The Best of RSM: 10 Odd Facts About the Civil War

“You lost. Slavery’s bad. But you guys got NASCAR … and the Allman Brothers.”

This quote from Ben Stiller’s character to some “Civil War guys” in the family romp Night at the Museum typifies what most people in the North think of the South … and what most everyone thinks about the Civil War.

Never content to let you rest on your …ahem … laurels, we’ve decided to dispel some common misconceptions about the War and give you some info you may have never heard. At best, you’ll leave this post with a better appreciation for the complex nature of American history. At worst, you’ll be able to win a few bar bets.

Compiled from our three posts earlier this week, here’s the entire list: (Be sure to hydrate; it’s a long one.)

No soldiers died in the Battle of Fort Sumter

1. The first death in the Civil War was an accident.

After nearly three days of bombardment by Southern forces, Major Robert Anderson of the Union army prepared to surrender Fort Sumter. As the color guard lowered the American flag to a planned 100-gun salute, a cannon prematurely fired, causing an explosion and killing Pvt. Daniel Hough of the 1st U.S. Artillery. Another soldier, Private Edward Gallway, died of his injuries a few days later.

Four years later to the day, on April 14, 1865, Anderson, now a major general, returned to Sumter and raised the flag once again.

The Baltimore Riot of 1861

2. The first non-accidental deaths in the War were not in combat.

Five days after the death of Hough, Luther Crawford Ladd, a 17-year-old volunteer from New Hampshire was killed in Baltimore, not by Confederate forces, but by a mob of locals. A letter from Mayor George M. Brown of Baltimore to Governor Andrews of Massachusetts explained it this way:

“No one deplores the sad events of yesterday in this city more deeply than myself; but they were inevitable. Our people viewed the passage of armed troops to another State through the streets as an invasion of our soil, and could not be restrained.”

Ladd was a member of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment en route to D.C., responding to Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to serve for 90 days to end the insurrection of the South. While changing trains in the pro-secession city, the soldiers were attacked by civilians with bricks, boards and pistols. A few soldiers fired into the crowd and all hell broke loose. In the end, four soldiers and twelve civilians lost their lives in what is alternately known as the Battle of Baltimore and the Baltimore Riot of 1861.

3. The first true combat death was all because of a cow.

It was May 22, 1861. In areas like Western Virginia (what would become the state of West Virginia) where loyalties were split between North and South, the collective temper was tempestuous at best. It was under such conditions that Thornsbury Bailey Brown, a member of a Virginia militia loyal to the Union, encountered Daniel W.S. Knight, a member of a Virginia militia loyal to the Confederacy, upon the Fetterman Bridge.

Brown and a fellow Union soldier were returning to their company in nearby Grafton following either a recruitment mission or a spy mission, depending upon which account you believe. Knight and two other fellows were patrolling the bridge on behalf of their company and refused to grant Brown passage. Brown was incensed – not because Knight was a Confederate, but because the two had a history.

Sometime before the war, Brown had reported Knight to the local sheriff for stealing a cow. Now, with the country on the brink of all-out war, Brown refused to accept the authority of a known troublemaker like Knight and opened fire, striking Knight on the ear. Knight, for his part, had vowed revenge for his arrest at the hands of Brown. He got it. Reeling, but returning fire, Knight struck Brown in the heart with buckshot, killing him on the spot … all because of a cow.

4. The War was largely brought about by one man’s Oedipal complex.

For more on that story, read our full feature, “The Family That Broke A Nation?”

READER ADVISORY: Before we move on to the next three, we should warn readers that there are descriptions and terms in this list that some may find offensive. These are historical facts that we have double- and triple-checked for authenticity and are only included here to stress the heated political and cultural climate of the times.

5. Northerners were racists, too.

The lack of shocked gasps emanating from your homes and offices tells me you aren’t surprised by this. However, history has tended to paint the Late Unpleasantness with broad strokes: Southerners were all racist slave-owners who wanted to destroy the nation. Northerners were bold abolitionists who fought to make men free. Yeah, not so much.

In fact, while some in the North embraced abolition as moral imperative, Northern factory workers viewed slaves much the way their modern counterparts see low-wage foreign workers today: as unfair competition for their jobs. And freed slaves presented an even bigger threat in their minds.

When, in 1863, the federal government created a broader draft law, requiring all men between 20 and 35 and all unmarried men between 35 and 45 be entered into a draft lottery, anti-war sentiment in the North grew to a fever pitch. Making matters worse, free blacks in the North, who were not considered citizens, were exempt from service. (If anyone could pay $300, they would be exempted from the draft – unlikely among the working class.)

Newspapers in New York City, long a bastion of abolitionism, began to decry the new law, spreading fear of an invasion of black labor resulting from the earlier Emancipation Proclamation, referring to the conflict as a “nigger war” and claiming that slaves were more valuable than white workers, as the price on their heads was $1,000, as opposed to the $300 exemption. Rhetoric fueled fear, and fear fueled hate. Hate exploded into rioting on July 13, 1863 and lasted for five days in the city.

Rioters attacked random black victims on the street before thousands of them descended upon an orphanage for black children, looting and ransacking the place before burning it to the ground. Those perceived as supportive of blacks, white women in interracial marriages and white businesses that catered to black or interracial clientele were also targeted. None fared worse than black workers. Eleven were lynched in the city streets, a hundred or more killed, their bodies often sexually mutilated. Similar riots took place in other Northern cities.

Though the North would, of course, win the war, the New York Draft Riots proved that America had much more than a slavery problem. It had a racism problem.

6. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t do what you think it did.

Ask any average American what the Emancipation Proclamation did, and the answer you’ll likely receive is, “free the slaves.” It didn’t, not really. That’s not to say the it didn’t have a profound effect.

The Emancipation Proclamation actually declared that “all persons held as slaves” in those states still fighting on behalf of the Confederacy “are, and henceforward shall be free.” It didn’t apply to slave states loyal to the Union – the so-called border states. It didn’t even apply to areas like Tennessee and certain parishes in Louisiana (including New Orleans) where the Union had regained military control by that point in the war. Further exemptions were extended to the counties that would soon become West Virginia. It only declared free slaves in states where the Union government held no sway. In practice, it did very little.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln announced the proclamation in September of 1862, but it would not take effect until January 1, 1863. In theory, any Confederate state that returned to the Union prior to the effective date would have been exempted as well.

None of this meant that the Emancipation Proclamation was a toothless edict. Where it held the most sway was in the realm of ideas. The proclamation inextricably linked the war to the cause of freeing slaves – a connection that had previously only been tangential to the more complex political questions of the nature of our Constitution and federal government.

Perhaps more importantly, it gave slaves who heard of it something they had heretofore never possessed: hope. Slaves who were freed by advancing Union armies or who managed to escape could then fight on behalf of their emancipators. More than 200,000 did so by war’s end. But there was still work to be done in the cause of freedom, because…

7. The end of the War did not mean the end of slavery.

For all the positive gains the Emancipation Proclamation made in the cause of human liberty, it did not, in fact, end slavery in the United States. Exemptions had initially left nearly 300,000 slaves in bondage in Union-controlled states and counties. The end of slavery wouldn’t come until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution on December 6, 1865.

At the time of its ratification, slavery still existed in Delaware and Kentucky. In fact, those two states wouldn’t ratify the amendment until 1901 and 1976, respectively. West Virginia, too, still had legalized slavery. The amendment took effect on December 18, 1865, finally making slavery illegal everywhere in the United States. And setting the stage for the grand failure that was Reconstruction … but that’s another story.

8. Robert E. Lee’s papers of surrender were not penned by a white man.

They were known officially as General Orders No. 9. The hand that penned them was that of a trained attorney, but one who could never sit before the bar, because he was not a U.S. citizen. Despite that, he rose to the level of lieutenant colonel under the command of his old friend, General Ulysses S. Grant, and earned a brevet as brigadier general following the War.

In Grant’s staff, he was known for his fine handwriting and law knowledge. Those skills were put to task as he not only helped draft Lee’s letters of surrender, but personally penned the formal copies.

Lee mistook him for a black man, but apologized upon realizing his error, saying,

“I am glad to see one real American here.”

The man was Ely Parker, born Hasanoanda, a sachem (or high chief) of the Seneca nation. Parker replied to Lee, suggesting a tone of reconciliation,

“We are all Americans, sir.”

Following the war, Parker finished his time in the military and was later appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs under Grant’s presidency, becoming the first Native American to hold the position.

9. The South was not united in favor of secession.

Of the Confederate states, only one (Virginia) ever put their secession to a popular referendum. The others instead elected delegates to secession conventions. Therefore, it’s difficult to gauge just how many Southern voters favored disunion. Factor in that women had no legal right to vote and the number becomes even more difficult to nail down.

One clever Civil War buff has made a noble attempt at doing so. His results indicate that only 49% of Southern voters approved of secession. If one considers Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri as Southern states, the number drops even lower. It should be noted that those who did oppose secession largely did so conditionally – so long as states’ rights were honored.

If the majority opposed secession, how then did the South end up leaving the Union? For one, the choice was often not between secessionist and unionist delegates, but rather between immediate secessionists and those who represented more of a wait-and-see attitude.

The answer also lies partially in the same tactics white Southerners would use to deny black citizens their voting rights a century later: intimidation. One account from a Methodist preacher in Mississippi illuminates the issue:

“Approaching the polls, I asked for a Union ticket, and was informed that none had been printed, and that it would be advisable to vote the secession ticket. I thought otherwise, and going to a desk, wrote out a Union ticket, and voted it amidst the frowns and suppressed murmurs of the judges and by-standers, and, as the result proved, I had the honour of depositing the only vote in favour of the Union which was polled in that precinct.”

10. Hundreds of women, disguised as men, fought in the War.

Rarely mentioned in popular history, the phenomenon of women assuming male identities to fight for either North or South is as curious a fact of the Civil War as exists. Recent estimates put the number of women serving in disguise in the Confederacy as high as 250. Other estimates go even higher. The number itself is difficult to pinpoint, because unless they were injured in battle (and discovered as a result of treatment) or revealed their secret after the war, most went undetected.

In their 1867 tome Women’s Work in the Civil War, L.P. Brockett and Mary Vaughan referred to women who…

“… from whatever cause … donned the male attire and concealed their sex … did not seek to be known as women, but preferred to pass for men.”

One woman who penned her own tales of Civil War adventure was Loreta Janeta Velazquez, a Cuban-born woman who took the name of Harry T. Buford at the outset of the war. Whether the tales in her book – with the rather long-winded title of The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T Buford, Confederate States Army(whew!) – are true is debatable. What is unquestioned is their status as high entertainment.

Rather than recount her exploits in full, we’ll allow the subtitle of her book to speak for itself:

In Which Is Given Full Descriptions of the Numerous Battles in which She Participated as a Confederate Officer; of Her Perilous Performances as a Spy, as a Bearer of Despatches, as a Secret-Service Agent, and as a Blockade-Runner; of Her Adventures Behind the Scenes at Washington, including the Bond Swindle; of her Career as a Bounty and Substitute Broker in New York; of Her Travels in Europe and South America; Her Mining Adventures on the Pacific Slope; Her Residence among the Mormons; Her Love Affairs, Courtships, Marriages, &c., &c.

Velazquez’s stated goal was to fulfill a destiny as a modern-day Joan of Arc. Between being twice discovered by Confederate troops, recruiting her own company of Arkansas men, fighting alongside her unaware fiance, denying charges of being a Northern spy, becoming a spy for the Confederacy and fighting in the battles of Bull Run, Fort Donelson and Shiloh, we’d say she managed to to come pretty close … save that whole burning at the stake thing.

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