The American Civil War had its share of intriguing characters, many of whom had colorful nicknames to match. Some received their monikers out of respect and admiration, while others were labeled out of contempt or ridicule. Often illustrating a certain trait or characteristic of a commander, the authorship of a nickname frequently fell into one of several identifiable patterns or categories. Far from being an exhaustive list of Civil War nicknames, the following discussion highlights some of the most notable.
Many commanders won their nicknames through military performance. Perhaps the most famous nickname in military history – “Stonewall” – was bestowed on Thomas J. Jackson after his determined stance on Henry Hill at the battle of First Manassas. Affectionately called “Old Jack” by his men, Jackson had not always been the recipient of such a badge of honor. While a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, Jackson’s oddities of character had led the cadets to mockingly refer to him as “Tom Fool” Jackson.
Similar to Jackson, Union general George H. Thomas’ stance at Chickamauga resulted in his being named “The Rock of Chickamauga,” while Confederate Edward “Allegheny” Johnson received his name while defending the mountains of western Virginia early in the war. Another Confederate Johnson, Adam R. “Stovepipe” Johnson was known for deceptively making black stovepipes appear as cannon from a distance.
As a cadet at West Point, Ulysses S. Grant was known as “Sam” Grant in a play on his U.S. initials and Uncle Sam. But following his victory at Fort Donelson, the Northern press quickly rechristened him “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.
Poor battlefield performance, or the perception of such, could also result in a nickname. Judson “Kill-Cavalry” Kilpatrick was thought to have a reckless disregard for the lives of his Union cavalry soldiers. Robert E. Lee was known as “Granny Lee” and “The King of Spades” early in the war for his cautiousness and defensive trench building, but after achieving fame as the South’s greatest leader, he became more respectfully known to his men as “Marse Robert” or “Bobby Lee.” William L. Jackson – Stonewall’s second cousin – was amusingly and sarcastically dubbed “Mudwall” Jackson for his lackluster performance as a colonel of Confederate cavalry.
Many leaders were given a nickname to illustrate a certain physical characteristic or personality trait. George B. “Little Mac” McClellan and Philip “Little Phil” Sheridan were named for their small statue, while Confederate Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans was recognized by his skinny, knock-kneed legs. Richard S. Ewell’s hairless pate caused him to be “Old Bald Head,” and reading spectacles combined with a strict temperament prompted the men of Union general Andrew A. Humphreys to call him “Old Goggle Eyes.”
Confederate general John B. “Prince John” Magruder was known for his ornate uniforms and flamboyant style; in contrast to cavalry general William E. “Grumble” Jones who had a constant, irritable disposition.
At times, nicknames were reflective of the individual’s profession before the Civil War. Union general John C. “The Pathfinder” Frémont had been an early explorer of the western United States, and Confederate Leonidas “The Fighting Bishop” Polk was an Episcopal bishop before the war. Rebel general William “Extra Billy” Smith, owner of an antebellum mail coach business, reportedly had a knack for obtaining additional government payments for his postal routes.
To some soldiers, the idea of being part of an extended military family resulted in affectionate names like William T. “Uncle Billy” Sherman, John “Uncle John” Sedgwick, and Sterling “Old Pap” Price.
Although the list of names could go on – some common, some obscure – there’s no question that Civil War soldiers seemed to enjoy both honoring and chastising their leaders by labeling them with distinctive nicknames.