In the movie “How The West Was Won” there’s a scene set during the Civil War. A disillusioned Union private (played by George Peppard) and a similarly disillusioned rebel soldier (Russ Tamblyn) befriend one another during the battle of Shiloh, and the two decide to desert their respective armies. But as they hide together before running off, they find themselves in close proximity to Generals Grant and Sherman. Realizing that the Union commanding general is within his reach, the erstwhile rebel deserter raises his rifle to shoot Grant. But Peppard’s character stops him, killing him in the process, and saves Grant’s life.
For the screenwriters, interested in highlighting the human drama of the story, I’m sure that scene made a lot of sense. It seems perfectly reasonable that a soldier who saw a chance to take out the opposing side’s commander would seize the opportunity if he could. And yet, that’s not at all what happened in real life. Civil War soldiers just didn’t seem to think that way.
There were occasions during the war when Confederate soldiers did come face to face with General Grant. Yet, far from making aggressive moves toward him, they treated him with respect.
In his memoirs Grant relates two such incidents that happened during the Chattanooga campaign:
“This creek, from its mouth up to where it bears off west, lay between the two lines of pickets, and the guards of both armies drew their water from the same stream. As I would be under short-range fire and in an open country, I took nobody with me, except, I believe, a bugler, who stayed some distance to the rear. I rode from our right around to our left. When I came to the camp of the picket guard of our side, I heard the call, ‘Turn out the guard for the commanding general.’ I replied, ‘Never mind the guard,’ and they were dismissed and went back to their tents. Just back of these, and about equally distant from the creek, were the guards of the Confederate pickets. The sentinel on their post called out in like manner, ‘Turn out the guard for the commanding general,’ and, I believe, added, ‘General Grant.’ Their line in a moment front-faced to the north, facing me, and gave a salute, which I returned.
“The most friendly relations seemed to exist between the pickets of the two armies. At one place there was a tree which had fallen across the stream, and which was used by the soldiers of both armies in drawing water for their camps. General Longstreet’s corps was stationed there at the time, and wore blue of a little different shade from our uniform. Seeing a soldier in blue on this log, I rode up to him, commenced conversing with him, and asked whose corps he belonged to. He was very polite, and, touching his hat to me, said he belonged to General Longstreet’s corps. I asked him a few questions-but not with a view of gaining any particular information-all of which he answered, and I rode off.”
Ulysses S. Grant would go on to become the man most responsible, after Abraham Lincoln, for the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. If the Confederates who saw Grant along that creek at Chattanooga had shot him instead of saluting him, it’s quite possible the whole course of world history might have been changed.
But they didn’t. Civil War soldiers just didn’t think that way.