In April 1865, America was a different place from what it had been just four years before. Atlanta: burned. Richmond: burned. Chambersburg, Pennsylvania: burned. Swaths of the South were scissored with trenches and abatis and pocked with shell holes. Washington, D.C., had become an army town, with barricades in the streets and more than 500 bordellos behind the shades. And in every city and town, North as well as South, there were changes among the people: men who were gone, men who were maimed, people who had been masters who were now nearly helpless, people who were free who had to discover how to live freely. The story of America had been revised with chapters on Antietam, Gettysburg and Andersonville, and on emancipation and citizenship and a new birth of freedom, the meanings of which were unsettled then and elude full agreement even now.
Today, 150 years after the fighting ended, the Civil War remains central in the American imagination. Some of the landscapes are changing, but the stories prevail—tales of courage and foolishness and the very human outcomes that resulted. For the last four years, Americans have been marking anniversaries, from Fort Sumter onward. What we offer now, as a last 150th-year look back, is a tour of less-visited sites that reflect more intimately how the Civil War changed the nation.
The Combahee River, South Carolina
Although Federal troops routinely liberated any slaves found when they moved into Rebel-held territory, they did not routinely launch actions with the specific objective of freeing slaves. Alone in that category is the June 2, 1863, expedition made up of the Second South Carolina Volunteer Regiment, a unit consisting of 300 former slaves, and a section of the Third Rhode Island Battery. The mission was conceived and led, at least in part, by Harriet Tubman, which made her the first woman in U.S. history to plan and lead a military raid. It is commemorated today with a state highway marker on Route 17, just south of where the Harriet Tubman Bridge carries the road over the Combahee River north of Beaufort.
Famous for her service on the Underground Railroad before the war, Tubman was working as a cook and nurse for the U.S. Army in South Carolina—at least officially. But she had been issued a pass by Gen. David Hunter, a leading voice for emancipation, that gave her freedom to move about the countryside unimpeded. Visiting camps of escaped slaves that had been set up on the South Carolina coast, she recruited ten men to scout the Combahee River and the Lowcountry plantations along its shore. She also paid escaped slaves for updated intelligence.
Hunter asked Tubman if she would go upriver with three gunboats and show the troops where mines had been planted, where railroad bridges were located and where escaped slaves were hiding. Tubman agreed to go if Col. James Montgomery was given command of the mission. Montgomery, a Kansas jayhawker, was an ardent abolitionist who had ridden with John Brown before the war.
The mere presence of the Union flotilla set off an exodus of slaves out of the fields bordering the Combahee and toward the gunboats. “In vain, then, the drivers used their whips in their efforts to hurry the poor creatures back to their quarters,” wrote Tubman biographer Sarah H. Bradford. Tubman said she’d never seen such a sight: “Here you’d see a woman wid a pail on her head, rice a smokin’ in it jus’ as she’d taken it from de fire, young one hangin’ on behind, one han’ roun’ her forehead to hold on.” Almost 800 slaves gave the lie to Southern claims of their passive loyalty as they flocked to be rowed out to the gunboats and freedom.
Lt. John Singleton Mosby—the Confederacy’s legendary “Gray Ghost”—staged one of the war’s greatest coups in the home of Dr. William P. Gunnell, a handsome two-story brick house at 10520 Main Street, Fairfax (now occupied by offices for the Truro Anglican Church). Before dawn on March 9, 1863, Mosby led 29 men through the woods that filled a gap in the Union lines above Fairfax Courthouse. He was searching for a colonel in the New Jersey cavalry whose father, an English lord, had sneeringly labeled Mosby and his rangers a “pack of horse thieves.” The colonel had gone to Washington, but there was a consolation prize available: Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton, who had headquartered himself at Gunnell’s home. Stoughton, far from enemy positions, had not deployed guards; danger seemed unfathomable until the moment Mosby entered his bedroom.
Mosby recalls slapping the sleeping officer on the back and asking, “General, did you ever hear of Mosby?”
“Yes,” replied Stoughton. “Have you caught him?”
Along with Stoughton, Mosby’s men absconded with two captains, 30 enlisted men and 58 horses. Among Rebels, the exploit was widely celebrated, but some cavalry officers, perhaps jealous, harrumphed at the loose ways of Mosby’s men. When Mosby turned Stoughton over to Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, the cavalry officer (and nephew of Robert E. Lee) snubbed the Gray Ghost while warmly greeting the West Point classmate who was now his prisoner.
President Lincoln later observed that he “didn’t mind the loss of the brigadier as much as the horses, for I can make a much better general in five minutes, but the horses cost one hundred and twenty-five dollars apiece.”
New York, New York
In early July 1863, with New York City stripped of soldiers sent to Pennsylvania to stop Lee’s invasion of the North, a new conscription law took effect. It called for a disproportionately high number of troops to be raised in New York, gave provost marshals new powers to arrest draft evaders and deserters, and allowed men of means to buy substitutes for $300. Opposition to the law smoldered as the names of those who died at Gettysburg appeared in the newspapers; as those names were replaced with the names of the first draftees, anger burst into active resistance.
The draftees’ numbers had been pulled at the headquarters of the army’s provost marshal, at Third Avenue and 47th Street. Before the draft was to resume on Monday, July 13, crowds converged there from the homes and factories of Lower Manhattan. Angered that the new law ended draft exemptions for firefighters, the volunteers of Black Joke Engine Company No. 33 drove off the police protecting the headquarters, smashed the wheel used to pull draft numbers and set the building ablaze. The New York City draft riot—the worst civil disorder in U.S. history—was on.
The damage was widespread, but it targeted primarily rich people, Republicans and African-Americans. Brooks Brothers was sacked, Fifth Avenue mansions were looted, and the New York Tribune was attacked. The New York Times mounted a pair of Gatling guns in its front windows, one manned by its owner, the other by its largest stockholder. But the day’s culminating outrage was the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum, on Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets. It put more than 200 children—all of whom survived—out on the street. Today no plaque or marker commemorates the fate of the orphanage. on a block now occupied by retail, office and empty spaces.
Before order was re-established that Thursday evening, 119 people had been killed, either by the rioters or in firefights with soldiers fresh from Gettysburg, and the damage came to the modern equivalent of more than $27 million. Conscription didn’t resume until August, after the Lincoln administration cut the city’s quota from 26,000 men to 12,000. Relief agencies were set up to buy substitutes for firefighters, police officers and men who had families to support. A group of wealthy merchants organized relief for indigent African-Americans, and the Union League Club raised two regiments of black troops, the first of which departed for the front on March 5, 1864. “Eight months ago, the African race in this city were literally hunted down like wild beasts,” the Times noted. Now those men “march in solid platoons, with shouldered muskets, slung knapsacks, and buckled cartridge-boxes down through our gayest avenues and our busiest thoroughfares.”
The most celebrated and reviled ship in the Confederate Navy, the Alabama had, in just two years, captured 64 American merchant ships worth $5.1 million. Showing the wear of such hard duty, the vessel sailed into Cherbourg for repairs in June 1864. But Capt. Raphael Semmes met with a technicality: All berths were reserved for the French Navy; any waiver would have to come directly from Emperor Napoleon III, who was—Quelle dommage!—on vacation in Biarritz. Semmes applied, but before the emperor could return to Paris, the USS Kearsarge appeared on June 19. The Union ship had been draped in anchor chain, turning it into a homemade ironclad. Painted black, the chain disappeared against the hull.
Semmes gave battle right then, before Kearsarge Capt. John Winslow could summon reinforcements.After 9 that morning, the Alabama left the harbor, trailed by civilian boats and an English yacht eager to catch the spectacle. Semmes opened fire around 11 a.m., and the ships exchanged fire without effect for about 15 minutes—until a shot from the Kearsarge disabled the Alabama’s rudder. Winslow poured on the fire, and Semmes raised the white flag. As his ship sank, the Kearsarge captured almost half his crew of 145, but Semmes and several others escaped aboard a British ship. Two Confederates (of 21 who died as a result of the battle) are buried, along with the lone Union fatality, in the Cherbourg Old Communal Cemetery.
The U.S. government’s claims against Britain, where the Alabama was built in violation of the Neutrality Act, were not settled until 1871, but a longer-lasting effect of the duel was a painting by Édouard Manet. For years it was believed that Manet had been in one of the civilian boats. Not so; The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama” was based on news reports. Dominated by swirling smoke and a roiling sea, the painting, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, captures the terror of combat at sea
St. Albans, Vermont
The historical marker in Taylor Park only begins to describe what happened on October 19, 1864. Late that afternoon, a tall, handsome man dismounted from a horse in front of the American House Hotel on Main Street in St. Albans, just 15 miles south of the Canadian border. His name was Bennett Young, and he had been staying in town for a few days, letting on little about himself beyond evident interests in the Bible and fishing. On that Wednesday, he drew a pair of Colt revolvers and said, “Gentlemen, I am a Confederate officer, and my men have come to take your town. Anyone who resists will be shot.” Young had been in Canada for months, recruiting escaped Confederate POWs to conduct raids on presumptively safe American towns. Now the northernmost raid of the Civil War was underway. Twenty-one raiders had entered St. Albans; while some of them held some townspeople prisoner in Taylor Park, others robbed the three banks of about $208,000. Some residents fired at the Confederates, fatally wounding one; one resident was killed in return. The fleeing Rebels tried to burn the town down, but their firebombs proved to be duds. American posses crossed into Canada and located many of the raiders, who were arrested by Canadian constables. The Canadians returned what money the raiders still had and charged Young and four of his men with violating Canada’s neutrality, but they dropped the charges a month later for lack of evidence. One of the three banks that were robbed, the Franklin County Bank, still stands (as a TD Bank branch), as does the American House.
Informed on April 2, 1865, that his army could no longer defend Richmond, President Jefferson Davis evacuated the Confederate capital, on an 11 p.m. train heading for Danville, Virginia. From that new seat of government, Davis announced, “Nothing is now needed to render our triumph certain but the exhibition of our own unquenchable resolve.”
Then Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army on April 9 at Appomattox Court House, and Davis was forced to move again, to Greensboro, North Carolina.
And after Gens. Joseph E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard informed him of their plans to seek terms, Davis planned to make for Texas, where Gen. Kirby Smith was holding on. The president was in Charlotte, North Carolina, on April 19, when he was informed that President Lincoln had been assassinated five days earlier. (A plaque in the sidewalk at South Tryon and Fourth Streets marks the spot where he received the news.) “If it were to be done, it were better it were well done,” he is said to have remarked, apparently paraphrasing Macbeth. The words seem callous, but it asks a lot of a man in Davis’ position to be magnanimous.
Lincoln’s death profoundly influenced Davis’ fate. Meeting with Gen. William T. Sherman and others that March, Lincoln had said, “Now, General, I’m bound to oppose the escape of Jeff Davis, but if you could manage to let him slip out unbeknownst-like, I guess it wouldn’t hurt me much.” But Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was far less liberal: He offered a reward of $100,000 in gold for Davis’ capture.
In the predawn hours of May 10, near the tiny village of Irwinville in southern Georgia, Federal cavalry found Davis and his party. (A monument—a bust of Davis atop a white stone base—marks the capture site.) It was raining at the time, and Davis was wearing a shawl to keep his head dry, which gave birth to the calumny that he was trying to disguise himself in women’s clothes. He was charged with treason and spent two years in prison before being released without a trial and given amnesty.
The last soldier to die in action during the Civil War was killed by vanity. In the spring of 1865, while Union troops dealt death blows to Confederate hopes, an unofficial truce prevailed in Texas; neither side seemed keen to shed blood in what had proved to be a sideshow to battles fought farther east. The Confederacy’s surrender was a major topic, though the question was when it would be honorable.
Receiving news only in fragments, Confederate Gen. Kirby Smith knew that Robert E. Lee had surrendered and that Jefferson Davis was on the move. In late April he told the remnant of his fast-fading army, “The great resources of this department, its vast extent, the numbers, the discipline, and the efficiency of the army, will secure to our country terms that a proud people with honor can accept, and may, under the Providence of God, be the means of checking the triumph of our enemy and of securing the final success of our cause.” He felt constrained not to act precipitously.
On the other hand, one man who felt obliged to act was Theodore Barrett of the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry. Stationed on the east bank of the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Barrett, a white officer newly breveted to brigadier general, evidently decided that the greatest clash of arms in North American history could not draw to a close without his personal participation in battle. On May 12, he advanced his men against a Rebel camp near Fort Brown. The Yankees initially succeeded, but were then pushed back by a Rebel counterattack. The next day Confederate forces under Maj. John Ford attacked Barrett’s men at Palmito Ranch and ran them off. A total of 115 men died over the two days, the last of whom was Pvt. John Jefferson Williams of Jay County, Indiana. He was 22, or thereabouts.
Thus the last sizeable clash of arms of the Civil War ended, like the first, with a Union retreat. Even so, the result did nothing to improve the fortunes of the Confederate States of America. Smith laid down his arms on June 2, the last significant Southern army to do so. Now the 5,400-plus acres of barren coastal plain that makes up the Palmito Ranch Battlefield National Historic Landmark are marked only by a Texas Historical Commission sign on Highway 4, a bit more than 14.5 miles east of Fort Brown, in Brownsville.
Santa Bárbara d'Oeste, Brazil
The 20-foot stone obelisk on the grounds of the Cemitério do Campo bears an alphabetized list of names right out of the American South (Ayees, Baird, Bankston, Barr...). That’s because the people who bore them came right out of the American South. After the Civil War ended, many Southerners emigrated to Mexico, Central America and, most successfully, Brazil. Drawn by cheap land and a government that still allowed slavery, 4,000 to 9,000 Americans paid the $30 fare for the two-week steamship voyage to Brazil. Bothered by the weather, the language or the challenge, perhaps half returned, but those who stayed made a new beginning. Many settled around Santa Bárbara d’Oeste, outside São Paulo.
Like many immigrants, the newcomers assimilated slowly, sticking to themselves, refusing to learn Portuguese and observing their own customs and cuisines. (The precinct where they settled is still called Americana.) Many of them named their sons for Alabama Sen. William Lowndes Yancey, a firebrand of a secessionist before the war who died in 1863. But when it came to farming, slavery may have been more appealing in theory than in practice; one study found that between 1868 and 1875, four families owned a total of 66 slaves, and Brazil outlawed the practice in 1888. The Americans brought new agricultural techniques and new crops, such as watermelon and pecans, that native farmers adopted. Various dishes imported by the Americans, such as fried chicken and vinegar pie, also caught on with the locals. By the third generation, intermarriage with native Brazilians was common, and members of that generation could usually converse in Portuguese. Today, there are about 120,000 Confederado descendants, many of whom mark their heritage with an annual Festa Confederada and memorial services centered at the Cemitério do Campo, where many of the original settlers are buried—and honored on the obelisk.
In Kansas and Missouri, the Civil War was a violent, ugly mess involving organized military units, semi-organized groups of partisans, and freelance terrorists. Among the most brutal of these men was the Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill, who led a gruesome life and was subjected to a gruesome epilogue. A marker on Kentucky Route 55, amid the verdant hills about five miles south of Taylorsville, shows where his gruesome end began.
A onetime schoolteacher, brigand, cattle-rustler and slave-catcher, Quantrill, who was just 23 when the war began, commanded a partisan cavalry unit that at its peak had about 450 men, and that at one time or another included such homicidal prodigies as “Bloody” Bill Anderson, Frank and Jesse James, and the Younger Brothers. Raiding civilian and military targets alike, the gang reached its nadir on August 21, 1863, when the riders, howling, “Kill! Kill!,” set upon the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas. Considering himself the sort of gentleman who would harm no female, Quantrill instead led the killing of every man and boy in sight, some 200 altogether, and burned the town.
Quantrill spent the next 20 months wandering between Missouri and Texas, occasionally fighting Federal forces and generally stealing and plundering. In spring 1865, with the war ending, Quantrill led his men into what they hoped would be the safe and lucrative pastures of Kentucky. The authorities hired a similarly violent bounty hunter named Edwin Terrell, whose men ambushed Quantrill on May 10 near Taylorsville. In the ensuing gunfight, Quantrill was paralyzed by a shot to his spine. He was taken to Louisville, where he lingered in agony for a month before dying. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
Twenty-two years later, Quantrill’s mother hired one of Quantrill’s boyhood friends, William Scott, to bring her boy’s body back to his birthplace of Dover, Ohio, for burial. Quantrill’s remains were exhumed and identified, but the state refused to allow their removal, so they were reburied. Or at least some of them were. Scott kept the skull, some hair and five arm and leg bones. At one point, the Kansas State Historical Society took possession of the bones and hair. Later, Scott’s son used the skull in fraternity initiations. It ended up in the hands of the Dover Historical Society, which in October 1992 buried the thing in a cemetery in town. (The society does have a life-size wax replica of Quantrill’s head, which can be viewed upon request.) In the same month, the five bones and hair were buried at the Old Confederate Veterans Home and Cemetery in Higginsville, Missouri. Today Quantrill rests in pieces.
Fredericksburg, Virginia & Silver Spring, Maryland
Civil War surgeons amputated as many as 60,000 wounded limbs. Two became renowned.
The only marker in the cemetery at Ellwood Manor is a legacy of what happened as darkness gathered on the Chancellorsville battlefield on May 2, 1863: Stonewall Jackson was hit by friendly fire twice in his left arm, which doctors amputated the following day in a field hospital near Wilderness Tavern. The Confederate general was then taken 27 miles south to Guinea Station (where he died of pneumonia on May 10), but his arm was taken a mile west to Ellwood Manor, the somewhat modest clapboard home of the brother of Jackson’s chaplain, where it was buried in the family cemetery. The granite marker under which it rests reads, “Arm of Stonewall Jackson, May 3, 1863.” The manor is now part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. The rest of Jackson lies in what is now the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery in Lexington, Virginia.
Two months after Jackson was wounded, Union Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles took a cannonball to the right leg at Gettysburg. Although he had been ordered to hold his position, he had moved his troops forward about a mile to occupy a slightly more elevated position at the Peach Orchard; they were soon overrun, jeopardizing the entire Union line.
Sickles’ leg was amputated that afternoon. A lesser man might have paused to recover, but Sickles took the offensive. A peerless framer of arguments—he was acquitted of murdering his wife’s lover (who was Francis Scott Key’s son) after he invented the defense of “temporary insanity”—he arrived in Washington at the same time as news of the Union victory in Pennsylvania, and made clear to everyone, including President Lincoln, that he had played a role in the triumph. He donated his leg to the Army Medical Museum, where he visited it from time to time. It’s still on display at what is now the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring.
Spring Hill, Tennessee
Much admired for his heroics during the Mexican War and his prowess as an Indian fighter, Gen. Earl Van Dorn commanded the Confederacy’s Trans-Mississippi District until defeats at Pea Ridge and the Second Battle of Corinth in 1862 led to his reassignment as the cavalry commander of the Army of Tennessee. But the artistic, poetical, romantic officer could almost always find solace among the fairer sex. Though he was married and the father of a son and a daughter, he was such an inveterate womanizer that he was known as “the terror of ugly husbands.” Advised by one young widow to restrain himself until the war was over, Van Dorn replied, “I cannot do that, for it is all I am fighting for.” He should have listened. On May 7, 1863, he was working at a desk on the second floor of his headquarters in Ferguson Hall, a splendid six-room brick house, when George Peters, a doctor whom the general had cuckolded, walked in and shot Van Dorn in the head. Peters then rode to Nashville and turned himself in. “The evidences of criminality, and of most villainous treatment by the rebel officer, are clear and unquestionable,” a parson named Brownlow wrote in a letter to the Philadelphia Press two weeks after the shooting. “The black-hearted villain deserved to die the very death he did die, and at the hands of the very man who killed him.” Evidently no one disagreed—he was never prosecuted. The house, on the campus of the Tennessee Children’s Home, is now an event venue, rented out for weddings, among other functions.
Park Hill, Oklahoma
The Cherokee were still reeling from the Trail of Tears—their forced relocation from the Southeast to the “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi—when a secession crisis further rocked their community. The story, which can be researched at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill, began when an attorney from Little Rock, Albert Pike, met in 1861 with John Ross, the principal Cherokee chief, and proposed a treaty that would guarantee the tribe title to their lands, annual payments, protection by Confederate troops, a delegate seat in the Confederate House of Representatives and a Confederate Court for the Cherokee nation.
Ross, whose ancestry was 7/8 Scottish, had been seeking those objectives from the United States government since 1846. Still, he was inclined to neutrality; why provoke the government that had been the source of so much Cherokee misery? That July, Ross received support for neutrality at a Cherokee Nation conference, but even then events were undermining him. Federal troops were pulling out of the territory; pro-Union Cherokee were leaving; Confederate victories at Manassas and Big Bethel gave the South the look of a winner. Most important, the Confederates kept up the diplomatic pressure: Pike negotiated treaties with the Creeks, Chickasaws and Choctaws and talked to other Cherokee leaders about bypassing Ross.
At a second conference of the Cherokee Nation in August, Ross again explained the wisdom of neutrality and reiterated that his primary objective was to have the Cherokee people united: “Union is strength, dissension is weakness, misery, ruin.” His conclusion then shocked the assembly: “The time has now come. . .to adopt preliminary steps for an alliance with the Confederate States.”
This was a statement of pure practicality, reflecting what most Cherokee wanted. Still, the Cherokee formed two regiments, one of which served the Confederacy with distinction and the other of which deserted the Confederate cause in droves, largely because the men had been ordered to kill other Indians. (Cherokee fought on both sides at Honey Springs, some 50 miles southwest of Park Hill; the 1,100-acre site has walking trails and signs.) Ross remained a Unionist at heart (four of his five sons fought for the North), but he was arrested by Union cavalry in 1862. He spent three years in Washington, D.C., futilely arguing that the Cherokee had remained secretly loyal to the United States. Drained by his labors, he died on August 1, 1866.
Camden, South Carolina
Mary Chesnut, the premier diarist of the war, enjoyed entrée to the highest levels of Confederate society and a peripatetic lifestyle that placed her, Zelig-like, in Montgomery when the Confederacy was formed, Charleston when Fort Sumter was fired upon, and Richmond for much of the war. But Mulberry Plantation was her home from 1840, when she and her new husband, James, took up residence with his parents, grandparents and two of his sisters, until James died in 1885. (The three-story mansion, built circa 1820 of bricks fired on the estate, had 12 bedrooms; it’s a National Historic Landmark and a private residence now.)
Mary began keeping her diary in February 1861 as her husband, a former U.S. senator, joined in the creation of the Confederate government. Throughout, it reveals her as a woman of compelling contradictions. She despised what she regarded as the abolitionists’ sanctimony (they “live in nice New England homes, clean, sweet-smelling, shut up in libraries, writing books which ease their hearts of their bitterness against us. What self-denial they do practice is to tell John Brown to come down here and cut our throats in Christ’s name”), yet perceived the evil at the heart of slavery (“God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system and wrong and iniquity…. Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines”). At every turn, she is an empathetic narrator, a sly observer and a sharp wit. Of Louis Wigfall, the pompous senator from Texas, she writes, “He likes to be where he can be as rude as he pleases, and he is indulging himself now to the fullest extent.’’ The war ruined Mulberry Plantation, but the Chesnuts returned there and began repairs, sustaining themselves with butter and egg money Mary earned. Her attempts to write novels failed, and she died in 1886 without knowing that she had written one of the war’s most revealing nonfiction works.
Washington, D.C..; Bear Spriong, Arizona; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania & Plymouth, North Carolina
Many Americans have proudly worn the uniform and provided valuable service to their country without seeing action, and Union paymaster Milton Cushing was one of them. Milton was the eldest brother in one of the most remarkable families in American military history. He performed much of his record-keeping at the Washington Navy Yard. Younger brother Howard served as an artilleryman throughout the Civil War. Despite having been diagnosed with tuberculosis, he saw heavy action at Shiloh, Vicksburg and the Wilderness and was promoted to lieutenant, a rank he carried into a postwar assignment with the cavalry. Sent to the Arizona Territory, he became a respected Indian fighter. He was killed at Bear Spring, in the Whetstone Mountains, in a hand-to-hand battle with the Chiricahua Apache that led to his being dubbed “the Custer of Arizona,” even though he predeceased Custer and not all of his men were killed.
Custer graduated 34th and last in West Point’s Class of 1861; Milton and Howard’s younger brother Alonzo ranked 12th. An artilleryman, he fought with distinction at Bull Run, the Peninsula, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg—where, on July 3, 1863, he was twice wounded and lost most of the guns in his battery in the barrage that preceded Pickett’s Charge. Still, Alonzo refused to leave his post and kept firing his last cannon with devastating effect until he was killed. In November 2014, his resistance earned him the Medal of Honor.
And yet the baby of the family, William, may be the family’s most conspicuous hero. A spirited, risk-taking iconoclast from youth, Will undertook many behind-the-lines missions during the war, the most dramatic of which was sinking a fearsome Confederate ironclad, the C.S.S. Albemarle, in the Roanoke River off Plymouth, North Carolina, under withering fire, while standing in an open boat. For that exploit, 21-year-old Will—who had been expelled from the Naval Academy just before graduating when administrators tired of his “buffoonery”—was promoted to lieutenant commander and extended the thanks of Congress, the most prestigious recognition then available.
Confederates have boasted of their spies Belle Boyd and Rose Greenhow, but one of the most valuable spies of the war was Elizabeth Van Lew. A proud Virginian and staunch Unionist, Van Lew used her leverage among Richmond’s social elite and Confederate officials to gain entrée to Libby Prison over the objections of warden David Todd (a stepbrother of Mary Todd Lincoln’s). As a volunteer nurse, she delivered medicine and food to sick and starving inmates—who gave her information to pass northward. She helped plan jailbreaks and hid escapees in her home. She even got a black servant, Mary Bowser, hired as a servant in the Confederate White House, where Bowser could overhear what President Jefferson Davis said and read what was on his desk. Eventually Van Lew developed an entire network of informants and established a direct connection with Union officers.
Van Lew’s evident kindness toward Yankee prisoners made her a social pariah—“We had threats of being driven away, threats of fire, and threats of death,” she later wrote—but she persisted, deflecting suspicion by behaving oddly enough to earn the nickname “Crazy Bet.” Yet on April 3, 1865, the day Union troops marched into Richmond, she flew the Stars and Stripes in front of her house, on the 2300 block of Grace Street (where an elementary school now stands). “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war, ” Ulysses Grant wrote to her after the war. As president, Grant gave Van Lew a much-needed job in the Richmond post office. Still, she was “held in contempt & scorn by the narrow minded men and women of my city for my loyalty,”’ she wrote. “Socially living as utterly alone in the city of my birth, as if I spoke a different language.”