Fame of Civil War Officers

We’re on to the next History Behind the Story article for Charleston Tides!  Settle in and learn about the background for the historical choices I made concerning the fame of Civil War officers…

History Behind the Story #2: Fame of Civil War Officers

THE HISTORY: One thing that I learned only relatively recently was that the Civil War produced modern-type, completely famous, all-out celebrities. Obviously there had been famous Americans before. But railroads, the press, circles of communications, public interest, and the telegraph combined during the Civil War to make public hysteria for celebrities as intense, if not more so, than it is today. Civil War celebrities and their families had to contend with public interest, adulation, and, sometimes, hostility.

Civil War sensations were famous not just in their states or in the United States, but across the entire world. They became folk legends in Europe and Asia, with military scholars and the general public at large watching their movements intently.

Europeans hungrily waited for reports of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s latest moves and wrote ballads and poems about him. Jackson even sometimes received cheers from Union soldiers he had captured as he walked by them.  People would try to touch the officers and rip their hair and buttons off for souvenirs.  Once, a captured Union soldier began ripping hairs out of Jackson’s famed horse, Little Sorrel, and was ordered to stop but did not.  When Jackson came out, he asked, “My friend, why are you tearing the hair out of my horse’s tail?” The prisoner responded, “Ah, General, each one of these hairs is worth a dollar in New York.”

After the rise of his fame, Ulysses Grant would be swamped at every railroad from which he disembarked.[1]  We’re talking such a tide of people that you are unable to move and people are at risk of getting trampled.  The same was true of other Civil War celebrities.   William Tecumseh Sherman wanted to go visit a friend in Detroit after the war but wrote his brother, “But [I] am bothered by people in travelling so much that I prefer to be quiet ‘til the people run after new gods.”  Jackson was horrified to be engulfed at a church he stopped to attend during the war, and even more so to be accosted by throngs of admiring ladies.  (One pictures Victorian fangirls looking slightly different than those of The Beatles.)

The famous officers’ coping mechanisms varied, but a lot of the strategies bear resemblance to modern tactics. Grant was delighted when his more magnificent-looking doctor was mistaken for himself.  He often used him as a decoy so that he could slip away unnoticed. The famous officers would duck out back doors, stay indoors, keep a low profile, and sometimes flat-out flee from their worshippers.

When Jackson’s daughter was born during the war, he told his wife not to send the news across the telegraph wires and told no one in his camp.  This likely wasn’t unfounded, since months later during the many stops of his extended funeral, people clamored madly to see, touch, and kiss the baby. At one point, she was even taken outside the train and passed from stranger to stranger to stranger as people wept and engaged in mass hysteria.[2]

You also hear of Grant holding his children’s hands in public situations, even after they were a little older than the norm. Modern celebrities do this, too, so I would assume it is a protective gesture.

The way officers dealt mentally with fame was generally in keeping with the individuals’ personalities.  Grant would smile at the crowds; I think he appreciated the praise, but I don’t think it ever went to his head.  Jackson tried to stay out of the spotlight and was always careful to deflect praise from himself and back onto Providence.  He just did not believe God would be happy with him for reveling in glory.  Robert E. Lee handled fame soberly and also was careful to remind admirers that any praise belonged to God.  After the war when Nathan Bedford Forrest was attracting a large crowd in New York, he said, “Get out of my way, God damn you!”  And they did.  So that was one way to deal with it.

For a lot of these officers, nothing in their prior lives would have prepared them for this level of public scrutiny.  Before the war, Grant had been a store clerk who had been more or less forced to resign from the army.  Jackson was an unpopular professor at VMI.  Both Grant and Jackson had flashes of brilliance during the Mexican American War, but nothing to cause them to receive true renown.

One wonders if the fame was a little less foreign to Lee. The Lee family had been mildly famous during the Revolutionary War, and he had married the daughter of George Washington’s adopted grandson.  The Washingtons had been the first American family to be forced to deal with a frenzied level of interest and adulation, so maybe they had passed down some practical coping mechanisms.  In addition, Lee had received relative renown in military circles for his engineering endeavors during the Mexican American War.  Therefore, he had been introduced somewhat to a public life, though his personal experience of it was only a fraction of what it would become as the war progressed and he executed his successful battles.

These celebrities’ fame did usually arise from success in battle: Grant, for his inventive victories in the Western Theater when all else was going badly for the Union; Jackson, for his record-breaking forced marches and aggressive battlefield strategies; Lee, for his stunning victories in Virginia; Sherman, for the turn-around at Shiloh, and Forrest, for his lightning campaigns and startling successes.  So, with fame based on success, the danger was that if things didn’t go well, you would plummet in public opinion just as rapidly.

Of course, Jackson never lived to face that reality, but Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Forrest all did. When Grant was transferred by Lincoln from the Western Theater to battle Lee’s army in Virginia, he was also promoted to Lieutenant General and made overall commander of the Union armies. The fanfare he met with in Washington was like nothing ever seen on this continent, and yet he said, “Nothing ever fell on me like a wet blanket so much as my promotion to the lieutenant-generalcy.”  He knew the stakes were high.

When Grant took on Lee, the first battles were extremely fierce and bloody, prompting the North to suffer a slight check in Grant-worship. Grant seemed to take this in his stride, saying something to the effect of that he had always said defeating Lee would come at great expense of human life and he didn’t understand why anyone assumed it would be any different.

Lee suffered a severe blow to his pride by the ultimate surrender, of course. It seems like he was never truly blamed by the South for failure in the war. Still, he seemed to have had some degree of difficulty coping with the final result, even finding it impossible to laugh at a joke Grant made to him years later when he visited Grant in the White House. One imagines defeat was made more difficult through world fame.

The extent to which Forrest was personally involved in the event which won him a degree of infamy (the massacre by his troops of the USCT at Fort Pillow) has been debated by historians for more than a century and is beyond the scope of this article.  But history records that he did face an intense level of scrutiny from those who believed he was responsible.  He was the subject of strong denunciation in Northern newspapers, which also began digging into his personal life and that of his family members. Forrest recounted stories of people approaching him in the streets and mobs forming, as well as that of one lady knocking on his hotel door and entering before he was even dressed in order to rebuke him.

Similarly, Sherman’s moral responsibility for the scorched earth tactics in the South are also highly debated and beyond this article’s scope.  He, too, faced immense criticism and rebuke from those on the opposite side.

There was another very tangible danger, too: assassination. People like Lincoln and Grant came to embody in public perception the political causes which they were executing on the battlefield. We all know how this turned out for Lincoln.  Grant was haunted by menacing characters dogging his steps, riding up to his train, and even invading his home during the week of Lincoln’s assassination, and he eventually had to leave Washington. He was rather heedless of the danger, but his faithful group of officers concocted a security plan for his protection.  It was a miracle he survived.

All of this, naturally, inspired the direction in which I took John Thomas’s story. The Navy played a huge role for both sides, often accomplishing the seemingly impossible and acting with a precision common to more modern wars like WWII. There were a few famous naval heroes during the war—Admirals Porter, Foote, and Dahlgren come to mind. I don’t believe they achieved quite the A-lister fame of the generals I have discussed above, but when it came to John Thomas, I thought…why not?

PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: When Ulysses and Julia Grant travelled to England, they were met with overwhelming crowds.  In Liverpool, an estimated 80,000–100,000 people turned out to see them.  They were even hosted by Queen Victoria for a lavish dinner.  The reception was similar in Egypt, Jerusalem, Greece, Rome, Russia, Austria, Germany, Japan, Vietnam, Burma, Singapore, and Thailand.  The Grants’ tour of the world offers a fascinating snapshot into the global connectedness of the 1870s.  Ron Chernow covers this historical moment spectacularly in Grant, but if you want a shorter read, here is a link to a PBS article on the same.

Grant’s World Tour | American Experience | Official Site | PBS

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Public interest creates celebrities.  What makes us do it?  Fascination, boredom, curiosity, a desire to stay up with the times?  I was considering as I was writing this article how the combination of so many factors catapulted the most prominent officers of the Civil War to fame. 

Military figures had always held a fascination for the public during wars anyway, partly due to previous centuries’ romanticization of wars. And for the American public, these officers’ decisions were directly affecting their daily lives in a very real way. Civil War celebrities became symbols for causes whether they wanted to be or not, often even when they were just doing their military job and not directly trying to impact public opinion or politics.  Was this unfair?  Or was it healthy, politically speaking, for the public to be able to hold those in power accountable or promote certain platforms through the mighty force of public opinion of celebrities?

ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: Take a look at this photo of Grant’s funeral procession in 1885 in New York. 1.5 million people attended. The fame, celebrity, and infamy of Civil War officers was enduring, and, I think, still endures today.

Photo Credit: (Grant Funeral) Project Muse: Project MUSE – “Pageantry of Woe”: The Funeral of Ulysses S. Grant (jhu.edu).

Stop by next time for a look at the rise of insurgent movements after the Civil War.


William Tecumseh Sherman, by James Lee McDonough

Grant, by Ron Chernow

Bust Hell Wide Open, by Samuel W. Mitcham Jr.

Rebel Yell, by S.C. Gwynne

Clouds of Glory, by Michael Korda

Nathan Bedford Forrest, by Jack Hurst

[1] Grant’s granddaughter even married minor European royalty, which shows the level of A-lister fame these officers were catapulted into.

[2] Horrifying in terms of all of the diseases the population was riddled with and considering she was only six months old.  Jefferson Davis and Jackson’s wife were in the train car, and my initial thought was, “Why are they letting this happen!?”  The mother was upset, but because they were exhausting the baby, not because they were spreading, you know, tuberculosis.  And then I remembered how little was understood in terms of germs.  A very real reminder of why time travel is not something I could ever desire.