose to a high rank in the Egyptian army, and played a key role in an attempt – that ended in disastrous defeat – to forge an empire in eastern Africa. Following are thirty things about that and other fascinating Civil War facts.
30. Confederates in Africa: Not a Politically Incorrect Joke
Confederates in Africa sounds like the start of a joke, along the lines of the one defining chutzpah as a Ku Klux Klan chapter in Nigeria. However, unlike the KKK bit, Confederates actually did head to and fought in Africa. To be sure, by the time that happened the Confederate States of America had been defeated and consigned to the trash heap of history, and the Confederates in question were veterans of the defunct state. Still, theirs is a fascinating tale.
It began in 1868, when Union Army veteran Thaddeus Mott met Egypt’s ruler, the Khedive Ismail, and regaled him with tales about American military advances during the US Civil War. Ismail was convinced to hire veterans of that conflict to help modernize the Egyptian army. The first of them, Confederate veterans William Wing Loring and Henry Hopkins Sibley, arrived in 1870. Loring became the Egyptian army’s Inspector-General, and in 1875 was appointed chief of staff of an army sent to fight Ethiopia.
29. A Confederate Fighting to Create an Empire in Africa
Confederates such as William Wing Loring (1818 – 1886) had fought in the US Civil War, in part, to preserve a system based on the enslavement of Africans and their descendants. A decade later, Loring was back at war, this time in Africa. He sought to realize Khedive Ismail’s dreams of creating an Egyptian empire in Africa, stretching from the Mediterranean to Lake Victoria, and from the Sahara to Somalia. In 1874, Ismail got started on making his dreams come true by ordering an invasion of Ethiopia, Egypt’s chief rival in northeast Africa.
In the ensuing Egyptian-Ethiopian War (1874 – 1876), Egyptian columns twice set out to conquer Ethiopia. Once from Egyptian-controlled Sudan, and again from the Egyptian-controlled Red Sea coast of what is now Eritrea. Each time, the Egyptian forces, equipped with modern weapons and led by Western officers such as Loring, were crushed by poorly equipped but numerically superior Ethiopians. Loring played a significant role in the second failed attempt, which ended in a crushing defeat at the Battle of Gura in 1876.
28. Confederate Machismo Led to a Disastrous Defeat – This Time in Ethiopia
William Wing Loring was promised command of the second Egyptian invasion of Ethiopia. However, the assignment went to an Egyptian named Ratib Pasha, and Loring was appointed his chief of staff. In March, 1876, an Egyptian army of 13,000 equipped with modern firearms and artillery, and an Ethiopian force of 50,000 armed mostly with swords and spears, drew near the Plain of Gura, in today’s Eritrea. The Egyptian commander sought to fight a defensive battle from a fortified position. It was a sensible choice, but Loring taunted Ratib Pasham and accused him of cowardice for not marching out to meet the Ethiopian host in an open valley.
Stung, the Egyptian commander led his army out of its fortifications to offer battle in the surrounding plain. It got routed at the Battle of Gura, a disastrous defeat that ended Egypt’s ambitions to conquer Ethiopia. Loring, who rose to the rank of major general in the Egyptian army, was heavily criticized. In 1878, he and other American officers were dismissed. He returned to America, where he penned his experiences in Africa, A Confederate Soldier in Egypt, published in 1884.
27. “Fighting Joe” Hooker Outnumbered His Foe More Than Two to One, and Still Blew It
In December, 1862, the Union’s Army of the Potomac suffered a bloody setback when it crossed the Rappahannock River and attacked the Confederates occupying strong defensive positions near Fredericksburg. The Army of the Potomac got a new commander, Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Aware that a frontal assault on the Confederates near Fredericksburg was doomed to fail, Hooker decided to get at them from the rear. He had about 134,000 men, while the Confederates, under Robert E. Lee, had roughly 61,000.
On April 30th, 1863, Hooker left 28,000 men in front of Fredericksburg to keep Lee occupied, and marched westward with 106,000 men to cross the Rappahannock upstream from the Confederates. Hooker’s goal was to fall on Lee’s rear, and catch him in a pincer between the forces under his command and those he had left behind at Fredericksburg. He stole a march on Lee, and got in his rear by crossing the Rappahannock in heavily wooded terrain north of Chancellorsville. Then things began to go wrong.
26. The Civil War General Willing to Gamble Against Conventional Wisdom
Joseph Hooker stole a march on Robert E. Lee, and crossed the Rappahannock River to bring his forces behind the Confederates at Fredericksburg. However, Lee was not one to leave the initiative to his enemy if he could help it. When he discovered what his enemy had done, Lee divided his army, already seriously outnumbered by that of his opponent, and left a small rearguard behind in Fredericksburg. He then set out with the bulk of his men, about 45,000 Confederates, to meet Hooker.
In so doing, Lee violated conventional wisdom against dividing one’s forces in the face of a numerically superior enemy. He was willing to defy conventional wisdom, however, and it worked for him. When he neared Chancellorsville, Lee doubled down on violating conventional wisdom by further dividing his already outnumbered army. He confronted 70,000 Union soldiers with only 13,000 Confederates east of Chancellorsville, and sent his chief lieutenant, General Stonewall Jackson, on a flanking march to fall on Hooker’s right flank.
25. The Most Devastating Surprise Attack of the Civil War
Robert E. Lee’s gamble and defiance of conventional wisdom by dividing his army in the face of a numerically superior enemy – not once, but twice – paid off on May 2nd, 1863. That day, while Confederate cavalry screened his flank to keep the Union force from observing him, Lee had sent his chief subordinate, General Stonewall Jackson, to lead about 28,000 Confederates on a 12-mile roundabout march. It brought Jackson and his men, undetected, to the Army of the Potomac’s right flank near Chancellorsville.
Late that afternoon, Jackson launched a devastating surprise attack against the XI Corps on the Union army’s right flank, just as its men were sitting down for dinner. It caught them completely off guard, and sent them on a panicked rout that soon sowed confusion throughout Hooker’s army. Jackson’s advance was only halted by the fall of darkness. That took the fight out of Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Psychologically defeated and concussed from a shell that struck a post against which he was leaning, Hooker conceded defeat and withdrew. The Battle of Chancellorsville went down as Robert E. Lee’s “perfect battle”, and is taught in military academies to this day.
24. The Union’s First Great Successful Cavalry Raid
In the war’s first years, Confederate cavalry was markedly superior to that of the Union. By war’s end, the North’s cavalry had not only clawed its way to equality with that of the South but became superior to the Rebel horsemen. It took time, and plenty of bitter trial and error, however. An early harbinger of that pendulum swing occurred on April 17th, 1863, when Union Colonel Benjamin Grierson led a cavalry brigade of 1700 horsemen out of La Grange, Tennessee.
Colonel Grierson took his horsemen southward and plunged with them deep into Mississippi. The ensuing raid would eventually traverse the length of that state, and come out at the other side and the safety of Union lines in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. En route, the raiders did plenty to discomfit the Confederates and disrupt their communications. The Union cavalrymen tore up railroad tracks, destroyed bridges, wrecked and demolished enemy installations and facilities, and otherwise wrought havoc and sowed confusion throughout Mississippi.
23. The Grierson Raid Sought to Divert Attention From US Grant’s Plans, and Demonstrate the Union Cavalry’s Prowess
In addition to the damage inflicted, both physical and psychological, Grierson’s raid was intended as the opening salvo of the Vicksburg Campaign. The raiders were to divert attention from General Ulysses S. Grant’s planned attack against Vicksburg, Mississippi. They also sought to challenge and change the narrative that had prevailed until then, of the Confederate cavalry being superior Union horsemen, with the Rebels literally riding circles around the Yankees. Grierson and his men wanted to demonstrate what federal horsemen could do with a daring exploit of their own to match the headline-grabbing ones of Confederate cavalrymen J.E.B. Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Commanded by a former music teacher who hated horses, Grierson’s cavalrymen traveled light. They packed only 5 days’ worth of rations for what planners envisioned would be a 10-day-mission, 40 rounds of ammunition, and oats for their mounts. Preceded by scouts in Confederate uniform, they rode for 600 miles through enemy territory that had never before seen hostile soldiers or felt the touch of war. Mississippi felt it now, and went into panic as Union cavalrymen burned storehouses, tore up railroads and twisted them atop burning cross ties, freed slaves, wrecked bridges, destroyed trains, and put commissaries to the torch.
22. The Civil War Raid That Set the Stage For Sherman’s March Through Georgia
Colonel Grierson added to the Confederates’ confusion by peeling off detachments and sending them on feints to baffle and confuse the enemy about his actual whereabouts, intentions, and direction of march. The raid was a smashing success – literally as well as figuratively. Rampaging at will for 15 days deep in the heart of the enemy territory, Grierson’s troopers wreaked significant damage upon enemy property and enemy morale. Although vigorously pursued by Confederates, the Union cavalry eluded their pursuers while causing mayhem in the enemy’s heartland.
After a 15-day-rampage during which they lost only 3 killed, 7 wounded, and 9 missing, the federal horsemen crossed into the safety of Union lines near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In addition to its immediate impact, the raid demonstrated that Union soldiers could to live off the land in Confederate territory. That started the gears turning in the mind of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman about the vulnerability of the Confederacy’s interior, which he compared to soft innards surrounded by a brittle shell. A year and a half later, the result was the March Through Georgia and the even more devastating March Through the Carolinas that sealed the Confederacy’s doom.
21. The General Who Held Off a Vastly Bigger Army With Bluffs
In March, 1862, Union General George B. McClellan outflanked the Confederate main army in Northern Virginia by landing 121,000 men on the Virginia Peninsula to the south, between the James and York rivers. The goal was to march up the Peninsula and capture Richmond before the Confederates could rush in reinforcements to protect their capital. Things went well at first, as McClellan successfully disembarked with no difficulty, and marched on Richmond. The only opposition in McClellan’s path were 12,000 Confederates at Yorktown.
The Confederates, outnumbered ten to one by McClellan’s army, were commanded by John B. Magruder. Realizing that his small force stood no chance in a fight, and desperately needing to buy time until reinforcements arrived, Magruder set out to bamboozle McClellan into slowing down. Fortunately for the Confederates and unfortunately for the Union, Magruder – renown before the war for his florid manner and proneness to theatrics and ostentatious displays – was the right man in the right place at the right time.
20. John B. Magruder Used Theatrics to Hold Back the Union
Confederate General John B. Magruder resorted to theatrics and display to put on a show and trick George B. McClellan into believing that he faced far stronger opposition than was the case. Taking advantage of the small Warwick River that separated him from the advancing federals, Magruder set out to convince McClellan that its 14 mile length on the opposite bank was heavily fortified and strongly garrisoned. The fortifications were real, but Magruder lacked the men to occupy them in any strength that could have stopped McClellan had he attacked.
Magruder ordered his men to raise a ruckus, with drum rolls and men cheering in woods behind the lines, to fool their foes into believing there were far more Confederates in the area than there actually were. He also used the same column of men over and over. He would march them within sight of the federals to take up positions on the defensive line, then have them slip away. Once out of the Union observers’ line of sight, he reassembled the column and marched it back to the defensive line to once again act like newly-arrived reinforcements.
19. Magruder’s Theatrics Saved Richmond for the Confederacy – and Kept the War Going for Three More Years
By using a wide variety of tricks and theatrics, John B. Magruder convinced McClellan that the Confederate positions were too strong for a frontal attack. The Confederate commander’s task was made easier by McClellan’s tendency to take counsel of his fears and believe himself outnumbered. On April 5th, 1862, the Union commander ordered a halt on his side of the Warwick River, and had his men dig in. He then set out to conduct a siege when he could have simply bulled through, swatted Magruder aside, and seized Richmond as it was his for the taking.
For a month, McClellan methodically prepared for a huge attack to break through Magruder’s “strong defenses”. He concentrated men, guns, and munitions for a massive bombardment scheduled for May 5th, 1862, followed by an overwhelming attack. Having already bought his side a month to prepare for the defense of Richmond, Magruder slipped away on the night of May 3rd, leaving behind empty trenches for the enemy to occupy. McClellan resumed his advance, but by then Confederate reinforcements had arrived, and he was halted at the gates of Richmond. The Union forces were then pushed back to their starting point with furious attacks during the Seven Days Battles, and the Peninsula Campaign came to an ignominious end.
18. US Grant, Unfairly Maligned as a “Butcher”, Could Not Stand the Sight of Blood
The Civil War’s greatest Union general, Ulysses S. Grant, had an undeserved reputation as a butcher who only won by swamping the Confederates with Yankee bodies faster than they could be shot down. There was actually more to him than the caricature of a bully who only knew how to put his head down and charge straight ahead. Grant’s 1863 Vicksburg Campaign, for example, was a masterpiece of maneuver warfare, using demonstrations and diversions to fool the Confederates into letting him cross the Mississippi River unopposed. That was followed by a 17-day-whirlwind during which Grant maneuvered his forces inland, captured Jackson, Mississippi, won five battles, and besieged Vicksburg as a prelude to capturing it.
For a man reputed to be a bloody-minded butcher, Grant had a major aversion to blood. As in he, would freak out at the sight of the red stuff. Seeing blood made Grant physically ill. Even the hint of blood or redness on a rare steak could nauseate and get him off his feed. As a result, he would only eat meat that was super well done. As in, cooked black until it was nearly charcoal well done, and there was not even the slightest possibility of his seeing anything red when he cut (or cracked) it open.
17. Thousands of Child Soldiers and Sailors Served During the Civil War
The Civil War was the last time that significant numbers of American children served as soldiers and sailors. About a fifth of all military personnel in the conflict were under eighteen, and more than 100,000 soldiers in the Union Army alone were fifteen-years-old or less. There were even cases in which children as young as eight were put in uniform. Most child soldiers in the US Army were utilized as drummers, buglers, cooks’ assistants, nurses, orderlies, general gophers, or put to work in other non-combatant positions. However, during the storm of shots and shells as battles raged, child soldiers were frequently just as exposed to bullets and artillery as were the grown men on the firing line.
In the US Navy, children frequently served as “powder monkeys” in warships. Tasked during combat with rushing gunpowder from magazines to canons, they were just as exposed to danger during action as were all other sailors aboard ship, regardless of age. They scurried about carrying sacks of gunpowder liable to go off if it came into contact with any spark or shard of flaming timber or scorching shell fragment. That put the little powder monkeys at even greater risk than the rest of the crew.
16. An Ingenious Expedient to Lie About One’s Age Without Actually Lying
Civil war child soldiers, like children throughout the ages, were often full of curiosity and frequently heedless of and insensate to danger and mortal risk to life and limb. That being so, there were many occasions in which child soldiers snuck off to the firing lines, in order to see the excitement of battle from up close. Once there, in the heat of battle, many child soldiers picked up rifles and rushed into the maelstrom, fighting and dying alongside the adults.
There were age restrictions on official enlistment in the ranks. In the Union, enlistees had to be over sixteen. However, such restrictions were often ignored, and most under-aged Northern boys, eager to enlist, had little trouble in finding recruiters willing to sign them up. All an underage recruit had to do was put one hand on the Bible, raise the other, and swear that he was “over sixteen”. Some children ingeniously reconciled their consciences with the lie by writing the number “16” on a piece of paper, and sticking it to the bottom of a shoe. That enabled them to honestly swear that they were “over 16”.
Long before the Civil War, the US Navy employed children on warships, literally and officially labeled “Boy Sailors”. They had official rankings, beginning with powder monkeys at the bottom of the heap, comprising the youngest and smallest crewmembers. Next came Boys 3rd Class, who typically served as stewards or in clerical capacity, often in port. As he grew up and gained experience, a child sailor could rise to Boy 2nd Class, then Boy 1st Class. At age eighteen, child sailors automatically became rated as ordinary seamen, receiving the same pay and coming under the same discipline as adult sailors.
One of the more remarkable photographs depicting child sailors in the Civil War is that of Boy 1st Class Aspinwell Fuller, above. Taken in 1865, it shows the lad, fourteen years old, standing beside a 100-pound Parrot gun aboard the USS New Hampshire, a 74-gun ship of the line. His very presence aboard ship was against regulations, but as happens often in war, regulations were ignored. In 1861, President Lincoln issued a directive prohibiting the enlistment of underage recruits without their parents’ consent. However, heavy casualties and the war’s insatiable demand for fresh bodies led many recruiters to look the other way if a child tried to enlist. Which explains how Fuller joined the US Navy at age thirteen, without parental consent.
14. A Severe Manpower Shortage Led Many Civil War Recruiters to Overlook Age Restrictions on Enlistment
The pressing demand for bodies during the Civil War explains how Aspinwall Fuller joined the US Navy at age thirteen, in violation of regulations on the minimum age for enlistment. In 1864, thirteen-year-old Fuller ran away from his home in Baltimore, Maryland, to join the fight. It was quite common: boys bored out of their skulls with the drudgery of work or chores saw the Civil War as an opportunity for adventure and excitement. Many lied about their age – not hard to do in an era when proving age was difficult.
Others, such as those who wrote “16” on a piece of a paper and placed it beneath their shoe, fibbed in a manner that allowed them to convince themselves that they had not really lied. Whether by lying, resorting to stratagem, or coming across a recruiter who simply did not care, Aspinwall Fuller managed to enlist in the Union Navy. He served from 1864 to 1867. As an adult, he became a marine engineer, and in 1887, became president of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association – a position he held until his death the following year.
13. A Typical Civil War Child Soldier’s Enlistment in the Union Army
Another Civil War child combatant was Charles Edwin King, who was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1849. After the fall of Fort Sumter in April, 1861, many locals answered Abraham Lincoln’s call for 90-day volunteers to help defend the Union. Departing with their militia units for what was expected to be a short war, they set off for the training camps at Harrisburg, accompanied by young Charlie as their drummer boy. However, when the militia was ordered to the front, Charlie’s parents ordered him back home to the safety of West Chester.
That did not sit well with the boy, who moped and pined for the excitement of the military camp. When the militia returned upon the expiry of their three-month-enlistment, local volunteers were again sought, this time for three-year terms in the newly formed 49th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The town’s grocer, Benjamin Sweeney, was elected as captain of Company F of that unit. He assured Charlie’s parents that he would look after and protect their son if they allowed him to enlist.
Charlie King’s parents were swayed by Captain Benjamin Sweeney’s promises to look after their boy, and by their son’s incessant pleas to let him enlist in the 49th Pennsylvania. They were probably also worried that if they did not consent to the kid’s enlistment, he might simply run away and enlist on his own as other boys were doing at the time. That being so, Charlie’s parents decided that it might be better to entrust him to the care of somebody they knew.
On September 12th, 1861, twelve-year-old Charlie was duly enrolled as a drummer boy in the 49th Pennsylvania. Drummer boys had been in use for centuries in many armies. The era’s tactics required closely formed columns and lines to advance and fight in well-ordered formations and in neat rows and lines. As the shouted commands of officers were often difficult to hear above the din and roar of battle, musical instruments, such as bugles and drums, were used to signal commands.
11. Drummer Boys Played an Important Role During the Civil War
In the days of the Civil War, and for centuries prior, drummers played a vital role in getting men positioned to fight, and coordinate their activities during battle. Drummers tapped a pace, or rhythm, to assist with the evolutions and formations involved in marching or advancing on opposing forces. Drummer boys, tapping the appropriate beats on their instruments as directed by the officers in charge, accompanied their units into combat, and were thus exposed to shots and shells as battle raged and men fell.
Drummer boys like Charlie King were thus more than mascots: they were key players in the runup to battle and during the fighting. They were often present at the side of unit commanders, as they might be needed at any moment to tap out an alert to the unit of pending operations and movements. There were different drum call to signal assembly, notify the officers to gather for a meeting, sound the advance or retreat, or tap out any of the sundry calls that were part of the drummer’s repertoire.
Within a short time of his enlistment, Charlie King was promoted from drummer boy of his company to drum major of the entire 49th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. In the following months, the regiment took part in the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days Battles, during which Charlie saw more death and mayhem than he might have imagined in his boyish fantasies. In September, 1862, the 49th Pennsylvania participated in the Maryland Campaign, which culminated in the Battle of Antietam on September 17th, 1862.
Charlie’s regiment was deployed near Miller’s Field and the East Woods during that battle, when it came under Confederate artillery fire. The 49th Pennsylvania’s casualties were relatively light, but Charlie was one of the regiment’s unlucky few, and he was struck down and grievously injured by an exploding shell. Taken to a field hospital, Charles Edwin King died three days later of his wounds. He holds the unfortunate distinction of being the youngest military combat fatality of the Civil War.
Union General John Sedgwick (1813 – 1864) was born into a family of Revolutionary War veterans, including one grandfather who had served as a general alongside George Washington. Sedgwick graduated from West Point in 1837 and was commissioned as an artillery officer. A respected and competent Union general and corps commander during the Civil War, Sedgwick’s kindliness and paternal affection, combined with concern for his soldiers’ well being, won him the love of his men and the nickname “Uncle John”.
He served ably and was in uniform when the Civil War broke out in April, 1861. He was given command of a cavalry regiment, and by August, 1861, was promoted to command his own brigade in the Army of the Potomac. By February, 1862, Sedgwick was in charge of his own division. He fought bravely in the Peninsula Campaign, and was twice wounded during the Seven Days Battles. Unfortunately, he is more widely remembered for his ironic last words than for his solid military career.
At the Battle of Antietam, General John Sedgwick was sent on a poorly planned charge, and his division was shot to pieces, losing 2200 men, while he took three bullets. When he recovered and returned to duty, he was promoted to command a corps. He won early success with his Sixth Corps during the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, but the battle ended in defeat. During the Overland Campaign in 1864, Sedgwick led his corps in the Battle of the Wilderness. On May 9th, 1864, at the start of the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, he was positioning his artillery when his troops came under sniper fire and grew jittery.
Chiding his men for their timidity under single bullets, Sedgwick wondered how they would react when they confronted massed Confederates on the firing line, and faced full volleys. The men were ashamed, but continued to flinch. So Uncle John Sedgwick continued: “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dista…“. At that point, his pep speech was interrupted by a sniper bullet hitting his face beneath his left eye, that killed him instantly. His was the highest-ranking Union battlefield death of the Civil War.
7. Presidential Security Was Astonishingly Lax Before, During, and For Decades After the Civil War
Throughout much of America’s history, keeping the country’s chief executives safe was very much an ad hoc affair. The Secret Service, created in 1865 to fight currency counterfeiting, was not tasked with protecting presidents until 1902, after the McKinley assassination. Before that, security for US presidents was astonishingly lax, and attitudes towards the safety of the Oval Office’s occupants were pretty blasé. For example, on the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, April 14th, 1865, only one man had been assigned to protect him: an inept and unreliable cop named John Frederick Parker.
Lax presidential security persisted despite earlier warnings. In 1835, for example, an attempt to assassinate President Andrew Jackson failed only because the would-be assassin’s pistols misfired. Lincoln himself was quite cavalier about his personal safety, despite numerous threats and hate mail. In 1861 a plot was uncovered that sought to murder him in Baltimore. In 1864, while riding at night unguarded, an unknown sniper fired a rifle shot that missed the president’s head by inches and pierced his hat.
Despite numerous threats to his safety, Abraham Lincoln often went about unescorted. He sometimes walked alone at night from the White House to the War Department, attended church or went to the theater without bodyguards, and generally disliked the fuss of a military escort. When he did use a bodyguard, the quality available was dismal. An example was John Frederick Parker (1830 – 1890), a plain bad cop. One of the first officers to join Washington’s Metropolitan Police Force when it was created in 1861, Parker stood out for his ineptness and unsuitability as a policeman.
Parker was frequently hauled before the police oversight board on a variety of charges, any of which could have gotten him fired. He was let off each time with a slap on the wrist. Parker was frequently charged with conduct unbecoming a police officer. His infractions included abusing civilians, cursing, frequenting whorehouses, being drunk on the job, and sleeping in a streetcar when he was supposed to be walking his beat. Each time, he got away with no more than a reprimand. Despite that poor record, when in November, 1864, the Metropolitan Police Force created the first permanent detail to guard the president, Parker was one of four officers selected.
5. Abraham Lincoln’s Bodyguard Left His Post at Ford Theater to Grab a Drink at a Nearby Bar
On the night of April 14th, 1865, Washington Metropolitan Police Force Officer John Frederick Parker escorted President Lincoln and his wife to their box seats in Ford’s Theater. Parker grabbed a seat in the hallway behind Lincoln but was unable to see the play from there. So he abandoned his post to watch from downstairs. The play bored him, however, so Parker left Ford’s Theater altogether, to go grab a drink in a bar next door. There, he might have crossed paths with John Wilkes Booth, who was also at the bar for a last shot of liquid courage before heading into Ford’s Theater.
Lincoln was unguarded when Booth entered his theater box and shot him in the back of the head. It is unclear if Parker ever returned to Ford’s Theater that night, or only found out about the assassination the next day. Parker was charged with failing to protect the president, but incredibly, the charge was dismissed. He even kept his spot on the presidential protection detail for another three years, before he was finally fired for once again sleeping on the job.
When people think of American wars and drugs, what usually comes to mind is the heroin addiction epidemic that swept the US armed forces in the later years of the Vietnam War. A century earlier, another epidemic of drug addiction had swept through the veterans of America’s armed forces during and after the US Civil War. It was an epidemic of addiction to morphine, a common pain management medication that had been doled out liberally – at least among Union forces – to alleviate the suffering of the wounded.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the Civil War might have produced America’s biggest veterans drug addiction epidemic. That war was the country’s bloodiest, with casualties exceeding the total casualties of all other US wars, combined. About 10 percent of all Northern males, and about 30 percent of all Southern white males, are thought to have perished in the conflict. Modern estimates put the war’s fatalities at between 785,000 to 1 million deaths, the latter figure representing 3.2% of total US population at the time. If extrapolated to America’s 2021 population estimates, it would be the equivalent of about 10,500,000 deaths.
3. Advances in Pain Management Set the Stage for an Epidemic of Addiction
America’s Civil War was one of the first major “modern” wars. It was a conflict in which rapid advances in weapons and their lethality outpaced advances in battlefield tactics. As such, there was an imbalance between ever deadlier weapons on the one hand, and outdated tactics that had not yet caught up with new battlefield realities. The result was high casualties and horrific injuries that confronted the armies’ physicians with unprecedented challenges. The standard of medical care was abysmally low by modern standards, and had not advanced much beyond that of the Napoleonic era, half a century earlier.
One exception to the era’s generally low standards of medical care was the field of pain management. Civil War physicians might not have known about antiseptic practices to prevent infections. However, thanks to the recent invention of the hypodermic needle, coupled with the discovery of morphine decades earlier, they could at least do something to ease the pain of wounded soldiers. When hypodermic needles and morphine were not available, opium pills were in plentiful supply – at least in Union hospitals.
2. Hundreds of Thousands of Civil War Veterans Became Addicted to Morphine
Civil War soldiers – the ones in blue, at least – were often dosed with massive amounts of morphine or opium to deaden the pain of amputations, other surgeries, and various ailments. Many wartime accounts highlight the liberality in dispensing drugs. For example, one Union doctor diagnosed wounded soldiers from horseback, and if any needed morphine, he would pour a dose on his hand, and have the soldier lick it. On the Confederate side, one Rebel doctor was known for giving patients plugs of opium, depending on whether or not they were constipated.
The potential for addiction was known, but the risk was deemed acceptable: it was considered a lesser evil that could be dealt with later. “Later” came when the soldiers were discharged from the hospitals. It is estimated that over 400,000 Civil War became morphine addicts because of their wartime experiences. If that figure is prorated to America’s 2021 population, it would be the equivalent of an American war whose aftermath left about 4,200,000 veterans with a drug addiction. The term “Soldiers Disease” was coined to describe that addiction. Many addicts were readily identifiable by a small bag dangling from a leather thong around their neck, containing morphine tablets and a hypodermic needle.
1. PTSD-Suffering Civil War Veterans Helped Make the Wild West so Wild
For a while in the 1980s and 1990s, the trope of the PTSD-suffering Vietnam War veteran was so common in movies and TV that it became a cliché. Like all wars, the US Civil War must have produced its fair share of traumatized veterans. However, that was in the days before PTSD – or psychology for that matter – were well understood. As a result, Civil War veterans dealing with psychological trauma were usually on their own, left to deal with their issues as best they could – or not. The results could be seen after the war, when America relentlessly pushed its frontier westward in pursuit of Manifest Destiny.
Unsettled frontiers attract a disproportionate number of single young men, eager for adventure and new horizons. They are often rowdy, rambunctious, restless, and absent the social restraints typically imposed by families and neighbors in more established communities, frequently lawless. Many of them were Civil War veterans, still young in years although aged beyond measure by what they had witnessed and experienced. PTSD amongst their numbers accounts for at least some of what made the Wild West so wild and crazy. Indeed, some of the wilder and most famous of the West’s outlaws, such as Jesse James and his brother Frank, were molded in their early years by their wartime experience as combatants.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading