Kentucky’s Baron Munchausen

stevenson

A century prior to the War Between the States, a German magazine writer, pseudo-scientist and notorious swindler, Rudolf Erich Raspe, penned a series of fictional articles describing the fantastic adventures of a military character he called Baron Münchhausen.  In 1785, a book of Raspe’s collected stories was published in England under the title Baron Munchausen’s Narratives of His Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia.   While Raspe’s tall tales of the Baron, some of which, such as a pre-Jules Verne trip to the moon, were early examples of science-fiction, they were, in part, loosely based on the fabulous personal tales told by an actual German nobleman, Baron Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen.  The Baron served in the Russian cavalry during that nation’s wars with Austria and Turkey from 1735 to 1741, and after his retirement from the military in 1760, Baron Münchhausen became famous throughout Europe as an after-dinner raconteur who gave lurid and highly exaggerated accounts of his many wartime exploits.

A hundred years later, a young man from Kentucky named William G. Stevenson wrote an almost equally colorful narrative of his rather incredible experiences while serving in various branches of the Confederate armed forces during 1861 and ’62.  Stevenson’s pocket-size, 232-page book, Thirteen Months in the Rebel Army, was published in New York City in 1862, and quickly became a best-seller in the North.  The book’s biased descriptions of conditions and individuals in the Confederacy, which included the depiction of General and Episcopal Bishop Leonidas Polk as being addicted to both liquor and profanity, were also widely repeated in such Northern publications as Harpers Weekly.  Over the years Stevenson’s single literary effort 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, such as the 1993 biography of General Thomas C. Hindman, Lion of the South, by Diane Neal and Thomas W. Kremm.  If one reads Stevenson’s work closely, however, particularly with the eye of a military historian, it should quickly become apparent that the tale of his year in the South is filled with rather gaping credibility gaps, some large enough for General Forrest’s cavalry to charge through.

The book begins with the young Stevenson leaving his parent’s home in New York City in March of 1861 and heading South to seek a relative who was teaching in Arkansas, and whom he hoped would assist him in securing a teaching position in that area.  Unable to find either the relative or a position, Stevenson entered into partnership with a young man from Memphis, Tennessee, and within the amazingly short period of a month they were operating a successful business in Helena, a port town on the Mississippi River and the county seat of Phillips County, where they exported barrel staves to France for use in wine casks.  Shortly after the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12th, however, Stevenson was ordered to appear before the “Phillips County Vigilance Committee” in nearby Jeffersonville to stand trial as a Northern abolitionist, and where he faced the possibility of being hanged.  He miraculously escaped the gallows by confronting the Committee, which he depicted as a “drunken mob,” with a pair of Colt Navy pistols which he had somehow been allowed to carry into the courtroom, and thereby secured a unanimous acquittal.  In spite of the threat of war, Stevenson traveled up the Mississippi River to Memphis rather than returning to New York, and was promptly taken into custody by the local “Committee of Public Safety” which had somehow been alerted to his prior trial in Arkansas.  In Tennessee though, he was offered the choice of either being tried again as an abolitionist or volunteering to serve in a local regiment, and he promptly chose the latter.

So here we have a Northerner who had narrowly escaped two instances in which he could have been hanged as a hated Yankee abolitionist being forced to enlist as a private in Memphis’ newly formed “Irish” 2nd Tennessee Infantry Regiment.  In spite of the unfavorable circumstances of his enlistment and the fact that he was neither from the area nor Irish, as well as his total lack of military training, Stevenson was, for some unknown reason, promoted to sergeant in the local regiment in less than two weeks.  Even though he repeatedly expressed his intense loyalty to the Union in the book, Stevenson continued his routine military duties at the camp near Memphis for the next six months without ever mentioning any attempt to escape and return North.  The book then tells of Stevenson’s first military engagement, the Battle of Belmont, Missouri, on November 7, 1861.  Since he had no wish to harm any of his Northern brethren, Stevenson described in detail how he either feigned firing his rifle or aimed to miss any Union targets, while hinting that he deliberately shot Confederate officers instead . . . and all under the watchful eyes of any observers who might normally be positioned behind the firing line.

The next unbelievable episode took place just a week after Stevenson’s first battle in which he related how he was “brevetted” a second lieutenant . . . and that is where the story reaches the outer boundaries of credibility.  The “brevet,” which was originally a British practice prior to the awarding of military medals, was a promotion to a higher rank, usually for gallantry in action or some other meritorious service.  The brevet was widely used by the Union armed forces during the War Between the States, but it was only awarded to commissioned officers.  There was just one instance in which the brevet was given to a Union enlisted man, and that was in 1865 when Private Frederick William Stowe, the son of Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame, was brevetted a second lieutenant shortly after the War.  There is, however, a further major problem with Stevenson’s account, and that is the simple fact that brevets were never used by the Confederate armed services.  After his unlikely elevation to second lieutenant, Stevenson related how he had become tired of life in the infantry and somehow effected a transfer to the Ordnance Department in December of 1861.  Shortly after entering that service, he told of being put in command of a twenty-seven car train that was carrying a Tennessee infantry regiment and a load of ammunition to the Confederate forces in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  During the journey, the train’s engineer, a Union sympathizer, deserted and Stevenson, with no railroad experience whatsoever, was ordered to drive the train to its destination.  Soon after his arrival, Stevenson came down with pneumonia and was sent to Nashville, Tennessee, to recuperate at the home of a family friend.

After his recovery in February of 1862, Stevenson then suddenly felt he would like to try the cavalry, and was immediately allowed to transfer there as an “acting captain” with Colonel John H. Morgan’s troopers.  Two months later, however, we suddenly find Stevenson serving as a courier on the staff of General John C. Breckinridge, the former vice-president of the United States,  just prior to the Battle of Pittsburg Landing in Tennessee.  During that major engagement, Stevenson was given a dispatch for the commander of the Confederate forces, General Albert S. Johnston, and he wrote of standing  just a few feet from the General when an exploding shell caused Johnston’s fatal wound.  After the incident, Stevenson, noted that it was he who personally reported General Johnston’s death to the Army’s second in command, General P. T. G. Beauregard, and then carried dispatches from Beauregard to the other generals on the field.  During the last stages of the battle, Stevenson was hit by a piece of a spent shell and while the injury, actually a serious bruise, was certainly not life-threatening, he was admitted to an Army hospital in Corinth, Mississippi, and on April 8th, he received an honorable discharge due to being classified as unfit for military service.

In a further fantastic twist, Stevenson claimed that on the basis of his merely having attended a couple of medical lectures during his college days in New York, the head of the hospital, Dr. Josiah C. Nott, appointed him as an assistant surgeon.  This seems highly unlikely, as such persons would have to have either a medical degree or at least extensive medical training.  Furthermore, since that position carried the rank and pay of a cavalry captain, such an appointment had to also be approved by the Confederate Medical Department.  To make the story even more amazing, Stevenson claimed that the following month Dr. Nott ordered him to Selma, Alabama, to serve as the head of the Army hospital in that city.  It was during May of 1862 on his way to Selma that Stevenson finally decided to make his escape from the Confederacy.  The rest of the book tells of his many death-defying adventures as he made his way North and was finally reunited with his family in New York.

While many of the events in Stevenson’s narrative may seem unbelievable, his life story, or the lack of one, is just as mysterious.  All the author told his readers in regard to his personal background was that he was born and raised somewhere near Louisville, Kentucky, and that at the time of his journey South, he was living with his family somewhere in New York City.  As far as his education is concerned, the author merely referred to studying under a “Professor Owen” at the New York Free Academy.  That institution actually existed in Manhattan in the 19th Century, and is now the City College of New York, with the original school being founded in 1847 by Townsend Harris, America’s first ambassador to Japan.  The instructor mentioned by Stevenson would have been Dr. John J. Owen, which would also indicate that the author’s studies undoubtedly included classic Greek and Latin literature.  There were, however, no medical courses offered at the Free Academy . . . hence, no “medical lectures.”  In regard to his family, the only facts that Stevenson’s book mentioned were that he had a mother and father, as well as a younger brother and at least two sisters . . . all unnamed . . . who were residing in New York City prior to and during his thirteen months in the Confederacy.

Furthermore, no biographies or photographs of Stevenson seem to have ever been published, and there are apparently no records available pertaining to his birth, later life or the date and place of his death.  Likewise, there are now very few contemporary press accounts on file of either Stevenson or his popular book, and those that still exist, such as a front page piece in the October 7, 1862, issue of the Louisville (Kentucky) Daily Journal, merely present excerpts from the book, with no critical comments or biographical information.  One Tennessee government official recently stated that some reader reviews of the republished editions of Stevenson’s book cite that the author “. . . related too many disparate and dramatic adventures within his thirteen-month service to be entirely creditable.”  That official also added that while there is nothing to confirm the supposition, “ . . . it is entirely possible, and even probable, that the book is a work of fictional propaganda.”

With those thoughts in mind, the final remaining question is why there is nothing to indicate that Stevenson, a person who in his book constantly referred to his undying devotion to the Union and the total righteousness of the Northern cause, ever served the United States in any capacity following his escape.  No records seem to exist of his having volunteered for Union military service, or even being drafted, during the entire three years from his return to New York until the end of the War.  As to the Munchausenesque tales Stevenson related in “Thirteen Months in the Rebel Army,” perhaps a quote by one of the author’s own teachers, Professor Owen, might be a fitting epitaph . . . “One lie must be thatched with another or it will soon rain through.”

 

About 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. More from John Marquardt

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