The stories behind the Civil War's famous names

Sunday, November 7, 2010; R08

1. Ulysses S. Grant

The military architect of the Union's triumph

In 1860, he was a 38-year-old West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War, but he had resigned from the Army six years before, lonely, depressed and alcoholic. A failed farmer who had once built a house called Hardscrabble, he had lately sold firewood on the streets of St. Louis and worked as a rent collector. He was now clerking in his father's leather goods store in Galena, Ill., where he did not own a horse.

2. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson

One of the Confederate army's most brilliant generals

He was a 36-year-old, deeply religious and somewhat quarrelsome West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran who had left the Army to take a job as a professor at the Virginia Military Institute. In 1859, he led a contingent of VMI cadets to provide security at the hanging of the Harpers Ferry abolitionist John Brown. Jackson noted that Brown behaved with "unflinching firmness."

3. Robert E. Lee

The legendary commander of the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia

A colonel in the United States Army, he, too, was a veteran of the Mexican War, in which he had been wounded. A former superintendent at West Point, he had led the government forces that captured John Brown at Harpers Ferry. But in 1860 he was stationed in far-off Texas, where he chased bandits and Indians and missed his large family back home at Arlington House, across the Potomac from Washington. He was 53, believed that his career had stalled and saw himself as a failure.

4. Walt Whitman

The poet of the Civil War

The former printer and newspaper editor was 41 and an established writer and commentator living in Brooklyn. In 1860 the third edition of his book "Leaves of Grass" was published, expanded from 12 poems to more than 150. Drawn by the great cataclysm of his generation, he would soon move to Washington, minister to the wounded and steep himself in the war's grandeur and suffering.

5. Frederick Douglass

The renowned abolitionist and former Maryland slave

Age 42 in 1860, he was back home in Rochester, N.Y., after fleeing to Canada and England in the wake of John Brown's doomed raid on Harpers Ferry. Brown had been Douglass's friend and confidant and had written his revolutionary "constitution" in Douglass's home. Lincoln's election, Douglass later wrote, was "a glorious assertion of freedom and independence on the part of North."

6. Jefferson Davis

Soon to be the Confederacy's first and only president

In 1860 he was a former secretary of war and a former regent of the Smithsonian Institution, and was serving as a U.S. senator from Mississippi. A graduate of West Point and a combat-wounded veteran of the Mexican War, at 52, he believed in states' rights but thought secession would be reckless.

7. Clara Barton

Pioneering battlefield nurse and later head of the Union's "missing in action" bureau

She had suffered a breakdown after the loss of her job in the U.S. Patent Office. The election of Lincoln, a fellow Republican, promised a return to Washington and gainful employment for the 38-year-old Barton. On the eve of the Battle of Fredericksburg, she would write: "Oh northern mothers, wives and sisters, all unconscious of the hour, would to Heaven that I could bear for you the concentrated woe which is so soon to follow."

8. William T. Sherman

The hard-driving, red-haired Union general who would conquer Atlanta and help bring the Confederacy to its knees

He was 40, asthmatic, a West Point graduate and a former Army officer. Ten years before, he had been married in Washington in a ceremony attended by President Zachary Taylor and Sens. Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Unsuccessful in banking and business, he had just gone to Louisiana to run a new military academy. His view of the crisis was simple: Secession was treason.

9. John Wilkes Booth

President Abraham Lincoln's assassin

Booth, 22, was a new acting sensation and a Southern patriot. A member of an acclaimed family of actors, he was on tour in Alabama on Election Day; for the first time, he had leading roles and was packing theaters. He was also recovering from an accidental gunshot wound a few weeks earlier that might have killed him -- and changed history.

-- Michael E. Ruane

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