TALL TALES OF THE CIVIL WAR
Being a compendium of poppycock, balderdash, and malarkey told by civil warveterans for the amusement and amazement of future generations
BY: WILLIAM C. DAVIS
Men are deceivers ever,” wrote William Shakespeare in Much Ado AboutNothing. Certainly much of what men and women have said about their deedsthrough the ages has contained at least some element of deception, much ofit intentional, much more self-deceptive. Every human act carries with itthe potential for lies, misinformation, or delusion, as one generationpasses its story on to the next. The greatest events produce the greatestbody of falsehoods, half-truths, and misconceptions.
It should hardly come as a surprise, then, that the Civil War was averitable treasure chest of inventions, tall tales, and myths, all of themstill passed on today, in good faith, as fact. Most have at least a grainof truth at their core, buried beneath the embellishments. Myths tells us alot about a culture, and the fact that we cling so tenaciously to our CivilWar yarns is evidence not only of the war’s eternal hold on our hearts andimaginations, 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 toa larger army of Yankee invaders. A small portion of that Rebelcommand-just 226 men, to be exact-was the corps of cadets of the VirginiaMilitary Institute. Although they made up less than six percent of theConfederate force at New Market, they are today almost all that isremembered of the 4,087 men engaged, and largely because of myth engraftedon 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 Federalposition on the slope of Bushong’s Hill. Major General John C.Breckinridge’s Southern ranks were so thinly stretched that, despite anearlier determination not to expose them to fire, he had no choice but toput 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 routeof advance took them directly toward the 30th New York Light ArtilleryBattery, commanded by Captain Alfred von Kleiser. With the rest of his linecollapsing around him, von Kleiser gave up his position well before thecadets reached him, but so many of his battery’s horses had been killedthat he was forced to abandon one cannon on the field. Moments after heleft 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 wouldhave the boys engaged in bitter hand-to-hand fighting, of which there wasvirtually none on that part of the battlefield, and certainly not by thecadets. Not one contemporary account mentioned that the gun had been leftbehind, and only by chance in their line of march. Then the cadetsthemselves got into the act. By 1867 one of the boys who had been therewrote to another recalling the day when “we took the battery” at NewMarket. Suddenly one gun had become all six. (Von Kleiser did lose a secondgun, but elsewhere on the field and not to the cadets.) In saying”battery,” of course, he might have meant the position occupied by thebattery. But such distinctions were lost on the generation that came afterthe war, and by the 1880s the impression was firmly planted that the VMIcadets had held a vital place in the Confederate line under intensehand-to-hand fighting and in surging forward, virtually alone, had captureda whole battery and single-handedly given the South a victory. Thus arelegends born. Only in the last couple of decades have the facts of thecadets’ performance-still outstanding-been established, thanks inconsiderable part to the Virginia Military Institute itself.
Unintentional exaggeration of a genuine event accounts also for the oldchestnut about Major General Daniel Butterfield composing the hauntingmelody “Taps” during the Union’s 1862 campaign on the Virginia Peninsula.The story first appeared in Century Magazine in 1898, told by CharlesNorton, the bugler to whom Butterfield gave the notes. But Nortonmisinterpreted what Butterfield had done, thinking the general himself hadcomposed the music, when in fact Butterfield had only copied an old tattoothat dated back at least to 1835. Butterfield merely slowed the tempo andchanged the emphasis of some notes. He later said so himself, but the mythwas already in full sway and still is today.
From good-faith misinterpretation, it is but a small step to willfulmisrepresentation. No one illustrates that better than Anna Ella Carroll ofMaryland. She sought to run in high circles before the war, numbering amongher acquaintances such men as President James Buchanan, future Confederatepresident Jefferson F. Davis, John Breckinridge, and others. What most ofthose men would have been too gentlemanly to add was that she was anuisance who continually bombarded them with letters and suggestions-ashameless name-dropper who curried their acquaintance chiefly to boast toothers of her important “connections,” in hope of realizing some pecuniaryprofit from her writings. While they were polite to the extent of beingpatronizing, none of Carroll’s contacts placed anything like the confidencein her advice that she claimed then and later.
When the war came, Carroll turned to advising the Union government onmilitary strategy, or so she claimed. Then on January 10, 1862, we aretold, she presented to the War Department a plan for using the TennesseeRiver as a pathway for invading the South. It immediately caught fire.Lincoln embraced it and ordered Major General Henry Halleck to put it intooperation. Halleck sent Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant off on whatbecame the Forts Henry and Donelson Campaign in Tennessee, thus beginningthe conquest of the Mississippi Valley.
It is pure bunk, of course. The planning of operations on the Tennessee hadbeen under way for months before the January 1862 date of Carroll’ssupposed letter. She may have written such a letter, but there is no recordof its receipt in the War Department or any other branch of the Lincolngovernment. Nor is there any contemporary record of its being discussed.But in June 1862 Carroll wrote to Lincoln, claiming she was due “asubstantial and liberal reward” for her suggestion. In short, like a hostof other charlatans and crackpots who proposed ideas that were alreadyobvious to the military, she wanted money, and a lot of it.
Nothing came of her claims during the war, but years later Carroll’smegalomania resulted in a series of Congressional hearings commencing in1870, during which she pressed her claims aggressively and backed herstance with a few influential men whose support she could secure.Particularly she claimed the sponsorship of Benjamin Wade, the influentialsenator from Ohio. But the letter from him that did the most to support herclaim was a forgery; Wade’s genuine letters, like so many others written toCarroll by public figures, were the patronizing replies of men who did notwant to set off an obviously unstable person. As late as 1890 she was stillsuing for money from Congress-and being turned down. Her case even becamean early cause c?l?bre for the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement, and itwas 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 herclaims being labeled by her defenders as, among other things, “communists.”
Anna Carroll’s story was rooted in her own self-delusion, opportunism, andinstability. Other myths resulted from outright hoax. Three generations ofhistorians have cited as a source the article “Presidency of theConfederacy Offered Stephens and Refused,” published in the SouthernHistorical Society Papers in 1908. The article’s author, David TwiggsHamilton, told of a meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, on February 8, 1861,the night before the new Confederate congress was to elect the firstpresident. J.A.P. Campbell of Mississippi and other delegates called onAlexander H. Stephens of Georgia in his room at the Exchange Hotel andasked him if he would accept the presidency should they choose him. Hedeclined, for a number of reasons, and Jefferson Davis, their secondchoice, 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. TheHamilton 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 approachStephens about the presidency, most notably delegates Lawrence Keitt andJames Chesnut of South Carolina, and that Stephens discouraged-somewhatequivocally, being a politician-their inquiries. But from there on thestory goes bad. For one thing, Stephens had taken himself out of therunning 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 thecongress in Montgomery, but he never made it to the first session. On theday he was supposedly talking with Stephens, he was in Attala County,Mississippi. Then there is the author himself, described as a colonel and aparticipant in the conversations. The name David Twiggs Hamilton has notbeen found in Confederate records. And a search of the RichmondTimes-Dispatch for the entire month of February 1907 fails to yield theoriginal article that was supposedly reprinted in the Papers.
Most conclusive of all, however, is The Welding, a novel published inBoston 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 theExchange Hotel that is almost verbatim what appears in the Papers article.Obviously someone was playing a prank. Either a mischievous reader sent thedoctored extract to the Papers editors, who ran it on faith without lookingfor the supposed original in the Times-Dispatch, or else the editorsthemselves, for unknown reasons, chose to print something from a novel asfact and lie about where it came from. Motives are obscure, but therealways are motives in hoaxes, and this one was likely a blow at JeffersonDavis who, though dead more than 20 years, still engendered strong feelingsfor and against. It would take his reputation down a notch to show that hehad not been the first choice for president.
Another brand of myth is the outright lie, with no spark of truth at all toilluminate its imaginings. Some such concoctions seek to associate animportant figure with a non-war event. Among the most enduring is thenotion that Union Major General Abner Doubleday “invented” the game ofbaseball. The fact is he never had a thing to do with its origin, whichoccurred at least a generation before the war.
Doubleday’s fictitious association with baseball came decades after thewar, when he was no longer alive to refute the fiction. In the late 19thcentury, marketers of all kinds tried to capitalize on Union andConfederate generals to sell their products. Insurance companies andrailroads North and South paid small salaries to figurehead “presidents”such as Southern heroes Jefferson Davis, General Joseph E. Johnston, JohnBreckinridge, Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, and others. Statelotteries used figureheads like Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard tolend them legitimacy. Even packaged coffee and cigarettes came withcollectors’ cards portraying famous generals. It was in such an atmospherethat a promoter of sporting goods, including baseballs, gloves, and bats,decided to conscript Doubleday. Marketers a century later would have paidthe general and made him a spokesperson, but in his own time his name wasplaced on a fiction without permission or compensation.
One of the most resilient Civil War myths concerns an incredible bit ofmarksmanship during the Red River Campaign of 1864. Captain John H.Metcalf, III, was a West Point graduate and a Yankee sharpshooter ofconsiderable reputation in Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s army invadingthe Louisiana interior. In the days of inactivity leading up to the Battleof Pleasant Hill, Metcalf noted through his field glasses that everymorning Confederate General “Little George” Lainhart stepped out of histent, more than a mile away, and stood for some time shaving. Metcalfhappened to have at hand a formidable target gun, “a scientist’sinstrument, rather than a mere rifle,” read the original account. It sat ona table, fixed in place by brackets, and could be aimed precisely byadjusting 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 wouldstand still long enough while shaving for the gun to be aimed, he couldbring 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 thetelescopic sight he saw Lainhart come out of his tent and stand in the fullsunlight. Metcalf pulled the trigger, and a friend with a watch counted theseconds as the bullet flew through the air one mile and 187 feet. At fiveseconds the general went down, and at that same moment Banks’s army brokefrom cover and swarmed over the startled and confused Confederates, givingBanks 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 Hillspecifically, but that is the only victory Banks scored in April 1864. Theengagement was fought in the afternoon, not the morning, and there were nosurprise attacks. Rather than sitting stationary long enough for Metcalf toget to know Lainhart’s habits, both armies had been in constant motion,having fought the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads just the day before. Thenthere is the problem of Metcalf himself. No record of him exists in Unionarmy files in the National Archives. What’s more, there was never aConfederate general named George Lainhart. The only Rebel general killed inthe Red River Campaign was Thomas Green, and he died not while standing orshaving, but while leading a cavalry charge on April 12 at a spot along theRed River called Blair’s Landing, many miles from Pleasant Hill.
The story first appeared as a history account in Charles Winthrop Sawyer’sOur Rifles, appended to the description of the target rifle with Lainhart’sname engraved on the stock. The rifle was real enough, though Lainhart’sidentity remains a mystery. But the whole Metcalf fabrication Sawyer tookfrom an earlier novel he had written, John Metcalf, Old Time AmericanRifleman. The fictional Metcalf was a marksman in the American Revolution,fabled for long-distance shooting. Sawyer simply moved the fiction forwardand attached it to this actual gun. The story, despite being exposed as afraud, has been told and retold, even televised in the 1960s. Today atleast two target rifles are on display-one in a tavern in Texas-as the oneMetcalf used.
But surely the most entertaining-not to say imaginative-Civil War myth ofall is that of another fabled shot, the miraculous mini? ball conception ofMississippi. The story has been told and retold ever since it firstappeared in the November 7, 1874, edition of The American Medical Weekly,published at Louisville, Kentucky. Under the headline, “AttentionGynecologists!-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 hadcrossed the Mississippi River and was moving up toward Vicksburg from thecity’s land side. On May 12, 1863, Confederate Brigadier General John Greggand his brigade stood at Raymond, in the way of the advance of twodivisions of Major General James B. McPherson’s Federal XVII Corps. Thefight started at 10:00 a.m. and raged most of the day. By afternoon theissue was still undecided, though Gregg was heavily outnumbered and wouldfinally 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 Confederateforce, noticed that a fine residence stood some 300 yards behind hisregiment’s battle line and that the woman of the house and her two teenagedaughters stood imprudently in their yard, watching the fight, presumablywaiting to help with the wounded. Then the battle line started to break andfall back until it was within 150 yards of the house.
“Suddenly I beheld a noble, gallant young friend staggering closer, andthen fall to the earth,” Capers said. Simultaneously he heard “a piercingscream” from the house behind him. Capers went first to his friend andfound that a Yankee bullet had pierced his left foreleg, breaking thetibia. 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 waswounded and he must come.
Finishing with the now-asymmetrical soldier, Capers ran to the house tofind 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 thewound and rejoined his command. When Gregg abandoned Raymond, Capers stayedbehind tending the wounded and remained there for the next two months. Heoccasionally visited the wounded girl and marveled at what appeared to beher complete recovery.
“About six months after her recovery,” he wrote, “the movements of our armybrought me again to the village of Raymond.” He found the young woman inwonderful health, but with a swollen abdomen: she was seven monthspregnant. He kept an eye on the girl, and by his own count, 278 days afterher wounding-or exactly nine months-he helped her deliver an eight-poundbaby boy. “I was not very much surprised,” he recalled, “but imagine thesurprise and the mortification of the young lady herself, and her entirefamily.” To the girl’s pleas that she had been good, that no man had knownher, Dr. Capers paid no heed until three weeks later when the family calledhim to see the infant, complaining that there was something wrong with theboy’s genitals. Examining the baby, Capers fond “an enlarged, swollen,sensitive scrotum, containing on the right side a hard, roughenedsubstance, evidently foreign.” He operated at once and soon pulled from thebaby a mashed and misshapen mini? ball. The inference was obvious: this wasthe same bullet that had injured the young soldier months before, and inplowing through his testicle, it had carried his sperm with it into thegirl’s abdomen. The result was a messy and painful, but still, in strictterms, virginal conception. “There can be no other solution of thephenomenon,” he said, and so he told the family. To give the story a tidyending, the couple soon married. A better ending would have been anadmission that it was a hoax.
A bullet that would strike a soldier below the knee in a stand up battlelike Raymond had to be on a pronounced downward trajectory. It is difficultenough 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 atesticle, would then deflect the bullet once again, onto a horizontal paththat would hit a woman in the abdomen some 150 yards away. Bullets andflesh can do funny things, but not that funny. The only alternative is toassume that for mysterious reasons the unfortunate soldier was performingsome sort of ballet move in the middle of the battlefield, putting his leftcalf roughly at crotch height, allowing the bullet to pass through his legand his scrotum, and then go on its merry way to hit the girl. To accepteither explanation requires assumptions that make the controversial “singlebullet theory” in the Kennedy assassination seem like child’s play.Moreover, in passing through a combination of numerous layers of fabric andseveral inches of flesh on the soldier and the woman, the bullet must havebeen virtually wiped clean of sperm. And for her to have conceived in auterus full of her own blood, and soon infected with peritonitis, is allbut impossible.
Then there is LeGrand Capers himself. If his story was bogus, certainly hewas not, or not entirely. Actually there were two men of that name, juniorand 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 theentire war with the Army of Northern Virginia and never set foot inMississippi. In February 1864, when the miraculous child would have beenborn, documents place Capers in Virginia. Besides, a regularly enlistedConfederate surgeon would hardly have been allowed to remain at liberty inand around Raymond for weeks after it fell to the Yankees, nor did Gregg’sbrigade return to the area six months later. They were in east Tennessee bythen.
If there is any speck of truth to the story, it may be that some youngwoman in the vicinity of Raymond was struck in the abdomen during thebattle. But she was already pregnant, though not yet aware of it, andsomehow the pregnancy survived the wounding, the peritonitis, and proved tobe a considerable embarrassment, considering her unmarried and presumablyvirginal state. The arrival of the child with the bullet in its scrotumallowed her and her parents a far-fetched but face-saving explanation.
As for Capers, he settled in Vicksburg after the war, married locally, andmust have heard something of the real story-if there was one-and decided toembellish it a bit. Even he acknowledged its preposterousness. “Doubtlessmany will pronounce the facts to be presently related as unusual orimpossible,” he wrote in his account; “to such I need only say, if not, whynot?”
No one has ever let the application of research or logic interfere withsuch a good story. Indeed, like most myths, this one evolved over theyears. In its most recent incarnation, in the New York State Journal ofMedicine 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 mayhave been struck in the abdomen during the fight, but her maternal plightwas the result of more conventional means of conception. The baby boy mayhave 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 CivilWar and Southern history.
A FEW CHOICE YARNS
Legends and biology don’t always mix. According to legend, the epic CivilWar battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1-3, 1863, in whichfifty-one thousand men and untold thousands of horses, mules and livestockwere killed, attracted hordes of scavenging vultures. That may well be.What is impossible is the contention, still voiced by some, that the hugeconcentration of vultures that return each winter to Gettysburg are thesame birds, waiting around and hoping for another battle.
Vultures are long-lived by bird standards, but the maximum life span isonly about 30 years-not 130. The big birds congregate at Gettysburg not outof some faint recollection of long-ago feasts, but because the area in itscurrent, peaceful incarnation provides them with roosting sites andfood….
From Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year: A Monthby Month Guide to Natural Events: Mid-Atlantic,by Scott Weidensaul, Fulcrum Publishing, 1992.
…A soldier of a Mississippi regiment, at Pensacola,… went to his tentand blankets one day to fight through an ague if possible. A bottle of hotwater to his feet…not being convenient, some of his comrades went out andpicked up one of the numerous shells which had been sent over to themduring the bombardment, heated it at the fire, and put it to bed with thesick man’s feet. Unhappily, the shell had lost its cap, but had notexploded. The heat of the campfire accomplished what Federal pyrotechny hadfailed in, to wit,-an explosion. The tent was blown to pieces, and some ofthe men a little hurt and greatly astonished….
In the Hot Seat
…A soldier,… in dodging away from a patrol, hid himself in arestaurant, by jumping into a large box used for steaming oysters. The lidclosed with a spring lock, and the disappointed patrol went on his waybaffled. In a little while the colored man attending the apparatus turnedon a full head of steam in order to prepare a mess for some customers. Thesoldier began to grow uncomfortably warm, and soon kicked and yelledlustily for liberation, until the frightened negro ran away shouting that”de debbil was in de steamer.” Other employees gathered around, hearing thenoise, and released the perspiring soldier….
Among the loyal Tennesseeans who…came into the Union Camp in Kentucky,was a little fellow…[whose] escape from…the secessionists wasremarkable and highly ingenious. He headed a large squad of his neighbors,and eluded the Confederate pickets, by wearing a big sheep’s bell on hishead, and bleating away over the mountains, followed by a herd of men whodid likewise….
From Reminiscences of the Blue and Gray ’61-’65,
by Frazar Kirkland, Preston Publishing, 1895