By Linda Rosenkrantz
The holiday we’re celebrating—originally called Decoration Day—was first commemorated in 1868, not long after the end of the Civil War, the bitter, bloody battle between the North and the South that ripped the country apart.
Over the course of the war, more than a thousand soldiers reached the rank of general, six of whom, including Ulysses (born Hiram) S. Grant, went on to become U. S. presidents. And for our purposes, they provide us with a fascinating range of period names.
In addition to the expected profusion of Johns, Jameses, Williams and Thomases, we find many Latinate appellations such as Augustus, Cassius, Marcellus, Gustavus and Theopholus; word names like Strong and Pleasant, and surnames Sullivan, Johnson and Jones.
From this cornucopia of intriguing choices, we pick 15 of the best:
Absalom Baird was a career soldier who distinguished himself as a Union Army general, receiving the Medal of Honor for his actions at Bull Run, Yorktown and especially the Battle of Chickamauga. Absalom is an underused biblical name, belonging to a son of King David, which was used in repeated form as the title of a major Faulkner novel, Axel is the Scandinavian form.
Alpheus Baker, an ex-school teacher and lawyer, as Confederate General was a leader during the battle of Vicksburg, seriously wounded several times. Alpheus is a fusty Civil War-era name, that of an ancient Greek river god. Certainly one of the most unique Al-names.
Union General Ambrose Burnside, besides being a Civil War leader, was an industrialist, railroad executive and inventor, eventually becoming the governor of Rhode Island and a U.S Senator. With its rosy ending, Ambrose gives off a cheerful vibe, though it has a solid history in the early Christian church. Off the list since the 1960s, Ambrose was once in the Top 300’s, and is currently Number 326 on Nameberry.
General Braxton Bragg led the Army of Mississippi and Tennessee from Shiloh to Chattanooga. Although he was brilliant at planning attacks, his—uh oh– quarrelsome personality made him extremely unpopular. Braxton, the most modern sounding of these names, with its stylish middle ‘x’, is now at Number 122.
Cadmus Marcellus Wilcox, nicknamed ‘Billy Fixin’, was a career Army officer, who, while in command during the Seven Days Battles, had his clothing pierced by six bullets, but managed to survive. Cadmus, the name of the Greek mythological bringer of the alphabet to Greece, also found in Harry Potter, has some modern day potential despite its caddish first syllable.
Though born in Boston, Claudius Wistar Sears chose to join the Confederate cause, fighting at Bull Run, Yorktown and Antietam, later teaching math and civil engineering at the University of Mississippi. Ancient but user-friendly, Claudius is the announcer in The Hunger Games series.
Another Confederate general was Cullen A. Battle, who had a fitting surname as he led several battles, after having been part of Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley. A name with a lot of Irish charm, Cullen increased his visibility as one of the main Twilight sunames.
Fitzhugh Lee, a nephew of General Robert E. Lee and grandson of “Light Horse Harry,” Lee, was a Confederate calvary general in the Civil War, having already distinguished himself by his gallantry towards the Texas Comanche. All the Fitz names have an undeniable charm via the dashing Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.
Green Clay Smith, in addition to being a Union general, , was a Kentucky Senator and Territorial Governor of Montana—as well as Prohibition Party presidential nominee. One of the few boys’ color names and an environmental name as well, could Green be the next Blue—at least as a middle?
Jubal Early, referred to by his Confederate commander Robert E. Lee as “Old Jube,” fought in some of the most critical battles of the Civil War, including Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg. Jubal is a jubilant biblical name, which led to the word jubilee. Jubal Harshaw in a major character in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
Maxcy Gregg, whose scholarly pursuits included astronomy, botany, ornithology and languages, and who was a prominent secessionist, was wounded at the battles of both Antietam and Fredericksburg, in the second case fatally. Maxcy would certainly make a distinctive Max name, though likely seen as a kreeatif version of Maxie.
Massachusetts native Rufus Saxton’s greatest military triumph was leading a defense at Harper’s Ferry to push back Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah campaign. Beyond that, he organized the first regiment of liberated slaves. Rufus is one of the most affable—I almost said adorable– of the redhead names, with solid Roman and biblical roots..
A lawyer and judge, Speed Smith Fry may have gotten less than top grades for his performance as a Union general, but he does deserve a medal for his sleek, energetic name, one of the most contemporary sounding of his compadres.
Zealous Bates Tower had served in the Mexican War before fighting with the Union army in several major skirmishes, being badly wounded in the Second Battle of Bull Run. Zealous? Definitely better than Jealous!
Zebulon Baird Vance was the country’s youngest legislator when he entered Congress, and a rare Southern supporter of the Union, though he fought for the Confederacy during the war, leading a company dubbed the “Rough and Ready Guards”; he later became governor of North Carolina. Zebulon is the name of one of the tribes of Israel, it comes complete with cool nickname Zeb.