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"Tardy George" and "Extra Billy": Nicknames in the Civil War Carl M. Becker Though nicknames surely were commonplace in the decades just before and after the Civil War, perhaps as never before or since, the names in currency during the war clearly manifested the feelings ofmany Americans, North and South, for their military and political leaders. Through a wide range ofnicknames, soldiers and civilians expressed their affection for and confidence in generals and politicians or their disaffection and contempt for such figures. By nicknames, they invested men (and a few women) with mythic powers, divested them ofhuman dimensions, or defined theiressential qualities.1 On the eve of the Civil War, Americans were ready for, if not already practicing, an extensive use of colorful sobriquets. Their society had been experiencing a long surge of egalitarianism that, as Alexis de Toqueville had noted early in its course, invited the reduction ofrespect for authority. The loosening ofstructure in personal relationships, with all ofits implications for informality and the diminuation of status, fostered the employment of nicknames as leveling terminology. Giving men opportunities for the exercise and evaluation ofleadership, the war itselfhad to be a host for numerous noms de guerre. Whatever the milieu out of which they sprang, appellations of all sorts surfaced during the war to characterize its dramatis personae. As the list below indicates, at last 150 names saw some usage. Though no taxonomic 1 For this collection of nicknames various reference works, military histories, and biographies have been used. Especially important were Mark M. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary (New York: David McKay Company, 1988); Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative , 3 vols. (New York, Random House, 1958-74); Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command, 3 vols. (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1946); Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Blue: Lives ofthe Union Commanders (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1964); and Generals in Gray: Lives ofConfederate Commanders (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1959); Dictionary ofAmerican Biography, 20 vols. (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1928-36). Civil War History, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, ß 1989 by the Kent State University Press NICKNAMES IN THE CIVIL WAR303 analysis of them is intended here, one can discern several patterns in their provenance and authorship. Obviously an individual's prominent physical features or intellectual capacities—or perceptions of them—inspired the use of nicknames. Coming to Washington in 1862 as general in chief of the Union army, Henry Halleck had already been known in the Old Army as "Old Brains" owing to his large head and his authorship of books on military science and mining law. Confederate general Richard Ewell and Union general William F. Smith, both with balding pates, bore respectively the rather conventional names of"Old Bald Head"and "Baldy." Sobriquets went beyond skulls, of course. His "thinnest members receiving stoutest acclaim," Nathan Evans, the Confederate brigadier, was known as "Shanks." Physical contours and limitations came into play in the denomination of generals Jubal Early as "Old Lop Ear," Alexander Stewart as "Old Straight," and Andrew Humphreys as "Old Goggle Eyes." Generals might also possess physical characteristics reminiscent of animals. Robert Milroy, commanding a Union brigade in the Cheat Mountain District in the opening year of the war, had "piercing black eyes," an aquiline nose, and long silver hair that transformed him into the "Grey Eagle." Almost anthropomorphic was "The Horse" inhabitating the body of David Twiggs, the Confederate officer , a robust powerful man, the "embodiment of dynamic physical energy." Sometimes names derived from what appeared to be the habitual temperament or behavior of a man. The Confederate general William E. Jones was "Grumble" Jones; burdened by the memory of his bride's tragic death by drowning, he shrouded himselfin perpetual complainingand bitterness . Richard Page, who served in the Confederate navyand army, had a reputation for fiery effusions and thus earned for himselfthe title of"Bombast ." In contrast, by his "courtly manner"another Confederate, "Prince" John Magruder, called attention to his customary bearing. Often soldiers won nicknames by their military performance. Surely in "Stonewall," Brigadier General Barnard Bee gave an eternal accolade to Thomas Jackson for his resolute stand on Henry Hill at First Bull Run...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 302-310
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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