Lt. Redwood on Black Confederates

Whenever I come across references to Black Confederates in the primary sources, I am always taken aback a bit. After all, why would any African American willingly, or semi-willingly, serve a cause which had to have been hateful to any thinking Negro of the time? That is the real issue when studying the anomalous cases of Black Confederates. Unfortunately, instead of serious discussion of the issues this entails, it has of late become a question of political correctness, where the truth is lost in rhetoric and propaganda, projecting modern attitudes onto an earlier era.

Mainstream historians, when faced with a changing political landscape—and with grant monies or academic tenure on the line—have, more often than not, chosen to take a politically correct stand, to the extent of denying that there even was such a thing as Black Confederates. Some argue that it is just a confabulation by right wing pundits wishing to justify their covert racism or neo-Secessionist views. While there are, no doubt, some fringe advocates out there for whom that may be true, the truth behind Blacks in the Confederate army is a far more complex question than most political pundits are willing to concede.

The modern political rhetoric largely revolves about sensibilities of people today and almost always ignores the actual situation which African Americans during the Civil War had to face.

What about these soldiers as individuals? How did they feel about the war and their role in it? How did they respond to all the rapid changes in condition of their servitude and the promise—but not yet the reality—of freedom?

These, and similar questions, apply with equal force to both Black Confederates and to the much greater number of African Americans who rallied to the Union cause in various capacities—most notably as volunteers in the USCT, who fought for freedom with rifle & bayonet, artillery & saber.

I have previously documented some incidents regarding Blacks in the War in one of my previous books, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, which, despite its title, is firmly based on primary sources and which reflects, to great extent, attitudes of that era.

Towards the goal of more fully documenting Black participation in the Civil War, following is one first-hand account about Black Confederates, written by a member of the 55th Virginia Infantry, a regiment with the Army of Northern Virginia. Lieutenant Redwood was an eloquent writer and an even more talented artist. One thing that is clear from his first-hand account of Blacks in the Confederate Army, he distinguishes between those Negroes who, although of great value to the war effort, did so involuntarily, versus those whom he unquestionably regarded as soldiers.

While Redwood expresses his admiration of these soldiers, he does so in terms which today might bring condemnation for racial stereotyping and political incorrectness. In the context of his own day, however, his attitude would have been regarded as far more tolerant and enlightened than that of most Whites, North or South. Also note that Blackwood does not segregate his subjects as “Black Confederates” simply as Confederates.

That Redwood had been a member of Stonewall Jackson’s command may have had something to do with his enlightened racial attitudes, since in his day, General Jackson was widely regarded as “peculiar” because he treated Blacks in his home town of Lexington, Virginia, with humanity and grace—to the point of risking imprisonment to educate them, something strictly prohibited by Virginia law before the war.

While this account is but one primary source of many which document Black Confederates and their service in the war, it is important evidence that such persons did exist, even if many modern ideologues refuse to recognize their existence.


Century Magazine, Vol. XVIII, 560-568

In the grand total of events which we sum up comprehensively as ” the war,” the negro was no insignificant figure, and the part actually played by him was far less passive than a stranger might have inferred. The enlistment of negro troops, with all the complications to which it gave rise, was still a wise stroke of policy on the part of the Federal administration, while, on the opposing side, the peculiar institution was made available for the performance of numerous offices which would otherwise have withdrawn many muskets from the ranks. Vast tracts of fertile country, whence the able-bodied white population had been called away to other sowing and harvesting, were still made to yield sustenance for the armies by slave labor under direction of the few exempts left at home; and in constructing fortifications, and as teamsters at depot posts, the blacks did yeoman’s service.

But, in contradistinction to these compulsory Confederates who went to the wars only in the equivocal sense in which the mountain came to Mohammed, there was a large class who found a service eminently congenial to the erratic habits of their race in attendance upon their masters in the army. Whatever possibilities there might be for him in the issue of the contest, the army darky was in the enjoyment of the nearest approach to perfect bliss of which he had any conception, and of a larger liberty than was vouchsafed to his superiors pending its continuance. There was sufficient pomp and circumstance even in the Southern army to tickle his taste for display; the nomadic, happy-go-lucky mode of life suited him to a fraction. His duties were light and irregular, and his perquisites large. His love of novelty and change was continually being gratified, and his social instincts found infinite scope amidst the large following of his own class which the Southern forces brought into the field. In the earlier days of the war, and in the mounted service especially, this often exceeded in number the muster of fighting men. The mode of its organization naturally attracted the wealthier class into the ranks of the cavalry, and there were entire companies in which each trooper was attended by his swarthy Sancho, for the performance of stable duty. Throughout all arms of the service, indeed, and until within a year of the termination of hostilities, these retainers were still to be found in the proportion of one to each mess, in many regiments. Their ranks represented as many social sorts and conditions as did those of the fairer race, and distinctions of caste were alike observed : from the gentleman’s gentleman— whether the bearer of the grand old name in the possessive sported the stars of a general or carried a musket in the ranks— down to the rude field-hand transformed through stress of military necessity into a cook, the pas was rigorously exacted by each in his turn throughout the descending scale according to a code whose binding force was quite independent of formulation. But native talent will push its way through all obstructions of rank, and ignore distinctions of race, color, and ‘previous condition of servitude,’ and one or two such pronounced types have been selected for treatment here, partly because of their prominence but mainly because they have happened to come under the personal observation of the writer, who undertakes to declare only the things whereof he knows.

Dress Parade A

In the 55th Regiment of Virginia Infantry, there was no character more widely known than ” Bill Doin’s.” That was not his real name, by the way, but a nom de guerre—acquired through a habit the owner had of designating his personal belongings, and especially the utensils peculiar to his calling, by the generic tide of “my doin’s”—and there are probably not a dozen men of the regiment who ever knew him by any other. He was a cream-colored fellow, loosely hung together, lanky and long drawn out as to figure, and with a physiognomy the sides of which were as distinct, one from the other, as the tones of ” Orator Puff,”—one being normal, and the other disfigured by a scar which had drawn up the wing of the nose, given a cock to the eye and a twist to the corner of the mouth, and imparted to his countenance on that side a sinister cast, suggesting the Mephistopheles of the operatic stage. But “handsome is as handsome does” is an adage of especial applicability to war times; and Bill’s deeds—or, for unity’s sake, we may say his doings—were of a sort which veiled all his blemishes of person. His skill in the improvisation of ways and means did sometimes seem to amount to black art; but the declaration of his mess, to the effect that he ” beat the devil,” must not be understood as having any reference to the casual resemblance above noted. Of the culinary corps of the gallant 55th, he was facile princeps, and ruled the roast without a rival, for he embodied those qualities to which mediocre men invariably yield homage. The fact that he was the henchman of an officer had little to do with this pre-eminence, for the colonel’s valet was a personage of far less significance—with the cook-boys; Bill Doin’s ranked him badly. It is true that the latter inspired a certain degree of awe; but he did not kindle enthusiasm. Like his master, he had come to the regiment a stranger, and not by the popular choice; there was a flavor of West Point about him, so to speak, which did not suit the taste of these citizen soldiers of African descent. Bill was not exactly to the manner born; he had drifted into the regiment—and, indeed, into the Confederacy— by an accident of his peace-time avocation, which he himself would have defined, in a general way, as “follerin’ the water.” He had been a hand before the mast aboard a Chesapeake craft in the oyster trade, which, being in Virginia water at the time of the state’s secession, lost her entire crew by the prevailing epidemic, from the captain down to Bill Doin’s. But Bill was a cook-boy before he was a soldier, and the handy ways acquired in the caboose now stood him in good stead in the camp, and, notwithstanding his foreign derivation, he went rapidly to the front rank of his profession in the new field. For a while, his fame did not extend much beyond the limits of his company; but true genius will not long brook obscurity, and the chances of active campaign soon developed Bill’s knack of compensating for paucity of material by fertility of resource.

The hard-fought battle of Sharpsburg was just over, and McClellan had sustained a sufficient check to secure the Confederates in unmolested retreat across the Potomac. In anticipation of this movement, the train’s had already been sent over; but the troops were still in line of battle on the Maryland side, awaiting further development of the intentions of the enemy, before they followed. In this situation of affairs, an order was received by the subsistence officers with the wagons of the 55th to prepare immediately an issue of cooked rations, and to send them over to the regiment. Now, it so happened that the transportation had gotten rather ” mixed,” owing to the haste and confusion of crossing the river in the darkness; so that, while there was flour in abundance at hand, the wagon containing the ” cooking tools ” had gone on some miles further. To look it up before daylight, in the throng of others filling the roads and fields beyond Shepherdstown, would have been as hopeful as hunting for a needle in a hay-stack, and even if found, the utensils would have been quite insufficient for the preparation of so large a provision at once. By loss, breakage, and other accidents of the arduous campaign just concluded, the number of serviceable pots and skillets had dwindled to a minimum. Bill’s company claimed proprietorship in a single implement—an old hoe, which served in lieu of other oven. But Bill, though bereft of his legitimate ” doin’s,” was equal to the occasion. A man who had often tossed up a meal in the cuddy of a pitching “pungy” in a head wind, was not to be daunted by difficulties; and he marshaled his forces with a confidence which was contagious. No time was lost in bringing the wagons down from the high bluff overhanging the river by the winding road which led to the ford below; the barrels were unloaded and rolled down to the water’s edge, where Bill and his satellites were ready to receive them. A substantial fence skirted the road, and, as an act of military necessity, Bill promptly commanded this to be fired, while he unheaded a barrel, and without breaking bulk of its contents, proceeded, with water from the river, to work them into dough. It was rude bakery, certainly; but the question of the moment was of quantity and speed, rather than of quality; and Bill kept his assistants busy running to and fro between the river and the fires, fetching the water in canteens, and carrying off the ” pones,” as he rapidly turned them out, to be baked. The headings and staves, as each barrel was emptied, were used first for baking the bread, hoe-cake fashion, before the fires, and as fuel for the latter, as the dry rails burnt out.

Bill’s genius not only solved the problem of provisioning, the gallant 55th, but also made a close shot at the perpetual motion; once started, the flour, so to say, cooked itself. And when the last batch was baked, the bread was packed in bags and shelter-tents, and borne high and dry on the heads of Bill’s brigade, across the river and up to the hungrily expectant line of battle on the Maryland side. To have given check to McClellan was all very well, though on this point authorities differ; but whoever won or lost Sharpsburg, this chronicle claims a Confederate victory of which official reports make no mention, and bespeaks the honor, too long withheld from Bill Doin’s, who then and there trumped a stronger card than ” Little Mac,”—to wit, General Starvation!

From this time forth, Bill’s abilities found a more extended scope for their exercise, and he became a regimental character, in the capacity of caterer for a mess comprising some of the ” field and staff” In that much harried territory skirting the upper Potomac, which supported one army or the other without respite, from the beginning to the close of the war, he seemed to divine by a species of intuition the farm-houses where there was any prospect of prog. Rarely was his foraging bootless. Commissaries, though armed with the power of impressment, might sally forth and return with empty rattling wagons at night-fall; the trust which was vain when reposed in chariots and horses ripened into assurance when Bill Doin’s hove in sight, and one mess at least felt secure from the necessity of going supperless to bed. In these operations, he was much hampered by other agencies than the mere scarcity of provisions. The flagrant evil of straggling which had resulted from the incessant marching and fighting of some weeks before, had necessitated the most stringent measures for its suppression, and Bill was perpetually getting into trouble with patrolling provost-guards who, deceived by his bright complexion and straight hair, insisted upon reversing the decree which had consigned him to the maternal caste and claiming him as a man and a brother in arms, out of bounds without leave. But Bill was up to every move on the board, and soon found a way to flank the provost. By some mysterious convention, a cavalry man might roam at large without let or hindrance, when an infantry soldier dared not venture beyond the limits of his brigade camp unless fortified with a pass, and Bill lost no time in taking advantage of this immunity by providing himself with a mount. His old sorrel nag, bearing the distinguished name of ” Stonewall,” was the complement of himself, affording not only the means of extending his explorations over a wider field than he could cover afoot, but also providing the necessary transportation for supplies when achieved. The early history of this remarkable steed is involved in obscurity; there are reasons for believing that he was of Southern origin, though the brand on his fore shoulder attested that, like his namesake, he had begun his military career in the service of “Uncle Sam;” for Northern horses, when put upon Confederate fare, were rarely capable of the endurance which he manifested. This argument, however, is open to objection, since, under the auspices of his provident master, Stonewall may have been as independent of quartermasters as was Bill’s mess of commissaries. In common with his owner, Stonewall possessed the quality distinctive of a ” singed cat,”—of being better than he looked; though, as for that, there was seldom much of him visible, when on duty, except his head and tail, the intermediate space being obscured by various edible and potable forage, and by Bill Doin’s. It was wonderful what an amount of vitality was bound up in that frowsy and sun-burnt old sorrel hide, for in those stirring times which tried men’s soles, it was no light work, quartering miles of country and keeping abreast of the foot-cavalry. But whether because he had touched the limit of equine endurance, or that in virtue of his presumably Southern derivation he was averse to the policy of aggression, Stonewall could not be induced to accompany the advance into Pennsylvania, and when within a day’s march of the Potomac, he incontinently “nullified.” To his credit it should be stated, that he still manifested his usual willingness of spirit in spite of the infirmity of his flesh, and though his last legs declined to carry him forward, they went through the motions by executing a species of pantomimic gallop in their tracks, like a soldier “marking time”! Persuasive and coercive measures proving alike vain to move him further. Bill reluctantly sold him to a passing farmer for eight dollars in Confederate currency—the actual cost of a new set of shoes with which Stonewall had been equipped that morning.

But Bill’s enterprising spirit was not to be put down by so trifling an accident of war and Stonewall had numerous successors. But from the date of the latter’s retirement from public life, his master exhibited a marked inconsistency in the matter of his steeds, changing from one to another with the facility of a circuit preacher. For quartermasters had an unpleasant notion that captured animals should be turned in to their department and Stonewall had only escaped confiscation because superficial examination had failed to detect his merit, and he had been passed as not worth claiming. Occasionally Bill would appear mounted as became a bold dragoon; but for obvious reasons, as above stated, these seasons of glory were brief and far between; more frequently the animal was some castaway ” plug,” wounded in action or abandoned on the road because of lameness or of some incorrigible saddle-gall—” the last of many scars” which invalidated his gallant back. These disqualifications for military duty in the strict sense would, for a while, secure Bill in undisputed possession of his prize. But as soon as by careful nursing and provident foraging he had converted the waif into something like a serviceable nag, some officious assistant quartermaster would be sure to spy out Uncle Sam’s trade-mark, and Bill would be summarily reduced to an infantry footing again. Between the quartermasters and the provost, he had “a hard road to hoe”; and whether mounted or afoot, he was alike beset, until, at length, disgusted with service in the line, he went over bodily to the enemy by entering the commissary department, and so vanished from the field embraced in these annals.

Our next subject, who was thoroughbred beyond dispute, proved more steadfast and enduring. “Gin’ral Boeygyard ” was an attaché to Company ” C,” heretofore mentioned in these memoirs, of which organization he followed the fortunes and shared the misfortunes, to the bitter end of its career. Concerning his official title, —retained here for reasons which concern the writer personally, and would not interest the reader—it is sufficient to say that it related to services lying altogether outside of the line of duty, as defined by those claiming authority over the bearer. Notwithstanding the scriptural declaration that no man can serve two masters, the general yielded obedience to six, such being the number, by the actual count of mouths, of the mess over whose culinary destinies he presided. But Boeygyard’s generalship was more than a match for the outside odds against him. He could not pretend to any superior skill in his art, and his personal habits were scarcely such as would pass muster in a well-ordered ménage; but in the Confederate cookery-book the most significant clause of each recipe was,” First catch your fish,” and estimates of proficiency in the cuisine were characterized by a studious attention to this principle. Moreover, as to the rights of property, the general was, like most of his race, a little vague but, as he drew the line vigorously around the military family in whose service he was retained, Mess No. 5 was not disposed to view uncharitably so venial and general a failing.

REDWOOD Perpetual Motion A

It has even been intimated that much of the general’s popularity with his mess was won in ways that were dark, and that his talent of acquisitiveness covered a multitude of sins, in more senses than the orthodox one; that there are yet living those who, if put upon oath, might testify concerning certain “turns” of fire-wood, conveyed by night and under stimulus of liberal reward and no questions asked, to a particular bell-tent sacred to the privacy of the mess,—all this at or near Fredericksburg, Va., at or about the end of the winter of 1862-3, when fuel was “as scarce as hen’s teeth ” in the camps of the A. N. V. In the spirit of strict confidence which should govern the relations of writer and reader, it is competent to admit a declaration, however seemingly irrelevant, which may still serve to cast some light upon the matter under consideration, and which may be relied upon as authentic. This was originally offered, in plea of an increase of tariff, by Boeygyard himself, and was as follows:

“Y’ all gwine git me killed yit, some o’ dese nights; dem da men ober in de —th” (another regiment of the same brigade) “done got wile as hawks !”

The writer, who happened to be within earshot, distinctly heard the words above uttered in a grumbling tone, as the general slipped away in the darkness to his blanket, there to revive, perchance, his “Hair-breadth ‘scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach” of—let us say the rules of military etiquette.

But if the luster of the general’s fair fame was not altogether undimmed by the breath of detraction within the pent-up Utica of a winter-quarter camp, where gossip was the one relief from enforced inaction, all tarnish was speedily rubbed off when the army broke up from the Rappahannock and began its march northward, and universal admiration succeeded factious caviling, as the chances of the campaign developed his abilities, while affording a larger scope for their exercise and in more legitimate directions.

The policy and conduct of the Gettysburg undertaking have formed the subject of more criticism, perhaps, than have all the other operations of the war combined. A host of commentators of every class—soldiers and civilians, pedagogues and parsons, from the Congressional committee to the Comte de Paris—have ciphered and cross-questioned, spouted and scribbled, over the famous battle-field; Batchelder has reduced it to rods and perches, and Bret Harte to rhythmic feet; those who fancy facts and figures may ponder the pages of Early, while the “Later Rambles” of Professor Jacobs may delight the readers of romance. But it is not among the purposes of the present paper to discuss a matter which was settled in the most definite way sixteen years ago; these jottings from memory may, or may not, serve as material for the “future historian”; but, while we are taking evidence for that much talked-of personage, upon whom either faction relies to give a final verdict in its favor, due weight should be allowed to the testimony of General Boeygyard.

From the Confederate point of view, it is to be regretted that the vexed question could not be decided thus, for the writer undertakes to pronounce on the general’s behalf that the Pennsylvania invasion of 1863 lacked nothing of complete success. From the passage of the Potomac, his progress was a series of triumphs, each eclipsing the other in brilliancy. At the first notes of the “drummer’s call” before reveille in the morning, he would disappear, to be seen no more of his associates until the end of the day’s march. But the general’s ramblings, however devious, had a definite end and purpose continually in view.

REDWOOD Bill Doin s and Stonewall

When the troops, having refreshed themselves from the heat and burden of the day by release from harness and by copious ablutions, were beginning to think of other refreshment, then the general’s visage glowed with mingled pride and perspiration, as he shucked off his plethoric haversacks and weighty canteens, and read, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” in the speaking looks of the mess.

Highway and by-way were alike explored, that nothing might lack to grace the banquet; and now were deployed before appreciative eyes the callow chicken, the odoriferous onion, with bland buttermilk in abundance as a corrective; loaf bread, “salt riz” of that heroic mold known only to Dutch farmers,—flanked by appetizing apple-butter, snowy smear-kase, and dulcet honey, while, with the spirit of a true epicure, the purveyor of all this bounty did not omit to heighten the zest of those who were to be partakers of the same, by recounting the difficulties under which it had been procured, and his own address in overcoming them:

“Dese yer sart’n’y is funny people ’bout here, but dey does lib well, an’ dey don’ ‘pear to keer ’bout vittles, no mo’n nufiin, long ‘s y’ all don’ bre’k too many limbs off’n de che’y trees and don’sturve de bosses. Dat dar house wid de big red barn whar I done got my dinner, dey tuk me in de dine-room an’ sot me down at de table, an” gin me jis all I kin eat, and de white ladies dey wait on me, ef dey didn’t, hope I may nebber eat nuther mouflful long’s I lib. Den when I done eat all I want, I tell um I mus’ git on to camp now and dey fill my haversock chock full and tell me dar sumpen for my supper. So de nex’ house; I leab dat dar one out in de fence corner and takes in de em’ty ones, an’ when I done got all on ’em full den I come on ‘long. I till ’em I aint gin’ly hungry much tell I git done travelin’ ‘n’ go back to camp, ‘n’ no mo’ I wa’n’t ‘ca’se I done eat so much I mos’ ready to bus’ open.”

REDWOOD Otium Cum Dignitate

In the course of these wanderings, Boeygyard’s allegiance was more than once put to the proof, and to fortify the arguments brought to bear upon him he was frequently assured that utter disaster awaited the invading force. Not only was his virtue sufficient under temptation, but he was also duly mindful to exercise a reciprocal moral influence for the enlightenment of those to whose enticement he consented not; and he related, with the enjoyment which comes of the consciousness of having deserved well of one’s country, how he had repelled such an advance of the enemy by a counter-charge:

“‘Twas one ole man wha’ I seed to-day ‘lowed ‘t wa’n’t none on y’ all gwine git back ‘cross de ‘Tomac no mo’ ; ‘lowed Gin’l Hooker gwine be here fo’ long wid a million o’ men. I till him y’all don’ gin’ly start out wid nutten less ‘n two million, ‘sides de artillery; tell him dese here what he been see ain’ no mo’ ‘n de ‘vance gya’d, no way—de tail eend o’ de column ain’ nuver bim got cl’ar o’ Richmon’ yit, an’ de calv’ry done gone on a raid up ‘long tow’ds Philidelfy an’ New York! I tell you dat ole man open he eyes wide,—nuver say no mo’ ’bout Gin’l Hooker ‘n’ he little ole million men—yah.”

Such arduous services in the line of duty might well merit occasional seasons of repose, and such release from care was all the sweeter because it came just when less provident purveyors were busy preparing rations for the next day’s march. Then Boeygyard’s triumph culminated, as he reclined at full length before the fire, and while enjoying his pipe, threw out sundry gratuitous remarks of sympathy or of counsel:

“Is y’ all niggers gwine set up all night foolin’ long o’ dat dar ole bull beef an’ spider-bread ? How come y’ all don’ lay down ‘n’ res’ yo’sif some ?—’pears like yo’ gwine cook all de time ! I ain’ keerin’ so much ’bout cookin’ myse’f dese days, and I gwine sleep soon eber I done smoke out disher pipe an’ cool off little bit; mus’ be gittin’ up soon in de mornin’—done ‘gage some warm light bread for breakfas’ down dar at de house ; my men ‘low dey won’ eat none o’ dat ole truck, like y’ all wuckin at, an’ I has to ‘commodate ’em. Well—ef yo’ will set up, far you well!”

Boeygyard’s popularity was not at all impaired by his sarcastic habit of speech, in which there was indeed no trace of ill nature. The cook-boys of Company ” C ” acknowledged him as their head, and as such he showed a marked talent for organization; during the long season of inactivity comprised within the winter months, he was rigorous in the exaction of drills and parades of his force, which numerically and otherwise bore close resemblance to the army of Bombastes. But in those times, “skeleton” commands were not anomalous, and there were stars which shed their luster over territory of little greater extent than that illuminated by the humble imitation in the shape of a pair of plated buckles, which our general sported on his jacket collar. Concerning these insignia, delicacy forbids to say further than that they had originally and fundamentally been associated with the order of knighthood with which Britain rewards only her most deserving lieges, and in bar of any misgiving in the reader’s mind, the writer begs to add a somewhat musty proverb as not quite inappropriate—” Honi soi qui mal y pense”

It is to be regretted that Boeygyard’s performances in the field did not add the force of example to the principles which he labored to inculcate, and that, as has been the case with other generals, his fine array refused the test of actual service. Such a miscalculation was the cause of some trouble to Mess No. 5, which by the defection of its cook, while in the trenches was reduced for eight days to a diet of onions supplied by a peripatetic sutler, at the moderate figure of twenty-five cents apiece; a certain heat which characterized the next interview between Boeygyard and the mess, may be fairly referable to so prolonged a subsistence upon so pungent a pabulum. But by degrees the general became more accustomed to the sight of blue coats, and while the armies were confronting each other in the fortified lines about Richmond, the project formed itself in his mind of capturing “one o’ dem Yankee niggers” and selling him for his personal profit.

One snowy day, while he was upon the errand of conveying rations to one of his mess on vidette duty, he was reminded by the latter that the chance was favorable; only a few yards separated him from the Federal vidette—a medium-sized ” chattel” whom the general might have “toted” on his shoulder. ” Now’s your chance, General,” urged the mischievous man of war; “yonder’s ‘Corporal Dick’ by himself; you can gather him right in.” Boeygyard hailed his intended victim and proposed to go over and have a talk with him—who, guileless as to the Punic character of the treaty, assented, and the would-be enslaver made a few cautious steps into the narrow belt of neutral soil between the lines. At this juncture the vidette began to stamp his feet violently to restore the circulation. Boeygyard’s fears misconstrued the movement as indicative of an advance of the enemy, and he promptly reversed the policy of his campaign, and, as a preliminary to defensive measures, took to his heels, without once stopping to see if he was pursued, until he was safe behind the breastwork, a good quarter of a mile in the rear.

REDWOOD Boeyguard s Change of Base

The following incident, related by a friend of the writer who was an eye-witness, and introduced here with his sanction, seems to define in epitome the military status of the branch of the service under consideration:

At a railroad station in Mississippi, shortly after the war, a negro vender of peaches was holding forth to some others engaged in similar traffic to this effect:

“I tell y’ all, piggers, yo’ donno nuffin’, An’ me an’ Gen’l Forres’ we formed de line, dar, right on de ribber sho’, an’ we fit dar clean till de sun went down, an de ribber was run red wid blood an’ dead men. I tell you what—I’d a-gi’n a milliofi dollars dat day ef I’d ‘a-knowed I was gwine be here now, sho!”

An old negro who had been listening with an incredulous air, here put in.

“What all dat you talkin’ on ’bout? You an’ Gen’l Forres’—reckon anybody gwine b’leab all dem lies, boy?

“So did,” rejoined the first speaker.

“y’ ain’ bin nowhar! When I was up dar dat time on de Tennessee Ribber, time all dat dar fightin’ was a-gwine on dar, I tell yo’ ef I’d a-knowed I’d be hyar sellin’ peaches to-day I’d a-gi’n a thousan’ dollars. Dar was Armstrong on de right; Ross, he hilt de lef’, an’ Gen’l Forres’ an’ me, we was in de center, an’ de Yankees dey come ober de hill in sebeit lines o’ battle, till de whole place was jis blue wid ’em—an’, Lord, how we did fit dat day! But dey was too many fur our men, an’, bimeby, de white men, dey couldn’t stan’ it, and dey ‘gin to gib way, dey did, an’ Gen’l Forres’ he rid up to me, he did, an’ he say, ‘Jim, stop dem men! ‘—

“What you know ’bout it, anyway? is you ebber bin in de army?”

“Yaas,” replied the objector, “I was in de army too n Gen’l Lee’s army, up in Ferginny. I went dar wid my young marster in de ole 18th Mississippi Rigiment soon arter de waubruck out, an’ come back ‘long ’bout May arter the s’render—fo’ yea’s or sich a matter. An I bin hear um say dey was some fightin’ done up in dat part o’ de country, too; hear some talk ’bout it, but I dunno how dat was, myse’f, ’cause dar whar we was, when dey was formin’ lines o’ battle, an’ fightin’ an’ sich, t’wa’n’t no niggers nowhar ‘dout dar.”

Good Friday: The Day Lincoln Died


01 Gardner Lincoln fatal look

     Today is the day that Lincoln died. It was on April 14, 1865—another Good Friday to be precise—that Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth President, was murdered in cold blood.  Young Mary Brennan, an Irish immigrant only recently arrived to our shores, remembered well that dreadful day for the rest of her life.  A devout Catholic, she, like many a Protestant of the day, regarded Good Friday, the day Christ died, as a solemn holy day and one not to be commemorated by going out the theater.  “He never would have died,” she would often say, ”had he not gone to see a play on Good Friday.”  Great grandmother was a font of such sayings and superstitions, she was, and her many descendants can still recite one or another of her sayings at will.

Another political commentary on Secession
A political cartoon from the time of the Civil War, showing John Bull (England) and Napoleon Bonaparte (France) waiting in the background for the US to be destroyed.

     But Abraham Lincoln, never a “technical Christian,” had ample reason to celebrate that Friday, April 14 so many years ago.  Robert E. Lee and his army had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant scarcely a week before and that very morning the general was delivering his report to the President and Cabinet in person.  For the first time in four years, Lincoln, who frequently suffered from “melancholy” seemed uncommonly hopeful, now that the end of the Rebellion was in sight.  Lincoln could at last look ahead to the future, to peace and to the task of rebuilding a nation torn apart by a fratricidal conflict.

pp Lincoln and Cabinet Emancipation Proc.
Lincoln and his Cabinet earlier in the war. Their last meeting was on the day he died, April 14, when he told them of his “usual dream.”

     As his Cabinet chatted before the official beginning of the meeting, Lincoln also told them that Friday about the “usual dream” he had had only the night before.  He explained that before every major event of the war he had dreamed the same dream: of a ship sailing towards a distant shore.  It always portended important war news.  Lincoln, raised on presentments, omens and prophetic dreams, believed that this latest portent was a sign of something momentous about to happen.

Uncle Billy & Uncle Joe

  Cabinet met, Lincoln was expecting news from Sherman in North Carolina, where “Uncle Billy” had run to ground the once proud Confederate Army of Tennessee, now commanded by “Uncle Joe” Johnston.  Johnston’s force was but a hollow shell of what it had once been, but the proud Rebels, barefoot and in rags, could still fight like wildcats—albeit cornered wildcats.  Lincoln hoped to hear that Johnston too had surrendered, marking the end of organized resistance.  Surely the “usual dream” portended this, thought Lincoln.

     Later that day, as Lincoln and his wife readied for the theater, the President was in an uncommonly optimistic mood, not realizing the prophetic dream portended not good news on Good Friday, but ill.  For even as they dressed for the night, across town a band of conspirators were also preparing for the night—but their performance would end in death and mayhem.

     Much has been written about that day and about the conspirators led by John Wilkes Booth; yet, to this day there is no certainty as to how deeply the Booth Conspiracy to do away with Lincoln and his Cabinet ran.  To be sure, many were arrested and most of the leading conspirators executed.  But Mary Lincoln, for one, had her suspicions that there were others involved who got away—including some high placed in the Lincoln administration.  Mrs. Grant too, had had a terrifying incident that day that lead her to believe not all the culprits had been caught.  But historians hate loose ends and the strands of evidence pointing to a broader conspiracy lie moldering in archives and museums little looked at or considered. Still, the truth may still be out there.

John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth, actor, Rebel spy and leader of the conspiracy to murder Lincoln

     What is proven about the events of Good Friday, April 14, is tragic enough, however.  Just as Lincoln’s ship of state was about to reach that far and distant shore of peace, the captain—Lincoln—was cut down.  How different our history would have been had Lincoln survived to oversee the peace as he had the war!  We can be sure that the “Better Angels of our Nature” would have thrived under his leadership and the postwar darkness and violence, and the enduring aftermath of meanness and divisiveness that still dogs our nation to this day would have been greatly diminished, if not prevented entirely.

     Greatness is not to be measured in the number of bombs one drops or the number of innocents one kills; Lincoln did not rejoice in war and wished it brought to a speedy end.  No, what was great about Lincoln and Lincoln’s America was its struggle for equality, for social justice, and for the betterment of the average worker, not some aristocratic elite. The President who created land-grant universities to provide free college education, who redistributed millions of acres of land to any who would settle and till it, who fought and died for racial equality, and who sought to unite the nation from seas to sea with modern transportation: these and other social and economic programs were what truly made Lincoln great—not his leadership of a war that was forced on him by the Cotton Slaveocracy and other elites who benefitted from human bondage.  In the end, Lincoln paid for his achievements in human progress with his life.  As we commemorate Good Friday this April 14, this too should be borne in mind.

Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
For the first time documents Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and experiences dealing with the paranormal. The Paranormal Presidency chronicles his prophetic dreams, premonitions and beliefs, as well as his participation in séances and Spiritualism.






Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.







Starvation Christmas, Richmond, 1864: A Civil War Christmas, Part 9

The Confederate "White House" where the Davis family resided during the war.  One of their children died there.  By Christmas of 1864, although still defiant, privation and defeat were in the air.
The Confederate “White House” where the Davis family resided during the war. One of their children died there. By Christmas of 1864, although still defiant, privation and defeat were in the air.

Christmas 1864 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 had seceded to much jubilation and overweening 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 drastically, with Richmond under siege and Southern forces in retreat on all fronts.

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.

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, 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.”

Strange Presents

The Davis family tried to make the best of Christmas, despite the lack of even basic staples. Jeff Davis even played Santa.
The Davis family tried to make the best of Christmas, despite the lack of even basic staples. Gifts were homemade and simple.  Supper was spare, but there was still a celebration.

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

Jefferson Davis, the embattled president of the Confederacy, tried to put on his best face for the holiday and played Santa for war orphans .
Jefferson Davis, the embattled president of the Confederacy, tried to put on his best face for the holiday and played Santa for war orphans .

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

If Christmas was threadbare in Richmond, for the Confederate soldiers at the front it was even more Spartan.
If Christmas was threadbare in Richmond, for the Confederate soldiers at the front it was even more Spartan.

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.”

For more stories of the Civil War, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  Now in print, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, chronicles the famous American author’s wartime experiences.


Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time.

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency
The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency

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.

Bloody Antietam: the Phantom Carolers and other Battlefield Haunts

"Raise the Colors and Follow Me!" Mort Kunstler Painting of the Irish Brigade at Antietam.
“Raise the Colors and Follow Me!” Mort Kunstler Painting of the Irish Brigade at Antietam.

The Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862 was the bloodiest single day in American History. The casualties on that day exceeded the casualties of all of America’s previous wars combined. That such awful butchery would leave its mark on the field of battle is therefore not too surprising.

Visitors to Antietam have had many spectral encounters over the years at Antietam, but one of the more curious incidents is the one I documented in Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War. In Ghosts and Haunts I relate how a whole class of students from a private boys school report hearing unseen voices singing Christmas carols on the battlefield. On reading their class reports about their field trip, their history teacher, an expert on the Civil War, was perplexed. The young scholars had penned their reports on the bus ride back from the battlefield and did not have time to engage in any collusion or organize a practical joke.

The Bloody Lane, where you could walk on the dead its length without touching the ground.
After butchering the Irish Brigade in the open fields, it was the Rebel turn to be slaughtered in the Bloody Lane. This painting, by Captain James Hope, based on a field sketch, captures the awful carnage.

On quizzing the students, the majority told him they heard the caroling near the sunken road now called Bloody Lane, a place made famous by the Union Irish Brigade, who suffered terrible losses in their charge there. When asked exactly what Christmas song they heard, they were united in saying “Deck the Halls” with its chorus of “fall-a-lalla-la.” It was then a light suddenly went on in the teacher’s brain: “Faugh a Ballagh!” was the war cry of the Irish Brigade—yet none of the students could have known that!

The Federal attack over Burnside Bridge was a bloody and senseless incident, but one which has left spectral reminders
The Federal attack over Burnside Bridge was a bloody and senseless incident, but one which has left spectral reminders

The Bloody Lane is not the sole spot at Antietam with a haunted reputation. Burnside Bridge, where Yankee troops tried to force a crossing over Antietam Creek and paid dearly for it, has had numerous visitors give reports of spectral encounters. Many report seeing ghostly figures, strange blue balls of light and the sounds of a phantom drummer drumming.

This small country church, called The Dunker Church, was used as a field hospital and is a hotspot of paranormal activity
This small country church, called The Dunker Church, was used as a field hospital and is a hotspot of paranormal activity

Dunker Church, another local landmark that figured in the battle, has had reports of people seeing spectral soldiers haunting its environs. It is a small country church which during and after the battle was used as a field hospital. Soldier’s limbs were hacked off by the score without anesthesia and many the man it was who died in agony there. Besides the phantoms said to roam its bloodied floorboards, eerie lights have been spied there at night.

The Pry House, used as McClellan’s headquarters, is now The Pry House Field Hospital Museum, and is open daily June-October. It served as a Union field hospital and visitors to it have also had uncanny encounters in and around it.

This photo, taken by a tourist of the Pry House, also used as a field hospital, may have captured a spectral presence.  The house itself has had many reports of ghosts haunting it.
This photo, taken by a tourist of the Pry House, also used as a field hospital, may have captured a spectral presence. The house itself has had many reports of ghosts haunting it.

There are enough re-enactors and tourists who have experienced things at Antietam that cannot be explained, that you do not need some hokey TV ghost hunter running around with a flashlight to his face for one to know that Antietam is a most seriously haunted piece of Civil War real estate.

For more about Antietam’s spectral encounters, see Chapter 13, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War. If you want to learn of Lincoln’s paranormal relationship with the battle, see Chapter 10, The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Happy haunting!

"Faugh a Ballagh" the Irish Brigade's War Cry means "clear the way," the title of this painting by Don Troiani.  The dead still chant it on the battlefield to this day.
“Faugh a Ballagh” the Irish Brigade’s War Cry means “clear the way,” the title of this painting by Don Troiani. The dead still chant it on the battlefield to this day.

The Haunted Homes of Robert E. Lee

Portrait of General Lee and the generals of the Army of Northern Virginia
Portrait of General Lee and the generals of the Army of Northern Virginia

During my extensive research for Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, strangely enough, I never came across references to any ghostly sightings of Robert E. Lee, the venerable commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and central figure in the pantheon of the Lost Cause.

Curiously, however, at least three of the homes the general lived in life have had verified accounts of them being haunted by one or another Lee family member. While I devote an entire chapter to Lee’s haunted homes in Dixie Spirits, I thought I’d update that with a blog and post some photos to go along with it.

When one thinks of General Lee and his family, one naturally thinks of a dignified Southern gentleman coming from an honored and venerable First Family of Virginia (FFV for short).

While Lee always conducted himself with dignity, his venerable family was chock full of scandal, extending through several generations. His father, for example, the war hero Light Horse Harry Lee, while a hero of the American Revolution was also something of a hell raiser.  A gambler, a drinker and much else, he was constantly in debt–at one time he was even thrown into debtor’s prison. After Light Horse Harry died, his widow and children were left destitute and dependent on the charity of other family members–and they too had their scandals–notably their relative “Black Horse” Harry Lee, who was guilty of a dalliance with his wife’s sister.

The best known Lee home is, of course, Arlington, now located in the middle of Arlington National Cemetery. Seized early in the war, it became a last resting place for Union war dead. The mansion itself is also an abode of the dead–who at times get a mite restless. Several Lee family ghosts have been sighted in here.

Arlington, General Lee's home seized by the Yankees.  Photo taken during the war.
Arlington, General Lee’s home seized by the Yankees. Photo taken during the war.

Stratford Hall, the ancestral home of the Lees, was built in the early 1700’s and so it naturally has several generations of Lee ghosts, including old “Black Horse” Harry who had an affair with his wife’s sister while his spouse lay sick abed.

Stratford Hall, ancestral home of the Lees and the scene of family secrets--and family ghosts.
Stratford Hall, ancestral home of the Lees and the scene of family secrets–and family ghosts.

Then there is the “Lee Boyhood Home” in Alexandria, Virginia. After their father died deep in debt, Robert and his mother had to move about to their financial situation. Nonetheless, General Lee always had fond memories of this place and it was here he returned briefly right after the surrender–and who knows he may still be there.  Numerous sightings have been reported, both as a private residence and as a public museum.

Lee's boyhood home as it looked ca. 1908.  It too is said to be haunted.
Lee’s boyhood home as it looked ca. 1908. It too is said to be haunted.

There are a few other old Virginia manse’s associated with the general—all of them reputedly haunted. For more on the tragic haunted history of the Lees see Dixie Spirits, chapter 31.

General Lee photographed by Matthew Brady, probably on the steps of his boyhood home in Richmond, ca. April, 1865.
General Lee photographed by Matthew Brady, probably on the steps of his boyhood home in Richmond, ca. April, 1865.

You may also take a tour of the homes; most are open to the public for the price of admission.

Gettysburg: Civil War Ghost Central

In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays.
Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger,
to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.”

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, 20th Maine

For Civil War buffs in general, and those interested in the paranormal aspects of the Late Unpleasantness in particular, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is something akin to Mecca. The site of the most famous battle of the Civil War.  For generations it has attracted both Civil War enthusiasts and average tourists by the millions. Compounded by its fame as a battlefield is its connection with Abraham Lincoln and his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address.

Certainly, just for the history alone, Gettysburg is worth visiting, especially in this sesquicentennial—and even more this year, the 150th anniversary of both the battle and Lincoln’s speech. Having written about both Gettysburg’s restless dead and Abraham Lincoln’s own fascination with the paranormal, I would be remiss if I did not devote at least one blog entry to this holy grail of re-enactors, ghost hunters, and mainstream Civil War historians alike.

Col. Chamberlain leads the charge of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863 by Mort Kunstler
Col. Chamberlain and the 20th Maine charging the enemy at Little Round Top. Did they have an assist from the ghost of George Washington?

In Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War I chronicled a few of Gettysburg’s haunted locations; one is connected with Colonel Chamberlain and his famous defense of Little Round Top and another section deals with the phantoms of Farnsworth House. Farnsworth House is on most top ten lists of haunted hotels and what it lacks in size it makes up for in sheer volume of paranormal activity. They offer ghost tours and have even added a re-enactment of a Civil War era séance–of the sort which both President and Mrs. Lincoln attended. For more on the Lincolns and Spiritualism, see Chapters 14 and 15 of The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Fayette Hall Lincoln on Dancing Piano fac 34a
Both President and Mrs. Lincoln attended séances while in the White House. At Farnsworth House they re-enact that sort of nineteenth century session.

I could easily have filled the whole book with other Gettysburg spirits and encounters, but to be honest that field has been amply plowed by Alan Nesbitt and his series of pamphlets covering them. Alan was a tour guide at Gettysburg for years and collected a number of first hand accounts, as well as being knowledgeable about the battle itself. Greystone Productions, with whom I collaborated on the production of their video Ghosts of Music City, has also produced some a nice series of documentary videos on the subject as well; in fact they too have a store in Gettysburg. So why add to the congestion?

The Farnsworth Inn and B&B generally makes the top 10 lists of most haunted hotels.  See Chapter 15 of Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.
The Farnsworth Inn and B&B generally makes the top 10 lists of most haunted hotels. See Chapter 15 of Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

Well, it just so happens my daughter visited there last summer, while en route to attend a friend’s wedding. Like many visitors, she snapped several photos of her visit. Surprisingly, (or perhaps not so surprisingly) when she viewed a few of them later she saw some weird things had appeared on the digital shots. In one photo, taken at night but without a flash, she caught what definitely appears to be a gray apparition looking out of an upstairs window in the town. Unfortunately, whenever we have tried to enlarge it to make it more distinct, the autocorrect function in the digital camera kept trying to erase the image: so much for the wonders of technology. The image remains on the original, however.

She also took a series of shots looking out over the battlefield in the dark. Standing in one place, she took an overlapping sequence of them to form a panorama. To be honest, in nighttime there is little of the battlefield to see; what was interesting, however was that in several of the shots there appeared a cluster of white “orbs.” Now anyone familiar with both the paranormal and photography is familiar with this phenomena; orbs are thought to be a particular form of ghostly energy not normally visible to the naked eye; debunkers claim it is just dust reflecting back the light of a flash at night. Well, these photos were taken with low level light-sensitive camera; more importantly they were all taken from the same identical position, yet some photos had orbs, yet others didn’t. If it had simply been dust in front of the lens then all the photos should have come out exactly the same: they didn’t.

Many, many other visitors to Gettysburg report similar strange encounters, some far more dramatic than my daughter’s.

As Colonel Chamberlain said, “bodies disappear, but spirits linger.”

Far more about Gettysburg ghosts, see chapters 15 & 16 of Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War; on Lincoln and the paranormal, see my brand new book, The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Chronicles unexplained phenomena connected with the Late Unpleasantness in the battlefields and houses where the conflict to take place.


Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
The Paranormal Presidency documents for the first time many of the reports about Lincoln’s belief and practice regarding the Unexplained and Uncanny.


Christmas 1864: A Civil War Christmas, Part 8

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

Christmas 1864 In the span of a year things had changed radically. While the North had not yet won, and the ultimate outcome was not yet certain, everywhere it seemed that Union forces were advancing inevitably onward to a final conclusion.

Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were closely besieged at Richmond and Petersburg. General Sherman was advancing with fire and sword like an avenging demon through Georgia. Only at Nashville did it seem that a glimmer of hope remained for the Confederacy, where Hood and the Army of Tennessee were besieging General Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland at the beginning of December. With most Confederate ports now in Federal hands, the Union naval blockade was choking off not just war supplies but civilian necessities as well. It was a difficult Christmas for many, even in the North. It was a winter few on either side would ever forget.

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.

Varina Davis, the wife of the Confederate president, left a vivid portrait in the besieged capitol that last Christmas of the war. For her, the deprivations of the children were what pained her most: “For as Christmas season was ushered in under the darkest clouds, everyone felt the cataclysm….but the rosy, expectant faces of our little children were a constant reminder that self-sacrifice must be the personal offering of each member of the family. How to satisfy the children when nothing better could be done than the little makeshift attainable in the Confederacy was the problem of the older members of each household.” In the city was an orphanage for children of soldiers killed in the war and for those already short of everything, a special effort was made to provide them with some sort of Christmas cheer. The Davis’ house servant, Robert Brown volunteered to make by hand a doll house from scratch, “a sure enough house, with four rooms,” he called it. It would be a “pretty prize” for the “most orderly girl” among the orphans.

In Richmond, the belles, Varina Davis tells us were, "fragile as fairies, but worked like peasants for their home and country" Godey's Ladies Book was the arbiter of women's fashions, North and South. This is an illustration from the December 1864 issue showing Christmas dresses.
In Richmond, the belles, Varina Davis tells us, were, “fragile as fairies, but worked like peasants for their home and country.” Godey’s Ladies Book was the arbiter of women’s fashions, North and South. This is an illustration from the December 1864 issue showing Christmas dresses.

On Christmas night in Richmond they held a “Starvation Dance.” Officers rode into the city from the front—not a far distance anymore—and changed into formal military attire for the event. In “full toggery” they entered into the dance with bright-eyed young belles, whom Varina tells us were, “fragile as fairies, but worked like peasants for their home and country… 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.”


General John Bell Hood, whose aggressive temperament is what Jefferson Davis wanted in the West, attempted to turn the tide of war in a bold invasion of Tennessee in the Fall and Winter of 1864. It proved a tragic failure.


Far to the west, the Confederacies last field army was seemingly on the offensive, bottling the Yankees up in the strategic stronghold of Nashville. The Rebels, under John Bell Hood, had built siege lines and were shelling the Yankees within the city—and their own folk too. That December, among the barbarians in blue besieged by the Rebels, was a young staff officer, named Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce. He was dashing and handsome and brave, but with a talent for sarcasm—and after the war proved to have a talent for writing as well. In the early part of December, as life settled into a routine within the besieged city, the Union officer had time to ponder the what his foes felt about their relatives caught in the city with the Yankees: “I sometimes wondered what were the feelings of those fellows, gazing over our heads at their own dwellings, where their wives and children or their aged parents were perhaps suffering for the necessaries of life, and certainly (so their reasoning would run) cowering under the tyranny and power of the barbarous Yankees.”

Lt. Ambrose Bierce, future journalist, editor and author, was one of the "barbarous Yankees" besieged by Hood's Army of Tennessee in Dec. 1864.
Lt. Ambrose Bierce, future journalist, editor and author, was one of the “barbarous Yankees” besieged by Hood’s Army of Tennessee in Dec. 1864.

Holed up in the Lawrence Mansion, overlooking Granny White Pike, Bierce and his fellow staff offers did not want for either the necessities—or a few luxuries for that matter. Old “Pap” Thomas’s army was ensconced behind a belt of fortifications and were sitting on a mountain of supplies. Despite the large number of troops stationed within, the Federals had ample resources at their disposal. The same could not be said for their ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-supplied besiegers. In truth, as the days dwindled down in December, it became clear that General Hood had the Yankees just where old Pap Thomas wanted them.

Finally on the fifteenth of December, General George Thomas unleashed an onslaught against the Rebel army the likes of which had not been seen before in the war. Over two days pounding, the outnumbered Confederates resisted bravely but their cause was doomed. It was a battle of annihilation; by the end of the battle the Army of Tennessee was in tatters, demoralized and had virtually ceased to exist as an army. It was said that the road southward that Christmas was marked in red—the trail the bloody feet of the shoeless Rebel survivors left in the snow as they fled back to Alabama. For the Union troops it was a joyous time; but it was a cheerless holiday for those Southern troops still alive to mark its passage.

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

The victory at Nashville was indeed a welcome relief to Lincoln that Christmas; but the President also soon received a welcome gift from another quarter. On December 22, Sherman occupied the port of Savannah and wired Lincoln: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

In December, 1864, General Sherman presented the city of Savannah as his "Christmas Present" to President Lincoln.
In December, 1864, General Sherman presented the city of Savannah as his “Christmas Present” to President Lincoln.

There could have been no greater contrast this Christmas between North and South. While the North could look forward to the New Year with hope and good cheer, in Dixie, except among the long suppressed loyal white population and African Americans on the verge of liberation, this Christmas was a hard one with a future that seemed dim indeed.

For a more esoteric view of the Civil War, see Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and my latest effort, The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  Now in print is  Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, chronicling Ambrose Bierce’s war career with the 9th Indiana and the Army of the Cumberland.



Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time.

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). 
The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Christmas, 1861. Long Ago and Far Away: A Civil War Christmas, Part 5

Winslow Homer's depiction of the opening of a Christmas box from home shows the raucous celebration such holiday arrivals were greeted with by Union troops.
Winslow Homer’s depiction of the opening of a Christmas box from home shows the raucous celebration such holiday arrivals were greeted with by Union troops.

CHRISTMAS, 1861.  Although thousands of soldiers faced each other with bayonet and gun and cannon this winter, the attitudes among the combatants was far more merry than among Lincoln and his cabinet was that December 25. Men far from hearth and home longed to be with their loved ones, to be sure, but among their comrades in camp, soldiers on both sides tried to make merry in their own ways.  And if lacking all the niceties of home, still some found ways to make the holiday special.

On the Union side, at least, there was an abundance of Christmas packages, delivered by the United States Post Office. From home, families and friends sent “care” packages laden with preserves and hard candy, clothing (an abundance of woolen socks it seems) and even uplifting books—the latter duly ignored by the soldiers as they tore into the boxes. Winslow Homer, as special artist for Harper’s Weekly, was present to witness the boys turned soldiers as they frolicked on Christmas Day and document it with his sketch-pad.

On the other side of the lines in northern Virginia, the boys in gray were celebrating in their traditional way, insofar as the war allowed. Just outside of Manassas, where the Battle of Bull Run had been won that summer, a small group of officers and men from the 1st Virginia Cavalry were gathered in a Tavern to celebrate the birth of the Christ-child as befitted the bold Virginia cavaliers.

The 1st Virginia Cavalry were notable for their distinctive uniform and esprit de corps.
The 1st Virginia Cavalry were notable for their distinctive uniform and esprit de corps.
This is how Alfred Waud's field sketch appeared once the engravers at Harper's Weekly had done their work.
This is how Alfred Waud’s field sketch appeared once the engravers at Harper’s Weekly had done their work.








The gentlemen soldiers of the 1st Virginia wore distinctive garb, which made them an excellent target for Yankee sharpshooters, but also set them apart from more plebian cavalry units. With their broad brimmed and beplumed black hats, jackets sporting a distinctive black decoration for the coat buttons–“Hussar Trim”–to decorate their shell jackets, and collars, cuffs and epaulets in black instead of the standard cavalry yellow, the men of the 1st Virginia had a general air of assurance that silently spoke of being scions of FFV’s; and in truth, they were fully as skilled an elite group of warriors as they fancied themselves.

They were gathered that Christmas day at Stuart’s Tavern, which lay along the Little River Turnpike, not far from Bull Run. While the tavern shared the name of their famed cavalry general, likely its title owed more to the Bonnie Prince than it did to J.E.B.  No matter, there was an abundance of punch and egg nogg, suitably fortified with spirits and, later in the day, a table laid to overflowing with victuals to fill the largest of cavalryman’s stomachs, which was, it was averred, of greater capacity than the ordinary soldier’s.

It was a “cold and dark and dreary” day without, but a roaring fire glowed from the hearth in the tavern, reflecting off the iron fittings and brass buttons, and the polished steel side-arms standing in the corner, and illuming the figures of the men gathered within. After a few toasts and quickly quaffed rounds, the faces around the table also glowed some, although less from the firelight than from their own warm glow within.

J.E.B. Stuart, an early commander of the 1st Virginia set the tone for the regiment's sense of elan.
J.E.B. Stuart, the dashing early commander of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, set the tone for the regiment’s sense of elan.

Outside, their horses were tied to the front fence, all saddled and ready to mount at a moment’s notice, less some rude and ungentlemanly Yankee foraging party disturb their celebration. Inside, Captains Drake and Irving, Lieutenants Larrick and two more of the Drake clan, plus horsemen of lesser rank but equal cheer, were all assembled round the large wooden table. The festivities proceeded with jest and song, punctuated by suitable libations at the “Shrine of Bacchus,” with the fragrance of roasting turkey coming from the well appointed kitchen.

In the midst of the festivities, a lone horseman appeared at the door to the tavern, apparently with similar motives as the cavalrymen for being there. His uniform was gray as well, but with the collars and cuffs of a captain of infantry. When he saw that there was a private party already going on in the tavern, however, he was about to beat a hasty retreat. The cavaliers of the 1st Virginia were in such good cheer, however, that they were even disposed to welcome a more pedestrian warrior to their midst.

When pressed, the captain of infantry accepted their hospitality and gave them his name and affiliation: Captain Atkins of Wheat’s Battalion. His unit was on picket duty that day and he had been making the rounds to be sure all his men were doing their duty. It being cold and blustery on horseback, he had stopped at Stuart’s to warm up a bit before returning to the cold comfort of his fly-tent. Learning that his commander, Major Wheat, was likewise quartered in a flimsy fly-tent, the horse-masters promptly sent an embassy to Wheat’s headquarters to invite him to share their repast. In due course the major arrived to reinforce their band and with them assailed the alcohol with equal abandon, accompanied by occasional toasts to “Our Dixie Land!”

To those present at Stuart’s Tavern that winter of ’61 it was a particularly memorable Christmas repast; all the more so as for several there it would be their last. By the next year the war had taken its toll and following Christmases saw their numbers further reduced, with Colonel Drake falling in the retreat from Gettysburg and Major Wheat meeting his end at Cold Harbor. In the winter of 1861, the Southern soldier had not yet met defeat and so the boys of ’61 enjoyed that Christmas with “the halo that invested all things with a beautiful romance.”

Farther afield from Stuart’s Tavern, other Southerners had more mixed sentiments that season; Robert E. Lee, for one, was on duty in South Carolina, far from home. He wrote to his wife on Christmas Day, trying to console her. Mrs. Lee and the family had been forced to flee Arlington, their home, which had been seized by the Yankees. She was now a refugee, residing in exile on The Peninsula, south of Richmond.

Stonewall Jackson was in the field as well, in the Shenandoah Valley, bedeviling the Yankees as well as that devout Christian could. But Jackson took time out to celebrate Christmas with his wife in Winchester, Virginia; a brief respite from war which, one surmises, was how his wife became pregnant with child.

Grant early in the War. several of his early victories were achieved while still stationed at Cairo, Illinois.
Grant early in the War. several of his early victories were achieved while still stationed at Cairo, Illinois.

In Cairo, Illinois, Ulysses S. Grant was also able to share the holiday with his family and celebrate, as well, his promotion to brigadier and as commandant of that border post. After the holiday he would undertake a winter campaign that would soon catapult him to fame and start him on the road to greatness.

In England, Queen Victoria most certainly had a cheerless Christmas, with her beloved husband, Prince Albert dying just a short time before the holiday.

It doubtless gave Queen Victoria little solace to know that her husband, as one of his final acts–one might call it a heroic act–had helped prevent a needless war with the United States, a war which would surely have benefited no one—save perhaps “The Mongoose” (Prime Minister Palmerston) and his minions.

Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister, was known as "The Mongoose," used the Trent Affair as a pretext to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy.
Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister, known as “The Mongoose,” used the Trent Affair as a pretext to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy.

Christmas of 1861 was for many still a joyous holiday; for some a season tinged with sadness, while for a few it was a dark and joyless time. For most, however, that darkness lay still in the future.

For more true stories of the Late Unpleasantness, see: Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  My latest nonfiction book on the Civil War, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, is now in print and available at better bookstores everywhere.


Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time.

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, 2012)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins)