Five Myths About the American Civil War That Need to Be Addressed

Photo Credit: Thure de Thulstrup / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

One of the most – if not the most – prominent topics in US history is the American Civil War. While the majority of what’s presented about the conflict is factual, some aspects have been the subject to a large amount of myth-making. Below are just five examples of five myths about the war that need to be corrected.

FALSE: Robert E. Lee didn’t own slaves or support slavery

In the decades after the American Civil War, a lot of work was done to paint Confederate General Robert E. Lee as a saintly hero. This includes the claim he was against slavery and didn’t himself own slaves.

This is clearly untrue. In 1857, Lee’s wife inherited 189 enslaved people after his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Curtis, died. Curtis’ will stipulated the slaves be freed five years after his death. Records show that Lee sold a number of enslaved people to pay off debts and took legal measures to prevent the emancipation of others.

Robert E. Lee sitting in a chair
Robert E. Lee, 1863. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress / Getty Images)

It was said that Lee was paternalistic toward his slaves, but that doesn’t change the fact that he still owned them. Civil War historian Eric Foner explains in an article published in The New York Times, “He was not a pro-slavery ideologue. But I think equally important is that, unlike some White Southerners, he never spoke out against slavery.”

FALSE: Ulysses S. Grant was drunk during the Battle of Shiloh

Ulysses S. Grant led the Union Army to victory during the Civil War, becoming a national hero. Accusations of him being a drunk, however, dogged him for much of his military and political career. Some of these claims emerged following his victory at the Battle of Shiloh. A reporter from the New York Herald wrote that Grant was drunk during the battle.

Ulysses S. Grant leaning against a tree at camp
Ulysses S. Grant during the American Civil War. (Photo Credit: Universal History Archive / Getty Images)

Grant did have a problem with alcohol for much of his life and had a lower tolerance than most men. Writing in the 2017 book Grant, biographer Ron Chernow stated the Union commanding general would, however, never imperil an upcoming fight by drinking beforehand.

The Shiloh rumors led to requests for President Abraham Lincoln to fire Grant. According to State Senator Alexander McClure, Lincoln responded, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” In a letter to his wife, Julia, Grant swore, “[I was] sober as a deacon no matter what was said to the contrary.”

FALSE: Amputations were frequently performed without anaesthesia

Many Civil War movies and books would lead one to believe that anaesthesia was relatively uncommon during the conflict. The images of soldiers taking a shot of whiskey and biting down on wood as they have a body part sawn off are ingrained in people’s minds. While that certainly did happen, it wasn’t as common an occurrence as Hollywood would make us believe.

Wounded Civil War soldiers sitting outside a hospital
Wounded Civil War soldiers sit outside a hospital building in Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Photo Credit: James Gardner / Buyenlarge / Getty Images)

The reality was that Civil War doctors were quite aware of the need for anaesthesia, and the majority used chloroform and ether to conduct serious surgeries. According to History Collection, “Over [90 percent] of all amputations performed during the war were accomplished with the patient under anesthesia.”

One of the soldiers on the receiving end of these amputations was famed Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. He lost his left arm to friendly fire following the Battle of Chancellorsville and died from pneumonia a week later.

FALSE: The Confederate Army was made up of volunteers

Another claim is that all soldiers within the Confederate Army had volunteered for service. This is so ingrained in our minds that the sports teams at the University of Tennessee are nicknamed the “Volunteers.” This is untrue, despite the majority of troops volunteering to join the fight. Knowing that many soldiers would be needed for the war, the Confederate Army began a conscription program.

Confederate Army volunteers pose for a picture
Confederate Army volunteers pose for a picture in Pensacola, Florida. (Photo Credit: MPI / Getty Images)

Between 1862-64, the Confederate government passed a number of conscription acts geared toward ensuring the Army had enough men to win the war. They initially made it so that all White men between the ages of 18 and 35 were to serve three years in the military. This range eventually widened to include those who were between 17 and 50 years old. What’s more, they were to serve in the military for an unlimited amount of time.

Like many conscription programs, the wealthy were favored. Any man who owned more than 20 slaves was exempt from the draft, so they could manage their property. Wealthy men also had the choice to hire a substitute to serve in the Army for them. While this created resentment among those who were hired, the poor had little choice but to go to war.

FALSE: States’ rights were the cause of the war

One of the main arguments from Confederate apologists is that the cause of the conflict was not slavery. They frequently argue that the cause was states’ rights, and that the Union infringed upon the South’s right to continue owning slaves, despite there being no bills put forth to end the practice. Unfortunately for them, this argument doesn’t hold much weight.

There was furious debate in the two decades leading up to the Civil War, regarding the practice of slavery, and, for the South, Lincoln’s election was a bridge too far.

Confederate soldiers playing cards at camp
Confederate soldiers play cards during the American Civil War. (Photo Credit: MPI / Getty Images)

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When the Confederates formed their own government, their constitution made it so that slavery could only be ruled upon at the federal level and not by individual states. One passage, in particular, stood out, reading, “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”