Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won't be in the History Books
Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books

Khalid Elhassan - February 8, 2021

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
Civil War drummer boys of the 101st Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. History Net

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 to 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 shot and shell 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.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
Charlie King’s grave. Civil War RX

10. The Youngest Combat Fatality of the Civil War

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.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
General John Sedgwick. Wikimedia

9. A Civil War General’s Unfortunate Last Words

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.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
The death of John Sedgwick. Wikimedia

8. “They Couldn’t Hit an Elephant at This Dist…

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.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Library of Congress

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.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
Officer John Frederick Parker. Alchetron

6. The Bad Cop Employed as Lincoln’s Bodyguard

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.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
Nineteenth century Washington Metropolitan Police officers. Washington Metropolitan Police

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.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln. History

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.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
Elixir of opium was very popular among Civil War veterans. The Progress-Index

4. The Drug Epidemic at the End of the Civil War

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 of 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.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
A nurse taking care of wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Los Angeles Civil War Round Table

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.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
A Civil War hospital ward. Pintrest

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.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
Nineteenth century opium. British Library

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 that 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.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
Jesse James got his start on a career of violence during the Civil War. National Geographic

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 clich̩. Like all wars, the US Civil War must have produced its fair share of traumatized veterans. However, that was in the days before PTSD Рor psychology for that matter Рwere 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 Рor not. The results could be seen after the war, when America relentlessly pushed its frontier westward in pursuit of Manifest Destiny.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
Cowboys in Arizona in the 1880s. Arizona State University

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.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Battlefield Trust – Battle of Chancellorsville Facts & Summary

American Battlefield Trust – The Death of John Sedgwick

Catton, Bruce – Bruce Catton’s Civil War: Three Volumes in One (1984)

College of St. Scholastica – Ulysses S. Grant Information Center: Up Close and Personal

Downtown West Chester – WC History: The Youngest Soldier to Die in Battle

Find a Grave – Charles Edwin “Charlie” King (1849 – 1862)

Foote, Shelby – The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 2, Fredericksburg to Meridian (1963)

Keesee, Dennis M. – Too Young to Die: Boy Soldiers of the Civil War (2001)

Loring, William Wing – A Confederate Soldier in Egypt (1884)

Military History Now – Confederates on the Nile: Meet the Civil War Vets Who Volunteered to Fight For the Egyptian Army

National Museum of the United States Navy – Powder Monkeys and the American Civil War

Providentia – Soldier’s Disease

Sears, Stephen W. – To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (1992)

Smithsonian Magazine, April 7th, 2010 – The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln’s Missing Bodyguard

United States Navy Memorial – Aspinwall Fuller

Warfare History Network – Grierson’s Raid: Wrecking the Railroad With the Butternut Guerrillas

Wikipedia – Child Soldiers in the American Civil War

Wikipedia – Ethiopian-Egyptian War

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