Strange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War

Strange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War


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Strange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War is an entertaining look at the Civil War stories that don’t get told, and the misadventures you haven’t read about in history books. Share in all the humorous and strange events that took place behind the scenes of some of the most famous Civil War moments. Picture a pedestal in a public park with no statue on top; Rowland’s book explains that when the members of the New York Monument Commission went to hire a sculptor to finish the statue, they were shocked to discover that there was no money left in the agency’s accounts to pay for the project. The money for the statue of Dan Sickles had been stolen—stolen by former monument committee chairman Dan Sickles!

Brig. Gen. Philip Kearny was the son of a New York tycoon who had helped found the New York Stock Exchange, and who groomed his boy to be a force on Wall Street. The younger Kearny decided his call was to be a force on the field of battle, so despite a law degree and an inheritance of better than $1 million, he joined the U.S. Army and studied cavalry tactics in France. His dashing figure in the saddle earned him the name of Kearny the Magnificent, probably because Kearny rode with a pistol in one hand and a sword in the other while holding the horse’s reins in his teeth. This habit proved useful after he lost his left arm in the Mexican War, because he was able to continue to wave his sword with all the menace to which he was accustomed while still guiding his horse.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616083953
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 09/27/2011
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 361,304
Product dimensions: 5.54(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Tim Rowland has authored a number of books, including histories of the Adirondacks and Western Maryland mountains, and the Strange and Obscure series, collections of historical essays focusing on lesser-known aspects of American history. An avid outdoorsman, Rowland has climbed in the Himalayas, hiked the Inca Trail, trekked throughout Europe, and ridden a bicycle across the United States. He has climbed all 46 Adirondack High Peaks over 4,000 feet. He and his wife Beth live in Jay, New York.

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Strange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War

By Tim Rowland

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2011 Tim Rowland
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62873-100-2


John Brown Gets a Visitor

In October of 1859, the abolitionist John Brown made war between the states all but inevitable. It wasn't that his raid upon the Federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry (now West Virginia) had been such an overpowering success. There were so many comedic errors and such bad luck that it almost seemed to be half military engagement, half Monty Python skit.

The plan was, ostensibly, to steal weapons from the government arsenal and then pass them out to slaves who would join in an epic revolt, gathering steam as it rolled to the South. It might have had a better chance of success had anyone bothered to fill the slaves in on the specifics; but either they didn't know of Brown's scheme, or they were not terribly interested in participating in a plot that could get them hanged. Whatever the case, the twenty-one raiders under Brown had to go it alone, and they made poor work of it. The first casualty, killed mistakenly by Brown's own men, was a free black man who worked as a night watchman for the railroad. The last casualty, it might be said, was the Vermont minister who presided over Brown's burial.

John Brown's raid itself was put down in short order by a band of Marines led by none other than Robert E. Lee, but to Southerners, the event smelled of much more than gunpowder. To the South, the message was this: Any man, any neighbor, no matter how trusted or respected, could morph into a wild-eyed loon bent on leading slaves in revolt. After all, before shedding his skin of normalcy and all but growing the horns of Lucifer, Brown had seemed to his new neighbors as unremarkable as a log farmhouse by the side of a dirt road.

Brown had rented such a house the summer before the raid under the name of Isaac Smith, and his accomplices had drifted in over the course of several months to train for the assault, which they did under the cover of night. It didn't matter what part of the country he was in — North, South, East, or West — the sight of black and white men carrying weapons and drilling together in military formation was inevitably going to cause some awkward questions to be asked.

After the raid, however, everyone was asking the same question, and it wasn't awkward, it was obvious: What makes John Brown tick? At least part of the answer could have been found in the heart of the Northern wilderness.

One of the more interesting snapshots we have of Brown — the man, not the fanatic — had been taken a decade prior, and it ranks as one of history's more unlikely coincidences involving two of the greatest abolitionists of the time.

Brown's permanent hideout was an almost comically secluded farm deep in the Adirondack Mountains of New York — near present-day Lake Placid — that he had purchased in 1849. Ski jumpers and bobsledders now pursue their sports in what would have basically been Brown's backyard. At the midpoint of the 1800s, Brown's farm would have been all but unreachable. It was in the heart of a range of 4,000-foot peaks penetrated by only the most primitive of wagon paths. It was here he stayed in between his abolitionist mischief well to the south and west.

His home was also a weigh station and/or terminus on the Underground Railroad, but the land was more than just a safe harbor. It was a project designed to set up former slaves with the resources they needed to make it on their own. In coordination with a landowner named Gerrit Smith, Brown was subdividing property and teaching runaway slaves to farm on their own — it was a case of civil rights meeting sustainable agriculture.

Early critics of the project, however, were not impressed. Adirondack banker-turned-historian Alfred Lee Donaldson said that relocating blacks from Southern saunas to the near-Arctic conditions of the mountains "was about as promising of agricultural results as would be the placing of an Italian lizard on a Norwegian iceberg."

And Donaldson (writing in 1920) was just getting warmed up:

The farms allotted to the negroes consisted of forty acres each, but the natural gregariousness of the race tended to defeat the purpose of these individual holdings. The darkies began to build their shanties in one place, instead of on their separate grants. Before long about ten families had huddled their houses together down by the brook. The shanties were square, crudely built of logs, with flat roofs, out of which little stovepipes protruded at varying angles. The last touch of pure negroism was a large but dilapidated red flag that floated above the settlement, bearing the half-humorous, half-pathetic legend "Timbuctoo" — a name that was applied to the whole vicinity for several years.

How a flag could represent "pure negroism" is difficult to say, but Donaldson's account is somewhat emblematic of the indifference, or worse, felt by the natives toward their not-so-favorite son, then and now. Even in 2010, when the state was facing budget shortfalls, the Brown Farm was among the first state shrines to be suggested for cutbacks. More recent scholarship describes the black farming community as more complex than Donaldson's account would have us believe, and attributes it to kindling Brown's respect for black men and women and sharpening his resolve to take concrete action in their interests. Nevertheless, the project was apparently abandoned after only a couple of years, and it was John Brown in a nutshell: Poor results born of pure intentions.

Life wasn't much of a picnic for anyone trying to work the cold, rocky land, including the Browns themselves. The patriarch and elder sons were often away marauding, and his girls would sell berries to raise enough pennies to pay the postage on a letter to their father. On more than one occasion his finances were shored up through the contributions of abolitionists dedicated to his cause. What neighbors there were watched the life and times of the Brown family with some incredulity. For a while, until he sold them to raise funds, he owned a prize-winning herd of Devon cattle, and even a horse, which was a curiosity in the oxen-centric world of the remote northern woods. This was not to mention the black men and women coming and going at all manner of day and night.

Into this surreal racial world stumbled the writer and attorney Richard Henry Dana, best known as the author of Two Years Before The Mast, who was vacationing in the Adirondacks in the summer of 1849, when his party became hopelessly lost in the thick forest. After surviving a miserable night with nothing to eat but a four-inch trout divided three ways, the group discovered a path and a piece of property that had the makings of a somewhat plausible farm. "The position was a grand one for a lover of mountain effects; but how good for farming I could not tell," Dana wrote in Atlantic magazine twenty years later.

As luck would have it, the farm, or quasi-farm, was John Brown's. As luck would also have it, Dana was a founder of the Free Soil party and an abolitionist — but even he had trouble taking in the scene unfolding before his eyes. After being fed and cared for by Brown's daughter, he witnessed the man himself trundling into view, walking (walking!) before a wagon that was carrying (carrying!) two recently liberated slaves. The runaway-slave couple was also in attendance at the dinner table that night, and Brown solemnly commenced with introductions, referring to everyone, including the erstwhile slaves, by their surnames and the appropriate prefix. This caused some confusion, apparently, as the couple looked around the room to see who this "Mr. Jefferson" and "Mrs. Wait" might be, before realizing that Brown was referring to them. And eating supper at the same table as a white family was almost more than they could stand. "They had all the awkwardness of field hands on a plantation; and what to do, on the introduction, was quite beyond their experience," Dana wrote.

At the time, of course, Brown was just a two-bit agitator, and to Dana the name was meaningless. He was just a simple farmer who had the odd habit of collecting ex-slaves. Dana found Brown to be intelligent, courteous, and a man of dignity, "that dignity which is unconscious, and comes from a superior habit of mind." There was no sign of zealotry, just "a clear-headed, honest-minded man who had spent all his days as a frontier farmer. On conversing with him, we found him well-informed on most subjects, especially in the natural sciences. He had books and evidently made diligent use of them."

That was it. No discussion of slavery, abolition, or politics. There was no mention of the cause both men held dear (perhaps out of manners because there were always blacks present, Dana later speculated), and each man remained ignorant of the other's missions. Dana was off on a journey overseas in 1859–60 when he began to hear bits and pieces of what had transpired in Harpers Ferry at the hands of a man named Brown from North Elba, New York. It didn't take long to put two and two together, but the chance meeting of ten years before was still incredible to contemplate:

It would have been past belief had we been told that this quiet frontier farmer, already at or beyond middle life, with no noticeable past, would, within ten years, be the central figure of a great tragic scene, gazed upon with wonder, pity, admiration or execration by half a continent. That this man should be thought to have imperiled the slave empire in America, and added a new danger to the stability of the Union! That his almost undistinguishable name of John Brown should be whispered among four millions of slaves, and sung wherever the English tongue is spoken, and incorporated into an anthem to whose solemn cadences men should march to battle by the tens of thousands! That he should have done something toward changing the face of civilization itself!

Not everyone with an English tongue was singing Brown's praises, obviously, and the final chapter in Brown's story in the North represents what he was up against, even on his home turf.

Upon his execution in December 1859, in Charles Town, West Virginia, Brown's body was released to his wife and a party that would help transport it by rail back to North Elba — the prophetic Brown had carved his tombstone before heading south. The journey did not go smoothly. Crowds pro and con awaited the small procession at the train depots, and in Philadelphia, the authorities even had to rig up a dummy coffin as a decoy. Slowly, family and friends commenced up the east shore of Lake Champlain, then crossed it by ferry and headed into the deep mountains and woods.

The Rev. Joshua Young was minister of the Unitarian Church in Burlington, Vermont, but less known was his position as an important cog in the Underground Railroad. In a letter to a confidant he wrote, "How many tales of cruelty I listened to, how many backs scarred by the slave driver's lash and some not healed, I looked upon, how many poor scared creatures I secreted in cellars or garrets until the danger was past I cannot tell, only this I did again and again, both while living in Boston and in Burlington."

So Young had an interest in attending the burial of John Brown, although he later indicated that it was not a serious interest and that it was only after being petitioned by a parishioner on the street — a "more ardent" abolitionist than himself — that he agreed to venture to Brown's final resting place.

An ample gathering had assembled at North Elba, but apparently Young was the only minister in attendance, and it was requested of him to conduct the funeral ceremony. "Of course there was but one answer to make to such a request — from that moment I knew why God had sent me there," Young wrote later in life.

If God understood the situation, He failed to inform Young's congregation. This was not a time when news traveled fast, but even so, by the time Young returned home to Burlington, he learned that six of his wealthiest parishioners had quit the church. Several more quit soon afterward. "Friends avoided him upon the streets," wrote Donaldson. "The papers all over the country, with few exceptions, vilified and caricatured him. He was the butt of tongue and pen from coast to coast. He was branded an "anarchist," a "traitor," an "infidel," a "blasphemer ..."

By Young's own reckoning, he had gone from a respected preacher to a "social outcast" in two days. He refrained from defending himself until well after the fact, despite the pleas of his family. It might be assumed that, at the time, laying low was the more prudent course, since parishioners who were upset with their minister for laying Brown to rest might not be tolerant of the whole Underground Railroad situation.

Young did have his day, finally. When the remains of ten other members of the raiding party were returned to Brown's farm for permanent burial, Young was again present to lead the services — this time to lusty acclaim.


Abner Doubleday Throws the First Pitch of the Civil War

No man may be better known for what he didn't do and less known for what he did than Abner Doubleday. Had he known that he would get credit for inventing the great game of baseball, Doubleday might have been more willing to forget the slight he received at the hands of Gen. George Meade at the battle of Gettysburg and the loss of Fort Sumter.

Doubleday did indeed invent something that everyone has heard of — the famed San Francisco cable car system, although he isn't known for that either. Instead, as word associations go, Doubleday and baseball have become as common as balls and strikes.

It's true that in his idle, youthful hours, Doubleday was known to map out recreational pursuits, although if a four-base diamond was among Doubleday's doodlings, he never mentioned it to anyone or attempted to take credit when the game gained in popularity (and Doubleday was not a man to downplay his accomplishments). Nor was baseball among the credits listed in his obituary in the New York Times.

In a sense, though, the Doubleday baseball myth was, at the time, as much a boost to his country as was his war service. At the turn of the century there had been some rumblings that the majestic and purely American sport of baseball was not so American after all, and was merely a warmed-over version of the English game of rounders. This view didn't serve America's sporting icons or, more specifically, its sporting-goods icons well.

So in the early twentieth century, Albert Spalding — a former player and owner and founder of the sporting goods empire — formed a commission to get to the bottom of this baseball thing once and for all. The conclusion was forgone, but some historical back-filling was needed to justify the decision. In the middle of assembling his commission, Spalding received a letter from a man named Albert Graves who claimed that Doubleday, in Graves's presence, had written out the rules for the game in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839.

What this story lacked in documentation it made up for in convenience, since the date would indicate that baseball was born and bred in America. Spalding's commission reported in 1907 that baseball was created just as Albert Graves had described.

"This conclusion was greeted with considerable joy, as it fed Americans' pride and once again established America's independence from Great Britain and such British games as cricket and rounders ..." wrote sports historian Edward Rielly.

Having died fourteen years prior, Doubleday was not in a position to refute the finding, nor was the Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce likely to throw cold water on the story. That job was left to Robert Henderson, chief librarian of the New York Public Library (and obvious communist and anti–apple pie activist), who surgically shredded the Doubleday myth, aided and abetted by the collection of historical baseball paraphernalia donated to the library in 1946. Included in the collection was an illustration of boys playing baseball in Boston in 1835.

Henderson asserted that baseball had even been played by Washington's men at Valley Forge, and the 1946 collection even referred to a baseball-like sport in a book called — one would hope Spalding's pro-American heirs were sitting down when they read this —"Les Jeux des Jeunes Garsons.[sic]"

Mon Dieu.

But even with all the evidence at hand, it's a fair bet that more people today "know" that Doubleday invented baseball than "know" that he fired the first shot of the Civil War on behalf of the North — which he actually did.

Along with a small platoon of Federal troops stationed 600 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line at the port of Charleston, South Carolina, in the winter of 1860 and spring of 1861, Doubleday would literally and figuratively be on an island. These men (10 percent of whom were musicians) were a rowboat of Yankees in a sea of Southern fire-eaters who were raising troops, stockpiling weapons, and agitating for secession. And drinking heavily. As the city residents grew bolder and more menacing, the Federals withdrew under the cover of night to Fort Sumter, a dismal, prison-esque outcrop of brick and stone in the Charleston harbor.


Excerpted from Strange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War by Tim Rowland. Copyright © 2011 Tim Rowland. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 John Brown Gets a Visitor,
Chapter 2 Abner Doubleday Throws the First Pitch of the Civil War,
Chapter 3 Happiness is Throwing Senators in Jail,
Chapter 4 Looks Could Be Deceiving,
Chapter 5 The North Finds Its Hero, Briefly,
Chapter 6 Paying For it All,
Chapter 7 The North's Shadow Cabinet Member,
Chapter 8 Racing Locomotives,
Chapter 9 Civil War Ammunition — A Blast from the Past,
Chapter 10 A Foreigner Joins the Fight,
Chapter 11 Horses: Backbone of an Army,
Chapter 12 An Original, American Piece of Work,
Chapter 13 Spare Time,
Chapter 14 A Southern Boy Comes Home,
Chapter 15 Confederate Hopes Sink,
Chapter 16 Chamberlain's Last Day at the Office,
Selected Bibliography,

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Strange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
mostly well done. wished some of them were longer but then they wouldn't be "short stories" I read them to a blind elderly W.W. 11 veteran. He has approved of every story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Rowland does a good job picking stories for this book. He displays wit and compassion in the telling of the stories. It would have been nice if he would have expanded on the stories as some read a bit like essays and the battle descriptions were a bit hard to follow in this truncated form.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An interesting read.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The facts the author has in this book are very interesting and some sad some humorous but very well researched. Not very long finished in one night, but loved it.
napaman99 More than 1 year ago
Very enjoyable read. Interesting stories, some I was aware of and others that were new to me. The stories are complete within themselves but leaves the door open for further inquiry/research if an individual is so inclined. Though some stories lean towards a humorous tale the underlying thought that the Civil War was a horrible experience is never far from your mind. I would recommend this book.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Previews only contain forward, introduction, contents, etc. If we can't see some of the actual book, we aren't going to buy it.