Things are not always as they seem.
Take the site from which Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1863. For years, visitors to this most famous of American battlefields were told — and markers have indicated — that our 16th president made his brief remarks from the spot where the Soldiers National Monument stands today.
However, thanks to diligent historical research by able and scholarly park historian Kathleen Georg Harrison, this has been disproved. She has shown to the satisfaction of the National Park Service that President Lincoln spoke from within the town cemetery, Evergreen.
The Brown family vault, erected in the 1950s, stands on or near where the platform was erected. A new marker has been authorized to be placed on the Park Service side of the fence. (The fence was not there in 1863.)
Also at Gettysburg, guides for years related — and a plaque at the site still outlines — the dramatic story of Barlow’s Knoll. It was here, visitors were told, that Union Gen. Francis C. Barlow of New York was so severely wounded in the first day’s fighting that he was left on the field for dead.
Leading his surging troops through the area, Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon of Georgia found him. In a spirit of generosity and compassion, he gave water to the unfortunate Barlow, put him in a building for safety and otherwise made him as comfortable as possible.
The dispirited New Yorker spoke of his wife and how he yearned to see her face once again and let her know of his love. When Gordon learned that Mrs. Barlow was, in fact, near the battlefield, he immediately arranged for her to be brought to the scene under a flag of truce.
With the pressures of war closing around him, Gordon forgot the incident. As it turned out, unbeknown to his generous foe, Barlow survived the war but was saddened to hear that Gordon had been killed.
About 15 years after this incident, Gordon, by then a U.S. senator, and Barlow, a prominent state official in New York, attended a dinner in the nation’s capital. (It was a kinsman of Gordon’s from North Carolina whom Barlow had heard had been killed.)
When each learned the other had survived the war, it was a time of rejoicing and the beginning of a cherished friendship that lasted until Barlow’s death in 1896.
This wonderfully poignant story moved all who heard it.
However, in a revealing article in Civil War Times Illustrated (May 1985), William F. Hanna showed that this incident never happened.
Things are not always what they seem.
These are but two of the many strangely contradictory and curiously bizarre stories and statements about Civil War events and personalities that mark this most absorbing period of U.S. history. Here are some others:
ITEM: Dennis Hanks, Abraham Lincoln’s cousin, 10 years his senior, told Lincoln’s mother when handing back the strenuously crying newborn: “Take him Aunt! He’ll never come to much.”
FACT: The “Rail-splitter” is rated No. 1 on every significant presidential poll.
ITEM: Abraham Lincoln declared on Feb. 15, 1861: “There really is no crisis except an artificial one.”
FACT: The war began less than two months later, on April 12.
ITEM: A saying heard far and wide just before the Civil War was, “A lady’s thimble will not hold all the blood that will be shed [should there be war].”
FACT: The American Civil War saw more than 1 million casualties, including more than 620,000 people killed.
ITEM: Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy, wrote on July 17, 1864: “I worked night and day for twelve years to prevent war, but I could not. The North was mad and blind, would not let us govern ourselves and so the war came. Now it must go on until the last man of this generation falls in his tracks and his children seize his musket and fight our battles.”
FACT: Of course, the conflict ended after four years without going on “until the last man.”
ITEM: William Gladstone, British secretary of the Exchequer, declared in October 1862: “There is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made more than either, they have made a nation.”
FACT: Despite a gallant effort by the Confederacy against an adversary superior in the “three M’s” — men, money and materiel — the failure to receive recognition from nations such as England and France further eroded the chance of creating and maintaining “a nation.”
ITEM: Henry Adams, the son of Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Great Britain, as well as his secretary, wrote when the war broke out: “We shall blockade and starve them out. The Cotton States can be finished in nine months, or I’m a beggar.”
FACT: Like most observers, “Beggar” Adams was surprised that the war lasted until 1865.
ITEM: Robert E. Lee wrote to a cousin in 1861 that the South would “continue the war as long as there is one horse that can carry his rider and one arm to wield a sword.” He added: “I prefer annihilation to submission.”
FACT: When Lee wisely surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s overwhelming numbers on April 9, 1865, he saved a number of lives. He told his men: “Go home, all you boys who fought with me, and help to build up the shattered fortunes of our old state.”
He also told them: “Go home and take up any work that offers. Accept conditions as you find them. Consider only the present and the future. Do not cherish bitterness.”
ITEM: Before moving on Richmond in 1862, Gen. George B. McClellan wanted to send a large force up the Shenandoah Valley to re-establish and protect the western line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In order to supply this army, it was necessary to have new bridges over the Potomac at Harpers Ferry. A number of canal boats had been floated up the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to serve as piers. After carefully planning the entire operation, they were ready to begin.
FACT: Ouch. The boats were 6 inches too wide to go through the locks that would bring them to the place where they were needed. The project had to be abandoned. A disgusted Lincoln fumed: “Why in the nation, General Marcy, couldn’t the general have known whether a boat would go through that lock before spending a million dollars getting them there? … it seems to me that if I wished to know whether a boat would go through a lock, common sense would teach me to go and measure it.” (In Washington, the new joke ran that the expedition had died of lockjaw.)
ITEM: When Gen. Joseph Hooker became head of the Army of the Potomac, he boasted: “My plans are perfect and when I start to carry them out, may God have mercy on Bobby Lee; for I shall have none.”
FACT: Hooker found himself no match for “Bobby Lee.” Lee clobbered him at Chancellorsville, and he was replaced by Gen. George G. Meade shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg. (Hooker would have done well to heed Lincoln’s admonition about boastfulness. Lincoln reminded Hooker that “the hen is the wisest of all the animals in creation because she never cackles until the egg is laid.”
ITEM: Grant gained fame and glory by his “unconditional surrender” message to Confederate Gen. Simon Buckner at Fort Donelson (Feb. 13 to 16, 1862.)
When Buckner requested terms of capitulation, Grant responded that he would “move immediately upon your works” if an “unconditional and immediate surrender” was not forthcoming.
FACT: This action, which made Grant’s name a household word in the North, was not original with Grant. It was suggested and recommended to him by one of his subordinate officers, Gen. Charles Ferguson Smith, an old Army veteran. Smith’s actual recommendation was somewhat more severe: “No terms to the damned rebels!”
ITEM: Before the Battle of Shiloh (April 6 and 7, 1862), Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston boasted to his staff: “Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River.”
FACT: Not only did the Confederates fail to gain the day, but Johnston lost his life in this engagement.
ITEM: Following his first Civil War campaign, an unsuccessful one in western Virginia (Cheat Mountain, September 1861), newspapers dubbed Robert E. Lee “Granny Lee” and the “King of the Spades” because he seemed bent on having his men dig trenches and earthworks.
FACT: After the Seven Days Battle and thereafter, the respect and admiration accorded to Lee made him the most honored individual in the South. Today, he is a highly respected American.
ITEM: Hooker gained the nickname “Fighting” Joe Hooker.
FACT: This appellation derived not from his effectiveness as an aggressive warrior, but from an errant transmission of the news.
During the Peninsula Campaign, at Williamsburg on the Virginia Peninsula, with Hooker’s division of Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps leading the way, the Associated Press wire report reading “Fighting Joe Hooker” appeared throughout the North as “Fighting Joe Hooker.”
ITEM: Nathan Bedford Forrest, cited by many military experts as “the foremost cavalry officer produced in America,” has been widely quoted as saying that to be successful one should, “Get thar fustest with the mostest men.”
FACT: This highly regarded general did not use this phraseology. He said his Civil War campaigns were successful because “I just took a short cut and got there first with the most men.” (Forest had 29 horses shot out from under him during the war — undoubtedly a world’s record. His grandson, Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, died in 1943 on a bombing mission over Germany.)
ITEM: Gen. Philip Kearney, one of the best-known and most respected soldiers in the Union Army, said to David Birney on Sept. 1, 1862: “The Rebel bullet that can kill me has not yet been molded.”
FACT: On that day, he inadvertently rode into the Confederate lines and was killed instantly by a rifle ball.
ITEM: At Spotsylvania Court House on May 9, 1864, Gen. John Sedgwick’s aides cautioned him about exposing himself needlessly while inspecting his lines and indicating where his batteries should be placed. Sedgwick replied: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”
FACT: They could; they did; and he died.
ITEM: Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune in 1841 and an ardent abolitionist, said about Abraham Lincoln’s chances for re-election in 1864: “Mr. Lincoln is already beaten. He cannot be elected. We must have another ticket to save us from utter overthrow. If we had such a ticket as could be made by naming Grant, Butler or Sherman for President and Farragut for Vice, we could make a fight yet. And such a ticket we ought to have.”
Earlier, Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican from Pennsylvania, declared Lincoln was a “dead card” in the political deck. When he heard that Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward were going to Gettysburg to participate in the dedication service, he cracked, “The dead going to eulogize the dead.”
FACT: Lincoln defeated George McClellan as he polled 55 percent of the popular vote and scored a resounding victory in the Electoral College — 212-21.
Indeed, things are not always what they seem.
Martin D. “Mitch” Tullai is senior master emeritus at St. Paul’s School in Brooklandville, Md. He is the author of “The Presidency: Once Over Lightly,” “Speaking of Abraham Lincoln” and “Football’s Best Quips, Quotes and Quellers.”