James Buchanan was US President from 1857-1861. He is often considered one of the worst presidents of the US, with his presidency leading up to the US Civil War. Here, Ian Craig takes a look at Buchanan’s presidency. He starts by arguing that, in spite of his Democratic Party generally favoring slavery, what are often seen as pro-slavery actions during the Bleeding Kansas crisis (1854-1861), actually led to Kansas becoming an anti-slavery state.

1859 portrait of President James Buchanan. Painting by George Peter Alexander Healy.

1859 portrait of President James Buchanan. Painting by George Peter Alexander Healy.

Of all the presidents in the history of the United States, none have been as ridiculed as the man who became the fifteenth president on March 4, 1857. Having secured the Democratic nomination in 1856, James Buchanan had little trouble defeating the Republican Party’s first candidate John C. Frémont and former president Millard Fillmore. At the time of his election, Buchanan was the nation’s most qualified person to hold the office of chief executive. Having been a lawyer, state legislature, U.S. representative, U.S. Senator, minister to both Russia and Great Britain, and Secretary of State, Buchanan remains one of the only presidents in U.S. history to have an extensive public service background.  The question then remains is, why he is considered the worst president in history and why is he blamed for the Civil War? These questions will be answered over a series of articles sequencing key events in Buchanan’s presidency.


Kansas-Nebraska Act

In his last message to Congress on January 8, 1861, Buchanan stated that, “I shall carry to my grave the consciousness that I at least meant well for my country.”[1]Since that time, over one hundred and fifty years have past since he left office and the Civil War concluded. However, his legacy remains plagued by the questions posed above.  To really understand the actions taken by Buchanan leading up to the outbreak of Civil War, one must look into the political climate of the time as well as the personal beliefs that shaped Buchanan’s governing style.

One particular event that would have a direct impact of Buchanan once he became president was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  This allowed for Kansas and Nebraska to create governments and decide for themselves the slavery question while also repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  Pro-slavery settlers from neighboring Missouri crossed the border illegally into Kansas, heavily influencing the election of a pro-slavery government in Kansas. This led to violence in the territory as both pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups fought for control.  It also led to the creation of two governments, one at Lecompton (pro-slavery) and one at Topeka (anti-slavery).  This series of events later became known as “Bleeding Kansas” for the violence and death that occurred.  Even the United States Senate was not spared from the violence. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten over the head with a cane by Congressman Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate.  Sumner had called out a relative of Brooks regarding the slavery issue offending his honor. Lecompton was also recognized as the legitimate government despite hostilities.


Dealing with Bleeding Kansas

Upon assuming office, Buchanan had to deal with the crisis in Kansas left to him by his predecessor Franklin Pierce.  Pierce had signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act believing that territories were “perfectly free to form and regulate their institutions in their own way.”[2]However, Pierce would come to favor the pro-slavery legislation over that of the anti-slavery actions.  James Buchanan’s views of the Kansas-Nebraska Act were not favorable. He wrote that “Congress which had commenced so auspiciously, by repealing the Missouri Compromise…reopened the floodgates of sectional strife.”[3]The governing style of James Buchanan was one based on that of a diplomat.  Having an extensive background as a negotiator, he used his prior experience in his many diplomatic and legislative roles as chief executive.  He also heavily relied on his days as a lawyer and his knowledge of constitutional law to formulate his opinions.  This is how he dealt with the crisis in Kansas.

As president, Buchanan believed that he did not have the authority to interfere in the elections which took place in Kansas despite the fraud that had occurred there.  He wrote that “it was far from my intention to interfere with the decision of the people of Kansas wither for or against slavery.”[4]Essentially, Buchanan felt that the people of Kansas could settle the matter themselves without government intervention. Despite his intentions, Buchanan took military action in sending federal troops to Kansas in 1857 to secure the legitimacy of a state constitution without fraud or violence.  His justification for this was that it was his duty to protect the recognized government and the people’s wishes as President of the United States.  Buchanan recalls, “under these circumstances, what was my duty? Was it not to sustain this government (in Lecompton)? To protect us from the violence of lawless men, who were determined to ruin or rule? It was for this purpose, and this alone, that I ordered a military force to Kansas.”[5]

In doing this, Buchanan was criticized for appearing to support the pro-slavery party in creating a slave state.  This, however, was not the case as he attempted to perform his duties in executing the laws and by preserving and protecting the Constitution.  He states in a broad question to such people, “would you have desired that I abandoned the Territorial Government, sanctioned as it had been by Congress, to illegal violence…this would, indeed have been to violate my oath of office.”[6]Standing firm on his beliefs, Buchanan was convinced that his action would help to support a positive and legal result at the next election.  To him, it was still up to the people to decide on the manner.


1858 Kansas Election

In early 1858, a new election was held to elect state officials based on the passage of the constitution in November.  This election for governor, lieutenant governor, and other officials, resulted in the election of several members of the anti-slavery Topeka Convention.  The balance of power shifted towards them and they were more determined to vote in the creation of a constitution with some aspects of the Lecompton Constitution.  James Buchanan took this as a victory because he had wished that the anti-slavery party would take part in the elections.  Buchanan, writing in the third person, states that “it had been his constant effort from the beginning to induce the Anti-Slavery party to vote.  Now that this had been accomplished, he knew that all revolutionary troubles in Kansas would speedily terminate.  A resort of the ballot box, instead of force, was the most effectual means of restoring peace and tranquility.”[7]Buchanan, keeping to his constitutional beliefs, used force only to enforce the rights of the people to vote under the Constitution. Essentially, Buchanan gave the anti-slavery party the tools to vote in a free and fair election without fear of violence.  It only took them a while to take him up on his efforts before they would vote in the government.  James Buchanan recognized that they were in effect the majority of the population and in accordance with the law, it was up to them to decide the slavery question.  

On February 2, 1858, James Buchanan gave a message to Congress regarding the constitution of Kansas.  The newly elected government (with a large majority of anti-slavery supporters) had sent the Lecompton Constitution (with slavery elements) to the president for Congressional approval.  In Buchanan’s message he stated that “slavery can therefore never be prohibited in Kansas except by means of a constitutional provision, and in no manner can this be obtained so promptly.”[8]Although this may be interpreted as pro-slavery, to Buchanan it was not, because the people of Kansas had elected their leaders and had submitted a constitution in forming a state legally.  It was his duty to ensure that their wishes were carried out. He warns that, “should Congress reject the constitution…no man can foretell the consequences.”[9]In Buchanan’s eyes, the admittance of Kansas into the Union in a timely manner would “restore peace and quiet to the whole country.”[10]  In closing his message to Congress, he admits that he had been forced to act in Kansas on behalf of the people to ensure fair elections and opportunities for both sides. He states of the matter, “I have been obliged in some degree to interfere with the expedition in order to keep down rebellion in Kansas.”[11]


Buchanan and the Constitution

Although Congress would reject the Lecompton Constitution due to the slavery elements, James Buchanan could not interfere as it was not in the powers of the executive granted in the Constitution.  In 1861, Kansas became a free state. In looking at the situation in Kansas, James Buchanan’s actions were in accordance with the Constitution and his role as chief executive.  Since the Lecompton government was established by Congress it was the legal government in Buchanan’s eyes.  He recognized that voter fraud and violent intimidation had elected pro-slavery delegates that did not speak for the majority of Kansas.  It was for this reason that he urged them to have new elections which were fair.  When that advice fell on deaf ears, he sent federal troops to defend the rights of the people at the ballot box.  This action was taken as his support of the pro-slavery election results.  However, it gave the anti-slavery party the ability to vote in unbiased elections which would lead to their control of the government.  In the words of James Buchanan, “I have thus performed my duty on this important question, under a deep sense of responsibility to God and my country.”[12]


What do you think of James Buchanan’s actions during Bleeding Kansas?

[1]Irving Sloan, James Buchanan: 1791-1868, (New York: Oceana Publishers, 1968): 84.

[2]Michael F. Holt, Franklin Pierce, (New York: Times Books, 2010): 77. 

[3]James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, (Scituate: Digital Scanning Inc, 1866/2009): 13. 

[4]Sloan, 35. 

[5]Buchanan, 18. 

[6]Buchanan, 18. 

[7]Buchanan, 24. 

[8]Sloan, 47. 

[9]Sloan, 47. 

[10]Sloan, 48. 

[11]Sloan, 49. 

[12]Buchanan, 26.

The American Civil War produced many outstanding figures. One of those was the nurse Hannah Anderson Ropes. Ropes had an intriguing life before the Civil War, and fought to improve the conditions of soldiers during the war. Joshua V. Chanin explains.

The book  Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes  by Hannah Ropes and edited by John R. Brumgardt is available here:  Amazon US  |  Amazon UK . Image shown above from the Amazon page at those links.

The book Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes by Hannah Ropes and edited by John R. Brumgardt is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK. Image shown above from the Amazon page at those links.

I currently work at Texas A&M University-Commerce, where the university is expecting to christen a state-of-the-art nursing facility in the fall. I have known several nursing students during my undergraduate and graduate studies, who have told me that their major is one of the toughest offered at the university due to the lab classes after school hours and the numerous reports they have to write—I agree (sometimes they look like they do not decently sleep). To celebrate the tough, rewarding, and sometimes overlooked work of nurses, I have decided to write about Hannah Anderson Ropes, a nurse during the Civil War who was dedicated to improving her craft.


Early Life

Hannah Anderson Chandler was born on June 13, 1809, in New Gloucester, Maine. As her parents were prominent state lawyers, young Hannah was privately educated and raised in a wealthy household that championed Christianity. Hannah’s religious faith grew stronger as she aged, coinciding with her developing opposition to slavery. Although she was more vocal than many other women—a displeasure to the patriarchy—Hannah attracted the attention of William Ropes, an educator who believed the sexes were equal. The couple married in January 1834 and had four children, two of whom lived to adulthood. 

The marriage was fruitful until in 1847, citing health concerns, William abruptly moved to warmer temperatures of Florida, leaving his wife and children behind. Abandoned by her spouse, Ropes moved to the Kansas Territory with her children. Ropes, along with her daughter, played a major role in spurring support for the 1856 abolitionist movement in the region, cooperating with male abolitionist leaders in local meetings. As she became more involved in the growing fight against slavery, Ropes strengthened the close bond she had with her children. Amidst the violence of ‘Bleeding Kansas,’—where pro-slavery raiders from Missouri were a threat to anti-slavery families—Ropes always went the extra mile to protect her children as she kept “loaded pistols and a bowie knife upon my table at night, [and] three sharp’s rifles, loaded, standing in the room.” Ropes did not let the disappearance of her husband upset her. Hannah Ropes became a liberal-feminist, a woman who vocally championed for the elimination of slavery while dutifully (and passionately) attending the household needs.


An Interest in Nursing

Hannah Ropes—who described the Kansas fighting as “the most unmitigated calamity Heaven ever suffered upon the earth”—moved back to Massachusetts in 1857, where she knew her family would be safe. It was in New England when Ropes became an author. Her unique writing talent led to the publication of her first book, Six Months in Kansas: By a Lady, which compiled a collection of letters Ropes wrote to her ailing mother while she lived in the mid-west. Ropes would later write a popular paperback of prairie life, Cranston House: A Novel, in 1859. Still active in political movements, Ropes desired an opportunity to help people. Her interest in nursing stemmed from reading literature by English nurse, Florence Nightingale. After Ropes’s nephew gave her a copy of Nightingale’s 1859 book, Notes on Nursing, which depicted the English’s nurse’s account of the Crimean War, Ropes’s career trajectory changed, foreshadowing the professional role the New England woman would play in the next stage of her life.   


A New Position at the Union Hotel Hospital

At the start of the Civil War in spring 1861, the Union Hotel in Washington D.C.—which had been built in 1796 and hosted many prominent citizens including Robert Fulton and George Washington—was seized by the government and converted into a Union Army hospital. After Edward enlisted as a private in May 1862, Ropes quickly offered her services to the Office of United States Army Nurses, and was subsequentially placed at the former capital tavern. During this era, the nursing occupation was linked with a negative stigma—woman nurses were associated with prostitutes or ‘fallen women.’ However, as blood was shed as a result of several major Confederate victories, nurses became heroes of the Union Army. ‘Women of good conduct’ were speedily recruited to care for the sick and wounded. Ropes rose through the ranks because of job dedication, and in the autumn she was named the head matron of the Union Hotel Hospital. Her job responsibilities included training the hospital’s nurses and monitoring the general operations of the institution.

Upon taking the managerial post, she actively criticized the appalling conditions of the building and the former management—the complaints included lack of sanitation in the wards, the building’s decay, an absence of necessary supplies, and the cruel treatment of soldiers. Ropes strongly believed that every man in uniform (of every rank) deserved healthy surroundings, good food, and humanitarian treatment. This belief is evident by a diary entry she wrote in the first week of her new appointment in October 1862: “The poor privates are my special children of the present…the loss they have experienced in health, in spirits, in weakened faith in man, as well as shattered hope in themselves.” Rather than ignoring the problems at hand—as elected officials did at first—Ropes swiftly picked up the mantle, restructured the hospital’s management style, and brought real change to the depleted building. The head matron selected women who were eager to enter the nursing field, and trained them to treat all their patients with compassion. Moreover, the nurses were taught to ignore long hours of work (often without decent pay) because the soldiers were first priority and a nurse could not leave the building until their patients were comfortable. Discipline among the staff was introduced by the new management, as Ropes was not afraid to terminate nurses if they failed to address the needs of the wounded soldiers.


Strong Leadership 

Head Matron Ropes quickly found out that most of the male staff at the D.C. hospital, including the surgeons, wanted to only help those who would survive—some argued that they did not have enough supplies for all the wounded soldiers. Ropes took disagreement with this belief as she wanted to save all the soldiers—she cited the laziness of men. Thus, she personally took extensive actions against staff who were cruel to the patients. On one occasion, Ropes had a surgeon arrested for graft (selling food and clothing meant for the hospital patients for profit). On November 1, 1862, the matron engaged in a heated argument with head surgeon Dr. Ottman regarding the man’s decision to lock a disease-infested soldier in a dark cellar to keep ‘a plague’ from spreading to the other wards. Dr. Ottman has plans to exterminate the wounded soldier. Ropes wanted to give the soldier time to recover; however her orders were stiffly ignored. As she did not let men trump her decisions, Ropes took her complaint to the office of the Secretary of War. Edward Stanton sided with the head matron and addressed the following note to the department’s provost marshal: “Go to the Union Hospital with this lady, take the boy out of that black hole, go into it yourself so as to be able to tell me all about it, then arrest the surgeon and take him to a cell in the old capital prison, to await further orders!” Subsequentially, Stanton wrote an order forbidding anyone from removing the head matron from her post. As she pressed on with her progressive nursing agenda, breaking down gender barriers, Hannah Ropes constructed an identity that emulated masculine traits—she was professional and dutiful in the toughest times. Although military generals often resented the sight of strongly opinionated women in hospitals, Ropes constantly butted heads with male colleagues, and held her ground with the best interests of the wounded soldiers at heart.


Comfort Among Chaos

In her position, Ropes worked longer hours than her colleagues—writing reports, ordering supplies, tirelessly advocating for hospital infrastructure improvements, and keeping a daily activity log. It was not uncommon to see Ropes tending to soldiers in the late hours of the night, only then to see her again at the hospital at the crack of dawn. Moreover, the head matron took an interest in writing letters to elected officials, politely asking them to either send extra blankets and supplies to the hospital or coaxing them to try and advocate politicians to pass funding stipends for the hospital. Ropes was in contact with a powerful figure in Congress. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner—the elected official who is famous for being nearly caned to death by South Carolinian politician Andrew Butler in 1856—was an established supporter of Ropes’s hospital reforms, and continuously tried to push parts of the head matron’s agenda on to the Senate floor.

Hannah Ropes’ passion for nursing and devotion in monitoring the wounded (day and night) are evident from several diary entries written by nurse Louisa May Alcott, who joined the staff at the hospital on December 13, 1862, shortly after her 30thbirthday. At this time, the Union Army was heavily engaged in the Battle of Fredericksburg, which resulted in over 10,000 wounded soldiers. The hospital’s staff was overwhelmed during the five days of conflict as nurses dispensed food and medication, changed smeared dressings, bathed patients, wrote letters to loved ones for soldiers, and held the hands of those who were dying. Although chaos occurred in the wards and bloody carnage littered the hospital’s floors, the steady hand Ropes provided her staff and the patients brought some assurance to those who were stressed. “All was hurry and confusion; the hall was full of these wrecks of humanity, for the most exhausted could not reach a bed till dully ticketed and registered; the walls were lined with rows of such as could sit, the floor covered with the more disabled, the steps and doorways filled with helpers and lookers on…and in the midst of it all, the matron’s motherly face brought more comfort to many a poor soul, than the cordial draughts she administered, or the cheery words that welcomed all, making of the hospital a home.” Alcott also recalls a time when she suggested the idea of drastically rationing the wounded’s meals after food was in short supply—Ropes, a selfless patriot, thought otherwise: “When I suggested the probability of a famine hereafter, to the matron, that motherly lady cried out: ‘Bless their hearts, why shouldn’t they eat? It’s their only amusement; so fill every one [bowl], and, if there’s not enough ready tonight, I’ll lend my share to the Lord by giving it to the boys.”


Sudden Illness and A Life Remembered 

During the height of her nursing career, Hannah Ropes’ life abruptly came to an end in January 1863. On January 9, Ropes wrote a letter to her son Edward noting that she and Alcott “worked together over four dying men and saved all but one…we both too cold…and have pneumonia and have suffered terribly.” The women contracted the deadly virus known as typhoid pneumonia, a major killer of wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Although she was sick, Ropes continued to work (day and night) and put the lives of injured Union soldiers ahead of her own health. Alcott hovered between life and death, however, was able to recover in the spring. Ropes’s health continued to fade. On January 19, Ropes’s daughter, Alice sent a dismal update from the hospital to her brother: “Mother has been ill for some weeks and indeed all the nurses ill, so they sent for me to help a little.” The next day, January 20, 1863, Hannah Ropes took her last breath and died of the disease. She was fifty-three years old. Family and colleagues mourned. The Union Hotel Hospital was draped in black and a moment of silence took place among the wounded soldiers. Senator Sumner eulogized the matron’s life in a letter addressed to the family: “Mrs. Ropes was a remarkable character, noble and beautiful and I doubt if she has ever appeared more so than when she has been here in Washington, nursing soldiers.”

In an era where women were expected to master the roles of domesticity, keep their mouths closed, refrain from accepting educational or employment opportunities outside of the home, and sexually satisfy their spouses, Hannah Ropes convincedly (and tirelessly) blended the two spheres of a woman’s life together—nurturing and protecting her household while progressively crafting the nineteenth-century nursing field.


What do you think of Hannah Anderson Ropes’ life? Let us know below.


Finally, you can read about US Civil War nurses Clara Barton (here) and Cornelia Hancock (here).


Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. New York: Applewood Books; Reissue edition, 1991. 

Brumgardt, John R., ed. Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993. First edition was written by Hannah Ropes.

Granstra, Pat. “Hannah Ropes: The Other Woman Behind ‘Little Women.’” Civil War Primer. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://www.civilwarprimer.com/2012/03/hannah-ropes-the-other-woman-behind-little-women/

MacLean, Maggie. “Hannah Ropes: Head Matron at Union Hotel Hospital.” Civil War Women. Accessed January 19, 2019. https://www.civilwarwomenblog.com/hannah-ropes/.

New England Historical Society. “Hannah Ropes Spends Six Months in Kansas with Loaded Pistols and Bowie Knife.” Accessed January 18, 2019. http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/hannah-ropes-spends-6-months-in-kansas-with-loaded-pistols-and-bowie-knife/

Nightingale, Florence. Notes On Nursing: What it is and What it is Not. London: Harrison, 1859.  

Ropes, Hannah Anderson. Six Months in Kansas: By a Lady. Boston: J.P. Jewett, 1856. 

Cornelia Hancock was born in 1840, and by 1863 she was ready to help look after the sick in the US Civil War. Here, Matt Goolsby explains how Cornelia broke boundaries and helped many people during the Civil War and after.

20180812 Cornelia_Hancock_civil_war_nurse.jpg

From Quaker to Volunteer Nurse

Life in mid-nineteenth century America was vastly different to today. The news was relayed either by messenger via horseback, by train, or over telegraph wires. The northern states had more than 90% of the established infrastructure of the day versus the paltry facilities of the South.

Unsurprisingly, there was a heightened interest in news of the Civil War and especially of the battle of Gettysburg since the nation’s sons were involved.

Pennsylvania took center stage in July of 1863.

Driven by a desire to fulfill her life’s purpose, Cornelia Hancock knew that she needed to be involved.

Cornelia Hancock came from a very unassuming Quaker family. She had been born on February 8, 1840, at Hancock’s Bridge in Salem, New Jersey. Many Quakers had fled England due to religious persecution and had wanted only to live a quiet life and practice their religion. Their unique lifestyle even caused persecution to occur in early New England history, but had subsided with the Tolerance Act of 1689.

The Hancock family had abolitionist leanings due to their Quaker principles and believed that the nationwide conflict was just. Personally affected, Cornelia’s brother had enlisted in the Union Army, which motivated her to help in some significant way.

Cornelia’s older sister had been employed at the US mint in Philadelphia and later married a Quaker doctor named, Henry T. Child, also from Philadelphia, who felt strongly about caring for wounded soldiers.

Dr. Child knew of Cornelia’s desire to get involved and so requested she travel to Gettysburg to help relieve some of the pain the wounded and dying were going through.

Her arrival in Gettysburg established her role as a ‘Volunteer’ nurse as most of the nurses or assistants of the day had no formal medical training. Nurses of the day were called ‘Volunteer’ and were recruited as plain women over the age of thirty-five who were required to wear unassuming and non-adorning apparel. They were also instructed to wear nothing in their hair and forego jewelry so as not to be a distraction and to also not become a victim of men’s advances. This had been outlined by Dorothea Dix, the Army Superintendent of Nurses. Cornelia spurned these requirements being only 23 at the time and proceeded with grim determination. She made it to the battle site on July 6, 1863 to ghastly conditions.

Most of the dead had remained on the battlefield in the blistering summer sun for three days after the battle ended. This caused the bodies to quickly decompose, which created an unbearable stench that hang heavy in the air.

After losing the battle, Robert E Lee had fled the Union Army with his forces leaving 5000 of his Confederate troops behind. This only added to the misery experienced after the conflict ended.

Upon entering 3rd Division, 2nd Corps Field Hospital on July 7, 1863, Cornelia wrote that the wounded had been separated into differing levels of triage: those who had severe head wounds and were deemed ‘hopeless’, those who had a slim chance of survival, and those who were recovering. Her first official duties were to write down last requests to family members from those too weak to do it themselves who would soon become the ‘beloved dead’.


From Volunteer Nurse to Caregiver

As Cornelia quickly matured in her work at the Field Hospitals, she became a strong advocate for the men in her care. There were severe shortages of basic supplies, especially bedding and bandages. Her writings reflect the desire to meet these basic needs as she solicited family and friends for funds to procure what was essential for the care of the wounded.

The amazing aspect of Cornelia’s personality that comes out in her writings is that she was truly moved by the misery surrounding her and yet the sadness of the situation never seemed to paralyze her to the needs of others. These experiences would refine as well as clarify what her future life’s work would become.

As the war progressed and the suffering continued, she would jokingly refer to the ‘Copperheads’ as being worthy of death because of the lack of support they gave to the Union cause. This coming from a nurse who saw the best and worst in humanity shows the paradox of the experience of war and life itself. 

‘Copperhead’ was the term given to a group of Union Democrat politicians who were vociferous in their criticism of the war and wanted an immediate truce with the Confederates of the Southern United States. It was given to them by Republicans who likened them to a snake of the same name. Not an endearing term or moniker.

Another aspect of Cornelia’s personality that comes out is the love of her family and yet, in the resistance to become what they would have preferred. She had been raised with loving but strict Quaker principles. Her family would have preferred she take a more ‘prudent’ direction with her life. However, she chose to care for those who she felt needed her most. This is very evident in her letters.

One such letter shows the depth of compassion she has for both the wounded and their families and friends: “I have eight wall tents of amputated men. The tents of the wounded I look right out on - it is a melancholy sight, but you have no idea how soon one gets used to it. Their screams of agony do not make as much an impression on me now as the reading of this letter will on you. The most painful task we have here, is entertaining the friends who come from home and see their friends all mangled up”, written Sunday, July 26th, 1863 at 3rd Division-2nd Army Corp Hospital, Gettysburg, PA.

Cornelia had the innate ability to see the greater purpose in her service to others. Her desire to provide for the physical needs of the men as well as their emotional comfort is on plain display in many of her letters. When she speaks of men who are about to die from mortal wounds to those who would cry because they were being transferred to another hospital away from her care, you can hear her compassion and empathy for them.


From Caregiver to Lifelong Advocate

In the final two years of the Civil War, Cornelia spent her time moving to different locations as the need arose. During the latter part of October, 1863, she moved from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to care for the ‘Contraband’.

The escaped slaves or those who sided with the Union Army during the Civil War were referred to as ‘Contrabands’. Cornelia also used the term in her letters to describe the families of those who had also escaped with them.

Conditions for those termed ‘Contraband’, were dismal at best. It was after witnessing the effects of slavery and poverty that she felt strongly that something had to be done to improve their lives.

Her first efforts were to solicit family for funds to purchase clothing for those who were the poorest of the poor. She also witnessed firsthand the brutal effects of what many a slaveowner had wielded on their slaves.

One such situation occurred when she described two slaves to her mother in a letter dated, November 15th, 1863, Contraband Hospital, Washington D.C.: “There were two very fine looking slaves arrived here from Louisiana, one of them had his master’s name branded on his forehead, and with him he brought all the instruments of torture that he wore at different times during 39 years of very hard slavery.” 

She goes on to describe the heinous instruments used to keep slaves from comfort and freedom. These experiences along with her witnessing what the ‘Contraband’ had for food and clothing only solidified her resolve to do what she could for the least of these, her brethren.

As the war continued, Cornelia would transfer to several different locations. They included: Brandy Station and Fredericksburg, Virginia, White House Landing, City Point, Virginia, and finally to where the war ended: Richmond, Virginia.

After the war ended, Cornelia spent the next ten years in which she established the Laing School in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina whose mission was to educate former slaves and to inspire them to become good citizens through high ideals.

The remainder of Cornelia’s life was spent working on behalf of the poor and ministering to those who had no advocate. Her strength of character and purpose is demonstrated in the many letters written to family that document her experiences at Gettysburg and throughout the American experience during the Civil War. She was and continues to be a national treasure.


What do you think of the article? Let us know below.

Finally, the next article in the series is on Clara Barton, another US Civil War-era nurse. Clara Barton also played a key role in the formation of the American Red Cross - article available here.


Henrietta Stratton Jaquette - Editor, “Letters of a Civil War Nurse: Cornelia Hancock 1863-1865”, University of Nebraska Press, 1998, Foreword and 1-32.

“News and the Civil War”, http://americanantiquarian.org/earlyamericannewsmedia/exhibits/show/news-and-the-civil-war

“Cornelia Hancock – National Park Service”, https://www.nps.gov/people/cornelia-hancock.htm

“Definition of Copperhead (Politician)”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copperhead_(politics)

“Definition of Contraband (American Civil War)”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contraband_(American_Civil_War)

“Definition of Quakers”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quakers

“Laing School – Mount Pleasant, South Carolina”, http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/laing-school/

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

The Battle of Paducah took place in March 1864 in Paducah, Kentucky – on the Ohio River. Here, David Pyle explains what happened during this American Civil War battle.

Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States during the US Civil War.

Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States during the US Civil War.

March of 1864, forces commanded by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest had set out from Columbus, Mississippi with the objective of recruiting more fighters, obtaining needed supplies and harassing the enemy. The General had 3,000 men under his command as he made the trip, cutting through Western Kentucky.

Tensely waiting action on the Union side were some 665 blue coats under the command of Colonel Stephen G. Hicks. The soldiers had many reasons for nervousness, one being Forrest’s nearing army and another being stationed in the unsympathetic city of Paducah, Kentucky, which would just have soon seen the fort burned to the ground.

Making the Union forces even more unpopular with the locals was the First Kentucky Heavy Artillery Colored unit being stationed there. Backing up the Union troops were two gunboats on the Ohio River.

Among Forrest’s troops were soldiers from Paducah. They were quite familiar with the city. The Confederate general set up his headquarters in Mayfield, Kentucky 25 miles from Paducah on March 25, 1864. One of these men was Col. Albert P. Thompson; he and some others were assigned by Forrest to launch a raid on Paducah, taking what the Confederates needed and spreading alarm and confusion.

Colonel Thompson and a force of 1,800 troops quickly moved to Paducah. Thompson’s regiment was first to reach Paducah’s outer picket lines where they took several Union sentinels prisoner. One guard who refused to surrender was killed in an exchange of gunfire.


To engage in the open?

The Confederate troops continued on into Paducah capturing pickets as they advanced. About 3 p.m. Thompson’s forces reached 15th and Broadway in Paducah; from their mounts they watched as Union soldiers marched into Fort Anderson. Several Confederates voiced a desire to engage the opposition while they were out in the open, but were reminded that the raid’s purpose was to capture medical supplies and munitions and not for prisoners. All they could do was watch as Union forces secured themselves in the fort.

Still, the desire to storm the fort was strong in the Paducah natives who served the Confederate cause. An assault upon Fort Anderson was most inevitable.

General Forrest ordered a flag of truce be sent to Fort Anderson’s commander, Col. Hicks. Forrest decided the men from Paducah should be the ones to deliver the message. The troops had started forward, Company D in the lead, but they were overtaken by a courier with a change in orders that all but six should return. D Company’s Captain selected the first six men in his charge to deliver the message.

Forrest’s message read, “Colonel: Having a force amply sufficient to carry your works and reduce the place, and in order to avoid the unnecessary effusion of blood, I demand the surrender of the fort and troops, with all public property. If you surrender you shall be treated as prisoners of war, but if I have to storm your works, you may expect no quarter.”

While the message was being delivered, members of the Third and Seventh Kentucky regiments took their positions; the Eighth regiment ransacked the commissary stores.

Hick’s considered Forrest’s demand for surrender and replied, “Sir, I have this moment received yours of this instant, in which you demand the unconditional surrender of forces under my command. I can answer that I have been placed here by the government to defend this post, and in this as well as all other orders from my superiors, I feel it to be my duty as an honorable officer to obey. I must, therefore, respectfully decline surrendering as you may require.”

As the refusal was being delivered, the gunboats Peosta and Paw Paw began shelling the city. Many shells went over the Confederates’ heads, but the gunboat commanders lowered the guns and flying gravel picked up by cannonballs mingled with the hurling shells. The fire forced the withdrawal of General Abraham Buford’s regiment from the river’s edge.

Union gunboats ranged their fire up Paducah’s streets to clear it of cavalry. Three-inch shells pierced an old Maple tree in the city.

After three assaults against Fort Anderson Gen. Forrest issued a ceasefire order. Col. A.P. Thompson and his staff gathered near an officer. Thompson sat upon his horse talking with the men not too many blocks from his Paducah home.


Falling back

It was now nighttime in Paducah, and the Confederates were 500 feet from the fort, under fire from the gunboats.

Capt. D.E. Meyers was given the job of delivering messages to the Confederate colonels ordering them to fall back to the protection of some nearby houses. As he neared Thompson, a shell fired from a gunboat cannon struck the colonel, who fell from his horse. The injured horse bolted and ran half a block before falling dead.

The horse was buried where it had fallen, but Col. Thompson’s mangled body would lay till morning.

After Col. Thompson’s fall, Col. Ed Crossland assumed command. While ordering the men to fall back, he was hit by rifle fire, which wounded him in the right thigh. Sharpshooters swarmed down the street; nine succeeded in reaching a home.

The nine, including J.V. Greif, exchanged fire with the defenders of Fort Anderson from a distance of 100 feet.

 “Our Guns were never idle,” Greif was reported as having said. “Until the enemy succeeded in bringing to bear on our position a gun from another part of the fort.”

Greif was knocked down when a cannonball passed through the house, and an object smacked his jaw. The order came to evacuate from the house. Greif managed to recover and fled with his comrades.

Greif’s jaw stung so much from the object that he thought he might have been wounded. To Greif’s relief a fellow soldier assured him there was no injury.

 “There was a boy named Ewell Hord at my left side,” Greif recalled. “He asked me to load his weapon, I told him to load it himself, I was busy.” Grief added the boy said he couldn’t as his arm had been wounded, so Greif told him, “Go to the rear you fool, what better luck do you want? It gets you out of all this.”

Hord went off to the rear in tears.

Col. Crossland’s men entered a building that overlooked the fort. From the second floor his men opened fire on the fort and fire was returned, as one of the men in the window was killed by a solid shot to the chest.

As the Confederates withdrew they were fired upon and shelled. One cavalryman was holding several horses when he was struck in the hip by enemy fire. He would die a few days later.



In all the Union had 14 men killed and 46 wounded; on the Confederate side 11 were killed and 39 wounded.

Forrest reported to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, “I drove the enemy to their boats and fortifications. We captured clothing, several hundred horses and clothes; we burned a steamer, the dock and all the cotton on the landing. We could have held on longer, but withdrew because of smallpox in the area.”

At 11 p.m. the Confederates withdrew from Paducah to a farm about six miles from Paducah.

The next day Col. Hicks ordered the 60 homes in Paducah burned. Word had gotten to him that the Confederates were planning another attack.

 “We were attacked by an overwhelming force,” Hicks reported. “We repulsed the enemy and beat them back all day. I saw I would be attacked again and the better to protect myself against sharpshooters, I issued the order to burn the home.”

On the 26th the battle of Paducah came to its conclusion. Forrest sent to Hicks an offer to exchange prisoners. Col. Hicks responded he had no power to do so, but if he could he would be most glad to. The Confederates then withdrew.


What do you think of this article? Let us know below.

There were incidents all over the divided United States in the years before the American Civil War. And a violent incident even took place in the US Congress as the battle lines between north and south, and those who opposed slavery and those who supported it were drawn…

On May 22, 1856, Republican Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts exited the Senate Chamber covered in his own blood. Unconscious and with his skull exposed, Sumner was carried away from the chamber. Standing in the middle of the chamber was the calm and collected Preston Brooks, a Democratic Representative from South Carolina. In his hand Brooks held a gutta-percha cane with a gold head and coated with the blood of Senator Sumner. Brenden Woldman explains.

A lithograph cartoon depicting the incident.

A lithograph cartoon depicting the incident.

An 1873 portrait of Charles Sumner.

An 1873 portrait of Charles Sumner.

Preston Brooks, circa 1857.

Preston Brooks, circa 1857.

The event[1],  which became known as “The Caning of Charles Sumner”, did not just represent the personal vendettas between two men who had contrasting political views. The assault became a symbol of the ever growing divide between the anti-slave North and the pro-slave South. Knowing this, the greatest representation of this pre-Civil War strain came from Preston Brooks’ actions on Charles Sumner.


A Personal and Political Vendetta

Senator Charles Sumner was elected to the Senate in 1851 and devoted his time in office as an anti-slave advocate and a fighter against “Slave Power”.[2] For Sumner, the idea of slave power was nothing more than a form of “tyranny” that had no place within the United States.[3] His anti-slave rhetoric did not wane throughout his years in office. The culmination of Sumner’s ideals came when he addressed the Senate on May 19-20, 1856.

In his speech entitled “The Crime Against Kansas”, Sumner criticized the Kansas-Nebraska Act (which allowed slavery to advance westward through popular vote) and argued for the immediate admission of Kansas as a free state. His reasoning was that the admittance of Kansas as a slave state was nothing more than, “the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery”.[4] The anti-slave ideals that came from Sumner’s speech did not shock or surprise any of the senators within the chamber that day. However, what did cause the controversy that ultimately led to Representative Brooks’ fury were the personal attacks against two of his fellow Democrats.

Sumner blamed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the subsequent violence to occur during “Bleeding Kansas” on two Democrats. The first to feel Sumner’s verbal wrath was Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In private, Sumner said Douglas was a “brutal, vulgar man without delicacy or scholarship [who] looks as if he needs clean linen and should be put under a shower bath”.[5] In public and on the chamber floor, Sumner looked directly into the eye of Senator Douglas and described him as a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal… not a proper model for an American senator”.[6]

Sumner then turned his attention to South Carolinian Senator Andrew Butler. Ironically, Butler was one of the few senators who was not present on the day of Sumner’s speech.[7] Sumner assaulted Butler’s claim that he was a southern gentlemen and a “chivalrous knight”, as the belief that Butler was chivalrous was hypocritical in the eyes of Sumner because an honorable man would not support the institution of slavery.[8] Sumner charged Butler of choosing “a mistress… who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, slavery”.[9] Sumner continued his accusations against the Senator from South Carolina as being one who supported “tyrannical sectionalism” and was “one of the maddest zealots”.[10] Furthermore, Sumner insulted Butler’s intelligence by stating, “[Butler] shows an incapacity of accuracy, whether in stating the Constitution or in stating the law, whether in the details of statistics or the diversions of scholarship. He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder”.[11] Sumner’s berating of both Douglas and Butler did not go unnoticed. For Preston Brooks, the actions of Charles Sumner crossed the gentlemanly lines on both a political and personal level.

Preston Brooks was elected to the House of Representatives in 1853 from South Carolina’s 4th District. Much like his fellow South Carolinians, Brooks was a Democrat who was also a passionate supporter of slavery and believed that any restriction on the expansion of slavery was an attack on southern society. Due to these beliefs, it would come to no surprise that Brooks was infuriated when he heard of Sumner’s “Crime Against Kansas” speech. For Brooks, Sumner had insulted both South Carolina, southern society, and the institution of slavery. On a personal level, however, Brooks had to defend Senator Butler, as they were both South Carolinians and second cousins.[12] By cause of his southern, political, and family pride, Preston Brooks demanded vengeance on Charles Sumner.


Slaughter in the Senate Hall

Brooks’ initial response was to challenge Sumner to a duel, the traditional form of combat between two gentlemen who had a disagreement. However, Sumner was no gentleman according to Brooks, as dueling was reserved for honorable gentlemen who held an equal social standing.[13] Due to Sumner’s foul and crude language, Brooks and fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt decided to treat the Senator from Massachusetts not as a gentlemen but instead like an animal. According to Brooks and Keitt, it was far more appropriate to publically humiliate Sumner by beating him with Brooks’ gold headed gutta-percha cane and treating him not as a man, but as a disobedient dog. [14]  

On May 22, 1856, three days after the “Crime Against Kansas” speech, Representative Preston Brooks awaited outside the Senate Chamber doors for Senator Charles Sumner. Shortly after the Senate had adjourned for the day, Brooks entered the chamber, where he approached Senator Sumner, who at that moment was attaching his postal markings to copies of his now famous speech.[15] Brooks calmly spoke to Senator Sumner and said, “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine”.[16] As Sumner began to rise from his chair but before he could get a word out, Representative Preston Brooks from the 4th District of South Carolina took his gold-headed cane and struck Charles Sumner as hard as he could on the top of the Senator’s head.

The first strike left Sumner pinned to his senatorial desk and was beaten viciously until he was able to briefly break free and stumble up the aisle of the chamber floor.[17] Sumner recalled the force of that first blow years later, stating, “I no longer saw my assailant, nor any other person or object in the room… What I did afterwards was done almost unconsciously, acting under the instincts of self-defense”.[18] As he staggered his way toward the exit, Sumner, who was blinded by and choking on his own blood, collapsed due to his injuries only a few yards away from his desk.[19] It was there that Preston Brooks stood over Charles Sumner and repeatedly struck the Massachusetts Senator until his cane cracked in pieces and was covered in Sumner’s blood. Those who tried to defend Sumner were met by Representative Keitt, who held the crowd back at gunpoint and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to intervene.[20] Keitt was heard yelling, “Let them alone! Goddamn, let them alone”.[21] All in all, the “Caning of Charles Sumner” lasted only one minute, and by the recollection of Preston Brooks he struck Senator Sumner with, “about 30 first-rate stripes”.[22] However, the lasting legacy of the ordeal lived on in the American mindset.

 Covered in blood, Senator Sumner was carried away in an unconscious and unrecognizable state. Representative Brooks on the other hand coolly walked out of the chamber, his knuckles covered with Sumner’s blood and his face slightly cut due to the backlash caused by his cane. Due to the witnesses being stunned by the whole ordeal, Brooks calmly left the Senate chamber without being detained or charged with any crime. As Brooks saw it, he left the Senate chamber not as a criminal but as a defender of the southern way of life. On the other hand was the Senator from Massachusetts, who may have left the Senate chamber a bloodied, unconscious mess, but also left as a hero of the north and the anti-slave movement.


A Southern Defender and A Northern Martyr     

After the assault, Brooks did not walk away from it without being punished. Brooks was given a fine by the Baltimore district court and Senators demanded an investigation of the incident whilst members from the House demanded the removal of both Brooks and Keitt.[23] To avoid further prosecution, Preston Brooks resigned from his seat within the House. Fatefully, due to his soaring popularity within South Carolina and the South as a whole, Brooks was reelected to Congress during the special election that was supposed to replace his vacant seat.[24] After his first full term finished, Brooks was reelected in November of 1856, but suddenly died two months later on January 27, 1857, due to a respiratory infection.  

Sumner left the chamber on the brink of death but was proclaimed in the north as a martyr of the abolitionist cause. The serious nature of his injuries, which included head trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, caused Sumner to take leave from his Senate duties for three years.[25] His slow recovery led to a triumphant return to the Senate in 1859, where he continued to be a leading voice in the Republican Party and the abolitionist movement. Sumner remained in the Senate until his death on March 11, 1874.


A Country’s Point of No Return

There are moments in history that are so dramatic they seem as if they were written by a Hollywood screenwriter. In this instance, two relatively unknown members of the House and Senate became legendary figures due to a personal dispute. However, interpreting the “Caning of Charles Sumner” as simply an interesting and gruesome moment between two men is unfair to the historical significance of the event. One must not forget that this whole dispute was sparked due to “Bleeding Kansas” and the debate about slavery within the United States. Brooks’ assault on Sumner was more than the defense of “southern and personal honor”. It became a defining moment of a nation reaching its breaking point. This breakdown in reason within what was considered the “world’s greatest deliberative body” became known as a symbolized moment of discontent between the north and the south. It should come as no surprise that only five years after Brooks’ attack on Charles Sumner that the Confederate States of America attacked Fort Sumter, sparking the Civil War.


Let us know what you think of the article below…


[1] Manisha Sinha, "The Caning of Charles Sumner: Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War," University of Pennsylvania Press 23, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 233, doi: Journal of the Early Republic.

[2] Anne-Marie Taylor, Young Charles Sumner: and the Legacy of the American Enlightenment, 1811-1851 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 266.

[3] Ibid., 266.

[4] Charles Sumner, "The Crime Against Kansas. Speech of Hon. Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts. In the Senate of the United States, May 19, 1856," Archive.org, 2, accessed July 2017, https://archive.org/stream/crimeagainstkans00sumn#page/2/mode/2up/search/.

[5] ""The Crime Against Kansas"," U.S. Senate: "The Crime Against Kansas", April 17, 2017, 1, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Crime_Against_Kansas.htm.

[6] Ibid., 1

[7] Ibid., 1

[8] Sumner, “The Crime Against Kansas” 3.

[9] Ibid., 3

[10] Ibid., 4.

[11] Ibid., 29.

[12] Stephen Puleo, "The US Senate’s Darkest Moment," BostonGlobe.com, March 29, 2015, 1, https://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2015/03/28/the-senate-darkest-moment/sqXdd3HYKkMFEmGA4d24rM/story.html.

[13] Michael Daigh, John Brown in Memory and Myth (Jefferson City, NC: McFarland, 2015), 113.

[14] "The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner," U.S. Senate: The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner, April 17, 2017, 1, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Caning_of_Senator_Charles_Sumner.htm.

[15] Ibid., 113.

[16] Michael Daigh, John Brown in Memory and Myth, 113.

[17] Ibid., 113.

[18] Puleo, “The US Senate’s Darkest Moment”, 1.

[19] Michael Daigh, John Brown in Memory and Myth, 113.

[20] Ibid., 113.

[21] Puleo, “The US Senate’s Darkest Moment”, 1.

[22] Ibid., 1.

[23] "South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks's Attack on Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts," US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, 1, http://history.house.gov/HistoricalHighlight/Detail/35817.

[24] Ibid., 1.

[25] Ibid., 1.

During the American Civil War, one bold woman in the heart of the Confederacy dared to support the Union cause by freeing her slaves, aiding captured soldiers, and leading a spy ring that extended into the Confederate White House itself. Though her story may be obscure, her boldness and courage during the toughest years in American history tell the tale of a true American hero. Chloe Helton explains.

The Battle of Seven Pines, Virginia May 31, 1862. The battle took place near Richmond where Elizabeth Van Lew was from.

The Battle of Seven Pines, Virginia May 31, 1862. The battle took place near Richmond where Elizabeth Van Lew was from.

John Van Lew, Elizabeth’s father, was the owner of a wildly successful hardware store when he married Eliza Baker, the daughter of a former Philadelphia mayor. No doubt the prominence and wealth of the Van Lew family created the circumstances which allowed for Elizabeth’s successes in aiding the Union during the war. A well-rounded education and cushy wealth made for an outspoken and independent young woman in Elizabeth, and the distaste for these traits among the Richmond elite may account for some of the reason for an attractive, wealthy young woman like Elizabeth having never married. That is not to say, however, that she did not use her charms: often she was able to persuade high-ranking Confederate men to heed her requests, which allowed the success of many of her anti-Confederate actions during the Civil War.

When Virginia announced its secession from the Union, a celebratory parade marched through Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Perhaps every citizen in the whole city was present for the festivities except Elizabeth and her mother, Eliza. Elizabeth, an ardent Union supporter who after her father’s death had used her considerable inheritance to buy and free the families of her emancipated slaves, soured at the prospect of secession and considered fleeing the city. Not one to flee from unfriendly situations, and much too attached to her beloved family home, she eventually decided to stay, vowing to instead help the Union in any way she could.


Growing opposition

At first her actions were not hotly opposed within the city. Southerners expected swift victory in the war and initially Northern prisoners were treated well, so even when Elizabeth requested that a captive Northern Congressman who had fallen gravely ill be treated in her own home it was easily allowed, and not much suspicion was aroused. The Congressman, Calvin Huson, Jr., died soon after his relocation despite tender care from the Van Lew ladies, but Elizabeth received a thank-you letter from Union soldiers in Richmond which she kept with her until her death. As the war dragged on supply shortages ravaged the South, and when Elizabeth requested permission to visit the infamous Libby Prison she was told - by the First Lady’s half-brother (a Confederate officer), no less - that a lady like her should not be fraternizing with the enemy. Elizabeth redirected her plea to the Secretary of the Treasury, C.G. Memminger, and after she turned some of his own famous arguments about Christians proving their love for each other through aid even to those who did not deserve it he did grant her request. She used her considerable fortune to buy produce for enemy prisoners in a time when most common city folk could scarcely afford to eat, and the result among her peers was social isolation and death threats.

Van Lew’s induction into espionage did not begin intentionally. Many of the prisoners had acquired pieces of information from the Southerners they came into contact with - guards, doctors, and deserters mostly - and when these bits of hearsay were all compiled it was considerably useful. Elizabeth simply passed it on to Union officers, and because part of her family’s farm was outside the city walls she was easily able to pass on information there without arousing suspicion. Some issues did arise: at one point her pass to visit the prisons was rescinded, but with more manipulation she was able to receive permission again. The prison guards also became wary of her and banned her from speaking to the prisoners. However, this did not discourage her from soliciting information: she poked messages into cloth with pins and slipped pieces of paper into the bottom of a food dish.


Supporting the other side

Despite her valiant and charitable efforts in the prisons, Elizabeth’s real claim to fame began when Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, began asking for reliable servants for the Southern White House. Van Lew was apparently unable to pass up this opportunity and offered one of her freed slaves for hire, and Davis, who had known her father, accepted. When Mary Bowser began work in the White House, Davis didn’t think she even knew how to read, much less that she had been educated in the North and had photographic memory, so he was careless with his papers around her - too careless. Word soon got out that there was a leak in the White House, but nobody ever suspected the unassuming former slave.

Elizabeth did see other excitement during the war. In 1862 Union forces were tantalizingly close to capturing Richmond, and the feisty Southern belle even prepared a room in her house for General McClellan to stay as her guest. After a powerful speech from Robert E. Lee, however, the Confederates were able to drive them away. Until the next and final invasion of Richmond, Elizabeth bided her time by directing the spy ring she was now leading, which ran so smoothly and efficiently that despite frequent house checks by a suspicious Rebel officer no evidence could be found of her treason. She did protest these annoying visits, eventually housing a Confederate officer as a guest in order to ease suspicion. Van Lew also helped Colonel Paul Revere (a descendant of the Revolutionary Paul Revere) escape certain execution by helping him escape and housing him in her attic.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, as Richmond prepared for the march of Union soldiers into the city, Elizabeth proudly raised the American flag above her home. This bold action caused a mob to descend upon her mansion and she quashed it with feasible threats. After the war, though, Elizabeth’s pro-Union actions were revealed and she faced social isolation throughout the rest of her life. After a stressful stint as postmaster in Richmond and the death of her mother she fell into a depression which lasted the rest of her life. Her bold actions and unrelenting dedication to her cause cemented her in history as one of the most famous spies during the war, however, and her story is an inspiration.


Did you find this article interesting? If so, tell the world! Tweet about it, like it, or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below!


  • Karen Zeinert - Elizabeth Van Lew: Southern Belle, Union Spy

Clara Barton was a pioneer of the nineteenth century. But who was this amazing lady? Well, she played a key role to wounded soldiers in the US Civil War and was instrumental in the formation of the American Red Cross. C.A. Newberry explains.

Clara Barton, circa 1897. By Charles E. Smith.

Clara Barton, circa 1897. By Charles E. Smith.

Where would we be without the Red Cross today? Since the International establishment of the organization in 1864 it has been a consistent lifeline for people in need. Vital in aiding during disaster relief efforts, supporting military families, and providing essential health and safety training. Yet, how did this incredible organization begin?

Born on Christmas Day in the year 1821 in the town of Oxford, Massachusetts, Clara Harlowe Barton was the youngest of five children. As a young girl Clara was painfully shy. Nonetheless, her passion to serve others and help people started at an early age. When her brother David suffered an accident, she stayed home from school to tend to his needs, administering medications and even learning the art of “leeching” after the family doctor suggested it may help.

During her teenage years she was encouraged to pursue a career in teaching, potentially helping her to overcome her shyness. Years later she opened a free public school in New Jersey where anyone rich or poor could attend. During the mid 1850s, after a successful career, Clara made the move to Washington, D.C. It was here that she worked in the US Patent Office, granting permits for inventions.


Civil War

However, it was the US Civil War that proved to be a defining period of Clara’s life.  When war broke out in 1861, Clara, sensing an immediate need, swiftly volunteered. She tended to wounded soldiers and then began to bring supplies to the troops and the medical teams who were exhausted and over-worked.  At one point supplies were so scarce that they were trying to make bandages out of corn husks.

Clara did her best to organize supplies but also to gather volunteers. She led the training to prepare them so they could perform first-aid, carry water, and prepare food for the wounded. Barton continued with her quest to deliver supplies, utilizing some help funded through the army quartermaster in Washington, D.C., but many were purchased with donations that Clara was able to secure. However, if those choices were unavailable she would use her own funds, most of which were later refunded to her through Congress. Through all of this tireless and selfless volunteering, she earned the nickname, “The Angel of the Battlefield”.

After years of serving through the war, she followed up by embarking on a brutal travel schedule where she spoke to countless groups recalling her time in the field. Soon Clara became ill and was encouraged by her doctors to travel to Europe. The hope was that she would have a certain amount of anonymity while there, allowing her to rest and recuperate.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Henry Dunant, founder and creator of the global Red Cross network, had the idea that there should be international agreements to protect the sick and wounded during wartime. There should also be the formation of national societies to give aid voluntarily, but on a neutral basis. The first treaty to encompass Dunant’s ideas was negotiated in Geneva during 1864. It was then ratified by twelve different European nations. This treaty is known by several titles, including the Geneva Treaty, the Red Cross Treaty, and the Geneva Convention.

During her lecture tour and the vivid recreations of her war experiences, Barton had become incredibly well known, and was brought to the attention of Dunant. And during 1869, while in Geneva, Clara met both Dunant and another supporter Dr. Louis Appia. Being familiar with Clara’s work in the states they wanted to share the vision of the International Red Cross, hoping to gain Clara’s support and further encouraging her to get the United States on board.


Bring the Red Cross to the US

During Clara’s stay in Europe the Franco-Prussian War started.  She was asked to serve with the International Red Cross providing assistance and, after seeing the benefits, Clara was determined to return to the United States and establish the Red Cross at home. When Clara first approached President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 she was met with resistance, as he feared a possible “entangling alliance” with the other European nations. However, his successor, President James Garfield, saw the value in the program and was supportive. Sadly, before it could become official, President Garfield was assassinated.

Frustrated, Clara, with the help of friends and neighbors in New York, funded and established the first local society of the American Red Cross in 1881.  Just a short month later they had their first call to action. Responding to a disastrous forest fire in Michigan, they collected $300 for the victims.

Clara continued to seek government support and, after years of passionate pleas, the Geneva Treaty (the International Red Cross) was signed in the US in 1882. Within a few days the Senate was able to ratify it. Not surprisingly, Clara Barton was named president.

While the mission of the International and now American Red Cross were important, Clara truly believed that the assistance needed to be expanded beyond wartime needs.  She was also passionate about helping with disaster relief, peacetime emergencies and directing charitable support. So during its first twenty years the American Red Cross was largely devoted to disaster relief. Even though Henry Dunant had originally suggested that the Red Cross provide disaster relief, it hadn’t been widely embraced until Clara Barton advocated it. In fact, during the Third International Red Cross conference in 1884, the American Red Cross suggested an amendment to the original Geneva Treaty, asking for an expansion to include relief for victims of natural disasters. The resolution was passed and became known as the “American Amendment” to the Geneva Treaty of 1864.

Clara Barton served as president until 1904. After her retirement she continued with her philanthropy until she passed away in 1912, at the age of 91. She will be forever remembered as a pioneer, passionate about the Red Cross and one of the most celebrated figures of her time.


Did you enjoy this article? If so, tell the world! Tweet about it, like it, or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below…

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Walt Whitman was a famed and much liked nineteenth century poet. Even so, during the American Civil War, he had a number of issues to contend with, most notably when he thought that his brother appeared on the casualty list. Here, C.A. Newberry shares Walt’s Civil War story.

Walt Whitman by George Collins Cox in 1887.

Walt Whitman by George Collins Cox in 1887.

The Battle of Fredericksburg set off a chain of events that provided a defining period in the life of famed poet, Walt Whitman. What may be surprising is that he wasn’t anywhere near the battle site when this sequence was set in motion.

This prominent battle took place in December of 1862. Historians have recorded this battle as one of the most monumental events of the Civil War. There were some 172,000 troops and 18,000 casualties. It was also significant due to the fact it was probably the greatest victory for the Confederate Army.

Family History

Long before the Civil War began, Walt Whitman Sr. married Louisa Van Velsor. They raised their family in and around Brooklyn, New York. Walt Whitman Jr. was the second of nine children. Three of his brothers were named after great American leaders: Andrew Jackson Whitman, George Washington Whitman, and Thomas Jefferson Whitman.

George Washington Whitman, who was ten years younger than brother Walt, lived up to his namesake when he answered the call to enlist just after the rebel attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861. In the fall of that year George enlisted with the fifty-first New York Volunteers to serve for three years. George was actively involved in the Battle of Fredericksburg on those fateful days in December.


A Disturbing Entry

Back at home the Whitman family checked the daily newspapers and poured over the lists of wounded. One day the name “G.W. Whitmore” appeared on the casualty register. The family was apprehensive, fearing this was just a muddled version of George’s name. So, straight away, Walt set out on a quest to find his sibling in Virginia.


The Search for George

His journey to find his brother was fraught with challenges. At one point, while changing trains, he was pick-pocketed. He forged ahead penniless, until he was fortunate enough to run into a fellow writer who was able to loan him the funds to continue. When he arrived in Washington he spent his time searching through nearly forty hospitals. This search proved futile.

Desperate to continue the search, Walt was able to arrange transportation with both a government boat and an army-controlled train that delivered him straight to the battlefield at Fredericksburg. His hope was to discover his brother there. To his relief he was able to locate George’s unit and discovered that George had indeed been injured but with only a superficial facial wound.

After his arrival to the battlefield he began visits to the makeshift hospitals, which were mostly made up of deserted army barracks. It is well documented that Walt was greatly impacted after seeing a heap of amputated body parts lying outside. Walt then made the decision to stay with George at the Fredericksburg camp for almost two weeks. He spent his time logging entries in his personal journal and visiting wounded soldiers, both on the battlefield and the makeshift hospitals.

At the end of his visit Walt was asked to assist in relocating wounded soldiers to other Washington hospitals. On arriving in Washington he began to visit the soldiers that he had accompanied from Virginia, extending his rounds to include other wounded soldiers who were staying in the hospitals. His visits became routine, with his days spent tending to the wounded, reading aloud, helping soldiers to write letters to home, and distributing gifts.


Extensive Time in Washington

Walt’s stay in Washington lasted for eleven years. In this period he held varying jobs, including a clerk’s position at the Department of the Interior. But when James Harlan, who was the Secretary of the Interior, discovered that Walt was actually the author of Leaves of Grass, he was immediately released from this position. Secretary Harlan found the publication offensive and did not feel Walt should have a position in the department.

Nevertheless, he succeeded in the considerable task of supporting himself. He held jobs, received modest royalties, and was sent money by writer friends. The majority of his income was dedicated to buying nursing supplies and gifts for the wounded who he spent time tending. 


A Changed Man

At this point in time nursing was unorganized and haphazard. There was a lack of training and definition. Walt’s time as a nurse would probably be categorized as volunteering in later years. However, Walt took a great deal of pride in his status as a volunteer nurse and a ‘consultant’ to the wounded. And he even received an appointment from the Christian Commission, a branch of the YMCA.

Walt considered this glimpse into the military hospital world a cherished time. He would later share that this time period served as “the very center, circumference, umbilicus, of my whole career”.

To witness those effects one only has to read one of his pieces, Drum Taps:

Aroused and angry,

I thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war;

But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d, and I resign'd myself,

To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.


Walt Whitman was forever altered by this point in time. Historians recorded that war affected his well-being, both physically and mentally. This also led to a change in his writing, becoming more focused on recording his observations from the war and his hundreds of hospital visits. For us, he provided an invaluable glimpse into this significant point in history and will forever continue to speak to us through his poetry and beautifully written words.


Did you enjoy this article? If so, tell the world! Tweet about it, like it, or share it by clicking one of the buttons below…


The Walt Whitman Archive, edited by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, Published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (The Walt Whitman Archive is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, which allows others to distribute and adapt our work, so long as they credit the Whitman Archive, make their work available non-commercially, and distribute their work under the same terms) (Accessed: 12/08/2014).

Fredericksburg”, maintained by the Civil War Trust Staff & Board, www.civilwar.org. (Accessed: 12/08/2014).

History’s Favorite Nurses, Maryville University (Accessed: 12/08/2014).

Walt Whitman, American Writer and Civil War Nurse, by Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN, posted on Working Nurse (Accessed: 12/08/2014).

Slavery finally came to an end in the United States during the 1860s. But who should take credit for freeing the slaves? The slaves themselves or the Union Army that defeated the Confederacy in the US Civil War? Hannah McDermott tells us what she thinks…

Fugitive slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia. David Edward Cronin, 1888. Many fugitive slaves joined the Union Army in the US Civil War.

Fugitive slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia. David Edward Cronin, 1888. Many fugitive slaves joined the Union Army in the US Civil War.

In a letter to Horace Greeley in August 1862, President Abraham Lincoln declared that his ‘paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery’.[1] Yet by the end of the American Civil war the enslavement of blacks had been formally abolished thanks in part to legislation such as the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the post-war 13th Amendment to the Constitution. In popular memory, the man responsible for these great changes to American society is Lincoln; remembered as the ‘Great Emancipator’ and depicted as physically breaking the shackles binding African Americans to their masters. Though it is true enough that the inauguration of this Illinois statesman and his Republican administration provided Southern slave owners with an excuse to push for secession and defend their property from what they claimed to be an imminent threat, Lincoln was very clear in his presidential campaign and at the outset of his presidential term that his aim was not to touch slavery where it already existed, but simply to prevent its expansion. Was the President, therefore, as integral to the demise of black enslavement as has been suggested?

If the role of Lincoln as the driving force is to be questioned, it follows to ask what other influences were at play. More recently, some historians have done just this. In the wake of the social and political upheaval of the later 20th century, the American academy has produced a ‘new social history’, of which has led to a separate branch of Civil War historiography looking to the role of the slaves themselves in securing their own freedom. Historians such as Ira Berlin have emphasized the grass-roots movement of black slaves during the war, and their personal fight for freedom through escaping to Union territory and challenging the status quo. However, it is difficult to view these historical people and events in complete isolation. Thus, in this essay, I will examine the actions of slaves in conjunction with that of the Union army and also the administration in order to illustrate how the process was more complex and multi-layered than simply one person, or one group, as the harbinger of emancipation.


Slaves and the Escape to Union Lines

Slaves were far from the passive and docile creatures that some pro-slavery activists liked to suggest. A steady trickle made the passage North even before the Civil War began, where their presence shaped the anti-slavery activities of white northern men. Frederick Douglass, for example, was a former slave who had managed to escape from his southern house of bondage in 1838. Douglass brought a unique perspective that would influence the abolition movement since he was able to express the hardships of enslaved blacks, as well as demonstrate the intelligence and capabilities of African Americans to northern audiences.

It was during the Civil War, however, that the number of slaves running away from their masters reached its peak and was largely based on the knowledge that refuge could be sought within the lines of the Union army. Prior to the Fugitive Slave Act, those who escaped to ‘free soil’, non-slaveholding regions, were considered to have self-emancipated; during the war, proximity to free soil was increased as the Union lines crept further and further south.[2]

From the outset of war, thousands of African Americans flooded Union camps, sometimes in family units, and left army generals wondering how they should respond. After entering Kentucky in the fall of 1861, General Alexander McDowell McCook appealed for guidance from his superior, General William T. Sherman, on how he should respond to the arrival of fugitive slaves. McCook worriedly declared to Sherman that ‘ten have come into my camp within as many hours’ and ‘from what they say, there will be a general stampeed [sic] of slaves from the other side of Green River.’[3] General Ambrose E. Burnside faced a similar situation in March 1862, describing how the federally occupied city of New Bern, North Carolina, was ‘overrun with fugitives from surrounding towns and plantations’ and that the ‘negroes…seemed to be wild with excitement and delight.’[4] Such encounters would continue throughout the war as slaves made the decision to leave behind their life of enslavement for the hope of a better life with the advancing ‘Yankees’.


The Union Army: Active and Passive Advocates of Emancipation

Though it is clear that slaves made the personal decision to runaway, it was one that was facilitated by the context of war. While there were exceptions to this, including stories of slaves found hiding in swamps only 100 feet from their master’s homes, most had a destination in mind when they fled. Archy Vaughn’s escape is a case in point. One spring evening in 1864, Archy Vaughn, a slave from a small town in Tennessee, made a potentially life-changing decision. As the sun went down, Vaughn stole an old mare and travelled to the ferry across the nearby Wolf River, hoping that he would be able to reach the federal lines he had heard were positioned at Laffayette Depot. Unfortunately for the Tennessean slave, luck was not on his side. Caught near the ferry, he was returned to his angry master, Bartlet Ciles, who decided that an appropriate form of punishment for such misbehavior was to castrate Vaughn and to cut off a piece of his left ear. [5] In spite of the barbaric outcome, that Vaughn was hoping to ‘get into federal lines’ is demonstrative of how many slaves departed plantations on the basis that they would be able to seek refuge within the lines of the Union army.[6]

Indeed, the role of the Union army was crucial to the shaping of the future of fugitive slaves. Though this took various shapes and forms, it is a contribution that makes it impossible to view the road to freedom as one that slaves traversed alone and unaided. Some generals took a pragmatic approach to the situation they faced when entering slave-holding territory. General Benjamin Butler and his ‘contraband’ policy are noteworthy in this instance as examples of the army capitalizing on the events of the war. In July 1861, General Butler wrote a report to the Secretary of War detailing his view on how runaway slaves should be treated by the Union army which would become known as Butler’s ‘contraband’ theory. Here he made an emphatic resolution, decreeing that in rebel states, ‘I would confiscate that which was used to oppose my arms, and take all the property, which constituted the wealth of that state, and furnished the means by which the war is prosecuted.’[7]  Hinting at the two-fold benefit of adding to the workforce of Union troops and damaging the rebellion’s foundation simultaneously, Butler’s theory that fugitive slaves were ‘contraband’ was the first to explicitly express the potential gains to be made from legitimizing the harboring of ex-slaves.

Other generals were more vocal of their hatred towards slavery, and more aggressive in the tactics they employed. One incident was General John C. Frémont’s proclamation of August 30, 1861, which placed the state of Missouri under martial law, decreed that all property of those bearing arms in rebellion would be confiscated, including slaves, and that confiscated slaves would subsequently be declared free.[8] Frémont’s proclamation at this stage in the war was provocative and quite blatantly breached official federal policy; slaves could be emancipated under martial law when they came into contact with Union lines, and this had certainly not been the case here.[9] Lincoln ordered that the general rescind the proclamation, but its initial impact was not lost, for it had signaled the possible direction that the focus of the conflict could be turned toward, and substantiated southern beliefs that the northern war aims were centered around an impetus to rid the nation of the evils of slavery.

Frémont was not alone in pushing the legal and political boundaries set by the administration, and similar occurrences repeated themselves throughout the war. Even when blocked by Lincoln, as in the case above, abolitionist Union officers were essential in the changing direction of the war. Whilst not all Union troops were politically motivated, the combination of those realizing the value of slaves in bolstering the war effort and those of an anti-slavery persuasion like General Frémont was an effective tool in aiding and sustaining the freedom of slaves across the United States.


The Republican Administration and Emancipation

In studying the response of the Union military it is easy to come to the conclusion that the federal government often lagged behind or was slow to respond to what was already happening within the Union army, or even that they were less supportive of the plight of the slaves during the war. Indeed Lincoln and his administration are often criticized on their attitude towards making the Civil War a war to free the slaves, particularly by historians who place the responsibility of slave emancipation on the efforts of the slaves themselves. Berlin describes the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation as ‘a document whose grand title promised so much but whose bland words delivered so little’, and further states that it freed not a single slave that had not been freed under the legislation passed by Congress the previous year in the Second Confiscation Act.[10] First of all, that the First and Second Confiscation Acts were the products of the administration should be noted. The Second, as referenced by Berlin, declared that any person who thereafter aided the rebellion would have their slaves set free.[11] Secondly, the notion that the Emancipation Proclamation was in essence no more than a grandly worded document without any backbone is false when it is understood how the proclamation’s inclusion of black conscription had wider repercussions for the Union military effort and the attainment of black freedom. Though examples of blacks serving in the military are visible before Lincoln’s proclamation, for instance Jim Lane’s 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry formed in 1862, the new federal policy made this a much more frequent occurrence. This is also to say nothing of the emotional and moral impact such a document made on the psyche of the African American community.

Though it can be conceded that the Emancipation Proclamation positively contributed to emancipation efforts, it would be wrong to claim as James McPherson does that Lincoln played ‘the central role’ in ending the institution of bondage.[12] The same is true for evaluations of subsequent abolitionist legislation, notably the Thirteenth Amendment. Oakes’ emphatic declaration that the amendment, which formally prohibited slavery across the United States, ‘irreversibly destroyed’ slavery is correct in highlighting the importance of an anti-slavery constitutional amendment but simultaneously overshadows the role played by non-political actors in the fight for freedom.[13] The movement of slaves towards federal lines and the protection they were then given is surely comparable to the effects of the Thirteenth Amendment, despite being described by Carwardine as ‘the only means of guaranteeing that African Americans be “forever free”.’[14]

Instead, as this essay has demonstrated, the freeing of slaves during the Civil War is best understood as a multi-layered, interactive process. Slaves were not passive participators; they could and would act on the opportunities to leave behind a life of slavery for one of freedom. Though things might not always go to plan, as Archy Vaughn’s violent tale illustrates, the impetus to leave among enslaved African Americans was strong. Nevertheless, they did not free themselves. The action of slaves alone was not enough to ensure freedom, and the slaves themselves knew this. The decision to seek refuge with the federal army is indicative of how slaves predicated their choice to leave from the very beginning on the support of Union military power. Members of the federal forces were also not passive agents in the emancipation journey. While General Frémont, for example, may have identified the need to destroy slavery from the very beginning of the conflict, by the end of the war there was a shared sentiment among the Union forces that the use of ex-slaves in the fight against the South, menial tasks and armed battle included, was a vital component of the war effort. The federal administration realized this too; implementing policies that further aided and legitimized the support given by the army to slaves, as well as enhanced the contributions made by slaves to the achievement of Union victory. Slaves were freed, therefore, through the interaction of the mutually reinforcing interests of fugitive slaves and the Union war effort. It was this collaboration that enabled the mutually beneficial outcome in which the Confederacy was defeated at the hands of an emancipating Union vanguard.


Did you find this article fascinating? If so, tell the world. Share it, like it, or tweet about it by clicking on one of the buttons below…


1. To Horace Greeley, 22 August 1862 in Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953-1955) v, 389

2. James Oakes, Freedom National: the Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (New York: London, 2013), pp. 194-96

3. Ira Berlin et al (eds.), Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War (New York, 1992), pp. 13-14

4. Ibid., pp. 35

5. Ibid., pp. 112-113

6. Ibid., pp. 113

7. General Butler’s “Contrabands”, 30 July 1861 in Henry Steele Commager and Milton Cantor (eds.), Documents of American History, 10th edn (New York, 1988) i, 396-97

8. Frémont’s Proclamation on Slaves, 30 August 1861 in Commager and Cantor (eds.), Documents of American History, i, 397-98

9. Oakes, Freedom National, pp. 215

10. Berlin, ‘Who Freed the Slaves?’, pp. 27-29

11. Second Confiscation Act, 17 July 1862 in United States, Statutes At Large (Boston, 1863) XII, pp. 589-92

12. James McPherson, ‘Who Freed the Slaves?’ in Drawn with the Sword (New York: Oxford, 1996), pp. 207

13. Oakes, Freedom National, pp. xiv

14. Carwardine, Lincoln, pp. 228

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

By the 1860s swords played a lesser role in war than they did in earlier periods. Even so, they still had a vital place in some situations. Here, Mykael Ray looks at some of the most important swords at the time of the US Civil War and how they were used.


History has a lot to tell us about where we came from, and how it is we have everything we use every day. With all the important developments we have made through the ages, the advance in weaponry has always been key to a people’s survival. It is during the transition between these advances where things start to get interesting.

The use of the sword was vital in the ancient world, but it has become an obsolete technology.  The US Civil War was part of the beginning of the end for the production of swords for any practical combat use. Firearms were beginning to become more advanced, but the sword still had certain advantages. Below is a short list of swords that still had their place during this transitional period.

A US Cavalry Sabre, 1860s.

A US Cavalry Sabre, 1860s.

1832 Foot Artillery Sword

Crafted in 1832, the foot artillery sword was in circulation through 1872. It was modeled after the French foot artillery sword made in 1816, which in turn was designed after the ancient Roman gladius. Its hilt was made of brass that had a 4 inch cross-guard, its first difference from the gladius, which had no cross-guard at all. The blade itself was straight and double edged with a length of around 19 inches, which is dwarfed by the gladius’ 48 inch blade.

This weapon was not very popular, and wasn’t widely used despite the fact that thousands of them were issued. Its lack of range and minimal hand protection were most likely the largest deterrents, but it was a viable option for extremely close combat. The truly effective use for it was made in the swamps of the South, where it was most commonly used for bushwhacking. It became less of a weapon, and more of a tool for clearing vegetation and forming paths. The French make this assumption more valid with the nickname they gave it, coupe choux. Translated, this means “cabbage cutter”.

Though it remains uncertain how suitable it was for combat, it had its place in military dress.  Not serving as ceremonial swords either, they were considered to be more ornamental than practical, and would have been worn by an artillery regiment during formal occasions.


1860 Light Cavalry Sabre

Designed after the 1840 heavy cavalry sabre, this sword was made slightly smaller and lighter to make it easier to wield. The light cavalry sabre had a 35 inch curved steel blade. Its hilt was made of brass, and had a full brass hand guard that would reach all the way down to the pummel, and was carried in an iron scabbard.

Carried by most any soldier riding a horse, this sabre was mainly used during cavalry charges, where they would ride their horse’s head on into a line of foot soldiers, using the speed and height advantage to cut through enemy lines. This tactic was still popular due to the heavy use of the slow reloading muskets among foot soldiers. The curved design behind the sabre was to optimize the slashing motion used when attacking at speed and height.

Off of the horse, this weapon became more problematic. Its iron scabbard made it too clunky to carry on foot, as the material added extra weight, and the noise it would make gave away its wielder’s position. So, instead of wearing it on their person, they would attach it to their horse, making it readily available for the next cavalry charge, and leaving it behind with the horse when the rider had to dismount and carry on while on foot.

Though not the 1860 light cavalry sabre specifically, officers would use their sabres to issue orders as well. When giving orders to a regiment, visual cues would be more important than a vocalized order, either due to the need to be silent, or the possibility of overbearing background noise. Officers would waive and point, using their sabre as an extension of their arm to signal to soldiers out of earshot, or in the back of a formation.


1860 Cutlass

The 1860 cutlass sword was made specifically for the navy. It is often confused for a sabre, and based on its shape it is easy to see why. The differences however do make it an entirely different sword, despite the fact that it was designed with the sabre in mind. The blade of the sword still has a curve on it, but is overall much straighter and wider than the sabre’s. It is much shorter as well, being 26 inches long. The biggest difference is in the hilt, where it sports a full brass plate for the hand guard instead of a brass cage.

The design was to make fighting in close quarters as effective as possible. It was made short enough to be maneuverable in tight spaces, even when worn on the hip, yet long and heavy enough to be both a practical weapon and rigging tool. During ship boarding ventures, combat was often too tight to have effective use of most firearms, which was amplified even more when going below deck. This is why the cutlass was designed for not only slicing, but also thrusting, making it the weapon of choice for sailors.

When not in combat, the cutlass still proved useful on deck. During an emergency away from shore, it could easily have been used to cut ropes from riggings, and was heavy enough to chop through fallen boards. It would have been a much faster and effective means than using a knife.


Bowie Knife

Practically a sword itself, the bowie knife’s blade was between five and twelve inches long, and fairly consistently an inch and a half wide. Some have even been made to be 24 inches long. The blade is sharp on one side, and the tip is referred to as clip point, which is to say that the blade tapers in towards the point on the unsharpened side of the blade either directly, or concavely.

The uses for this knife are vast, making it the choice utility knife of the civil war. Its common uses were for hunting and skinning, and for self-defense. It has also been known to be used as a razor for shaving, a small hatchet for splitting wood, and a makeshift paddle; most likely while it was still in its leather casing.

Self-defense is the aspect that made it so popular, and is the reason it received its name. It was named after James Bowie, who made use of his knife in a brawl that preceded a public duel in which he killed a man who had just injured him by shooting him, bashing him on the head, and then stabbing him in the sternum. The story was so inspirational that even to this day, that knife is known as the Bowie knife.

Even though swords were still being used later in history, the Civil War proved that their effectiveness in battle was coming to a close. Mounted cavalry would soon start replacing their sabres for newly developed repeating rifles like the Carbine, and the development of the bowie knife proved that a short sword like the foot artillery sword was no longer a convenient secondary weapon. Regardless of where the weapons ended up, they played their part in military history, and still made an impact in a world where they coexisted with firearms.


Did you find this article interesting? If so, tell the world! Tweet about it, like it or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below!


Dr. Howard G. Lanham “Enlisted Swords, Model-1832 Foot Artillery Sword” https://mail.google.com/mail/u/1/#inbox/149399ce643498b2

Ron S. “Model 1860 Light Cavalry Saber” http://www.americancivilwarforum.com/model-1860-light-cavalry-saber-209577.html

Richard Meckel “Swords” http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/uniform_sword.htm

Norwich University “The Most Important Developments in Human History” http://history.norwich.edu/most-important-developments-in-human-history/


Image reference

Memecry2, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US-Kavallerie-II_1867.JPG