7 Misconceptions About the Civil War

A painting of the Battle of Pea Ridge, which was fought from May 7 to 8, 1862
A painting of the Battle of Pea Ridge, which was fought from May 7 to 8, 1862 / Keith Lance/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The American Civil War is a pivotal and ugly moment in American history, but it's more misunderstood than you would think. We're breaking down some myths about Lincoln, women soldiers, racist Northerners, and Southern Union sympathizers, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: Lincoln’s policies enjoyed widespread support in the North.

The story of the Civil War is all about division within one’s own country. But the schisms ran deeper than just North against South—there were also cracks within the Union itself, even after the Southern states seceded.

Up North, a group called the “Peace Democrats” opposed everything about Lincoln’s leadership and his war. In time, these dissidents would be nicknamed “Copperheads,” after the venomous snake. Some of them were Southern loyalists; others were Democrats who strictly adhered to a reading of the Constitution that privileged states’ rights above federal powers.

One of Lincoln’s most notable critics was Horatio Seymour, the governor of New York. Tensions between the two leaders came to an ugly head during the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863.

Many of New York’s working-class citizens were incensed over the Enrollment Act of 1863, which established a draft lottery and provided a means for wealthy draft-eligible men to avoid conscription by paying a hefty fee instead. What might have begun with principled indignation towards the legislation soon devolved into terroristic violence and destruction. The rioters targeted African Americans and the businesses that catered to them, killing many and even setting fire to an orphanage.

Governor Seymour, for his part, was not only seen by the public to be potentially siding with the rioters, he even referred to them as “my friends” in a speech shortly afterward.

Elsewhere in the country, when former Ohio congressman Clement L. Vallandigham made an anti-war speech, he was seized by Union troops and tried by a military court. Vallandigham was all set to go to prison until Lincoln decided to commute his sentence and banish him to the Confederacy.

2. Misconception: Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were staunch secessionists.

Jefferson Davis, the man who would eventually become the Confederacy’s first and only president, was originally a senator from Mississippi who opposed early calls for secession. But when Davis learned that his home state officially voted to leave the union in January 1861, he decided to stick by his state, rather than his country. He did so with a heavy heart, saying it was “the saddest day of my life.”

This was a time when many politicians and citizens thought of themselves in terms of state first, country second. In Davis’s eyes, there was no other choice, and he eventually headed to Montgomery, Alabama, where the heads of the recently seceded Southern states were planning to meet and form the Confederate States of America.

Even when Davis had his doubts about secession, his mind was entirely made up about the war’s defining ideological difference: In 1857, a newspaper reports him proclaiming that “African slavery, as it exists in the United States, was a moral, a social, and a political blessing.” Even if there were plenty of racists in the North and unionists in the South, the question of slavery largely defined the outlines of the war.

Robert E. Lee followed a similar ideological trajectory on the issue of secession. Though he was initially against it, his real loyalties were with his home state of Virginia. After Virginia’s state convention voted to secede by a count of 88 to 55 on April 17th, 1861, Lee resigned from the United States military, where he was a colonel, and went to work for the Confederate army.

While in command, Lee served under Davis, who apparently got over his whole secession-phobia in a big way. In a late 1862 speech to the legislature of Mississippi, he declared, “After what has happened during the last two years, my only wonder is, that we consented to live for so long a time in association with such miscreants …”

3. Misconception: The Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery

When President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, it declared: “[All] persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

Old-timey jargon aside, Lincoln was basically saying “Slaves in the rebelling states are free ... if we win.” It was what many people wanted to hear, but it still had some important limitations. First, it left out border states like Kentucky and Delaware. And none of it would really matter if the Union didn’t prevail.

Despite that, it was also a huge win for abolitionists. This was really an announcement that the Civil War was no longer a war just to preserve the Union; freeing the enslaved population was now an official objective for Lincoln and his army. It emboldened the abolitionists in the North and made opposing countries like France and the UK bristle at the thought of supporting the pro-slavery forces of the Confederacy.

Still, it would be another two years before slavery would actually come to an end in the United States. In June 1865, Union troops led by General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced that all 250,000 enslaved people in the state were officially free. Today, Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19 to honor this occasion, though it’s worth noting that even after that date, slavery continued in some places within the United States. Neither Delaware nor Kentucky ended slavery during the Civil War, so some historians estimate there were still around 65,000 enslaved people in 1865.

In December 1865, the end of slavery was finally put into law when Congress passed the 13th Amendment, which stated “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

4. Misconception: All amputations were done without anesthesia.

Plenty of Civil War movies show screaming soldiers having their mangled limbs amputated with hacksaws in a medical tent while wide awake. But despite what Hollywood says, anesthesia is estimated to have been used in around 95 percent of all surgeries during the war, according to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Ether had made its way into medicine as a general anesthetic in 1846, with chloroform arriving the very next year. American military doctors started using ether during the Mexican-American War, and chloroform was employed during the Crimean War of the mid-1850s.

That being said, this new-fangled way of putting people under in order to operate was still somewhat controversial at the time, and the Civil War doctors who used it actually had very little—if any—hands-on experience with it. Of the two, chloroform was the preferred method of anesthesia, because it worked faster and was far less likely to explode.

There were times when anesthesia couldn’t be used, but according to The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, prepared under the direction of Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes, many of those cases might have been shot injuries, where there were concerns about negative side effects from the drugs. Even then, just 254 of the many thousands of Civil War operations were unanesthetized.

5. Misconception: Only men fought during the Civil War

While it’s true that women weren’t legally permitted to serve in the military during the Civil War, stories have come to light over the years indicating that anywhere from 400 to 750 women actually managed to sneak through to the front lines and pick up arms to fight for their country, or for the Confederacy. That’s an impossibly small percentage of the 2.75 million soldiers that fought in the war, but the question remains: How did they do it?

Some likely found a way to pass as men during pre-combat physicals, while others might have snuck into camps once the fighting began. Once they were in, these women were just as involved as the men. There are accounts of women directly involved in spy missions, reconnaissance, and active combat.

One famous individual that may fit under this category is Jennie Hodgers, who fought for the Union under the name Albert Cashier. We have to qualify that last sentence because some historians argue that Cashier is more likely to be a trans man than a disguised woman, even if we didn’t have the vocabulary to identify him as such in his time. In any case, legend places Albert at dozens of battles during his three years at war, and at one point it’s said he escaped from a Confederate prison by overpowering a guard and fleeing. Albert survived the war and remained under this assumed identity the rest of his life.

6. Misconception: Abraham Lincoln was the keynote speaker on the day of the Gettysburg Address.

On November 19, 1863, a crowd of 15,000 gathered to witness the dedication of a military cemetery on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers had died over a three-day span in July.

Coming in at around 270 words, President Lincoln powered through the Gettysburg Address in less than three minutes. And contrary to what you might have heard, no, Lincoln didn’t scribble the speech onto an envelope on the way to the battlefield. Lincoln’s secretary later commented that with all the noise, distractions, and rockings and joltings, it would have been impossible to write anything on the moving train, and the surviving drafts of the speech are written in Lincoln’s normal, steady handwriting. She did note that Lincoln finished up the speech that morning, but romanticizing it as history’s greatest rush job is definitely overstating it.

One thing that you might not know about the address is that Lincoln wasn’t pegged to be the main speaker on that day. That honor belonged to Edward Everett, a distinguished scholar and orator who took the stage before the president.

Everett’s speech would go on for around two hours, totaling upwards of 13,000 words. It was a speech he poured his heart and soul into, along with months of research. He obsessed over every account of the battle, from both the Northern and Southern perspectives, in order to get the words just right. Throughout the speech, he retold the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, interspersed with flowery ruminations on the idea of liberty and a plea for unity, saying, “these bonds of union are of perennial force and energy, while the causes of alienation are imaginary, factitious, and transient. The heart of the People, North and South, is for the Union.”

After Everett finished his speech, the president shook his hand and told him, “I am more than gratified, I am grateful to you.” Then the Thunder-Stealer-in-Chief rang out with “Four score and seven years ago ...” and made Everett’s magnum opus a historical footnote in under 180 seconds.

Even Everett himself knew he was one-upped by Lincoln, writing soon after that, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

7. Misconception: The war was fought entirely in the U.S.

Gettysburg is, perhaps, the classic vision of a Civil War battlefield: green, hilly fields ensconced in artillery smoke. In reality, though, the Civil War was far from land-locked. Naval warfare played a huge role in the conflict, with the Union victory at the Battle of Port Royal and the standstill at the Battle of Hampton Roads among the most pivotal maritime clashes. The Civil War also made a little naval history when the Confederacy's Hunley became the first submarine to sink an opposing warship when it attacked the USS Housatonic in 1864.

One naval battle is noteworthy because it didn’t take place in the waters of America at all. In June 1864, the North and South came to blows in the waters off Cherbourg, France, in the English Channel. The battle began brewing when the Confederate ship, the CSS Alabama, was docked at Cherbourg Harbor hoping for some repairs. For years, this ship had been wreaking havoc on U.S. vessels, resulting in the plunder of more than 64 ships and causing millions of dollars in damages.

The USS Kearsarge, helmed by John A. Winslow, had been pursuing the Alabama for months, and once Winslow got word from the U.S. minister in Paris that the ship was docked and prone, he moved in for the kill. Upon hearing that the Kearsarge was ready for a battle, Alabama captain Raphael Semmes prepped his ship and met his Union foe nine miles off the coast of Cherbourg. The Alabama was the first to fire—but there was just one problem: The Kearsarge was draped in a thick anchor chain that protected it from enemy artillery.

Soon, the Alabama was taking on water, the white flag was up, and Semmes was all but defeated. Instead of capture, though, Semmes and some of his surviving men were saved by a nearby British ship. In all, around 20 Confederate troops died, compared to just one Union soldier.

This article originally ran in 2021; it has been updated for 2022.