Editor’s note: John Marquardt published his farewell recently, but he thought this needed to be discussed and as such is his postscript.

As I wrote in my 2015 Abbeville article, a century prior to the War of Secession, Rudolf Rase, a German pseudo-scientist and notorious swindler, wrote a book entitled “Baron Munchausen’s Narratives of His Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia.” Those fictitious accounts were loosely based on the tall tales told by ab actual German nobleman, Baron Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchausen, who served in the Russian cavalry during Tsar Peter the Great’s Eighteenth Century wars with Turkey and Persia. A hundred years later, a young American student who claimed to have been born and raised near Louisville, Kentucky, William Gillespie Stevenson, wrote an almost equally colorful narrative of his incredible experiences while forcibly serving in various branches of the Confederate armed forces during 1861 and 1862.

Stevenson’s book “Thirteen Months in the Rebel Army,” was published in New York in 1862, and quickly became a best-seller in the North. During the War, some of Stevenson’s more lurid accounts were used in publications like “Harper’s Weekly” to demean the Confederacy and some it is leaders, such as his depiction of Lieutenant General and Episcopal Bishop Leonidas Polk as being addicted to liquor and profanity. After the War, the book was also used in such wartime anthologies as the 1901 “Recollections of a Rebel Surgeon” by Ferdinand Daniel and two years later in John Gordon’s “Reminiscences of the Civil War.”

Since then, the book has continued to be republished a number of times, both under its original title and as “The Reluctant Rebel,” as well as a French edition, “Treize Mois Dans L’Armée Des Rebelles.” In addition, the book has been cited as reference material in a number of historical publications, one of the latest being the 1993 biography of Confederate Major General Thomas Hindman, “Lion of the South,” by Diane Neal and Thomas Kremm.

Even from the outset, the book contained glaring errors that should have been detected, or at least seriously questioned, by its readers over the years and those who have used it as resource material. It remains listed, however, as Confederate history and narrative by both libraries and publishers. The earliest example is Stevenson’s account of his appearance before a Tennessee “Vigilance Committee” to stand trial as a Northern abolitionist in which he faced the possibility of being hanged. He claimed he escaped the gallows and secured a unanimous acquittal by confronting the committee, which he depicted as nothing more than a “drunken mob,” with a pair of large Colt pistols which he had somehow managed to bring into the courtroom. At a similar trial later in Tennessee, Stevenson wrote that he managed to escape hanging by agreeing to serve in the Confederate Army.

At that point, Stevenson’s book really enters the world of fantasy. He claimed that in spite of his trials as a Northern abolitionist and his total lack of military training, he was made a sergeant and shortly after his first battle, was brevetted a second lieutenant. This was the first actual impossibility, as the brevet, a promotion to higher rank for gallantry, while widely used in the Union Army, was never a practice in the Confederate military. Stevenson then wrote that simply because he had become tired of the Infantry, he was given a transferred to the Ordnance Department where he put in command of a munitions train and with no experience as a train engineer, drove it to Bowling Green in Kentucky.

The fantasy continued when, a few months later, Stevenson decided to try the Cavalry where he was immediate promptly to captain in Colonel John Morgan’s command and became a courier on the staff of General John Breckinridge in the Battle of Shiloh. In that engagement, Stevenson wrote he was given a dispatch for the commander of the Confederate forces, General Albert Sidney Johnston, and was just a few feet from the general when an exploding shell caused Johnston’s fatal wound. After the incident, Stevenson said he personally reported Johnston’s death to the Army’s second in command, General P. T. G. Beauregard. Stevenson said that while carrying the dispatch to other generals in that battle, he was hit in the back by a piece of spent shrapnel and sent to a hospital in Mississippi where he received a medical discharge and, with no medical training other than the lectures he said were given by a “Dr. Owen” at the New York Free Academy, he was appointed a surgeon at the hospital and later as the head of the Army hospital in Selma, Alabama. The books ends with the account of Stevenson finally escaping on the way to Selma and his almost miraculous travels back to the North.

Virtually all the public knows about Stevenson today is what appeared in his1862 book, but the true facts indicate that what was written was either pure fiction or, according to one Tennessee official in the state’s archives library, very likely produced by a ghostwriter to be used as Union propaganda. The official also stated that there was no record of Stevenson ever having served in any Tennessee regiment during the War. Furthermore, I recently found via a Nyack, New York, newspaper that Stevenson was not born in Kentucky as he claimed in his book. An article from the paper said that Stevenson was actually born in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1839, where his father was a professor at Oberlin College, a hotbed of abolitionist agitation and a major “station” along the Underground Railway, the escape route for fugitive slaves.

While the only true part of the book is that Stevenson did attend the New York Free Academy in 1857 and had classes with a “Dr. Owen,” the part that he attended medical lectures there was fiction however, as the school had no medical courses and “Dr. Owen” was actually Professor John Owen who was a doctor of philosophy and taught only classic Greek and Latin literature. Furthermore, rather than serving in the “rebel army” during the first thirteen months of the War, Stevenson was actually attending Bellevue Medical College in New York at that time. The college is now part of New York University which has corroborated the fact that Stevenson entered the college as a medical student at the start of the War and graduated from there in 1865.

The rest of Stevenson’s life was far less adventurous than the one depicted in his wartime book, as he later established a medical practice in Nyack, New York, married the daughter of a prominent local physician there and died in that city in 1888 at age forty-nine. While Stevenson never wrote any further accounts of wartime heroics or any other books, he did produce a few scholarly medical and scientific papers between 1884 and 1887 for journals such as the “Popular Science Monthly.” Perhaps, however, a quote by Stevenson’s former professor of classic literature might be a fitting epilogue for “Thirteen Months in the Rebel Army,” which stated “One lie must be thatched with another or it will soon rain through.” Hopefully, the truth about Stevenson’s1862 book will someday rain through a century and a half of falsehood.

John Marquardt

John Marquardt is a native of Connecticut but a Southerner at heart. After attending the University of Georgia, Marquardt realized the truth and the value of the Southern tradition. He served in World War II and spent his career in international trade. He currently resides in Tokyo, Japan. His Japanese wife loves Charleston and Savannah and admires Southern culture.


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