“Like the great Stonewall, many of these storied leaders also earned themselves equally memorable nicknames.”
THOMAS J. JACKSON WAS one of the more eccentric figures of the American Civil War.
A high-strung, scripture-quoting, martinet, the 37-year-old Virginia native initially earned the unflattering nickname of “Tom Fool” from his troops whom he drilled without respite. But his standing quickly changed at Manassas on July 21, 1861.
As the Confederate lines buckled under a determined Yankee assault, the former VMI instructor’s brigade defiantly stood its ground. Watching the dogged resistance, one South Carolinian general by the name of Barnard Elliott Bee Jr. famously exhorted his men to fight on with equal vigor.
“There is Jackson standing like a stone wall,” he famously shouted. “Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians.”
The Rebels counter-attacked and drove the Federal army from the field.
Soon everyone in the Confederacy was referring to Jackson as “Stonewall”.
Of course, the famed Southern commander is just one of a host of larger-than-life figures from the Civil War that would go on to capture the public’s imagination. And like the great Stonewall, many of these storied leaders also earned themselves equally memorable nicknames. Consider the following:
Unlike Thomas Jackson, the Union army’s Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker didn’t get his well-known sobriquet because of some act of battlefield heroism; it actually came as the result of a clerical error. After the 1862 Battle of Williamsburg, a careless newspaper typesetter accidentally jumbled two headlines placing the word “fighting” before the 48-year-old Massachusetts-born divisional commander’s own name. From that point on Hooker was known as “Fighting Joe”.
When the Confederate defenders of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River sought quarter from the Union army in February of 1862, a relatively unknown one-star general in charge of the Federal attack, Ulysses S. Grant, coolly rebuffed the Rebel request. “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted,” was the future president’s reply. Newspapermen joked afterwards that the general’s first two initials “U.S.” could very well stand for “Unconditional Surrender”.
Winfield Scott Hancock’s namesake, War of 1812 hero and aging commander of Union troops, went by the unbecoming moniker “Old Fuss and Feathers.” But the young hotshot Pennsylvania-born major general and hero of Gettysburg was known by friend and foe alike as “Hancock the Superb” as well as “Thunderbolt.”
Entirely less glamorous was William Tecumseh Sherman. The poster boy for Washington’s punitive scorched earth policy that ravaged the Confederacy in the final year of the war, Sherman was known as “Uncle Billy” by his troops.
George Meade was already a tough old war horse when he assumed command of the Army of the Potomac just three days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg. A veteran of the Seminole Indian wars and Mexico, the 47-year-old son of a Philadelphia merchant was the butt of ridicule from his men. They referred to their dowdy looking commander as a “a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle,” or “Snapping Turtle” for short.
On May 1, 1862, Benjamin Butler was named military commander of the recently captured Confederate stronghold of New Orleans. The 43-year-old major general from New Hampshire moved swiftly to crack down on the anti-Union sentiment than ran deep in the Big Easy. His General Order No. 28 held that local ladies who insulted Yankee soldiers or officers would be treated no better than common streetwalkers “plying their avocation”. The order scandalized polite society across the state and earned Butler the nickname “the Beast.”
Unlike Butler, it wasn’t outraged Confederates that gave Army of the Potomac commander Ambrose P. Burnside his unfortunate handle “The Butcher of Fredericksburg”; his own soldiers did. His clumsy assault on the heights just outside of the Virginia town on Dec. 13, 1862 won the Union nothing except 5,000 casualties. Burnside offered to step down in the aftermath of the disaster. Weeks later, Lincoln replaced him with Fighting Joe Hooker.
Upon taking command of the Union army following the fiasco of Bull Run in 1861, George McClellan was seen by many as the saviour of the faltering Northern war effort. Although the 33-year-old Philadelphia-native ultimately proved unequal to the task he was assigned, for a time he was celebrated in the field and the newspaper pages alike as “the Young Napoleon.” McClelland was later sacked after the botched 1862 Peninsula Campaign, but returned briefly to head up the Army of the Potomac in time for the bloodbath at Antietam.
The Confederacy also had its own Bonaparte of sorts: The dashing P.G.T. Beauregard of Louisiana went by the nickname “Little Napoleon”. But it wasn’t the legendary Corsican whom people were thinking about when they came up with Beauregard’s unofficial title — the famous hero of Fort Sumter bore an uncanny resemblance to the French emperor in 1861: Napoleon III.
James Longstreet, commander of the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia went by a host of different epithets, “Old Pete” being the most widely used. It was a name first given to him by his father, a South Carolina cotton planation owner.
Jubal Early’s generals were less than enthusiastic about their prima donna corps commander. The moody and vainglorious Virginian was quick to condemn the failings of his subordinates, but was notoriously thin-skinned himself and would tolerate little criticism. None of this seemed to trouble his soldiers who affectionately called him “Jubilee” or “Old Jube”.
Richard S. Ewell of Maryland may be best remembered for failing to press an attack up the thinly defended Cemetery Hill in the opening hours of the Battle of Gettysburg. Had the sickly 46-year-old West Pointer carried out the assault, it might have forced a speedy conclusion to what became a three-day battle (possibly even altering the outcome of the war itself). Ewell was known among his troops as “Old Bald Head” or simply “Baldy”.
One Rebel general who certainly wasn’t afraid to go on the offensive was Nathan Bedford Forrest. A master of hit-and-run warfare, the ruthless cavalryman was known as the “The Devil Forrest” and the “Wizard of the Saddle” – a fitting name considering the Tennessean was a founding member of the Klu Klux Klan.
Equally aggressive was John Bell Hood of the Army of Tennessee. Reckless to point of foolhardiness, the 33-year-old lieutenant general led from the front and was wounded several times in the process. He lost the use of his left arm followings wounds he sustained at Gettysburg and had his right leg amputated after taking a bullet at Chickamauga. His men called their seemingly indestructible commander “Wooden Head”.
And then there was Robert E. Lee. No figure from the Civil War is so revered or so written about. Not surprisingly, the illustrious leader of the Army of Northern Virginia enjoyed a host of different sobriquets: “Uncle Robert”, “Bobby Lee” and “the King of Spades”. Some younger Reb soldiers less charitably called their greying 55-year-old commander “Granny Lee”. Others simply called Lee the “Marble Man” — a name that evokes his enduring image as the unassailable almost mythical embodiment of the Southern cause.