Ten Things They Never Taught You in School About the Civil War

By Dennis Gaffney

So much about the war has been distorted by cliché or fogged over by time. Here are 10 large observations and small details about the conflict you might not have learned, which will provide you with a deeper understanding of America’s heroic tragedy.

  1. One-third of the soldiers who fought for the Union Army were immigrants and nearly one in ten was African-American— The Union Army was a multicultural force, even a multinational one. We hear mostly about the Irish (7.5 percent of the army), who fought in groups such as the St. Patrick Brigade, but the army included even more Germans (10 percent of the Union’s ranks), who marched off in regiments such as the Steuben Volunteers. Other immigrant soldiers included French, Italian, Poles, English, and Scottish. One in four regiments in the Union army contained a majority of foreigners. Blacks were permitted to join the Union army in 1863, and some scholars believe this infusion of soldiers may have turned the war.
  2. Ulysses S. Grant wasn’t the bloodiest general of the war; General Robert E. Lee was—Mary Lincoln called Grant a “butcher” for the horrific losses suffered by his army during the Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864, in which Grant’s army suffered twice the number of casualties as Lee’s army. But if casualties are counted proportionally, Lee’s army suffered the most throughout the war. “Lee is the bloodiest general in United States history if you’re gauging . . . what percentage of his soldiers get shot,” notes Civil War historian Gary Gallagher.[1] This is because Lee relished the attack, a trait that won him key battles such as Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, but cost him heavy casualties—think Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg—and eventually decimated the Army of Northern Virginia.
  3. Black Union soldiers refused their salaries for 18 months to protest being paid lower wages than white soldiers—When black soldiers began signing up with the Union Army in early 1863, they were paid $10 a month. White soldiers were paid at least $13—officers more. Blacks were further insulted when only they were charged a $3 monthly fee for clothing, lowering their pay to $7. That meant that the highest paid black soldier was paid about half the lowest-paid white one. As a protest, the black regiments refused to take the lesser pay. On September 30, 1863, two months after the famous Fort Wagner “Glory” assault by the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, the U.S. paymaster suggested they accept the $7 under protest. They refused. Massachusetts Governor John Andrew succeeded in getting his state to pay the black soldiers the pay differential, but once again, black soldiers refused to take the money, unwilling, as one abolitionist writer said, “that the Federal Government should throw mud upon them, even though Massachusetts stands ready to wipe it off.” Finally, pressure from abolitionist congressmen coupled with the courage black soldiers had shown in combat persuaded Congress to rectify the pay structure. In September 1864, black soldiers finally received equal pay that was retroactive to their enlistment date. Respected at last, black soldiers finally had money to send home.
  4. Harriett Tubman led a raid to free slaves—during the Civil War—Tubman, the escaped slave who led others to freedom on the Underground Railroad before the war, arrived at the Union camp at Port Royal, South Carolina in the spring of 1862 to support the Union cause. She began teaching freed slave women skills that could earn them wages with the Union Army. But soon she was gathering intelligence about the countryside from the freed slaves and taking river reconnaissance trips. On June 1, 1863, Tubman and Union Colonel James Montgomery steamed into the interior with three hundred black Union soldiers. The troops swept through nearby plantations, burning homes and barns. Union gunboats sounded their whistles. Slave men, women, and children came streaming from the countryside and Tubman was reminded of “the children of Israel, coming out of Egypt.” Slaves clung to the boats for fear they’d be left behind. Montgomery called on Tubman to “speak a word of consolation to your people” to prevent the boats from being swamped. “I looked at them about two minutes,” Tubman remembered later, “and then I sung to them.” People began crying “Glory!” and let go of the boats, which then shuttled 727 slaves to freedom. In the first raid led by a woman in the Civil War, Tubman had freed ten times the number of slaves she had freed in ten years on the Underground Railroad.
  5. Lincoln was shot at—and nearly killed—before he was assassinated—At 11 pm one August evening in 1863, after an exhausting day at the White House, Lincoln rode alone by horse to the Soldiers’ Home, the family’s summer residence. A private at the gate heard a gunshot, and moments later, the horse galloped into the compound, Lincoln holding on, bareheaded. Lincoln explained that a gunshot had gone off  “at the foot of the hill,” which sent the horse galloping so fast it jerked his hat off. Two soldiers went out and found Lincoln’s hat—with a bullet hole right through it. Lincoln asked the guards to keep the incident quiet— he didn’t want to worry Mary.
  6. Before William Tecumseh Sherman became a great Union general he was demoted for apparent insanity—In October 1861, William Tecumseh Sherman, commander of Union forces in Kentucky, told US Secretary of War Simon Cameron he needed 60,000 men to defend his territory and 200,000 to go on the offensive. Cameron called Sherman’s request for 200,000 men “insane.” Soon, the New York Tribune was calling Sherman “crazy, insane, and mad” and The New York Times reported that the general’s “disorders”—the high-strung general had worked himself into exhaustion over the war—had “removed him, perhaps permanently from his command.” In a letter to his brother John, Sherman wrote, “I do think I Should have committed suicide were it not for my children. I do not think that I can again be trusted with command.” In February of 1862, Sherman was reassigned to Paducah, Kentucky, under Grant, who saw not insanity in Sherman, but competence. Later in the war, when a civilian badmouthed Grant, Sherman defended his friend, saying, “General Grant is a great general. He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always.”
  7. Before the Civil War and during it, Abraham Lincoln’s pushed to send freed slaves abroad—The policy, called colonization, had been supported by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay—a hero of Lincoln’s—and even Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose hero emigrates from the United States in Uncle Tom’s Cabin to assert his “African nationality.”[2] In August 1862, Lincoln brought five black ministers to the White House and told them that slavery and the war had proved that it would be “better for us both, therefore, to be separated.” He wanted to send freed blacks to Central America. Lincoln even called for a Constitutional amendment authorizing Congress to pay for colonization. But abolitionists were appalled by the idea. Frederick Douglass called Lincoln “an itinerant Colonization lecturer, showing all his inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy.” The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison found it pathetic that the president of a country that “proudly boasts of being the refuge of the oppressed of all nations” should consider sending “the entire colored population . . . to a distant shore.” Lincoln could never gather support for the policy and after he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he never mentioned it again.
  8. More men died in the Civil War than any other American war—and two-thirds of them died from disease—Approximately 625,000 men died in the Civil War, more Americans than in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. If the names of the dead in the Civil War were laid out like the Vietnam Memorial, it would stretch over ten times the current wall’s length. Two percent of the population died, the equivalent of 6 million men today. Rifles were by far the deadliest weapon of the war. But deadlier still was disease. In 1861, as armies massed, men once protected from contagion by their isolation marched shoulder to shoulder and slept side by side in unventilated tents. Camps became breeding grounds for childhood diseases such as mumps, chicken pox, and measles. One million Union soldiers contracted malaria. Epidemics were common. “One of the wonders of these times was the army cough . . .” one Union soldier recounted later. “[It] would break out . . . when the men awoke, and . . . when one hundred thousand men began to stir at reveille, the sound of their coughing would drown that of the beating drums.”
  9. Privates weren’t cannon fodder in the Civil War—generals were: Robert E. Lee’s impulse to personally lead a counterattack during the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864 (his troops held him back) would not have surprised his men if he were a bit lower in rank. That’s because many top officers, including generals, literally led their troops into battle, a rare occurrence in modern wars. For this reason, generals were fifty percent more likely to die in combat than privates. At the Battle of Antietam alone, three generals were killed and six wounded—on each side.[3] At the Battle of the Wilderness, Confederate General James Longstreet took a bullet to his shoulder and throat, but Longstreet would be one of the lucky generals. He returned to command and would outlive many generals and privates, dying in 1904, just short of his 83rd birthday.
  10. Robert E. Lee probably did more than any other American to bring a peaceful conclusion to the war—Days after Richmond fell, President Jefferson Davis said the Confederacy had “entered a new phase of a struggle. . . . Relieved from the necessity of guarding cities . . . with our army free to move from point to point and strike in detail the detachments and garrisons of the enemy. . . .” Davis was calling for a guerilla war, as did Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, Robert E. Lee’s chief of artillery, who urged Lee to resist the Union Army as scattered bands of soldiers, a development feared by Lincoln and his generals. Such a war might have continued for months or years and an exhausted Union might have accepted the Confederacy, slavery and all. But Lee rejected that path. “We must consider its effect on the country as a whole,” he told Alexander. “Already it is demoralized by the four years of war. . . . [T]he men would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would . . . overrun many sections they may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.” Years later, Alexander said: “I had not a single word to say in reply. He had answered my suggestion from a plane so far above it that I was ashamed of having made it.”


[1] Transcript of Robert E. Lee

[2] from Foner essay, in Our Lincoln, pg. 138

[3] http://www.nps.gov/anti/historyculture/6generals.htm