7 Strange Facts About the Civil War That Surprise Everyone

Published October 30, 2020

The Civil War remains the bloodiest US conflict of all time. And while the war has fascinated historians for more than a century, many Americans don’t know much about the war. Especially the strange and offbeat facts about it. Here are seven really odd moments of the Civil War:

1. The First Battle Had Civilian Spectators, Who Thought the War Would Be Over In An Afternoon.

Most people thought the North would simply roll over the South. This is why in the beginning, the North only had three-month enlistments. And it’s also why regular folks showed up to observe the first land battle July 21, 1861 (the Battle of Bull Run… also known as First Manassas in the South). They were intent on having a picnic!

Imagine their surprise when the South not only made a stubborn fight of it, they started winning. Many of the spectators had to abandon their picnic lunches and run as the South advanced. Bull Run/Manassas was a Southern victory, and started the country on a long, bloody war that didn’t end until 1865.

2 . Stonewall Jackson was Killed by Friendly Fire

One of the best Southern generals was Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Given that nickname at the Battle of Bull Run (“look, there’s Jackson standing like a Stone Wall”), he was one of Robert E. Lee’s most trusted generals. In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson and his aides were out scouting at night when they were fired upon by Southern pickets who thought they were the enemy. Jackson was hit three times, shattering his left arm (which was amputated.) Bedridden, he died of Pneumonia a week later.

3 . The Last Southern General to Surrender Was a Native American

Stand Watie (also known as Standhope Uwatie, Tawkertawker) was a leader in the Cherokee Nation, who aligned with the Confederacy. He was the only Native American to rise to the rank of general. He was the last rebel commander to surrender, laying down arms on June 23, 1865 (for context, Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865).

4. The First “Iron Ships” Fought to a Draw.

Interestingly, each side in the Civil War developed an “ironclad” ship. The North had the “Monitor”, which was essentially the first submarine (although it could not completely submerge), and the South had the Merrimac (aka, the Virginia), which was a rebuilt wooden ship equipped with iron shielding.

The ships engaged each other on March 9, 1862. After roughly three hours of intense battle, the ships realized they could not seriously damage the other, and the engagement ended when the Virginia retreated to Norfolk, while the Monitor stayed behind to guard other ships. Interestingly, not only did the ships never fight each other again, neither ship fought again period! The Virginia proved too unwieldy, and was sunk rather than let it be captured, while the Monitor sunk in a storm on 12/31/1862.

5. Lincoln Had Comically Long List of Commanding Generals

Lincoln had a hard time finding a commanding General he was happy with. As far as command of the entire union army, he had: Winfield Scott, George B. McClellan, Henry W. Halleck, before finally settling on Ulysses S. Grant.

For the main Union army (the Army of the Potomac), he had Irvin McDowell, George B. McClellan, Ambrose E. Burnside, Joseph Hooker, and George G. Meade. You could say Grant as well, but he took command of the entire army, while Meade stayed in command of the Army of the Potomac.

Many scholars feel this revolving door of generals is one reason the war lasted as long as it did. Had he settled on Grant earlier, things may have been very different.

6. We Get The Word “Sideburns” From a Union General.

Even in an era of “large beards”, General Ambrose E. Burnside had an unusual way of wearing his facial hair, letting it grow from his ears to his actual beard. When others mimicked it, it was called “burnsides”, which was eventually reversed to “sideburns”, which we still use today. Pretty neat, huh?

7. A General Donated His Leg to Science

By all accounts, Union general Daniel Sickles was an odd character. Prior to the war, he killed the lover of his wife in broad daylight, and was the first to use the “temporary insanity” defense (note: the man he killed was Philip Barton Key II, the son of “Star Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key.)

Sickles’ leg was shattered by a cannonball on July 2, 1863 during the Battle of Gettysburg. He had heard of a directive to collect “specimens of morbid anatomy” by the army medical museum. He quickly donated his amputated leg, along with the offending cannonball. He reportedly visited his leg on the anniversary of the amputation. The leg and ball can still be seen today in the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland.