THE JINGLING HOLE: Uncivil War in Appalachia

Confederates hunting down Union men with bloodhounds.  Torture and death was often the fate of Southerners loyal to the Union.

Confederates hunting down Union men with bloodhounds. Torture and death was often the fate of Southerners loyal to the Union.


With Halloween fast approaching, our Civil War tales will be leaning more heavily to the supernatural side than normal, not that any time of the year isn’t a good time for a ghost story. Some years back, I published the tale of the Jingling Hole and now seems a good time to renew our acquaintance with that offering.  The full story, of course, you can read in Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

Those readers from “up nawth” may be unfamiliar with the fact that there was actually a civil war within the Civil War in the South.  After the Late Unpleasantness, the former Confederates who became spinners of the Lost Cause myth managed to bury the fact that there were many Southerners vehemently opposed to Secession in 1861 and that they resisted it, often at extreme peril to themselves and their families.

This was true, not only in East Tennessee, but western Virginia, North Carolina, and in several pockets of Unionism in West Tennessee, northern Alabama and Mississippi.  While most of these Southern Unionists had no love for Abolitionism, they did have a strong patriotic devotion to the nation.  For example, during the second vote on secession Johnson County in East Tennessee was 787 to 111 against. Their stories have largely been overlooked, although in recent years some have finally been coming to light.

This civil war within the Civil War was often vicious; both sides often gave no quarter in fighting and contrary to the fallacy of the Chivalrous South, the Confederate government also made war on women and children in its efforts to suppress the Loyalists who resisted them.  In fairness, the Unionist often retaliated in kind.  It was a very, very ugly time, especially in Appalachia, where this particular ghost story occurs.

In one district of East Tennessee, the guerilla war by Unionists against the Confederates became so bitter that the district became known as “The Bloody Third.”  The killing didn’t stop with the end of the war either; the memory of wartime atrocities led to enduring feuds between neighbors for decades after the war.

There was a particular spot in this district that had a vertical cave opening, a “bottomless pit” as it were.  Whether it was the Unionist guerillas or their Confederate opponents who first thought of putting an iron bar across the opening isn’t known; apparently both sides used the pit—called the Jingling Hole.

A captured enemy would be taken to the hole and then at gunpoint forced into it, with only the iron bar to hold onto until his strength gave out and he fell to his death.  As time went on, the combatants improved on the sport and would stomp or shoot at the condemned man’s hands, forcing him to shift back and forth to avoid the attacker.  In the process the prisoner’s spurs would make a jingling sound as he squirmed to avoid the assault—hence the nickname “The Jingling Hole.”

After the war, the use of this pit as a place of torture and execution stopped; the jingling didn’t.  For years afterwards, anyone passing by on a dark night might hear an uncanny sound, like jingling spurs, coming from the direction of the pit.  If you were brave enough to go investigate, there was inevitably nothing to see.

To the best of my knowledge, the Jingling Hole is still there near Mountain City and maybe some locals could take you to the exact spot.  But I doubt you will convince them to go.

For more Civil War stories, go to Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, while for more tales of Tennessee haints and hauntings read Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground or Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.

A sketch by A W Waud of a Southern Guerilla.  Presumably it is of a Rebel Guerilla but it could equally be a Unionist one as well.

A sketch by A W Waud of a Southern Guerilla. Presumably it is of a Rebel Guerilla but it could equally be a Unionist one as well.

Posted in "The Bloody Third" in East Tennessee, Civil War ghosts, Civil War in East Tennessee, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Halloween, The American Civil War, The Jingling Hole, the Paranormal, Unionist Guerillas | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Medium and the Message: the Evidence for Lincoln’s Encounters with Psychics.

Originally posted on Dixie Spirits blog:

Abraham Lincoln visited mediums and attended séances with and without his wife, dating to before the war.

Abraham Lincoln visited mediums and attended séances with and without his wife, dating to before the war.


I must first apologize for being remiss of late in updating the Late Unpleasantness.  I’m afraid like many, the summer heat has made me lax–that and having the house torn up with a major renovation–so my various files and notes are every which way for now.  Of course I am not solely guilty of this venial sin: August is traditionally a month when nothing gets done in publishing.  I am still awaiting final approval from one publisher n one book and I have been querying agents left and right (or write) for my latest manuscript.  With summer waning into fall, however, it is time to get caught up.  Halloween is just around the corner after all.

This outing let us delve a little into a much neglected aspect of Abraham Lincoln: his…

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Captain Aldrich and the “Dance of Death”

Statue to USCT troops in the Battle of Nashville by sculptor Roy Butler

Statue to USCT troops in the Battle of Nashville by sculptor Roy Butler

The 17th Infantry, United States Colored Troops, was initially organized in the city of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in the fall of 1863, soon after the Battle of Chickamauga. It began by recruiting a combination of local “contrabands,” some 300 like minded Blacks from Alabama, plus additional free Negro volunteers from Ohio. Despite the need for fresh troops at the front, however, the 17th remained in the Middle Tennessee region, serving as garrison troops and then on duty with the quartermaster in Nashville. Throughout most of 1864 they were mostly on rear echelon duty, guarding the commissary warehouses in Nashville and likely also used for manual labor by the Federal Quartermaster. Despite being assigned minor duties, everything indicates that the regiment was well trained and was both willing and able to perform combat duties.
As autumn edged towards winter, the need for combat troops to defend Nashville grew. As Sherman embarked on his pillaging expedition through Georgia, he left General George Thomas to fend off the Confederate Army of Tennessee with whatever troops Uncle Billy deemed unfit for the march. The 17th was soon brigaded with other Negro troops into the 1st Colored Brigade under Colonel Thomas J. Morgan, who described the regiment as “an excellent regiment…under a brave and gallant officer.”
The regimental commander in question was Colonel Shafter, who was described as, “cool, brave, and a good disciplinarian.” One of the regiment’s company commanders was Captain Job Aldrich and Colonel Shafter’s brother-in-law. Although the Confederates had besieged Nashville for nearly two weeks, everyone in The Army of the Cumberland knew it was merely a matter of time before General Thomas would give the order to attack and raise the siege. That moment came on December 14, 1864. At last the Negro Volunteers, long relegated to backwater assignments and menial jobs, would be given their chance to fight for freedom.

Negro troops during the Battle of Nashville

Negro troops during the Battle of Nashville

While many faced the coming fight with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety, Captain Aldrich’s mood was entirely different from the rest. Something had come over him: a realization that in the coming fight he would most certainly die. His feeling was not unique. During the war, many men on both sides experienced what they called a presentiment—an intuitive awareness of their forthcoming death. Comrades could argue till they were blue in the face, but when a man had such a presentiment, nothing could be done—and such intuitions inevitably proved true.
So it was with Captain Aldrich on the eve of the Battle of Nashville. His sister in law happened to be in the city at the time, and to her he gave his personal effects, to give to his wife after his death. Then Job sat down and wrote a farewell letter to his beloved wife Ann. Colonel Shafter, on reading it was both disturbed and moved; “it was the most affecting I ever read.” Colonel Shafter, on reading it was both disturbed and moved; “it was the most affecting I ever read.” After expressing his love and reflecting on the happiness they had shared, Aldrich closed, saying:
“The clock strikes one, goodnight. At five the dance of death begins around Nashville. Who shall be partners in the dance? God only knows. Echo alone answers who? Farewell.”
General Thomas planned to launch what today would be called in football a “Hail Mary” strategy: he put overwhelming force into an attack on the Confederate’s left flank, an attack which would steamroller the enemy and roll up their entire line of fortifications. In the coming battle, the 17th USCT was given an important but hazardous assignment. They and their fellow regiments of the 1st Colored Brigade were placed on the far right flank of the Confederate line to launch a diversionary attack. If all went as planned, the Rebels would draw off their best troops from the left to deal with this threat to their right.
On December 15, 1864, despite an early morning fog, the big guns of Fort Negley and the other Union emplacements boomed out, signaling the beginning of the battle. The brigade began from a point close to the river, advancing across a cornfield towards the Rebel lines. The night before Colonel Morgan had scouted the area and believed they faced nothing more serious than a line of rifle pits.
They swept over the Rebel rifle pits with little trouble, but as they moved south of the Murfreesboro Pike and approached the railroad cut of the Nashville & Chattanooga RR, they suddenly encountered heavy resistance. Morgan and his men did not know it, but they had come up against Cleburne’s Division, one of the most experienced and toughest units of the Confederate army. General Cleburne had died at the Battle of Franklin, but his men were still full of fight. Screened by a line of woods, parts of several brigades of the division were lying in ambush, supported by a battery of four cannon protected by a lunette emplacement.
The well disciplined men of the 17th advanced in broad lines, as if on parade. They began crossing the tracks of the cut, thinking the enemy had fled. The Rebs opened up when the Federals were only 30 yards from them. The Johnnies poured round after round of canister from Granbury’s Lunette into the Colored Volunteers at virtually point blank range, while withering volleys exploded in the Federals faces. In a matter of minutes, 825 Union soldiers lay dead in or near the railroad cut. They had succeeded in diverting the enemy right, but at a terrible price.
Captain Aldrich was leading his men across the tracks when Cleburne’s elite troops opened fire. A bullet struck Aldrich in the head and he fell dead. As Aldrich had forewarned, the Dance of Death had found its chosen partner.

Rick Reeves painting, Pride  Over Prejudice, showing USCT troops guarding captured Rebels after the Battle of Nashville

Rick Reeves painting, Pride Over Prejudice, showing USCT troops guarding captured Rebels after the Battle of Nashville

For more uncanny events of the Civil War, read Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln

Posted in Civil War Christmas, Civil War ghosts, Civil War Historians, Civil War History, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Nashville, Nashville Ghosts and Haunts, Presentiments, The American Civil War, The Army of Cumberland, The Army of Tennessee, The Battle of Nashville, the Paranormal | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

John Basil Turchin: The Ukrainian Thunderbolt

Ivan Vasiliyevich Turchinoff, better known as General John Basil Turchin. the "Russian Thunderbolt," was actaually from the Don region of the Ukraine.

Ivan Vasiliyevich Turchinoff, better known as General John Basil Turchin. the “Russian Thunderbolt,” was actaually from the Don region of the Ukraine.

>With war and rebellion in Russia and Ukraine in the news lately, it seems timely to relate the case of one of the Civil War’s more interesting figures: John Basil Turchin, aka Ivan Vasiliyevich Turchenoff (Ива́н Васи́льевич Турчани́нов), but known to his contemporaries as “The Russian Thunderbolt.”
John/Ivan has the distinction of being the only known officer in the Union army to hail from what was then Imperial Russia—and to attain the rank of general in the US Army. Of Irish and German immigrants who became officers and generals during the war, there were plenty: even a few French and Italian; but Slavic commanders in general were few and far between and from Russia, none save Turchin/Turchinoff, to the best of my knowledge.
Actually, Turchin was strictly speaking not Russian but Ukrainian. Back in the 1860’s, there was no independent Ukraine, however, even though it was an older nation than Russia proper. Originally, there was Kievan Rus and to their north lay the Duchy of Moscow; somewhere along the line the Muscovites appropriated the name Rus and called themselves Russians, but it originally referred solely to the Kingdom based in the Ukraine.
Turchinoff was born in the Don region of the Ukraine, which these days does not flow so gently, on January 30, 1822. Ivan graduated from the Imperial Military School in St. Petersburg in 1841 and eventually rose to become a colonel in the Imperial Guard. During the Crimean War (or should I say the First Crimean War?) Ivan served on the personal staff of the Crown Prince—later Czar Alexander II. Turchinoff also supervised the construction of Finnish coastal defenses for the Imperial Crown, which was hailed as the most advanced of their day.
In 1856, Ivan emigrated to the United States with his wife Nadine, at which point he Americanized his name. Nadya (or Nadine) Turchinoff (born Nadezhda Antonina L’vova)—or simply Madame Turchin—had been the daughter of Ivan’s commanding officer in the Imerial Army and was quite a forceful personality in her own right. She was what used to be called a “daughter of the regiment”—an army brat in modern usage. She was raised in a military environment and was as much a stickler for military spit and polish as her husband proved to be. During the Civil War, in fact, at one point Colonel Turchin fell ill and was unable to command in person. Nadine stepped in and led his regiment in his absence, marching at the head of the column.
When the war broke out Turchin, a civil engineer with the Illinois Central Railroad volunteered his services. He had already organized a volunteer militia company which had put on drill demonstrations in the Chicago area. Turchin became colonel of the 19th Illinois Volunteer Infantry and trained its recruits in the methods he learned in the Imperial Russian army. Turchin was known for strict discipline and had the reputation as a relentless drillmaster. By all accounts, however, his men did not resent the spit and polish of his regime; in fact it became a source of pride for the 19th Illinois.
Colonel Turchin and his regiment became part of the Army of the Ohio, commanded by General Don Carlos Buell. Part of Mitchell’s division initially, his command missed the Battle of Shiloh, being dispatched southward towards Huntsville instead. After Shiloh and the Corinth Campaign, however, the entire army was ordered to do line of communications repair work as they slowly moved westward to occupy Chattanooga.
The army never got there however: the still undefeated Confederate army lay just south of the Western and Atlantic rail line and began an incessant series of raids and attacks against Buell’s men. The Army of the Ohio was now dispersed in small units all along the line and not only subject to cavalry raids by regular Rebel units but also to vicious attacks by guerillas and small groups of civilian “bushwhackers.” After one such incident near Athens, Alabama, on May 2, 1862, the 19th pillaged the town, and incident subsequently called, rather dramatically, “the Rape of Athens.”
In fact, no white women were raped, no buildings were destroyed and only few merchants, believed to have supplied the bushwhackers with arms and ammo, were out some of their goods. On black slave was allegedly attacked by Union soldiers near the city, but it was apparently not the work of the Turchin’s men. Turchin did not actually give orders to pillage the town, although Turchin allegedly told his men, “I close mine eyes for two hours.”
Many in the Army, frustrated by the guerilla attacks, the civilian saboteurs and the random bushwhackers shooting at them, felt that the 19th Illinois’ reprisal was fully justified. General Buell didn’t see it that way, however. He brought Turchin up on charges, including “neglect of duty” (allowing his men to pillage the business district of Athens) which included the “utter decimation of Bibles and testaments, ruthlessly destroyed and burned to pieces in a shop.” A second charge of “failure to perform proper behavior expected out of an officer and a gentleman” was also lodged against him, which apparently included the failure to pay a hotel bill. Finally, a third charge of “failure to obey orders,” was brought against Turchin, which was apparently related to Colonel Turchin allowing his wife to accompany him in the field, something expressly forbidden by Buell.
During the court marshall, Turchin did not directly deny those part of the charges relating to his retaliation against civilian bushwhackers and saboteurs. “I have tried to teach rebels that treachery to the Union was a terrible crime,” he responded. “My superior officers do not agree with my plans. They want the rebellion treated tenderly and gently. They may cashier me, but I shall appeal to the American people and implore them to wage this war in such a manner as will make humanity better for it.”
It was during this same period that Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story “Incident at Owl Creek Bridge” is set. While the story was fiction, the background behind it was quite real; more than one local planter received a drum head court martial and execution at the hands of the Yankees at the time.
In fact, compared to what Sherman’s Army of Tennessee would later do during the March to the Sea, the treatment of Athens, Alabama, by Turchin’s men was relatively mild. Nonetheless, General Buell had Turchin court marshaled and he was to be cashiered from the army.
There were many in the army at the time who viewed Buell’s concern over protecting the property of persons who were actively aiding and abetting the rebellion—including returning their runaway slaves—to be far too lenient treatment of the enemy. They called for far harsher prosecution of the war against the rebels.
Moreover, one thing General Buell did not take into consideration in his court marshal of Colonel Turchin, was John’s wife Nadine. She went to Washington to plead her husband’s case directly to the President of the United States. Not only did Lincoln re-instate Turchin, but promoted him to brigadier general. This act not only signaled Turchin’s rising military career, it also marked the decline of Buell’s influence in the eyes of the Lincoln administration.

Assault on Missionary Ridge.  General Turchin';s brigade was one of the firs to reach the summit and defeat the Rebel.

Assault on Missionary Ridge. General Turchin';s brigade was one of the firs to reach the summit and defeat the Rebel.

General Turchin went on to fight bravely at Chickamagua, during the night landing at Brown’s Ferry to raise the siege of Chattanooga and later leading his men up the slopes at Missionary Ridge, where his troops being among the first to reach the summit. Turchin also distinguished himself in the Atlanta Campaign. He amply earned his epithet “the Russian Thunderbolt,” although, as we’ve seen, today we should more aptly call him the Ukrainian Thunderbolt.

Posted in Abraham Lincoln, Ambrose Bierce, An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge, Atlanta, Battle of Missionary Ridge, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, Civil War History, Civil War Leaders, General John Turchin, Ivan Vasiliyevicch Turchinoff, The Russian Thunderbolt, Ukraine | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

For Lincoln and Liberty Too: The Hutchinson Family Singers and Social Reform on the eve of the Civil War

The Hutchinson Family singers were influential and popular with both the public and critics.

The Hutchinson Family singers were influential and popular with both the public and critics.

In the years leading up to the Civil War there were a number of reform movements which were stirring throughout the country. Abolitionism was the most notable and vociferous, but by no means the only one. Moreover, many of those who advocated the immediate abolition of slavery were often involved in other movements, social, political or spiritual.

It may come as a surprise to some that the early Republican Party had a very strong Socialist tinge to it. The early Utopian colonies that popped up around the early Republic often combined a communitarian economic program with religious beliefs, racial equality and sexual equality. After the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe failed to overthrow the old monarchies, many Socialist revolutionaries in the Old World fled to the America to begin their lives anew. Here in the U.S. they found congenial company among these native reform movements and particularly among Abolitionist and Free Soil groups. In fact, Socialism, in various forms, was very much a mainstream movement in the North. The leading newspaper leading up to the Civil War, The New York Tribune, was unabashedly Socialist in its editorial orientation; up until 1862, Karl Marx was a regular correspondent for the paper and his columns were widely read by political reformers, Lincoln included.

Other reform movements traveled hand in hand with Abolitionism as well, foremost among them Spiritualism. Formally begun in upstate New York in the 1840’s it quickly spread throughout the US and even too Europe. Begun by the Fox sisters, whose house had begun to experience poltergeist like phenomena, their method of communicating with the alleged spirits soon became all the rage. Their novel method of divination, however, did not arise in a vacuum; the region from whence they came was called the “Burnt Over District” because so many radical religious and political reform movements originated there and spread outward from there, much like wildfire. Moreover, the oldest of the Fox sisters, Leah, was already a devotee of the visionary writer and reformer, Andrew Jackson Davis, whose writings were certainly familiar to Abraham Lincoln.

Women speaking in public, much less leading a movement, were something virtually unheard of before the Fox sisters and their success spurred other women so inclined to also enter the public forum. That early Feminism should march hand in hand with Spiritualism, therefore, should come as much of a surprise and the two movements had quite a few joint adherents, some quite influential politically.  Often those active in those movements were also militant Abolitionists.

Enter the Hutchinson Family Singers of Vermont. Although virtually forgotten today, they were tremendously popular in the decades before the war—although certainly not in the South. The Hutchinsons were the equivalent of The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and the early Bob Dylan all rolled into one. (If you are too young to know who those singers are, go to You Tube and get educated.)

The Hutchinsons were unabashedly in favor of Abolitionism but were also adherents of Spiritualism, worker’s rights and were also supportive of Feminism. About 1858, sister Abby Hutchinson was invited by Susan B. Anthony to attend a Women’s Rights Anniversary to be held in Mozart Hall in New York City, the Carnegie Hall of the pre-war era. It is uncertain whether Abby was well enough to perform, but some of the family certainly did, singing a ditty called, “Right Over Wrong.” The Hutchinsons also wrote at least one song in favor of Spiritualism as well.

In 1859, John Brown capped his career as a militant Abolitionist with his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Less well known is the fact that John Hutchison had friends who helped plan and finance the raid, and that he knew John Brown personally.

It is not known whether Lincoln actually heard the Hutchinson Family Singers perform but is almost certain he met one or another of the family, either during one of their concert tours to Washington, DC, when he was in Congress, or during one of their Midwestern tours. As popular as they were, and given their political orientation, Lincoln would undoubtedly have been aware of them. Their most notable achievement was during the Election campaign of 1860 when they wrote and performed “For Lincoln and Liberty Too.” Some historians claim that this militant and still performed song was what gave Lincoln the edge in the four way election of 1860. While that assertion may be hard to prove, the song certainly motivated many people to go out and vote for Lincoln who may otherwise have stayed home.

The Hutchinsons worked very hard for the Lincoln Campaign. John Hutchinson compiled two campaign songbooks the Connecticut Wide-Awake Songster and Hutchinsons Republican Songster for the Campaign of 1860. After the election, when Lincoln was journeying to Washington, he had a layover in Jersey City and it so happened that John Hutcinson’s troupe was there; they gave an impromptu performance from their hotel balcony to the President elect, repurposing their song “Right Over Wrong” for the occasion.

The Hutchinson’s political influence did not stop with Lincoln’s election; when war came, as many knew it would, the Hutchinsons performed patriotic concerts which bolstered the morale of the North. Some of their songs had a definite religious tinge to the political message, such as “Good Times Coming:”

Behold the day of promise comes, full of inspiration
The blessed day by prophets sung for the healing of the nation
Old midnight errors flee away, they soon will all be gone
While heavenly angels seem to say the good time’s coming on

Music may not win any wars, but it has the power to persuade and during 1860 and after, the Hutchinson Family Singers certainly persuaded many.

For more about Lincoln’s connection with Spiritualism, see Chapters 14 & 15 of The Paranormal Presidency.

Posted in Abolitonism, Abraham Lincoln, Civil War History, Civil War Leaders, Seances, Spiritualism, The American Civil War, The Hutchinson Family Singers | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

General Winter: A Deadly Presence

Looking for survivors on the battlefield.  Many men who could have survived, froze to death after the battle

Looking for survivors on the battlefield. Many men who could have survived, froze to death after the battle

During the Battle of Nashville, in December of 1864, a brigadier sent an urgent message to his divisional headquarters: “please relieve me;” the dispatch read, “I am suffering from an attack of General Debility.” The dispatch was met with some derision at headquarters, but the divisional commander wrote a prescription to cure his brigade commander’s ailment: three regiments of infantry and a battery of Rodman guns. But a far more formidable than General Debility during the Civil War was General Winter.

You may not have heard of General Winter before, yet this general was the most effective presence on the field of battle in the Civil War, more so than any field commander North or South. The general influenced the outcome of many major battles and was a contributing factor behind victory or defeat. In the campaigns of the Western Theatre, in particular, General Winter played a commanding role.

During the winter months in the east, reading many of the soldier’s accounts, one gets the impression that The Army of the Potomac generally hunkered down in comfortable quarters surrounding Washington, DC. General McClellan did not want his precious boys getting their feet wet, or otherwise suffering discomfort. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia did not pass the winter in such luxury, but they also generally chose not to go on the offensive when the weather turned cold. In contrast, in the western theatre, the Federals campaigned repeatedly in the midst of bone-chilling cold and foul winter weather and the Butternut clad nemesis did likewise.

In January of 1862, for example, General Grant led the expedition against Confederate fortresses of Forts Donelson and Henry. It was bitter cold that winter and the Rebel troops were inadequately clothed. During the siege, the Union troops who fell assaulting Fort Donelson were caught out in the open between the opposing lines. The cries of the wounded, exposed and freezing, tore at the hearts of their comrades who were unable to rescue them. Many who could have survived, died of exposure.

At the Battle of Stone’s River in late December of 1862, both sides were also affected by the bitter cold. On the night of the first day’s fight, the Federal Army of the Cumberland was forbidden to light any fires, lest the enemy use them for target practice; to add to the misery, most troops had shed their backpacks containing blankets in the chaos of battle and Rebel cavalry had destroyed most of the wagons containing tents. But it was the wounded left on the field after the first day’s fight who suffered the most. Ambrose Bierce graphically described the situation in a forgotten small piece called “A Cold Night.” Men on both sides, wounded and unable to move, froze to death in the dark.

Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce,  Bierce wrote about the frigid conditions at the Battle of Stone's River in a macabre little piece called "A Cold Night."

Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce, Bierce wrote about the frigid conditions at the Battle of Stone’s River in a macabre little piece called “A Cold Night.”

Returning to the Autumn Campaign of 1864 and the Battle of Nashville, General Winter also played an important role here as well. While the Federals had comfortable quarters within the siege lines of Nashville, without, the Rebels shivered, ill fed, ill clothed and short of most other supplies. Whole forests outside the city were cut down to keep warm by the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the resulting deforestation was called even by sympathetic citizens as “Hood’s Waste.”

However, the Federals too were affected by the winter weather in December of 1864. Although General Thomas had gathered together a mighty army to counter Hood’s Confederates, his counterattack had to be delayed. A terrible ice storm hit the city in the early part of December, making all roads impassable for his cavalry, without which Thomas was unable to attack. While waiting for the roads the thaw out, General Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga” was almost sacked by Grant, who sitting in comfort back east, accused Thomas of being “slow.” General Thomas came near to defeat, not due to General Hood, but due to General Winter. In the end, Thomas unleashed the Army of the Cumberland and achieved an overwhelming victory.

General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga was nearly defeated, not by General Hood but by General Winter

General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga was nearly defeated, not by General Hood but by General Winter

In all the chronicles of men and warfare during the Late Unpleasantness, the role of weather is often given only passing attention, yet it often played a decisive role. Any general who tried to defy it did so at the peril of defeat.

Posted in Ambrose Bierce, Battle of Franklin, Battle of Springhill, Battle of Stone's River, Chickamauga, Civil War History, Civil War Leaders, Fort Donelson, Fort Henry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Battles and Bleaters of the Civil War: Some Thoughts on the History of the History of the War

The Skirmish Line by Gilbert Gaul

The Skirmish Line by Gilbert Gaul

This edition of the Late Unpleasantness deals not so much about any specific person or event of the Civil War as it does about the search for the truth of what really happened between 1860 and 1866.  That may seem a simple task; after all, every week another book comes out about what happened in the first fifteen minutes of the second hour of the first day of Gettysburg; or of how General Grant won the war single-handedly; what a great guy Lincoln was and how he freed the slaves.

Yet, as any Civil War buff worth his salt knows, or should know, determining what actually happened in the chaos of battle is not a simple task, nor is the consensus of leading historians about some leaders and their actions necessarily based on fact, but rather on inherited opinions which have come to become accepted as truth.  I will confess to have been as guilty of this latter fault as some of the more famous writers whose books have gone on to become the “bible” on certain battles and leaders.

In my research for The Paranormal Presidency, for example, I made ample use of the Historical Society of Illinois online Lincoln Papers as well as the Library of Congress’ ample resources as well as numerous other primary and secondary sources.  Not much new here; all well worn territory insofar as Lincoln scholars go.  Yet my take on those same sources and on Lincoln the man clearly does not square with the dominant consensus which generations of Lincoln scholars—one might more properly call them hagiographers—have arrived at.  I, like his scholarly acolytes, regard Lincoln as a great President; but where I differ is that I do not ignore or disregard evidence where it does not square with the received views of him that have become academic dogma.

Disputes over certain campaigns, battles and leaders are nothing new; some have been going on since before the war was over.  However, two recent books raise old issues and to varying degrees promise to throw a new light on what we thought was established fact.

Stephen Hood’s new book, John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General, has stirred no little controversy among Civil War enthusiasts and scholars.  Hood the Younger makes no bones about his revisionism regarding General Hood’s military career and takes aim at several well respected historian’s previous work on the subject.  His work has been criticized as biography; in fact, it is not a biography per se, but explicitly a work of historiography.  Mr. Hood has gone back into the primary sources and his reading of them varies considerably from previous writers on the subject.  He has weighed their arguments in the balance and found them wanting.

General John Bell Hood, controversial commander of the Army of Tennessee

General John Bell Hood, controversial commander of the Army of Tennessee

While I leave it up to Civil War enthusiasts to read his book and decide for themselves how well Stephen Hood has succeeded in his task, I will cite incident which caused me to begin to question the consensus views on General Hood.  When Jefferson Davis sought General Lee’s views on appointing John Bell Hood as commander of the Army of Tennessee, Lee replied that in his view, Hood was “all lion and none of the fox,” and I have even seen the statement footnoted with the source cited; so it must be true, right?  Except, that Lee never actually said that.  As Stephen Hood reveals, that phrase was coined after the war and whether true or not, it was not Lee who said it.  On checking the citation, I found it did indeed go back to the Lee/Davis correspondence about Hood, but nowhere in those messages does that phrase attributed to Lee appear.  A minor point, admittedly, but it is a cautionary tale about accepting authority at face value.

Another new work takes aim at that icon of the Union cause, General Ulysses S. Grant, questioning the accepted narratives of the battles for Chattanooga and Grant’s claims to being the mastermind of that campaign.  In the past Grant has been the subject of criticism, but in recent decades the consensus of historians has been generally favorable to him and have generally accepted Grant and his supporter’s version of his campaigns with little question.  However, in General Grant and the Rewriting of History, Frank Varney  disputes that consensus, at least insofar as the war in the west is concerned.

Grant and his commanders at Orchard Knob watch the Battle of Missionary Ridge

Grant and his commanders at Orchard Knob watch the Battle of Missionary Ridge

There are many, myself included, who feel that Grant has been given a pass by many historians on a number of points.  In my forthcoming work on Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War, in researching the context behind Bierce’s service with the Army of the Ohio and with the Army of the Cumberland, I found much of Bierce’s critique of Grant to be well founded and largely grounded in a greater debate in the postwar era over the credit and blame for the bloodletting at Shiloh.  Bierce’s criticisms of Grant were well known, although his overall assessment of Grant was generally positive.

Chickamauga and Chattanooga have also been the subject of much controversy over the years, with much blame and praise being disbursed by various historians.  The modern view of Grant and Sherman as the heroes of the campaign has generally been the dominant narrative however.  So Varney’s revisionism had been initially received in some quarters as a much needed correction to the record.  Varney takes eminent historians to task for shoddy scholarship.  While I reserve final judgment on Varney’s work and encourage others to also make their own assessment, from what I’ve read so far, it is Varney’s scholarship which has been found wanting.  Civil War bloggers have checked several of his citations, backing his criticisms of what other historians have written, and in too many cases have found them in error or just plain bogus.

General Grant’s Personal Memoirs were very well written and his narrative has been often taken at face value by generations of historians.  There remains much about Grant’s career that requires a more critical review of the facts.  It remains to be seen whether Varney was up to the task or whether that remains for others to do.

Posted in Abraham Lincoln, Ambrose Bierce, Battle of Franklin, Battle of Missionary Ridge, Battle of Shiloh, Battle of Springhill, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, Civil War Historians, Civil War History, Civil War Leaders, General John Bell Hood, Robert E. Lee, The American Civil War, The Army of Cumberland, The Army of Tennessee, Ulysses S. Grant | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Union Christmas: Washington, 1864

Christmas Morning, 1864, in Harper's.  While the nation was still at war, for the North things were looking more hopeful.

Christmas Morning, 1864, in Harper’s. While the nation was still at war, for the North things were looking more hopeful.

If things were looking dim for Varina Howell and her husband “Jeffie” in Richmond, it was quite the opposite across the Potomac in Washington, DC. in December of 1864.  General Sherman had begun his famous (or infamous) march through Georgia, culminating culminating in the capture of Savannah, Georgia on December 21.

In a telegraphed letter to President Lincoln, General Sherman wrote: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah…”

For weeks Lincoln had had no word from Sherman or his army of 62,000.  So when Sherman sent his telegram to the White House, the President was both relieved and jubilant.  Lincoln wrote: “Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift – the capture of Savannah…Please make my grateful acknowledgements to your whole army – officers and men.”

In Tennessee, in a less theatrical, but equally important manner, General Thomas had performed an equal or greater service to the Union cause, decimating the last effective field army the Confederates had outside of Virginia, the Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Nashville.  To all intents and purposes, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was isolated and Richmond, the Confederate capitol, was doomed.

Lincoln and his son Tad visit Stuntz's Toy Shop in Washington, DC.

Lincoln and his son Tad visit Stuntz’s Toy Shop in Washington, DC.

While the Lincolns are not thought to have had a Christmas tree in the White House, it is known that the President would take Tad to the city’s best toy shop, Stuntz’s Toy Store, to buy him presents.  Unlike many parents of their day who believed in “spare the rod, spoil the child,” both Abraham and Mary Lincoln were indulgent parents, who generally spoiled their boys silly.  Likely, Lincoln and Tad would have been in Stuntz’s that Christmas.

The situation in Washington and much of the North in 1864 was summed up neatly by Thomas Nast in a famous print for Harper’s during Christmas Week of 1864, called The Union Christmas.  It depicts President Lincoln standing at a door, with him offering the cold and frostbitten Southern soldiers an invitation to rejoin the Union and enjoy the feast.  For the North, it would be a Christmas of anticipation and joy for many.  For the South, it was a season of diminishing hope. The South had but its pride left to sustain it—the kind of pride that goeth before the fall.

The Union Christmas Dinner by Thomas Nast.   Harpers December, 1864.

The Union Christmas Dinner by Thomas Nast. Harpers December, 1864.

Posted in Abraham Lincoln, Christmas, Civil War Christmas, Civil War Leaders, Great American Presidents, Jefferson Davis, Mary Todd Lincoln, Nashville, Tad Lincoln, The Army of Tennessee, The Battle of Nashville, The Christmas Tree, Varina Davis | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Starvation Christmas: Richmond in 1864

Varina Davis, the beautiful and sympathetic wife of the Confederate President, gave a vivid description of the Christmas of 1864 in Richmond.

Varina Davis, the beautiful and sympathetic wife of the Confederate President, gave a vivid description of the Christmas of 1864 in Richmond.

Christmas is traditionally a celebration of abundance and cheer, but as Dickens pointed out in his famous Yuletide tale, for many it can also be a time of want and need.  The South seceded to much jubilation and confidence.  They would lick the Yankees in a few months and then the Confederacy would be independent and everyone would live happily ever after—except the slaves, of course.  Well, by Christmas of 1864, Confederate confidence had waned considerably, with Richmond under siege and Southern forces in retreat on all fronts.

The following memoir was written by Varina Davis, the wife of former Confederate president, Jefferson C. Davis.  She contributed it to a newspaper in that hotbed of Secessionism (not kidding) New York City, in 1896.  While she had the advantage of hindsight, it is enlightening as to conditions in the Confederate capitol nonetheless.  So be your Christmas happy or sad, may this serve as a reminder of how they managed in the last winter of the Civil War:

“…Rice, flour, molasses and tiny pieces of meat, most of them sent to the President’s wife anonymously to be distributed to the poor, had all be weighed and issued, and the playtime of the family began, but like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky came the information that the orphans at the Episcopalian home had been promised a Christmas tree and the toys, candy and cakes must be provided, as well as one pretty prize for the most orderly girl among the orphans. The kind-hearted confectioner was interviewed by our committee of managers, and he promised a certain amount of his simpler kinds of candy, which he sold easily a dollar and a half a pound, but he drew the line at cornucopias to hold it, or sugared fruits to hang on the tree, and all the other vestiges of Christmas creations which had lain on his hands for years. The ladies dispersed in anxious squads of toy-hunters, and each one turned over the store of her children’s treasures for a contribution to the orphans’ tree, my little ones rushed over the great house looking up their treasure: eyeless dolls, three-legged horses, tops with the upper peg broken off, rubber tops, monkeys with all the squeak gone silent and all the ruck of children’s toys that gather in a nursery closet.

Makeshift Toys for the Orphans

Some small feathered chickens and parrots which nodded their heads in obedience to a weight beneath them were furnished with new tail feathers, lambs minus much of their wool were supplied with a cotton wool substitute, rag dolls were plumped out and recovered with clean cloth, and the young ladies painted their fat faces in bright colors and furnished them with beads for eyes.

But the tug of war was how to get something with which to decorate the orphans’ tree. Our man servant, Robert Brown, was much interested and offered to make the prize toy. He contemplated a “sure enough house, with four rooms.” His part in the domestic service was delegated to another and he gave himself over in silence and solitude to the labors of the architect.

My sister painted mantel shelves, door panels, pictures and frames for the walls, and finished with black grates in which there blazed a roaring fire, which was pronounced marvelously realistic. We all made furniture of twigs and pasteboard, and my mother made pillows, mattresses, sheets and pillow cases for the two little bedrooms.

Christmas Eve a number of young people were invited to come and string apples and popcorn for the trees; a neighbor very deft in domestic arts had tiny candle moulds made and furnished all the candles for the tree. However the puzzle and triumph of all was the construction of a large number of cornucopias. At last someone suggested a conical block of wood, about which the drawing paper could be wound and pasted. In a little book shop a number of small, highly colored pictures cut out and ready to apply were unearthed, and our old confectioner friend, Mr. Piazzi, consented, with a broad smile, to give “all the love verses the young people wanted to roll with the candy.”

A Christmas Eve Party

About twenty young men and girls gathered around small tables in one of the drawing rooms of the mansion and the cornucopias were begun. The men wrapped the squares of candy, first reading the “sentiments” printed upon them, such as “Roses are red, violets blue, sugar’s sweet and so are you,” “If you love me as I love you no knife can cut our love in two.” The fresh young faces, wreathed in smiles, nodded attention to the reading, while with their small deft hands they gined the cornucopias and pasted on the pictures. Where were the silk tops to come from? Trunks of old things were turned out and snippings of silk and even woolen of bright colors were found to close the tops, and some of the young people twisted sewing silk into cords with which to draw the bags up. The beauty of those home-made things astonished us all, for they looked quite “custom-made,” but when the “sure enough house” was revealed to our longing gaze the young people clapped their approbation, while Robert, whose sense of dignity did not permit him to smile, stood the impersonation of successful artist and bowed his thanks for our approval. Then the coveted eggnog was passed around in tiny glass cups and pronounced good. Crisp home-made ginger snaps and snowy lady cake completed the refreshments of Christmas Eve. The children allowed to sit up and be noisy in their way as an indulgence took a sip of eggnog out of my cup, and the eldest boy confided to his father: “Now I just know this is Christmas.” In most of the houses in Richmond these same scenes were enacted, certainly in every one of the homes of the managers of the Episcopalian Orphanage. A bowl of eggnog was sent to the servants, and a part of everything they coveted of the dainties.

At last quiet settled on the household and the older members of the family began to stuff stockings with molasses candy, red apples, an orange, small whips plaited by the family with high-colored crackers, worsted reins knitted at home, paper dolls, teetotums made of large horn bottoms and a match which could spin indefinitely, balls of worsted rags wound hard and covered with old kid gloves, a pair of pretty woolen gloves for each, either cut of cloth and embroidered on the back or knitted by some deft hand out of home-spun wool. For the President there were a pair of chamois-skin riding gauntlets exquisitely embroidered on the back with his monogram in red and white silk, made, as the giver wrote, under the guns of Fortress Monroe late at night for fear of discovery. There was a hemstitched linen handkerchief, with a little sketch in indelible ink in one corner; the children had written him little letters, their grandmother having held their hands, the burthen of which compositions was how they loved their dear father. For one of the inmates of the home, who was greatly loved but whose irritable temper was his prominent failing, there was a pretty cravat, the ends of which were embroidered, as was the fashion of the day. The pattern chosen was simple and on it was pinned a card with the word “amiable” to complete the sentence. One of the [missing] received a present of an illuminated copy of Solomon’s proverbs found in the same old store from which the pictures came. He studied it for some time and announced: “I have changed my opinion of Solomon, he uttered such unnecessary platitudes — now why should he have said ‘The foolishness of a fool is his folly’?”

On Christmas morning the children awoke early and came in to see their toys. They were followed by the negro women, who one after another “caught” us by wishing us a merry Christmas before we could say it to them, which gave them a right to a gift. Of course, there was a present for every one, small though it might be, and one who had been born and brought up at our plantation was vocal in her admiration of a gay handkerchief. As she left the room she ejaculated: “Lord knows mistress knows our insides; she jest got the very thing I wanted.”

The Confederate "White House" in Richmond, where Jefferson and Varina Davis held court during the Civil War.

The Confederate “White House” in Richmond, where Jefferson and Varina Davis held court during the Civil War.

Strange Presents

For me there were six cakes of delicious soap, made from the grease of ham boiled for a family at Farmville, a skein of exquisitely fine gray linen thread spun at home, a pincushion of some plain brown cotton material made by some poor woman and stuffed with wool from her pet sheep, and a little baby hat plaited by the orphans and presented by the industrious little pair who sewed the straw together. They pushed each other silently to speak, and at last mutely offered the hat, and considered the kiss they gave the sleeping little one ample reward for the industry and far above the fruit with which they were laden. Another present was a fine, delicate little baby frock without an inch of lace or embroidery upon it, but the delicate fabric was set with fairy stitches by the dear invalid neighbor who made it, and it was very precious in my eyes. There were also a few of Swinburne’s best songs bound in wall-paper and a chamois needle-book left for me by young Mr. P., now succeeded to his title in England. In it was a Brobdingnagian thimble “for my own finger, you know,” said the handsome, cheerful young fellow.

After breakfast, at which all the family, great and small, were present, came the walk to St. Paul’s Church. We did not use our carriage on Christmas or, if possible to avoid it, on Sunday. The saintly Dr. Minnegerode preached a sermon on Christian love, the introit was sung by a beautiful young society woman and the angels might have joyfully listened. Our chef did wonders with the turkey and roast beef, and drove the children quite out of their propriety by a spun sugar hen, life-size, on a nest full of blanc mange eggs. The mince pie and plum pudding made them feel, as one of the gentlemen laughingly remarked, “like their jackets were buttoned,” a strong description of repletion which I have never forgotten. They waited with great impatience and evident dyspeptic symptoms for the crowning amusement of the day, “the children’s tree.” My eldest boy, a chubby little fellow of seven, came to me several times to whisper: “Do you think I ought to give the orphans my I.D. studs?” When told no, he beamed with the delight of an approving conscience. All throughout the afternoon first one little head and then another popped in at the door to ask: “Isn’t it 8 o’clock yet?,” burning with impatience to see the “children’s tree.”

Davis Plays Santa Claus

When at last we reached the basement of St. Paul’s Church the tree burst upon their view like the realization of Aladdin’s subterranean orchard, and they were awed by its grandeur.

The orphans sat mute with astonishment until the opening hymn and prayer and the last amen had been said, and then they at a signal warily and slowly gathered around the tree to receive from a lovely young girl their allotted present. The different gradations from joy to ecstasy which illuminated their faces was “worth two years of peaceful life” to see. The President became so enthusiastic that he undertook to help in the distribution, but worked such wild confusion giving everything asked for into their outstretched hands, that we called a halt, so he contented himself with unwinding one or two tots from a network of strung popcorn in which they had become entangled and taking off all apples he could when unobserved, and presenting them to the smaller children. When at last the house was given to the “honor girl” she moved her lips without emitting a sound, but held it close to her breast and went off in a corner to look and be glad without witnesses.

“When the lights were fled, the garlands dead, and all but we departed” we also went home to find that Gen. Lee had called in our absence, and many other people. Gen. Lee had left word that he had received a barrel of sweet potatoes for us, which had been sent to him by mistake. He did not discover the mistake until he had taken his share (a dishful) and given the rest to the soldiers! We wished it had been much more for them and him.

A Starvation Dance

The night closed with a “starvation” party, where there were no refreshments, at a neighboring house. The rooms lighted as well as practicable, some one willing to play dance music on the piano and plenty of young men and girls comprised the entertainment. Sam Weller’s soiry, consisting of boiled mutton and capers, would have been a royal feast in the Confederacy. The officers, who rode into town with their long cavalry boots pulled well up over their knees, but splashed up their waists, put up their horses and rushed to the places where their dress uniform suits had been left for safekeeping. They very soon emerged, however, in full toggery and entered into the pleasures of their dance with the bright-eyed girls, who many of them were fragile as fairies, but worked like peasants for their home and country. These young people are gray-haired now, but the lessons of self-denial, industry and frugality in which they became past mistresses then, have made of them the most dignified, self-reliant and tender women I have ever known — all honor to them.

So, in the interchange of the courtesies and charities of life, to which we could not add its comforts and pleasures, passed the last Christmas in the Confederate mansion.”

Posted in Christmas, Civil War Christmas, Civil War Leaders, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, The American Civil War, The Army of Northern Virginia, Varina Davis | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sex n’ Drugs n’ Civil War: What great grandpa never bothered to mention about his service in the War of the Rebellion

Early opiate based medicines.  They were an essential part of  the Civil War doctor's

Early opiate based medicines. They were an essential part of the Civil War doctor’s

In recent months a bit of controversy has arisen over one Southern general’s alleged drug use.  A new biography has come out by a distant descendant vehemently denying a “slander” that the said commander was under the influence of either opiates or alcohol during one of the penultimate campaigns of the Late Unpleasantness.  The said biographer avers—and correctly so—that there is no written evidence that the Confederate commander was intoxicated or a “drug addict.”  However, in tracking down the trail of evidence on that issue, I realized the topic raised much broader issues than simply the drug or alcohol use of one soldier.

There were many things going on during the Civil War that participants on both sides rarely talked about in print; but that doesn’t mean those things weren’t going on a daily basis.  Traditionally, historians have relied on the written word; oral tradition, local folklore and similar sources tend to be overlooked or disregarded.  Official reports, dispatches, postwar memoirs and the like are the mainstay of the Civil War historians.  That is all well and good, but there as Walt Whitman observed, “the real war will never get in the books.”  And like any good Victorian, Whitman and others of the Civil War era who did things which they preferred not to talk about, Whitman adds that not only will they not be written about but “perhaps must not and should not be.”

In a previous post, I discussed sex and the single Civil War soldier; a more thorough look at hanky-panky by both sides can also be had by reading The Story the Soldiers Would Not Tell, by Dr. Thomas P. Lowry.  In researching my upcoming bio of Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War service, it was obvious that the famous author spent his furlough time in the fleshpots of Nashville doing something other than reading newspapers and going to the opera—although proving such is difficult to do.

So, while the sex part has already been dealt with, the drugs have not.  While specifics can be elusive, as with the good general mentioned at the start of the article, there is an abundance of period information about the use of narcotics during the era in general.  Besides the reluctance of historians to delve into such “off” topics as drug use in the Civil War, there is also a dual cultural barrier to our understanding of what was really going on: in the first instance, the very different social and moral norms of the 1860’s and then our own modern attitudes, which often lead to mistaken assumptions about past behavior.

For the most part, the modern stigma regarding the use of opiates and other drugs which are illicit and illegal today simply wasn’t present during the Civil War.  Opium itself has been known and used ancient times; it was used as a cure for headaches in pharaonic Egypt and by all accounts they had no problem with it being abused or wide scale addiction problems.  In contrast, nineteenth century Imperial China had a massive problem with drug addiction and tried to prohibit the import of opium.  However, the British in India were making a lot of money off of the opium trade and actually fought two wars with China to force them to allow the British to import shiploads of the stuff.  Her Majesty’s government was, in effect, the biggest pusher of all times.

Civil War doll "Nina" which was used to smuggle Morphine to aid the Confederate cause.

Civil War doll “Nina” which was used to smuggle Morphine to aid the Confederate cause.

In the United States opium was known and used, mostly by the upper classes, before the Civil War.  In the South, it was a common ingredient in homemade medicines and used for a wide variety of ailments, including the generic catch-all “female complaints.”  The main users of opium it seems were affluent white women.  There was no stigma attached to its use.  According to one source, the womenfolk of the Jefferson Davis family were prescribed liberal doses of opium by their family physician and became “dangerously addicted” to it.  The most common way people took opium as a medicine was in the form of laudanum, a liquid concoction consisting of about 40% alcohol, opium and water to dilute it.  Laudanum was given to men, women and children freely for pain, diarrhea, coughs and whatever else physicians could think of.  Of course, since it was not regulated at all, people could purchase it on their own or brew up themselves to save money.

The famous Southern diarist, Mary Chestnutt, writing in July of 1861, expressed distain for this commonplace household remedy: “I have no intention of drugging myself now.”  However, later in the war she was given an overdose of a medicine called Dover’s Powder, whose main ingredient was—you guessed it, opium.  It nearly killed her; as it was, she was unconscious for two days.  Of course, the most famous American before the war to use opiates was Edgar Allen Poe, the famed Southern Gothic writer, and how much his morbid stories of the supernatural were inspired by his drug use remains a subject of dispute.

While not nearly as commonplace as opiates, hashish was known and used in America before the war.  However, its use seems to have been limited to certain cultured circles and was not widely used as either a medicine or for recreational use.  The publication of Fitzhugh Ludlow’s book The Hashish Eater in 1857 seems to have inspired a number of affluent young gentlemen to experiment with the exotic drug.  One such young man was John Hay, attending Brown University at the time, “where I used to eat Hashish and dream dreams.”  Hay would later become President Lincoln’s personal secretary and after the war co-author of the President’s semi-official biography.

Speaking of Abraham Lincoln, it should be noted that, while Lincoln was a teetotaler and is not known to have ever imbibed, one of his biographers has suggested that he may have partaken of cocaine.  In his book, The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln, Harry F. Pratt claimed that on Oct. 12, 1860, Lincoln purchased cocaine from the local Springfield pharmacy of Corneau and Diller’s for the princely sum of fifty cents.  This was scarcely a month before the crucial Presidential election that put Lincoln in the White House and the issue of whether or not Honest Abe actually did use cocaine has been a bone of contention among Lincoln scholars for some years.

Did Abraham Lincoln take cocaine?  Some historians say he did.

Did Abraham Lincoln take cocaine? Some historians say he did.

Of course, far and away, the drug of choice before the war, and continuing on up to the present day, was alcohol.  While the consumption of alcohol in its many forms is a longstanding pastime and certainly the drug of choice for twentieth and twentieth century America, the modern American recreational use of this drug pales before the prodigious quantities of John Barleycorn and his cousins that were consumed in early America.  The Temperance Movement, while much derided after the failure of Prohibition in the 1920’s, nonetheless had valid reasons for attacking alcohol besides Victorian prudery.  Of course the dispute over General Grant’s alcohol use, or lack of it, has been going on for 150 years and shows no sigh of abating.

Grant in the field late in the war.  The debate over his alcohol use has been going on for 150 years.

Grant in the field late in the war. The debate over his alcohol use has been going on for 150 years.

During the war, all these drugs and even more toxic substances were regularly used by army surgeons on both sides.  It may be hard for us today to understand how common some of these substances were for treatment of a wide variety of ailments, yet it is an incontrovertible fact.  Dr. Charles Beneulyn Johnson, a regimental surgeon with the Union Army described the typical medicine chest that an army surgeon would carry with him into the field: “During a campaign our stocks of medicines were necessarily limited to standard remedies.  “During a campaign our stocks of medicines were necessarily limited to standard remedies,” he wrote, and included opium, morphine, Dover’s Powder (also containing opium), quinine, rhubarb, Rochelle Salts, Epsom salts, castor oil, sugar of lead, tannin, sulphate of copper, sulphate of zinc, camphor, tincture of iron, tincture of opium, camphorate, syrup of squills, simple syrup, alcohol, whiskey, brandy, port wine, sherry wine, to give the short list.

a homemade first aid kit belonging to Charles E. White of a New Hampshire regiment and containing opiates.

a homemade first aid kit belonging to Charles E. White of a New Hampshire regiment and containing opiates.

The most common treatment for dysentery and diarrhea was morphine, an opium derivative which was invented before the war.  While it could be injected, it was most commonly given out in powder or pill form.  William H. Taylor, a Confederate surgeon with the Army of Northern Virginia, would deal with sick call by dispensing morphine for diarrhea and “blue mass” (whose main ingredient was mercury) for constipation.  A Union physician simplified sick call even more by performing diagnosis from horseback, dispensing morphine powder by pouring it into his hand and letting the patients lick it out of his hand!

I could go on and on with more illustrations of the common use of what are now banned chemicals during the war; in fact it would take a whole book to discuss this topic properly.  But it is important to understand how commonplace the issuing of such drugs was to put the dispute over famous general’s alleged use of opiates or alcohol in proper context.

General John Bell Hood.  On September 30, 1864, when he learned that Schofield's army had escaped in the night, Hood was reported to be "wrathy as a snake."  Was it simply bad luck, or did Hood's  failure to destroy the Yankee army involve something more:?

General John Bell Hood. On September 30, 1864, when he learned that Schofield’s army had escaped in the night, Hood was reported to be “wrathy as a snake.” Was it simply bad luck, or did Hood’s failure to destroy the Yankee army involve something more?

Right now John Bell Hood, the embattled commander of the Army of Tennessee, is the main focus of attention.  As I mentioned above, there is no written evidence that he was under the influence of opiates or alcohol when he allowed the trapped Federals under his old schoolmate, General John Schofield, escape at Springhill, or his ill considered attack at the Battle of Franklin.  However, the suggestion that he did use Laudanum has been floated by historians for many years.  Hood had lost a leg at Gettysburg and shattered an arm at Chickamauga and if he did partake of Laudanum or any other opiate to ease the pain of those severe injuries would not mean he was a “drug addict” or junkie by any means, and it is not slander to suggest so.  His use of such a painkiller, even if it could be proved, would have been perfectly legitimate, and indeed would have, if anything, enabled him to better cope with the terrible pain he most certainly would have been in.

But Hood is by no means the only Confederate commander to whom the suggestion of drug use has been ascribed.  General Braxton Bragg, the contentious previous commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, is also thought to have used opiates.  Some historians have described him as erratic and suffering from a variety of ailments including malaria, dyspepsia and the boils, the standard treatments for which would have included either Laudanum or morphine.  Again, as with Hood, we cannot be sure he did partake; but it would not have been unusual—or immoral–if he had.

Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce,.  Bierce fought in nearly every major battle in the Western Theatre and  witnessed Grant and his staff pass the bottle around at the Battle of Missionary Ridge.

Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce,. Bierce fought in nearly every major battle in the Western Theatre and witnessed Grant and his staff pass the bottle around at the Battle of Missionary Ridge.

In my researches into Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce’s wartime career, I found that Bierce specifically testified to observing General Grant imbibing while observing the Battle of Missionary Ridge.  Grant, however, was not one to drink alone; his senior commanders “bit the snake” as did Bierce himself, and Bierce argued that neither his nor Grants having a nip as shot and shell whizzed around them in any way affected his ability to command.  While one may question Bierce judgment on the matter, one cannot question his testimony.

There remain many unanswered questions regarding the Civil War and perhaps some may never be fully answered.  Certainly, what your great great grandpa (or grandma) did back then may not sit well with what you or I believe today.  But we should at least grant them the grace to allow that what they did was done according to their own lights and in line with the accepted values of the day.  Perhaps the “better angels of our nature” sang a different song back then than we hear today.

For other esoteric aspects of the American Civil War, see: Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Posted in Abraham Lincoln, Ambrose Bierce, Battle of Franklin, Battle of Missionary Ridge, Chattanooga, Civil War Historians, Civil War History, Civil War Leaders, Drug and Alcohol Use in the Civil War\, General Braxton Bragg, General John Bell Hood, Lincoln and Cocaine, Morphine, Opium, SEX and the Civil War, The American Civil War, The Army of Cumberland, The Army of Northern Virginia, The Army of Tennessee, Varina Davis | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments