15 Amazing Stories from the American Civil War

Brother against Brother

“Brother against Brother” was a slogan used during the Civil War to describe the tragically common occurrence of families being literally torn apart by the war. It was a well-documented phenomena that over the course of the war, numerous brothers, sons and fathers found themselves on opposite sides of battle. In a particularly notorious case, a young Edward Lea met his father in the most unfortunate of circumstances. Edward had joined the US Naval Academy just prior to the outbreak of the war. When it began, he served aboard the Harriet Lane, attacking Confederate shipping and maintaining the Union blockade.

Edward’s battles culminated in a trip to Galveston, Texas. The Union had seized the port, but the Confederates counterattacked and boarded his moored ship. In the course of the conflict, Edward was wounded in the abdomen and side. His father, Albert Lea, was serving as a Major of Artillery in the Confederate Army, and just happened to be in the unit that was overlooking the bluffs of the city. He witnessed the capture of the Harriet Lane, and rushed to the ship to find his son lying on the deck. Edward died in the arms of his weeping father.

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The Union General named after a Confederate President who got away with Murder

Any would-be historian of the Civil War period knows the name “Jefferson Davis.” He was the Confederacy’s counterpart to President Abraham Lincoln; his name is only less infamous than that of the great generals of Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson. How strange then, that a Union General serving during the Civil War would be famous for something other than having a suspiciously similar name to the leader of the Rebel movement.

Jefferson C. Davis was a temperamental but competent Union commander serving in the Western Theater of the Civil War. He got into trouble after squabbling with a superior, General William “Bull” Nelson. When he was slapped by the man in public, after asking for an apology for a previous insult, Davis shot and killed Nelson. What’s astonishing about this event is that Davis never faced any significant punishment (or even chastisement) for his actions. The Union was so desperate for competent officers at this point, that they were willing to overlook the murder of a superior officer for the sake of the war effort.

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John Sedgwick and the Most Ironic Phrase Ever

Union General John Sedgwick was an astoundingly brave and resilient man. He fought throughout the war, in bloody battles ranging from Antietam, to Chancellorsville, to Gettysburg. He was wounded three times at Antietam alone, and was well respected by both his men and the enemy. His soldiers gave him the affectionate title “Uncle John.” His most famous moment however, came at the very last moment of his life, at the battle of Spotsylvania Court house, on May 9th, 1864.

While setting up artillery placements, Confederate sharpshooters armed with long distance rifles started firing on his command from about a thousand yards away. This caused his officers and men to start flinching and ducking for cover. General Sedgwick became angry and reprimanded them, “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Moments later, he was shot under the left eye and fell down dead.

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The Insane Man and the Drunk who won the Civil War

William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant are now known as the heroes who won the war for the sake of the Union. Sherman’s March to the Sea is rightly regarded as the deathblow to the Confederacy, and Grant’s overall command of the Union forces would ultimately lead the war to a decisive finish. However, neither were particularly liked or trusted going into the conflict. Grant was known to be a heavy drinker, and his early career was plagued with issues of drunkenness on off days when he had little to do between fights. Sherman was even less liked.

In October 1861, Sherman, then the commander of Union forces in Kentucky, told U.S. Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, he needed 60,000 men to defend his territory and 200,000 to go on the offensive (for context: the Union army at this time across the entire country was less than 200,000 total). Cameron called Sherman’s request “insane” and removed the general from command.

In a letter to his brother, a devastated 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.” But in February 1862, Sherman was reassigned to Ulysses S. Grant, who saw not insanity but competence in the disgraced general. 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.”

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The ‘Other’ Insane General who Donated his Leg to a Museum

In 1869, Union General Daniel Sickles became the first person in American History to use the ‘temporary insanity’ defense after his wife had a public affair with Philip Barton Key, the son of the man who wrote the famous song: “the Star Spangled Banner.” After confronting his wife about the scandal, Sickles caught Key attempting to solicit her and shot and killed him. He was acquitted after using temporary insanity as a legal defense, claiming it to be a ‘crime of passion.’

Sickles’ oddity went beyond mere legal defense, though. His military career ended at Gettysburg, where he lost his his right leg to a Confederate cannonball. Sickles, however, saved the shattered bones from his leg, and donated them to the Army Medical Museum in a small coffin-shaped box, along with a visiting card marked, “With the compliments of Major General D.E.S.” It is said that for years he would visit his leg on the anniversary of its loss. The museum, now known as the National Museum of Health and Medicine, still displays this artifact.

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The Company who made both Union and Confederate Dollars

The American Banknote Company is an American Corporation known in the modern era as one of the largest producers of plastic transaction cards in the world. It is a stable and legitimate financial institution, and has been in existence since 1795. It was one of the first companies to begin printing the modern version of the US. Dollar, affectionately referred to as “greenbacks” at the time. They had on them the signature green that remains plastered on every US. Dollar today.

However, they were not about to let a Civil War get in the way of business. In 1861, the American Banknote Company was printing the first issue of the new United States of America “greenbacks.” At the very same time, they were also printing the first issue of Confederate States of America currency, the “greybacks.” The US government soon prohibited American Banknote from continuing this practice. To overcome this, they simply moved a portion of their operation to New Orleans and continued producing Confederate currency under the nom de guerre of the “Southern Banknote Company.”

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General Lee’s Chicken

Robert E. Lee was beloved by his countrymen and near-worshipped by his troops. And for good reason: he was a brilliant tactical commander, and a genuinely charismatic man who took pride in his men and their accomplishments. This story is an example of his personality in that respect.

In 1862, a Virginia farmer gave Robert E. Lee a flock of chickens. Lee let his men eat all of them except for one, who had survived by making her roost in a tree overhanging Lee’s tent. Lee took a liking to the chicken. He named her “Nellie” and raised the flap of his tent so she could come and go as she pleased. She began laying eggs nearly every day under the general’s cot, and became a well-known fixture of Lee’s camp.

On the eve of the Battle of the Wilderness, Lee invited a group of generals to dine with him, but his slave cook, William Mack Lee, couldn’t find sufficient food to make a meal. Although he “hated to lose her,” the cook said he “picked her good, and stuffed her with bread stuffing, mixed with butter.” He said it was the only time in four years that Lee scolded him. “It made Marse Robert awful sad to think of anything being killed,” he said, “whether ’twas one of his soldiers or his little black hen.”

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Stonewall Jackson the Hypochondriac

Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was an extremely colorful man, in a war filled with colorful men. While a brilliant military strategist and arguably the most competent Corps commander in the entire war, he was also an astoundingly eccentric man. The Confederate General believed he had health problems, caused by being “out of balance.” Even under fire, he would raise an arm so the blood might flow down into his body and re-establish equilibrium. (His hand was wounded when he did this during the First Battle of Bull Run).

He also refused to eat pepper, because it seemed to make his left leg weak. He sucked lemons, believing that they helped his “dyspepsia.” He was most comfortable standing upright so that all of his organs were “naturally aligned.” He suffered from poor eyesight, which he tried to treat by dunking his head into a basin of cold water, eyes open every morning. And yet he once told a captain that he felt “as safe in battle as in bed.”

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Angel’s Glow: The Bacterium that saved Civil War Soldiers

In the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, Soldiers began to report a particularly peculiar phenomenon: glow-in-the-dark wounds. More than 16,000 soldiers from both armies were wounded during the battle, and neither Union nor Confederate medical personnel were prepared for the carnage. Soldiers lay in the mud for two days, in the midst of a rainstorm.

Many of them noticed that their wounds glowed in the dark. In fact, the injured whose wounds glowed seemed to heal better than the others. In 2001, two Maryland teenagers solved the mystery (and won a top prize at an international science fair). The wounded became hypothermic, and their lowered body temperatures made ideal conditions for a bioluminescent bacterium called Photorhabdus luminescens, which inhibits pathogens to breed and thrive. They were saved by the Angel’s Glow.

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Colored Glasses, and other Medical Practices

Modern medicine was still in its extremely early stages at the onset of the Civil War, and indeed many modern innovations that we take for granted today were discovered over the course of the conflict. For example, surgeons never washed their hands after an operation, because all of the blood was assumed to be the same. Here are a list of a few of the odder medical facts about the war:

During the Civil War, glasses with colored lenses were used to treat disorders and illnesses. Yellow-trimmed glasses were used to treat syphilis, blue for insanity, and pink for depression. This is actually the origin of the term: “seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.”

Diarrhea was the leading cause of death among soldiers in the Civil War, and soldiers had a code of honor against shooting at someone who was pooping.

Soldiers were required to have at least four opposing front teeth, so that they could open a gunpowder pouch that was used to store bullet cartridges before firing. Some draftees had their front teeth removed to avoid service.

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Fused Bullets

A somewhat unique marvel of the Civil War was found across multiple battlefields from Kentucky to Pennsylvania: Fused bullets. The Union and the Confederacy produced and used different bullets during the war. When soldiers fired at each other, their bullets sometimes hit each other in mid-flight, fusing into a single piece. There are a number of such bullets on display in Civil War museums across the country. One such bullet sold for over 1000 dollars in September of 2012.

Legend has it that in a particularly heated part of the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, none of the soldiers were seriously hurt because most of their bullets collided with each other in mid-air. Myth Busters did an episode on this, and found it entirely plausible because of the soft lead used in the bullets.

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The Bunker Brothers

The traditional narrative of the Old South was that it was not an ‘immigrant nation’ quite like the North was. It was made up primarily of Whites and their Slaves. However, Chang and Eng Bunker were a unique and fascinating exception. Natives of modern-day Thailand, they were known as the “original Siamese twins,” due to being joined at the sternum. They became a popular attraction with traveling museum exhibitions.In 1839, they bought 110 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina and settled down. They married sisters, built a successful farm (with slave labor) and became naturalized citizens and devoted Confederates.

In 1865, Union General George Stoneman raided North Carolina and decided to draft some of the locals, regardless of sympathies; the names of men over 18 were put into a lottery wheel. Eng’s name was drawn, but he resisted the draft. Since Chang’s name was not drawn, there was little General Stoneman could do; the brothers were not only joined at the sternum, their livers were fused. Neither one served in the war, but their eldest sons both enlisted and fought for the Confederacy.

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The Foreigner who served in two Armies and one Navy

The famed Welsh explorer and journalist, Henry M. Stanley, served in the American Civil War. While that is in and of itself not a particularly notorious event, the crazier fact is that he served in two armies and three different services.

Stanley reluctantly joined the Confederate Army and served as a private. He was taken prisoner at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. As a prisoner, he was recruited as a “Galvanized Yankee” (the Union term for former Confederate soldiers who joined the Union Army), but was discharged less than three weeks later due to illness. After recovering, he served on several merchant ships until in 1864 he joined the Union Navy and served aboard the USS Minnesota, but he jumped ship in February 1865. There’s a good chance Stanley is the only man to serve in both armies and one navy in the American Civil War.

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Difficulties with Weapons

Civil War weaponry was notoriously spotty and unreliable. Soldier’s rifles were cumbersome, and slow to reload. What’s worse, the soldiers had to meticulously maintain the barrels and keep mud and dust clear of the firing chamber as much as possible. Misfires and injuries often occurred, and sometimes men in the heat of battle would forget that they had loaded a cartridge into the chamber, and thus doubled up by inserting a second one into the already-jammed weapon. Men would often not even know that their weapons weren’t firing and would repeat the process numerous times.

After the Battle of Gettysburg, the discarded rifles were collected and sent to Washington to be inspected and reissued. Of the 37,574 rifles recovered, approximately 24,000 were still loaded; 6,000 had one round in the barrel; 12,000 had two rounds in the barrel; 6,000 had three to ten rounds in the barrel. One rifle, the most remarkable of all, had been stuffed to the top with 23 rounds in the barrel.

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Robert E. Lee and the Cementary Home

At the start of the war, Robert. E. Lee owned an 1,100-acre Virginia estate just outside of Washington D.C. known as Arlington Estate. As war descended on Virginia, Lee and his wife Mary fled Arlington, intending to return to their beloved home once the war was over. He would never do so. In 1863, the U.S. government confiscated it for nonpayment of $92.07 in taxes.

Abraham Lincoln gave permission for a cemetery to be built on the property, including a burial vault on the estate’s former rose garden. The idea was that, should Lee ever return, he would have to look at the graves and see the carnage that he had wrought. After the war, the Lees quietly looked into reclaiming Arlington, but took no action to reclaim it before they died. In 1877, their oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, sued the federal government for confiscating Arlington illegally; the Supreme Court agreed and gave it back to him. But what could the Lee family do with an estate littered with corpses? George Lee sold it back to the government for $150,000.

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