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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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Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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