Civil War anecdotes

Incident from Vicksburg

Chaplain Howard of the 42d Illinois approached a knot of Confederate prisoners and accosted a long, lean, lank specimen, inquiring, “My friend, have you the Gospel among you?”

“Waal, I can’t tell ye, stranger; I dunno nuthin’ about it here — don’t think we’ve got it, but I hearn that it has broke out awful bad down in Camp Douglas!” came the reply from the bewildered Rebel POW.

The Confederate thought the chaplain was talking about some infectious disease. The chagrined preacher beat a hasty retreat to his camp, where the story spread quickly.

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Speaking engagement at the Chambersburg Civil War Seminar in July

I will be speaking at the annual Chambersburg Civil War Seminar on Friday, July 25, prior to heading to Ohio for some meetings (yes, I will miss this year’s Historicon as a result). My talk will be on Human Interest Stories from the Gettysburg Campaign, and I will relate several anecdotes and incidents from my book of the same title. I will also be autographing copies of my three books, and, with some luck, we may have my fourth book on sale at that time. We shall see..

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The Gilder Lehrman Collection of Civil War documents and letters

For you wargamers that may not be aware, there are some excellent on-line resources available from The Guilder Lerman Institute of American History. The organization is sponsoring a temporary exhibit at the new Gettysburg Visitors Center at Gettysburg National Military Park, displaying several dozen “Letters from the War” in their gallery. Many are poignant and illuminating, shedding some light on the lifestyles of the average Civil War soldier.

Complete text of those letters can be found on-line at their website, which also features complete transcripts of many other epistles. Website visitors may listen to several audio versions of selected stories and other documents from the Battle of Gettysburg and other ACW events and campaigns. Also, they make available webcasts and podcasts from a number of leading contemporary ACW historians, professors, and lecturers.

The site is interesting and well worth bookmarking for future repeated visits.

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New book on short stories from the Lincoln Assassination

Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide Michael Kanazawich has produced a neat little book with short vignettes, stories, biographies, and unusual incidents and anecdotes concerning the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth and a team of rather amateurish goons. The new book, Remarkable Stories of the Lincoln Assassination, has recently been released and distributed by Colecraft Books of Ortanna, PA, a growing regional botique publisher. To read a more complete review of this work, please see my Cannonball blog entry.

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The Rebels’ Poor Batting Average?


On a foggy and damp morning in late June 1863, A.P. Hill’s Third Corps was marching through the Front Royal, Virginia, region. They were halted in by a massive traffic jam at the pontoon boats across the forks of the Shenandoah River. Soldiers were relaxing in a nearby field when a massive swarm of bats began darting and weaving just above their heads. Rebels grabbed sticks, rifles, bayonets, and anything else they could, and began swinging mightily at the diving bats. Bats chased soldiers; soldiers chased bats, and the field was soon filled with the spectacle of Hill’s finest engaged in a futile battle. Even General Hill and his staff joined in the merriment, as laughing soldiers tried to see who could knock down one of the swirling bats.

Alas, their batting average was .000, as every single bat managed to dodge the hundreds of weapon-swinging soldiers. An amused Front Royal farmer recalled, “The fun was most exciting, and the men made perfect pandemonium as they tried to hit the swift-flying little creatures. Though there were hundreds of men and an enormous number of bats, not one was struck.”

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Information wanted!

I am looking for anecdotes, incidents, amusing unusual tales, and human interest stories related to the First Louisiana Brigade of Harry T. Hays (the Louisiana Tigers) during the Gettysburg Campaign, particularly when they were in York County, PA, but I’ll consider any fresh material. These can be newspaper clippings, diary entries, journal entries, letters home, and other primary sources. These will be considered for future publication on my York County Civil War blog, Cannonball, and for a new manuscript I am working on.


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Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation


With the recent publicity about the possibility that President Abraham Lincoln appears in an old photograph of the crowds gathering for the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery in November 1863, I thought it would be appropriate to reprint the proclamation that Lincoln penned on October 3, 1863, declaring the last Thursday of November as a formal “day of thanksgiving” for America.

He traveled to Gettysburg on November 18 for the ceremony at the cemetery and his “few remarks,” and then returned to Washington via Hanover Junction, PA. A few days later, he joined his fellow countrymen in prayer and thanksgiving for what blessings could be celebrated in the midst of the worst year of strife to that point in American history.

Take time this Thanksgiving to carefully read Lincoln’s words – very carefully and thoughtfully. While we are not fighting a civil war, we still have conflicts and personal pains, and can reflect on Lincoln’s words of encouragement. There is a lot to be thankful for, despite all that may be going on around us.

Here are the timeless words of the 16th President of the United States, penned seven score and four years ago this month) …

Continue reading

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Life as a new soldier – June 1863

Francis B. Wallace was a newspaperman from rural Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, a mountainous coal mining region northeast of Harrisburg. His paper was appropriately entitled the Miner’s Journal, and it provided regional coverage from its offices in Pottsville. When Confederates threatened Pennsylvania and Governor Andrew Curtin called for troops, Wallace and several of his employees at the paper enlisted in what became the 27th Pennsylvania Militia. He provided periodic reports for his readership.

Here’s an excerpt from one of his early letters to the newspaper, covering his first days as a rookie soldier at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg.

There are arrivals of troops daily, both from New York and Pennsylvania; and it is enough to make a Pennsylvanian blush for his State, to see the manner in which New York sends her men into the field. They are splendidly organized and are as fine a looking body of men as can be found. Our militia came here in “rags and tags,” and, until they don Uncle Sam’s uniforms, look but little like soldiers come to defend their own State. 

We have all kinds of Camp rumors, but they cannot be traced to any reliable source; but I am told that Camp rumors are the most uncertain things in a soldier’s life. We have had several Rebel prisoners, and one suspected of being a spy, in the guard house here. They are the most forlorn and God-forsaken looking creatures I ever saw – ragged, dirty and lousy; they have little or nothing to say; but nevertheless, seem to be perfectly contented with their situation. 

On Sunday morning last, Rev. Mr. Austin, Chaplain, preached to the soldiers. I did not go to hear him, as the weather was rather damp, but I have heard his sermons spoken of in the highest terms. In the afternoon, our Company was called out to receive their arms. We have the Springfield Rifle musket, an excellent arm, carrying a ball a distance of 800 yards. Thus far, I have looked in vain for a copperhead among the soldiers here. There is not much danger of their arming here until the Rebels get possession of the Capital, when I suppose they will rush en masse to receive their dear southern brethren, who have been so badly treated by the Northern abolitionists. 

Camp life is not altogether devoid of amusements. There is one kind which was quite common in Camp Curtin – a man would get into a blanket, held by fifteen or twenty men, and they would throw him up into the air fifteen or twenty feet. The man while in the air would turn about in all manner of shapes, reminding a person of an acrobat in some circus. He is caught in the blanket again as he comes down. 

The position of our Camp was one of the best for observation on the hill. Everything of importance that was going one came under our immediate observation.”

Little did Lieutenant Wallace realize that he and his men would slog into Maryland in a fruitless pursuit of Bobby Lee following the Battle of Gettysburg, and these untrained soldiers would suffer from illness, exposure, and the hardships of being sent off to war with just three days of training. Luckily, they saw little combat, other than a skirmish at Wrightsville, PA. 

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Antietam 145th Anniversary


My son Tom and I drove down to Antietam today to partake in some of the commemoration events for the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg for you folks from south of the Mason-Dixon Line). I started the day by signing several dozen copies of my book, Human Interest Stories from Antietam, which sells well at the Visitors Center. Then, Tom and I took in a very good and well presented overview of Civil War artillery and its role at Antietam by park ranger Jim Bailey. His talk included my favorite topic, human interest stories and anecdotes.

Bailey spoke about the Richardson brothers of Parker’s Battery (a part of S.D. Lee’s battalion firing from the plateau near today’s visitors center). One brother, David, had been wounded at Second Bull Run; a second, 15-year-old Ken, still served with the battery as it moved into Maryland. Before the brothers enlisted in the battery, their mother had insisted that if one son was injured or killed, Captain Parker would immediately send the other one home. Parker did not comply with (or even recall agreeing to) this early war request. When he received a letter from the mother reminding about his commitment, he wrote back that he “was not in the business of unenlisting soldiers.” Ken was not allowed to go home and was mortally wounded at Antietam. Years later, when the famous photograph of the dead around Dunker Church was published in several books, David Richardson, by then long recovered from his Manassas wound, recognized the corpse of his younger brother.

Following a hearty Italian lunch up in Hagerstown, Tom and I drove back to Antietam and spent the afternoon in a throng of park visitors who were led on an excellent 3-hour tour of the battlefield by Ranger John Hoptak. Intermittent rain did not spoil the event, which may have had 100 or so attendees. We then returned to the visitors center to do some browsing before heading leisurely back north to our home in York, PA.

Several battlewalks are on the calendar for the next three days, including an all-day hike on Monday. Ed Bearss is the special speaker on Saturday night.

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Brandy Station story

Fighting raged on June 9 near Brandy Station, a lonely railroad stop near Culpeper, Virginia. The 1st New Jersey Cavalry engaged in a series of charges and countercharges that swept across the prominent Fleetwood Hill. In the middle of the savage fighting, Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Broderick’s horse fell dead beneath him. Young bugler James Wood sprang to the ground and gave his mount to the commander. As Private Wood sought another horse, a Rebel trooper rode up and ordered him to surrender. The musician, realizing that resistance might prove fatal, wisely complied. As he was being taken to the rear, Wood discovered a discarded carbine lying on the ground. He quietly reached down, seized it, and leveled it at his captor. Wood forced the surprised Confederate to dismount and change places with him. The chagrined Southerner had no clue the threatening carbine was unloaded.

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