2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the epic struggle between the North and South that left more than 620,000 Americans dead and in many ways still affects our nation today. Most Americans have at least an elementary knowledge of major battles such as Gettysburg, and leaders like Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Unknown to most people are some of the fascinating and truly bizarre tales from the Civil War. Here are five of the more bizarre events from the war.
5. Spectators Foil Union Retreat
The Civil War was not expected to last long. The North clearly had superiority in population, manufacturing, supplies, weaponry, railroads and other important categories. Once the South had begun hostilities at Fort Sumter it was widely assumed that only one major land battle would be needed to defeat the Southern forces and then capture the Confederate capitol of Richmond.
On July 21, 1861 the first major battle occurred just outside of Washington, D.C. The North referred to it as the Battle of Bull Run; the South called it the Battle of Manassas. Although figures vary, both sides had roughly 30,000 men ready for combat, the North under the leadership of Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, the Southern forces commanded by Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. Civilians and socialites from D.C. packed picnic baskets and rode their buggies to the battle site in anticipation of the social event of the year. Even congressmen brought their families out for the spectacle.
The battle did not go according to the North’s plan and after a full day of fighting Northern troops hastily retreated toward Washington … only to find their path blocked by fleeing civilians and their carriages. Only a sluggish response by the Southern leadership prevented a complete disaster for the North that day.
4. The U.S. Navy’s First Submarine
The first American submarine prepared for action in a war, the Alligator, was launched on May 1, 1862, by the North. It was approximately 47 feet long, 6 feet wide, and was originally powered by 16 hand-powered paddles. Air was provided by hoses that were attached to floats at the top of the submersible. Before the Alligator headed out for its first action, the paddles were replaced by a hand-cranked propeller, giving it a top speed of between four and seven knots per hour.
While being towed to Charleston, South Carolina, where it was to be used in a bid to retake that Southern port city, severe weather struck and the tow ship cut the submarine loose. It sank quickly off the coast of North Carolina near Cape Hatteras on April 2, 1863. The U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducted an unsuccessful search for the Alligator in 2005.
Less than a year later, the Confederacy launched its own submarine, the C.S.S. H.L. Hunley, which sank a Northern sloop, the U.S.S. Housatonic, on Feb. 17, 1864. The submarine sank during the engagement, however, and sat at the bottom of Charleston Harbor until the year 2000, when it was recovered in a salvage effort that drew widespread media coverage.
3. Wilmer McLean Sees Beginning, End of War
Wilmer McLean made his living in the grocery business, and was by all accounts leading an ordinary life until the Civil War began, when, through a quirk of fate, he played a role in both the beginning and end of the conflict. Before the first Battle of Bull Run — the first major battle of the war — McLean’s home was being used as headquarters for Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of the Southern forces. While McLean and Beauregard were having breakfast, Northern artillery shells crashed into the house. Beauregard immediately ordered counterattacks, and the first Battle of Bull Run was on.
As the war continued, McLean decided to move his family further south for safety reasons, and to be closer to his business interests in Richmond. In 1863, he moved his family about 100 miles southeast to a little hamlet called Appomattox Courthouse. As fate would have it, the decisive battle of the war was fought there, April 9, 1865, a quick victory for the North. Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the parlor of McLean’s house that afternoon. McLean would later note, “The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”
2. The Battle of the Crater
By the summer of 1864, Grant was chasing Lee southward toward the war’s final chapter and had maneuvered him into the area around Petersburg. After some fierce fighting, a siege was begun as Lee refused to give up the Confederacy’s main supply railhead and Grant sought to end the war.
After a couple weeks of the siege, Grant grew impatient and approved a strange plan. Soldiers began work on a tunnel that would stretch under the Southern siege line, with plans to pack the tunnel with explosives. When detonated, the explosion would destroy the center of Lee’s defense. The tunnel measured 511 feet long and when completed was filled with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder. On July 30, 1864 the gunpowder was detonated and the resulting explosion left a crater 170 feet long, more than 100 feet wide, and at least 30 feet deep. The blast killed as many as 350 Confederate soldiers.
The audacious plan had worked perfectly. Unfortunately, the Northern troops who were supposed to attack immediately became confused, went down into the crater instead of around it, and a Northern bloodbath followed. Grant forever regretted the confusion over orders as the war could have been effectively ended that day.
1. The Adventures of the CSS Shenandoah
In the fall of 1864, a Scottish-built merchant ship was secretly purchased by the Confederacy and transformed into a warship known as the CSS Shenandoah. It had one mission: to seek out and destroy the supply and whaling fleets of the Union in order to damage the North’s economic strength. The vessel proved to be an imposing threat, capturing or sinking a total of 38 ships around the globe. Many of those ships were sunk near the Arctic Circle in the summer of 1865, months after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Unfortunately, Commander James Waddell and his and crew never received official word of that surrender. In fact, it was not until Aug. 2 that the captain learned the South’s ultimate fate.
Realizing that he and his crew were probably wanted as pirates for their post-war acts, Waddell sailed the Shenandoah to England, where he and the crew surrendered on Nov. 6. After an investigation, British authorities released the crew. In addition to being the source of the last shots fired in the name of the Civil War, the CSS Shenandoah had become the only Confederate vessel to sail around the world.