Civil War Curiosities by Webb Garrison

R.T. Smith Click to

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


What possessed the U.S. War Department to order a thousand Austrian-style nine-foot lances of Norway fir, complete with foot-long blades and scarlet swallow-tail pennons, for Rush’s 6th Cavalry Regiment to brandish against artillery and barricaded soldiers armed with large-bore (and sometimes repeating) weapons?  What were Quaker guns or horological torpedoes?  Which army did the most scalping?  How could spectators at a battle be unable to detect gunfire heard in cities miles away?  Who kept pet badgers in camp?  How many mules and horses were killed in the war?

Webb Garrison is not always able to supply answers to these and other questions he raises.  For instance, modern acoustic studies have still not provided a persuasive explanation for the silence that made some battles seem pantomimes.  But Quaker Cannon were logs trimmed and painted to make a fortification (or a ship) appear formidably armed.  In readable and precise prose, the author supplies copious answers to questions most readers have not thought to ask, all in the service of demonstrating that textbooks often obscure the many dimensions of war.  Civil War Curiosities, published twenty years ago, is a book history hobbyists (a group I belong to) still savor.  Divided into twenty-seven chapters, it musters information concerning weaponry, personalities, prison life, political squabbles, costumery and events which would often be dismissed from a work of fiction as preposterous.

Ironies abound, probabilities are overthrown, the progress of events kinks, skids, reverses, while cause and effect “doe-see-doe” like a Barnum production.  Burial services are conducted for men not dead, bodies are moved about the field and stored in ice houses, Edwin Booth saves Robert Todd Lincoln from a moving train, four brothers are killed, one after another, riding the same horse.  An engineer designs a submarine boat propelled by oars, Even without the word “fragging,” soldiers on both sides did it to unpopular and reckless officers.  The New York Times assured readers that the “local commotion” in the South could be put to rest “effectually in thirty days.”  A Confederate soldier wrote in his journal that he’d seen enough of war and hoped that Grant could en it soon.  As late as 1864, there was a rush to buy Confederate bonds, as many Northerners were suspicious of Federal “government paper.”

In short, the world was out of joint even then, and our safe and privileged view allows us to see purported comedies as tragedies, and the reverse.  As Ken Burns demonstrated and Spielberg’s Lincoln has recently reminded us, actions of great pitch and moment are often fraught with petty scrimmages, even the fiercest rivalries and most passionate coalitions characterized by bizarre sidebars and undercurrents.

Among my favorite chapters are those dealing with animals and “No One Called Lincoln Handsome.”  How fast could a horse run for how long?  How many horses does it take to pull a steam overland from Harpers Ferry to Manassas Gap?  Ulysses Grant was widely seen as a slovenly tippler who had done poorly at West Point and in civilian life but had a knack for winning battles; one fact long neglected is that he excelled at horsemanship at the academy and always sat a horse with composure and command.  Confederate General James R, Chalmers, on the other hand, had at least twenty-seven horses shot out from under him.  Belle Boyd rode Fleeter, John MacArthur rode Boomerang, Jeb Stuart rode Highfly, Phil Sheridan rode Aldebaron, General George Thomas’s Billy was named for Sherman, who favored Lexington or Dolly, and one of Grant’s mounts bore the name of Jeff Davis.

That Lincoln was both reviled and revered by those he governed is evident to anyone who’s been keeping up with the books, films and PBS specials commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, but the same details tend to rise to the top in these productions.  Garrison offers a surprising sampler of less common quotations and anecdotes.  That his detractors often saw Lincoln as an ape is now no secret, but it may be surprising that one of his law partners described his walk as follows:

“He had no spring to his walk; H[sic]e walked undulatory, up and down in motion.  The very first opinion that a stranger would form of Lincoln’s walk and motion was that he was a tricky man, a man of cunning, a dangerous shrewd man, one to watch closely and not to be trusted.”

A week before his assassination, an officer at Harrison’s Landing said he seemed to have “a sad face – a clown face,” and biographer Carl Sandburg (who had only photos and paintings to go by) wrote that he seemed “like an original plan for an extra-long horse or a lean and tawny buffalo,” and yet there were others who found his aspect noble, tragic, stoic, and those who saw in him a Biblical prophet.

What do all these snips and bits add up to beyond scattered fragments of fact concerning a long ago conflict?  At the least, they remind us of the fine print of war, its impact upon every facet of life for both combatants and civilians, perhaps reminding us that today we are not permeated with the shadows of war, but somewhat insulated from the violent swerve war imposes on simple matters, while our soldiers wage our battles in Afghanistan and on other foreign soil.  At best, they serve to remind us of the unpredictability of events, eccentricities of interpretation, how difficult it is to really remember the errors of the past in their particulars, to imagine them fiercely and clearly enough to help prevent us from repeating them.

WORTH NOTING: Stephen Berry’s Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Georgia, 2011) is a similar book with more concentrated foci.  The essays in the book, written by people who are decidedly not hobby historians, include a discussion of how antebellum ring tournaments contributed to the origins of the KKK, “The Pleasures of Civil War Ruins,” atrocity stories, soldiers’ language, “Confederate Amputees and the Women Who Loved (or Tried to Love) Them,” and three essays under the section head “Hell’s Belles: New Looks at Civil War Women.”  It’s a more systematic and challenging read, rewarding in a different and less anecdotal way.


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