The US Civil War makes all of America’s recent drama and heated tempers look like chump change. Within the span of a frenzied four years, Americans went at each other hammer and tongs and left up to a million corpses behind by the time the dust settled. If that figure is prorated to current 2021 population figures, it would be the equivalent of nine million or ten million dead Americans. Following are thirty lesser-known things about those years.
30. Hunger: The World’s Best Seasoning and Appetizer
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 edible foodstuffs to replace the then-unappreciated, but now fondly recalled, plenty of peacetime. That happened in the US Civil War, especially in the South. During those terrible years, the devastation of war, the shortage of farm labor after agricultural workers ended up in the military, and the mushrooming of 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.
29. Rice and Molasses Were a Common Meat Substitute During the Civil War
By the standards of their era, Civil War Union soldiers were usually well fed and supplied with provisions. 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 substitute stuff that Rebel soldiers used in its stead. Union soldiers were also regularly issued meat, usually in the form of salt beef or pork. Their opponents often had to do with meat substitutes.
Basic Confederate soldiers’ rations consisted of corn bread, and little if any meat. Although much of the South was an agriculturally rich region brimming with foodstuff, supply and distribution network breakdowns kept many provisions, especially meat, from the mouths of soldiers in 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.
28. Mule Meat Became a Staple Ration of Civil War Southern Soldiers
Southern rations were adequate and varied – on paper. In practice, not so much. 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. Supply and distribution difficulties persisted, however, and “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.
27. Empty Stomachs Made Southern Soldiers Get Creative in Their Efforts to Stretch Their Meager Rations
Hunger is not only a great appetizer, but is also a great prod to get people’s culinary creative juices flowing. Inadequate and frequently interrupted food supplies led Southern soldiers to come up with new dishes, of which the most famous – or infamous – were “cush” or “slosh”. Small bits of beefs were placed in bacon grease, then water was added and the mixture was “stewed”. Then corn bread was crumbled into the concoction, and stewed again until all the water had evaporated.
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 stew recipe used potatoes and green apples boiled together, then mashed and seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, or onion. 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.
26. Coffee Was So Rare in the South During the Civil War, That a Jeweler Used Coffee Beans Instead of Diamonds
Both Union and Confederate soldiers liked their caffeine fix, but 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 had to do with substitutes. Rebels jonesing for a cup of joe brewed up chicory, peanuts, peas, rye, dried apples, acorns, 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.
25. Food Played a Key Role in the Civil War’s Outcome
Compared to the Rebels, Union soldiers had it good when it came to food. 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, plus ham and bacon on occasion. Union troops were also regularly issued 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 was a key factor in the Civil War’s outcome. 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 was more than happy to send enough rations for all of Lee’s soldiers. Despite the bitterness of defeat and surrender, the starving Southern soldiers sent up a rousing cheer at the sight of the Union food wagons sent by Grant.
24. Is There Any Support for the Claim That the Civil War Was Not About Slavery?
“Revisionist” history gets a lot of criticism these days from some quarters. However, there has been no greater example of revisionism in American history than that which took place after the Civil War, when the losers brazenly rewrote the history about the conflict’s causes. Amazingly, and despite overwhelming 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. As seen below, Southern decision-makers at the time stated in clear-cut language that they intended to go to war against the United States because they wanted to hold on to their human property.
23. At the Time, the Confederates Made it Clear That Slavery Was Why They Chose to Secede
The revisionist claim that the South did not fight for slavery in the Civil War goes against what the Confederate states’ very own Declarations of Secession stated, reinforced by the strident words of leading 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 portions 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.”
22. The Southern States’ Declarations of Secession Left No Doubt That They Were Fighting for Slavery
South Carolina was the first state to secede, 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.”
21. The Confederates Did Not Mince Words About Why They Fought
Georgia’s Declaration of Secession 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 cofounded 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“.
20. Before and During the Civil War, Confederates Openly Stated That They Were Fighting for Slavery Because They Were Oblivious to How Bad That Sounded to Others
Examples such as the preceding 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 go to war against one’s country – and lose.
When the Southern states seceded, Southerners had been immersed in what we would call a bubble today, in which they had told each other for years and 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.
19. The Bursting of the South’s Bubble Gave Rise to the Lost Cause Myth
Confederate perspectives on the role of slavery in the Civil War began to change only after the conflict, when 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 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.
18. Both Sides Employed Thousands of Child Soldiers During the Civil War
Thousands of child soldiers were used by both sides during the Civil War. About a fifth of all military personnel were under eighteen, and more than 100,000 soldiers in the Union Army alone were fifteen-years-old or less. Some kids 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, in the midst of battle, child soldiers were often 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. Their chief task during combat was to rush gunpowder from magazines to canons, and they were just as exposed to danger in the midst of action as were all other sailors aboard ship, regardless of age. They scurried about with sacks of gunpowder that were liable to go off if they 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.
17. Vermont Child Soldier Willie Johnston Became a National Hero
Civil War child soldier William “Willie” H. Johnston was born in New York in 1850, and his family moved to Vermont shortly before the conflict erupted. When hostilities began, Willie’s father enlisted in the 3rd Vermont Infantry Regiment in July 1861 and was accompanied by his son, who sought to join as well. Young Willie was rejected due to his age, but he accompanied the regiment anyhow, and served without pay. In December 1861, officials finally relented and allowed him to formally enlist, and placed him on the muster rolls as a drummer boy.
The 3rd Vermont took part in the Peninsula Campaign, and Willie’s first taste of combat came at Lee’s Mill, Virginia, on April 16, 1862 – a battle in which his father was wounded. A few months later, between June 25 and July 1, 1862, Willie’s regiment saw heavy fighting during the Seven Days Battles, as the Union forces retreated from the outskirts of Richmond under a series of heavy attacks from the Confederates. Willie Johnston’s conduct during the course of that retreat won him national fame.
Union forces greatly outnumbered their Confederate opponents in the Peninsula Campaign, and under competent leadership, they might have seized Richmond and perhaps ended the Civil War in the summer of 1862. However, they were cursed with the leadership of General George B. McClellan. Mistakenly convinced that he was greatly outnumbered by Rebel forces, McClellan lost his nerve, and rather than advance and fight aggressively to seize victory, pulled back, convinced that he was about to get swamped by hordes of Confederates at any moment. So in the midst of the unaccustomed heat of a Virginia summer, the Union forces fell back under relentless enemy pressure
As they retreated from Richmond, many weary federal troops grew demoralized and discarded all of their equipment, in order to march unencumbered. Willie Johnston dutifully hung on to his drum throughout the ordeal, and brought it with him to safety at retreat’s end in Harrison’s Landing. There, as the 3rd Vermont and other regiments of the division were assembled for a July 4th parade, it was discovered that young Willie was the only drummer in the entire division who had held on to his drum throughout the retreat. As such, he had the honor of drumming for the whole division that day.
15. The Youngest Recipient of America’s Highest Award
A few days later, President Abraham Lincoln attended a parade for the entire Army of the Potomac, where he heard the tale of the conscientious young drummer. It is reported that Lincoln wrote Secretary of War Stanton, and recommended that Willie Johnston be awarded a medal. As a result, the young Vermonter was decorated with the Medal of Honor on September 16th, 1863. Thus, at age thirteen, Willie became the second recipient to receive what became the nation’s highest award for valor.
Willie also holds the distinction of being the youngest person ever awarded the nation’s most prestigious decoration – for exploits he had performed when was only eleven years old. At the end of his term of service, Willie reenlisted in February of 1864, and remained in uniform until his unit was mustered out in December 1865. After the war, he worked as a machinist, married, and raised a family of five children. He lived to the ripe old age of 91, before he passed away on September 16, 1941 – the 78th anniversary of his September 16, 1863, Medal of Honor award.
The USS Indianola was a Union ironclad river gunboat that served in the Western Theater during the American Civil War with the US Navy’s Mississippi Squadron. She was built in Cincinnati in 1862, and was hurriedly commissioned into service before she was completed because of a perceived threat to the city. Once she was completed, she was sent to operate in the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. In early 1863, she ran past Confederate batteries in Vicksburg to reach the Red River and help block Confederate supplies from sailing down its waters.
Once she reached her destination, however, the Indianola was set upon by Confederate rams on the night of February 24th, 1863, ran aground, and was captured. That derailed Union plans to blockade the Red River, and her presence in Confederate hands was too great a threat to Union operations in the region to be endured. So plans were made to recapture the ironclad or destroy it so as to deprive the enemy of its use. The outcome was one of the Civil War’s most successful deception operations and hoaxes.
13. The Ruse That Got the Confederates to Destroy Their Own Ship
The US Navy realized that if the Confederates repaired the captured Indianola and added it to their river fleet, it could spell disaster for Union operations on the Mississippi River. Union naval commander David Porter did not have warships available to send on a risky mission to destroy the Indianola before the Rebels fixed her, so he resorted to a ruse of war. He ordered the construction of a dummy ironclad out of an old coal barge that was made to resemble a real warship. It was gussied up with paddle boxes, and fake gun emplacements out of which stuck “cannons” that were actually wooden logs painted black.
Barrels were stacked on the dummy ironclad to look like funnels, out of which poured smoke produced by smudge pots to mimic the smoke produced by a steam engine. The dummy warship, named Black Terror, was then floated past Vicksburg. When word that a powerful “ironclad” was headed their way reached the Confederate salvage crews working to repair and refloat the recently captured Indianola, they panicked. In order to prevent the captured Union gunboat’s recapture, the Confederates set fire to the ship’s magazine and blew her up.
It was early 1862, and Union forces in the war’s Western Theater were worried about the possibility that Confederate forces might make a swift descent upon Chattanooga from Atlanta via the Western & Atlantic Railroad (W&R). So James J. Andrews, a Union civilian scout, proposed a daring raid to sever that rail connection. He and a picked band would seize a locomotive in Georgia, then travel north, and destroy a pair of connecting railway lines, along with their vital bridges.
Andrews’ idea was approved, and in early April 1862, he recruited Union Army volunteers for his raid. They slipped individually and in small groups through Confederate lines in civilian clothes, then, in accordance to plan, they rendezvoused in Marietta, Georgia. There, they boarded a train on April 11th. When it reached a small stop called “Big Shanty”, which had been selected by Andrews because it had no telegraph the Confederates could use to send out an alarm, the raiders sprang into action and seized the train’s locomotive, named the General.
Once James J. Andrews and his men seized the General, they uncoupled the locomotive from the rest of the train and took off. That kicked off the start of the Civil War’s – and America’s – most epic train chase. The raiders cut telegraph lines, and made a few stops along the way in order to remove some rail tracks. When a hue and cry was raised, the raiders led Confederate pursuers on a ninety-mile chase on foot and on locomotives. Back in Big Shanty, the conductor whose locomotive they had hijacked, a man named William Allen Fuller, organized a pursuit.
They proceeded first by foot, then by handcar, until Fuller and the posse he had rounded up reached an idle locomotive on a spur line. The raiders in the General had passed it by and considered stopping to burn it. However, there were too many people nearby, and Andrews decided that a fight to seize the locomotive would take too long, and the sound of gunfire might alert nearby troops. Fuller and the pursuers came upon the locomotive, fired it up, and began the chase in earnest. The posse switched locomotives along the way, and steadily closed the distance with Andrews and his raiders.
For some time, the Union raiders stayed ahead of news of their raid because they had cut telegraph wires. That prevented warnings and orders to block the raiders’ escape route from reaching Confederate forces ahead of the fleeing Union volunteers. However, things began to go wrong for the raiders when they tried to burn a wooden railroad bridge but were unable to do so because heavy rains had left the structure too waterlogged to catch on fire. St Andrews and his men moved on and left the bridge intact behind them. That gave the Confederates hot on their trail a clear path to follow them on a stern chase.
When the pursuers finally reached an intact telegraph line, they sounded the alarm, and the raiders were blocked. Andrews halted the General on the outskirts of Ringgold, Georgia, and ordered his men to get out and scatter into the wilderness. They were captured over the next few days, then tried by the Confederates for “acts of unlawful belligerency”. Andrews and seven of his men were convicted and hanged in June 1862. Eight raiders managed to escape, and the remainder were released in a prisoner exchange in March 1863. Participants in what came to be known as The Great Locomotive Chase were among the first-ever recipients of the newly-created Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, Andrews was not among them. As a civilian, he was ineligible for the nation’s highest award for valor.
9. While the US Army Employed Child Soldiers, the US Navy Made Do With Child Sailors
Since its earliest days, the US Navy employed children on warships, literally and officially labeled “Boy Sailors”. They had official rankings that began with powder monkeys at the bottom of the heap, who comprised 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, received the same pay and came under the same discipline as adult sailors.
During the Civil War, a remarkable photograph was taken in 1865 of a child sailor, Boy 1st Class Aspinwall Fuller, above. It shows the lad, fourteen years old, 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 had issued a directive that prohibited 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.
Union Colonel Benjamin Grierson led a cavalry brigade of 1700 horsemen out of La Grange, Tennessee, on April 17, 1863. Their mission was to create a diversion from General Ulysses S. Grant’s plan to attack Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grierson and his men were to plunge southward deep into Mississippi in a raid that would traverse the length of that state, then reemerge at the other side and cross into the safety of Union lines in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. En route, the raiders sought to do all they could discomfit the enemy and disrupt his communications.
The Union cavalrymen were to tear up railroad tracks, destroy bridges, wreck and demolish Confederate installations and facilities, and otherwise wreak havoc and sow confusion throughout Mississippi. Until then, Confederate cavalry had been markedly superior to that of the Union, and literally rode circles around them. An additional motive for Grierson and his men was to demonstrate what federal horsemen could do with an exploit of their own to match the headline-grabbing ones of Confederate cavalrymen such as J.E.B. Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest.
7. The Civil War Cavalry Commander Who Hated Horses
Ironically, the commander of the Grierson Raid, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, was a former music teacher who happened to hate horses. It did not prevent his rise to command of a cavalry brigade. He and his cavalrymen traveled light. They packed only five days’ worth of rations for what planners envisioned would be a ten-day mission, 40 rounds of ammunition, and oats for their mounts. Preceded by scouts in enemy uniform, they rode for 600 miles through the heart of enemy territory that had never before seen enemy soldiers or felt the touch of war.
Grierson and his men saw to it that Mississippi now saw enemy soldiers and felt the touch of war, and the state went into a panic as a result. Union horsemen burned storehouses, tore up railroads and twisted them atop burning crossties, freed slaves, wrecked bridges, destroyed trains, and put Confederate commissaries to the torch. Throughout, in order to add to the Southerners’ confusion, Grierson peeled off detachments and sent them on feints to baffle and confuse the enemy about his actual whereabouts, intentions, and direction of march.
6. Grierson’s Raid Gave Sherman The Idea About a March Through Georgia
Grierson’s Raid was a smashing success in both the literal and figurative senses. As he and his men rampaged at will for over a fortnight deep in the heart of the enemy territory, the Union cavalrymen wreaked significant damage upon enemy property and enemy morale. Although vigorously pursued by Confederate forces, Grierson’s men eluded their pursuers even as they continued to cause mayhem in the enemy’s heartland. After fifteen days of raising Cain, in which they lost only three killed, seven wounded, and nine 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 live off the land deep within Confederate territory. That started to turn some gears 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 Sherman’s March Through Georgia, then his even more devastating March Through the Carolinas, that sealed the Confederacy’s doom.
Civil War child soldier Alexander H. Johnson was born in Massachusetts, and enlisted in the Union Army when he was fourteen years old. He joined the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, whose exploits were depicted in the 1989 movie Glory, as a drummer boy when that regiment was formed. Since the 54th Massachusetts was one of the Union’s first colored regiments, young Alexander was probably the first African American musician to enlist in the Civil War. He saw significant service during the conflict.
During the war, young Alexander was the with the 54th as it took part in the battles of Honey Hill, Boykins Mill, James Island, Olustee, and the siege of Charleston, South Carolina. He was present at the murderous assault on Fort Wagner and participated in Sherman’s march through the Carolinas. His drum was struck by enemy fire six times, and he was wounded in the leg while on active service. Alexander stayed with the 54th Massachusetts until war’s end and his discharge in 1865.
4. After the Civil War, Alexander H. Johnson Led His Town’s Drum Corps
After the Civil War, Alexander H. Johnson returned home with the drum he had carried at Fort Wagner. The former child soldier settled in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he taught drumming and founded that town’s first drum corps. Nicknamed “Major”, in reference to his being the drum major of the town’s drum corps, Alexander married, raised a family, and had 17 children. He was a lifelong active member in the Grand Army of the Republic, as well as a member of the Sons of Union Veterans.
In 1897, a memorial sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens was unveiled in Boston, to honor the 54th Massachusetts and its colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, who had died fighting at the regiment’s head during the assault on Fort Wagner. The memorial, erected in front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston, where it can be seen to this day, depicts Colonel Shaw and his regiment as they depart the city for the South. In that bronze bas relief, Alexander is depicted with his drum, tapping the beat at the head of a column of his comrades. He lived to the age of 83 and died in 1930.
3. Confederate Veterans Fought in Africa After the Civil War
Surreal as it might sound, the second half of the nineteenth century saw Confederates in the thick of combat in Africa. Ten years after they lost the Civil War, some Confederate veterans were back in action when they fought as mercenaries in what was then termed “The Dark Continent”. 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 a colonial empire in eastern Africa.
In 1868, Union Army veteran Thaddeus Mott met the ruler of Egypt, the Khedive Ismail, and regaled him with tales about American military advances during the recent fratricidal 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 he was appointed chief of staff of an army that was sent to fight Ethiopia.
2. The Confederate Leaders of the Egyptian-Ethiopian Wars
William Wing Loring (1818 – 1886) and fellow Confederates had fought in America’s Civil War 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 an Egyptian empire in Africa, that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to Lake Victoria, and from the Sahara to Somalia. In 1874, Ismail took the first steps to realize his dreams when he ordered an invasion of Ethiopia, Egypt’s chief rival in northeast Africa.
That kicked off the Egyptian-Ethiopian War (1874 – 1876), in which Egyptian columns set out on two occasions to conquer that landlocked kingdom. The first marched from Egyptian-controlled Sudan, and the second one began its invasion 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.
Command of the second Egyptian invasion of Ethiopia had initially been promised to William Wing Loring, but the assignment went instead to an Egyptian named Ratib Pasha, and Loring was appointed his chief of staff. In March 1876, an Egyptian army of 13,000 men, equipped with modern firearms and artillery, and an Ethiopian force of 50,000 armed mostly with swords and spears, drew near at 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.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading