Ancestral Home Turned National Cemetery: Arlington

Graves at Arlington National Cemetery

Anyone who has taken a tourist trip to Washington D.C. has likely spent at least some time visiting Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington stands as a symbol of the commitment and sacrifice thousands of Americans have made for their country. It’s well known by most that Arlington National Cemetery is used to bury those who have served our country, but what is less known is how the cemetery got its start. Intrigued? Read on …

The story of Arlington starts with Gen. Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis Lee As we all know, Lee was one of the most successful generals of the Confederate States of America and in many ways has become the face of the C.S.A. However, prior to his stint as Confederate army guru, he dedicated over 30 years to the United States Army. In fact, he was so dedicated to fighting for the U.S., that when Lincoln needed someone to command over 75,000 Union troops at the start of the Civil War, he asked Lee. As we know from the history books, Lee turned the offer down, resigned from the United States Army and pledged his loyalty to his home state of Virginia and the C.S.A.

Needless to say, this did not sit well with many of Lee’s former army buds.

As a way to punish the disloyal Lee, Union Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs proposed burying fallen Union soldiers at Arlington House (the ancestral home of Lee’s wife and the place where the two lived before the war). Meigs’ goal was to ensure that Lee could never again return home … and he succeeded. Starting in 1864, Union soldiers were buried in the front lawn of Arlington House.

After the war, Lee accepted an offer to become president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) and lived in Lexington, Virginia until his death in 1870. Lee never lived in Arlington House again.

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Halloween Hauntings

Civil War Ghosts

Another Halloween has come and gone. The once beautifully carved jack-o-lanterns have turned into rotting pumpkins; loads of candy are no longer being given out for free; and (with the exception of a few interesting individuals) no one is walking the streets in costume. But have no fear! The spirit of Halloween can live on for an extra day in this blog post.

As we all know, lot of Americans died in the Civil War. I realize this isn’t a shock to anyone. But even knowing this, I’m always surprised when reminded of just how many died: over 600,000.

With all of this death, it’s not surprising to learn that of the ten most haunted American battlefields, the top three are battle sites of the Civil War. I think reading about ghosts is a great way to stay in Halloween mode, so hang up that costume, grab a handful of candy and read on  …

#1 Gettysburg

With over 50,000 casualties and three days of bloody fighting, it’s no surprise that the site of this turning point battle is rumored to be haunted. During the summer months, when the area receives an influx in visitors, the paranormal activity supposedly peaks. Everything from a Confederate sentry still guarding his post to eerie apparitions appearing in tourists’ pictures add to Gettysburg’s reputation as the most haunted American battlefield.

#2 Antietam

The battle of Antietam is known as the bloodiest day in American history, so it’s not hard to believe that ghosts still like to hang around the battlefield. On Sept. 17, 1862, there were more casualties than in the entirety of the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War and the War of 1812. Whoa! Two major locations of the battle – Bloody Lane and Burnside’s Bridge – are reported to be heavily haunted. Many people have heard battle cries and smelled gunpowder when no one was around to cause them.

#3 Chickamauga

This battle effectively ended the Union offensive in the Western Theater known as the Chickamauga Campaign and resulted in the second highest number of casualties after the Battle of Gettysburg. The most well-known of the Chickamauga ghosts is known as Old Green Eyes. Sightings of Old Green Eyes have been reported since the end of the battle itself and the ghosts shape ranges from a shaggy, black panther-like creature to a headless ghost.

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Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy

What do Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy have in common?

As it turns out the answer is: a whole heck of a lot.

Though the two presidents were in power a century apart and ruled over two very different Americas, they share more in common than you might think. The following is a partial list of the strange similarities:

Let’s start with an obvious one: both presidents were assassinated. By no means does this make them extraordinarily unique (James Garfield and William McKinley were also assassinated during their terms in office). But there are a few more facts behind the stories of their assassinations that border on eerie:

  • Both presidents were shot on a Friday
  • Both presidents were shot in the head (Garfield and McKinley were not)
  • Both presidents were assassinated by Southerners
  • Lincoln was shot in Ford Theater and Kennedy was shot in a Lincoln: for those of you who, like me, didn’t understand why this was a connection at first, it turns out that Lincolns are the luxury brand of Ford (alas, my lack of car knowledge is revealed)

Now for some similarities that the presidents’ assassins shared:

Freaky dates:

  • Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846; Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946
  • Lincoln was elected president in 1860; Kennedy was elected president in 1960
  • Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, was born in 1808; Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor was born in 1908 (also, both successors were Southerners named Johnson – strange)
  • Booth was born in 1839; Oswald was born in 1939


Believe it or not there are even more coincidences and they can be found here (along with a clever joke at the bottom of the page).

Posted in Abraham Lincoln, Intriguing, Strange Coincidences | 1 Comment

Words Originating from the Civil War

The English language is cool.

Yes, it’s full of strange rules and even stranger exceptions. And yes, there are plenty of words that are spelled the same and sound the same but have two totally different meanings (homonyms). But despite all of that I still think it’s pretty neat. In fact, it’s argued that with its over 500,000 words English has the richest vocabulary in the world.

Now, you may be wondering: ‘What does this have to do with the Civil War?’ Well, with those 500,000 words it stands to reason that at least a couple would have their origins in the Civil War, and they do! So the following is a very short list of some of the words we commonly use today that got their start during the Civil War.

Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia

1. Deadline – nowadays, this term is used to refer to a point in time when something like an assignment or credit payment is due. However, the word originates from Civil War prison camps where it referred to a boundary line. If a prisoner crossed this “deadline” they were shot dead, no questions asked. In comparison, today’s deadlines seem infinitely less stressful.

Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside and his crazy sideburns

2. SideburnsGen. Ambrose E. Burnside was a Union general who replaced Gen. George B. McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac in 1862. Burnside was easily recognized by his flamboyant hats and his bushy side whiskers which connected to his mustache. Burnside popularized this facial hairstyle which became known as sideburns.

Gen. Joseph Hooker

3. Hooker Gen. Joseph Hooker replaced Gen. Burnside in the beginning of 1863. Gen. Hooker was known for keeping plenty of prostitutes around his camps in an attempt to keep up his soldiers’ morale. Though the word hooker was coined prior to the Civil War, the constant stream of women around Hooker’s regiment cemented the term and its meaning.

Shebangs at a Civil War Prison Camp

4. Shebang – (as in “the whole shebang”) was the term used to describe the shelters Union POWs at Andersonville built for themselves out of whatever cloth they could find. Needless to say, the shebangs were pretty pathetic excuses for shelter, and “the whole shebang” didn’t consist of much.

Posted in Ambrose E. Burnside, Andersonville, Intriguing, Joseph Hooker | 4 Comments

The President’s Pocket

Contents of Lincoln's pocket on display at the Smithsonian

Many Americans know that Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. What many may not know is what Lincoln was carrying in his pockets at the time of his death.

The following items were found in Lincoln’s pocket that night: two pairs of bifocals, a lens polisher, nine newspaper articles, a pocketknife, a watch fob, a linen handkerchief and a leather wallet inside of which was a single, five-dollar Confederate note.

While none of this stuff is of any particular significance, the fact that he carried around a piece of Confederate money is interesting. He surely wouldn’t be using the money to buy anything, and since buying things is generally the purpose of money we have to wonder what Lincoln was doing with it.

Maybe his carrying it didn’t mean anything. Or maybe he kept it as a constant reminder of what was at stake if the Union wasn’t successful in keeping the nation whole. Whatever the reason, it’s an interesting find among the other, everyday items we might expect to find in the pocket of 19th century man.

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Robert E. Lee Takes Communion

St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, V.A.

In many ways, the name Robert E. Lee has become forever linked to Southern pride and the Confederate States of America. Due to the CSA’s fight to maintain the practice of slavery, Lee has also been linked to racism and white supremacy. However, many of Lee’s actions after the end of the war suggest that his association with these ideas may not be entirely justified.

Though Lee did not win the war for the South, post-war southerners still viewed him as an idol and a hero. Because of his god-like status, Lee had the ability to influence the actions and beliefs of many southerners. On one Sunday morning in Richmond, Lee exercised this power to show his acceptance of the new social order that the Union victory established.

On this particular Sunday morning, Lee attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, V.A. The church service progressed as usual until it was time for communion. When the call to communion was made, an unknown black man rose from his pew in the back of the church and made the long walk down the aisle to the front of the church where he proceeded to kneel at the communion rail.

The members of the church were shocked by this act and remained seated, unsure of what to do. Then, Robert E. Lee rose from his pew. He strode down the center aisle and knelt down next to black man, and the two received communion together. After this act, the rest of the congregation followed suit and took communion.

Though this may seem like a small act when compared to the many battles Lee led in order to preserve the Confederate States and the institution of slavery, I think it speaks volumes about the kind of man Robert E. Lee was. It is actions like this that show Lee’s acceptance of the new way of life brought forth by the Union victory and prove he meant it when he said at the war’s end:

“Before and during the War Between the States I was a Virginian. After the war I became an American.”

Posted in Heartwarming Tales | 26 Comments

The Strange Case of Wilmer McLean

Wilmer McLean

The American Civil War was full of strange coincidences and one of the most amazing is the story of Wilmer McLean.

The first major land battle of the Civil War, First Manassas, took place in northern Virginia on June 21, 1861. McLean owned a farm in the area, and his house served as the headquarters for Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard. Due to the location of these headquarters, the fighting of this short battle took place right in front of McLean’s house. It was so close, in fact, that a Union cannonball struck the house and landed in McLean’s kitchen. After the battle ended, McLean decided he’d had enough of the war and moved to a new location: Appomattox Court House.

Nearly four years later, in April of 1865, the Civil War was nearing its end.  At Appomattox Court House, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant met on the battlefield one final time. Unlike at First Manassas, this was a Union victory, and Lee surrendered his army by the day’s end. Grant drew up the terms of surrender and Lee signed the document … in Wilmer McLean’s front parlor

So, as McLean supposedly said at the war’s end: “The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”

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