Nearly 160 years after the guns fell silent, it seems we’re still fighting the Civil War in our own way. What was it really about? Slavery, or state’s rights? Was this general or that leader really as brilliant or stupid as they’re often cracked up to be? Were there really Black Confederates? And what’s the deal with civilians having a picnic at Bull Run? Let’s dive into some of the most pervasive, annoying myths surrounding the American Civil War, and hopefully send them the way of the dinosaurs (and the institution of slavery).
10. It wasn’t about slavery
Yeah? Nearly every major event that led to war – from compromises designed to maintain a balance between northern free states and southern slave states in the US Senate so neither side could out-legislate the other, to John Brown’s raid, to Bleeding Kansas, to the Dredd Scott decision and 1850’s Fugitive Slave Act, to the formation of the Republican Party itself as an abolitionist party (back when it represented northeastern liberals) – all pointed towards one central issue: slavery. After all that, does anyone really expect people to believe that southern leaders seceded because Lincoln was coming for their sweet tea and banjos? Yeah, okay. Sure.
Still not convinced? Don’t take our word for it – read the simply charming things Confederate VP Alexander Stevens had to say about the issue of slavery and white supremacy. “[Our new government’s] foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Yikes.
9. The Union went to war to end slavery
11 southern states seceded in 1860 to form the Confederate States of America, hoping to protect (and eventually expand) the institution of slavery from newly-elected US President Abraham Lincoln. When it became clear calmer heads would not prevail, Lincoln and the US government called for 75,000 volunteers to go free the slaves. Right?
Uh, no. The North’s original war aim was merely to preserve the Union. That’s why it called itself, you know, “the Union” army and not “the Abolition” army. Hoping to avoid conflict and appeal to rebellious southern states, Lincoln himself said in his first inaugural address that, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
It wasn’t until January 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation that the Union adapted abolition as an official strategic objective, slamming the door on much needed international support for the South (as Britain and France couldn’t be seen supporting a pro-slavery country now that the war was officially about slavery for both sides).
8. It was the war of northern aggression
This one is at least a little true. The North had more men, money, and firepower, and needed to reassert control over the South, which merely needed to defend itself against incursion long enough for the North to get tired and give up (kind of like the British during the American Revolution). Therefore, the war took place largely in the south, with the North attacking and the South defending.
But it’s really hard to make the argument that you’re the victim when you’re the one who started the war by seceding in the first place, and you’re the one who fired the first shots at Fort Sumter (which was only the latest in a long string of forceful Confederate takeovers of Federal forts and arsenals). Only then did Lincoln call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion after giving Southerners plenty of time to see reason and resolve their differences with words, and not bayonets.
Along with other pro-Confederate myths like the war not having to do with slavery, Robert E. Lee being brilliant and faultless, this myth can be traced back to the debunked tenants of the Lost Cause.
7. Civilians had a picnic at the first battle of Bull Run
When the war broke out, both sides underestimated the resolve of the other and figured the enemy would be good and whooped within a few weeks. Infamously, a crowd of clueless civilians actually accompanied the Union Army to the war’s first big clash, at Bull Run (also known as Manassas), bringing their kids, their Sunday best, and picnic baskets to what was sure to be great family entertainment. The carnage that actually unfolded was a shock to everyone involved.
Yeah, you’ve probably heard this narrative a few times. And there is some truth to it – but just some. The image of a crowd of civilian onlookers observing the fight like modern day tourists at a battle reenactment has been grossly mischaracterized. Spectators weren’t stupid enough to think it’d be fun to watch young men getting their heads knocked off by cannonballs. It was mainly politicians and journalists who attended, trying to do their jobs. As far as food being present, that was because it was a full-day’s excursion from Washington, D.C., and onlookers couldn’t exactly ask Virginians for a bite to eat as they were now in an enemy country.
6. Gettysburg was the biggest, most important battle of the war
The Battle of Gettysburg is far and away the most famous battle of the war. It was also the bloodiest, with 47,000-51,000 casualties, including 8-9,000 dead. But it’s often mistakenly referred to as the biggest and most important battle of the war. Let’s look at both claims.
Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had around 70-75,000 men at Gettysburg, whereas George Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac had more than 90,000, for a total of around 163,000 men. But December 1862’s Battle of Fredericksburg featured around 200,000 men.
As far as being the most important battle, that’s up for debate. It was a defensive victory for the Union, but Lee was able to escape back into Virginia when it was all said and done, allowing him to continue the war there for another two years. The simultaneous siege of Vicksburg (which ended the day after Gettysburg with a crushing Union victory ) was arguably more strategically important, as it secured Union control over the Mississippi, cut the South in two, and destroyed a whole rebel army of 40,000 men, ending an entire theater of war.
5. Meade should have chased and destroyed Lee after Gettysburg
Lee tried everything to destroy Meade’s Union army at Gettysburg. But his enemy held the line against numerous assaults, including a dramatic, all-out, 12,500 man infantry assault known as Pickett’s charge on July 3, which resulted in attacking rebel divisions being decimated. The following day, Lee’s mauled, demoralized army began a torturous retreat back to native Virginia.
You’d think Meade should’ve pounced on Lee right then and there, smashing what remained of his forces and ending the war two years early. Right? President Lincoln certainly seemed to think so, writing in an unsent 1863 letter that he was “distressed immeasurably” because of Meade’s failure to seize the moment and crush Lee once and for all.
But Meade’s caution here likely reflected wisdom, not indecision or cowardice. His own army, though victorious, had been thrashed in the fight and badly needed rest, reorganization, and hot food. If he had sent his exhausted regiments charging out of their positions towards Lee, the Confederates might’ve had an opportunity to dive behind their own stone walls and give them what for, reversing the hard-fought and desperately needed victory the Union had just achieved.
4. Amputations were always done without anesthesia
You’ve seen it in countless Civil War movies. Doctors with saws, bloody aprons, big mustaches and seemingly no understanding of sanitation whatsoever, hacking and slicing right through the mangled limbs of wounded men who are either screaming in agony, begging for them to stop, or biting down on something so hard it’s a wonder their teeth didn’t crack. That was just what life was like in the 1860s, an age before modern medicine.
But nope! This is actually a myth. Anesthesia had been demonstrated in surgery in the United States as early as the 1840s, so its numbing properties were well known by the Civil War and it was widely used on both sides throughout the conflict. It’s estimated that as many as 95% of all Civil War amputations utilized anesthesia.
It didn’t look quite like it does today, we’ll admit. In the war, patients would often be asked to inhale from a chloroform-soaked sponge placed near their nose and mouth, gradually knocking them out cold. If anyone did squirm and had to be held town, it was because of the anesthetic, not the ongoing amputation.
3. Sherman’s March to the Sea was a murderous war on civilians
After seizing Atlanta, Union General William Sherman detached his army from its supply lines and boldly marched towards the Atlantic through Georgia, living off the land, burning farms supporting Confederate armies, wrapping railroads around trees, freeing slaves, and wreaking general havoc. This March to the Sea was the manifestation of Sherman’s belief that the fastest (and most merciful) way to end the war was to undermine the ability of civilians to support the army.
It was harsh, yes. But tales of Union troops pillaging, plundering, and murdering for the fun of it have been greatly exaggerated. It was also, sadly, sound military strategy. It devastated the South and its ability to feed its troops and continue resisting. Also, news of the march caused desertions in Lee’s army to skyrocket during the Siege of Petersburg, bringing Grant that much closer to final victory in Virginia.
Furthermore, outcry that Sherman was engaging in war crimes of unprecedented barbarism is rich, coming from the side that passed laws literally requiring any and all captured Black Union soldiers to be murdered on the spot, rather than taken prisoner.
2. There were Black Confederates
“If the South was so racist during the Civil War, why did thousands of Black men serve in the Confederate army?” Oh, this one’s easy. They didn’t!
At least, not by their own free will. Many Confederate soldiers did indeed drag their slaves to war, but only permitted them to perform menial tasks around camp. Confederate law expressly forbade giving Black men the “honor” of actually fighting (for the cause of their own enslavement). Maybe you’ve seen photos of Confederate infantryman Andrew Chandler posing with his “lifelong friend,” Silas, sitting side by side, seemingly as equals. At least some Confederate soldiers were therefore kind to their Black buddies, right? Well, no. Silas was a slave. As were all Black men who you may, from time to time, see pictures of in Confederate uniform.
The south did eventually try to arm slaves – something that they’d been very hesitant to do as they feared a slave revolt – but that was a hail mary thrown in utter desperation in March 1865, as Southern armies were collapsing everywhere. The war would end within weeks, before any slave regiments actually saw service.
1. Confederate generals were better
“Between Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest (let’s not talk about how he was the first Grand Wizard of the KKK), and Stonewall Jackson, the Confederates were blessed with a murderer’s row of some of the finest strategic minds in military history. The north, meanwhile – oof. McClellan, Pope and Burnside were all fighting to be elected Mayor of Doofustown. They only won because they had so many more men!”
Yeah, not so fast. Lee and Jackson had plenty of defeats under their belt and arguably fought the war far too aggressively for the outnumbered, defending side. This led to irreplaceable losses and yes, their ultimate defeat. Forrest was tactically successful as a cavalry leader, but not particularly impactful since the South didn’t win a single major battle outside Virginia throughout the entire war, other than September 1863’s Battle of Chickamauga (which didn’t help much). And between Grant, Sherman, Thomas, and Sheridan, the Union had plenty of brilliant generals. As far as only winning because of larger numbers – that’s an advantage Grant’s failed predecessors also possessed over Lee, proving that alone couldn’t possibly be the only reason he crushed Lee’s army in less than a year.