Myths about Quotes from Generals Lee and Grant

March 30, 2019
Since we are coming up on the 154th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse (April 9), I thought I’d re-run this early post from 2011. It was written by Gary Adams our first guest blogger:
My name is Gary Adams and I run a Face Book group by the name of Southern Heritage Preservation. Don’t allow the name to fool you– our goal is that of  Cicero: “THE FIRST law of the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice.”  After what Southroners call “the war,” events and remarks were recorded by various sources that “usually” ensured the event and quote were correct, but that was not the case during the ear in question.  We take these stories and adages and examine them and have found more than a dozen to be false and many more questionable.  If you enjoy Civil War history, please feel free to join us.  
“Tell Hill he must come up … Strike the tent.” were reported as the last words of General Robert E. Lee. There are suggestions that Lee’s autobiographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, embellished Lee’s final moments.  Lee suffered a stroke on September 28, 1870. He died two weeks later, on October 12, 1870, shortly after 9 a.m., from the effects of pneumonia. Lee’s stroke had resulted in aphasia, rendering him unable to speak. When interviewed, the four attending physicians and family members stated “he had not spoken since 28 September…”.  We had to dig through the obituary and newspaper interviews to collect this material. 
Many Southron love to post this statement attributed General Grant: “If I thought this war was to abolish slavery, I would resign my commission and offer my sword to the other side.”  They argue that this proves the war was not over slavery. While I personally agree, this is not proof as indeed, it is political lie.  We managed to track it down to a comment made by a political opponent running against Grant for President.  Here is the reference to the original newspaper and documentation. The quotation is but another myth.  (
I would like to thank Mary Theobald for allowing me to address her audience and to thank you for taking the time to visit her site.  
Gary Adams, President SHPG

Revisited Myth # 142: During the Civil War, soldiers bit bullets to combat the pain when no anesthesia was available. mm

February 4, 2019

Rhonda Florian wrote: “I’m hoping you can help me with some information. I am a living historian. I keep running into what I believe is a history myth—that soldiers used to bite on a bullet during surgery. I always scoff at the idea. I ask the person, “What’s going to happen the first time you scream?” Besides, I ask, what would be the purpose of biting a bullet even if it were humanly possible? But then there’s always that person who says they’ve seen a Civil War bullet with teeth marks on it. Undeniable proof, they exclaim.”

I can only point to an excellent response to this question, written by George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, here. 

Myths of the Revolutionary War

April 20, 2018

Smithsonian “Castle”

I stumbled across this site while researching the years just prior to the Revolutionary War. It’s a Smithsonian site and deals ably with several myths about that war. I thought you might enjoy it–I did.

Here are the myths that historian John Ferling debunks:

“Great Britain did not know what is was getting into.”

“Americans of all stripes took up arms out of patriotism.”

“Continental soldiers were always ragged and hungry.”

“The militia was useless.”

“Saratoga was the war’s turning point.”

“General Washington was a brilliant tactician and strategist.” 

“Great Britain could never have won the war.”

Revisited Myth # 142: During the Civil War, wounded soldiers bit bullets against the pain.

March 14, 2018

Rhonda Florian wrote: “I’m hoping you can help me with some information. I am a living historian. I keep running into what I believe is a history myth—that soldiers used to bite on a bullet during surgery. I always scoff at the idea. I ask the person, “What’s going to happen the first time you scream?” Besides, I ask, what would be the purpose of biting a bullet even if it were humanly possible? But then there’s always that person who says they’ve seen a Civil War bullet with teeth marks on it. Undeniable proof, they exclaim.”

I can only point to an excellent response to this question, written by George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, here. 

Revisited Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War

January 14, 2018

Pat McMillion from Burritt on the Mountain, Huntsville, AL, wrote to ask if I would take on this story behind the tradition that black-eyed peas eaten on New Year’s Day would bring good luck. (Actually, I had mentioned it back in July of 2013, but this week we’ll give it full court press.)

The story told throughout the South is that the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck dates back to Sherman’s March to the Sea in the fall of 1864, when the Yankees laid waste to the Georgia countryside, stealing, killing, or burning everything in their wide path. Survivors faced starvation, until they realized Sherman’s men had left silos full of black-eyed peas, thinking it was food fit only for livestock, as was the case in the North at that time. And since there was no more livestock, there was no use for the peas, so theYankees left the beans alone, and the South was saved from starvation. Hence the good luck. (The relationship to New Year’s Day is fuzzy.) 

Anyone knowledgable about history would surely raise their eyebrows at this lame story–silos full of black-eyed peas in 1864? According to footnoted references in Wikipedia, the first modern silos were invented in Illinois in the 1870s, but we’ll leave that aside, assuming the story doesn’t really mean silos but rather “storage.” It’s just hard for me to picture Sherman’s troops being quite that carefully judgmental as they loot and burn a wide swath of territory for over a month. All the soldiers who came across storage bins with black-eyed peas came to the independent conclusion that they could be left in place because they were no use to anyone but animals? Not logical. Another flaw in the story: the Yankees actually did confiscate animal fodder–millions of pounds of it–either for their own animals or to ship North as contraband. 

But never mind common sense, we must search for hard evidence! (Excuse the enthusiasm, I’m having a glass of wine as I write.)

Black-eyed peas are native to Africa and/or the Far East, and they figure prominently in Southern African-American cuisine. It’s logical that the African-born slaves brought food-related customs with them (“cultural baggage”) long before General Sherman marched to the sea. But black-eyed peas also belong to a 2,500-year-old Jewish custom that links the food to a celebratory meal at Rosh Hashanah. Martha Katz-Hyman, curator at Yorktown Victory Center, sent an informative link to a Jewish article which points to the Babylonian Talmud. “Now that you have said that an omen is significant, at the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, black-eyed peas, fenugreek….” Each of the foods (nine in total) represents something different for the year ahead; the black-eyed peas symbolize good fortune.” Read more: The good-fortune/New Year link to black-eyed peas, this article states, likely arrived in America with the Sephardic Jews who moved to the South. The traditions of the Jews and the African slaves, who did much of the cooking in Southern homes, overlapped with black-eyed peas.

Sharon (no last name) wrote in July of 2013 that “if 18th c. Jews traditionally ate beans for Rosh HaShana, it wasn’t for luck. Rosh HaShana is a two-day “yom tov” or holy day, and Jews are not allowed to light fires or cook on holy days. So it was a long-standing tradition to assemble a casserole, usually something like a pot of beans, and set it among the banked coals on the hearth before the holiday starts, so it will slow-cook like a crock pot meal, and still be hot a day or (even two days) later. However I seriously doubt that anyone in the American South learned this from their Jewish neighbors as a “New Year’s” tradition. Rosh HaShana is in September or very early October, and non-Jewish southerners would almost certainly not have understood enough about the holiday to make the connection to their own New Year’s celebrations.” Good point, Sharon, but Rosh Hashana is the Jewish new year, so the connection is there.

Another article in, the Jewish Daily, explains a mixup between fenugreek and black-eyed peas (although I note the quote from the Talmud mentions both, so there, at least, is no mix up.). “Fenugreek is a little seed that the Talmud calls rubia, which sounds like yirbu, the word for “to increase” — as in, to increase luck. But it actually increased confusion, says [food historian] Gil Marks, because the Sephardim got it mixed up with lubia, the word for black-eyed peas. So the Sephardim began eating black-eyed peas rather than fenugreek for good luck in the new year, a tradition they brought with them when some of them up and moved to the colonies. There, non-Jewish Southerners picked up the tradition, too, which is why — Marks swears — to this day, many of them eat black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashanah.” Thank you, Mr. Marks.

Read more:

Another reader of this blog, a “Southerner married to an Englishman,” chimed in. “In northeast England it is traditional to eat carlings on New Years for good luck. Carlings [or carlins] are a black-eyed pea. This tradition is older than the U.S. Civil War and comes from an old Catholic tradition during Lent. Carlings began to be seen as good luck, period. The history of the Carling Festival and Carling Sunday [during Lent] might help with understanding why southerners eat black-eyed peas for good luck at new years.” 

So . . . as we enter the new year, let’s view this myth with some skepticism. The association of black-eyed peas and good luck seems to date back before the American Civil War, and it seems to have existed in at least two distinct societies: northern English and Jewish. I can’t provide definitive proof that it is a myth, and you needn’t be convinced, however, I am. (Pass the wine bottle.) And may the new year bring you good health and much happiness! Cheers!


6 previous Responses to Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War.

  1. Pat McMillion says:

    Thank you so very much!!! I knew that logically this was a myth but just didn’t have the proof! I hope to meet you some day so I can give you a hug of thanks for all you do!

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Thank you, ma’am. Your blog is always a good read. I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia (which is a lot further South than it looks on a map), and I have never heard that Sherman story. Is it really that widespread?

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’m in Richmond too, and no, it isn’t THAT widespread. Mostly in Georgia, I expect, with that General Sherman angle. I hadn’t heard it myself until a couple readers sent the story to me. One reader said she had heard it as a youngster and she was from Mississippi.

  3. Hanley, Kevin says:

    Actually, Mary, they could very well have referenced silos! Though, as you state, the modern silos as we know wasn’t invented until the 1870’s in Illinois, aboveground silos were known before that. In the 1850’s, in France, they built some of masonry, lined with sheet iron. Prior to that, underground silos, were all the rage, going back to Greek (siros) and Roman (sirus/syrus) times. Both early terms referred to pits for storing grain. Its from those roots that the term “silo” evolved from. Remember the scene in the “Ten Commandments” when Charley Heston a/k/a Moses breaks open the Egyptian priests granary. Those mud brick storage bins were silos. So those southerners may have had underground “silos” on their farms. Civil War texts refer to the Georgian crowd, as with many southern farmers, burying their goods: crops, the good silver, etc., underground to hide them from those da*ned Yankees.

    BTW, no I’m not a silo historian. In the research for info about the Wick and Ford family farms here at Morristwon NHP, I wondered if they may have had such “silos”, and came across a whole bunch of neat stuff about silos (especially an 1880’s British book about the proper storage of their fodders. Those Brits really dug their agriculture! Course, what they did with their mudders we’ll never know. Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

    Kevin Hanley Park Ranger, MORR

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for the information, Kevin. I’m afraid my brain leaped directly to tall, cylindrical silos when I read this term. Of course other grain storage facilities have been around for millennia, and I’m sure that’s what the story was referencing.

  4. i know I’m rather late, but the other factor people tend to ignore or just flat out miss is that Sherman had contact with Federal units from Tennessee and Kentucky at least during the battle of Atlanta, so I’m sure that he was well informed about black-eyed peas.

Revisited Myth #118: Golf “caddies” were named by Mary Queen of Scots.

April 23, 2017

Some say that the term “caddie” was originally coined by Mary Queen of Scots in 1552. Here’s the story: She was the first female to play the game of golf. When she was living in France during her youth, it was traditional for French military cadets to carry the clubs of royalty. The cadets carrying golf clubs actually came to be called caddies due to the French language. The word cadet in French is pronounced “ca-dee,” thus the term. The word traveled to Scotland when Mary returned there in 1561.

The first problem with this is that the French word is NOT pronounced Cadee, but more like something between Caday and Cadeh. Another is the claim that she was the first woman to play golf. Possible but highly unlikely. 

However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, caddy or caddie does come from the word “cadet,” from the French, meaning a younger son or younger brother, or the junior branch of the family. The first known written use was 1610, when it meant, “a gentleman who entered the army without a commission to learn the military profession and find a career for himself (as was regularly done by the younger sons of French nobility before the French Revolution).”

Caddie definition #1 from the Scots, 1730, “lad or man who waits about on the lookout for chance employment as a messenger, odd-job man, etc.” 1817 “a caddy came with a large parcel to Mrs. Hogan’s house.”

Definition #2, 1634, from the Scots “a young gentleman latelie come from France, pransing . . . with his short skarlet cloake and his long caudie rapier.”  Or 1776 “with his sword by his side like a cadie.”

1908 #3 caddy: verb, to act as caddy for a golfer  

While we can’t know whether Mary Queen of Scots was really the first woman to play golf, the word origin part of the story seems largely true. 

Revisited Myth #115: In the Revolutionary War, the Americans used guerrilla tactics to beat the British, who fought standing in straight lines.

March 26, 2017

The myth, which is reinforced in textbooks, at historic sites and battlefields claims that during the Revolutionary War, the American army used guerrilla tactics and hid behind rocks, trees, and walls, and mowed down the British who stood in nice straight lines out in the open. Ben Swenson, historian and former reenactor, comments on this myth, as does John Hill, Supervisor of Military Programs for Colonial Williamsburg. Thank you, gentlemen.

“There were a couple battles where the colonial militia, not the regular American Army (an important distinction), used these tactics, but in most battles, both sides used the classic linear tactics,” says Swenson. “It was the way that armies met on the field of battle then, and General Washington wanted more than anything to be recognized as a legitimate commander of a respectable military, so he used the conventional tactics of the day.”

John Hill agrees. “First of all, I hate the term guerrilla warfare [in this context]. In 1775 the British 1764 manual of arms was approved for all Virginia troops. Virginia regulars in Williamsburg and elsewhere were trained using the British model. However, it is interesting to note that although conventional tactics were the focus, one day each week the troops were marched from their Williamsburg camps to places like Queen’s Creek in order to practice woods tactics or Indian tactics. What determined which tactics are to be used? The action’s intended objective, troop strength in relation to the enemy’s, type of terrain and positions of the armies, types of weapons and ammunition available, types of soldiers available (infantry, dragoons, artillery, naval), and weather conditions are all important factors.

“Conventional linear tactics of the 18th century were accomplished using muskets, quick reloading by the use of paper cartridges, and if necessary sweeping the field with bayonets. Linear tactics made it possible for officers to deploy large numbers of soldiers into action in specific areas. Linear tactics allowed for good communication and control of the soldiers. This tactic was extremely effective in overwhelming a weaker force.

“Woods or Indian tactics were usually dictated in situations where the force was significantly smaller in number and mostly armed with civilian weapons (rifles, fowling pieces, tomahawks) rather than military weapons (muskets, bayonets, cannon). Although rifles were much more accurate than smoothbore muskets, they took longer to reload. Therefore, civilian firearms lacked the fire power of military firearms. Small bodies of troops utilizing woods tactics could cause great harassment and embarrassment to an occupying army, but displacing or defeating of an army of greater size armed with muskets and bayonets would be impossible.

“There are a few accounts in the Southern Campaign where both sides were largely using woods tactics such at Kings Mountain. These involved mostly militia: Loyalist vs. Rebels. I am unaware of any major battle of the American Revolution where an army using conventional warfare was defeated by an army using woods tactics.”

A wonderful, detailed article on this topic, titled “Of Rocks, Trees, Rifles, and Militia” (click on the title) was written by Christopher Geist, professor emeritus at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University for the Colonial Williamsburg Journal. I particularly like the opening where Geist reminds his readers of the Bill Cosby routine that I remember fondly (even though I no longer have fond thoughts of Bill Cosby himself). 

“Suppose way back in history if you had a referee before every war, and the guy called the toss. Let’s go to the Revolutionary War.”

[Referee speaking] “British call heads. It’s tails. What do you do, settlers? . . . Settlers say that during the war they will wear any color clothes that they want to, shoot from behind the rocks and trees and everywhere. Says your team must wear red and march in a straight line.”

We laugh because Cosby tapped one of the most tenacious and cherished myths of the Revolution: American colonists prevailed in the conflict against, arguably, the finest military force of the era by using frontier tactics.


Previous Comments:

Grant says:
May 18, 2013 at 6:24 pm (Edit)
It would be equally mythical to suggest that the British, who had fought a battle or two in broken terrain before, didn’t have quite capable light infantry.

I enjoy a good debunk myself over at the Eagle Clawed Wolfe. Currently perceptions of old age in history are in my (Pattern 1776 Rifle) sights.

oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 7:30 am (Edit)
I agree. Both sides employed light infantry and rifle units in the revolution. The drill and use of light infantry is quite different than line infantry. It concentrates on smaller units and individual maneuver, as well as the use of cover and concealment during skirmishing in support of line units. However, massed line infantry was the machine gun of the time and the bayonet was the infantry weapon of decision. And the only way the bayonet could be effectively deployed as a decisive force was by a disciplined, well drilled mass formation of infantry. As you point out, the British had developed and incorporated infantry tactics to combat the French and aboriginal forces in heavily wooded and broken terrain during the F&I War; not much chance hard learned lessons like those would be forgot by the time of the American Revolution. Not to mention that GW, as commander of the Continental Army, wanted a conventional army to match that of the British.

Grant says:
May 19, 2013 at 8:13 am (Edit)
All history is, of course, to a lessor or greater extent mythologised. The American Revolutionary War and War of 1812 probably more than most, as the cornerstone of of the American foundation narrative whilst it is almost ignored by British historians, which might give it balance. I think the British military was pretty functional in both wars- they were just wars which couldn’t be won and no tweaking of infantry tactics was going to change that.

“The Wolfe” on a similar lopsided view of history:

oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 10:30 am (Edit)
I agree. Growing expenses for both conflicts, the loss of trade and failing public support led a pragmatic British government to end it’s attempt to retain the American colonies and in the case of the War of 1812, declare victory and go home.

oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 10:40 am (Edit)
I have changed my mind on cartridges. Failing to find explicit orders to recruiting officers and sergeants to specifically look for opposing teeth in recruits, I can not say it is not a myth. Having all of my teeth and never having “gummed” a cartridge, I can not attest to whether or not it could be done. However, I am now very interested in this detail of musketry and intend to learn more about paper cartridges than I knew before.

Mary Miley says:
May 19, 2013 at 1:31 pm (Edit)
Good luck! Let us know the results.

Sharon Ferguson says:
May 19, 2013 at 11:08 am (Edit)
One major point here: it is a truth that the American’s (colonials, what have you) DID prevail. They won. Period. The British surrendered. Ignoring that fact isnt going to change it. The British Parliament continued to shunt responsibility for the colonies to priorities that worked to their benefit, not for the empire, and the American colonies said theyd had enough of it. FACT.

Travis says:
May 19, 2013 at 11:14 pm (Edit)
I don’t see where anyone called that into question, Sharon. No one is ignoring any facts here, just dispelling one of the most long-held misconceptions of how the war was fought – one that has been repeatedly reinforced by popular media and films like the Patriot but has little basis in reality. That’s fact.

mehh says:
December 1, 2013 at 5:57 pm (Edit)
Actually, one of the primary reasons the British surrendered to the American Army was that they (the British) had another war going on with Napoleonic France at the time, and they prioritized that war over some uppity colonists.

Mary Miley says:
December 1, 2013 at 6:21 pm (Edit)
Very true. Sometimes we Yanks give ourselves too much credit . . .

picard578 says:
June 6, 2016 at 6:38 am (Edit)
Actually, you are mistaken in one detail. British had a war with France going on, but it was a war with Royalist France – US War of Independence ended in 1776 IIRC, and Napoleon didn’t come into power until 1790s. There was a war between Britain and US during the Napoleonic wars, but that one was the War of 1812, in which Canadians with very little help from British kicked American butts when Americans decided to add Canada to the glorious USA.

oldud says:
December 2, 2013 at 11:21 am (Edit)
The British never surrendered in the War of 1812. The strategic objectives of the British were:

1. Retain Canada as a British colony by preventing a successful American invasion-successful.

2. Create a buffer reservation for aboriginal nations in the Old Northwest (current states of Ohio, Indiana and Michigan)-failed.

3. Split the US from it’s western territories obtained in the Louisiana Purchase by gaining and maintaining control of the Mississippi River from it’s headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico, thus preventing the western expansion of the US-failed.

And a bonus point; possibly prying New England away from the US through succession.

The war with the US had come on the heels of the Napoleonic wars and the British public had pretty well had enough of martial conflict. And since they only accomplished one of their three strategic objectives* in the war, they just declared victory, signed the treaty of Ghent and sent their army and navy home; except for a defense force in Canada.

But the United States did manage to defend it’s self against the most powerful military in the world and survive. This meant our independence as a nation had been verified and our dependence on any other government was forever severed.

*Failure to capture the upper Mississippi by the British occurred before the Treaty of Ghent was signed and the failure at New Orleans occurred afterward.

Sean Corcoran says:
May 22, 2016 at 1:22 pm (Edit)
What seldom gets mention why the British Government decided to negotiate a peace settlement is the fact that Spanish forces had taken three key British bases in the Gulf ,Baton Rouge, Natchez, Pensacola which gave them West Florida. There was a good chance that Britain could lose Jamicia as a result. In addition Britain had to keep land and naval forces close to home in the event of France and Spain attempting military actions in the Channel. As mentioned above the higher priority was in Europe.


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