In keeping with its status as arguably the most studied and compelling American historical event, the Civil War has produced some of American history´s most enduring and compelling mysteries.
Although what is a “mystery” may be subject to debate, the conflict produced dozens of bizarre, unexpected and sometimes unsettling events that even today generate debate and popular interest. These are, in no particular order, a suggested list of the top 10 unsolved mysteries of the Civil War.
10. Gen. Robert E. Lee´s lost Special Orders 191. In 1862, flush with the successes at Second Manassas, Lee swept north toward Maryland to take advantage of Southern sympathies and move the war farther away from central Virginia. Lee´s secret order of battle included a division of his army in the face of hostile forces, a risky enterprise by conventional military wisdom.
Under circumstances that are still debated, a copy of Lee´s orders was found on the ground by a Union soldier (wrapped around cigars) and quickly turned over to Union Gen. George McClellan. With this information at his disposal, McClellan should have been able to defeat Lee decisively and change the course of the war. The mystery: Was the copy of the order “lost,” or was subterfuge involved? The interested sleuth can vote online for the most likely solution: https://bhere.com/plugugly/lost/index.html
9. Missing Confederate gold. Just before the fall of Richmond in 1865, the Jefferson Davis administration frantically packed up or destroyed important government property. Among the most valuable assets was an enormous sum of gold (almost $100,000 but much, much more in 2008 dollars) even more valuable at the time because of the precipitous inflation of Confederate paper money. Gold was the only “credit” the Confederate government had to feed its army and buy materials through the blockade.
The gold was assigned a special guard and traveled away from Ulysses S. Grant´s Union Army by wagon, train and horse, but somewhere in North Carolina or Georgia, it vanished. The mystery: Where is the gold? Some claim to know (read “The Rebel and the Rose”) but no one has made a widely accepted case.
8. Acoustic shadows. At important junctures in battle, soldiers and their officers relied on advanced technology to determine movements, relay orders and facilitate shifts in unit deployment. That technology was the human ear.
Because of what are now known to be meteorological phenomena involving the physics of wind, geography, pressure and sound waves, soldiers and officers sometimes failed to hear the din of firing cannon, the patter of musket and rifle fire, and human screams, even when the noise was occurring literally a few hundred yards away. As a result, orders were not carried out, attacks were not supported and the course of many battles (including Gettysburg) changed. The mystery: Was it always soldiers on the losing side who didn´t hear?
7. Secret weapons. Many unusual weapons were developed during the war: a version of the Gatling gun that eventually would become the modern machine gun; various types of mines and hand-held explosives; balloons; submarines (the CSS Hunley was a secret weapon), etc.
Probably inspired in part by the amazing proliferation of and fascination with secret weapons developed during World War II (the atom bomb, V-2 rockets, jet fighters, etc.), many people wonder if there were other weapons from the Civil War. A history program on television recently debunked a persistent steam-gun myth. The mystery: Are there secret weapons from the Civil War about which we know little or nothing?
6. The Booth conspiracy. Whether it is controversial Secretary of War Edwin Stanton or high-ranking Confederate officers desperate to end the war on different terms, conspiracy theories related to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices persist in modern rumor and urban legend, most of them suggesting that someone else important was behind the scheme.
Even popular movies such as “National Treasure” can´t leave the “official” story alone. The mystery: Was there an important shadow figure behind Booth´s assassination plot? (Or, for conspiracists, who was it?)
5. Pickett´s Charge. Hundreds of books have been written about Gettysburg; still, the question of “why” remains about Maj. Gen. George Pickett´s Charge. Most people have heard the stock answers: Lee knew it was a gamble; he overestimated the capability of his army; he knew the war had to end soon if the South was to be victorious, etc.
However, most of the primary accounts of the charge were written by people other than Lee, and many of them were written after the fact and from a specific and biased perspective. Because Lee himself seldom if ever wrote or spoke about the charge after the war, the mystery remains: What was Lee really thinking? (Read “The Killer Angels.”)
4. Confederate Secret Service. The Civil War was far from the first conflict in which secret agents, spies and saboteurs were employed by both sides. Nevertheless, that is an area of the war, particularly on the Confederate side, about which few people know much.
Here are just a few subjects that casual history buffs may not have encountered: The Confederate State and War departments employed agents on secret missions (some of them we know very little about); Confederate operations in Canada; the operations of the so-called Greenhow group in support of the Army of Northern Virginia (associated with famous spy Rose O´Neal Greenhow); and the Cavalry Scouts, a group of men working for J.E.B. Stuart who took on missions beyond ordinary information-gathering. There were others.
The mystery: What did these agents really do? (Read a CIA report on Civil War intelligence: www.fas.org/irp/cia/product/civilwar.pdf.)
3. Female soldiers. Historians have evidence that many females on both sides disguised themselves as men and fought in the war (as many as 750 or more, according to DeAnne Blanton, co-author of “They Fought Like Demons”). Sometimes they were not discovered until wounded or killed on the battlefield. One official discharge document lists “sexual incompatibility” as the cause. Other times, their identities were not revealed until years after the fact The mystery: How many women fought in the war?
2. Switching sides. It is known that hundreds if not thousands of soldiers enlisted on one side and then, for one reason or another, deserted and joined up on the opposite side. Some of that can be attributed to the nature of war (almost all of Hitler´s allied armies turned against the Germans before the end of World War II and fought against their former allies, for example) but the Civil War had an additional fratricidal character unique to civil wars.
After the war, Union and Confederate veterans generally embraced each other - but there was no sympathy for anyone on either side who turned coat. Union veterans with previous Confederate service might not even qualify for pensions and generally kept such information secret. The mystery: How many men (and women) fought for both sides?
1. Who fired the first shot? According to historian and writer C. Brian Kelly, it was not anyone at Fort Sumter. Instead, it occurred in a lesser-known encounter on Jan. 9, 1861, when G.W. Haynesworth and other cadets from the Citadel fired on the Star of the West, a ship presumably reinforcing the Union garrison at Fort Sumter. The mystery: Why do people keep arguing about who fired the first shot?
Such a list as this one is not a scholarly undertaking by some perspectives, and perhaps it contributes unwittingly to a very unscholarly sensationalism. However, the fact that the Civil War continues to fascinate so many people is a clue to an even greater mystery - specifically, how did America fight such a divisive, violent, internal war and emerge on the other side more democratic, nationally focused and powerful?
Jack Trammell teaches and administers at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. A student, Jason Agee, partially inspired the idea for this topic. Mr. Trammell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.