u.s. civil war


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We have nearly 16,000 U.S. Civil War telegrams in our archives, and now you can help transcribe them! New crowdsourcing project “Decoding the Civil War” is a joint effort of The Huntington, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, North Carolina State University’s Digital History and Pedagogy Project, and citizen science site Zooniverse.

Read more on VERSO.

“Decoding the Civil War” landing page on Zooniverse.
Transcription gif from the “Decoding the Civil War” tutorial.


March 3, 1864…
General Payne [Eleazer Paine] rode out this evening to look at the stock, in his last trip he killed only one man (citizen, he always kills citizens when he can’t find soldiers) swears he will kill every man in Gallatin and Hartsville if bushwhacking isn’t stopped shortly.

April 7 & 8, 1864…
Another soldier was shot yesterday. The Yankees went to jail and brought him while a citizen was standing near. He said the soldier was very poorly clad but his countenance was that of a gentleman. When the guard brought his horse to him (a broken down one from the camp) he asked what they were going to do with him. On being told to “Mount that horse and say no more…” he did so remarking that he supposed they were going to shoot him… When they carry them out to shoot them they give them a worn out horse and tell them if they can escape they may; they say they “have fine fun chasing the boy with fresh horses.”

The soldier was shot while the Yankees taunted him with such remarks as, “I will have his boots.”

June 15 & 16, 1864…
In all the doings of the Yanks their fiendish acts today will balance them all. They brought a man in today and hung him up by the thumbs to make him tell where he came from. He told them, but they would not believe him. He fainted three times. They took him down at three o’clock to shoot him. I have not heard whether they did so or not. They would neither give him food or water though he bagged for the latter often.

The man was shot today without any charges.

Grant and Lee

On April 9, 1865, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant of the United States Army and General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate States of America’s Army of Northern Virginia gathered along with their officers in the parlor of the home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. After four bloody, tragic years and several punishing months that saw General Lee’s movements shadowed at every turn by General Grant’s Army, the venerable Confederate commander realized that further resistance was futile and began the long process of healing the broken nation by surrendering his beloved Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant.

When dramatic, world-changing events in history take place, we rarely get firsthand accounts from the principals involved. Fortunately for us, Ulysses S. Grant spent the last weeks of his life putting the finishing touches on his autobiography, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (BOOKKINDLE), which spotlight many of the most important moments of the Civil War through the eyes of one of that war’s biggest heroes. Grant finished writing his book just a few days before he died in 1885, but what’s most amazing about Grant’s Memoirs is that, nearly 130 years later, they remain one of the most readable books ever written by an American President. Grant’s insight into the proceedings at Appomattox are valuable because it isn’t secondary material from a journalist, or the memories of a junior officer with opinion and prejudices that might cloud reality. Instead, the Memoirs are Grant’s remembrances of a monumental event in American History, and Grant’s honesty – for better and worse – has rarely been challenged.

In the Memoirs, Grant remembers suffering from a blinding migraine headache in the hours before his meeting with General Lee as representatives attempted to set conditions for the meeting between the two generals. As Grant later wrote, when an officer brought a note to from Lee that confirmed the Confederate general’s interest in meeting and setting terms for surrender, “the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured.”

As Grant prepared to meet Lee at Wilmer McLean’s home, the Union commander almost certainly thought about the vast differences between him and his Confederate counterpart. Lee was 15 years older than Grant, and while they both attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, their records couldn’t have been more different. Lee wanted nothing more than to be a great career soldier, graduated 2nd in his class, and made it through four years at West Point without a single demerit. Grant had dozens of demerits, many of which came from refusing to attend church services, and graduated 21st out of 39 cadets in his class. That he graduated at all was an accomplishment in Grant’s eyes. As he later wrote, “A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the Army even if I should be graduated.”

After the men graduated from West Point (Lee in 1829, Grant in 1843), they embarked on military careers that took them to very different places, but on April 9, 1865, General Grant was thinking about the first time he had actually met General Lee. Their paths had crossed in the Mexican War (1846-1848) when they served together for some time under General Winfield Scott. Later in life, Grant was particularly outspoken about the injustice of the Mexican War, but he fought bravely during his time in Mexico under General Scott and, especially, under General Zachary Taylor. Grant and Lee were both decorated for their service in Mexico, along with many fellow junior soldiers whose names would become famous in the North and South during the Civil War. In his Memoirs, Grant wrote about his memories of his earlier meeting with Robert E. Lee, but doubted Lee would remember him:

“I had known General Lee in the old army, and had served with him in the Mexican War; but did not suppose, owing to the difference in our age and rank, that he would remember me; while I would more naturally remember him distinctly, because he was the chief of staff of General Scott in the Mexican War.”

Ulysses S. Grant wouldn’t make it easy for General Lee to recognize him, either. One of the only positives to come out of the Mexican War for Ulysses S. Grant was his admiration of Zachary Taylor, who was Grant’s commanding general for most of the war. Taylor – later the 12th President – was nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready” and remembered fondly by his soldiers for his casual, comfortable manner. General Taylor was a sloppy dresser who often wore an odd mix of military dress and civilian clothing, loved to shade his face a large sun hat, and was unorthodox in almost every manner. While Grant may not have been a good student at West Point, he had no problem picking up on the lessons he learned from General Taylor. Robert E. Lee was always impeccably dressed, much like his Mexican War commander, General Winfield Scott. In fact, Grant’s comparison of Scott and Taylor would just as easily work with Lee and Grant:

“I had now been in battle with two leading commanders conducting armies in a foreign land. The contrast between the two was very marked. General Taylor never wore uniform, but dressed himself entirely for comfort. He moved about the field in which he was operating to see through his own eyes the situation. Often he would be without staff officers, and when he was accompanied by them there was no prescribed order in which they followed. He was very much given to sit his horse side-ways – with both feet on one side – particularly on the battlefield. General Scott was the reverse in all these particulars. He always wore all the uniform prescribed or allowed by law when he inspected his lines; word would be sent to all division and brigade commanders in advance, notifying them of the hour when the commanding general might be expected. This was done so that all the army might be under arms to salute their chief as he passed. On these occasions he wore his dress uniform, cocked hat, aiguillettes, sabre and spurs. His staff proper, besides all officers constructively on his staff – engineers, inspectors, quartermasters, etc., that could be spared – followed, also in uniform and in prescribed order. Orders were prepared with great care and evidently with the view that they should be a history of what followed…But with their opposite characteristics both were great and successful soldiers; both were true, patriotic and upright in all their dealings. Both were pleasant to serve under – Taylor was pleasant to serve with. Scott saw more through the eyes of his staff officers than through his own. His plans were deliberately prepared, and fully expressed in orders. Taylor saw for himself, and gave orders to meet the emergency without reference to how they would read in history.”

While Robert E. Lee was not insufferable like Winfield Scott, he was still, even after several brutal weeks of fighting, dressed in a way that would have led any outside observer to believe he was receiving the surrender on that day. The messages that Grant and Lee had exchanged that day had resulted in a meeting quicker than Grant had expected, so the Union general was wearing his usual battlefield dress as he prepared to meet the dashing General Lee. In his Memoirs, Grant acknowledges feeling a bit self-conscious about his “rough garb”. “I was without a sword,” Grant remembered, “as I usually was when on horseback on the field, and wore a soldier’s blouse for a coat, with (only) the shoulder straps of my rank to indicate to the army who I was.” If the war had been decided with a fashion contest between Grant and Lee, we’d all be singing “Dixie”. According to Grant:

“General Lee was dressed in a full uniform which was entirely new, and was wearing a sword of considerable value, very likely the sword which had been presented by the State of Virginia; at all events, it was an entirely different sword from the one that would ordinarily be worn in the field. In my rough traveling suit, the uniform of a private with the straps of lieutenant-general, I must have contrasted very strangely with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form.”

Upon entering McLean’s home, Grant and Lee shook hands and the officers who accompanied the two generals were silent. Grant, who had been elated earlier to meet with Lee and bring the war to a close, found himself feeling “sad and depressed”. “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.” Grant had so much respect for Lee that simply meeting him face-to-face in such a moment left the Union general nervous. As they sat in the silent and still parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home, Grant tried to break the ice by mentioning their previous service – on the same side – in Mexico. To Grant’s surprise, Lee remembered him well:

“We soon fell into a conversation about old army times. He remarked that he remembered me very well in the old army; and I told him that as a matter of course I remembered him perfectly, but from the difference in our rank and years (there being about sixteen years’ difference in our ages), I had thought it very likely that I had not attracted his attention sufficiently to be remembered by him after such a long interval. Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting.”

General Lee didn’t forget, however. Lee steered the conversation back towards the terms of his army’s surrender. Grant’s initials “U.S.” had gained him the nickname of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant throughout the war, but the truth was that he didn’t have a template for the conditions required of his vanquished opponents. Grant was aware of President Abraham Lincoln’s hope for a smooth reconciliation as the country began healing in the wake of the Civil War. With this in mind and his deep respect for General Lee’s leadership, Grant set terms so generous that Lee was surprised. Lee’s soldiers would have their names recorded, surrender any weapons that were supplied by the Confederate government, and take an oath to not take up arms against the United States. After doing that, they would be free to return to their homes peacefully and without threat of prosecution for insurrection or treason. When Lee mentioned that most of the horses in his army were the personal property of the soldiers who rode them, Grant allowed soldiers to take any horses or personal belongings back home with them. Grant even allowed the defeated Confederate soldiers keep their sidearms. When General Lee saw the generous terms set forth by General Grant, he was astonished. With emotion, he thanked Grant for his generosity, telling the Union commander, “This will have a very happy effect on my army.”

With the surrender signed, General Lee mentioned to Grant that many of his soldiers had gone without food except for dried corn for several days and were in bad shape. Grant immediately authorized enough food to feed 25,000 men and gave orders to a nearby quartermaster to provide Lee’s army with as much food as they needed for their return to their homes. After exiting the McLean home, Lee climbed on to his beloved horse, Traveller, and observers noted that Lee, for the first time anyone could remember, looked as if he was having a hard time controlling his emotions. Grant was preparing to mount his horse, Cincinnati, when the two generals locked eyes once more. In a show of deep respect, Grant removed his hat and saluted Lee – and every Union soldier in proximity followed their commander’s example. Lee raised his hat and saluted Grant and rode off.

Shortly after Grant and Lee parted ways, the news of Lee’s surrender began to spread throughout the Union encampments. Union soldiers began cheering and firing salutes while their defeated Confederate opponents were well within earshot. Grant immediately ordered an end to the celebration. “The Confederates were now our prisoners,” wrote Grant, “and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”

The next day, General Lee sent a brief, but eloquent, order to his Army of Northern Virginia in which he acknowledged that they had “been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources” and that he was “determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen”. Lee’s order informed the men of their freedom to return to their homes, and closed by thanking his soldiers for their service and bidding them “an affectionate farewell.” Before Grant returned to Washington, D.C. on April 10th for a meeting with President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the Union commander stopped by where Lee’s army had set up camp. Grant and Lee sat atop their horses between the lines of their respective armies and talked for nearly an hour, both generals expressing their hope that the Confederate armies still in the field in pockets of the South would follow Lee’s lead so the nation could begin the difficult work of healing. Within a few hours, they were on their way home, heading in opposite directions, Grant to the North and Lee to the South.

Robert E. Lee died in 1870, and despite the cause that most people think he fought for (Lee abhorred slavery; the State of Virginia came before the Union in Lee’s mind), the Confederacy’s commanding general has largely become an American hero throughout the entire country. Maybe it was due to Lee’s support of the abolition of slavery or maybe it is because Lee is considered an American ideal of an honest and honorable warrior with quiet strength, but somehow Lee has made it to the Pantheon of American leaders that Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson will likely never reach. In the last five years of his life, General Lee served as the president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia – a school that was renamed Washington and Lee University after Lee’s death.

Grant lived until 1885, but his later life was a bit more star-crossed than Lee’s. Grant turned down a request to accompany President Lincoln to the theater less than a week after Appomattox. Lincoln was killed that night. Grant feuded with Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, after the Civil War, and sought the Presidency himself in 1868. Grant served two terms as President (1869-1877), and his Administration was riddled with corruption, although Grant himself was not personally corrupt. Grant’s reputation as President has begun to improve over the past few years due to his work on the only meaningful Civil Rights legislation passed until the mid-20th Century. After his Presidency, Grant went on a 2-year-long world tour with his wife and was greeted around the world by adoring fans interested in seeing an American President who also happened to be the hero of the Civil War. In 1880, Grant sought an unprecedented third term as President, but narrowly lost the Republican nomination to James Garfield. Sadly, Grant’s finances were liquidated by crooked financial partners in the 1880’s and he was forced to sell historic artifacts from his Civil War service in order to survive. In 1884, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer, and became determined to make money for his wife’s benefit in case of his death. Mark Twain signed a deal with Grant to write his Memoirs, and Grant finished the book just a few days before his death in July 1885. Grant’s book was a critical and commercial success, and left his wife with financial stability.

We have so much information on Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee that we can piece together nearly every aspect of their lives, and often in their own words. Few Americans have affected the lives of so many people while also having such an influence on one another. There are hundreds of books about Grant, Lee, the Civil War, and dozens of combinations of subjects featuring those two great military leaders and their times. What most people don’t know is that Appomattox wasn’t the last time Grant and Lee saw each other.

On May 1, 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant welcomed the president of Washington College, Robert E. Lee, to the White House. Lee had considered inviting President-elect Grant to visit Washington College before Grant was inaugurated, but Lee didn’t want to make a request that his busy former adversary felt obligated to accept. After Grant was inaugurated in March 1869, he learned of Lee’s interest in visiting with him, and the President invited Lee to the White House. Unfortunately, there are no definitive answers to what was said between President Grant and General Lee. They two men only spent about 15 minutes together, and one observer suggested that there was a bit of sadness when the two men saw each other. Perhaps it was because of what they put each other through five years earlier, but perhaps it was the fact that the two former generals were older and in much different places.

What’s remarkable about the short meeting is that Robert E. Lee may have been the only American in history to visit the White House after being stripped of his citizenship. A bill to restore General Lee’s American citizenship was passed by Congress in 1975 – 110 years after the Civil War ended – and President Gerald Ford signed off on the restoration of Lee’s citizenship in a ceremony at Arlington House, the home that Lee lived in before it was occupied by Union soldiers during the Civil War and turned into a National Cemetery.

After just fifteen minutes on May 1, 1869, President Grant and General Lee once again parted ways. We don’t know what they said or how they felt or what they thought as they parted. The two men who had been such a huge part of each other’s lives would never see each other again. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that Grant and Lee could come together at all after chasing each other throughout the country and killing thousands of Americans while trying to destroy each other. It’s a tribute to the two men that they were living in a country still needing time to heal, and they stepped forward – leading the way just like they did while waging war – to model for Americans how to wage peace.

Oklahoma is trying to ban AP U.S. History … so, these lies will probably remain in schools 

House Bill 1380, written by Republican state legislator Dan Fisher, prohibits “the expenditure of funds on the Advanced Placement United States history course” in Oklahoma public schools. His motivation for the bill: That Advanced Placement U.S. history courses only teach “what is bad about America” and fail to emphasize “American exceptionalism.”

To show how bad this would be for students we collected a list of the most common fallacies taught in American classrooms — a list of truths that, if Oklahoma gets its way, students may never hear.

Lie: Blacks, both free and enslaved, fought for the Confederacy.

Watch on ursalways.tumblr.com

July the 14th, 1861

Washington D.C.

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure—and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine O God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows—when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children—is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar—that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.


So this is what I got up at half past 5 to do this morning! 

Our family was asked to play at a U.S. Civil War Remembrance Ceremony. Dad and Harrison did a pipe and drum duet on two songs, I did a fiddle duet with my mother on Danny Boy, and I also played a set of tunes on my own. 

It was utterly gorgeous this morning - with the sun shining through the trees and the leaves beginning to fall! October is a glorious month here in Connecticut, and with the sun shining through the fog down through the trees and around the graves… it was very special and it felt very right to be remembering those who died fighting for what they  believed in, and to be grateful for the unity that was preserved and fought for in the war. 

Douglass Jr.

Frederick Douglass’s son took after him in more than one way. Both were badasses, both started newspapers and were excellent writers, and both had freakin’ awesome facial hair!

I have not mentioned it on this blog yet...

…but I am a big Civil War…not buff, I guess. I’m not one of those people who collects memorabilia, or God help me, re-enacts. But still, the Civil War, and the run-up to it is one of my favorite periods in U.S. history.

Possibly it’s because I love to pick fights, or play the spoiler, or both, because what I can only refer to as Civil War Fandom drives me to the brink of my sanity. The overwhelming belief in the “Lost Cause,” Confederate aplolgism, straw-man arguments over “states’ rights,” Shelby Foote, The Killer Angels, and all the related drivel drives me to the brink of my sanity.

So it’s good to read people like Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the writers dedicated to reminding us that the Civil War was about not only slavery, but white supremacy. Read his latest post, and anything he writes about the Civil War.

Also, Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, is probably the best book on the subject.