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7 Civil War Stories You Didn't Learn in High School

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For many American historians, the Civil War is the climax in the story of how the United States came to be what it is today. But it's also a source of some bizarre and surprisingly cool trivia.

1. Lincoln's first solution to slavery was a fiasco

Early in his presidency, Abe was convinced that white Americans would never accept black Americans. "You and we are different races," the president told a committee of "colored" leaders in August 1862. "But for your race among us there could not be war. . . It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated." Lincoln proposed voluntary emigration to Central America, seeing it as a more convenient destination than Liberia. This idea didn't sit well with leaders like Frederick Douglass, who considered colonization to be "a safety valve...for white racism."

Luckily for Douglass (and the country), colonization failed spectacularly. One of the first attempts was on Île à Vache, a.k.a. Cow Island, a small isle off the coast of Haiti. The island was owned by land developer Bernard Kock, who claimed he had approved a black American colony with the Haitian government. No one bothered to call him on that claim. Following a smallpox outbreak on the boat ride down, hundreds of black colonizers were abandoned on the island with no housing prepared for them, as Kock had promised.

To make matters worse, the soil on Cow Island was too poor for any serious agriculture. In January 1864, the Navy rescued the survivors from the ripoff colony. Once Île à Vache fell through, Lincoln never spoke of colonization again.

2. Hungry ladies effectively mugged Jefferson Davis

The Confederacy's image hinged on the notion that the rebellious states made up a unified, stable nation. However, the hard times of war exposed just how much disunity there was in Dixieland. Civilians in both the North and South had to cope with scarcity and increased food prices, but the food situation was especially bad in the South because outcomes on the battlefield were directly linked to the CSA's currency - rising food prices were hard enough to deal with without wild fluctuations in what the money in your pocket could buy.

Invading northern troops, of course, poured salt on the wounds of scarcity, burning crops and killing livestock. But in Richmond, Virginia, those who couldn't afford the increasingly pricey food blamed the Confederate government. Hungry protesters, most of whom were women, led a march "to see the governor" in April 1863 that quickly turned violent. They overturned carts, smashed windows, and drew out Governor John Letcher and President Jefferson Davis. Davis threw money at the protesters, trying to get them to clear out, but the violence continued. So, he threatened to order the militia to open fire, which settled things down pretty quickly.

3. The Union used hot air balloons and submarines

The balloons, directed by aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe, were used to spot enemy soldiers and coordinate Federal troop movements. During his first battlefield flight, at First Bull Run, Lowe landed behind Confederate lines, but he was rescued.

The Union Army Balloon Corps got no respect from military officials, and Lowe resigned when he was assigned to serve, at a lower pay grade, under the director of the Army Corps of Engineers. In all, the balloonists were active for a little under two years.

In contrast, the paddle-powered Alligator submarine saw exactly zero days of combat (which is why it can't officially be called the U.S.S. Alligator). It suffered from some early testing setbacks, but after some speed-boosting tweaks, it was dispatched for Port Royal, South Carolina, with an eye towards aiding in the sack of Charleston. It was to be towed south by the U.S.S. Sumpter, but it had to be cut loose off of North Carolina on April 2, 1863, when bad weather struck. Divers and historians are still looking for the Alligator today.

But the undersea capers don't end there. A few months after the loss of the Alligator, the CSA launched their own submarine, the H.L. Hunley, named after its inventor. The Hunley attacked and sank the U.S.S. Housatonic off the coast of Charleston, making it the first submarine ever to sink an enemy ship. The only problem is that it also sank soon afterwards, and all eight crewmen drowned.

4. "Dixie" was only a northern song

dixie.jpgThe precise details of when composer Dan Emmett wrote "Dixie" seemed to change every time he told the story (and some even dispute that Emmett was the author in the first place). But he first performed it in New York City in 1859, with the title "I Wish I Was in Dixie's Land."

Emmett was a member of a blackface troupe known as the Bryant's Minstrels, but he was indignant when he found out that his song had become an unofficial anthem of the Confederacy. He went on to write a musicians' marching manual for the Northern army.

Before and during the war, the song was a huge hit in New York and across the country, and quickly became one of Abraham Lincoln's favorite tunes. The day after the Surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln told a crowd of Northern revelers, "I have always thought 'Dixie' was one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it." He then asked a nearby band to play it in celebration.

5. Paul Revere was at Gettysburg

Paul Joseph Revere, that is—the famous Paul Revere's grandson. Unfortunately for fans of the first Revere and his partly mythical Ride, PJR was in the infantry, not the cavalry, with the 20th Massachusetts. He and his brother Edward were captured at the Battle of Ball's Bluff in October 1861. After being released in a prisoner exchange, the Reveres rejoined the fight.

Paul was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in September, 1862, shortly before he was wounded in the brutal Battle of Antietam (a.k.a. the Battle of Sharpsburg). Edward, however, wasn't so lucky "“ he was one of more than 2,000 Union soldiers who didn't make it out of Sharpsburg, Maryland, alive.

By the following year, Paul was promoted again to Colonel, leading the 20th Massachusetts at Chancellorsville and, in his final days, at Gettysburg. On July 3, 1863, he was mortally wounded by a shell fragment that pierced his lung, and he died the next day. He was posthumously promoted again to Brigadier General, and is buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

6. Mark Twain fired one shot and then left

twain.jpgAt least, that's what he claimed in "The Private History of a Campaign that Failed," a semi-fictional short story published in 1885, after The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but before A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. In it, he recounts a whopping two weeks spent in 1861 with a Confederate militia in Marion County, Missouri. But he introduces the tale by saying that even the people who enlisted at the start of the war, and then left permanently, "ought at least be allowed to state why they didn't do anything and also to explain the process by which they didn't do anything. Surely this kind of light must have some sort of value."

Twain writes that there were fifteen men in the rebel militia, the "Marion Rangers," and he was the second lieutenant, even though they had no first lieutenant. After Twain's character shoots and kills a Northern horseback rider, he is overwhelmed by the sensation of being a murderer, "that I had killed a man, a man who had never done me any harm. That was the coldest sensation that ever went through my marrow." However, his grief is slightly eased by the realization that six men had fired their guns, and only one had been able to hit the moving target.

7. The armies weren't all-male

albert-d-j-cashier.gifHundreds of women on both sides pulled a Mulan, assuming male identities and appearances so that they might fight for their respective nations. Some of them did it for adventure, but many did it for monetary reasons: the pay for a male soldier was about $13 month, which was close to double what a woman could make in any profession at the time.

Also, being a man gave someone a lot more freedoms than just being able to wear pants. Remember, this was still more than half a century away from women's suffrage and being a man meant that you could manage your monthly $13 wages independently. So it should come as no surprise that many of these women kept up their aliases long after the war had ended, some even to the grave.

Their presence in soldiers' ranks wasn't the best-kept secret. Some servicewomen kept up correspondence with the home front after they changed their identities, and for decades after the war newspapers ran article after article chronicling the stories of woman soldiers, and speculating on why they might break from the accepted gender norms. Perhaps not surprisingly, in 1909 the U.S. Army denied that "any woman was ever enlisted in the military service of the United States as a member of any organization of the Regular or Volunteer Army at any time during the period of the civil war."

See Also...

Why Some Civil War Soldiers Glowed in the Dark
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5 Medical Innovations of the Civil War
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Gettysburg at 50: The Great Reunion of 1913

This story originally appeared in 2009.

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
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Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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WWI Centennial: Battle of Mărăști

By summer 1917 the outlook for the Allies on the Eastern Front was grim at best, as Russia descended into chaos and a combined Austro-German counterattack routed demoralized troops on the Galician front following the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, while everywhere the once-great Russian Army was rapidly hollowed by mutiny and mass desertions.

Against this gloomy backdrop, late July brought a rare and unexpected bright spot on the Romanian front, where the Romanian Second Army (rested, reorganized and resupplied after the disaster of 1916) mounted a surprise offensive along with the Russian Fourth and Ninth Armies against the junction of the German Ninth Army and Austro-Hungarian First Army, and scored an impressive tactical victory at the Battle of Mărăști, from July 22 to August 1, 1917. However the larger planned offensive failed to materialize, and Romania’s isolated success couldn’t shore up the crumbling Eastern Front amid Russia’s collapse.

Map of Europe July 22 1917
Erik Sass

The Allied success at Mărăști was due to a number of factors, most notably the careful artillery preparation, which saw two days of heavy bombardment of Austro-German positions beginning on July 22, guided by aerial spotters. The Austro-German forces were also deployed on hilly terrain in the foothills of the Vrancea Mountains, meaning their trenches were discontinuous, separated in many places by rough terrain, although they tried to compensate for this with heavily fortified strongholds. Pockets of forest and sheltered gorges also allowed the Romanians to advance in between the zigzagging enemy trenches undetected; on the other hand, the hills and tree cover also made it difficult to move up artillery once the advance began (a task made even more difficult by torrential rain, the familiar companion of the First World War). 

After two days of fierce, concentrated bombardment, on July 24 at 4 a.m. the Romanians and Russian infantry went over the top, with the Romanians advancing along a 30-kilometer-long stretch of front behind a “creeping barrage” of the type recently adopted by the French and British on the Western Front. With three divisions from the Russian Fourth Army supporting them on the southern flank, 56 Romanian battalions advanced up to 19 kilometers in some places – a major breakthrough by the standards of trench warfare. Engineers followed close behind to create roads bypassing the most inaccessible terrain, but unsurprisingly it still proved difficult to move heavy guns as the new roads quickly turned to mud in the rain.

On July 25 the Romanians began to consolidate their gains, spelling the end of major offensive operations during the battle, although smaller actions continued until August 1. The decision was prompted by events elsewhere on the Eastern Front (above, Romanian civilians look at enemy guns captured during the battle). The Battle of Mărăști was supposed to be part of a larger pincer movement by Romanian and Russian forces, including an attack by the Romanian First Army and Russian Sixth Army to the southeast, which were supposed to outflank the German Ninth Army from the southeast. However the disastrous defeat of Russian forces further north in Galicia and Bukovina, widespread insubordination in the Russian Army, and political turmoil in the Russian rear all combined to derail the Allied plan, forcing them to go on the defensive.

The victory at Mărăști was not fruitless: along with an even bigger defensive victory atMărășești two weeks later, Mărăști seriously complicated the Central Powers’ strategy for the remainder of the year, which called for knocking Romania and Russia out of the war before returning to the Western Front to finish off France. 

But the big picture was bad and getting worse, as hundreds of thousands of Russian troops deserted or refused to fight, effectively paralyzing the Allied war effort along most of the Eastern Front, while in Galicia the Austro-German advance continued. Florence Farmborough, a British nurse serving with a Red Cross unit in the Russian Army, described a typical day during the Russian retreat in her diary entry on July 25, 1917 (and noted the growing hostility of ordinary Russian soldiers towards the foreign nurses, representatives of the Western Allies, whom the Russians accused of leaving them in the lurch):

And then there came again that peremptory voice we dreaded. It roused us as no other could ever do, for it was the voice of Retreat. ‘Wake up! Get up at once! No time to lose!’ We started up, seized what we could and helped the orderlies collect the equipment. We were told it was a proruiv [breakthrough] on the right flank of our Front and that the enemy was pouring through the gap. The Sister-on-duty began to weep… Troops were passing quickly by in the darkness; whole regiments were there. We were given a lantern and told to stand by the gate and await transport. Some soldiers entered the yard swearing; we hoped they would not see us. But they did, and soon they were shouting ugly things about us. I too felt like weeping, but we had to keep a straight face and pretend that we had not heard… The soldiers who had always been our patient, grateful men, seemed to have turned against us. Now for the first time we realised that our soldiers might become our enemies and were capable of doing us harm.

This was not an isolated occurrence, but rather one small incident in a rising tide of insubordination and sheer chaos. Later Farmborough noted another encounter:

More soldiers went by in the darkness. There were no officers with them, they too were deserters. Curing and shouting they made their way along the highroad. We were frightened and crouched low against the fence so that they could not see us, and we dared not speak lest they should hear… The night was very dark and the confusion great. Wheels creaked and scrunched; frightened horses slid forwards by leaps and bounds; cart grated against cart; whips twanged and swished; and agitated voices shouted and cursed in one and the same breath... All around us were fires; even in front of us buildings were blazing. My driver said that some of the soldiers thought that they were already surrounded by the enemy.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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