IT’S THE SESQUICENTENNIAL of the Civil War’s turning point week. As July of 1863 approached, Ulysses S. Grant was about to take Vicksburg, cutting the Confederacy in two and making the Mississippi a Union river again. In response, Robert E. Lee invaded Pennsylvania. On July 1-3 he tried to deliver the North a crushing blow at Gettysburg but only succeed in crippling his own army, losing 6,000 soldiers in under an hour in Pickett’s ill-fated charge. The following day, July 4th, Vicksburg fell. You can’t understand the history, politics, or culture of the United States without grappling with this era, and you’ll need a scorecard to do it. Here are the period’s fifty greatest names, with bonus points for historical significance.
50. Jubal Early
Arguably the best named Confederate general. Jubal Early sounds like a man named after a holiday named after a whiskey.
49. Abraham Lincoln
You may have heard this one. A name combining an Old Testament patriarch and a traditional English county seems like a sure winner until you consider such alternatives as Isaac Nottingham or Solomon Rutland.
48. Sojourner Truth
Isabella Baumfree gave herself this name when she walked away from slavery. It’s hard to imagine a better name for an abolition activist. Truth in advertising.
47. George Pickett
It’s a good enough name for a Southern general, but we remember it mainly for that disastrous charge at Gettysburg that bears his name.
46. Lasalle Corbell
General Pickett was so smitten with his “sweet Sally” that he left his post on a number of occasions in order to court her. Her name is good enough by itself, but there’s more: she lived in Chuckatuck, Virginia. That’s right: Lasalle Corbell of Chuckatuck. That’s too weird for fiction.
45. William Tecumseh Sherman
His middle name came from the Native American leader of a rebellion against American expansion, and as a boy the Union general went by its abbreviation: Cump. After the Civil War, no one did more than he to subjugate the Plains Indians not yet under the American yoke. There’s no indication that Sherman got the irony.
44. Orville C. Bumpus
Try to remember Ken Burns’ PBS documentary The Civil War and you’re sure to hear voiceover readings from period letters and diaries, concluding with the author’s name. One such reading came from one Orville C. Bumpus. His name is all we really know about him. It is enough.
43. Pleasant Unthank
A minor figure in the Underground Railroad with a name made for the big leagues. If you ever have to unthank somebody, do try to be pleasant about it.
42. J.E.B. Stuart
Lee’s cavalry chief’s three initials signal his place among the Virginia gentry, proud descendants of the Royalist Cavaliers who headed across the Atlantic after Charles I lost his head. Their amalgamation into “Jeb” announce him as a backwoods hillbilly, a bit more than half-crazy and proud of that too. Those are the two sides of the Confederate coin. (Note: do not accept Confederate coins.)
41. Peyton Farquhar
The protagonist from “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” It’s somehow perfect that someone with so noticeably northern a name as the author Ambrose Bierce would come up with so distinctively southern a name for his main character as this one. And so:
40. Ambrose Bierce
A biting, curmudgeonly man, Bierce deserved a surname that sounded like pierce. If Ambrose seems a bit unusual to contemporary tastes, just consider that his father’s full name was Marcus Aurelius Bierce. And yet, he’s not even the best named Ambrose on this list
39. Ambrose Burnside
That title belongs to this man, who gave us both the Union disaster at Fredericksburg and the term sideburns. If he’d been a better general, there’d surely be a hipster bar called Burnside’s Sideburns somewhere.
38. Robert E. Lee
The Lees were an old Virginia Cavalier family long before Robert E. came along. Even his white soldiers typically called him “Master Robert.” I grew up in Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky, a slave state that stayed in the Union, and even we had a guy named Bobby Lee around. I bet hundreds of southern towns still do.
37. Harriet Beecher Stowe
The 3-2-1 syllables sound like a countdown. Stowe’s last two names suggest a Yankee activist, which is what the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was. Lincoln really did say when he met her, “So you’re the little lady that started this great war.”
36. Josiah Henson
The model for Stowe’s Uncle Tom. Henson founded one of the leading settlements for former slaves at the Ontario end of the Underground Railroad.
35. States Rights Gist
The Gist family felt so strongly about states’ rights – specifically, the right of those states’ citizens to own slaves – that they gave that name to their son. To savor how weird this was, imagine a left-wing friend who cares so much about health care policy that she names her daughter “Single Payer.” (Alternate version: your right-wing friend names his son “Benghazi.” This has probably already happened.)
34. Stonewall Jackson
It’s not clear whether the fellow Confederate general who said, “There is Jackson, standing like a stone wall,” meant it as a compliment. In a parallel universe, Lost Causers still sing the praises of Logbump Jackson.
33. Gouverneur Warren
The Union General who did as much as almost anyone to hold the line at Gettysburg. It’s very difficult to say his name without prefacing it with, “Top of the morning to ya.” Try it.
32. Simon Bolivar Buckner
There’s nothing inherently incongruous about a Confederate general named after the great Latin American liberator. Still, it’s fun to wax anachronistic and think of him as “Che Guevara Buckner.”
31. Jermain Loguen
Born Jarm Logue, Loguen escaped from slavery in Tennessee to become one of the most prominent station masters on the Underground Railroad in Syracuse, New York.
30. Scarlett O’Hara
I do declare, how did anyone manage to romanticize the antebellum South before Margaret Mitchell came along? In A Confederacy of Dunces, janitor Burma Jones tells his white female boss, “Who you callin ‘boy’? You ain Scarla O’Horror.”
29. Lucretia Mott
An early leader of the abolition and feminist movements before they split near the end of the war. That name makes her sound like a Disney villain who runs a fruit-picking empire.
28. Bushrod Johnson
The only Confederate general to have once worked on the Underground Railroad, Johnson really couldn’t say he didn’t know better. “Bushrod” wasn’t a nickname. You’ll want to put on safe search when you Google him.
27. Mary Chestnut
The most famous Confederate diarist of the war, Chestnut recounted the South’s failing fortunes with pitiless wit. It’s fitting that she almost shares her name with the great American tree, now almost entirely lost to blight.
26. Winfield Scott Hancock
This name can’t sing like it did in its day, largely because nobody knows who Winfield Scott is anymore. But everybody did back then, since Scott got most of the glory for winning the Mexican War. For our own day, “Norman Schwartzkopf Hancock” might be the best approximation.
25. Ulysses S. Grant
Born Hiram Ulysses Grant, the leading Union general lost his first name through a bureaucratic snafu and gained a vestigial middle initial in its place. Grant thus became one of two Presidents with an S in the middle of his name that didn’t stand for anything, Truman being the other. In sympathy, some other Presidents have made sure not to stand for anything whatsoever. Grant fortunately held onto Ulysses, which somehow fits even though he starred more in the American Iliad than its Odyssey. In spite of two terms in the White House and his best efforts on behalf of the freed slaves, Grant wasn’t really able to bring his country back home.
24. Vestal Coffin
One of a family of North Carolina Quakers who helped slaves escape north until their neighbors made life too uncomfortable for them. They then moved to Indiana where they helped build the local Underground Railroad.
23. Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Like Mott, an abolitionist and feminist before the great sundering of those movements over the 14th and 15th Amendments.
22. Frederick Douglass
One of the great writers and orators of his time, Douglass picked a surname that nicely matched his dignity, replacing his slave name Bailey. It seems more than likely that Abraham Lincoln’s debate opponent Stephen A. Douglas really did chop the second s off of his own name after Frederick Douglass’s autobiography came out, presumably to discourage association between himself and the famous abolitionist. That’s what racism will do to you: it’ll make you cut your own s off.
21. Fighting Joe Hooker
It all started with a typo. The press report should have said “Fighting – Joe Hooker,” but for want of a dash a nickname was born. If only Hooker had shown more dash himself. Lee gave him the Union’s most demoralizing defeat at Chancellorsville, beating him badly with roughly half the soldiers.
20. Harriet Tubman
The most famous leader of the Underground Railroad, and deservedly so. Some called her “General Tubman,” and that fits.
19. Jefferson Davis
It’s perversely fitting that the Confederacy’s only President shared his first name with the surname of America’s third chief executive. Shelby Foote ends his history of the war with Davis saying to a reporter near the end of his life, “Tell the world that I only loved America.” It’s enough to make you cry. But not for Davis. For the country.
18. Thaddeus Stevens
Tommy Lee Jones played him in Spielberg’s Lincoln, and the real Stevens may have been even harder to handle. A man that tough deserves a name like Thaddeus.
17. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard
It’s tempting to hear his name and think, “Well of course he became a Confederate general,” but that’s like complaining about all the clichés in Hamlet. We think it natural that the South had a dashing, half-mad creole general precisely because P.G.T. Beauregard was that man.
16. Absalom Baird
As a Union general Baird passed at least near the border of Mississippi. There is no indication that he ever reached Yoknapatwapha County even once, much less twice. More’s the pity.
15. Rooster Cogburn
Charles Portis gave his True Grit anti-hero Reuben Cogburn the perfect nickname. I thought David Sedaris’s brother owned it, but Cogburn won me over.
14. John Bell Hood
Those three single syllables shoot out at you like bullets from a Henry rifle – the kind that cost Hood his right leg, use of his right arm, and almost his entire army. Without question the worst commanding Confederate general.
13. Sylvannus Cadwallader
A reporter attached to Grant’s army. The surname is a derivation of Cadwaladr, an early medieval Welsh king.
12. Elihu Washburne
This Illinois representative championed the cause of Ulysses S. Grant from the beginning of the war, when the latter was only a former captain who had resigned in disgrace for alcoholism. He gets bonus points for having a brother named Cadwallader Washburn. Elihu added the silent e to the family name, presumably to distract people from the name Elihu, which clearly came out of the oven too soon.
11. Jo March
I’m hard-pressed to remember a female friend who didn’t think Jo was the best character in Little Women. Plenty of real-life women actually posed as men and fought on either side. It’s almost a shame Jo didn’t too.
10. Nathan Bedford Forrest
That triple set of two syllables clops down like the hooves of the horses Forrest and his men used to run rings around their Union opponents for most of the war. A former slave-trader who bears ultimate responsibility for the Fort Pillow massacre, Forrest was no one’s idea of a nice man. Still, you’d probably rather have him on your side than on the other one.
9. Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain designed him to serve as Tom Sawyer’s second banana, which he ultimately does even in his own book. Then there’s that unfortunate business with “N-word Jim.” But Huck Finn is a great character with a classic name, whether or not you hear Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday every time someone says it.
8. Jedediah Hotchkiss
The man who made the enormous map of the Shenandoah Valley that let Stonewall Jackson pop in and out of mountain passes like a magician doing a particularly belligerent trick.
7. James D.B. DeBow
The editor of DeBow’s Review, an influential magazine in the antebellum South. Cut off the James in his name and you’re left with the sound the little robot used to make on Buck Rogers.
6. Ulric Dahlgren
You’ll think Tarantino must have made this name up, but Dahlgren played a small but important role in the war. He was killed on a raid of Richmond and the papers discovered on his body indicated that his mission had been to assassinate Jefferson Davis. John Wilkes Booth may have been inspired by this plot.
5. Moxley Sorrel
The personal assistant to Confederate General James Longstreet. If you make your ears squint, you can almost hear someone saying this name to describe a spunky horse: “My, but she’s a moxley sorrel, ain’t she?”
4. Lyman Trumbull
Union Senator and co-author of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which both ended slavery and drove the narrative in Lincoln.
3. Wrede Sartorius
A Union doctor in E.L. Doctorow’s magnificent The March. Great character, questionable man, wonderful name.
2. Braxton Bragg
The saying goes, “No brag – just fact,” but Confederate General Bragg was the opposite. He made a habit of nearly beating his opponent and then retreating, which makes it hard to convince people you won, though he certainly tried. This was mostly brag, no fact.
1. Shellanna Marvilla Holt Tidwell
They named her shell–anna because shells from the siege of Atlanta nearly ended her life before it began. Already named Shellanna Marvilla Holt, she had the good sense to marry a man named Tidwell, giving us the best name of the era. Thank you, Ms. Holt Tidwell. We’re in your debt.