Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Seven Civil War Stories You Didn't Learn in High School"

Seeing the headline of this Wall Street Journal article piqued my interest. I was hoping to find some new tidbit, some edgy new interpretation, or at least some really intriguing twists on commonly-known stories. Instead, the Seven Civil War Stories presented in the Journal are rather pedestrian. Go to the article itself to see a couple paragraphs of detail on each of these entries, but here's the actual list:
1. Lincoln's First Solution to Slavery Was a Fiasco
2. Hungry Ladies Effectively Mugged Jefferson Davis
3. The
Union Used Hot Air Balloons and Submarines
4. "
Dixie" Was Only a Northern Song
5. Paul Revere Was at
6. Mark Twain Fired One Shot And Left
7. The Armies Weren't All-Male
I went to high school in Iowa, and I have to confess, I can't recall studying the Civil War at all. I'm sure we must have somewhere along the line, but most of what I learned about that era came from my own reading of books lying around the house. Specifically, some American Heritage volume or another, various Bruce Catton books, and probably something by Henry Steele Commager. I’m virtually certain, however, that we read Mark Twain’s, “A Private History of a Campaign that Failed” in the classroom [a few years ago I posted a blog entry on that brilliant piece here, with a link to one online version of the story].
High school history covers a lot of ground in short order, but trivia has it's place. If my teachers had employed a few more attention-grabbers, I might actually have some memory of those classes. These days, anyone who reads a good single-volume history like McPherson’s, Battle Cry of Freedom, will come across pretty much everything on the list above: ill-fated colonization efforts, the bread riots, Lowe’s balloons and early submarines, the roots of Dixie, or that some females passed themselves off as males and melded into the ranks. These aren’t secrets, just things that require more reading.
I’d wager that most of the people reading this blog could come up with a more interesting list of Seven Stories about the Civil War off the top of their heads. WSJ, how about these stories:
1. The fledgling Confederacy engaged in a number of overtly hostile acts of war against the United States (seizing shipyards, arsenals, and installations, along with some U.S. soldiers) long before Lincoln sent ships to re-supply the garrison at Fort Sumter, leading to the "first shot" of the Civil War.
2. The extent of the damage and depredations wrought by Sherman’s bummers on the March to the Sea was greatly exaggerated in post-war tradition. During the same period, Confederate authorities in Richmond received angry complaints from citizens of Georgia over depredations by Confederate cavalry operating in the same areas.
3. On the day after Christmas, 1862, U.S. authorities engaged in the largest mass-execution in the nation’s history when 38 Sioux Indians were hanged (this after President Lincoln commuted the sentences of over 250 others). Texans may hold the record, however. In October of that year, 40 suspected Unionists were hanged, and two were shot. See blog entry on an ugly 10-week stretch of 1862 here.
4. The Confederate Constitution was nearly a verbatim copy of the U.S. Constitution, though it restricted the president to a single, six-year term, and gave him a line item veto. The C.S. Constitution also prohibited states from interfering with slavery even within their own sovereign borders. Curiously, abolition was an exception to state rights.
5. When in 1866, momentum was gathering in Washington to indict former Confederate General George Pickett for war crimes (the mass execution of deserters in North Carolina who had joined Union ranks), Pickett appealed to Ulysses S. Grant. Grant personally interceded with President Johnson on Pickett’s behalf, forestalling any charges or an arrest.
6. For the Five Civilized Tribes in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) – the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole – divided loyalties led to a war-within-a-war pitting mainly mixed-blood, slave-owning factions against mainly full-blooded tribal members, devastating the nations for generations.
7. The deadliest maritime disaster in American history remains largely unknown and obscure. Something over 1,700 recently-released Union prisoners of war, en route to their homes on the steamship Sultana, died in the fiery explosion of that ship’s stressed boilers, or drowned in the Mississippi near Memphis, Tennessee in the middle of the night.
What Seven Stories come to mind for you?


Eric Johnson said...

Hi David,
I wrote the article you're referring to here, originally for mental_floss (http://mentalfloss.com). Sorry to hear the trivia didn't go as in-depth as you were hoping, but to be honest, I wasn't aiming to blow any minds with this piece. I'm just a history nerd with a particular attachment to the Civil War.

However, I haven't put the idea of doing a "Seven More Civil War Stories..." article out of my mind. If I do, I'll certainly come back to this blog post and check out some of the stories you're suggesting. Thanks!

dw said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for dropping by and leaving a note, and congratulations on getting your article picked up by the WSJ. In truth, I do understand that the piece was not directed to life-long students of the Civil War, but to a more casual group of history buffs.

It gave me the idea to come up with seven items that even people who consider themselves well-read on the era might not be conscious of. All in good fun. We're all history nerds, ultimately.

I hope you continue this theme with some follow-up articles. It's a great idea.


Jubilo Blog said...

I think that the majority (90%+) of Americans are so lacking in their knowledge of history, that the 7 tidbits offered by the WSJ and you are fresh and interesting insights.

Question: can you provide book or, better yet, Web references for the items on your list?

Rebecca said...

As a history buff also, I've read this article and thought it was pretty interesting. Some of the interesting stories/trivia I'd include on a list would be:

1. West Virginia did not exist as a state until the Civil War. The people did not want to secede from the Union with the rest of Virginia.

2. Union General Ambrose Burnside's whiskers contributed a new word that was an anagram of his name (sideburns).

3. The Bureau of Internal Revenue was created during the Civil War.

4. The Civil War transformed nursing into a genuine profession and led to the creation of special ambulance corp to evacuate the wounded from the field.

All of these things I learned from Battle Cry of Freedom, the best book I've read on the Civil War. Never learned these things in high school, that's for sure.

dw said...

Rebecca -- thanks for including your own list. Those are good ones. "Battle Cry" is chock full of stuff, given the broad scope of the book.

Alan -- there are lots of books to cite for the items I listed. Let me see if I can put together a list of quick-reference websites, as you requested. A lot can be found through simple Google searches, of course, such as material on the Sultana disaster, or word-for-word comparisons between the U.S. and Confederate constitutions.


Anonymous said...

Everybody knows about the violation of the Monroe Doctrine in Mexico. But there was another violation of the Doctrine that took place during the Civil War, and which the US was forced to ignore.

It happened when a European power annexed a small Latin American state. The annexation would later be reversed, in 1865, just as the Civil War was winding down, and the small state restored to full independence (which it still enjoys today).

Doug M.