Tall Tales of the Civil War - August '96 Civil War Times Feature | HistoryNet MENU

Tall Tales of the Civil War – August ’96 Civil War Times Feature

9/23/1996 • Civil War Times


Being a compendium of poppycock, balderdash, and malarkey told by civil war veterans for the amusement and amazement of future generations


Men are deceivers ever,” wrote William Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing. Certainly much of what men and women have said about their deeds through the ages has contained at least some element of deception, much of it intentional, much more self-deceptive. Every human act carries with it the potential for lies, misinformation, or delusion, as one generation passes its story on to the next. The greatest events produce the greatest body of falsehoods, half-truths, and misconceptions.

It should hardly come as a surprise, then, that the Civil War was a veritable treasure chest of inventions, tall tales, and myths, all of them still passed on today, in good faith, as fact. Most have at least a grain of truth at their core, buried beneath the embellishments. Myths tells us a lot about a culture, and the fact that we cling so tenaciously to our Civil War yarns is evidence not only of the war’s eternal hold on our hearts and imaginations, but also of our simple love of a good story.

Some tales actually spring from a moment of fact. At New Market, Virginia,on May 15, 1864, a small force of Confederates handed a dramatic defeat to a larger army of Yankee invaders. A small portion of that Rebel command-just 226 men, to be exact-was the corps of cadets of the Virginia Military Institute. Although they made up less than six percent of the Confederate force at New Market, they are today almost all that is remembered of the 4,087 men engaged, and largely because of myth engrafted on a speck of truth, the way an oyster turns a grain of sand into a pearl.

In the late moments of the battle, the Confederates advanced on the Federal position on the slope of Bushong’s Hill. Major General John C.Breckinridge’s Southern ranks were so thinly stretched that, despite an earlier determination not to expose them to fire, he had no choice but to put the cadets, some no more than 15 years old, into a gap in his line.They acted manfully and went forward with the rest. By chance, their route of advance took them directly toward the 30th New York Light Artillery¬† Battery, commanded by Captain Alfred von Kleiser. With the rest of his line collapsing around him, von Kleiser gave up his position well before the cadets reached him, but so many of his battery’s horses had been killed that he was forced to abandon one cannon on the field. Moments after he left it, the VMI boys surged over the gun and exulted in their prize.

Those are the facts. Yet within days newspaper accounts in the South would have the boys engaged in bitter hand-to-hand fighting, of which there was virtually none on that part of the battlefield, and certainly not by the cadets. Not one contemporary account mentioned that the gun had been left behind, and only by chance in their line of march. Then the cadets themselves got into the act. By 1867 one of the boys who had been there wrote to another recalling the day when “we took the battery” at New Market. Suddenly one gun had become all six. (Von Kleiser did lose a second gun, but elsewhere on the field and not to the cadets.) In saying”battery,” of course, he might have meant the position occupied by the battery. But such distinctions were lost on the generation that came after the war, and by the 1880s the impression was firmly planted that the VMI cadets had held a vital place in the Confederate line under intense hand-to-hand fighting and in surging forward, virtually alone, had captured a whole battery and single-handedly given the South a victory. Thus are legends born. Only in the last couple of decades have the facts of the cadets’ performance-still outstanding-been established, thanks inconsiderable part to the Virginia Military Institute itself.

Unintentional exaggeration of a genuine event accounts also for the old chestnut about Major General Daniel Butterfield composing the haunting melody “Taps” during the Union’s 1862 campaign on the Virginia Peninsula.The story first appeared in Century Magazine in 1898, told by Charles Norton, the bugler to whom Butterfield gave the notes. But Norton misinterpreted what Butterfield had done, thinking the general himself had composed the music, when in fact Butterfield had only copied an old tattoo that dated back at least to 1835. Butterfield merely slowed the tempo and changed the emphasis of some notes. He later said so himself, but the myth was already in full sway and still is today.

From good-faith misinterpretation, it is but a small step to willful misrepresentation. No one illustrates that better than Anna Ella Carroll of Maryland. She sought to run in high circles before the war, numbering among her acquaintances such men as President James Buchanan, future Confederate president Jefferson F. Davis, John Breckinridge, and others. What most of those men would have been too gentlemanly to add was that she was a nuisance who continually bombarded them with letters and suggestions-a shameless name-dropper who curried their acquaintance chiefly to boast to others of her important “connections,” in hope of realizing some pecuniary profit from her writings. While they were polite to the extent of being patronizing, none of Carroll’s contacts placed anything like the confidence in her advice that she claimed then and later.

When the war came, Carroll turned to advising the Union government on military strategy, or so she claimed. Then on January 10, 1862, we are told, she presented to the War Department a plan for using the Tennessee River as a pathway for invading the South. It immediately caught fire.Lincoln embraced it and ordered Major General Henry Halleck to put it into operation. Halleck sent Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant off on what became the Forts Henry and Donelson Campaign in Tennessee, thus beginning the conquest of the Mississippi Valley.

It is pure bunk, of course. The planning of operations on the Tennessee had been under way for months before the January 1862 date of Carroll’s supposed letter. She may have written such a letter, but there is no record of its receipt in the War Department or any other branch of the Lincoln government. Nor is there any contemporary record of its being discussed.But in June 1862 Carroll wrote to Lincoln, claiming she was due “a substantial and liberal reward” for her suggestion. In short, like a host of other charlatans and crackpots who proposed ideas that were already obvious to the military, she wanted money, and a lot of it.

Nothing came of her claims during the war, but years later Carroll’s megalomania resulted in a series of Congressional hearings commencing in1870, during which she pressed her claims aggressively and backed her stance with a few influential men whose support she could secure.Particularly she claimed the sponsorship of Benjamin Wade, the influential senator from Ohio. But the letter from him that did the most to support her claim was a forgery; Wade’s genuine letters, like so many others written to Carroll by public figures, were the patronizing replies of men who did not want to set off an obviously unstable person. As late as 1890 she was still suing for money from Congress-and being turned down. Her case even became an early cause c?l?bre for the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement, and it was still being argued in the press, on television, and even in the courts,as late as the 1950s, with those refusing to acknowledge the justice of her claims being labeled by her defenders as, among other things, “communists.”

Anna Carroll’s story was rooted in her own self-delusion, opportunism, and instability. Other myths resulted from outright hoax. Three generations of historians have cited as a source the article “Presidency of the Confederacy Offered Stephens and Refused,” published in the Southern Historical Society Papers in 1908. The article’s author, David Twiggs Hamilton, told of a meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, on February 8, 1861,the night before the new Confederate congress was to elect the first president. J.A.P. Campbell of Mississippi and other delegates called on Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia in his room at the Exchange Hotel and asked him if he would accept the presidency should they choose him. He declined, for a number of reasons, and Jefferson Davis, their second choice, was elected the next day. By 1908 when this appeared in the Papers,much of the journal’s content was taken from the Southern press. The Hamilton article had first appeared, wrote the editors, in the February 17,1907, edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

There is ample contemporaneous evidence that a number of men did approach Stephens about the presidency, most notably delegates Lawrence Keitt and James Chesnut of South Carolina, and that Stephens discouraged-somewhat equivocally, being a politician-their inquiries. But from there on the story goes bad. For one thing, Stephens had taken himself out of the running no later than February 7 and never stayed at the Exchange. Helodged at a private boarding house. J.A.P. Campbell was a delegate to the congress in Montgomery, but he never made it to the first session. On the day he was supposedly talking with Stephens, he was in Attala County,Mississippi. Then there is the author himself, described as a colonel and a participant in the conversations. The name David Twiggs Hamilton has not been found in Confederate records. And a search of the Richmond Times-Dispatch for the entire month of February 1907 fails to yield the original article that was supposedly reprinted in the Papers.

Most conclusive of all, however, is The Welding, a novel published in Boston in 1907 by the widow of Confederate Major General Lafayette McLaws.Its fictional hero is none other than David Twiggs Hamilton, and on pages222 through 226 is the account of a fictitious meeting with Stephens at the Exchange Hotel that is almost verbatim what appears in the Papers article.Obviously someone was playing a prank. Either a mischievous reader sent the doctored extract to the Papers editors, who ran it on faith without looking for the supposed original in the Times-Dispatch, or else the editors themselves, for unknown reasons, chose to print something from a novel as fact and lie about where it came from. Motives are obscure, but there always are motives in hoaxes, and this one was likely a blow at Jefferson Davis who, though dead more than 20 years, still engendered strong feelings for and against. It would take his reputation down a notch to show that he had not been the first choice for president.

Another brand of myth is the outright lie, with no spark of truth at all to illuminate its imaginings. Some such concoctions seek to associate an important figure with a non-war event. Among the most enduring is the notion that Union Major General Abner Doubleday “invented” the game of baseball. The fact is he never had a thing to do with its origin, which occurred at least a generation before the war.

Doubleday’s fictitious association with baseball came decades after the war, when he was no longer alive to refute the fiction. In the late 19thcentury, marketers of all kinds tried to capitalize on Union and Confederate generals to sell their products. Insurance companies and railroads North and South paid small salaries to figurehead “presidents”such as Southern heroes Jefferson Davis, General Joseph E. Johnston, John Breckinridge, Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, and others. State lotteries used figureheads like Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard to lend them legitimacy. Even packaged coffee and cigarettes came with collectors’ cards portraying famous generals. It was in such an atmosphere that a promoter of sporting goods, including baseballs, gloves, and bats,decided to conscript Doubleday. Marketers a century later would have paid the general and made him a spokesperson, but in his own time his name was placed on a fiction without permission or compensation.

One of the most resilient Civil War myths concerns an incredible bit of marksmanship during the Red River Campaign of 1864. Captain John H.Metcalf, III, was a West Point graduate and a Yankee sharpshooter of considerable reputation in Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s army invading the Louisiana interior. In the days of inactivity leading up to the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Metcalf noted through his field glasses that every morning Confederate General “Little George” Lainhart stepped out of his tent, more than a mile away, and stood for some time shaving. Metcalf happened to have at hand a formidable target gun, “a scientist’s instrument, rather than a mere rifle,” read the original account. It sat on a table, fixed in place by brackets, and could be aimed precisely by adjusting screws underneath and at its sides. It could send its .68-caliberbullet more than a mile with a large enough load of gunpowder.

It came to Metcalf that if he could use that gun, and if Lainhart would stand still long enough while shaving for the gun to be aimed, he could bring the general down and perhaps throw a panic into the Southern forces.On the appointed morning in early April, Metcalf had the rifle ready,already fixed on the point where Lainhart usually stood. Through the telescopic sight he saw Lainhart come out of his tent and stand in the full sunlight. Metcalf pulled the trigger, and a friend with a watch counted the seconds as the bullet flew through the air one mile and 187 feet. At five seconds the general went down, and at that same moment Banks’s army broke from cover and swarmed over the startled and confused Confederates, giving Banks an overwhelming victory. In reward, Metcalf received a commendation”for coolness and courage in the Red River Campaign, Louisiana, April,1864.” The rifle itself would be engraved with the name “George Lainhart”as a memento.

Every word of it is pure fiction. The account doesn’t mention Pleasant Hill specifically, but that is the only victory Banks scored in April 1864. The engagement was fought in the afternoon, not the morning, and there were no surprise attacks. Rather than sitting stationary long enough for Metcalf to get to know Lainhart’s habits, both armies had been in constant motion,having fought the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads just the day before. Then there is the problem of Metcalf himself. No record of him exists in Union army files in the National Archives. What’s more, there was never a Confederate general named George Lainhart. The only Rebel general killed in the Red River Campaign was Thomas Green, and he died not while standing or shaving, but while leading a cavalry charge on April 12 at a spot along the Red River called Blair’s Landing, many miles from Pleasant Hill.

The story first appeared as a history account in Charles Winthrop Sawyer’s Our Rifles, appended to the description of the target rifle with Lainhart’s name engraved on the stock. The rifle was real enough, though Lainhart’s identity remains a mystery. But the whole Metcalf fabrication Sawyer took from an earlier novel he had written, John Metcalf, Old Time American Rifleman. The fictional Metcalf was a marksman in the American Revolution,fabled for long-distance shooting. Sawyer simply moved the fiction forward and attached it to this actual gun. The story, despite being exposed as a fraud, has been told and retold, even televised in the 1960s. Today at least two target rifles are on display-one in a tavern in Texas-as the one Metcalf used.

But surely the most entertaining-not to say imaginative-Civil War myth of all is that of another fabled shot, the miraculous mini? ball conception of Mississippi. The story has been told and retold ever since it first appeared in the November 7, 1874, edition of The American Medical Weekly,published at Louisville, Kentucky. Under the headline, “Attention Gynecologists!-Notes from the Diary of a Field and Hospital Surgeon,C.S.A.,” unfolded a tale so unbelievable that many accepted it as fact.

LeGrand G. Capers, Jr., wrote the story from his own personal experience.It happened in the early days of the Second Vicksburg Campaign. Grant had crossed the Mississippi River and was moving up toward Vicksburg from the city’s land side. On May 12, 1863, Confederate Brigadier General John Gregg and his brigade stood at Raymond, in the way of the advance of two divisions of Major General James B. McPherson’s Federal XVII Corps. The fight started at 10:00 a.m. and raged most of the day. By afternoon the issue was still undecided, though Gregg was heavily outnumbered and would finally be forced to withdraw, with 72 killed and 252 wounded.

One of those wounded had a most interesting story. It was about 3:00 p.m.and the fight was at its hottest. Capers, a surgeon in the Confederate force, noticed that a fine residence stood some 300 yards behind his regiment’s battle line and that the woman of the house and her two teenage daughters stood imprudently in their yard, watching the fight, presumably waiting to help with the wounded. Then the battle line started to break and fall back until it was within 150 yards of the house.

“Suddenly I beheld a noble, gallant young friend staggering closer, and then fall to the earth,” Capers said. Simultaneously he heard “a piercing scream” from the house behind him. Capers went first to his friend and found that a Yankee bullet had pierced his left foreleg, breaking the tibia. Adding insult to injury, it had somehow glanced upward and carriedaway his left testicle. Capers was feverishly dressing the boy’s wounds(presumably resisting the temptation to make waggish comments about mini?balls) when a woman came rushing up to him from the house. Her daughter was wounded and he must come.

Finishing with the now-asymmetrical soldier, Capers ran to the house to find a 17-year-old girl in great pain over a bullet hole in her abdomen.”Believing there was little or no hope of her recovery,” Capers dressed the wound and rejoined his command. When Gregg abandoned Raymond, Capers stayed behind tending the wounded and remained there for the next two months. He occasionally visited the wounded girl and marveled at what appeared to be her complete recovery.

“About six months after her recovery,” he wrote, “the movements of our army brought me again to the village of Raymond.” He found the young woman in wonderful health, but with a swollen abdomen: she was seven months pregnant. He kept an eye on the girl, and by his own count, 278 days after her wounding-or exactly nine months-he helped her deliver an eight-pound baby boy. “I was not very much surprised,” he recalled, “but imagine the surprise and the mortification of the young lady herself, and her entire family.” To the girl’s pleas that she had been good, that no man had known her, Dr. Capers paid no heed until three weeks later when the family called him to see the infant, complaining that there was something wrong with the boy’s genitals. Examining the baby, Capers fond “an enlarged, swollen,sensitive scrotum, containing on the right side a hard, roughened substance, evidently foreign.” He operated at once and soon pulled from the baby a mashed and misshapen mini? ball. The inference was obvious: this was the same bullet that had injured the young soldier months before, and in plowing through his testicle, it had carried his sperm with it into the girl’s abdomen. The result was a messy and painful, but still, in strict terms, virginal conception. “There can be no other solution of the phenomenon,” he said, and so he told the family. To give the story a tidy ending, the couple soon married. A better ending would have been an admission that it was a hoax.

A bullet that would strike a soldier below the knee in a stand up battle like Raymond had to be on a pronounced downward trajectory. It is difficult enough to see how hitting a small bone like the tibia would deflect a heavy.58-caliber projectile upwards at an angle of anywhere between 45 and 90degrees. It is impossible to see how something soft and fleshy, like a testicle, would then deflect the bullet once again, onto a horizontal path that would hit a woman in the abdomen some 150 yards away. Bullets and flesh can do funny things, but not that funny. The only alternative is to assume that for mysterious reasons the unfortunate soldier was performing some sort of ballet move in the middle of the battlefield, putting his left calf roughly at crotch height, allowing the bullet to pass through his leg and his scrotum, and then go on its merry way to hit the girl. To accept either explanation requires assumptions that make the controversial “single bullet theory” in the Kennedy assassination seem like child’s play.Moreover, in passing through a combination of numerous layers of fabric and several inches of flesh on the soldier and the woman, the bullet must have been virtually wiped clean of sperm. And for her to have conceived in a uterus full of her own blood, and soon infected with peritonitis, is all but impossible.

Then there is LeGrand Capers himself. If his story was bogus, certainly he was not, or not entirely. Actually there were two men of that name, junior and senior, both Confederate surgeons. LeGrand Capers, Sr., served with the21st Georgia Infantry, which never spent a day of the war in Mississippi,let alone anywhere near the engagement at Raymond. As for LeGrand Capers,Jr., he was in the Virginia Winchester Artillery. They, too, served the entire war with the Army of Northern Virginia and never set foot in Mississippi. In February 1864, when the miraculous child would have been born, documents place Capers in Virginia. Besides, a regularly enlisted Confederate surgeon would hardly have been allowed to remain at liberty in and around Raymond for weeks after it fell to the Yankees, nor did Gregg’s brigade return to the area six months later. They were in east Tennessee by then.

If there is any speck of truth to the story, it may be that some young woman in the vicinity of Raymond was struck in the abdomen during the battle. But she was already pregnant, though not yet aware of it, and somehow the pregnancy survived the wounding, the peritonitis, and proved to be a considerable embarrassment, considering her unmarried and presumably virginal state. The arrival of the child with the bullet in its scrotum allowed her and her parents a far-fetched but face-saving explanation.

As for Capers, he settled in Vicksburg after the war, married locally, and must have heard something of the real story-if there was one-and decided to embellish it a bit. Even he acknowledged its preposterousness. “Doubtless many will pronounce the facts to be presently related as unusual or impossible,” he wrote in his account; “to such I need only say, if not, why not?”

No one has ever let the application of research or logic interfere with such a good story. Indeed, like most myths, this one evolved over the years. In its most recent incarnation, in the New York State Journal of Medicine in 1959, and again in American Heritage magazine in December 1971,Capers is transformed into a Union surgeon, and the battle of May 12, 1863,takes place somewhere in Virginia.

In short, the whole story is a grand-one might say “LeGrand”-hoax.Certainly many soldiers were wounded at Raymond, and a civilian woman may have been struck in the abdomen during the fight, but her maternal plightwas the result of more conventional means of conception. The baby boy may have been the offspring of a soldier or some local rogue, but he was no sonof a gun.

William C. Davis, a member of the Civil War Times advisory board and aformer editor of the magazine, has written more than 30 books on the Civil War and Southern history.


Gettysburg Vultures
Legends and biology don’t always mix. According to legend, the epic Civil War battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1-3, 1863, in which fifty-one thousand men and untold thousands of horses, mules and livestock were killed, attracted hordes of scavenging vultures. That may well be.What is impossible is the contention, still voiced by some, that the huge concentration of vultures that return each winter to Gettysburg are the same birds, waiting around and hoping for another battle.

Vultures are long-lived by bird standards, but the maximum life span is only about 30 years-not 130. The big birds congregate at Gettysburg not out of some faint recollection of long-ago feasts, but because the area in its current, peaceful incarnation provides them with roosting sites and food….

From Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year: A Month by Month Guide to Natural Events: Mid-Atlantic,by Scott Weidensaul, Fulcrum Publishing, 1992.

…A soldier of a Mississippi regiment, at Pensacola,… went to his tent and blankets one day to fight through an ague if possible. A bottle of hot water to his feet…not being convenient, some of his comrades went out and picked up one of the numerous shells which had been sent over to them during the bombardment, heated it at the fire, and put it to bed with the sick man’s feet. Unhappily, the shell had lost its cap, but had not exploded. The heat of the campfire accomplished what Federal pyrotechny had failed in, to wit,-an explosion. The tent was blown to pieces, and some of the men a little hurt and greatly astonished….

In the Hot Seat
…A soldier,… in dodging away from a patrol, hid himself in a restaurant, by jumping into a large box used for steaming oysters. The lid closed with a spring lock, and the disappointed patrol went on his waybaffled. In a little while the colored man attending the apparatus turned on a full head of steam in order to prepare a mess for some customers. The soldier began to grow uncomfortably warm, and soon kicked and yelled lustily for liberation, until the frightened negro ran away shouting that”de debbil was in de steamer.” Other employees gathered around, hearing the noise, and released the perspiring soldier….

Baa! Baa!
Among the loyal Tennesseeans who…came into the Union Camp in Kentucky,was a little fellow…[whose] escape from…the secessionists was remarkable and highly ingenious. He headed a large squad of his neighbors,and eluded the Confederate pickets, by wearing a big sheep’s bell on his head, and bleating away over the mountains, followed by a herd of men who did likewise….

From Reminiscences of the Blue and Gray ’61-’65,
by Frazar Kirkland, Preston Publishing, 1895

, , , ,