The bizarre and tragic fates of 10 generals

Of the more than 1,000 Union and Confederate generals who served in the Civil War, 124 died of wounds received in battle, while 38 died from illnesses, accidents, or in other bizarre incidents. Among those in the latter category were two who committed suicide—one after being demoted by Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the other after being placed under arrest by notorious Union Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles. While most of the generals who survived the four years of carnage would die of natural causes, a fraction perished in tragic mishaps during peacetime. One of Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan’s ablest lieutenants, for example, drowned in a shipwreck on his way to Mexico in 1880. A Union division commander who helped repel Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg died in a train accident nine years after he fought in that epic battle. Most buffs know of Union Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis’ murder of Maj. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson, a fellow Yankee, during the war, and the slaying of Confederate Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn by the husband of his mistress in April 1863, but they probably aren’t familiar with the stories of the Confederate generals killed in street fights or assassinated in the 1870s and 1880s. Compiled here is a list of 10 bizarre and tragic deaths of Union and Confederate generals both during and after the war.

  1. Michael Corcoran (UNION)

Michael Corcoran is one of the most controversial generals to serve on either side during the Civil War. The outspoken Irishman even killed a fellow Union officer—Lt. Col. Edgar Kimball of the Hawkins’ Zouaves in April 1863—but he was absolved by a court of inquiry. It is not surprising that Corcoran’s life ended under peculiar circumstances.

An Irish patriot, Corcoran helped found the Fenian Brotherhood in America (Library of Congress)
An Irish patriot, Corcoran helped found the Fenian Brotherhood in America (Library of Congress)

Corcoran, a colonel at the time, first made headlines in 1859 when he refused to parade the 69th New York State Militia to greet Prince of Wales Albert Edward upon the prince’s arrival in New York. He was court-martialed, though the charges were later dismissed. In July 1861, he was captured while leading his regiment at the First Battle of Bull Run. After time in a Confederate prison, he was released in August 1862. The popular officer was promoted to brigadier general and recruited a brigade known as “Corcoran’s Legion” composed of Irishmen.

On December 22, 1863, Corcoran, accompanied by several other officers, met fellow Irish patriot Thomas Francis Meagher at a train station not far from Virginia’s Fairfax Court House, where Meagher’s men were camped. On the slog back, Corcoran’s horse lost a shoe, so he exchanged horses with Meagher.

Meagher’s unruly horse suddenly bolted ahead out of sight, taking Corcoran with it. Found unconscious, Corcoran was taken by wagon to Dr. William P. Gunnell’s home in Fairfax, where surgeons proceeded to bleed him by cupping. The 36-year-old general died roughly four hours later, surrounded by his grief-stricken officers and a teenage bride.

The popular belief is that Corcoran was either thrown from the horse or fell out of his saddle (Meagher rode on an old-fashioned English saddle to which Corcoran was supposedly not accustomed) and fractured his skull. But more reliable sources claim that he had died from cerebral apoplexy or a stroke. Corcoran had been suffering from poor health since his release from Confederate captivity and had had prior fainting episodes.

Thousands of Irish-Americans visited his body at New York’s Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He was buried December 27.

  1. Philip St. George Cocke (CONFEDERATE)

Virginian Philip St. George Cocke left the Army in 1834, two years after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy, but he retained ties with the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, acting as a benefactor and serving as the president of VMI’s board of visitors. He was one of the wealthiest slave and plantation owners in the South before the war.

Philip St. George Cocke, one of the South’s wealthiest slaveowners in 1852, wrote “Plantation and Farm Instruction.” (Library of Virginia)

Cocke was appointed a brigadier general and placed in command of Virginia’s troops in 1861. He was instrumental in organizing Confederate forces. To Cocke’s anguish, he was stripped of his authority and demoted to the rank of colonel when Virginia’s forces were transferred to the Provisional Army of the Confederacy on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run. Cocke partially blamed General Robert E. Lee for his demotion, writing indignantly to President Jefferson Davis: “I think General Lee has treated me very badly and I shall never forgive him for it.”

Colonel Robert E. Withers noticed a disturbing change in Cocke’s demeanor after that incident and began to question his mental stability. “My opinion was formed from his general manner,” Withers declared, “which was distrait [sic], he was often abstracted and evidently oblivious of his surroundings, the expression of his eye was not normal and there was an indefinable something in his whole bearing which I thought justified my opinion.”

As winter approached, Cocke, in poor health and disheartened at how he had been treated, returned to his mansion in Powhatan, Va. On December 26, 1861, he walked outside his mansion and placed a pistol in his mouth, pulling the trigger.

Robert Lewis Dabney, a fellow Virginian and Confederate army chaplain who had spent the day before with Cocke, said he “never saw him more rational.” During his funeral sermon, the Rev. Cornelius Tyree deduced what had driven Cocke to take his own life: “With a temperament nervous and excitable, being for more than a year under intense, high-wrought and continued mental anxiety about the country, and dwelling on the gloomy aspect of our revolution, his bright intellect gave way and was wrapped in the somber cloud of irrationality, which caused his mournful end.”

  1. William Harrow (UNION)

After relocating with his family from Kentucky to Illinois, William Harrow studied law. Known for his elegant speeches and magnetic personality in the courtroom, the six-foot lawyer was said to be able to defeat any opponent if given the opportunity to deliver a trial’s closing argument. Before the war, he traveled with Abraham Lincoln in the 8th Judicial Circuit, the two becoming good friends. Lincoln supposedly considered Harrow for a position in his Cabinet, but Harrow turned it down so he could fight. While commanding a division during Pickett’s Charge, he was saved from a Confederate bullet by a daguerreotype of his wife and two Mexican coins he was carrying in a uniform pocket.

William Harrow, a lawyer before and after the war, strongly supported Horace Greeley of the Liberal Republican Party for president in 1872. (USAHEC)

After the war, Harrow returned to politics and his law practice. Nominated for Congress, he decided not to run against William E. Niblack because of his failing health. On September 27, 1872, after speaking in Mitchell, Ill., in support of Horace Greeley’s candidacy for president, Harrow boarded a train on the New Albany & Chicago Railroad, scheduled to deliver another speech in Jeffersonville, Ill. Before he reached his destination, however, the train struck a damaged rail and ran off the track, throwing Harrow from his car—breaking a shoulder and hip while causing severe internal injuries. On his deathbed, he declared, “I lived like a hero, I would like to die like one.” But his dying words were reserved for his wife, who had not yet arrived at his bedside: “Tell my wife—God receive my spirit.”

He died that night at the age of 49.

  1. William Wirt Adams (CONFEDERATE)

William Wirt Adams had a variety of occupations before the Civil War: soldier for the Republic of Texas; sugar planter; banker; and Mississippi legislator. He declined the position of postmaster general offered by President Jefferson Davis at the beginning of the war. Instead, he raised a Mississippi cavalry regiment and supported Confederate operations in Mississippi and Tennessee until the conclusion of the war.

William Wirt Adams died in a 1888 confrontation with newspaper editor John H. Martin in Jackson, Miss. (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)

In 1883, President Grover Cleveland appointed Adams, then 64, to the position of postmaster of Jackson, Miss. Adams became embroiled in a bitter feud with the editor of the New Mississippian newspaper, 25-year-old John H. Martin. On May 1, 1888, Martin was on his way to his office when he bumped into an irate Adams in the street. Tired of the editor’s slanderous remarks, Adams yelled at Martin, “You damned rascal, I have stood enough from you.”

Both men pulled their pistols and fired. Adams died instantly from a bullet that entered his body between the heart and collarbone; Martin collapsed to the ground and bled to death seconds later. Adams’ funeral procession stretched for miles through Jackson’s streets, leading the New Orleans Picayune to declare: “Truly, there was no man whom Jackson loved more than General Adams.”

  1. Emerson Opdycke (UNION)

Before the war, Emerson Opdycke worked as a merchant selling horse equipment in Warren, Ohio. He enlisted as a private and rose to brevet major general by the war’s end. The most notable deed of his career occurred in November 1864 at the Battle of Franklin, Tenn., where his brigade halted a Confederate breakthrough in the Union line.

Emerson Opdycke’s decision to defy orders and pull his brigade behind a fortified position ultimately led to a Union victory at Franklin, Tenn., in November 1864. (Library of Congress)

After the war, Opdycke moved to New York and helped establish the dry goods house Peake, Opdycke, Terry & Steele. On April 25, 1884, his wife and son heard a gunshot in his bedroom and found the general with a bullet hole in his abdomen. Before he died a few days later, Opdycke managed to tell his physician that he had accidentally shot himself while cleaning his revolver. “With the death of Gen. Opdycke,” the St. Paul Daily Globe avowed, “passes away one of the most gallant and distinguished soldiers which Ohio sent into the Civil War.”

The 54-year-old general’s body was transported by train to his hometown and buried.

  1. Bryan Grimes (CONFEDERATE)

An antebellum farmer and University of North Carolina alumnus, Bryan Grimes became the last officer appointed major general in General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, having earned a reputation for his daring, boldness, and talent as a commander. After the war, he returned to North Carolina and to farming.


Bryan Grimes’ bravado and quick thinking saved the Confederates from defeat at Spotsylvania’s Mule Shoe in May 1864. (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

On August 14, 1880, he left Washington, N.C., in a two-horse-buggy accompanied by 12-year-old Bryan Satterthwaite. As the buggy crossed Bear Creek two miles from his home, a shotgun blast exploded from the bushes. It struck 51-year-old Grimes in the left arm and breast, severing a large artery and lodging into one of his lungs. He calmly uttered to his young companion, “Bryan, I am shot.” Seeing the severity of his wound, Satterthwaite asked, “Are you much hurt, General?” Grimes replied with his last gasping breath, “Yes, it will kill me.”

The assassin, William Parker, drunkenly boasted of the crime and was kidnapped by an angry mob and lynched. The general’s old warhorse, 26-year-old Warren, carted his coffin to the burial in the family cemetery. “Thus has ingloriously died,” the Raleigh Observer lamented, “one of the brightest stars that ever shone in the galaxy of North Carolinians.”

  1. James Holt Clanton (CONFEDERATE)

James Holt Clanton distinguished himself on the first day at Shiloh but was wounded and captured at Bluff Springs, Fla., on March 25, 1865. (Virginia Museum of History and Culture)

After the war, Clanton resumed his legal career. On September 27, 1871, the 44-year-old lawyer traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., to represent his state in a court case. He was introduced by a friend to Brevet Lt. Col. David M. Nelson, the son of congressman Thomas A.R. Nelson and a Union officer on the staff of Maj. Gen. Alvan Cullem Gillem during the war. Clanton expressed to the men that he wanted to see the town after a long day in court.

Nelson, who had been drinking heavily all day, turned to Clanton and boasted, “I can take you where there is something very nice, if you are not afraid.” The general wasn’t amused by the Yankee officer’s remark. He replied, “Do I look as if I am afraid?” After Nelson said he didn’t know for sure, Clanton stared him down, declaring “I am not afraid of anything or any man.” Nelson questioned Clanton’s courage a second time, provoking the ex-Confederate to issue a challenge: “If you think I am, try me; name your friend, time and place, any time or any place.”

Nelson disappeared into the St. Nicholas Saloon while his friend apologized to Clanton for Nelson’s behavior. Nelson suddenly burst out the saloon’s door and aimed a double-barreled shotgun at Clanton. As Clanton reached for his pistol, Nelson riddled him with buckshot. The blast fractured Clanton’s right shoulder and severed several major arteries. Clanton fired as he fell to the ground, but missed Nelson. He died a few minutes later.

Locals carried Clanton’s remains to the Lamar House Hotel. Transported home to Montgomery, Ala., the general’s body laid in rest in the Alabama State Capitol before burial. The Memphis Daily Appeal claimed that his funeral was one of “the greatest demonstrations ever known in Alabama.”

In 1873, Nelson was acquitted of murder by a jury.

  1. Francis Engle Patterson (UNION) 

Frank Patterson lived in the shadow of his father, Robert Patterson, for most of his life. The senior Patterson was a wealthy Pennsylvania businessman, a general during the Mexican War, and the commander of the Army of the Shenandoah early in the Civil War. The younger Patterson followed his father to Mexico, served as an artillery lieutenant, and remained in the Army for another decade after the Mexican War.

Frank Patterson was placed under arrest by Brig. Gen. Dan Sickles for ordering a hasty retreat at Catlett Station, Va., in late 1862. He may have committed suicide. (USAHEC)

Francis Patterson’s friend, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, recommended him for promotion to brigadier general in April 1862. Seven months after Patterson’s appointment, his division commander, Brig. Gen. Daniel Sickles, placed him under arrest for ordering a hasty retreat near Catlett’s Station, Va. Two weeks after his arrest, James Fowler Rusling of the 5th New Jersey Infantry watched the Pennsylvanian near his tent “ill and acting strangely all the evening” until about 2 a.m., when a gunshot broke the silence of the camp. The men discovered the 41-year-old general dead in his tent with a single gunshot wound to the chest.

Rumors spread that he had committed suicide rather than face a shameful trial; others thought his pistol misfired. Nobody could be sure. Some of Patterson’s soldiers blamed Sickles, saying the former New York congressman (notorious for brazenly murdering his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key II, in 1859) got away with his second murder. “Another gallant spirit snuffed out,” Rusling wrote of his deceased commander. “Good old soldier, brave heart, generous soul, hail and farewell! It was a tragic affair. It cast a deep gloom over the whole division, and everybody felt it like a personal sorrow. He was a very capable officer, and will be missed sadly.”

  1. Alfred Thomas Archimedes Torbert (UNION)

A Delaware native and 1855 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Alfred Torbert saw success during the Civil War. He first served as an infantry brigade commander in the Army of the Potomac, then as a cavalry division and corps commander under Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan. He left the army a year after the war ended. During Reconstruction, he served in diplomatic positions in El Salvador, Cuba, and France.

Torbert, assigned command of a cavalry division before the Overland Campaign, performed admirably for Phil Sheridan at Tom’s Brook, Va. (Library of Congress)

On August 15, 1880, the 47-year-old general left New York City for Mexico on the steamer City of Vera Cruz to secure a land grant for a railroad from the Mexican government. Fifteen days later, Torbert’s steamer got caught in a hurricane 30 miles off the coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral. Torbert helped to fasten life preservers on the women and children before the ship sank and he was washed overboard. He clung to a fragment of the wreckage until it capsized and he disappeared beneath the waves.

The next day, the general’s lifeless body washed up on the beach. Torbert’s remains were first buried in Daytona, but then disinterred and reburied in his home state. The epitaph “He bore without abuse the grand old name of gentleman” is fittingly inscribed on the obelisk erected over Torbert’s grave.

  1. Thomas W. Egan (UNION)

As a colonel, “Fighting Tom” Egan first led the 40th New York Infantry during George McClellan’s 1862 Peninsula Campaign, where he was wounded in the left side of his head. In July 1863, he was again wounded at Gettysburg, shot in the right thigh. He suffered a third wound at the Second Battle of Petersburg on June 16, 1864, two days after his 30th birthday, when a shell fragment penetrated his back one inch to the left of his spine. Before the war’s end, he was promoted to brigadier general, and suffered a fourth wound when a musket ball shattered his right forearm. The battered Egan ended the war as a brevet major general. 

Thomas Egan became the lieutenant colonel of the 40th New York Infantry, known as the Mozart Regiment, in June 1861. The frequently wounded Egan was committed to an insane asylum on New York’s Ward’s Island in July 1884. (Heritage Auctions, Dallas)

After the war, Egan returned to New York a physical wreck, with paralysis in his lower limbs and his right arm virtually useless. A doctor, upon examination, called Egan’s condition “unqualifiedly deplorable.”

The ex-general began to frequent saloons, and in early July 1884, he stood trial before Justice Solon B. Smith after being arrested for public intoxication. At one point during the trial, he claimed that he was worth $40 million. “Drinking has somewhat unbalanced your mind and I’ll change the complaint against you into insanity,” the judge declared, ordering Egan to the insane asylum on Ward’s Island.

On May 22, 1886, Stephen Smith, commissioner of lunacy of the State of New York, and army surgeon Charles S. Hoyt, both discouraged Egan’s release, noting that “he appears so well in asylum he would be made much worse if subjected to the excitement of life outside.” Smith further reasoned that keeping Egan in the sanitarium was “most favorable to his health and happiness.” Despite their warnings, a judge ordered Egan released on June 5, 1886. He lived for about another eight months.

On the morning of February 24, 1887, Egan suffered an epileptic seizure outside the entrance of the International Hotel. He was moved to the House of Relief or Chambers Street Hospital, an institution that offered free medical aid to the poor. He died there that afternoon, at the age of 52.

Members of the Grand Army of the Republic covered the cost of his funeral and interment—none of Egan’s family members came forward—rather than see the general’s remains relegated to a potter’s field. The veterans of the 40th New York also pitched in to purchase a fine granite monument to commemorate the general, and he was laid to rest in Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills Cemetery.

Frank Jastrzembski, a frequent contributor to America’s Civil War and the blog “Emerging Civil War,” is the author of Admiral Albert Hastings Markham: A Victorian Tale of Triumph, Tragedy and Exploration and Valentine Baker’s Heroic Stand at Tashkessen, 1877. He runs “Shrouded Veterans,” a nonprofit mission to identify or repair the graves of Mexican War and Civil War veterans.
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This story appeared in the May 2020 issue of America’s Civil War.