Ten things you didn’t know about the Civil War

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

Part two of Discovering the Civil War opens November 10 in Washington, DC
Part two of Discovering the Civil War opens November 10 in Washington, DC

Part two of Discovering the Civil War opens at the National Archives in Washington, DC, in just 10 days! Spies, code breaking, personality conflicts over balloons, prosthetic limbs, two different Thirteenth Amendments, and the Confederate States of Mexico are just a few of the ways that the National Archives Experience is showing you the Civil War as you’ve never seen it.  One hundred and fifty years after the conflict began we’re still uncovering strange facts we didn’t know. We’ve posted ten below, but there’s no need to stop there! Help us by sharing the weirdest fact you’ve ever heard about the Civil War in the comment section.

  1. Abe Lincoln referred to Robert E. Lee as “Bobby Lee” and Jefferson Davis as “Jeffy D.”
  2. Despite serving as a member of the House of Representatives, a Senator on two separate occasions and as the President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis never completed a full term in any office.
  3. More people earned the Medal of Honor in the Civil War than in World War I, World War II, and Vietnam combined.
  4. The same cipher code used by the Confederate government, including Jefferson Davis, was found on John Wilkes Booth’s remains, leading many to believe Davis had ordered the assassination.
  5. John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln was part of a broader conspiracy. That same night an assailant, Louis Powell, attempted to kill the Secretary of State William Seward. A third conspirator was assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, but got nervous and went to a tavern instead.
  6. Canada was anything but quiet during the Civil War. The Confederate Secret Service took refuge in Montreal, and when a group of Confederates raided Vermont from Quebec, Canadian authorities captured and then released the men, much to the Union’s dismay.
  7. The hip pocket was invented by the U.S. Army during the Civil War.
  8. In the Civil War era, it was commonly thought that firing a cannon over water would cause corpses to float to the surface. There is an example of this in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  9. Don’t think you need to wash your hands? More than 215,000 soldiers were killed in Civil War battles, but 238,000 died from disease.
  10. The 1830 census shows that in rare cases there were black slave-owners.

Update on the Great Gettysburg Horse Hoof Debacle

We’ve received a number of inquiries on one of the original facts posted here and investigated further. The fact listed said that on statues at Gettysburg the number of horse hooves on the ground indicated the fate of its rider: all four meant the rider survived the battle unscathed, three touching the ground meant the rider was wounded, and two on the ground indicated the rider was killed in battle.

Well, here’s the truth straight from the, er, horse’s mouth. We spoke with John, Historian and Ranger of Gettysburg Military Park and he explained that the horse hoof legend was a trick of the trade. In an effort to help visitors remember general officers involved in the battle, tour guides from before 1910 would point to the number of horse hooves to identify the general officers who survived the battle unscathed (four feet), wounded (three feet, as is the case with Hancock), or were killed (two feet, as is the case with Reynolds). After 1910, many more equestrian monuments were added, nullifying what was already an inconsistent coincidental correlation.

Since then, myth overtook fact to such an extent that the War Department commission that administered Gettysburg National Military Park between 1895 and 1933 demanded tour guides stop perpetuating the myth, but some stories are just too good not to tell, fact or fiction. While it may have helped a few tourists remember that Hancock was wounded at Gettysburg and Reynolds was killed, the legend has likely confused its share of aspiring Civil War buffs, including this author.

7 thoughts on “Ten things you didn’t know about the Civil War

  1. You are wrong about the horses hooves at Gettysburg.

    That is a complete myth.

    General Longstreet’s statue has one hoof off the ground and he was not shot during the battle.

    Please print a correction.

    1. Sorry about that, Jim. We’ve replaced that fact with another! Our reading showed that it was a myth with other statues, but that the only place the horse hooves had symbolic meaning was at Gettysburg!

    2. Hi Jim,

      Further investigation shows that the horse hooves at Gettysburg isn’t an entire myth. We called the National Park rangers there and they verified that the symbolism used to apply in the park. The number of horse hooves on the ground does not correspond with the rider’s fate on newer statues, of which Longstreet was one. We’ve got another call into the research team there, and we’ll let you know what we find.

  2. “On statues of war heroes, you may have heard that the number of hooves on the ground indicates whether the subject died in battle, from wounds or of natural causes. Not true. This only applies to the monuments at the Battle of Gettysburg: two legs off the ground means the rider died in battle, one off the ground shows he was wounded, and all four on the ground show he made it off the battlefield alive.”

    Not true. John F. Reynolds was killed on the field on July 1, 1863. his statue has one of his horses feet raised

    1. Thanks so much Charles for the interesting fact. That’s certainly the most qualified answer I’ve seen on the subject, despite there being a lengthy debate in many places. Do you know why the Longstreet statue didn’t conform to the previously used symbolism?

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