22. Throughout the Civil War, 1862 Might Have Been the Most Dismal Year for the Army of the Potomac
1862 was rough on the Union’s Army of the Potomac. The spring started off well with the Peninsula Campaign, which brought Union forces to the outskirts of Richmond. It ended in a hasty retreat after a series of vicious Confederate counterattacks. Then came an embarrassing defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run that summer, followed in the early fall by a stalemated battle at Antietam, the bloodiest day not just of the Civil War, but of America’s history. Winter was no kinder to the Army of the Potomac, which suffered a bloody setback when it crossed the Rappahannock River and attacked the Confederates in strong defensive positions near Fredericksburg. That triggered another change of command, and the arrival of a new leader, Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker.
Aware that another 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.
21. Robert E. Lee Tore Up the Rulebook at Chancellorsville
Things began promisingly enough for Joseph Hooker. He 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 opponent if he could help it. When he discovered what Hooker 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 45,000 Confederates to meet Hooker.
In so doing, Lee violated conventional wisdom against the division of 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 the defiance of conventional wisdom and further divided 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, with the rest of the Confederates on a flanking march to fall on Hooker’s right flank.
What Robert E. Lee did at Chancellorsville when he divided his army in the face of a numerically superior enemy – not once, but twice – was a huge gamble. It paid off for him on May 2nd, 1863. That day, while Confederate cavalry screened his flank to keep the Union forces from observing him, Lee 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.
Jackson launched a surprise attack late that afternoon against the XI Corps on the Union army’s right flank, just as its men sat 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. The setback 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.
19. The Civil War Generated America’s Biggest Example of Revisionist History
Much criticism gets hurled nowadays from some quarters at so-called “revisionist” history. However, there has been no greater example of revisionism in American history than that which took place after the Civil War. It was a rare instance in which the losers brazenly rewrote the history about the conflict’s causes. Amazingly, and despite ample evidence that belied their claims, they got away with it for an astonishingly long time. In what became known as the “Lost Cause” myth, Southern writers painted the war’s causes in romantic terms that were uncritically accepted by too many for too long.
In such a revisionist retelling, the war was caused by a disagreement about state rights, mixed in with chivalric notions about a desire to maintain a way of life. Slavery is studiously downplayed in such narratives or outright ignored. However, the war’s cause, according to Southern secessionists and leaders at the time, was all about slavery. They were not mealy-mouthed about it, did not hint, imply, or fudge, and were completely unambiguous. Southern decision-makers at the time stated in clear-cut language that they intended to wage war against the United States in order to hold on to their human property.
18. There is Run of the Mill Chutzpah, and Then There is This
Few things are more brazen in their dishonesty than the core revisionist claim of Confederacy apologists: that the South did not fight for slavery in the Civil War. That goes against what the Confederate states’ very own Declarations of Secession stated, reinforced by the strident words of key Southern politicians at the time. Take Mississippi’s declaration of secession: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portion of commerce of the earth.
These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.” That left little room for doubt.
17. From the Start, Slavery Was the Key Cause for the Outbreak of the Civil War
The first state to secede was South Carolina, and its Declaration of Secession left no doubt about the centrality of slavery in that decision: “We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection”
Texas was likewise unambiguous about slavery’s role in its decision to secede: “In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color– a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.”
16. The Designer of the Confederacy’s National Flag Stressed That it Was a Symbol of White Supremacy
The Declaration of Secession passed by Georgia also made clear that slavery was at the heart of its decision to fight: “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery“. As with their chief reason for secession, the Confederates left little doubt about the symbolism of the banner under which they fought to protect slavery. The Confederate national flag is known as the “Stainless Banner” or “Jackson Flag” (after it was draped on the coffin of General Stonewall Jackson) featured the stars and bars and a white field. As its designer, William Tappan Thompson put it:
“As a people, we are fighting to maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race: a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.” Thompson, who co-founded the Savannah Morning News, further elaborated in an editorial: “Such a flag would be a suitable emblem of our young confederacy and sustained by the brave hearts and strong arms of the south, it would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG“.
15. Contemporary Southerners Were Honest About Why they Fought the Civil War Because They Were Oblivious at the Time to How Bad it Sounded
The examples above illustrate that slavery and the supremacist views that underpinned it were unambiguously at the heart of the Confederate states’ decision to fight the Civil War. After the war, however, Confederate apologists and peddlers of the Lost Cause myth resorted to revisionism to pretend that something so clear-cut was instead shrouded in nonexistent ambiguity. Their reason was not difficult to understand: to defend slavery is an icky and morally bankrupt excuse to wage war against one’s country – and lose.
Southerners had been immersed in what we would call a bubble today, in which they had told each other for years, and convinced themselves, that slavery was a good thing. They genuinely did not comprehend how morally repugnant their way of life and “peculiar institution” seemed to much of the rest of the world. Specifically the Western world, the only one whose opinion mattered to them. So they honestly said why they chose to fight, oblivious to how horrible it sounded to outsiders.
14. Although Brazenly Dishonest, the Lost Cause Myth Went Unchallenged for Generations
The perspectives of Confederates on the role of slavery in the Civil War began to change after the conflict. They began to rethink after they had been defeated, the Confederate States of America were no more, and their bubble had been forcibly burst. It was only then that most Southerners were finally exposed to the opinion and moral judgment of the outside world about slavery. So they turned around and invented a revisionist history myth, the “Lost Cause”, in which they brazenly came up with retroactive justifications for fighting the Civil War on grounds other than slavery.
It worked for many years, and until relatively recently, Lost Cause peddlers were not challenged and called out for the brazen claim that the war had not been about slavery. In reality, the Confederates seceded because of slavery, plain and simple. Anything else was secondary to that. Other than slavery, there was no subject of disagreement between North and South strong enough to go to war over. Credible historians and scholars do not dispute that slavery was the key reason why the Civil War was fought. Today, only willful ignorance, coupled with intellectual dishonesty, explains the false assertions that the South had not fought for slavery.
13. As With Other Wars, Civil War Armies Marched on Their Stomachs
Napoleon’s aphorism that an army marches on its stomach was as true of the Civil War as of any other war. Hunger is probably the world’s best seasoning and appetizer. Nothing does a better job than the pangs of an empty stomach to transform even the most unpalatable foods into the equivalent of mouthwatering savory dishes fit for royal feasts and banquets. That phenomenon is often demonstrated in wartime. Marauding armies, raiders, the diversion of labor to military pursuits, sieges and blockades, all combine to wreak havoc on the supply and distribution networks that normally keep people – soldiers and civilians alike – fed.
When that happens, people in and out of uniform often have to shift for themselves and improvise to find sufficient foodstuffs to replace the then-unappreciated, but now fondly recalled, plenty of peacetimes. That happened in the US Civil War, especially in the South. In those terrible years, the devastation of war, the shortage of farm labor after agricultural workers went into the military, and various blockades and barricades, kept provisions away from the eager hands – and mouths – of consumers. As seen below, people had to get creative with their food.
12. The South Was Agriculturally Rich, but its Soldiers Were Often Poorly Fed
Civil War Union soldiers were usually well fed and supplied with provisions by the standards of their era. Compared to their Confederate foes, Northern troops were routinely issued items that seemed like luxuries to Southern ones, such as sugar and coffee. Real coffee, that is, in the form of actual or ground coffee beans, not the substitutes that Rebel soldiers used in its stead. Union soldiers were also regularly issued meat, usually in the form of salt beef or park. Their opponents often had to do with meat substitutes.
Basic Confederate soldiers’ rations consisted of corn bread, and little if any meat. Much of the South was an agriculturally rich region brimming with foodstuff. However, supply and distribution network breakdowns kept many provisions, especially meat, from Southern field armies. Rebel troops often had to do with mule meat, and when even that was unavailable, resorted to meat substitutes. One of the most common was a mixture of rice and molasses, with cornmeal sometimes added to, or used in lieu of, rice.
11. Civil War Southern Soldiers Often Had to Eat Mule Meat
On paper, Southern rations in the Civil War were adequate and varied. In practice, they were not. Rebel soldiers were usually issued corn bread and bad beef, with corn bread the more constant provision. Basics like vegetables and salt were also often hard to come by. The supply of beef to Southern armies broke down quickly, and as early as 1861, the Confederates’ commissary general recommended the use of rice and molasses as occasional meat substitutes. Because of persistent supply and distribution difficulties, “occasional” became “quite often”.
By 1863, things had gotten bad enough that mule meat was issued as a standard ration item to Rebel soldiers. Even mule meat, rice and molasses, as well as corn bread, were often in short supply, and there are many reports of Southerners who had to subsist for days on handfuls of field peas and parched corn. On top of food shortages, and the poor quality of what food actually reached them, Confederate soldiers often lacked adequate cooking ware and eating utensils.
Hunger is more than just a great appetizer. It is also a great prod to get people’s culinary creative juices flowing. Inadequate and frequently interrupted food supplies made Southern Civil War soldiers come up with new dishes, of which the most famous – or infamous – were “cush” or “slosh”. Small bits of beef were placed in bacon grease, then water was added and the mixture was “stewed”. Cornbread was crumbled into the concoction and stewed again until all the water had evaporated.
One stew recipe used potatoes and green apples boiled together, then mashed and seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, or onion. Another recipe began with a stew of potatoes and whatever meat was available, to which flapjack batter was added, a spoonful at a time. The mixture was stirred together, and as a Rebel soldier recalled, the next morning: “we got meat, bread, and potatoes all in the same slice“. Another dish known as “slapjack” used a thick mixture of flour or cornmeal fried in bacon grease in a skillet until the bottom turned brown before it was flipped over to cook the other side.
9. Coffee Was So Valued and Scarce in the South that it Was Used as Jewelry
Civil War soldiers liked their caffeine fix. However, only the Northern men at arms had regular access to coffee made from real coffee beans. The Union blockade of the South made coffee a rare commodity in the Confederacy, so Southerners often made do with substitutes. Rebels jonesing for a cup of joe brewed up chicory, peas, peanuts dried apples, acorns, rye, dandelion roots, or just about anything they could get their hands on that could trick their senses into believing it was coffee.
Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart described the use of potatoes as coffee substitutes: “Potatoes were peeled and cut into “chunks” about the size of coffee berries. The pieces were spread out in the sun to dry, then parched until brown, after which they were ground. The grounds were mixed with a little water until a paste resulted, after which hot water was added. When the grounds settled to the bottom of the coffee pot, the beverage could be poured and drunk“. Coffee beans became such hot commodities in the South during the Civil War that one Atlanta jeweler used them instead of diamonds in breast pins.
8. Food – and the Scarcity Thereof – Played a Key Role in the Civil War’s Course and Outcome
Civil War Union soldiers had it good when it came to food, compared to their Confederate foes. Their regular rations included salt pork, fresh or salt beef, hard and soft bread, flour, potatoes, beans, split peas, dried apples, peaches, and vegetables, vinegar, salt and pepper. Ham and bacon were also issued on occasion. Union troops also regularly received coffee and sugar – luxuries to be found only in Confederate soldiers’ dreams. Civil War gallows humor had it that the ferocity of Rebel charges could be explained by the eagerness of hungry Southerners to get their hands on the contents of Yankee soldiers’ haversacks.
Food played a key role in how the Civil War turned out. When Robert E. Lee finally threw in the towel and surrendered at Appomattox, he told Ulysses S. Grant that his men had been without food for two days, and some for even more. He asked the victor to supply them with provisions, and a magnanimous Grant sent enough rations for all of Lee’s soldiers. Despite the bitterness of defeat and surrender, the famished Southern soldiers sent up a loud cheer at the sight of the Union food wagons.
7. For the Longest, America Had a Lax Attitude Towards Presidential Security
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War owes much to the fact that he had been assigned the most incompetent bodyguard to have ever been tasked with the protection of an American president. For much of America’s history, presidential protection was an ad hoc affair. The Secret Service, created in 1865 to catch currency counterfeiters, did not become presidential bodyguards until 1902, after the assassination of President William McKinley. Before that, security for US presidents was quite lax. For example, on the night that Lincoln was assassinated, April 14th, 1865, only one man had been assigned to protect him: an inept and unreliable cop named John Frederick Parker.
6. An Extremely Bad Cop, With an Important Assignment
Close calls, the knowledge that many wished him ill, and reports of numerous plots against his life did not daunt Abraham Lincoln, and he often went about unescorted. The tall, bearded, gangly, and easily identifiable president sometimes walked alone at night from the White House to the War Department. He often attended church or went to the theater without bodyguards, and generally disliked the fuss of a military escort. On the fateful night of April 14th, 1865, he was assigned a bodyguard – but an inept one. By any measure, John Frederick Parker (1830 – 1890) was a bad cop. One of the first officers to join Washington’s Metropolitan Police Force when it was created in 1861, he stood out for his ineptness and unsuitability as a policeman.
Parker was often brought before the police oversight board on a variety of charges, any of which could have gotten him fired. The most frequent accusation was conduct unbecoming an officer. He was let off each time with a slap on the wrist. Parker’s infractions included but were not limited to the abuse of civilians. He was known to curse in public, frequent brothels, get drunk on the job, and sleep off his inebriation in streetcars instead of walk his assigned 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 assigned the task.
Officer John Frederick Parker of the Washington Metropolitan Police escorted President Lincoln and his wife to their box seats in Ford’s Theater on the night of April 14th, 1865. The bad cop then grabbed a seat in the hallway behind Lincoln in the theater but was unable to see the play from there. So he abandoned his post to watch from downstairs. The play bored him, however, so he left the theater altogether, to go grab a drink in a nearby bar.
It is possible that Parker might have crossed paths there with John Wilkes Booth, who was also at the bar for the last shot of liquid courage before he headed to Ford’s Theater. Booth, a famous actor, was a Confederate sympathizer. During the Civil War, Booth had lacked the courage of his convictions to take up arms and join the Confederate armies in the field. When it was all over and the Confederacy was defeated, he found enough courage – or at least bitterness – to finally act.
4. Getting a President Killed Through Neglect and Incompetence Was Still Not Enough to Get This Cop Fired
John Wilkes Booth hatched a plot to assassinate President Lincoln and some of his key cabinet members, and on the night of April 14th, 1865, he and his accomplices fanned out across Washington, DC. Booth’s coconspirators failed to carry out their parts. Booth, however, got into Ford’s Theater, where Officer John Frederick Parker had abandoned his post as presidential bodyguard to drink at a nearby bar. Booth snuck into the president’s private box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He then made a dramatic escape, and went on the lam for twelve days.
A massive manhunt eventually tracked Booth to a Virginia barn, where he was killed in a shootout. It is unclear if Officer Parker ever returned to Ford’s Theater that night, or only found out about Lincoln’s assassination the next day. Parker was charged with failure to protect the president, but incredibly, the charge was dismissed and he kept his job as a Washington Metropolitan Police officer. He was even kept on the presidential protection detail for another three years before he was finally fired when he was caught once again asleep on the job.
3. No President Ever Carried as Heavy a Burden as Abraham Lincoln
Throughout the history of the United States, no president before or since has ever faced challenges as varied and as difficult as did Abraham Lincoln. Chief among them was the Civil War, which killed about 700,000 to 900,000 people. Prorated to the current US population, that would be the equivalent of about nine to ten million dead Americans today. He had to handle that bloodbath without the vast support staff and civil bureaucracy available to modern presidents to ease and streamline their workload. He had to cope with ineptness and incompetence by sundry generals, who dealt the Union cause setback back after setback and piled up defeat after defeat.
In addition to armed rebellion in the South, Lincoln had to contend with treason in the North. There were vicious attacks directed at him from both right and left, from the opposition Democrats and from within the ranks of his own Republican party, and accusations of incompetence and tyranny. There was disloyalty within his own cabinet, plots and schemes and terrorism, plus a serious threat of foreign war against Britain and France. In the middle of all that, a beloved son caught a fever and died, at the tender age of eleven years old. To top it all off, he had to deal with a crazy wife at home – a spouse who literally suffered bouts of insanity.
2. Abraham Lincoln Had Confederate Money in His Wallet When He Died
Abraham Lincoln went through the hell of the Civil War, and finally prevailed: the rebellion was crushed, and the Union was preserved. He handled all the challenges that fate threw at him with, all things considered, nearly superhuman poise, grace, and dignity. The way in which he overcame so many adversities, and still retained his sanity and humanity to the end, was extraordinary. Less than a week after the main Southern army surrendered, when he could finally relax, he went to see a play at a theater, only to be assassinated by a sore loser Confederate.
In one of Lincoln’s pockets when he was shot was a crisp five-dollar Confederate bill. Most likely, it was a memento from a recent trip he made to Virginia, as the war in the eastern theater entered its final days and the Union Army entered Richmond. The president was in the vicinity when the Confederacy’s capital fell. He made an impromptu tour of the ruins of the place and took the banknote, worthless once the Rebel cause went down to defeat, as a souvenir.
1. Lincoln’s Possessions When He Was Assassinated Were Eventually Donated to the Library of Congress
Abraham Lincoln had a white linen handkerchief when he was shot, with “A. Lincoln” embroidered in red. He also had a pocketknife with an ivory handle. He had a pair of gold-rimmed glasses mended with a string, a pair of folding spectacles in a silver case, plus glass cleaner and buffer. The arms on his glasses – he had one for reading and the other to correct his strabismus – often came loose. Lincoln probably carried the pocketknife to tighten them whenever that happened. There was also a sleeve button with a gold initial “L” on dark blue enamel and a watch fob.
The Confederate banknote was in a brown leather wallet. People did not carry identity cards back then, so Lincoln did not have any. Oddly, the wallet contained no cash other than the worthless Confederate $5 note. Instead, there were eight newspaper clippings with positive coverage of his presidency. Given the difficulties, he faced on a daily basis, and the torrent of negativity directed his way, the president probably carried the clippings around to boost his morale and as a means of positive affirmation. The contents of Lincoln’s pockets were kept by his family for decades, they were donated to the Library of Congress in 1937.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading