Myths of the American Civil War It's Time to Put to Bed
Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed

Larry Holzwarth - January 31, 2022

Few, if any, events of American history were as divisive as the Civil War. Events which led to the conflict, the war itself, and its aftermath continue to divide the nation. Pervasive myths contribute to much of the misunderstandings surrounding it. Some of these myths are simply folklore. Others are deliberate revisions of history, seeking to rewrite the story of the bloodiest war in American history. How and why the war was fought, its conduct and the rebuilding of the nation in its wake are all shrouded with “facts” which have no basis in truth. Some are relatively harmless, despite their inaccuracy. Others continue to have a detrimental effect on society and politics over 150 years after the war ended. Arguments over the true causes of the war continue, despite the historical record clearly documenting what led to the conflagration.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
Abraham Lincoln revealed his views on White superiority during his debates with Stephen Douglas, and in subsequent speeches. Wikimedia

That the war ended slavery in the United States is unquestioned. But it did not establish racial equality. Even the man was known to history as the “Great Emancipator” did not agree the Black and White races were equal, at least not when the war began. Abraham Lincoln, in the sixth of his famous debates with Stephen Douglas (1858), asserted that if the two races were to live together one must be superior to the other. “I am as much as any other man in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race”, he asserted. Lincoln’s views of racial equality did evolve during the war. In his last public speech, given just three days before his assassination, he announced he supported giving the right to vote to some, but by no means all, Black men. Here are some of the pervasive myths of the American Civil War.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
Each seceding state cited the protection of Southern slavery as a leading cause of their leaving the Union. Wikimedia

1. The true cause of the war was the issue of states’ rights

An argument presented by apologists for the secession of the states which formed the Confederacy is that they did so to defend the rights of states as they were defined in the Constitution. The issue of states’ rights, rather than slavery, was the true cause of the war. They argue the Union violated the Constitution by threatening the practice of slavery in the South. At the time of secession, there were no bills in Congress to eliminate slavery. Lincoln announced, repeatedly and in clear terms, he had no intention of emancipating the slaves. Still, the Southern states, led by South Carolina, perceived the newly elected President as a threat. They voted for secession rather than accepting the results of the election of 1860. In their Declaration of the Immediate Causes, they made clear their primary reason for secession was the protection of slavery within their borders.

As other slave states followed suit they bound together, forming a central government they named the Confederate States of America. They created the Constitution of the Confederate States, which established a federal government. It denied the individual states the right to establish tariffs, print money, and import slaves from any foreign country. It also specified, “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed”. The Confederacy denied, through its Constitution, the rights of its member states to decide the issue of slavery at the state level, making slavery a federally protected institution. Those arguing the war was fought over states’ rights ignore this inconvenient fact. They also ignore another over the same issue, largely prevalent before secession. The southern states tried to deny states’ rights of their Northern neighbors before the war.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
The Confederate government under Jefferson Davis made the arming of Black troops illegal until the last month of the war. Wikimedia

2. Large numbers of enslaved people and free Blacks fought for the Confederacy

How and where this myth came about is unclear, but it gained prominence in the late 20th century. There exists little evidence of its truth and considerable evidence of its falsehood. The Confederate government forbade the enlistment of Blacks as soldiers. It did draft Blacks, both free and enslaved, to work for the army. These men and women served as laborers, cooks, teamsters, wranglers, and other jobs with the army, usually under guard of white soldiers. Other enslaved people worked in Confederate industries in support of the war effort, including in mines, on the railroads, and in factories. Slave labor had always been a part of the Southern industry, with slave owners sending people to work for pay, which went into the pockets of the owners. Some owners allowed their enslaved people to keep some, or even all, of their earnings.

Throughout the war, debates in the Confederate congress over the issue of arming enslaved men to serve as combat troops continued. Such ideas were voted down by the Congress until March 1865, less than one month before Lee’s surrender. Even after the Confederates allowed the enlistment of Black troops the concept drew resistance. Robert Toombs, former Secretary of State for the Confederacy, and a general with Lee’s army in early 1865, called the idea of Black troops “…the worst calamity that could befall us…” In June 1865, he wrote an article in the Augusta Chronicle which included a statement that “The day that the Army of Virginia allows a negro regiment to enter their lines as soldiers they will be degraded, ruined and disgraced”. By the time his opinion appeared in the Chronicle the Army of Northern Virginia had been disbanded following its defeat.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
A Currier and Ives commentary on the volunteers enlisting in the Confederate Army early in the war. Wikimedia

3. Confederate troops were volunteers

In days immediately following the secession of the first seven Confederate states, the central government in Montgomery, Alabama, called for the states’ militias to place their troops under federal control. Control over the Army, both new volunteers and the nationalized militias, was under the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. Throughout the American Civil War, volunteers made up the bulk of the armies of both sides, and all of the Navy’s crews. But not all men were volunteers. By April 1862, it was evident that the numbers of men needed by the Confederacy could not be obtained relying on voluntary enlistment alone. That month the Confederate States of America authorized the first compulsory conscription law – the draft – in American history. It was not received well. Initially, able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35 were liable to be drafted.

As with all conscription, certain professions were exempted as they were considered necessary to the war effort. Men who owned 20 or more enslaved persons were exempt, as they were needed to maintain control of the slave population. By early 1864 the age of men authorized to be drafted extended from 17 to 70. At first, men could hire substitutes to serve for them, a practice also allowed in the Union Army. On both sides, the use of substitutes caused resentment from those of insufficient means to avail themselves of the option. It is true that most of the Confederate, as well as the Union Army, was made up of volunteers. The draft caused riots and legal suits on both sides throughout the war. Draft protests led to riots in New York and other Northern cities. In the South, resistance to the draft continued through the war’s end.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
Citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, observing the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April, 1861. Wikimedia

4. Northern aggression caused the war when the South wanted peaceful secession

Following the secession of the first seven states, while others of the South debated their positions, cries for war rang out. Nowhere were they louder than in South Carolina, the first of the seven states to secede. South Carolina demanded the government in Washington abandon the federal military facilities in the state, in particular Fort Sumter, which guarded the approaches to Charleston Harbor. Fort Sumter was supported by Fort Moultrie on nearby Sullivan’s Island. On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln used his first inaugural address to announce he had no intention to invade the seceding states. Nor would he interfere with slavery in those states where it already existed. He also announced the federal government would continue to collect import duties in Southern ports and retain military posts where they existed in the seceding states. Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, attempted to negotiate with southern leaders.

His negotiations were unauthorized by the new President, and in any event unsuccessful. In Charleston, the garrison commander, Major Robert Anderson, abandoned Fort Moultrie and moved his command to the less accessible Fort Sumter. After learning the United States intended to reprovision the garrison by sea, Jefferson Davis ordered the fort to surrender. When Anderson refused and attempted to negotiate further, Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter. The fort suffered bombardment for two days. The surrender of Fort Sumter, as well as the seizure of military property in Missouri, compelled Lincoln to call for volunteers to serve for a period of 90 days, with the expressed intention of reclaiming the seized federal property. It also led several additional states, including Virginia, to consider secession. At that time, Virginia had already debated secession in its legislature and voted against it.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
Arlington House, confiscated from the Lee-Custis family during the Civil War. Library of Congress

5. None of the seceding states lost territory from the war

Most of the states which seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861 later returned to it with their borders the same as they were when they left. The notable exception is Virginia. Unlike the states of the Deep South, especially South Carolina, secession was far from popular in Virginia. Its first attempt at secession was voted down. Not until after the southern attack on Fort Sumter did the state again debate secession. That convention was attended by emissaries from other states which had already seceded. They lobbied hard to get Virginia to join them, and Lincoln’s call for volunteers helped them sway the vote. Yet anti-secession forces remained strong in Virginia, especially in the mountainous western counties. There, representatives formed a convention at Wheeling, then in Virginia, to discuss separation from the rest of Virginia.

An act to reorganize the government of Virginia was enacted and put in effect during the Spring, 1861. The United States government immediately recognized the new government of Virginia and allowed two senators to appear from the western counties. Officially, Virginia had two governments, one aligned with the United States, the other with the Confederate States. In May 1862, the Union-aligned government of Virginia, based in Wheeling, approved the formation of a new state. The United States government concurred and approved. Virginia lost the territory in the northwest area of the state it held prior to secession, which became West Virginia in 1863. The new state abolished slavery as a condition of its acceptance into the Union. Virginia also lost the lands comprising Robert E. Lee’s holdings at Arlington, which became federal property as Arlington National Cemetery.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
A burial crew following the 1862 Battle of Antietam, which ended Lee’s first invasion of the North. Library of Congress

6. Lee twice invaded the North to obtain slave labor for his army

Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia twice invaded the North. In 1862 he attempted to follow up his crushing victory over the Union at the Second Battle of Bull Run by entering Maryland. At the time, Maryland was a slave state, with sharply divided sympathies. Lee hoped that his invasion would gain local support, possibly inciting insurrections against Union authorities. He also recognized that Virginia’s farms had been supporting two huge armies for more than a year. Better supply was likely to be had in Maryland, as yet untouched by foraging armies on campaign. As such, antagonizing the local population by kidnaping enslaved persons, or raiding local farms for supply, served against his interests. Lee’s army suffered a defeat at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. Though his army withdrew in good order following the bloodiest day in American history, the invasion was largely a failure.

In 1863, following his victory at Chancellorsville, Lee again invaded the North, this time entering Pennsylvania. Again, his primary goal was resupplying his army and attempting to destroy Northern morale by threatening Washington and Baltimore. He also wanted to destroy much of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (a goal of his first invasion as well). Contrary to what is often reported, he did not invade with the goal of acquiring slaves, though his troops undoubtedly enslaved many of the Blacks they encountered. In March 1863, before that year’s campaigning began, the Confederate government in Richmond issued orders regarding the treatment of captured Blacks, both escaped slaves and free. They were to be sent to Richmond and assigned as enslaved labor to support the Confederate war effort. The order led to some defining the Gettysburg campaign as huge “slave raid“, intended solely to obtain slave labor.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
The first use of ironclad warships in combat took place at the Battle of Fort Henry in February, 1862. Library of Congress

7. The first ironclad warship to engage in combat was the CSS Virginia

After capturing the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, the Confederates worked speedily to rebuild the USS Merrimac as an ironclad warship. Renaming the vessel the CSS Virginia, the Confederate Navy hoped the ship would break the tightening blockade imposed by the United States Navy and its wood-hulled warships. It nearly did. Virginia destroyed USS Cumberland, forced USS Congress to surrender, and drove USS Minnesota aground in a single afternoon, seemingly impervious to enemy gunfire. The next day, Virginia returned to the scene to complete the destruction of the US fleet, only to encounter USS Monitor. The famous Battle of Hampton Roads was the first in which ironclad warships fought each other. But the previous day’s action was not the first time an ironclad warship engaged in battle, as is often reported.

At the end of January 1862, the US Army held in its inventory seven ironclad gunboats, designed by James Buchanan Eads. Built mostly in St. Louis, the gunboats were designed to support Army operations on the Mississippi River and its navigable tributaries. On February 6, 1862, these gunboats braved a minefield (called torpedoes at the time) and bombarded Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. The boats forced the fort to surrender after a bombardment of over an hour and a quarter. The boats endured heavy return fire from the fort’s artillery, suffering some damage. It was the first recorded use of ironclad warships in combat, preceding the Battle of Hampton Roads by just over a month. Eads gunboats served on the inland rivers and even the Gulf of Mexico throughout the war. They were a critical component of the successful siege of Vicksburg in 1863.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
Robert E. Lee in the 1850s. Lee owned, bought, and sold enslaved people throughout the antebellum period. Wikimedia

8. Robert E. Lee did not own slaves, nor did he support slavery

This myth, repeated by those glorifying Lee as one of America’s greatest soldiers, is clearly debunked by legal records in Virginia. In 1857 Lee’s father-in-law died. His wife inherited the Arlington estate, some other properties, and 189 enslaved people. His will mandated their emancipation,”…to be accomplished in not exceeding five years from the time of my decease”. As an executor of the estate, Lee also encountered significant debts. Lee took a leave of absence from the Army, established residence at Arlington, and oversaw the operation of the plantation himself. He also undertook legal delays to prevent emancipation and began to sell the enslaved people to service the extensive debt. He did so indiscriminately, breaking up eventually all but one of the slave families his wife had inherited. Lee also encountered resistance from the enslaved, who believed they should be set free in accordance with George Washington Parke Custis’s will.

Lee wrote extensively of his difficulties with the enslaved people on the estates. He jailed some of the slaves, sent others to far-off estates as hired labor, and advertised rewards for runaways. His expressed intent was to keep all of the enslaved people in that condition for the five-year period, and if possible beyond. Though some claim Lee personally whipped an enslaved person in at least one instance, most historians consider that claim as incorrect. But he did order them whipped. Lee believed slavery to be a “greater evil to the White man than to the Black race”. In testimony before a congressional committee after the war, Lee opined Blacks were “…not disposed to work”. It was his expressed hope that Virginia could rid itself of Black people after the Civil War, as he did not believe the races could peacefully coexist as equals.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
Reports of Grant’s excessive drinking followed him before, during, and after the Civil War, though often exaggerated. Wikimedia

9. Abraham Lincoln asked what brand of whiskey Grant favored, so he could send some to his other generals

Whether Lincoln dismissed reports of Ulysses Grant’s heavy drinking with a quip as often reported is debated. The story first appeared around 1901. But what is undebatable is that there was no need to send whiskey to other generals in the United States Army at the time of the Civil War. In what was a hard-drinking age, many Union generals gained the reputation of exceedingly hard drinkers, far beyond the amounts supposedly quaffed by Grant. General Joseph Hooker’s headquarters was described by historian Charles Frances Adams, who was there as a Union officer, as a combination of a “barroom and a brothel”. Brigadier General James Ledlie allegedly spent the Battle of the Crater behind the lines, getting drunk while his division was annihilated by Confederate troops. Following an investigation, Ledlie resigned his commission.

Grant’s reputation as a bumbling drunk dogged him throughout the Civil War, and has followed him ever since. He did struggle with alcohol throughout his life, and personally recorded occasional occurrences of what in a later day became known as binge drinking. But there is nothing in the record which indicates he was ever drunk while engaged in a campaign. One story, printed thirty years after the war, claimed Grant kept a barrel of whiskey in his tent for his exclusive use while campaigning. No other source, not any of his generals, nor reporters of the time, nor official visitors, corroborates the claim. This despite many of his generals being rivals and later political enemies. Many historians in recent years have dissected evidence of Grant’s drinking and consider it no better or worse than most men of his day.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
Abraham Lincoln did not enjoy hard liquor, though he was not a teetotaler as some have claimed. Wikimedia

10. Abraham Lincoln was a teetotaler who swore off alcohol

During his early years in Salem, Illinois, before he became a successful lawyer, Abraham Lincoln ran a “grocery store”. As with many groceries today, his shop sold alcohol, usually in the form of hard cider and whiskey. Grocery store was served as a euphemism for a bar, where alcohol was sold for immediate, on-premises consumption. During his debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln defended himself from somewhat snide references from his opponent that he operated a bar. He claimed he never sold alcohol for consumption on the premises, though records indicate he and his partner did just that. Lincoln also never swore off alcohol, “taking the pledge” as the growing temperance movement claimed. He simply did not live the effects of whiskey and avoid consuming it. He said it made him feel “flabby”.

But as President, Lincoln did drink. He avoided whiskey, though it was served in many of his meetings with his generals during the war. He occasionally sipped cider and was known to take wine at some formal meals, and champagne at receptions and celebrations. There exists no evidence he was ever “flabby” during his days in Congress or as President. Certainly if ever a man had an excuse for being so, he did. His self-enforced moderation stood out in a day where politicians, military leaders, businessmen, and newsmen all drank heavily. Lincoln also supported efforts by temperance leaders and some of his commanders to control alcohol consumption by the troops. Excessive alcohol consumption among officers and men and its related disciplinary and health problems plagued both sides throughout the Civil War.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
US Army surgeons posed for a photograph near Petersburg, Virginia in 1864. Library of Congress

11. Most surgeries and amputations were performed without anesthesia

The Hollywood image of an unfortunate being held down by strong men, while biting a piece of wood, or leather, or a bullet while a limb is sawn off is almost wholly inaccurate. By the time of the Civil War, doctors and surgeons were well aware of the use of anesthesia. Both ether and chloroform were used, though the latter was the preferred method. Ether presented the threat of explosion in enclosed areas lighted by oil lamps or candles. Chloroform also required a smaller amount to be administered, and its effects lasted longer. The strong men to hold down the patient were necessary, however. Under chloroform, patients often thrashed about spasmodically. They needed to be restrained in order for the surgeon to perform his work. Over 90% of all amputations performed during the war were accomplished with the patient under anesthesia.

Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson suffered wounds to his left arm during the Battle of Chancellorsville. A victim of “friendly fire”, Jackson was transported by wagon over rough roads to a surgeon. Jackson was under anesthesia (chloroform) for about an hour as the surgeon amputated his left arm. The amputation was healing well when Jackson developed pneumonia and died a week following the surgery. Union General Daniel Sickles had his leg amputated after the bone was shattered during the Battle of Gettysburg. After recovering, he had the leg sent to the Army Medical Museum in Washington. Today the Museum is known as the National Museum of Health and Medicine, part of the Smithsonian Institution. Sickles’ leg is still there on display. The rest of him is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard in Confederate uniform sometime during the Civil War. Wikimedia

12. At West Point, cadets from the Southern states withdrew in an orderly manner

The Army of the antebellum era was viewed as apolitical. Publicly airing one’s political views was considered unsoldierly, with America’s officer corps united in support of the Constitution. The same atmosphere permeated the United States Military Academy at West Point, at least officially. During the 1850s, as sectional factionalism grew, this state of affairs began to break down. Prior to secession in 1860, cadets from all regions of the country were there to obtain an education at the expense of the federal government. This engendered a sense of loyalty to that government, rather than to the individual states from whence they came. A sense of divisiveness grew in the Corps of Cadets beginning in the 1850s and reached a dangerous point with the John Brown raid. Disciplinary problems among the Corps worsened. Cadets fought over political arguments and at least one challenge for a formal duel was made.

Contrary to the image depicted in films and literature, the Corps of Cadets gradually shrank as men from the seceding states left for home. He first departed on November 19, 1860, for his home in South Carolina. Captain Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard served as Superintendent during the secession crisis. The following April he ordered his batteries to open fire on Fort Sumter. By then, several of the cadets from the seceding states had resigned and departed West Point. The attack on Fort Sumter accelerated the exodus. In May 1861, only 21 out of 86 Southerners remained in the Corps of Cadets, most of them waiting out the end of the term. Nineteen of those 21 remained loyal to the United States during the war. On May 6, 1861, the class was graduated early, without ceremony, and the cadets went off to war.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
Columbia, South Carolina, in flames in February 1865. Wikimedia

13. General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered the burning of Columbia, South Carolina, in 1865

Sherman’s March to the Sea, which culminated with the capture of Savannah, Georgia in late 1864, remains a controversial, though well-known event of the Civil War. Less well-known is his march through South Carolina in the winter of 1865. In February his troops approached Columbia, the state capital and the site of the signing of the Document of Secession in 1860. Confederate troops abandoned the city, and as Union troops entered Columbia became a scene of rioting, arson, and looting. Much, if not most, of the looting was conducted by citizens of the city. Some Union troops, fortified by liquor, also participated in looting and wanton destruction. During the night of February 17-18, 1865, cotton bales stacked at multiple locations throughout the city were ignited. The retreating Confederates had ordered the bales stacked and burned to deny them to the Union.

High winds, the blowing, flaming cotton, and buildings constructed of wood, soon led to fires which devoured much of the city. When Sherman arrived shortly before midnight, he ordered fresh troops into the city to fight the fires, arrest looters, and bring the rioting under control. In all, over 450 buildings were consumed by the fire, more than half of them are private residences. Confederate General Wade Hampton called Sherman a “barbarian”, though it was Hampton who ordered the cotton’s destruction by burning. For over 150 years, Sherman has been blamed in some quarters for burning Columbia, though no record of his ordering it has ever been unearthed. He denied giving the order, and his men, for the most part, fought to control the fire and protect the civilians in Columbia. No civilians died in the fire, though two Union soldiers did and nearly three dozen were injured.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
CSS Alabama, built for the Confederacy in Great Britain, destroying the American whaler Virginia in 1862. Wikimedia

14. Great Britain supported the Confederacy

The formation of the Confederate States government in 1860 led to the immediate dispatch of emissaries to Europe. Confederate representatives in Spain, Belgium, Great Britain, France, and even the Vatican sought to gain recognition of Confederate independence. All failed. At the time the Civil War began, American cotton sold at an all-time high. Confederate leaders hoped the European demand for cotton would provide an immediate source of revenues, as well as an impetus to remain a trading partner with the South. Confederate leaders also recognized that British ships visiting Southern ports were unlikely to be molested by the US Navy. Cotton shortages in British mills reached crisis proportions in 1862, with many mill workers out of work from lack of product. Nonetheless, many mills refused to process American cotton delivered by blockade runners. They supported Lincoln’s position on slavery.

Great Britain’s shipyards built blockade runners to smuggle goods to and from the Confederacy. They also built commerce raiders for the Confederate States Navy. British military professionals traveled to America as observers during the war, a practice common among nations of the 19th century. But the Southern stance on slavery prevented the Confederates from receiving any formal support or recognition of Confederate independence. After the war, international arbitration decided in favor of the United States, and Great Britain paid reparations for the damages caused by the warships they built and sold to the Confederates. British merchants, through smugglers, sold arms and munitions to the Confederacy. The same merchants, through open trade, sold arms and munitions, as well as other goods, to the United States. After the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, support for the South in Europe dwindled.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
Robert E. Lee did not command all Confederate forces until just weeks before his surrender in 1865. Wikimedia

15. Robert E. Lee commanded all the Confederate Armies during the war

When Robert E. Lee betrayed his oath to the Constitution and offered his military services to the Confederacy, initially it was to the Commonwealth of Virginia. In command of Virginia troops, Lee led Confederate forces at the Battle of Cheat Mountain in September 1861. The small conflict was a defeat for the Confederates, and Lee bore much of the blame among his peers. He then commanded the defenses surrounding Savannah. In 1862 Fort Pulaski fell, another Confederate defeat blamed on Lee. Jefferson Davis then employed Lee as his military advisor. It was during that tenure Lee became known, somewhat derisively, as the “King of Spades” as he ordered massive trench systems built around Richmond. After Joseph Johnston, commanding the Army of Virginia, was wounded, Lee received the command. He renamed the Army “The Army of Northern Virginia”. He commanded the army until he surrendered.

Command of all the Confederate Armies rested with Jefferson Davis. The structure of those forces changed throughout the war as Davis ordered troops to support one operation or another. Lee could only recommend detaching troops from his command to support operations in the west. By the same token, he could only request reinforcement from one of the other Confederate armies. By 1864, Ulysses S. Grant commanded all of the Union Armies, though he made his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, commanded by George Meade. Lee commanded only the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant thus made decisions which affected the overall strategic situation as the Confederacy crumbled. Lee was finally made General in Chief in February 1865. It was far too late. By then he was trapped in the trenches before Richmond and the Confederacy were on its last legs.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan of 1861 anticipated a lengthy period to execute and achieve its desired effect. Library of Congress

16. Both sides expected the war to be of short duration

Newspapers of the North and South, confident troops of both sides, and jubilant secessionists all pronounced a short war in early 1861. Southern confidence based itself on the superior abilities of Confederate arms, led by gentlemen. Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers in the aftermath of Fort Sumter inspired similar judgments in the North. But more sober-minded leaders of both sides took a differing view. Immediately after Fort Sumter fell, Southern leaders took steps to strengthen defenses throughout the Confederacy. Diplomatic steps were taken to obtain aid, and hopefully recognition, from the European powers. The Confederacy absorbed state militias into a federally controlled army. Relatively minor skirmishes occurred in the West, along the Mississippi River, and in the border states. Even before the first major battle, at Manassas in Northern Virginia, it was evident the war would last a long time.

Military leaders absorbed the great distances involved in conducting war from Virginia to Texas. Even after the great Southern victory at Manassas, in which they routed the Union forces, they could do little more than threaten the approaches to Washington DC. The first Union strategy announced for the war, Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan, indicated the war would be long. The plan called for the Union to wrest control of the Mississippi River from the South, and establish a blockade which would starve the South into submission. Grant’s early victories in the west, Forts Henry and Donelson and the bloodbath at Shiloh, indicated both sides would fight fiercely despite massive casualties. By mid-1862 it was clear to anyone and every one the war would be long, bloody, and financially disastrous for the South, even should they prevail.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
Virginian George Henry Thomas remained faithful to his oath and served as one of the Union’s best field commanders. Wikimedia

17. Most Virginia military officers followed Lee into the Confederate Army

At the time of Fort Sumter, the US Army had eight full Colonels from Virginia in its ranks, including Lee. Of these men, seven elected to honor their oaths and serve in the Army of the United States. Only Lee chose otherwise. All of the eight were graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Other former West Pointers followed Lee’s example, including Thomas J. Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart, James Longstreet, and George Pickett. Yet 40% of all commissioned officers from Virginia chose to serve in the Union Army, rather than violate their oaths. Among them was a man who emerged during the war as one of the Union’s best fighting generals. George Henry Thomas graduated from West Point in 1840, having been a classmate of William Tecumseh Sherman. When Virginia seceded Thomas, whose antebellum military career had been successful, opted to remain with the Union.

His family in Southern Virginia disowned him as a result of his decision. Thomas had been raised on a plantation. His family kept enslaved people as both field hands and personal servants. At the age of 13 Thomas, his mother, and his three sisters hid in the woods nearby as the Nat Turner Rebellion threatened their home and lives. When his family learned of his decision to fight for the Union, they destroyed all his correspondence and refused to allow his name to be spoken in their presence. During the war, Thomas attempted to send money to his financially beleaguered family. It was angrily rejected by his sisters. George Henry Thomas served throughout the war, commanding Union troops, and is the only Union general to command in battle without being defeated. Nonetheless, throughout the war, Thomas was viewed with suspicion due to his Virginia birth, including by Abraham Lincoln.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
Troops under General Jubal Early attacked the Washington defenses late in the war, to little avail. Wikimedia

18. Abraham Lincoln was the only American President to come under fire in battle while in office

In the summer of 1864, Robert E. Lee attempted to relieve the relentless pressure imposed by the Army of the Potomac on his forces with a diversionary campaign. Lee dispatched the 2nd Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, under General Jubal Early, to the Shenandoah Valley. Early’s mission was to cross into Maryland, impose as much chaos on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad as possible, and threaten Washington from the Northwest. Lee believed such a campaign would force Grant to detach troops from his army and send them to the defense of Washington. It worked. As Early’s raiding in Maryland grew more ominous to the capital, Grant detached units from his army and sent them north via river steamers. Yet his own pressure on Lee continued unabated. Meanwhile, Early’s forces approached Washington, arriving on July 11 during a major heatwave.

Early’s troops approached Fort Stevens, located in what is now Northwest Washington. Among the luminaries who arrived at Fort Stevens to view the fighting was Abraham Lincoln. Accompanied by his wife, Lincoln was briefly under fire, though most of the stories surrounding the event are likely myths. Nor did it make Lincoln the only American President to come under enemy fire while in office. He wasn’t even the first. That distinction belongs to James Madison, who as President came under fire as the British crushed the American defense at Bladensburg, Maryland, in 1814. The British victory allowed them to enter, and eventually burn much of, the American capital. Early was less successful. Repulsed by the defense at Fort Stevens, he was eventually defeated in the Shenandoah Valley in 1865. After his defeat, Lee removed him from command.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
An Army of the Potomac council of war at Cold Harbor, Virginia, May, 1864. Wikimedia

19. Robert E. Lee outgeneraled Ulysses S. Grant

Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant did not face each other across a battlefield until May 1864. By then the Confederate Army had been shattered at Gettysburg. It was demoralized, in short supply of virtually everything it needed, and outnumbered by its foes. The Union army engaged Lee’s forces in battle at the Wilderness outside Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, Topopotomoy Creek, and Cold Harbor. Only the latter was a Confederate victory, as Grant’s assaults were bloodily repulsed. Nonetheless, after each of the bloody battles, Grant continued to advance upon Richmond. Lee was forced to withdraw to another defensive position nearer the Confederate capital. By late summer, Lee’s army had been forced into the trenches around Richmond and Petersburg. Grant also initiated flanking attacks that summer using his cavalry to destroy the Confederate positions to Lee’s rear.

Once Lee entered the trenches, the end was just a matter of time. Union forces captured and destroyed railroad facilities and junctions which provided Lee with his only sources of food and supplies. By the spring, of 1865, Lee’s positions around Richmond and Petersburg were untenable. He attempted to withdraw, hoping to join with Joseph Johnston’s dwindling army in North Carolina. Grant’s aggressive pursuit captured Confederate supply depots before Lee could reach them, and eventually cut him off near Appomattox Court House. There Lee accepted the inevitable and surrendered his command under surprisingly generous terms offered by Grant. The Confederate government had by then already fled, and was all but dissolved. Grant’s relentless pounding during the summer of 1864 destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia as a fighting force. At its peak, in 1862, Lee commanded about 91,000 men. When he surrendered, he commanded about 25,000.

Myths of the American Civil War It’s Time to Put to Bed
Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for two years and indicted for treason, but never brought to trial. Wikimedia

20. Southern leaders were not punished for their treason after the war

Officially, the policy of the victorious United States was leniency. Robert E. Lee was not charged with violating his oath to defend the Constitution. During the Lost Cause, he became mythologized for his sense of honor, among other character traits. But he never regained the right to vote, and his Arlington home was confiscated. Jefferson Davis spent two years imprisoned, often in chains in Fortress Monroe, awaiting trial. Indicted for treason, he was never tried. In 1868 President Andrew Johnson granted him clemency as part of a general pardon to “every person who directly or indirectly participated in the late insurrection”. Davis opposed Reconstruction, including the presence of United States troops in the former Confederacy. He experienced financial difficulties, marital difficulties, and ridicule in the press, North and South. In his memoirs, Davis argued slavery was not a root cause of the war, blaming instead Northern aggression.

Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens was held prisoner until October 1865. In 1866 the newly established Georgia legislature elected Stephens to the United States Senate. That body refused to seat him. In 1873 he ran for the House of Representatives in Georgia and won. The House was more accommodating, and Stephens held his seat until 1882, when he became Governor of Georgia. One southerner did receive punishment for his actions against the United States. Henry Wirz, who commanded the infamous prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia, was tried and convicted of war crimes. He petitioned President Johnson for clemency, but Johnson never responded. Wirz was executed by hanging on November 10, 1865, having been found guilty of murder and conspiracy in the deaths of prisoners under his charge during the later months of the war.

 

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

“Myths & Misunderstandings: What Caused the Civil War”. John Coski, American Civil War Museum. July 24, 2017. Online

“How Did Slaves Support the Confederacy?” Article, Virginia Museum of History and Culture. Online

“Civil War Conscription Laws”. Margaret Wood, Law Library, Library of Congress. November 15, 2012

“Battle of Fort Sumter, April 1861”. Article, National Park Service. Online

“The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War”. Article. History Collectio. Online

“West Virginia Statehood, June 20, 1863”. Article, National Archives. Online

“Lee’s Invasion of Pennsylvania”. Mackubin T. Owens, Ashbrook. July 1, 2007. Online

“James B. Eads”. Article, The Civil War in Missouri. Online

“The Myth of the Kindly General Lee”. Adam Serwer, The Atlantic. June 4, 2017

“Did Ulysses S. Grant Really Have a Drinking Problem?” Stephen Bitsoli, History is Now Magazine. April 3, 2017

“Honest Abe Wasn’t Honest About Drinking: Lincoln’s Alcohol-Fueled Diplomacy”. Noah Rothbaum, The Daily Beast. November 6, 2017

“Anesthesia in the Civil War”. Article, National Museum of Civil War Medicine. January 22, 2017

“America’s Civil War Comes to West Point”. Stephen E. Ambrose, Civil War Times Illustrated. August, 1965

“Columbia, Burning of”. Article, South Carolina Encyclopedia. Online

“The Unknown Contributions of Brits in the American Civil War”. Megan Gambino, Smithsonian Magazine. December 9, 2011. Online

“Lincoln and Davis as Commanders in Chief”. Brian R. Dirck, Essential Civil War Curriculum. Online

“A Brief Overview of the American Civil War”. James McPherson, American Battlefield Trust. August 24, 2021

“George Thomas”. Biography, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“When the Civil War Came to Washington: Reliving the Battle of Fort Stevens”. Fritz Hahn, The Washington Post. July 10, 2014

“Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign: Six Bloody Weeks”. Christopher Klein, History.com. April 21, 2020

“Captain Henry Wirz”. Article, Andersonville National Historic Site. Online

Advertisement