10 Fascinating Facts About the American Civil War

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A Brief History

On July 26, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Major General George McClellan as Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac, answering to the elderly General Winfield Scott.  (See out article about The 4 Commanding Generals of the Union Army in the Civil War on July 23.)  Today we again address the bloodiest war in US history, and tell you about 10 things you may not know about this horrible period in American History.

Digging Deeper

1. Was Abraham Lincoln a racist?

Not only did Lincoln publicly state that he had no intention of trying to eliminate slavery, he also said he was not even inclined to do so, and that he had no right to do so.  About African people, Lincoln said he opposed Blacks voting, serving on juries, inter-marrying with Whites, or to hold government office.  He clearly stated his belief that African-Americans should not have equal social status with Whites.  Lincoln also wanted to send as many African-Americans as possible back to Africa (mainly Liberia), especially once they were freed.  Additionally, his famous Emancipation Proclamation freed only the slaves in the Confederate States and not in those states still in the Union that practiced slavery (namely, Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware and Maryland).  Late during the Civil War Lincoln changed some of his rhetoric about Africans, probably for political purposes.

2. Abraham Lincoln was an Atheist.

Prior to becoming President, Lincoln revealed in a letter to a friend that he was planning on “coming out” publicly as an atheist, but was talked out of what would have been political suicide.  His references to God and God euphemisms were done for political expediency.

3. Ulysses S. Grant owned slaves.

When the future Commanding General of the Union Army and President of the United States lived in Missouri with his wife at his in-laws’ farm, the farm was the home of several slaves, at least 1 of which was directly owned by Ulysses Grant personally.  This individual slave was freed by Grant in 1859, and it seems other household slaves got up and left during the Civil War without formally being freed.  General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army also owned slaves, at least the ones he got when he married a slave owning woman, but he freed those slaves by 1852, and thus was not a slave owner during the Civil War.

4. The War was about Slavery and Secession, Not “States’ Rights.”

Lincoln made it clear that he was not going to try to get rid of slavery, but that he would not tolerate secession.  The Confederate States in their various speeches about the subject usually mentioned that slavery was the reason for seceding and in the CSA Declaration of Independence the subject of slaves is brought up no less than 18 times!  The North at first resisted any attempts to threaten slave states’ rights to slavery, but after the Emancipation Proclamation the issue of slavery became a key Northern/Union reason for fighting on.  The South was fighting for slavery from the start, and the “states rights” referred to is the right to own slaves.

5. The “Confederate Flag” was Not the Confederate Flag.

The flag we see today and think we know of as the flag of the Confederate States of America was never the flag of the Confederate States of America.  The flag we think of as the “Confederate Flag” is a lengthened version of the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, which was square in its actual presentation.  The rectangular version appeared later.  The Army of Tennessee and the Second Confederate Navy Jack were both flags basically the same of the modern “Confederate Flag.”

6. About a third of Confederate soldiers came from slave-holding families.

You may see shocking statistics that only “2%” or some other low percentage of Johnny Rebs were slaveholders, and technically this is true, but like many statistics this statistic can be deceiving.  Since the male head of the household was the actual slave owner, the sons that fought in the Civil War may well have not personally owned slaves in their own name, but came from households where slaves were owned.  The real number of Confederate soldiers from slaveholding households was 30% or slightly more.

7. African-Americans fought on both sides of the War.

The Union was highly reluctant to arm and allow Black men to actually fight, and used free African-Americans mostly as work parties and construction crews, little more than the servants they were in the South!  Finally, Black units under White officers did see combat with mixed success, but with the relief that they finally got to fight.  (Incredibly, in World War I and World War II the US was still keeping African-Americans out of combat roles with limited exceptions such as the Tuskegee Airmen.)   Interestingly, the South became so desperate for manpower in the field that on March 13, 1865, the Confederate legislature passed a bill allowing male slaves to be armed and inducted into the CSA Army, with the provision this duty would earn the soldier/slave his freedom.  An unknown number of several thousand Black men fought for the Confederacy, but the Union had about 200,000 African-American soldiers, an enormous advantage.

8. Native Americans fought for the Confederacy and the Union.

Not surprisingly, Indians were not thrilled with the US Government and its history of shoving Native People further and further West without due compensation, not to mention killing many of their people along the way.  These Native American volunteers saw the Confederacy as a lesser of 2 evils.  Still, some Indians chose to fight for the Union, but of the nearly 30,000 Native Americans that fought in the Civil War, most were on the side of the Confederacy, many even holding officer rank!  Native Americans fought as individuals enlisting in various units, as bands of several or more, and as larger units made up of men from the same tribe.

9. Civil War medicine was better than commonly depicted.

Well, not by modern standards since antibiotics did not exist and conditions in the field were not so clean, but anesthetic was commonly used, contrary to the myth that screaming men were having limbs hacked off willy-nilly. Both sides usually used chloroform or ether as anesthetic, and often surgery would be delayed until fresh supplies of either substance could be obtained.  The amputations were not done because of expediency or low quality surgeons, but because cannon balls and large caliber musket balls and Minie ball bullets would smash bones, and technology did not exist to repair splintered bones.  Amputation of an arm or leg with shattered bones was often successful, and many wounded amputees went on to survive and lead long lives.

10. The Civil War was the costliest war in US history.

Remember, both sides were Americans, so the combined total of 620,000 deaths are just about as many deaths the US suffered in all the other wars combined!  A 2011 study indicated that the total death numbers should be increased by about 20% to properly reflect deaths from the war.  If correct, Professor David Hacker of Binghamton University (New York) says more like 750,000 soldiers died in the Civil War (or as many as 850,000), or about 1 out of every 10 White American males of military age instead of the commonly cited 1 of 13.  Proportionately, if we suffered this many war deaths today, the number would be a staggering 6.2 million!

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you have any ancestors who fought in the American Civil War?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Ashmole, Kevin.  The American Civil War: 50 Fascinating Facts For Kids (Volume 6).  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.

Bearce, Stephanie.  Top Secret Files: The Civil War: Spies, Secret Missions, and Hidden Facts from the Civil War (Top Secret Files of History).  Prufrock Press, 2014.

The featured image in this article, a patriotic cover by Centpacrr at English Wikipedia honoring the arrival of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan in Washington, D.C., on July 26, 1861, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.