Skip to main content

She was a soldier -- and other strange Civil War stories

By John Blake, CNN
  • The Civil War was filled with strange characters and eerie encounters
  • Not all the soldiers were men
  • The South tried to make slaves soldiers
  • An Alabama county seceded from the secessionists

Perhaps you've read solemn stories about the Civil War's 150th anniversary, its heroic figures, and its hallowed place in American history.

This isn't that kind of story.

For all its bloodshed, the Civil War was also full of blundering leaders, strange tales and eerie encounters.

Consider the ineptness of Union Gen. George B. McClellan. McClellan was dashing, a superb organizer of troops, and was voted most likely to succeed by his West Point classmates. President Lincoln picked him to command the Army of the Potomac.

McClellan had one big problem, though. He didn't like to fight, said Thomas R. Flagel, author of "The History Buff's Guide To The Civil War."

McClellan "lost more ground, created more problems, squandered more time and achieved fewer gains with more men'' than virtually any commanding officer in the war, Flagel said.

McClellan was a narcissist who blamed his subordinates when things went wrong. He loved to inspect fawning troops, but he disappeared when the shooting started at battles such as Malvern Hill.

"McClellan was safely aboard a gunboat... far away from the action, when his troops threw back [Confederate Gen.] Robert E. Lee at the battle," Flagel wrote. "Clueless that his army had just scored a major victory, McClellan somehow assumed the opposite was true, and ordered his men to retreat."

The Civil War was full of smaller-than-life leaders like McClellan and all sorts of oddities, Flagel said.

"We are a strange, hypocritical and paradoxical people, and our paradoxes and strangeness increase in time of war," he said.

"War does things to people's brains and psyches."

The Alabama County that seceded from the South

Lee said that they [slaves] would make good soldiers because they're used to responding to discipline.
--Emory M. Thomas, author of "The Dogs of War:1861"

The Civil War didn't split the country into neat geographical divisions, with anti-slavery groups in the North and pro-slavery groups in the South.

There were divided loyalties all over the nation. Most people in the North, for example, were not only indifferent to slavery, but treated freed African-Americans with contempt and violence, historians say.

The South was filled with its own divisions, as well. There were swaths of the region that didn't want to break away from the Union.

One Alabama community even decided to secede from the secessionists.

The people in Winston County Alabama were known as "hill people." They didn't count themselves among the South's plantation owners or slave owners, said C. Brian Kelly, author of "Best Little Stories from the Civil War."

The Northern Alabama county was so set against the Confederacy that it sent a schoolteacher to argue for its independence at a state secession conference in 1861. He was jailed. The citizens of Winston County were so outraged that they gathered at a tavern on July Fourth to declare their independence from Alabama.

Four ways we're still fighting the Civil War

Winston County's declaration insisted that both the North and South "respect their rights and leave them alone to settle their own affairs in their own way," Kelly wrote.

What happened at Winston County took place all over the country during the Civil War, Kelly said.

"There were several Southern states that were not on board with secession at all," Kelly said. "There were parts of North Carolina, Kentucky, east Tennessee and areas of northern Virginia where the Confederate cause was not popular at all."

The woman who fought as a man

Most of the Civil War photographs show men with bristling beards in battle. But sometimes the men weren't the only ones doing the fighting.

That was the case with Pvt. Franklin Thompson of the Union's 2nd Michigan Infantry unit. No one in her unit knew that Thompson was actually Sarah Emma Edmonds, Kelly said.

Edmonds, who had worked on her father's farm in boy's clothes as a child, deserted an arranged marriage when she became an adult. She sold Bibles and then joined the Union army as Thompson.

Thompson eventually became a spy, donning both male and female guises as she passed through enemy lines. After contracting malaria, she deserted the Army because she didn't want to be exposed as a woman while ill.

Civil War battlefields: Then and now

"After the war, she married -- and shocked her old comrades of the 2nd Michigan by appearing at a reunion as herself, a woman," Kelly wrote. "Most amazing of all, perhaps, she now reported that at the Battle of Antietam she had buried a Union soldier who was a woman."

Robert E. Lee asks for slave soldiers

Most Civil War buffs know the story depicted in the 1989 film, "Glory." It revealed how slaves didn't just wait for Lincoln or the Union army to free them. Thousands of them fought for their freedom, as well.

Some Confederate leaders had a different plan in mind, though. They wanted slaves to fight for the right to remain in bondage.

We are a strange, hypocritical and paradoxical people, and our paradoxes and strangeness increase in time of war. War does things to people's brains and psyches
--Thomas R. Flagel, Civil War historian

By 1864, the Confederate Army was so depleted that some Southern leaders began talking publicly about a "Negro Soldier Bill," Flagel said.

The Southern press and slave owners didn't want any part of the plan. But Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Southern armies, endorsed the idea. The bill died in the Confederate Senate by one vote, Flagel said.

The state of Virginia, however, passed a bill authorizing slave regiments.

"In the end, the effect was minimal," Flagel wrote. "Virginia managed to form only a few poorly armed companies. Richmond fell before they could be sent into action."

For some, this incident is proof that Lee -- a hero among many Southerners -- was opposed to slavery and treated slaves well. Many historians reject this notion, pointing out that Lee once presided over the whipping of one of his slaves, and was called by another the "worst man" he ever saw.

Emory Thomas, author of "Robert E. Lee: A Biography," said Lee called slavery an "evil." But he didn't call for slave soldiers out of respect for their humanity.

"They were desperate for men," Thomas said of the South. "Lee said that they [slaves] would make good soldiers because they're used to responding to discipline."

Lee was a slave owner who said freeing slaves was up to God, and that slaves would eventually work themselves out of their present condition, Thomas said.

Lee, who had earlier fought Mexicans and Native Americans, saw race relations in Darwinian terms, Thomas said.

"He anticipated social Darwinism in which there's a pyramid of human beings. At the top are upper class white folks like him, and down on the scales are African-Americans, Mexicans, and way down the bottom are Native-Americans."

The unlikely hero who saved Lincoln's son

Robert Todd Lincoln was the only one of President Lincoln's four children to survive to adulthood. But he might not have ever survived to later become a secretary of war and railroad executive if it weren't for an unlikely savior, the historian Rick Beyer recounts in "The Greatest Stories Never Told: 100 Tales from History to Astonish, Bewilder, and Stupefy."

In 1864, Lincoln was standing on a train platform in Jersey City, trying to enter a crowded coach car. Lincoln was squeezed by the crowd when the train unexpectedly started with a jolt, Beyer said.

Lincoln lost his balance and began to fall between the platform and the moving car. But one of America's most famous actors was also on the platform. When he saw Lincoln teeter, the actor reached down and grabbed him by the collar, pulling him to safety.

Lincoln recognized his celebrity savior and thanked him by name. It was only the following spring that the two men recognized the "haunting irony," Beyer wrote.

The actor was Edwin Booth. His younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated President Lincoln the following spring.

Edwin Booth later said after hearing that his brother had shot the president: "It was just as if I was struck on the forehead by a hammer."