‘Old Brains’ and ‘Granny Lee’: Civil War Soldiers Often Gave Their Generals Pointed Nicknames

The relationship between soldiers and their commanders can be indicated by nicknames, which also provide insights into how opponents and civilians on both sides thought about various generals. Nathan Bedford Forrest, lauded by Confederates as the “Wizard of the Saddle,” vexed William Tecumseh Sherman as “that devil Forrest.” Rebels cursed Benjamin F. Butler as “Beast” and “Spoons” and mocked Nathanial P. Banks, whose army abandoned supplies during the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, as “Commissary Banks.” Saddled with the un-martial nickname “Old Brains,” Henry W. Halleck might have envied James Ewell Brown Stuart, whose three initials created “Jeb,” a splendid piece of luck for a dashing cavalryman. Richard S. Ewell (“Old Bald Head”) and William Farrar Smith (“Baldy”) certainly harbored no doubts about how they acquired their informal monikers.

New Orleans citizens accused Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler of stealing silver spoons while military commander of their city. This spoon, made in Lowell, Mass., pays humorous tribute to the general.

No general experienced a greater turnaround in nicknames than Robert E. Lee. Scorned as “Granny” or the “King of Spades” early in the war, he remained controversial when assigned to replace the wounded Joseph E. Johnston outside Richmond on June 1, 1862. The ensuing year brought victories that solidified Lee’s reputation as a gifted commander whose soldiers called him “Marse Robert.” An alternative form of “master” typically associated with enslaved African Americans, “marse” carried cultural weight in a patriarchal slaveholding society. For Lee’s soldiers, the nickname combined respect for supreme authority and affection. A North Carolinian explained in early 1864 that comrades “speak of him amongst themselves universally as ‘Marse Robert’ & use it as a term of endearment & affection.” Lee’s troops developed a sense of familial loyalty and obligation that showed when James Longstreet’s Corps returned to Virginia from Tennessee in April 1864. Artillerist Edward Porter Alexander recalled the moment Lee rode onto a knoll to review the men: “The general reins up his horse, & bares his good gray head, & looks at us & we shout & cry & wave our battleflags & look at him again….Each man seemed to feel the bond which held us all to Lee. There was no speaking, but the effect was that of a military sacrament, in which we pledged anew our lives.”

Only George B. McClellan inspired comparable devotion among men in the ranks. His nickname, “Little Mac,” conveyed no sense of military talent or purpose—indeed, as a diminutive version of “McClellan” it could be construed as somehow negative. But the nickname had nothing to do with stature—at 5’ 8” tall, McClellan was slightly above average height—and everything to do with acknowledging a sense of closeness between the general and his troops. McClellan worked hard to build spirit in the Army of the Potomac, making himself accessible through unannounced visits to camps and using reviews to imbue the men with a sense of being part of the republic’s greatest military force. In important ways, the army remained McClellan’s after he departed in the wake of Antietam. A Rhode Islander captured prevailing attitudes in the ranks to McClellan’s removal in early November 1862. “This has been a sad day for the Army of the Potomac,” he wrote: “Gen. McClellan has been relieved from command and has left us. He rode along the lines and was heartily cheered by the men….This change produces much bitter feeling and some indignation. McClellan’s enemies will now rejoice, but the Army loves and respects him.”         

Avuncular imagery usually signaled strong ties between soldiers and their commander. William Tecumseh Sherman and Joseph E. Johnston, known as “Uncle Billy” and “Uncle Joe” by their men, forged reputations as officers who avoided unnecessary bloodshed and looked after their troops. “Uncle John” Sedgwick, chief of the Union 6th Corps, stood, in the words of one soldier who commented about the general’s death at Spotsylvania, as “our friend, our idol…the great leader, the cherished friend, he that had been more than a father to us all.”

“Old” figured in many nicknames and often connoted a reciprocal bond across ranks. Although celebrated as “Stonewall” (surely the best of all Civil War nicknames), Thomas J. Jackson most often was “Old Jack” to his men. Similarly, James Longstreet’s soldiers knew him as “Old Pete” (derived from a boyhood and West Point appellation), though he also earned respect as Lee’s “Old War Horse” and “the Bull of the Woods.” William J. Hardee (“Old Reliable”), William S. Rosecrans (“Old Rosey”), P.G.T. Beauregard (“Old Bory”), and Jubal A. Early (“Old Jube”) inspired quite different reactions among their men, with Early, curmudgeonly and sharp-tongued, probably the least popular. George H. Thomas, “Old Slow Trot” to those who thought his movements too sluggish, was most often called “Pap” by devoted troops or “The Rock of Chickamauga.” 

A positive nickname could be turned against an officer. Joseph Hooker emerged from the Richmond campaign of 1862 as “Fighting Joe,” which many soldiers embraced because it set him apart from overly cautious generals in the Army of the Potomac. Hooker despised it. “Don’t call me Fighting Joe,” Harper’s Weekly quoted him as saying in February 1863. R. E. Lee took a dismissive tone in late February 1863, saying, “I owe Mr. F J Hooker no thanks for keeping me here in this state of expectancy. He ought to have made up his mind long ago what to do.” After Hooker’s ignominious collapse at Chancellorsville, the nickname became a weapon for anyone of a sardonic bent. Similarly, John Bell Hood, known as “the gallant Hood” in the Confederacy, fell victim to a sarcastic twist during his army’s retreat from Nashville in December 1864. To the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas, some of his soldiers, in lyrics that compared Hood unfavorably with Joe Johnston, sang: “I’m going back to Georgia / To find my ‘Uncle Joe’ / You may sing about your dearest maid, / And sing of Rosalie, / But the gallant Hood of Texas / Played hell in Tennessee.”

Soldiers bestowed no nickname on some of the war’s leading generals. Ulysses S. Grant’s initials yielded “Sam” (short for “Uncle Sam”) from fellow cadets at West Point and “Unconditional Surrender” from newspapers after Fort Donelson, and Confederates and some Democrats (especially Copperheads) called him “Butcher” during the Overland Campaign. But no lasting nickname originated with his troops. John Pope, Braxton Bragg, and Irvin McDowell, among army commanders, similarly emerged from the conflict without a nickname. That might have been a good thing in each of their cases.

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