Civil War Biographies

Civil War Biographies
No period in American History offers more intriguing or more unforgettable figures
than the Civil War. That struggle called forth the best America has to offer.
Fortunately, it was a time when an extraordinary number of individuals could and did
rise to greatness.
One almost has to begin with Abraham Lincoln. For a
century, historians have judged him the greatest of American
presidents. Lincoln was born in poverty, self-educated,
seemingly doomed to the isolation of the American frontier.
Yet we remember Lincoln not because he was born in a log
cabin but because he worked himself out of it. From
storekeeper and lawyer to politician and president, he grew in
stature to become “the man gave his life to save the Union.”
Lincoln was impressively ugly. Tall, craggy, sloppy in
dress and awkward in appearance, rustic in behaviour, he
seemed totally lacking in charisma. However, this
unpretentious man from Illinois genuinely loved people.
Lincoln displayed patience and kindness amid the chaos of
war. America has never had a leader with a greater gift for
words. The first president murdered in office, Lincoln gained
martyrdom that the ages have never diminished.
Robert E. Lee became easily the paramount
figure in the Southern Confederacy. Son of
Revolutionary War hero Henry “Lighthorse Harry”
Lee, the Virginian had a 30-year distinguished
career in the United States prior to the Civil War. In
1861, Lee received an offer to command all Federal
forces. He declined. His family roots stretched 150
years into Virginia’s soil. “I cannot draw my sword
against my family and birthright,” Lee said when
departed the Union with his native state.
As a field commander, Lee was uncommonly
bold. He took high risks for high stakes. One could
discern quickly the weakness of an opponent, Lee
took advantage of opportunities and struck with as
much force as means permitted. No soldier instilled
greater morale in an army than Lee. He and his
men shared a deep love for one another. The Army
of Northern Virginia became legendary for gallantry
and endurance. Lee devoted his five postwar years
to higher education and to working to make America
whole again. When he died in 1870, the entire
nation mourned.
The field officer who won the Civil War for the North was uninspiring in
appearance. Ulysses “Sam” Grant was a small man just turned 39 in 1861 but looked
older. He was a brilliant horseman, but “neat” was a word never applied to Grant. He
wore a plain and usually mud-coated uniform, while a scrubby beard covered part of his
leathery face, and after 1862 he was rarely without a cigar in his mouth. Yet he had a
bulldog tenacity that included unwavering loyalty to his friends. A staff officer said of
him in 1864: “He habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his
head through a brick wall, and was about to do it.” His four years as a general were an
unmatched success, but his eight years as president of the United States defined failure.
Thomas J. Jackson hardly seemed the heroic type
either. This orphan from the mountainous wilderness of
northwestern Virginia managed to graduate from West
Point and received citations for bravery in the Mexican
War. In the 1850s Jackson was an ungainly, humorless
professor at the Virginia Military Institute.
Allegiance to God’s will was the central core of his
being. In the Civil War, Jackson gained a reputation of
fighting with all the fury of an Old Testament Warrior.
He was humorless, dedicated, a hard-boiled stickler for
discipline. Given the nickname “Stonewall” (which he
did not like), this Civil War general more than anyone
else personified the “Christian Soldier.” He was perhaps
the most respected general in the world when he fell
mortally wounded in the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville.
Jackson’s death was the deepest personal loss the
Confederacy suffered. He truly fulfilled one of his
favorite axioms: “You may be what ever you will resolve to be.”
Virginia cavalryman James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart was the embodiment of a
cavalier. Clad in a red-lined cape and plumed hat, with a banjo player on his staff,
Stuart was a daring, brave, adventuresome cavalryman. He was the “eyes” of Lee’s
army and never disappointed the commander but once at Gettysburg. At Stuart’s death
in 1864, a grieving Lee stated: “He never brought me false information.”
Stuart’s Confederate counterpart in the West was Lieutenant General Nathan
Bedford Forrest. He had had little schooling and military training, but Forrest led by
extraordinary ingenuity. He personally killed more enemy soldiers (32) and had more
horses shot underneath him (29) than any other Civil War commander. Union General
Sherman had many reasons for hating Forrest; yet after the war Sherman exclaimed
“Give me Union infantry and Forrest’s cavalry, and I will conquer the world!” Forrest is
linked with the controversial massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in
1864, and after the war acted briefly as leader of the new Ku Klux Klan.
The list of unforgettable individuals in the Civil War may well be endless.
Outstanding leaders can be found in every branch of service. Some attention should
also be paid to the three million soldiers in that war. A philosophy has long held that a
general is only as good as the men he commands. That was true on both sides in the
Civil War.
Confederate and Union soldiers (“Johnny Rebs” and “Billy Yanks” as they called
each other and as they are known in history) were quite extraordinary human beings.
Most were farm boys, small town clerks, or city workers in their early twenties. The
great majority were poorly educated. Yet those young men went to war to fight for
country, God, defense of their homes, and an ideal. Some 700,000 of them, almost one
of every four who served, died. In doing so, they showed clearly for ages to come that
they loved their differing ideas of American freedom more than they loved life itself.