The American Civil War: 7 Facts And Fictions

The American Civil War: 7 Facts And Fictions

The power of stories was instrumental to life during and after the Civil War, with rumour, superstition and tale-telling pervading the American mindset. Such stories offered relief to harsh realities, hope in the darkest moments, and alternatives to ugly truths. But what are the facts behind some of these narratives?

The Northern Lights over Fredericksburg

The 1862 battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia saw Northern (Union) forces led by Ambrose Burnside attack the Southern (Confederate) troops entrenched in the city. The battle was a disaster for the Union and its morale; although Northern forces vastly outnumbering the Confederates, they were undone by their own inept tactics and leadership.

Almost in reply to the carnage of Fredericksburg, some soldiers’ accounts claim the Northern lights appeared before the morning of the Union retreat. Having rebuffed a disastrous Union assault, which led to nearly 13,000 casualties, the Confederate soldiers saw it as a message from heaven celebrating their great victory. Contrastingly, the Union soldiers assumed it was a sign intended for them that signalled a turning point in the battle. Heavily referenced in both fiction and non-fiction, the extraordinary event and the godly overtones pinned upon it by the soldiers lent the defeat a strangely biblical glaze. This sentiment was echoed by President Lincoln who, after the defeat, said, “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it”.

The American Civil War: 7 Facts And Fictions

Union Army artillery at the battle of Fredericksburg, 1862. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

A nation of addicts

Medical care is one of the biggest debates surrounding the Civil War: on one hand there are accounts of unnecessary butchery on the surgical bed, yet others stress that vast medical advances were made during the fours years of fighting. It is true that there are stomach-churning reports of vastly under qualified surgeons amputating too much of a limb – so much so that some soldiers would rather face the battlefield than the hospital. However, these reports overshadow the vast medical achievements made during the era.

One pervading myth is that doctors and nurses overprescribed newly available anaesthesia, causing the reported rise in narcotic addiction at the end of the 19th century. While the Union alone is estimated to have administered 10 million opium pills and nearly three million ounces of opium powder, the claim that this was the cause of such an epidemic is more fiction than fact. Some veterans no doubt developed an addiction but these are few in number – indeed, those who were addicts were denied their pension. Instead, the surge in drug use can be blamed on its wider availability, with opium importation rapidly increasing in the 1880s and 1890s.

The American Civil War: 7 Facts And Fictions

A Union Army hospital tent on the battlefield at Gettysburg, July 1863. An injured man lies on a table while the surgeon stands nearby with a knife. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

The horrors of Fort Pillow

The details of the Confederate attack on the Union garrison at Fort Pillow on 12 April 1864 were disputed until relatively recently. This is due to the massacre that followed, and the relief to be had in supposing it a fiction. Yet the events that took place in Tennessee are indeed fact.

Having overwhelmed the Union soldiers holed up there, Confederate troops led by Nathan Bedford Forrest refused to accept the surrender of black Union soldiers and their white officers. This was in part down to the Confederacy’s failure to see black soldiers as legitimate prisoners of war. Confederate Congress even declared that white officers in charge of black soldiers were inciting “servile insurrection” and could, if captured, “be put to death or punished”. Despite surrendering, an unknown number of white and black Union soldiers were shot rather than taken prisoner.

Most Southerners denied the massacre while the North promised an eye-for-an-eye retribution. General Sherman of the Union Army decreed: “There will never be peace in Tennessee until Forrest is dead”.

The American Civil War: 7 Facts And Fictions

An illustration depicting the Confederate attack on the Union garrison at Fort Pillow on 12 April 1864. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

The shy and retiring woman

A persisting fiction surrounding the American Civil War (and just about every war since) is that it was a man’s game and women merely sat at home waiting for their loved ones to return. This is only true in the sense that it was the male view of women in the 1860s. The truth couldn’t be more different.

Having rarely trusted women with much responsibility before, many men were anxious at the prospect of their wives taking charge in their absence. Yet women seized the opportunity, often taking on complete control of farms and households. One veteran even returned to find his farm had increased in value thanks to his wife’s management.

Female participation in the war didn’t stop there though – women also served as nurses and even spies, often procuring information from unsuspecting men. Perhaps most staggeringly, some women even dressed as men and took to the battlefield under assumed names.

The war began and ended in the homes of Wilmer McLean

So much of the Civil War is personal: aside from the military accounts and largely propaganda-free journalism of the time, a good deal of information comes from diaries and is therefore varnished with personal experience and sentimentalism. This can often lead to bold fictions, but the story of Wilmer McLean, one almost too coincidental to be believed, is fact.

In 1861, in what was one of the earliest engagements of the war, McLean’s house near Manassas, Virginia, was a Confederate headquarters that suffered a Union shell crashing through the dining room, causing him to move to a remote village more than a hundred miles away. Three-and-a-half years later Robert E Lee and his Confederate Army were surrounded, leading the general to finally, and reluctantly, discuss terms of surrender with his opposite number, Ulysses S Grant. A suitable venue in the nearby village of Appomattox Courthouse was sought for the discussion to take place and the home of one Wilmer McLean was settled upon.

McLean’s new house and, more specifically, new living room, therefore saw Lee issue the surrender of the Confederate Army to Grant and end the Civil War.

The American Civil War: 7 Facts And Fictions

The house of Wilmer McLean, where Lee issued the surrender of the Confederate Army to Grant and therefore ended the Civil War. Here, McLean and his family are seen sitting on the porch. (Photo by Timothy H O’Sullivan/US Library of Congress, via Getty Images)

Something in the woods

While researching my novel I stumbled across a fable about a strange female giant named Dzoonokwa. She would sometimes be portrayed as helpful and kindly, offering gifts to people who crossed her path in the woods. Yet the majority of fictions surrounding her make her out to be a ghastly monster – her face depicted in a grotesque purse of the lips with wild, knotted hair. Even darker, it was said she killed children and encouraged war.

While the tale is not explicitly linked to the Civil War, America was a melting pot of superstition in the 19th century with German, Irish, African and Native American folklores all brought together and interweaving. Superstition and folklore rose to the surface of many soldiers’ minds as life began to hang ever more precariously in the balance.

A war for the young

Fact and fiction blends nowhere more so in war than in propaganda. With the minimum age of enlistment for both the Union and Confederacy set at 18, stories were told about children who lied about their age to take up the fight. It is a fact that, such was the call to arms, that children under 18 tried to join up, sometimes succeeding when abetted by the blind eye of an officer.

Fictions were soon spun though, puffing out the details to make inspiring war stories. One such story is that of John Clem: supposedly aged nine when he tried to enlist, Clem went on to become a drummer boy for the Union and is said to have shot a Confederate colonel dead.

The American Civil War: 7 Facts And Fictions

John Clem, who served as a drummer boy in the Union Army in the American Civil War, c1864. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

How much of Clem’s extraordinary Civil War experience is true is inseparable from the fictions of the time, but the fact remains that the war greatly affected the young, both at home and on the battlefield.

David Sanger’s debut novel All their Minds in Tandem is published by Quercus Books

This article was first published on History Extra in April 2016